Statisticians speak of continuous variables, categorical variables and dichotomous variables. This is simpler than it sounds! Continuous variables are things like measurements of heights. In the human population there are a multiplicity of heights, in a continuous spread over a range; I’m 1.75 m, you may be 1.8 m or 1.69 m etc. With categorical variables every person in a population fits into a discrete category, for example those with blue eyes, those with brown eyes, green eyes and so on, there are a multiplicity of categories, but they are not continuous like height. Finally, there are dichotomous variables, such variables are either one thing or another, black or white, male or female. It seems to me, that in our standing before God we are part of a dichotomous variable, we are in either one of two places: we are saved, or we are lost. We are all faced with the choice of which group we are in. In Jeremiah 39 we will see that king Zedekiah finally chose to reject God’s message and do things his way. In contrast Jeremiah and Ebed Malek chose to serve God. Our choice in this matter has huge consequences for our lives as we shall see.
The chapter begins with a condensed summary of the recent history in Jerusalem. In the 9th year and the 10th month of Zedekiah’s reign (December 589/January 588 BC) the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem. Some 18 months later the city wall was breached, and the Babylonians entered the city – it was the 18th July 586 BC. This should not have been a surprise to anyone in the city – Jeremiah had been speaking about this for years. Jeremiah records the names three of Babylonian officials who took their seats at the Middle Gate. I believe that king Zedekiah still had a chance to surrender to the Babylonians but once again, rather than trusting in the word of God he put his faith in himself and his soldiers. He made his escape under the cover of darkness through the king’s garden and headed East for the Jordan valley. I wonder if he really thought as he rode out with sons and soldiers away from the city if he really had managed to escape the judgment of the Lord. If he did, his sense of security did not last long: the Babylonians were in hot pursuit and Zedekiah was captured and brought face to face with Nebuchadnezzar, the victorious Babylonian king. Zedekiah and his now captured escape party were taken to Riblah. The distance from the point of capture to Riblah would have been of the order of 300 miles. If we assume 20-30 miles travelled per day, Zedekiah had plenty time to think. He was no longer in control of events and he must have thought much about his previous conversations with Jeremiah. How he must have wished he could turn the clock back and change some of his decisions, but now it was too late.
Nebuchadnezzar had waited 18 months for this moment. Firstly, he slaughtered Zedekiah’s sons as Zedekiah watched helplessly. Next, he killed the nobles of Judah – almost certainly some of those who opposed Jeremiah and wanted him killed were amongst this group. Lastly, he put Zedekiah’s eyes out. The last thing that Zedekiah would remember would be the sight of his sons and officials being killed. Zedekiah was then placed in shackles and made the long trip to Babylon. What a tragic situation, and all brought about by the king’s stubbornness to listen and act on God’s word given through Jeremiah. The book of Chronicles records these words: ‘He became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the Lord, the God of Israel (2 Chronicles 36:13).’ Note that Zedekiah himself hardened his heart – the longer we refuse to acknowledge God, the more difficult it becomes to respond to his call. We don’t become ‘stiff-necked’ overnight, but over the years our ability to respond to God’s word diminishes if we continue to fail respond to his prompting. If God is prompting you to repent and turn to him, do not hold out a minute longer.
Interestingly Jeremiah had previously prophesied that Zedekiah would look into the eyes of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 32: 4). This was certainly fulfilled. In the book of Ezekiel we also read of Zedekiah of whom it was said: ‘13 .. I will bring him to Babylonia, the land of the Chaldeans, but he will not see it, and there he will die. (Ezekiel 12).’ This must have seemed a strange prophecy to Ezekiel at the time, how could he be in Babylon and not see it? But this is exactly what happened to Zedekiah, he saw Nebuchadnezzar and was taken to Babylon, a city he never actually saw!
Having dealt with the Judean leaders, Nebuchadnezzar now turned his attention to the city and its inhabitants. Nebuchadnezzar had appointed Nebuzaradan as his commander of the imperial guard. It turns out that this is a rather remarkable man, but you will need to wait until the next chapter to hear why this was so! Nebuzaradan rounded up the people and organised the exile of all those in the city – they were sent to Babylon and they would never return! The royal palace was burnt down, and the walls were destroyed. The city was in ruins. Again this should have come as no surprise, back in Jeremiah chapter 9 we read these words: ‘I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals; and I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there (Jeremiah 9: 11).’ Some people insist that we cannot take the bible literally and that we need to take much of it (especially the Old Testament) as an allegory. Try telling the people on their way to Babylon (and indeed Zedekiah) that!
The land of Judah and Israel was still of value to the Babylonians and in order to derive benefit from it, Nebuzaradan left ‘some of the poor people’ to tend to the vineyards and fields.
Zedekiah is a lesson to all who refuse to listen to God’s word. Sadly, we live in a period in history where most people have rejected God’s word. I have a subscription to the Times on-line newspaper: the news today was that the prince William was reported to have said he would be ‘fine if my children are gay. ’ In the readers’ comments section beneath the article anyone who spoke up for biblical moral purity was roundly criticised. The apostle Paul noted in his letter to the Romans: ‘32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.’ The apostle Paul seemed to connect such practices with the coming wrath of God. If this is the case, we have much to learn from Jeremiah in our day. How can we avoid God’s wrath? Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31)!
Jeremiah’s life had not been an easy one. He had spent the best part of his days preaching and persuading the people of Judah to turn back to God and to mitigate the coming judgment, but they would not listen. He was opposed at every turn and his life was often in danger. As he watched the city burn he must have been filled with sadness but perhaps also he felt that he had done his job of warning, he had not given up doing what God had asked him to do. What now? He was in danger too – perhaps he would be caught up in the killing and deportation?
What happens next is something of a surprise. The king of Babylon knew who Jeremiah as and he knew his name! Nebuchadnezzar gave specific orders through the commander of the Imperial Guard (Nebuzaradan) concerning Jeremiah: ‘12Take him and look after him; don’t harm him but do for him whatever he asks (verse 12).’ That’s quite amazing! Compare and contrast this treatment by men who worshipped false gods with King Zedekiah who was indifferent to Jeremiah’s safety and king Zedekiah’s officials who tried to kill Jeremiah! Why the difference? And how did Nebuchadnezzar know about Jeremiah and why did he show him such respect? The answer is that God was at work in Nebuchadnezzar’s heart and Nebuchadnezzar and presumably many other Babylonians had come to acknowledge the God of Israel. This all became possible because some of the exiled Jews remained faithful to God and they had a remarkable influence on the Babylonians. Among these faithful Israelites was Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. By the time of the fall of Jerusalem Daniel had already interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (see Daniel 2) and in response the king had said: ‘Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings,’ (Daniel 2: 47). God had more to do in the life of Nebuchadnezzar who would eventually come to fully acknowledge and praise the God of the universe!
On the instructions of Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah was placed in the care of Gedaliah. We’ve met members of Gedaliah’s family before. They were good people, trustworthy and God-fearing had supported Jeremiah before. It was Gedaliah’s father, Ahikam, who spoke up for and supported Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26). Geldaliah’s grandfather, Shaphan, was amongst those who discovered the book of the law during king Josiah’s refurbishment of the temple. Shaphan read the newly found book to the king.
So Jeremiah found himself amongst friends at the command of the great king Nebuchadnezzar! We will see later that Gedaliah was appointed as governor of Judah and thus Jeremiah remained in the land as a free man and no doubt continued to support the remaining people. In contrast, king Zedekiah who thought not for the people but only for himself was now blind and exiled.
3. Ebed Melek
We met Ebed Melek in the previous chapter. You will recall that when Jeremiah’s life was in danger after he was thrown by his enemies into an empty water cistern, it was Ebed Melek who informed the king and it was Ebed Melek who organised the rescue party. This black man from the upper Nile region had shown by his actions that he trusted in God and wanted to do what was right.
Now God has a specific message for Ebed Melek, and it is a message given to Jeremiah. The message concerned the coming destruction of the city of Jerusalem and how this would impact Ebed Melek: ‘17 But I will rescue you on that day, declares the Lord; you will not be given into the hands of those you fear. 18 I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life, because you trust in me, declares the Lord.’ What a great comfort for Ebed Melek – he had put his life on the line for Jeremiah, he had seen the importance of Jeremiah’s message and had honoured the God of Israel, now he would be given special and particular protection by God! Why? Because he trusted in God. The only way to escape the wrath is to trust God.
There is a day of wrath coming for this world. Just as Jeremiah prepared the people in his day, so too we must prepare too. We are not appointed to wrath, says the apostle Paul, but as the day approaches, we must live lives that are right. Paul told the Thessalonians that they should live in such a way that their daily lives would win the respect of outsiders. He told them to be sober and watchful and should pot on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet. Let’s do just that as we wait for the day of our rescue from the wrath that will come.