This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur son of Malchiah and the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, saying, 2 “Please inquire of the LORD on our behalf, for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon is making war against us; perhaps the LORD will perform a wonderful deed for us, as he has often done, and will make him withdraw from us.”
3 Then Jeremiah said to them: 4 Thus you shall say to Zedekiah: Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I am going to turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls; and I will bring them together into the center of this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence.
7 Afterward, says the LORD, I will give King Zedekiah of Judah, and his servants, and the people in this city– those who survive the pestilence, sword, and famine– into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, into the hands of their enemies, into the hands of those who seek their lives. He shall strike them down with the edge of the sword; he shall not pity them, or spare them, or have compassion.
8 And to this people you shall say: Thus says the LORD: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. 9 Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. 10 For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the LORD: it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.
11 To the house of the king of Judah say: Hear the word of the LORD, 12 O house of David! Thus says the LORD:
Execute justice in the morning,
and deliver from the hand of the oppressor
anyone who has been robbed,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
and burn, with no one to quench it,
because of your evil doings.
13 See, I am against you, O inhabitant of the valley,
O rock of the plain, says the LORD;
you who say, “Who can come down against us,
or who can enter our places of refuge?”
14 I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, says the LORD;
I will kindle a fire in its forest, and it shall devour all that is around it.
A little context helps to make sense of this passage. So many times people had not wanted to hear Jeremiah’s words but now the king sends Passhur, a different Passhur from the previous chapter, and Zephaniah to seek the prophet’s words. King Zedekiah was appointed in the time between the two exiles as a puppet king of the Nebuchadrezzar, a child of Josiah was left to rule over a bankrupt kingdom with most of its leaders taken into exile into Babylon after the first time the Babylonians conquered the city, and as Rabbi Lau paints the picture
Whereas the exiled leaders had the capacity for leadership, their replacements come from the dregs of society, seizing the leadership vacuum as an opportunity to accumulate power. Violence and aggression prevails as paupers become princes overnight. (Lau, 2013, p. 131)
In the nine years between 597 and 586 BCE the majority of the people of the land remain in Judea, but there are many who long for Judea’s former status as an independent nation. In 594 BCE there is a regional summit of the nations in the region in which the leadership sets a pro-Egypt and anti-Babylonian policy. When Judea begins to delay making its payments of dues to the Babylonian empire they are slow to respond, trying to resolve things diplomatically, but by 588 BCE it is clear to the Babylonians that more drastic measures are called for and they launch a punitive campaign against Judah. Every hope seems dashed, the support they desired from Egypt has not been delivered, the Babylonians are rolling over the fortified cities to the north of Jerusalem and nothing seems to be stopping their advance, so Zedekiah sends to Jeremiah in a last gasp of hope.
This is the time immediately before the final exile in 586 BCE the king and his entourage see the writing on the wall and hope for a rewrite, but God is not giving them the answer they seek. There is no undoing the bad decisions of the past, the ways they have trusted in their own strength or their alliances with other nations and not in God and no eleventh hour return is going to stay the consequences of their actions at this point. Even beyond surrendering the people to the consequences of their own actions, God is against the people at this point. The only way out the prophet gives is surrender, to abandon the city and beg for the mercy of the Babylonians. There is a way to life, but it leads through the death of all that is known before. The last sprout of the Davidic line of kings is about to be chopped down, the city left as a waste and the people of the land will soon be landless. They are entering the time of broken dreams and hopes were all that is to be seen in the immediate future is desolation and despair. This is not the end of the story, but it is the hell that the people and the prophet will endure in their immediate future and their only hope is that, as in ages past, their God will look down and see their oppression in a foreign land and bring them out once again with a mighty hand.