In an Op-Ed essay titled “Wayward Christian Soldiers,” published in The New York Times on January 20, 2006, Charles Marsh, an evangelical and a professor of religion at the University of Virginia, discusses the evangelical support for the invasion of Iraq. His study is based on what he calls the “war sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers.” Mr. Marsh says that in these sermons, evangelical leaders gave their blessings to the invasion of Iraq and to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Marsh’s article presents many reasons given by evangelicals to support the war against Iraq. Among the many reasons cited in the article for the support of the war, was the belief that the war represented God’s opposition against those who fought against him. Others believed the war was part of the eschatological battle that would take place at the end of the ages. Still others believed God was “pro-war” and that the war would open the doors for the evangelization of Muslims.
An argument used to support the war caught my attention. Describing the content of some of those war sermons, Mr. Marsh wrote: “Some preachers tried to link Saddam Hussein with wicked King Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical fame, but these arguments depended on esoteric interpretations of the Old Testament book of II Kings and could not easily be reduced to the kinds of catchy phrases that are projected onto video screens in vast evangelical churches” (if you want to read the complete article, click here).
The comparison of Saddam Hussein with King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is very interesting. According to Mr. Marsh, all the arguments for the comparison were taken from the book of 2 Kings. However, what these preachers do not know is that Nebuchadnezzar is presented one way in the book of 2 Kings and another way in the book of the prophet Jeremiah.
Nebuchadnezzar was the son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, and he reigned from 605-562 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar, the second king of Babylon, was the most famous king of the Chaldeans, a people whom Jeremiah called “an ancient nation” (Jeremiah 5:15). After he became king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar brought fame and prosperity to the neo-Babylonian Empire. Of all the foreign kings mentioned in the Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar is the most prominent and the one better known by people who study the Bible.
Nebuchadnezzar was known as a great builder. He boasted that Babylon was a “magnificent” city which he built to be his royal city and the capital of his empire (Daniel 4:30). Nebuchadnezzar built the Ishtar Gate, a magnificent palace for himself; he rebuilt the ziggurat (a temple in the form of a pyramidal tower), and he built a temple for Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon. His best-known project was the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon which he built for his wife, the daughter of the king of Media.
The book of 2 Kings presents him as the conqueror of Jerusalem. After his victory against Egypt at the battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar made Jehoiakim, king of Judah, a vassal of Babylon. Jehoiakim submitted to Nebuchadnezzar for three years (604-601 B.C.). In 601 B.C., Egypt and Babylon met again with heavy losses on both sides. Nebuchadnezzar returned home to reorganize his army and Jehoiakim, counting on Egyptian help, revolted against the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:1).
Nebuchadnezzar did not campaign against Palestine from 600-598 B.C. Unable to fight against Judah, Nebuchadnezzar sent mercenary soldiers to fight against Jehoiakim (2 Kings 24:2-3). In 598 B.C., Babylon advanced against Judah. Egypt promised to help Jehoiakim, but Egypt's military help did not materialize (2 Kings 24:7).
Jehoiakim died at this time. Jehoiakim’s son, Jehoiachin became the new king of Judah (597 B.C.), but three months later he submitted to Nebuchadnezzar who then deported the king of Judah, his mother, the royal family, the palace officials, the army officers, fighting men, craftsmen, and smiths to Babylon . He also took all the men of substance and all the men who were capable of war. According to 2 Kings 24:12-16, 10,000 people were taken into exile. In addition, another 8,000 professional people were also taken. Nebuchadnezzar also took all the treasures of the temple and the palace and broke all the vessels of gold used in worship in the temple. Jehoiachin remained in a prison in Babylon for thirty-seven years, until he was freed by Evil-merodach, Nebuchadnezzar’s son, in 560 B.C. (2 Kings 25:27-30; Jeremiah 52:31-34).
Nebuchadnezzar placed Zedekiah on the throne as the new king of Judah in 597 B.C. Zedekiah served Nebuchadnezzar eight years, but in his ninth, hoping for military help from Egypt (Jeremiah 37:5), Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon. In 588 Nebuchadnezzar came back to Jerusalem and once again besieged the city. The scope of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judah is confirmed by the archaeological evidence. Archaeology has revealed that many of the fortified cities of Judah were destroyed. In March 587 B.C., Jerusalem was conquered; the temple was burned as well as the great houses of the city. At this time, a second deportation took place. Most of the important people of Judah were taken into exile; only the poorest people of the land were left behind.
The book of Jeremiah presents a different picture of Nebuchadnezzar. The ascension of Nebuchadnezzar to the throne of Babylon was an ominous sign for Jeremiah. The defeat of Egypt in 605 B.C. and the ascension of Nebuchadnezzar to the throne of Babylon assured Jeremiah that the end of Judah was near (Jeremiah 25:1). In the past, Jeremiah had proclaimed that God would send the “foe from the north” to bring judgment upon Judah (Jeremiah 1:5). Now, for the first time, Jeremiah proclaims that the “foe from the north” is Babylon, under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 25:1-9).
Jeremiah calls Nebuchadnezzar “The Servant of the Lord,” a title that appears three times in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). The title “The Servant of Yahweh” is generally used in the Old Testament to designate persons who had a special relationship with God and who were used to do God’s will in the life of God’s people.
Jeremiah designates Nebuchadnezzar the “The Servant of Lord” as a way to present the king of Babylon as the one appointed by God to have dominion over the nations and the one who would act as the instrument of God's justice (Jeremiah 25:8-11). Because Nebuchadnezzar was acting as God’s agent, Jeremiah declared to the people that rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar was rebellion against God. The Lord commands Jeremiah to write his oracles on a scroll as a warning to Judah (Jeremiah 36:1-4).
According to Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest and subjugation of the nations will happen with God’s approval: “Now I will hand all your countries over to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him (Jeremiah 27:6-7).”
In the book of Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar is God’s instrument to bring divine judgment to Judah. In the past, God had sent his servants the prophets to warn the people to repent of their evil ways, but they refused (Jeremiah 25:4). Now, God is sending his “Servant” Nebuchadnezzar to punish Judah for their wickedness. The punishment against Judah will be mediated through Nebuchadnezzar. When God acts, Nebuchadnezzar acts, Nebuchadnezzar’s actions are God’s actions.
The picture Jeremiah paints of Nebuchadnezzar reflects the prophet’s understanding of God’s work. Jeremiah understood that Yahweh had given Nebuchadnezzar the power and the authority to subjugate kingdoms and nations. As the divine instrument of God’s judgment, Nebuchadnezzar was God’s chosen agent, God’s servant who brought the awful judgment over God’s rebellious people. In the end, the biblical tradition that says that Nebuchadnezzar came to the realization that the God of Israel was the supreme God (Daniel 2:47; 3:28-29). The truth is, that in the book of Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar is portrayed as the “Servant” of the God of Israel, as one individual who had the responsibility of performing a designated function on Yahweh’s behalf.
The lesson we learn from all of this is very simple. Saddam Hussein was not like King Nebuchadnezzar. Before any preacher preaches a sermon, that preacher must consult the whole Bible. Interpreting a biblical text out of its context may prove a point, but it can carry the danger that such interpretation may provide an “esoteric interpretation of the Old Testament.”
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary