Robert Cain

Robert Cain at the cliffs of Dover, England.
Born and raised in rural Illinois and received a B.S. degree at Oklahoma State University. I enlisted in the U.S. Navy for four years then attended Catholic seminary at Seton Hall University and St. Meinrad Seminary, receiving a Master of Divinity and Master of Arts. I served as a parish priest and hospital chaplain for several years before receiving a commission into the U.S. Navy as a chaplain. After retiring with twenty-years of service, I now reside in Delaware.
Award Category Finalist
Award Submission Title
Evil pervades the people and land of 650 BCE Judah and Jeremiah is called upon to become one of the Lord’s prophets. However, the sixteen-year-old has other worldlier plans—a fiancée, a career that leads to happiness, security and comfort. Jeremiah’s life is turned upside down as God’s Spirit grows within him. Cast out of his hometown Anathoth the long arduous journey to becoming a prophet truly begins.
My Submission

It was a time of servitude and oppression—three dreadfully long years of paying excessive taxes and tribute to the Babylonian Empire. With Judah’s army wiped out, raiders and bandits multiplied like locusts, leaving desolation; fire and cruelty destroyed crops and pastures causing the cattle and sheep to wander and die throughout the wilderness. Fear, hunger and poverty forced people from the countryside to seek refuge in the holy city, Jerusalem. Not only did chaos and wrath exist outside the mortar and stone walls but also within as political factions of the king’s court fought for control. Two major parties, one in support of Egypt and the other favoring capitulation to Babylon, constantly argued. When news was received that three other vassal states east of the Jordan River sought to be free of Babylonian oppression –Ammon, Moab and Edom –king Jehoiakim, a pro-Egypt man, added to the sins of Judah by filling the streets of Jerusalem with innocent blood as he purged the city of the people against him. Judah then rose up against their master’s yoke.

Nebuchadnezzar, growing weary of these small vassal states causing unrest, led an army south to put down the rebellion, as the Word of the Lord declares:

“See, a people is coming from the land of the north, a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth. They grasp the bow and the javelin, they are cruel and have no mercy, their sound is like the roaring sea; they ride on horses, equipped like a warrior for battle, against you, O daughter of Zion!”

The uprising was quickly swept aside and Judah was devastated. The Babylonian king appointed Zedekiah, a name meaning ‘God is my righteousness,’ as a puppet ruler. This twenty-one-year-old had little to look forward to as Nebuchadnezzar, angered by the rebellion and needing to pay off his army, carried away the treasures of Jerusalem, even sacking Solomon’s Temple and the royal palace. He sent into exile all the royal officials and soldiers. To make matters worse, Nebuchadnezzar not only picked Jerusalem clean, but gave much of the land of Judah to his own people. From here on, he ruled the Judeans harshly and demanded still heavier taxes.

For nine years, virtually prisoners, the people of Judah lost hope which, in turn, gradually deteriorated their faith in a God they believed had forsaken them. King Josiah and the great period of reform was ignored as the people turned to other gods for help, comfort and relief; again, worshiping idols and offering pagan sacrifices in a desperate attempt to ease the burdens heaped upon them. Then, in 589 BCE, a ray of light pierced the gloom of a forgotten land, a forgotten people. Zedekiah received word that Egypt would furnish material aid and military support in an anti-Babylonian cause, including the neighboring states of Tyre and Ammon as well. The king of Judah feared Nebuchadnezzar and preferred to maintain the status quo, continuing to carry out Babylon’s bidding. But ultranationalists stirred the seething hatred the people had for Babylon and what they had done to their lives and land. Therefore, it wasn’t long before a surging wave of patriotic fervor swept across Judah, and the weak, ineffectual king could do nothing but throw off the Babylonian yoke of oppression; a forlorn hope perhaps, but they had little to lose.

* * *

Atop the greatest of the seven hills upon which Jerusalem was built, the Hill of Corruption, the Lord’s prophet Jeremiah was proclaiming God’s word to a large gathering of young and old, the sick and lame, the poor and rich:

“We are the favored ones of God,” the prophet proclaimed, “yet all belong to God.”

The people of Judah felt cursed because of the stain of wickedness caused by the kings Manasseh and Amon. And ever since the death of their beloved king, Josiah, they lived in dread of the Babylonians. They did not want God’s retribution for the sins of their forefathers, they did not want war.

“Why have you not taught the commandments of God to your children?” the prophet asked. “Why do you not observe the laws of our faith?” Jeremiah looked at the blank faces staring back at him, then added: “I fear for God’s people.”

Jeremiah, a strong figure with dark burning eyes, a long bristling beard and locks of jet-black hair blowing in the breeze, wondered if God’s words were penetrating their hearts and minds. Children played with toys and chased each other through the knee-high grass, parents talked amongst themselves, the sick and aged, he saw, were distracted by their afflictions and ailments. The prophet sighed.

“Do not look to the heavens, the sun and stars cannot save us. Look to the north, for the hand of God is coming, as a black cloud foreshadows a storm.”

Noticing commotion off to his left, Jeremiah looked to see a royal messenger approaching. The young lad stopped before him, stooping and propping his hands upon his knees as he sought to catch his breath. After recovering his strength, the boy said to Jeremiah, “King Zedekiah requests your presence in the royal court this afternoon.”

“Why would the king of Judah wish to see me?” the prophet asked even though he had just told the people why.

“Judah has formally broken all ties with Babylon. We have revolted against the yoke of oppression.” The young messenger concluded by reiterating: “The king orders that the prophet Jeremiah present himself this afternoon.”

“Tell him that I will be there,” Jeremiah replied.

With that, the boy turned and took off sprinting down the hillside.

* * *

Egypt, true to its word, had dispatched troops north, but again, they were no match for the army of Nebuchadnezzar. Furious with such insolence of these unruly little states, the Babylonian king himself brought the might of Babylon upon Judah, Tyre and Ammon. They drove Zedekiah’s forces back upon their fortified cities and towns and then, one by one, reduced them to rubble. This time, however, the city of Jerusalem would not yield.

Sentries along the outer walls of the city scanned the horizon for an approaching enemy; an army one hundred thousand strong, composed of Chaldeans, Arameans, Moabites and, of course, Babylonians. The vigilant watch continued day after day until a lone Judean soldier spotted a plume of white smoke to the south—a signal fire alerting Jerusalem that the enemy had reached Bethlehem. Poor Bethlehem, a peaceful little town, the place where their beloved king David had been anointed was now under assault. Even though Rehoboam, the first monarch of Judah, had fortified the walls, it would not be capable of withstanding the onslaught.

In desperation, king Zedekiah, beseeched the prophet Jeremiah, “Please pray for us to the Lord our God, for the salvation of his people; for this is our land, promised to us by almighty God and consecrated by our forefathers. It is holy ground never again to be trampled underfoot by foreign kings or armies.”

Jeremiah, a humble and sympathetic man, obeyed the king and sought out a secluded place in the palace gardens. Kneeling before the Lord, he pleaded in earnest that God might spare the people from divine vengeance, but perceived in his heart that it was too late. The fate of Jerusalem had already been sealed. Thus, the prophet didn’t seek comfort from the Lord, nor understanding, but strength to deliver the words God had placed in his mouth. He returned to the king and declared:

“Thus, says the Lord our God: ‘Pharaoh’s army, which set out to help you is, at this time, returning to its own land, Egypt. The Babylonians are coming and will wage war against this city; they shall take it and burn it with fire. You, your sons, and all who remain within Jerusalem's walls will be slain. Only those that submit to Babylonian rule are to be spared.’”

Angered by the prophet’s message, Zedekiah lashed out, “I will never willingly surrender this city! Who are you, Jeremiah, to threaten the king, his sons and the people of Jerusalem?”

In the grand and elaborately decorated court chamber the prophet stood, giving the king of Judah this warning: “The Lord God states:

‘Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live.

Why should you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence?’”

The king rose from his throne red-faced with rage, shouting:

“Submit to Babylonian rule? You are a traitor; a traitor to your king and to Judah!”

The king turned to his high priest and demanded, “What do you have to say?”

Hilkiah replied, “Our faith assures us that Jerusalem cannot fall; the Lord our God would not tolerate it because of the eternal covenant he established with king David:

‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them,

so they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more;

and evildoers shall afflict them no more.’”

The high priest, knowing how to charm the king and secure his confidence and favor, continued:

“Remember the Psalms!

‘In your strength, O Lord, the king rejoices and with your help how greatly he exults!

For you meet him with rich blessings, a fine crown of gold you place on his head.

For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.’”

Zedekiah, emboldened by these words, commanded, “Arrest Jeremiah, for he is a false prophet! Throw him into prison and bind him in shackles and chains.”

Ishmael, son of Nethaniah, a member of the royal house and a commander in his majesty’s army, ordered his men, “Get this traitor out of the king’s sight!”

Soldiers seized Jeremiah’s arms, spun him around and shoved the prophet toward the door. Ishmael, now having a suitable pretext to leave the monotony of palace court, led the way to the dungeons. As the prophet was ushered out of the chamber, people shouted and cursed him for such blasphemous talk; they mocked and heckled Jeremiah and might have killed him given the chance. After they had withdrawn, the temple priests chanted the ‘Psalm of Victory,’ the people joining in:

“All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!

They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!

They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns;

in the name of the Lord I cut them off! The Lord is my strength and my might;

he has become my salvation.”

Down a gloomy and damp spiral staircase they went, toward a dungeon cut out of rock. With only widely spaced torches lighting the way Jeremiah stumbled along, at first trying to move slowly and cautiously but was quickly urged on by the prodding tip of a spear. Up ahead, he heard Ishmael call for a door to be opened, whereby a loud echoing creaking was soon followed by a light penetrating the darkness. The prophet was led to a shallow niche hewn within a stone wall. Spun ‘round and forcefully shoved against the rock Jeremiah let out a sharp gasp as the air flew from his lungs. One of the guards shackled his wrists, while another, his ankles; the ends of the short chains were bolted to the wall preventing him from moving too far in any direction. When the guards had completed their task, Ishmael appeared from around the corner and stood before Jeremiah with a menacing grin and devilish eyes.

“So, the celebrated prophet is arrested and chained.” Ishmael paced back and forth as if to taunt Jeremiah by his moving about freely. He continued: “You may know the ways of God, prophet, but you do not know the ways of a palace court; the etiquette, the bowing, the groveling; what to say and, especially, what not to say.” Ishmael stopped pacing and faced Jeremiah. “You do not tell a king what he does not wish to hear, prophet. You do not tell a king what to do.”

Ishmael slapped Jeremiah across the face, Jeremiah’s cheek stinging from the harsh blow. “Do not threaten the king, his family or his people!” He glared at Jeremiah with contempt. Hatred burning in his eyes.

“I speak God’s words,” the prophet said, scared but confident. “I speak the truth… ugh!”

Ishmael punched Jeremiah in the gut, then yanked on his hair to again bring them face to face. “Don’t make your confession to me, prophet, I am not your judge.” With the handful of hair Ishmael smacked the back of Jeremiah’s head against the wall, then let go. Retreating a couple of steps, he unsheathed his sword. Holding it before Jeremiah’s face, the blade glistening in the torchlight, he said: “I am your executioner, prophet.”

“Please,” Jeremiah beseeched, “I only wish to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem and save our people.”

Ishmael struck the prophet in the mouth with the hilt of his sword, Jeremiah feeling his lip split and the warm blood trickling down his chin. “Death to those who side with Babylon,” Ishmael shouted in the prophet’s ear. Turning, he walked away as Jeremiah slumped to his knees, his arms dangling above him because of the short chains.

I must have passed out, Jeremiah thought as he struggled to stand; his arms and legs aching, his lip swollen and head throbbing. There were no windows, only the flickering torches casting eerie shadows. He had no notion of time. Were there any other prisoners? Where are the guards? All was deathly quiet. Jeremiah did notice the stench; however, the overpowering odors of human excrement, the rot of garbage and whatever else that was festering here; it made him gag. Then, realizing his own discomfort, he called out for a guard so he could relieve himself but no one came. He called out again. Silence. “How long am I to be here?” he whispered forlornly, as warm urine flowed down his leg.

It was not his words which incensed the king or the people, but their own spiritual guilt; for in their souls they were the ones bound by shackles and chains, forged in the depths of sin and darkness. King Zedekiah, the soon-to-be last monarch of Judah, continued to do what was evil in the sight of God. Indeed, Jerusalem and all of Judah so infuriated the Lord that he expelled them from his presence.

Jeremiah was shut away in the depths of a black abyss. Days and weeks, passed by, or was it months? He did not know, for time had lost all significance. Twice a day slaves brought rotted food or moldy bread and putrid water and, if needed, removed the soiled straw and spread a few handfuls of old straw around him. Occasionally, a guard kicked at his bare feet to determine if he were alive or dead. The prophet, weak from hunger and body aching, often wondered the same thing. Never awake or asleep, he existed in limbo as if being slowly dragged into the chaos of hell; a perpetual state of torment, of pain, of fear.

Once, as Jeremiah sat against the wall, moving his restricted arms to mitigate the painful spasms of cramped muscles, he heard noises and glimpsed shadow-like figures flittering this way and that. Were they real or imaginary? He couldn’t tell, for they were too fast and seemed translucent. Suddenly, a ministering angel appeared before him in sparkling white garments and said: “Rise, Jeremiah, and eat.”

The angel held out her hand, encouraging him to get up, the shackles falling from his wrists. There, beside him, a table made of gold stood with a round cake and a tall cup of fresh cool water. As Jeremiah ate, the angel cleaned his festering wounds and anointed with oil his sore wrists and ankles. She tenderly wiped away the sweat and dried tears from his face and washed his body clean. Once he had eaten, the angel cradled him in her arms, later lying him onto a cushion of fresh clean straw. She placed a kiss upon his brow as he fell into a deep sleep, contented and at peace. The angel departed, but returned whenever the Lord commanded.

Awaking, Jeremiah was again shackled to the wall, but that sense of peace lingered; strong enough to keep him going, to persevere, to live. Am I mad? He often wondered. But his sores and bites from bugs and rats healed, his wrists and ankles never went septic. What he noticed, however, was that he now stunk worse than his surroundings.

* * *

In the city high above the dark dungeons, smoke appeared on the horizon. Soon, a trumpet blast resounded throughout the valleys, bouncing off the walls of the city’s buildings. People in the streets and in the fields stopped what they were doing and listened. More trumpets blared as a feeling of dread filled people’s hearts.

The initial shock of despair lasted but a moment, being quickly replaced by fear, then panic. Those on farms and in nearby villages hurried to load wagons, carts and woven baskets with valuables, keepsakes, clothes and food. Before long, streams of people snaked across the roads and pastures heading for the security of Jerusalem’s mighty walls. As for the citizens of this grand city, they too, dashed about; many not knowing where to go or what to do. Women and children scurried home, bolting doors and shuttering windows. Except for the youngest of boys and the elderly, the men within the city gathered at various arsenals strategically located throughout. Young and old were issued shields and lances, bows and arrows. They toiled up the stone steps to stand upon the outer walls at their appointed stations, waiting—and waiting still more.

As the sun set, vibrant hues of red filled the darkening horizon, brilliantly reflecting off the white puffy clouds. A gorgeous sunset, many thought as they stood at their post. But, as dusk fell, the red sky did not wane: a cold chill replacing the warm sense of beauty. For, it was not the reds and oranges of the sun’s rays, but the reflections of thousands of campfires—an apocalyptic circle of fire encompassing Jerusalem. Standing upon the wall, gazing outward at this evil-looking hue with darkness above and below, how could one not quake in trepidation?

Dawn approached, and they appeared. Scouts galloped on horseback and scurried here and there, and were later followed by streams of cavalry, then chariots. In the heat of the mid-day sun, the infantry arrived, the energetic beat of marching drums echoing throughout the adjoining hills. By evening, the armies of Babylon had formed; neatly arranged in squares and columns as if toy soldiers on a board. In no time, siege pieces were spaced strategically and battering rams tauntingly positioned across from Jerusalem’s gates, while scaling ladders waved to and fro like trees without vegetation. Their officers clad in highly polished armor and mounted on splendid horses casually joked how this will be a speedy and easy victory. And so, the hour had come: King Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem.

* * *

In the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with his army against Jerusalem. The men of Judah held the invaders back. Countless are the number of heroes who fought, were wounded, or died. It is stated that the Temple priests called forth ministering angels by their names, beckoning them to appear, armed with an assortment of unusual weapons. Fire arrows continually flared through the sky, first from the desert, followed by those from the city. Thousands of Judah’s enemies perished during the many waves of attack, their bodies strewn upon the sands or piled grotesquely at the base of the city’s walls. But, not knowing defeat, the Babylonian Captain of the Army, Nebuzaradan, rode forward after each engagement to Jerusalem’s Tower of Hanan'el under a flag of truce asking the Judean king if he was prepared to surrender. Sitting upon his stallion, listening once again to Zedekiah’s bold talk of divine victory, Nebuzaradan could not help recognize the unmistakable odor of death of a city under siege.

Days passed by, then weeks, then months. For two years the walls of Jerusalem held firm. However, food and water ran low and unburied dead brought pestilence. The Word of the Lord states:

“Is not food cut off before our eyes? The seed shrivels under the clods, the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are in ruins.”

For each night, as darkness settled upon the devastated city, the women of Judah came out of hiding and gathered in the avenues, scavenging through the debris for scraps or a puddle of filthy water, anything they could put into their mouths. Weak and without faith they clutched onto the pillars of the ruined and abandoned buildings for support until death overcame them. Infants crawled on their hands and knees yearning to suck their mother’s milk, but there was none to be had; the babes lay lifeless beside their mother’s breast’s. King Zedekiah was urged by a few to yield but feared to do so knowing it would mean certain death for him and his family. He must have God’s intervention: he needed a miracle. The king sent word to bring the prophet Jeremiah before him.

Jeremiah, semi-conscience, felt his arms and legs moving. Shaking the cobwebs from his mind he realized the shackles and chains were gone. In front of him stood a tall and grimacing shadow.

“You stink and look worse than a pig!” Ishmael declared. To the guards, he commanded, “Strip him of those rags and clean him up!” Then, turning back to Jeremiah, he said, “The king has sent for you prophet. I hope you took to heart what I had said long ago concerning what to say, or not to say, when standing before the throne.” Ishmael looked into Jeremiah’s eyes warning him, “Because if you end up back here, you will never see daylight again.”

The guards stripped Jeremiah and threw buckets of cold water on him; they cut his dirty long hair close to the scalp and clipped his matted beard as best they could. After they had finished their task, they tossed him a one-piece tunic made of coarse itchy sackcloth.

“Put it on,” one guard ordered. “A wayward prophet should look penitent.”

The guards laughed as he dressed, then shoved Jeremiah toward the dark staircase which he had descended two years before.

“My sandals…” Jeremiah started to say.

“I got two pieces of bread for those,” a guard said. “One for each foot!”

They chuckled again as Jeremiah climbed, prodded by the tips of their spears.

King Zedekiah asked, “Is there any message from the Lord?”

“There is!” The prophet exclaimed. “You shall be handed over to the king of Babylon.”

Jeremiah saw stars then all went black as he fell to his knees grimacing in pain. For his insolence Ishmael had struck him a blow to the back of the head with the hilt of his sword. Guards came and seized the prophet by the arms hoisting him onto his feet. Coming to his senses, Jeremiah asked the king: “What wrong have I done to you, or your servants, or this people that you have put me in prison?”

“You speak of surrender, you talk of treason; you threaten your king, this city and its people,” Zedekiah replied in a strained, almost frightened, voice.

After a few moments of silence, the king continued on, “Do you not realize, Jeremiah, that the city will fall without intervention from the Lord? Does he not hear the pleas of his people? Does he not notice the smell of incense and burnt offerings of his priests? Even I, the king, bowed low before the sacred altar in God’s house, rent my garments and appealed for mercy.”

Zedekiah rose from his throne, and asked: “Tell me, what are the words of our Lord God?”

Jeremiah stood erect and shook off the guards that held him. He stepped a few paces nearer the king, his expression dark but his eyes piercing and said in a determined voice that rocked the very foundations of the palace, “Send envoys to the king of Edom, the king of Tyre, and the king of Sidon and give them this charge: Thus, says the Lord God of hosts:

‘It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whoever I please. Now, I have given all these lands into the hand of king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. I will punish each nation with the sword, with famine, and pestilence, says the Lord, until I have completed its destruction. But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, says the Lord, to till it and live there.’”

Zedekiah glared at the prophet, yet despair was clearly upon his face. Murmuring was heard throughout the court, but Jeremiah stood firm. Saddened, the king returned to his chair and with a wave of his hand commanded, “Take this man away. I wish to see him no more.”

Hands fell upon Jeremiah’s shoulders and the guards escorted him toward the door. This time, however, the court remained silent thinking, perhaps, that this was the last time they would ever see the renowned prophet alive.


Mary D Mon, 31/08/2020 - 13:27

Congratulations on your success Robert -:)