{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
Babylon's Last Kings

The Babylonian Empire reached its zenith under Nebuchadnezzar and, twenty-three years after his death, its capital city fell before Cyrus of Anshan, the founder of the Persian Empire. The rulers who governed Babylon during that scant quarter century were rather unpretentious and largely ineffective.

  1. Amel Marduk (562-560 B.C.)
    At the death of Nebuchadnezzar his throne was taken at once by Amel Marduk, the Evil-merodach ("man of Marduk") of Scripture. He is known to Bible students as the kindly Babylonian ruler who released Jehoiachin from prison during the thirty-seventh year after his captivity and provided him with suitable garments and meals - appropriate for his royal station (2 Kings 25:27-30). Berossus, however, describes Amel Marduk as a tyrannical ruler who despised the laws of his people.1 It may be that his attitude toward Jehoiachin and other captives proved offensive to Babylonian rulers who felt that he had set aside the policies of Nebuchadnezzar in favor of an independent course of action. In any event, he was assassinated during the second year of his reign by his sister's husband, Neriglissar, who usurped the throne.

    The French archaeologist De Morgan, while excavating Susa, in Persia, discovered a vase which had been taken from Babylon to Persia in ancient times. It bore an inscription which read, "Palace of Amel-Marduk, King of Babylon, son of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon."2
  2. Neriglissar (Nergal-shar-usur) (560-556 B.C.)
    It is probable that Neriglissar was a leading prince in the Babylonian court long before he seized the throne. A man of that name entered Jerusalem with the armies of Nebuchadnezzar and held the post of Rab-mag with the occupying armies (Jeremiah 39:3). The meaning of Rob-mag (Akkadian rab-mugi) is uncertain but it designates a high political office. Nergal-shar-usur was one of "the princes of the king of Babylon" and he sat "in the middle gate" of Jerusalem, which evidently served as the center of government for the Babylonians before they destroyed the city. Nergal-shar-usur as Rab-mag was a member of the delegation assigned to release Jeremiah from prison and entrust him into the friendly hands of Gedaliah (Jeremiah 39:11-14). He had married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and, for that reason, considered himself a legitimate successor to his throne.

    Neriglissar took pride in the adornment of Babylon and the beautifying of its temples. As a practical consideration he regulated the course of the canal upon which the city of Babylon was built. This was a channel of the Euphrates, but it was altered to permit it to pass by the E-sag-ila temple. The eastern arm of the canal was walled up so that its current might flow with sweet water, unmixed with sand.

    Neriglissar also repaired his palace, which had earlier been the residence of Nebuchadnezzar. Its foundations were strengthened and a lofty summit was added to the structure, made of brick, the usual building material of Mesopotamia, and expensive cedar beams imported from Lebanon.

    We know of no wars during the reign of Neriglissar. The empire was preserved intact and the four years of his reign appear to have been prosperous ones. He died a natural death, albeit in the very prime of life. His son, Labashi-Marduk, was named his successor, but after a reign of but nine months he was murdered and a successor, satisfactory to the priestly party, was chosen to serve as king.
  3. Nabonidus (Nabu-na'id) (556-539 B.C.)
    After the murder of Labashi-Marduk, the priestly party in Babylon chose as king Nabonidus, the son of Nabu-balatsu-iqbi, a man who had distinguished himself both in the affairs of state and religion. His chief energies seem to have been extended in building and restoring temples.

    Nabonidus was thorough in his work. In rebuilding a temple he was not content merely to level off the ground and make a fresh beginning. Nabonidus searched diligently until he found the original foundation stone. Then he could read the name of the king who first ordered the construction of the temple. In this way both a religious and an antiquarian interest were served, for Nabonidus could have his royal scribe determine the number of years which had passed since the temple foundations were first laid. Such lists are invaluable to students of ancient Near Eastern history. A daughter of Nabonidus is said to have maintained a small museum of archaeological finds. Another, Bel-shalti-nannar, served as a priestess in the famed temple to the moon god at Ur which her father had restored.

    In building inscriptions left by Nabonidus he designates himself as "Preserver of E-sag-ila and E-zida," the great shrines of the city of Babylon. Actually the chief interest of Nabonidus was not in these shrines and he incurred the anger of his priests for neglecting the annual visit of the E-sag-ila shrine which every Babylonian king was expected to make on the New Year's Day.

    Year after year he remained at Tema, according to the Nabunaid Chronicle. The records bear the disquieting note, "The king did not come to Babylon for the ceremonies of the month Nisanu, Nabu did not come to Babylon, Bel did not go out from E-sag-ila in procession, the festival of the New Year was omitted." The Babylonian priests considered Nabonidus guilty of sacrilege in failing to take the hand of Marduk at the New Year's festival. This rite was thought to convey ceremonially the right to rule for the ensuing year.

    While neglecting the shrines of Babylon, Nabonidus found satisfaction in such activities as the rebuilding of the temple to the sun god at ancient Sippar. Nebuchadnezzar had rebuilt this structure forty-five years earlier, but it had already fallen into disrepair. After providing temporary quarters for Shamash, the sun god, Nabonidus ordered the temple razed. Then he searched for the original foundation which was far below the surface of the ground. It had been laid by Naram-Sin, a king of the Akkad Dynasty (ca. 2360-2180 B.C.), who had ruled seventeen hundred years before Nabonidus!

    Nobonidus was delighted with the find, assering that Shamash himself had shown the foundation stone to him. On the exact site of the old sanctuary, Nabonidus built the new temple, E-bab-bara. He spared no expense. Five thousand cedar beams were imported for its roof, and more of the wood was required for its great doors. When completed, Nabonidus conducted the god Shamash into his new temple with prayers that the god might honor and protect the king who had provided this new temple for him.

    Another shrine at Sippar, E-ulmash, the temple of Anunitum, was rebuilt by Nabonidus at about the same time as the E-bab-bara. Even more ambitious was his concern for E-khulkhul, the shrine of Sin, the moon god, at the ancient city of Haran in northern Mesopotamia. Haran had been devoted to the same god as the city of Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, and the patriarchal family sojourned there en route to Canaan.

    During the first year of his reign, Nabonidus dreamed a dream in which he received a command: "Nabonidus, king of Babylon, on thy cart-horses bring bricks, build E-khulkhul, and let Sin, the great lord, take up his residence within it."3 Nabonidus objected that the temple was surrounded by the Manda, a generic term for the northern barbarians. It may refer here either to Medes or Scythians. The oracle assured Nabonidus that the Manda were no longer in the vicinity of Haran, and that it would therefore be safe for Nabonidus to enter the city. This episode tells a great deal about the character of Nabonidus. One of the Assyrian rulers would have marched his armies against the Manda and stormed their city. Nabonidus, however, was strictly a man of peaceful pursuits.

    Men and materials were gathered from the entire Babylonian Empire. Great new walls, which Nabonidus assures us were stronger than the earlier ones, soon arose. Again, as for the temple for Shamash, cedar was used for the roof and the doors. Sin and his companions (the lesser gods) were escorted into the new temple amidst pomp and splendor.

    The religious and antiquarian interests of Nabonidus might have appeared innocent enough had he given due attention to the affairs of state, but this was his prime weakness. He chose to live at Tema, an oasis in the Hejaz region of Arabia. Recognizing the need for someone to care for the more prosaic affairs of state, he appointed his son Belshazzar (Bel-shar-usur) as co-regent.

    The Verse Account of Nabonidus tells of his expedition to Tema:
    He entrusted the "Camp" to his oldest son, the first-born
    The troops everywhere in the country he ordered under his command.
    He let everything go, entrusted the kingship to him
    And, himself, he started out for a long journey,
    The military forces of Akkad marching with him;
    He turned toward Tema, deep in the west.
    He started out the expedition on a path leading to a distant region. When he arrived there,
    He killed in battle the prince of Tema,
    Slaughtered the flocks of those who dwelt in the city as well as in the countryside
    And he, himself, took his residence at Tema, the forces of Akkad were also stationed there.
    He made the town beautiful, built there his palace
    Like the palace in Babylon, he also built walls
    For the fortifications of the town and...
    He surrounded the town with sentinels. . . . 4
    Among the Qumran discoveries is a document known as the Prayer of Nabonidus which was published in 1956 by J. T. Milik.5 The document begins: "The words of the prayer which Nabonidus, king of Assyria and Babylon, the great king, prayed. . . ." It tells how Nabonidus came down with a "dread disease by the decree of the Most High God." Therefore he was "set apart from men" for seven years in the Arabian Oasis of Tema. An unnamed Jewish diviner appeared to remind the king of his idolatry in worshiping "gods of gold, bronze, iron, wood, stone, silver . . . ."

    This episode is reminiscent of the account of the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4. Nebuchadnezzar, while boasting about his accomplishments as king in Babylon, was stricken by a divine judgement and became insane. He lived like an animal until seven "times" (probably years) had passed, after which he acknowledged the sovereignty of the Most High and was restored to his throne. It is the view of some scholars that the events described in Daniel 4 actually took place during the lifetime of Nabonidus and that a scribal error associated them with the more familiar name of Nebuchadnezzar.6
  4. Belshazzar
    Belshazzar was co-regent with Nabonidus from the third year of his reign. Nabonidus never abdicated his throne, but for all practical purposes Belshazzar served as king. In the cuneiform documents Belshazzar is consistently called "the son of the king." Texts from the fifth to the thirteenth years of the reign of Nabonidus speak of offerings of silver, gold, and sacrificial animals which Belshazzar made to Babylonian temples.

    Belshazzar did not make a strong ruler. He is best known for his impious feast, described in the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel, which was going on while the Persian armies were approaching Babylon. Belshazzar was in Babylon when it fell to the armies of Cyrus. Although the city fell without a battle, Belshazzar himself was slain.

The Babylonian Priesthood < | Babylon's Last Kings | > Daniel of Babylon

{Old Testament History}

1Berossus, Frag. 14, in C. Müller, Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, II p. 507.

2George A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible, p. 479.

3T. Fish, "Texts Relating to Nabonidus," in D. Winston Thomas, Documents from the Old Testament Times, p. 89.

4A. Leo Oppenheim, "Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts," in James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 313-314.

5"Priere de Nabonide' et autres ecrits d'un cycle de Daniel," Revue Biblique 63 (1956), pp. 407-15.

6The suggestion of a copyist's error is given in the Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia (edited by John E. Steinmueller and Kathryn Sullivan), p. 145. Others suggest that the tradition associated with the name of Nabonidus was erroneously ascribed to Nebuchadnezzar. See: David Noel Freedman, "The Prayer of Nabonidus," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 145 (1957), pp. 31-32.