During the reign of Judah’s King Jehoiakim (609–598 B.C.E.), Jerusalem found itself in the middle of a power struggle. Egypt, whose pharaoh had raised Jehoiakim to Judah’s throne, was seeking to maintain its foothold in Palestine, but in the east the region’s new superpower, Babylon, was rapidly building strength. When it appeared that Babylonian forces had gained the upper hand in Palestine, Jehoiakim abandoned his policy of appeasement toward Egypt and, in 604 B.C.E., became the vassal of Babylon’s new king, Nebuchadnezzar.

It wasn’t long, however, before Jehoiakim sensed the balance of power shifting back to Egypt. Reverting to his earlier, pro-Egyptian stance, he defied Babylon by withholding tribute. This provoked Nebuchadnezzar, who marched on Jerusalem in the winter of 598/597 B.C.E. Since Jehoiakim died before the Babylonians reached the city, it was his 18-year-old son, Jehoiachin, who bore the brunt of Nebuchadnezzar’s anger. The Second Book of Kings relates what happened next:

“Nebuchadnezzar arrived while his troops were besieging [Jerusalem], and King Jehoiachin of Judah, along with his mother, his courtiers, his officers, and his eunuchs surrendered to the king of Babylon. The king of Babylon, now in the eighth year of his reign, made him a prisoner; and, as the Lord had foretold, he carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and of the palace and broke up all the vessels of gold which King Solomon of Israel had made for the temple of the Lord … He deported Jehoiachin to Babylon; he also took into exile … the king’s mother and his wives, his eunuchs, and the foremost men of the land. He took also all the people of substance, seven thousand in number, and a thousand craftsmen and smiths, all of them able-bodied men and skilled armourers. He made Mattaniah, uncle of Jehoiachin, king in his place and changed his name to Zedekiah.”

2 Kings 24:11–13, 15–17

Although he owed his position to Nebuchadnezzar, Judah’s new king, Zedekiah, seems to have begun conspiring against Babylon almost from the moment he ascended to the throne. Encouraged by Egypt, he openly rebelled in 589 B.C.E.—an act that once more brought Nebuchadnezzar’s troops to Jerusalem. This second Babylonian siege ended in reprisals far more savage than those that followed Jehoiachin’s surrender. After the Babylonians breached Jerusalem’s walls in 586 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar captured Zedekiah and, before putting out his eyes, forced the Judahite king to witness the execution of his sons. The Babylonian leader then ordered his troops to raze the city and its temple. Now captives, the exiled inhabitants of Jerusalem could only bemoan the former beauty and importance of their ruined city—a pathos eloquently expressed in the Book of Lamentations:

“How deserted lies the city, once thronging with people! Once great among nations, now become a widow; once queen among provinces, now put to forced labor … The approaches to Zion mourn, for no pilgrims attend her sacred feasts; all her gates are desolate. Her priests groan, her maidens are made to suffer. How bitter is her fate!”

Lamentations 1:1, 4