Tag Archives: King Zedekiah

Jeremiah 38: The Officials, The Prophet, The Eunuch and the King

Jeremiah 38: 1-13 The Persecution and Rescue of the Inconvenient Prophet

Salvatore Rosa, Jeremie Tire De La Cistern, 3rd quarter of the 17th Century

Salvatore Rosa, Jeremie Tire De La Cistern, 3rd quarter of the 17th Century

Now 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 Prophet

                14 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.

Jeremiah 37: The People Who Do Not Hear

Jeremiah 37: 1-10 A Failure to Listen


Shema Yisrael at the Knessey Menorah in Jerusalem

Shema Yisrael at the Knessey Menorah in Jerusalem

Zedekiah son of Josiah, whom King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made king in the land of Judah, succeeded Coniah son of Jehoiakim. 2 But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through the prophet Jeremiah.

 3 King Zedekiah sent Jehucal son of Shelemiah and the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah to the prophet Jeremiah saying, “Please pray for us to the LORD our God.” 4 Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison. 5 Meanwhile, the army of Pharaoh had come out of Egypt; and when the Chaldeans who were besieging Jerusalem heard news of them, they withdrew from Jerusalem.

 6 Then the word of the LORD came to the prophet Jeremiah: 7 Thus says the LORD, God of Israel: This is what the two of you shall say to the king of Judah, who sent you to me to inquire of me, Pharaoh’s army, which set out to help you, is going to return to its own land, to Egypt. 8 And the Chaldeans shall return and fight against this city; they shall take it and burn it with fire. 9 Thus says the LORD: Do not deceive yourselves, saying, “The Chaldeans will surely go away from us,” for they will not go away. 10 Even if you defeated the whole army of Chaldeans who are fighting against you, and there remained of them only wounded men in their tents, they would rise up and burn this city with fire.


For the Jewish people, their central command is to hear or listen. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-Shema is the first word in this verse translated Hear) is to form the central practice of their lives

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. Deuteronomy 6: 4

Yet here, as throughout the ministry of Jeremiah where he speaks the word of the LORD nobody listens. Even now, in this time where Babylon has already conquered the Kingdom of Judah once and place on the throne Zedekiah in the place of Jeconiah, has taken the elites of the land into exile and has demonstrated that the words of so many of the other voices that contradicted Jeremiah’s voice were false, still nobody wants to listen to this inconvenient prophet. Yet, in this chapter here and in the next section we see in Zedekiah an acceptance of Jeremiah’s role if not his words. Zedekiah sends to Jeremiah for him to once again pray to the LORD our God (again echoing the language of the Shema) but we have heard again that Jeremiah is no longer to pray for this people.

The life of the king and the prophet and the people are also caught up in the geo-political events of the day and so as the great empire to the north (Babylon) hears of the movement of the armies of the empire to the south (Egypt) they move to engage the armies of Pharaoh. Much of the policies in this interim time between the first and second invasion of the armies of Chaldea (the forces of the Babylonian empire) have involved political maneuvering to place the Judean people in alliance with the Egyptians. These alliances will fail and Judea will be left alone to face the wrath of Babylon, but in Jeremiah’s view Judah has a more important enemy, the LORD their God. Jeremiah again prophesies what he has prophesied for years, there is no escape from the armies of Babylon, that even if their entire army was destroyed leaving only the wounded that would be enough for them to carry out their function in destroying Jerusalem.


Jeremiah 37: 11-21 Jeremiah Put in Prison


Salvatore Rosa, Jeremie Tire De La Cistern, 3rd quarter of the 17th Century

Salvatore Rosa, Jeremie Tire De La Cistern, 3rd quarter of the 17th Century

 11 Now when the Chaldean army had withdrawn from Jerusalem at the approach of Pharaoh’s army, 12 Jeremiah set out from Jerusalem to go to the land of Benjamin to receive his share of property among the people there. 13 When he reached the Benjamin Gate, a sentinel there named Irijah son of Shelemiah son of Hananiah arrested the prophet Jeremiah saying, “You are deserting to the Chaldeans.” 14 And Jeremiah said, “That is a lie; I am not deserting to the Chaldeans.” But Irijah would not listen to him, and arrested Jeremiah and brought him to the officials. 15 The officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him in the house of the secretary Jonathan, for it had been made a prison. 16 Thus Jeremiah was put in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there many days.

 17 Then King Zedekiah sent for him, and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house, and said, “Is there any word from the LORD?” Jeremiah said, “There is!” Then he said, “You shall be handed over to the king of Babylon.” 18 Jeremiah also said to King Zedekiah, “What wrong have I done to you or your servants or this people, that you have put me in prison? 19 Where are your prophets who prophesied to you, saying, ‘The king of Babylon will not come against you and against this land’?

 20 Now please hear me, my lord king: be good enough to listen to my plea, and do not send me back to the house of the secretary Jonathan to die there.” 21 So King Zedekiah gave orders, and they committed Jeremiah to the court of the guard; and a loaf of bread was given him daily from the bakers’ street, until all the bread of the city was gone. So Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.


Jeremiah’s words have not made him popular with the remaining leaders in Jerusalem, so when he sets out from Jerusalem during this break in the siege by the movement of the Chaldean army he is arrested and placed in a makeshift prison set up at the house of Jonathan the secretary. Jeremiah is beaten, imprisoned and in Jeremiah’s eyes left for dead. Surprisingly, it is King Zedekiah who sends for him in secret (and this probably drew the ire of many of the officials who were enraged at Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned).  Zedekiah, son of Josiah the faithful king, once again seems to respect the role of the prophet Jeremiah and so asks again for a word from the LORD. Jeremiah answers again, probably not with the words the king wants to hear but with a message that is probably not surprising to the king. Unlike the other officials the king is not enraged by these words, perhaps even accepts the inevitability of them. Then surprisingly we hear the plea of Jeremiah, making his case that he is not a traitor or a liar, but rather the very prophets who spoke the words the officials wanted to hear have spoken lies and Jeremiah pleads to be rescued from his current situation in the house of Jonathan the secretary.  Jeremiah’s plea is heard and the king places him in the court of the guard (where Jeremiah 32 and 33 take place) which is apparently a more hospitable imprisonment where Jeremiah receives regular food until famine and the lack of food from the siege overtake the city. Even if the king cannot change the course of the city and the kingdom’s eventual destruction by Babylon, and even if he is unwilling (or perhaps unable-Zedekiah does not occupy the typical strong position we often imagine with kings) to surrender to Babylon, at least he is able to provide some protection for the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 34: A Broken Covenant

Zedekiah, last King of Judah before the destruction of the kingdom by Babylon, "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum" published by Guillaume Rouille (1518-1589)

Zedekiah, last King of Judah before the destruction of the kingdom by Babylon, “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum” published by Guillaume Rouille (1518-1589)

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

Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE

Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE

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.

A Deep Sleep Came Upon Abraham and a Horror Siezed Him, as in Genesis 15: 12 from 1728 Figures de la Bible illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733)

A Deep Sleep Came Upon Abraham and a Horror Siezed Him, as in Genesis 15: 12 from 1728 Figures de la Bible illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733)

Jeremiah 24-Exile, Figs and Reversals


1 The LORD showed me two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the LORD. This was after King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the artisans, and the smiths, and had brought them to Babylon. 2 One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. 3 And the LORD said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.”
4 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 5 Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. 6 I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. 7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
8 But thus says the LORD: Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat King Zedekiah of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who live in the land of Egypt. 9 I will make them a horror, an evil thing, to all the kingdoms of the earth– a disgrace, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. 10 And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they are utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their ancestors.

This vision takes place in the time between the initial exile of 598 BCE and the final massive deportation of 587 BCE. In 598 BCE, when the Babylonians come and deal with the people of Judea and the city of Jerusalem without the Judeans being able to effectively oppose them they take the elite of the land into exile leaving Zedekiah to reign in place of the removed Jeconiah. For the elite taken into exile it seems like the ending of everything they know, but they are the basket of good figs. This is the same exile spoken of, for example, in the beginning of the book of Daniel:

3 Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. (Dan 1:3-4)

With the officials, the artisans and the smiths taken into exile with King Jeconiah, what remains to surround the newly appointed Zedekiah are those who have risen to fill the void of power left by the removal of the elite. As Binyamin Lau describes it:

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 prevail as paupers become princes overnight. Might makes right. King Zedekiah, young, weak, and bankrupt, cannot control the situation. (Lau, 2013, p. 131)

To those in exile there is now a word of hope. With their homes, wealth, position and status gone now God will act on their behalf to bring them back, to plant and to give them a new heart. Perhaps in the exile they will again find what it means to be the people of God. But for those still in Judah, the new officials of Zedekiah, the city of Jerusalem and the people of the land the nightmare is not over. Zedekiah will be led once again into conflict with Babylon and Babylon’s answer will be decisive. At this time where the people remaining in the land probably look upon those in exile as cursed and themselves as blessed, Jeremiah points to the opposite reality. Their horror still remains to come, they are not yet ready to receive a word of hope. Their course will still rely upon Egypt rather than the Lord. Just as the Assyrians became the instrument of judgment for the northern kingdom of Israel according to the prophets of that time, Babylon is the instrument of God’s judgment for Jeremiah. To oppose Babylon is to oppose God’s will at this time. The baskets of figs, good and bad point to a reality that defies the reality the people are experiencing at the time. The first harvest of the people out of the land become the first-ripe figs and in Jeremiah’s world of absolutes those left on the tree have spoiled and the time when they are swept away is quickly approaching.

Jeremiah 21: The Kingdom Laid Low


Jeremiah 21

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.

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