The Lord had offered the king of Judah, Zedekiah, a choice. He could surrender to the Babylonian army and live or he could resist and die. Zedekiah had initially fought against Babylon, now the city was under siege and he chose to resist the Babylonians. As the siege entered its final and inexorable stage of defeat for the besieged, Zedekiah still thought he could do things his way and planned to escape from before the city walls were finally breached. During all this time God was not silent, through Jeremiah, Zedekiah was confronted with the choice that lay before him: would he exercise faith in God’s word, or would he trust in his own capability to escape the coming judgment of Babylon? In this 38th chapter of Jeremiah we see the tragic decisions of a man who despite continued exposure to God’s word, decided he could rescue himself. It may surprise you to know that we all face similar circumstances to those of king Zedekiah, a judgment is coming on this world, it’s a judgment that can be escaped if we put our faith in God (more on this later).
- Jeremiah’s clear message
Jeremiah had been presenting the same message to Jerusalem and Judah for almost 40 years. As the Babylonian siege entered its last days, his message was refined to just a few words: ‘This is what the Lord says: Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live (verse 2).’ In the circumstances, this was not the most attractive advice! The Babylonians were out for blood and punishment – to surrender to them seemed like suicide. Surely the only credible plan was to continue to resist in the hope that the enemy could be seen off. The reality was that rescue and escape from defeat and death required a simple act: faith in what God was saying! This has always been God’s way. When the Israelites had disobeyed God and were sent the judgment of biting deadly snakes, the remedy was simply to look at the bronze snake erected by Moses: look and live! The act of looking was a demonstration of faith in what God had promised. When Jesus spoke of the requirements for eternal life, all he asked was for belief. When the Philippian jailer asked the apostle Paul how he could be saved the reply was simply ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus.’ Nothing else is required. If the people simply believed God’s word by surrendering to the Babylonians, they too would live.
This simple message for rescue has always been largely resisted by men and women and it was no different in Jeremiah’s day. Four men, senior in Zedekiah’s administration, Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jehukal and Pashhur heard the message and rejected it. They decided that the only way to silence Jeremiah was to put him to death. You will notice in our day that those who speak inconvenient truths are also silenced. If you speak out to protect our children from teaching that damages their God-given conscience you are likely to lose your job or even be prosecuted for a ‘hate crime.’ These four wicked men dressed up their opposition to Jeremiah by saying that his message was undermining the morale of the Judean soldiers and the people in the city (verse 4). Jeremiah was (they said) ‘not seeking the good of these people but their ruin (verse 4).’ How easily is the truth twisted by lies!
- King Zedekiah’s failure
The four officials who opposed Jeremiah, approached the king for permission to kill him. We know that Zedekiah had been flirting with the truth; he had heard Jeremiah’s message a multiplicity of times, he had spoken to Jeremiah privately, he knew what was in God’s mind and he knew what he needed to do. The tragedy of Zedekiah’s life is that he knew the truth, but rather than surrounding himself with godly advisers he allowed the likes of Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jehukal and Pashhur to exercise authority on his behalf. It seems that we are so often just like Zedekiah, we are fearful of what others think and we are weak to do the right thing. When these four wicked officials approached Zedekiah with a request to the king to allow them to put Jeremiah to death, the king had an opportunity to protect an innocent and truthful man, in fact a man who’s God-given message could save the lives of countless people! Zedekiah’s response to Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jehukal and Pashhur’s request was thus: ‘he (Jeremiah) is in your hands, the king can do nothing to oppose you (verse 5).’ This was simply not true! The king could and ought to have protected Jeremiah, but he was weak and rather than protecting God’s spokesman for truth, he signed his death warrant!
Jeremiah was duly arrested and lowered into a near-empty water cistern. In those days, water was stored in such cisterns and it seems that this one was empty – but not dry! Jeremiah sank into the mud. King Zedekiah’s promise to protect and feed Jeremiah (chapter 37) had come to nothing! Jeremiah must have wondered why he had spent the best days of his life preaching God’s message as the hours slipped by in his death chamber. Perhaps Jeremiah remembered God’s word to him when he called him to be a prophet: ‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you (Jeremiah 1).’
Thankfully there were still a few men in Jerusalem who could be trusted to do what was right. Ebed-Malek was a black man probably from the upper Nile region and having heard about Jeremiah’s situation wasted no time in petitioning the king. He explained Jeremiah’s situation directly to the king and expressed his concern for Jeremiah’s life. Remarkably, Zedekiah flip-flopped again and having previously been responsible for Jeremiah’s plight now ordered Jeremiah’s rescue! Ebed-Malek was to take no less than 30 men to effect the rescue – presumably Zedekiah knew that there could be opposition. Jeremiah was duly raised from the pit by means of a rope suitably padded with old rags. We will see in the next chapter that God did not forget Ebed Melek’s courageous act.
Zedekiah rather reminds me of the Roman governor Pilate. When wicked men presented Jesus to Pilate, requesting the death penalty, Pilate wanted to keep the peace by complying with their request, but if he did this he would be condemning an innocent man! He twisted and squirmed but finally did the wrong thing. King Zedekiah knew exactly what he ought to do, he needed not only to protect Jeremiah, but he needed to act on God’s word and surrender to the Babylonians. But would he?
It was time for another meeting with Jeremiah. Again, the meeting took place in secret in a private room in the Temple. This time it would be different! ‘Do not hide anything from me (verse 14),’ Zedekiah instructed. But could Jeremiah trust this king not to have him killed? Jeremiah sought reassurances that whatever he said would not end in his return to the cistern! Zedekiah gave the necessary assurances: ‘I will neither kill you nor hand you over to those who want to kill you (verse 16).’ Now it was time to talk and Jeremiah once again confronted Zedekiah with God’s word: ‘This is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live. 18But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be handed over to the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from their hands.’ Zedekiah heard the message but gave one of the poorest excuses one could imagine for rejecting God’s advice: he was not afraid of the Babylonians, but rather the Jews! He feared that the Babylonians would hand him over to them! Jeremiah responded in two ways, first he confirmed that Zedekiah would be safe if he did the right thing: ‘Obey the Lord by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared (verse 20).’ Secondly, Jeremiah appealed to Zedekiah’s sense of duty and perhaps his pride when he asked the king to consider what he would say to his wives and children when they faced the Babylonians. They would blame the king for his weakness in trusting people who had let him down. Perhaps Zedekiah didn’t realise it, but this was his last opportunity to respond to God’s appeal. We never know when our last opportunity will be lost.
As Zedekiah left his final meeting with Jeremiah, he warned Jeremiah on pain of death not to breathe a word about the purpose of the meeting and to maintain that it was merely about Jeremiah’s request for safety. The king had made up his mind to reject the truth. Jeremiah, when subsequently questioned by the wicked officials did as the king had asked. Some have questioned Jeremiah’s truthfulness in misleading the officials. In response we can say that Jeremiah was without doubt one of the most faithful and truthful of all of God’s spokesmen. Perhaps we should view Jeremiah’s actions as a respect for the office of the king and a desire to faithfully represent the king’s wishes. Either way, Zedekiah had sealed his own fate with his refusal to heed God’s word. In just a few days, the Babylonians would break through the city walls, the king would make his escape only to be captured. When captured, the Babylonians showed no mercy: the king’s sons were killed before his very eyes, eyes which the Babylonians proceeded to put out. A blinded Zedekiah was then transported to Babylon in chains. If only the king had listened, if only he had believed the word of the Lord. If only. But it was too late, Zedekiah had made his decision now he had to live with the consequences.
- Judgment is just around the corner
As I have worked through these chapters of Jeremiah, I have noted that we live in remarkably similar times to those of Jeremiah. God’s judgment is just around the corner in our time too, just as it was for Zedekiah, Jerusalem and Judah. Most people have no concern about this. It was similar in the time of Noah. A catastrophic judgment was about to hit our planet, but people went on with their daily activities despite the warnings of God and message of Noah. The Lord Jesus stated: 26“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all (Luke 17).’ Just as Jeremiah was able to offer a solution to avoid the devastation, so too in our day we as Christians have a message of hope for this world. DL Moody said of Noah as he built the ark: ‘Every time he drove a nail, it was a warning to them. Every sound of the hammer said, “I believe God.” Noah said, “I believe God.” All the rest of the world did not believe.’ Just as Noah offered people an escape from the coming judgment, we too have an ‘ark’ in the Lord Jesus Christ, he alone can rescue and save if we will but believe in his name.