Jeremiah 34: 1-7: A Final Chance for Zedekiah?
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, when King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and all his army and all the kingdoms of the earth and all the peoples under his dominion were fighting against Jerusalem and all its cities: 2 “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Go and speak to King Zedekiah of Judah and say to him: Thus says the LORD: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. 3 And you yourself shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be captured and handed over to him; you shall see the king of Babylon eye to eye and speak with him face to face; and you shall go to Babylon. 4 Yet hear the word of the LORD, O King Zedekiah of Judah! Thus says the LORD concerning you: You shall not die by the sword; 5 you shall die in peace. And as spices were burned for your ancestors, the earlier kings who preceded you, so they shall burn spices for you and lament for you, saying, “Alas, lord!” For I have spoken the word, says the LORD.
6 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke all these words to Zedekiah king of Judah, in Jerusalem, 7 when the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and against all the cities of Judah that were left, Lachish and Azekah; for these were the only fortified cities of Judah that remained.
Like the previous chapters we are in the context of the invasion of Judah by Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon but unlike chapters 30-33 this is not a chapter of hope, this is focused on the immediate reality of the collapse of Judah, Jerusalem, and the Davidic dynasty. On the one hand this is a much kinder word than his predecessor Jehoiakim receives from Jeremiah, in many ways it is the exact opposite word (see Jeremiah 22: 18-19). As Rabbi Lau narrates this part of the story he sees Jeremiah looking at Zedekiah in a web far beyond his own control and that ultimately this crisis is not his fault. (Lau, 2013, p. 162) The defenses and all the alliances have failed as the fortified cities of Judah quickly fall. Zedekiah actually endures a much harsher punishment than what Jeremiah states here, and perhaps this is one final plea for Zedekiah and the forces of Jerusalem to surrender. The city will fall either way, there is no escape for Zedekiah but perhaps Jeremiah offers him one final chance for some mercy for the king and by extension the people in the face of the destruction.
Jeremiah 34: 8-22: A Broken Covenant
8 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them, 9 that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery. 10 And they obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that all would set free their slaves, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again; they obeyed and set them free. 11 But afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them again into subjection as slaves. 12 The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 13 Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, 14 “Every seventh year each of you must set free any Hebrews who have been sold to you and have served you six years; you must set them free from your service.” But your ancestors did not listen to me or incline their ears to me. 15 You yourselves recently repented and did what was right in my sight by proclaiming liberty to one another, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name; 16 but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back your male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them again into subjection to be your slaves. 17 Therefore, thus says the LORD: You have not obeyed me by granting a release to your neighbors and friends; I am going to grant a release to you, says the LORD– a release to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 And those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts: 19 the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf 20 shall be handed over to their enemies and to those who seek their lives. Their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth. 21 And as for King Zedekiah of Judah and his officials, I will hand them over to their enemies and to those who seek their lives, to the army of the king of Babylon, which has withdrawn from you. 22 I am going to command, says the LORD, and will bring them back to this city; and they will fight against it, and take it, and burn it with fire. The towns of Judah I will make a desolation without inhabitant.
This event gives a window into some of the competing ideals that are at work in the time of Jeremiah. Slavery in this time was an economic arrangement where a person no longer able to pay their debts would become a slave to the debt holder. Leviticus 25: 10 (also Isaiah 61:1 and Ezekiel 46: 17 refer to this idea) places a limit on this time of servitude requires the release of lands and bonded servants and Deuteronomy 15 also talks about this regular practice of the remission of debts and the freeing of those under those debts and indentured slavery. In a time of military and political crisis the people fall back on to this practice under the leadership of Zedekiah. The cut a covenant with God, set those in slavery free. In the context of the invasion this is also the point where the approaching Babylonian armies have to turn aside to deal with an approaching Egyptian army. Quickly, once the threat of the approaching Babylonian army turns aside economic concerns begin to dominate again and the people recently freed are returned to their positions of servitude. Perhaps the people are beginning to mock Jeremiah’s words and believe that they have averted yet another crisis: the city and the temple and the Davidic king are all the guarantee they need rather than living out the covenant they have made with their God. The Lord is furious with this turnaround, this is one additional illustration of the unfaithfulness of the people to the covenant that they made with the Lord. The Lord’s words refer to the action of cutting a covenant, similar to the action narrated in Genesis 15 between God and Abraham, where the action of cutting apart an animal and passing through the center is used to mark the cutting of the covenant and also to symbolize the consequences of breaking that covenant. Now the people who have broken this covenant will become a corpse like the calf and be left for the wild animals. They were a people who could have been a blessing but they in their turning away have become a curse. The army of Babylon will not stay away, they will come and burn, kill and destroy.