Yirmiyahu's Complex Portrayal of the Periods of Yehoyakim and Tzidkiyahu by Rabbi Hayyim Angel


Kol Torah is proud to reprint this analysis of Kings Yehoyakim and Tzidkiyahu by Rabbi Hayyim Angel. Rabbi Angel is a highly regarded teacher of Tanach at Yeshiva University.


Yehoyakim was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Yerushalayim; his mother’s name was Zevudah daughter of Pedayah of Rumah. He did what was displeasing to Hashem, just as his ancestors had done (Melachim II 23:36-37).

“Tzidkiyahu… did what was displeasing to Hashem, just as Yehoyakim had done.” Indeed, Yerushalayim and Yehudah were a cause of anger for Hashem, so that He cast them out of His presence (see Melachim II 24:18-20 and Yirmiyahu 52:1-3).

Yoshiyahu's sons Yehoyakim (reigned 609-598 B.C.E.) and Tzidkiyahu (reigned 597-586 B.C.E.) receive cursory attention in the Book of Melachim, but their evaluations are unambiguously negative. Both monarchs were wicked. Both rebelled against Babylonia, thereby contributing to the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Beit HaMikdash.

Despite their symmetrical portrayals in Melachim, the respective periods of Yehoyakim and Tzidkiyahu are described in markedly different terms in a Talmudic passage:

The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to hurl the world back into chaos on account of Yehoyakim, but gazed at [the rest of] his generation, and His mind was appeased. The Holy One, blessed be He, [also] desired to hurl the world back into chaos because of Tzidkiyahu’s generation, but gazed at Tzidkiyahu [himself] and His mind was appeased. But in the case of Tzidkiyahu, too, it is written, “And he did that which was evil in the sight of Hashem” (Melachim II 24:19)! [That denotes] that he could have stemmed [the evil of others] and did not (Sanhedrin 103a).[1]

In other words, Yehoyakim was wicked, whereas his generation was righteous; Tzidkiyahu was righteous, whereas his generation was wicked.

Sometimes Midrashic readings speak at the level of Derash rather than Peshat, where Chazal wish to teach deeper lessons but are not elucidating the primary sense of the biblical text. In this instance, however, it appears that the author of this statement derived his interpretation from a close text reading of Sefer Yirmiyahu. This chapter will consider the relevant narratives pertaining to Yehoyakim and Tzidkiyahu, and how Yirmiyahu's portrayal in fact resembles the Talmudic evaluation. Yehoyakim was wicked, whereas the officers of his generation were relatively righteous; Tzidkiyahu was relatively righteous, whereas the officers of his generation were wicked.

Yehoyakim and His Generation

Yoshiyahu's son Yehoyakim assumed the throne at a time when Yirmiyahu began proclaiming the potential destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Perakim 7 and 26). Yirmiyahu addressed the wicked king in scathing terms, contrasting him with Yoshiyahu:

Do you think you are more a king because you compete in cedar? Your father ate and drank and dispensed justice and equity—then all went well with him. He upheld the rights of the poor and needy—then all was well. That is truly heeding Me—declares Hashem. But your eyes and your mind are only on ill-gotten gains, on shedding the blood of the innocent, on committing fraud and violence (Yirmiyahu 22:15-17).

Yirmiyahu’s condemnation is consistent with the primary narratives pertaining to Yehoyakim’s reign (Perakim 26 and 36). Yehoyakim was responsible for murdering the prophet Uriyah for prophesying the destruction of Yerushalayim (26:20-23). Yehoyakim sealed the fate of Yerushalayim by burning the scroll of Yirmiyahu’s prophecies, thereby ignoring the prophet’s final call for repentance (36:23-32).[2] He ordered the capture of Yirmiyahu and Baruch, but they escaped (36:26).

Despite Yehoyakim’s antagonism toward Yirmiyahu, members of his nobility appear to have been righteous. During Yirmiyahu’s trial in Perek 26, the officers ruled in Yirmiyahu’s favor (26:16), and Achikam distinguished himself in saving Yirmiyahu’s life (26:24). The officers also sympathized with Yirmiyahu’s message of repentance in Perek 36, making sure that it was heard by Yehoyakim. They prudently advised Yirmiyahu and Baruch to hide lest Yehoyakim find and execute them (36:19).

Positive attitudes toward Yirmiyahu notwithstanding, the officers did not have the courage to oppose Yehoyakim beyond a certain point:

And every time Yehudi read three or four columns, [the king] would cut it up with a scribe’s knife and throw it into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed by the fire in the brazier. Yet the king and all his courtiers who heard all these words showed no fear and did not tear their garments; moreover, Elnatan,[3] Delayahu, and Gemaryahu begged the king not to burn the scroll, but he would not listen to them (36:23-25).

Though they begged the king not to burn the scroll, they did not tear their garments lest the king be offended.[4]

To summarize, Yehoyakim is cast as an unequivocally wicked ruler who persecuted Yirmiyahu and who fostered an atmosphere of terror so that the righteous officers could resist only minimally. Though the officers twice saved Yirmiyahu’s life and sympathized with his prophetic message, they did not prevent Yehoyakim from sealing the nation’s doom.

Tzidkiyahu and His Generation

The primary narrative of Tzidkiyahu’s reign (chapters 37-39) begins in the spirit of the summary evaluation in Melachim: “Neither he nor his courtiers nor the people of the land gave heed to the words which Hashem spoke through the prophet Yirmiyahu” (37:2). However, the very next verse reports that he sent a delegation to Yirmiyahu so that Yirmiyahu would pray on their behalf! “Yet King Tzidkiyahu sent Yehuchal son of Shelemyah and Tzefanyahu son of the Kohein Ma'aseiyah to the prophet Yirmiyahu, to say, ‘Please pray on our behalf to Hashem our God’” (37:3).

Menahem Boleh suggests that this discrepancy may reflect a chronological progression, that is, when in crisis, Tzidkiyahu prayed. As soon as things calmed, however, he reverted to ignoring Yirmiyahu. Boleh observes that Yirmiyahu confronted this trend of religious inconstancy from the beginning of his career: “They said to wood, ‘You are my father,’ to stone, ‘You gave birth to me,’ while to Me they turned their backs and not their faces. But in their hour of calamity they cry, ‘Arise and save us!’” (2:27).[5]

However, it is possible that Tzidkiyahu recognized Yirmiyahu as a true prophet but wished that Yirmiyahu would support his policy of rebellion against Babylonia. The overall picture of Tzidkiyahu in the Yirmiyahu narratives supports this conclusion.

Tzidkiyahu repeatedly inquired the word of God from Yirmiyahu (21:2; 37:17; 38:14). He released Yirmiyahu from the officers’ imprisonment and made sure he was fed properly (37:17-21). He rescued Yirmiyahu from the pit after the officers cast him there to die (38:10).

Tzidkiyahu was the driving force behind the freeing of the Hebrew slaves (34:8) and was promised a peaceful death (34:4-5), unlike Yehoyakim (22:18-19). It was the officers and people who subsequently reneged on their solemn oath by re-enslaving those who had been freed (34:11, 18-19).

Tzidkiyahu would suffer the fate of his generation if he refused to surrender (21:1-10; 32:1-5; 34:1-5, 17-22; 38:17-18), but Yirmiyahu never indicates that this suffering would be a direct consequence of Tzidkiyahu’s personal wickedness. Tragically, Tzidkiyahu ignored Yirmiyahu’s repeated pleas to remain loyal to Babylonia. He also claimed an inability to oppose his officers when they wanted to execute Yirmiyahu:

Then the officials said to the king, “Let that man be put to death, for he disheartens the soldiers, and all the people who are left in this city, by speaking such things to them. That man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm!” King Tzidkiyahu replied, “He is in your hands; the king cannot oppose you in anything!” (38:4-5)

Tzidkiyahu displayed fear of his officers by consulting Yirmiyahu secretly (37:17; 38:16, 24-27). He also was terrified of those who already had surrendered and used them as an excuse for not turning himself over to the Babylonians (38:19). Thus Tzidkiyahu perceived himself as too weak to oppose his officers and people.

When a biblical character speaks, he may be speaking the truth but he also may be mistaken or deliberately misrepresenting the truth.[6] The reader therefore is presented with two interpretive possibilities: one may take Tzidkiyahu at his word and conclude that he really was powerless to oppose the wicked officers. Alternatively, Tzidkiyahu’s claim of powerlessness may have been incorrect; he in fact could have done more to oppose the officers.

Yirmiyahu supported this latter view when he prophetically assured Tzidkiyahu that were he to surrender, he would save himself and Yerushalayim from destruction:

Then Yirmiyahu said to Tzidkiyahu, “Thus said Hashem, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel: If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down. You and your household will live.…” King Tzidkiyahu said to Yirmiyahu, “I am worried about the Judeans who have defected to the Chaldeans; that they [the Chaldeans] might hand me over to them to abuse me.” “They will not hand you over,” Yirmiyahu replied. “Listen to the voice of Hashem, to what I tell you, that it may go well with you and your life be spared” (38:17-20).

While Tzidkiyahu’s evaluation was subject to human fallibility, Yirmiyahu’s prophecy trumps his assessment. The king in fact could have done more. Thus the talmudic passage cited earlier captures Tzidkiyahu’s primary flaw: he failed to rebuke those whom he indeed had the power to rebuke:

But in the case of Tzidkiyahu too it is written, And he did that which was evil in the sight of God (II Melachim 24:19)! [That denotes] that he could have stemmed [the evil of others] and did not (Sanhedrin 103a).

This is not to say that Tzidkiyahu is cast as purely righteous. Sefer Yirmiyahu constructs a complex portrayal of Tzidkiyahu by relating what appears to be one story from two different perspectives. In one narrative Tzidkiyahu mercifully released Yirmiyahu from the house of the scribe Yonatan, which was being used as a prison by the officers. He placed the prophet in the Chatzar HaMattarah and made sure he was properly fed:

Then King Tzidkiyahu sent for him, and the king questioned him secretly in his palace. He asked, “Is there any word from Hashem?” “There is!” Yirmiyahu answered, and he continued, “You will be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon.” And Yirmiyahu said to King Tzidkiyahu, “What wrong have I done to you, to your courtiers, and to this people, that you have put me in jail?... Now, please hear me, O lord king, and grant my plea: Don’t send me back to the house of the scribe Jonathan to die there.” So King Tzidkiyahu gave instructions to lodge Yirmiyahu in the Chatzar HaMattarah and to supply him daily with a loaf of bread from the Bakers’ Street—until all the bread in the city was gone. Yirmiyahu remained in the Hatzar HaMattarah (37:17-21).

Similarly, Yirmiyahu returned to this Hatzar HaMattarah after Tzidkiyahu had rescued him from the pit (38:13). In contrast, the preface to Yirmiyahu’s prophecy of consolation in chapter 32 casts Tzidkiyahu as reacting negatively to Yirmiyahu’s prophecy of doom, imprisoning him in that Hatzar HaMattarah!

The word which came to Yirmiyahu … at that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Yerushalayim, and the prophet Yirmiyahu was confined in the Hatzar HaMattarah attached to the palace of the king of Yehudah. For King Tzidkiyahu of Yehudah had confined him, saying, “How dare you prophesy: ‘Thus said Hashem: I am delivering this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall capture it…’” (32:1-3)

Here, Hatzar HaMattarah is best translated as a prison compound. In the account of chapters 37-38, however, it could have been understood as a securely guarded area, thereby contrasting it with the prison where Yirmiyahu had previously been. By presenting two divergent perspectives of the same story, Sefer Yirmiyahu constructs a complex portrait of Tzidkiyahu. On one level, he was fundamentally supportive of Yirmiyahu but perceived himself as too weak to heed his instructions. Yet, he also resented Yirmiyahu’s prophecy and actively punished him in an unsuccessful attempt to force Yirmiyahu to cease his opposition of the national policy of rebellion.

Kings And Officers

While Yirmiyahu casts Yehoyakim as evil and Tzidkiyahu as complex but culpable, the officers of the respective regimes receive the opposite treatment. The officers in Yehoyakim’s court twice saved Yirmiyahu’s life (26:16, 24; 36:19), whereas the officers in Tzidkiyahu’s court imprisoned Yirmiyahu and later cast him into a pit to die (37:13-15; 38:1-4). Yehoyakim murdered Uriah and posed a mortal threat to Yirmiyahu, whereas Tzidkiyahu rescued Yirmiyahu. It appears that Sanhedrin 103a has bearing on Peshat when we understand the righteous generation of Yehoyakim and the wicked generation of Tzidkiyahu to refer specifically to the nobles of each generation rather than to the populace as a whole.

The officers in Yehoyakim’s court were not courageous enough to stop Yehoyakim from burning the scroll. Nor was Tzidkiyahu courageous enough to ward off a revolt against Babylonia. Thus evil prevailed in both generations because its advocates were more forceful than their more righteous counterweights.

Viewing the progression of kings more broadly within the Book of Yirmiyahu, Yoshiyahu was both righteous and powerful. Yoshiyahu’s son Yehoyakim inherited some of his power but used it for evil. Yoshiyahu’s son Tzidkiyahu inherited some of his righteousness but wrongly viewed himself as powerless to oppose the wicked officers. In the final analysis, both kings contributed to the downfall of the nation and are equated in Melachim II:

Tzidkiyahu… did what was displeasing to Hashem, just as Yehoyakim had done. Indeed, Yerushalayim and Yehudah were a cause of anger for Hashem, so that He cast them out of His presence (Melachim II 24:18-20).

[1] For a survey of Talmudic, Midrashic, and later rabbinic evaluations of Tzidkiyahu, see Eitan Sandorfi, “Tzidkiyahu King of Yehudah: Wicked or Righteous?” (Hebrew), Shematin 161 (2005), pp. 60-71; 162 (2005), pp. 74-90.


[2] Rashi (Yirmiyahu 25:1) follows Seder Olam Rabbah 24 in assuming that this was the final opportunity for repentance.


[3] Curiously, this same Elnatan was responsible for extraditing the prophet Uriyah from Egypt and having him executed (26:20-23). Menahem Boleh (Da’at Mikra: Jeremiah [Hebrew], [Yerushalayim: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1983], p. 342) suggests that Elnatan felt guilty after participating in the murder of Uriyah and therefore now was more supportive of true prophecy; alternatively, he was too terrified of Yehoyakim to disobey his orders.

[4] Menahem Boleh (p. 461) contrasts this non-tearing with Yishayahu, who tore his garments upon hearing the reading of the recently discovered Torah (Melachim II 22:11).

[5] Boleh, p. 467.

[6] Cf. Yairah Amit, “‘The Glory of Israel Does Not Deceive or Change His Mind’: On the Reliability of Narrator and Speakers in Biblical Narrative,” Prooftexts 12 (1992), p. 205.

Yirmiyahu's Complex Portrayal of the Periods of Yehoyakim and Tzidkiyahu – Part One by Rabbi Hayyim Angel

Once a Jew, Always a Jew? Part 3 by Shmuel Kadosh