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A FRIEND IN NEED
‘They drew up Jeremiah with cords.’
I. The dungeon.
(1) Jeremiah, because he spoke the unpopular truth, though he knew it must give offence, was thrown into a dungeon. It was a deep hole in the ground into which the prisoner was lowered with ropes; the floor of it was mire, and with that simplicity which in the Bible so often embraces a world of misery or horror, it is said that Jeremiah ‘sank in the mire.’ The French had a name for such dungeons which is vivid and significant. They called them ‘oubliettes,’ which means places where people are forgotten. The idea of the oppressor was to put those who offended or gave trouble both out of sight and out of mind, and sometimes, if they did not starve, they lingered on until it was forgotten who they were or why they had been imprisoned. Such things are instances not only of ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ but also of human folly, for to put the truth-speaker out of sight is not to kill the truth, and the truth cannot be forgotten or quenched in darkness. It abides in the mind of God, and if it is not accepted as a guiding light it will come as a consuming fire.
(2) If the light of the future had been cast upon the darkness of the dungeon, Jeremiah might have seen the innumerable company of noble spirits in all ages who were committed to a like darkness for the same cause. Among them are John the Baptist, the Apostles James and John and Peter, St. Paul, of the first Christian era, the countless martyrs of the Roman persecutions, such as Bruno and Galileo, for the truth of science, John Bunyan, and even in the nineteenth century, such as Joseph Mazzini. It is evident that if men had been successful in the attempt to put out these God-given luminaries of the dark centuries, they would have put every star of hope or guidance out of their sky, and condemned themselves to a miry dungeon of barbarism and despair. But God is merciful, and frustrates blind human violence; and when the world puts forth all its force against one of His servants, the voice of Jesus is heard through its clamour and calming its storm, ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’
II. The rescue.
(1) It is a pleasant thing to find that the first to pity Jeremiah’s state was Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian eunuch, a man of a race and a condition which the Jews despised. It is pleasant because it shows that at heart and at their best there is no absolute difference or impassable gulf between the races of mankind. All are capable of pity, love, and kindly service. Race-pride makes one branch of humanity think itself superior to every other, and sceptical of the power even of the Gospel to raise the lowest to the level of the highest; and yet there are countless instances of lowest inhumanity in the superior races and most heroic humanity in those counted inferior. The Chinaman makes a brave martyr for the truth of Christ, the negro servants of Livingstone show an incredible heroism of affection, the women of the South Seas are capable of an angelic pity. One of the earliest Gentile converts was an Ethiopian eunuch ( Acts 8:27). There is an admirable thoughtfulness, one may add, in Ebed-melech’s pity; for the method of lifting the prophet out of the dungeon is designed to save him pain as much as possible ( Acts 8:11-12).
(2) The king, having released Jeremiah, is eager for a favourable prophecy. Here was a temptation to a man just out of a horrible pit to say the smooth and pleasing word which would gain him favour. But Jeremiah was prepared to undergo the same horrors rather than prophesy falsely, ‘choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.’ He made reasonable conditions, however, for there was no need to throw away his liberty; and, having secured the king’s promise of safety, proceeded inflexibly to repeat the alternative of submission to the Chaldeans at once, or resistance, and a more abject submission later after the hardships and calamity of a siege. Zedekiah was so weak that he could not protect Jeremiah from his nobles except by keeping the more important part of the interview a secret. The prophet remained in a milder imprisonment until the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
A ROYAL PUPPET
‘And Zedekiah the king said unto Jeremiah, ‘I am afraid.’
I. It is strange to think of the contrast between this reed shaken with the wind, and the stalwart oak, defying every storm, which Jeremiah was.—The prophet stood alone. He stood as adamant against every foe. He held by his testimony. Nothing could shake him. He was not to be bribed nor cajoled, nor terrified into silence. He was a pulpit that all the wealth of the state could not tune. He delivered the same message to the king in secret audience as to the people in public assembly. Yet to that timid, cowering, pithless man he could impart no breath of his own dauntless spirit and iron will. He clings to Jeremiah: he shows him favours: he believes that what the prophet speaks is the word of God, and yet he never has a grain of courage to act according to his counsel.
II. If decision of character be lacking in any man, that indeed is a fatal want.—We habitually underrate the seriousness of such a defect. We so often apologise for a man, saying, ‘There is no evil in him, but he is weak.’ Now in this world, where the forces of evil are so aggressive, where the current flows so fiercely towards evil, where temptation is so insistent, that is a sentence of doom. We are apt to think of such a man as Zedekiah, that if only he had been a private citizen he would have been inoffensive and respectable. He was amiable and religiously inclined, and had nothing vicious in him. He was a weak man in a false position, in a place that before all things else required force of character. He was without conviction, without strength of will, without resolution. Now, we had better awaken to the brutal fact that God does not supply cloisters and sequestered retreats, sheltered from all rough blasts, for such effeminate souls. They are like the rest of us, thrust out into life, and they go under. They cannot swim against the stream. Invertebrate they are, and without force to resist, and the decision ever to say no. The only thing they can do is weakly to yield. Now it follows that such a fatal temperament shuts a man out of the ranks of Christians. Christ’s appeal is always to decision. He puts iron into the blood. He calls us to follow Him, to take up our cross, to deny ourselves. If all we can do or care to do is to go with the crowd, then we cannot have part or lot with Him. It may all the more open our eyes to the evil of this disposition if we follow the career of this last king of Judah, who to his own and his nation’s ruin was cursed with feebleness of will.
‘What a pitiable character is this weak king, shuttle-cocked between stronger wills, sometimes sending for Jeremiah and having secret talks with him, which he is desperately afraid may leak out, sometimes listening to the princes, and then again doing as Ebed-melech urges. There is a dash of bitterness in his answer to the truculent demand for the prophet’s life: “The king is not he that can do anything against you.” Like all weak men, he resents the dominance of the stronger will to which he yields, and yet yields to the dominance which he resents. Poor creature! the times were “out of joint,” and he, certainly, was not the man “to set them right.” So he “hobbled along on both knees,” to use Elijah’s contemptuous simile, and, of course, ruined himself and all that was entrusted to him. Such men always do. This is no world for an irresolute man to make his way in.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Jeremiah 38". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19