Jeremiah 38: 1-13 The Persecution and Rescue of the Inconvenient ProphetNow Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jucal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah was saying to all the people, 2 Thus says the LORD, Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out to the Chaldeans shall live; they shall have their lives as a prize of war, and live. 3 Thus says the LORD, This city shall surely be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon and be taken. 4 Then the officials said to the king, “This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” 5 King Zedekiah said, “Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you.” 6 So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud. 7 Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. The king happened to be sitting at the Benjamin Gate, 8 So Ebed-melech left the king’s house and spoke to the king, 9 “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” 10 Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take three men with you from here, and pull the prophet Jeremiah up from the cistern before he dies.” 11 So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe of the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. 12 Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Just put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. 13 Then they drew Jeremiah up by the ropes and pulled him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.
This chapter of Jeremiah does a great deal to highlight the situation at the end of the kingdom of Judah in ways that are surprising. Jeremiah’s long call for what sounds to many of his listeners like a pro-Babylonian policy, where God has sided not with God’s chosen people but with the Chaldean invaders, and he is viewed by many of the ‘officials’ as a traitor. In honesty, imagining myself from my previous time as a soldier in a very different time and army, there was a time when I probably would have looked at someone talking the way Jeremiah does as a traitor as well. Perhaps it would be the easier and more natural reaction for me as well. The officials have bought into the idea that being the covenant people, having the holy city and the temple and the Davidic king guarantees their position. Even now when the siege of Jerusalem has dried up the city’s resources and there is no food left they hold on doggedly to their own positions and ideology, even though Jeremiah’s long message rings truer every day. Their pro-Egyptian alliance and policies have failed them, and perhaps they believe in their desperation that if they can quiet Jeremiah they can quiet the very real voices of dissent that must be emerging at this point. From later in the chapter we see that there are already those who have deserted the city and have either heeded Jeremiah’s words or seen the senselessness of dying of starvation behind the walls that will soon be crumbling. Jeremiah has been once taken out of the house of Jonathan the secretary and the king has offered him some protection, but now the ‘officials’ throw him into the mud-filled cistern to die of dehydration and starvation.
King Zedekiah also occupies a role that most people do not imagine with a king. Zedekiah does not wield total control of the people, in fact many of these officials seem to be the ones able to manipulate the course of how things will go. Zedekiah the son of Josiah, the devout king who attempted to lead the people of Judah back to trusting in the LORD, now finds himself powerless against these officials. Perhaps he is weak and ineffective, or perhaps he finds himself with a position without any real power with others who are skilled at operating the mechanisms of power pulling the strings. Regardless of how Zedekiah found himself in a weak position, here he stands caught between the coming onslaught of Babylon and those in his own government who have locked Jerusalem into a struggle it cannot win.
Finally into the scene enters the unlikely hero, Ebed-melech an Ethiopian eunuch. Not Jewish, not even a person who can enter into the temple, but a person who (unlike the officials) can see that persecuting the LORD’s prophet is wicked. In a scene that is full of compassion, Ebed-melech goes to the king and tells him what is going on. With the king’s approval he goes with three others and not only removes Jeremiah from this cistern where he was sentenced to die but thinks enough to bring padding to protect the abused prophet’s armpits as they lift him out of the pit. These Judean officials are thwarted by the actions of Ebed-melech and again Jeremiah is brought to the court of the guard.
It is a world in chaos with competing agenda and ideologies. Where in the chaos of collapse there are still those grasping for the seats of power on the sinking ship. Yet the prophet continues his impassioned plea to save the city and the temple and the people, in spite of all he has endured.
Jeremiah 38:14-28 The King and The Prophet14 King Zedekiah sent for the prophet Jeremiah and received him at the third entrance of the temple of the LORD. The king said to Jeremiah, “I have something to ask you; do not hide anything from me.” 15 Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I tell you, you will put me to death, will you not? And if I give you advice, you will not listen to me.” 16 So King Zedekiah swore an oath in secret to Jeremiah, “As the LORD lives, who gave us our lives, I will not put you to death or hand you over to these men who seek your life.” 17 Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel, If you will only surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. 18 But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be handed over to the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you yourself shall not escape from their hand.” 19 King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, for I might be handed over to them and they would abuse me.” 20 Jeremiah said, “That will not happen. Just obey the voice of the LORD in what I say to you, and it shall go well with you, and your life shall be spared. 21 But if you are determined not to surrender, this is what the LORD has shown me– 22 a vision of all the women remaining in the house of the king of Judah being led out to the officials of the king of Babylon and saying, ‘Your trusted friends have seduced you and have overcome you; Now that your feet are stuck in the mud, they desert you.’ 23 All your wives and your children shall be led out to the Chaldeans, and you yourself shall not escape from their hand, but shall be seized by the king of Babylon; and this city shall be burned with fire.” 24 Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Do not let anyone else know of this conversation, or you will die. 25 If the officials should hear that I have spoken with you, and they should come and say to you, ‘Just tell us what you said to the king; do not conceal it from us, or we will put you to death. What did the king say to you?’ 26 then you shall say to them, ‘I was presenting my plea to the king not to send me back to the house of Jonathan to die there.'” 27 All the officials did come to Jeremiah and questioned him; and he answered them in the very words the king had commanded. So they stopped questioning him, for the conversation had not been overheard. 28 And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard until the day that Jerusalem was taken.
King Zedekiah is a tragic figure in this narrative, and I believe that Jeremiah has some compassion for him, if for no other reason than him being Josiah’s son. Jeremiah once again is summoned to meet with the king in ‘secret’ (although it is a secret that everyone knows occurs even if they don’t know the content of what is said). For those who have read George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series (which the HBO series Game of Thrones gets its storyline) it is almost like in King’s Landing where there are the listeners employed by Cersei, Varus, and Littlefinger, all keeping track of everyone’s movements. King Zedekiah also seems to at least respect Jeremiah, and maybe even believes his words (though he is unable to act on them). This is the last time Jeremiah will make this plea for the King to surrender and his life and the city will be saved. We learn from the king’s words that there are already Judeans who have defected to the Babylonians, and the king is afraid that in his surrender he would fall into their hands. We also know from the official’s words earlier in the chapter when the mention the soldiers ‘who are left’ that either many of the soldiers have fallen or some of them too have defected (very likely in my opinion). Jeremiah’s words again are for naught, the king does not act on them, but he does continue to protect Jeremiah and his excuse that he tells Jeremiah to tell the ears of the already curious eyes watching is a plausible one, ‘to keep him out of the house of Jonathan’ where Jeremiah has already been once and fears to go again. The time is short, Jeremiah’s days in the court of the guard are coming to an end and with them the city of Jerusalem is approaching its end.