Megiddo and Carchemish

After all this, when Josiah had set the temple in order, Neco [Neccho, KJV] king of Egypt came up to make war at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah went out to engage him.--2 Chronicles 35:20 (NAS)

Carl Hagensick

The battle of Carchemish changed the history of the world. It began the fulfillment of one of the longest prophecies in the Bible--the reign of the four universal empires which both Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel saw in vision (Daniel 2 and 7)—and introduced the "times of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24).

Carchemish is mentioned twice in the Bible. The first concerned the death of good King Josiah (2 Chronicles 35); the second, less than four years later, was the famous Battle of Carchemish (Jeremiah 46) where Babylon became established as a world power. These battles climaxed a prolonged campaign of a new world force east of Mesopotamia as it became the dominant power in the entire middle east.

The Setting

Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, had been dominated by the Babylonians since about the time of Abraham. Assyria had broken free as a separate vassal state of Babylon under Bel-Bani, but it was not until about two hundred years before King Josiah that they sought to extend their dominion west of the Euphrates river.

The main force in the west was Egypt. Although she had been conquered for a time by Assyria who burned their capital, Thebes, Egypt under Psammetichus successfully threw off the Assyrian yoke. His strong administration raised Egypt nearly to its former stature.

The kingdoms of Israel (Samaria) and Judah formed a buffer between these two powers. The northern kingdom of Israel looked to neighbor Syria for support, while Judah was more inclined to ally herself with Egypt for military assistance.

In the meantime Babylon and Media were joining forces in the east and making menacing moves to the west. The dynasty of Nabopolassar had broken ties with the Assyrians and was now their rival for the conquest of the west, thus maintaining control of the lucrative trade routes.

The Protagonists

BABYLON: For over a century Assyria had ruled over Babylon. Ashupanirpal, the king of Assyria, appointed his own brother as viceroy over Babylon but he fomented a rebellion for an independent Babylon. When this rebellion was crushed, a new dynasty arose on the scene and started another campaign to free itself from the Assyrians. This was led by Nabopolassar. Seeking assistance he joined forces for a while with the king of the Medes. Babylonia's able general and future king was Nebuchadnezzar son of Nabopolassar.

ASSYRIA: Assyria had the largest army in the world at the time largely because of universal conscription. However this policy was now producing two problems: fresh conquests were needed to keep the army occupied and fresh spoils of war were required to pay the forces. Since Assyria’s hold over the Medes and Babylonians was crumbling, they sought to extend their control over the west. Although their brief hold over Egypt was broken by Psammetichus, the Assyrians maintained a loose military alliance with his son, Pharaoh-neccho.

EGYPT: Although suspicious of Assyria as a military partner, Egypt had a greater fear of the mustering Babylonian army. They felt, correctly as it turned out, that Babylon posed the greater threat. Neccho, the Pharaoh, had been a great builder of the nation, concentrating on two fleets for his navy, one to cruise the Mediterranean and the other the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. He even sponsored a two-year expedition which successfully circumnavigated Africa, rounding the Cape of Good Hope over a thousand years before Vasco de Gama. Disease aborted the work to build a canal linking the Mediterranean and Red seas. It was not until the nineteenth century that the 103-mile long Suez Canal was actually built.

JUDAH: Under Josiah, one of the most religious kings in their history, Judah was prospering. A great religious reformation included the reestablishment of the Passover sacrifices and the repair of the temple complex. But militarily Judah was not a strong power and had entered into a defense alliance with Egypt. This may be why Necho felt safe taking his soldiers overland for the 600-mile journey to Carchemish rather than using his fleet to get to the nearer port of Arvad.

The Campaign

The campaign that enabled Babylon to cross the Euphrates and firmly establish itself as the world's first universal empire took just seven years. It began in the 14th year of Nabopolassar when he was allied with the Median king Cyaxares. He crushed the Assyrians and destroyed the city of Nineveh, forcing the fleeing Assyrians to regroup at Harran, 250 miles to the west. Here the refugees appointed a new king, Assur-ubalit II.

The Babylonian forces continued their march the next year and defeated Ruggulitu, ravaging the ancient Assyrian homeland. The next year they prepared for another onslaught. The hard-pressed Assyrians sent a message to Pharaoh-Necho of Egypt asking for military aid. Necho brought his troops and met Assur-urbalit at the former Hittite capital of Carchemish on the west bank of the Euphrates. Here he was escorted the last 90 miles to Harran where he tried to withstand the invading Babylonians. Once again Babylon was successful and the Egyptians and Assyrians retreated to Carchemish.

In the following year, the 17th of Nabopolassar, the battle was resumed. It was on this occasion that Josiah decided to forbid the Egyptian armies to cross Judea to join with the Assyrians. Rather than retreat, Necho engaged Josiah and the Jewish forces in battle on the plains of Megiddo. It was in this conflict that a random arrow hit Josiah and killed him.

After the death of Josiah, Necho continued with his large army and again joined forces with the Assyrians to try to retake Harran. Once again they were defeated. On his return, whether it was in frustration at the defeat at Harran or in anger at Josiah's opposition, Necho took Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah who was now king, captive to Egypt and placed his brother Jehoiakim on the throne as his puppet.

Over the next two years, the Babylonian armies strengthened their stronghold along the Euphrates river but did not advance further to the west than Carchemish.

Finally in the fourth year of Jehoiakim, the armies of Necho went up for one last battle with the forces of Babylon, now strongly built up and fortified by Nebuchadnezzar. The battle occurred this time at the city of Carchemish itself. It was the turning point of the war. When the combined armies of Assyria and Egypt fell, victory was complete for the new rulers of the land. It was also, in a way, God's vengeance for the treatment Israel and Judah had received at the hands of Assyria and Egypt. "For this is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, that he may avenge him of his adversaries: and the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood: for the Lord GOD of hosts hath a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates" (Jeremiah 46:10).

That same year Nebuchadnezzar’s troops advanced as far as Jerusalem and the stage was set for the Babylonian captivity. This captivity did not happen all at once. Jehoiakim was maintained on the throne for seven years before he was deposed for seeking help from Egypt; he was replaced by his son Jehoiachin who reigned but three months before Nebuchadnezzar replaced him with his uncle Zedekiah, the brother of Jehoahaz (2 Kings 24:18 compared with 2 Kings 23:31). Then, after a disastrous 11-year reign, Jerusalem fell, the temple was destroyed, and Zedekiah was taken captive and blinded. The desolation of Jerusalem was complete.

Josiah's Intervention

This brings us to the heart of this study--the intervention of Josiah to stop Pharaoh Necho from passing through Judea to assist the king of Assyria at Carchemish. Several interesting questions are raised in this experience. The account is brief enough to quote in its entirety: "After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Necho king of Egypt came up to fight against Carchemish by Euphrates: and Josiah went out against him. But he sent ambassadors to him, saying, What have I to do with thee, thou king of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war: for God commanded me to make haste: forbear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that he destroy thee not. Nevertheless Josiah would not turn his face from him, but disguised himself, that he might fight with him, and hearkened not unto the words of Necho from the mouth of God, and came to fight in the valley of Megiddo. And the archers shot at king Josiah; and the king said to his servants, Have me away; for I am sore wounded. His servants therefore took him out of that chariot, and put him in the second chariot that he had; and they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died, and was buried in one of the sepulchres of his fathers."—2 Chronicles 35:20-24, emphasis added.

At first it appears that Josiah, famed for his obedience to God was, in his last act, disobedient. Was the fact that Josiah was to grant permission really from the mouth of Jehovah? Did Pharaoh Necho even recognize Jehovah as a legitimate authority? Would the God of Israel send a foreign king as his messenger to his own righteous ruler? Was there no prophet in Israel? On the other hand, might not Necho be referring to his god, or, more likely, was he speaking sarcastically as Sennacherib did to Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:16-18)? In any case, Necho's message could hardly have been from Jehovah since, when he did reach Carchemish, he was on the losing side of the battle.

However the words of the prophetess Huldah must also be considered: "Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself before God, when thou heardest his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humbledst thyself before me, and didst rend thy clothes, and weep before me; I have even heard thee also, saith the LORD. Behold, I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to thy grave in peace, neither shall thine eyes see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same. So they brought the king word again."—2 Chronicles 34:27,28

Dying in battle hardly seems to fulfil an unconditional promise of God that Josiah would die in peace. One explanation is that the prophecy did not say he would die peacefully, but "in peace." The phrase may describe the time of his death and not the circumstances of it. Josiah died at the young age of 39. If he had lived a normal life span of 50 or 60 years, he would have lived in a period of intense conflict as the forces of the Babylonians would be attacking and eventually destroying his beloved Jerusalem. This interpretation is supported by the clause that says he would not see the evils so shortly to come upon Jerusalem.

In a similar vein, the church of Christ will be hidden from the worst of the troubles coming upon the world. Jesus promised as much: "Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man" (Luke 21:36). Even if members of the church finish their course of life in severe persecution and at the hands of their enemies, their deliverance will hide them from the final trauma of this old social order.

There is yet another sense in which these words are true. If anyone gives his life in doing what he is sure is the will of the Lord, he is at peace in his death. Paul tells us this is even true if one misinterprets the Lord's providence as to what actions are appropriate: "For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not" (2 Corinthians 8:12, see also 1 John 3:20).

Finally, it would be hard to reconcile a death in disobedience to God with this summation of Josiah's career: "Now the rest of the acts of Josiah, and his goodness, according to that which was written in the law of the LORD, and his deeds, first and last, behold, they are written in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah" (2 Chronicles 35:26,27, emphasis added).

Why did Josiah "disguise himself"? The only other king to disguise himself in battle was wicked King Ahab who did it out of cowardice (1 Kings 22:30). Kings usually were at the forefront of battle to lead their soldiers and give them courage. Because Josiah is never pictured as a coward, we must look for another explanation. The problem may well be one of translation. Many commentators prefer to read the Hebrew as "he equipped himself." The Septuagint says he "took courage." The Hebrew word hitchapees is frequently translated "searched" (as in Genesis 31:35) and once "diligent" (Psalms 64:6). It is probable that "searched" as in a mental searching of his motives before going into this battle is the correct thought and is in harmony with the character of Josiah.

It appears to have been a random arrow that struck the fatal wound. While the battle was fought at Megiddo, he lived long enough to die in his beloved Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 35:24). The account in 2 Kings appears to conflict with the Chronicles record: "In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. And King Josiah went to meet him, and when [Pharaoh Neco] saw him, he killed him at Megiddo. And his servants drove his body in a chariot from Megiddo, and brought him to Jerusalem and buried him in his own tomb. Then the people of the land took Jehoahaz the son of Josiah and anointed him and made him king in place of his father."—2 Kings 23:29,30 (NAS)

Adam Clarke has a way to harmonize the use of the word translated "killed" in these verses. He writes: "The word meet (Hebrew 4191) should here be considered as a participle, dying, for it is certain he was not dead: he was mortally wounded at Megiddo, was carried in a dying state to Jerusalem, and there he died and was buried (see 2 Chronicles 35:24)."

After his death the people choose his son Jehoahaz to reign. He reigned but three short months before Necho, returning from Carchemish, appointed Jehoiakim (also called Eliakin) to reign. In the fourth year of his reign, the forces of Nebuchadnezzar conquered the area and kept Jehoiakim on his throne as a puppet king.

After three years he rebelled against Babylon and a stage of warfare continued for about four years. After his death, the Israelites appointed Jehoiachin in his place. He was the last king appointed by the Jews. His reign was short-lived, only three months, before Nebuchadnezzar put down the rebellion, dethroned Jeohiachin and appointed Zedekiah in his stead.

The Mourning for Josiah

"And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah: and all the singing men and the singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations to this day, and made them an ordinance in Israel: and, behold, they are written in the lamentations."--2 Chronicles 35:25

The mourning of Israel for this righteous king shows that even a wicked population destined to be shortly severely chastised by God, recognizes a life of goodness. Their weeping was accompanied by funereal music, or dirges. These became remembered songs of the tragic death of this good man. They were remembered throughout the Babylonian captivity for if Ezra is, as popularly thought, the author of the two books of Chronicles, then the phrase "this day" in this verse occurred after their return to Jerusalem from Babylon.

The fact that it was made an ordinance indicates that the prominence of these dirges was not accidental but a legal requirement. We find no such treatment of the mourning for any other Old Testament character.

The Mourning of Hadad-Rimmon

There is another great mourning described in scripture, not in history but in prophecy: "And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem, as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon. And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart; The family of the house of Levi apart, and their wives apart; the family of Shimei apart, and their wives apart; All the families that remain, every family apart, and their wives apart."— Zechariah 12:10-14

Jesus' allusion to this prophecy in his Olivet sermon (Matthew 24:30) and the application of it by the apostle John in Revelation 1:7 leave no doubt as to whom it refers. It applies to the recognition of Christ at the time of his second advent.

This mournful recognition of the Messiah is likened to that at the death of Josiah. Hadadrimmon has been identified by Jerome with a village in the plain of Megiddo on the road to Jerusalem. Van de Velde, in his Travels, says it is the same one referred to today as Rumuni. It is probable that this is the place where either Josiah was wounded, fell into a coma on the way to Jerusalem, or actually died.

The preservation of the biblical name in the prophecy may be of some import. The name is taken from that of two false gods, Hadad and Rimmon, both sun gods. The presence of that name in ancient Israel indicates the degree the nation had been influenced by the surrounding pagan cultures. It is from the depths of this harmful assimilation that they call out in bitter agony for their great reformer Josiah. In like manner, the descendents of those Jews are gathered back to their land in a measure of unbelief. It will remain for the extremities of Armageddon to bring about this godly sorrow of repentance and recognition of their Messiah.

This mourning of recognition, though national in scope, must be individual in depth. Everyone—wives and husbands individually—must recognize for themselves the sorrow of the death of the one whom God sent for their deliverance.

The identification of the specific house of David, Nathan, Levi, and Shimei are also suggestive. While David and Levi are easily identified as the royal and priestly lines, the matter is not so simple with Nathan and Shimei. If it is Nathan the prophet, he could represent the prophetic line. However, it is more likely that the reference is to Nathan the son of David and Bathsheba, showing the least of the kingly line. Likewise Shimei is either identified with the Benjamanite who cursed David and then repented (2 Samuel 16:5,6; 2 Samuel 19:16-23) or the grandson of Levi whose household were called the "Shimites" (Numbers 3:21), and show the least of the descendents of the priestly line.

Some Interesting Parallels

The study of the battles of Megiddo and Carchemish in the days of King Josiah reveal some correspondencies with the prophesied Battle of Armageddon.

1. As the battles of Josiah's day marked the end of dominion of historic world powers (Egypt and Assyria), so Armageddon will bring an end to current world powers.

2. As those battles of old paved the way for the introduction of the first universal empire (Babylon), so Armageddon paves the way for the introduction of the fifth universal empire (the kingdom of Christ).

3. It was in these battles that Israel's dominion over Jerusalem gave way to gentile forces; so in Armageddon Israel will gain their place as gentile governments collapse.

4. As the death of Josiah brought from the people a great mourning and recognition of his greatness, so an aftermath of Armageddon will be the universal recognition of the Messiah whom they previously rejected.

Each of the battles on the historic plains of Megiddo carries its individual lesson for that great future battle to which that place lends its name: Armageddon. May the study of this battle of Josiah encourage us to look at those details in each of the other Megiddo battles.