In the time of the early church, the apostle Paul appeared before the Jewish King Agrippa to give an account of himself after his arrest. As Paul spoke in his defence, he recounted how he had come from being a persecutor of Christians to a believer himself. His message was: “I preached that men should repent and turn to God and live lives to prove their change of heart (Acts 26: 20, JB Philips translation).” The response of king Agrippa was notable, he said: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian (Acts 26: 28, King James Version).” King Agrippa seemed to have been close to accepting the Christian message. Later in Acts we read that Paul witnessed to Jews in Rome: “He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus (Acts 28: 23).” Some were persuaded, but others ‘would not believe,’ in fact, most Jews rejected Paul’s message. In doing so, they were following in the tragic footsteps of their forefathers who had also heard God’s message but through repeated rejection had lost the capacity to respond.
I believe that in Jeremiah’s time, king Zedekiah was almost persuaded too, but it seems that he would end his days unrepentant and in disbelief. Jeremiah chapter 37 gives us some of the key moments in his journey. It is warning for us not to repeatedly reject God’s message to us.
- A request for prayer
Once again, Jeremiah gives the setting of the events recorded in the chapter: “Zedekiah son of Josiah was made king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; he reigned in place of Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim (verse 1).” Zedekiah had a godly father who tore his clothes when he realised that the nation had failed to keep the law. In contrast, his son Jehoiakim tore the scroll that contained God’s word and having torn it, he burned it! Sadly, Zedekiah finally arrived at the same place: “2 Neither he nor his attendants nor the people of the land paid any attention to the words the Lord had spoken through Jeremiah the prophet (verse 2).” This 37th chapter seems to have been written to show that despite Zechariah’s final rejection of God’s words, he had at times shown a real interest in what God had to say through Jeremiah, perhaps he had indeed at one time been ‘almost persuaded.’
The situation in Jerusalem was seriously bad! The Babylonians had the city under siege, and it was only a matter of time before the city would fall, but there had been a reprieve. To the south, the Egyptians had assembled their army in readiness to challenge the Babylonians. In response, the Babylonian army headed south to face the Egyptians and during that time the siege of Jerusalem was lifted (verse 5).
At that time, Jeremiah’s movement was not restricted, he was free to go wherever he pleased. The king sent two representatives to him; Jehukal (son of Shelemiah) and Zephaniah. In 2005, during an excavation on what was believed to be the site of David’s palace, a bulla (a piece of clay used to seal documents) was found. It bore words translated as: Belonging to Yehuchal son of Shelemiyahu son of Shovi (see figure). There really was a Jehukal son of Shelemiah! Sadly, Jehukal was amongst a group of men who sought the death of Jeremiah (chapter 38: 4). The message delivered by these men to Jeremiah from Zedekiah was simply this: ‘Please pray to the Lord our God for us.’ For all his faults, Zedekiah wanted prayer! I have no doubt that Jeremiah did pray and an answer from God was indeed forthcoming. God’s message for Zedekiah was as follows: “Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. 8 Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it down.” The message was that Zedekiah should not under any circumstances put his faith in the Egyptians – their support would evaporate! The Babylonians may be gone for now, but they would be back to finish the job! The city would be captured and burnt to the ground. I suppose that sometimes we tend to pray for what we want rather than what we need – Zedekiah wanted relief from the Babylonians, he wanted to be free of the judgment that God was about to inflict on him. What he needed, was to repent and worship God: this was his only hope. God is not like a genie in a bottle to grant us wishes when we need them! For Zedekiah there was still a temptation to rely on his own power – surely with Egypt’s help he could yet prevail over the Babylonians and save the city? He should think no such thing! “9 ‘This is what the Lord says: do not deceive yourselves, thinking, “The Babylonians will surely leave us.” They will not! 10 Even if you were to defeat the entire Babylonian army that is attacking you and only wounded men were left in their tents, they would come out and burn this city down.” Judgment was now inevitable, even if the circumstances looked favourable, they should not be fooled into a false sense of security. Don’t men still do this today? Just because God is patient and merciful does not mean that his judgment will not come. Zedekiah had asked for prayer, and now he had his answer. Would he be ‘almost persuaded’ and fail to repent or would he be fully persuaded and do the right thing?
- An Arrest
Relief from the siege brought opportunities to move around and attend to essential business. Jeremiah’s hometown was Anathoth in the land of the tribe of Benjamin, just a few miles north east of Jerusalem. He headed out the ‘Benjamin Gate’ (possibly also known as the Sheep gate elsewhere in the Old Testament) to ‘get his share of the property among the people there.’ As you may recall, Jeremiah had bought a field from his cousin in Ananthoth, however this incident in chapter 37 seems to have occurred before he bought his cousin’s land. Nonetheless, he had property in Anathoth that needed his attention.
I doubt that they had facial recognition cameras in those days, but they had something probably much better; guards who knew the faces of the people! One guard, Irijah spotted the face of Jeremiah as he approached the gate of Benjamin. He detained him and accused him of desertion: ‘you are deserting to the Babylonians.’ Jeremiah protested: ‘I’m not deserting to the Babylonians,’ but Irijah would not listen.’ Jeremiah was one of the few people who truly spoke the truth in Jerusalem, but he was not believed! This must have been intensely irritating as well as insulting. Jeremiah wanted the best thing for his people, he was courageous and patriotic, but he was considered as one who deserts in the face of the enemy! Irijah brought him to the officials. Since Zedekiah still seemed open to receiving God’s message though Jeremiah, I wonder if this had afforded him a degree of protection from the King. Now in the absence of the immediate presence of the king, the officials in their anger had him beaten and imprisoned. These were harsh and wicked people and Jeremiah’s life was in danger (verse 20). The prison was a ‘vaulted cell in a dungeon.’ Verse 16 indicates that Jeremiah was held in this prison ‘for a long time.’ There can be no doubt that Irijah and the officials who dealt with Jeremiah were acting outside of the law. Judges and officials had procedures to follow which called for a thorough investigation and the need for witnesses (Deuteronomy 17). None of these processes were followed. One wonders how Jeremiah must have felt. He was doing what God had asked him to do, he was doing it with courage and faithfulness, and now he was imprisoned and in fear for his life. The path that God leads us through is not always an easy one.
- The King’s request
After Jeremiah had remained in prison for ‘a long time’, the king sent for him. Jeremiah was brought to the palace. I fear that despite Zedekiah’s summon of Jeremiah, the King’s heart had started to harden against God’s word. First, he had failed to rescue Jeremiah from a situation that was a threat to the prophet’s life, and second having summoned Jeremiah, the king spoke to him privately. It seems likely that despite Zedekiah’s authority as king, he was fearful of those around him. He did not want them to know that he was consulting with God’s prophet. But at least he was in contact with Jeremiah and that was better than nothing.
It seems that the King trusted Jeremiah, he accepted that Jeremiah was a source of God’s truth, so he asked: ‘Is there any word from the Lord?’ Indeed, there was! ‘you will be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon.’ Zedekiah’s response to this is not recorded, but I suspect that he was torn. He wanted to support Jeremiah (as we will see at the end of the chapter), he was almost persuaded to do the right thing, but it seems he ultimately would put his trust in his own judgment and resources rather than follow God’s instruction. How many people are like that! They hear the truth, they are interested in those who speak the truth, but somehow, they never come to truly trust in God. How tragic this is.
Jeremiah now asks the king for help! God places authorities in positions of power for the good of the people over whom they exercise that authority, and that includes believers. The Apostle Paul wrote: ’Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…. the one in authority is God’s servant for your good (Romans 13).’ Since Zedekiah had God-given authority, he could use that for Jeremiah’s benefit. Jeremiah pointed out to Zedekiah that he had been improperly imprisoned, and the king bore responsibility for this injustice. The request was: ‘do not send me back to the house of Jonathan the secretary, or I shall die there.’ Jeremiah was pointing out that the king was responsible for his life. Would the king allow him to die at the hands of his officials who were overseeing the prison?
The king did the right thing! He ordered that Jeremiah be taken from the prison and brought to the ‘courtyard of the guard.’ Not only that, he ordered that Jeremiah be provided for with a daily loaf of bread. Zedekiah would not heed the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet, but at least he would preserve the life of Jeremiah and enable him to continue to speak the truth. Despite all this, Zedekiah failed to put his faith in the God of Israel. Almost persuaded.
We may well be like Zedekiah, we may attend church regularly, we may even support the work of the church, we may well be ‘almost persuaded.’ This is not enough – our only hope is to place our faith and trust in Jesus, then we will have eternal life, then we will be secure as we become God’s children.