Jeremiah 39: The City Falls

Jeremiah 39: 1-10 The Destruction of Jerusalem

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

In the ninth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the tenth month, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and all his army came against Jerusalem and besieged it; 2 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah, in the fourth month, on the ninth day of the month, a breach was made in the city. 3 When Jerusalem was taken, all the officials of the king of Babylon came and sat in the middle gate: Nergal-sharezer, Samgar-nebo, Sarsechim the Rabsaris, Nergal-sharezer the Rabmag, with all the rest of the officials of the king of Babylon. 4 When King Zedekiah of Judah and all the soldiers saw them, they fled, going out of the city at night by way of the king’s garden through the gate between the two walls; and they went toward the Arabah. 5 But the army of the Chaldeans pursued them, and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho; and when they had taken him, they brought him up to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, at Riblah, in the land of Hamath; and he passed sentence on him. 6 The king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah at Riblah before his eyes; also the king of Babylon slaughtered all the nobles of Judah. 7 He put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him in fetters to take him to Babylon. 8 The Chaldeans burned the king’s house and the houses of the people, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem. 9 Then Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard exiled to Babylon the rest of the people who were left in the city, those who had deserted to him, and the people who remained. 10 Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.

The city finally falls, the event which Jeremiah has foretold but also dreaded has finally occurred. Nebuchadrezzar’s army besieges the city of Jerusalem for a year and a half. The parallel telling of this event in 2 Kings 25 also relates, what we learned in the previous chapter of Jeremiah, that food had run out and that at the time the city wall is breached the people are beginning to starve. After a year and a half under siege this part of the narrative shows this final collapse happening with little resistance. The King Zedekiah and the remnants of the army and the officials flee by night, the officials of Babylon set up court in the gate of the city, and even in their fleeing we get the impression that Zedekiah and they are quickly overtaken as they attempt to flee across the Jordan river to Arabah. The punishment of the leaders is swift as the sons of the kin and the nobles of Judah, the leaders who had continued to push for resistance to Babylon, are killed when Nebuchdrezzar passes sentence in Hamath (Syria). Zedekiah is blinded and bound, most likely to be led back through the capitol of Babylon as a spoil of war to show how the might of Babylon has humiliated the Judeans who opposed them. In contrast to the first exile where the majority of the people are left in Judea, now this time Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, is charged with organizing a massive exile of those who survived the siege as well as those who fled and surrendered to Babylon. Only the poorest are left, these meek who inherit the earth, the pastures and the vineyards that were once owned by the powerful. Perhaps these are some of the slaves who were freed only to be brought immediately back into captivity (see Jeremiah 34), or those who suffered the loss of everything in the long costly war brought onto them by their leaders. Regardless, for the majority of the Judeans heading into exile it is a bitter pill to swallow. As Psalm 137 laments:

 By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
 On the willows there we hung up our harps
 For their our captors asked us for songs,
 And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall
How they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to the foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
 (Psalm 137)

The promise of Jerusalem, the temple, the Davidic dynasty have all failed as the people are marched into a foreign land as exiles. They will have to begin to rediscover who they are as the people of God, and what it means to be the chosen people without the land, a temple or a king. But for this moment they are entering a season of lament and grief. We know from earlier in Jeremiah hope will rise again, but in the midst of the desolation of despair the people may only be able to sings songs of lament and utter prayers of vengeance.

Jeremiah 39: 11-18 Protecting Jeremiah and Ebed-melech

11 King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon gave command concerning Jeremiah through Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, saying, 12 “Take him, look after him well and do him no harm, but deal with him as he may ask you.” 13 So Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, Nebushazban the Rabsaris, Nergal-sharezer the Rabmag, and all the chief officers of the king of Babylon sent 14 and took Jeremiah from the court of the guard. They entrusted him to Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan to be brought home. So he stayed with his own people.

15 The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah while he was confined in the court of the guard: 16 Go and say to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian: Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to fulfill my words against this city for evil and not for good, and they shall be accomplished in your presence on that day. 17 But I will save you on that day, says the LORD, and you shall not be handed over to those whom you dread. 18 For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have trusted in me, says the LORD.

On the orders of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, Jeremiah is sought out by the officials present in Jerusalem for protection. Jeremiah is freed from his confinement in the court of the guard and placed under the care of Gedaliah who is left in charge of the devastated city and land. Jeremiah is protected, and perhaps for many of his own people this only furthers their conviction that he is a traitor, yet he is sheltered and protected in the midst of the destruction and allowed to remain with the Judean people in the land. Although we only hear the promise of protection to Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian who pulled Jeremiah out of the cistern in Jeremiah 38, he also is promised his life and protection. In contrast to King Zedekiah who heard Jeremiah’s message several times and did not listen and is forced to watch his sons killed and led to Babylon in chains, now this servant of the king who is not a Judean and is a eunuch does hear and inherits his life, the same promise that Jeremiah made again to the king in Jeremiah 38.  This is not a story where Jeremiah or probably Ebed-melech live happily ever after, but in the midst of the death that surrounds them they live and they endure in the midst of the destruction of the nation and city around them.

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