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


Kol Torah is proud to reprint this analysis of Kings Yehoyakim and Tzidkiyahu by Rabbi Hayyim Angel. Rabbi Angel is the Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, in Manhattan's Upper West Side.


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.

[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).

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