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Zedekiah’s last dealings with Jeremiah ch. 38
Some scholars regard chapter 38 as a retelling of the event just narrated in chapter 37. There is some precedent for such a practice in this book. There are two accounts of Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon (chs. 7 and 26) and perhaps two accounts of Jeremiah’s release by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 38:28 b; Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:14 and Jeremiah 39:11-12; Jeremiah 40:1-6). However, it is also plausible that Jeremiah had to endure two similar imprisonments, or even more than two. I believe that this chapter records a different, albeit similar, and subsequent incident, because of the differences in the two accounts.
Four prominent men in Jerusalem heard Jeremiah preaching that anyone who remained in Jerusalem would die, but those who surrendered to the Chaldeans would live. He prophesied, apparently at this time from the court of the guardhouse (Jeremiah 37:21), that Jerusalem would certainly fall to the Babylonians.
Gedaliah may have been the son of the Pashhur who beat Jeremiah and placed him in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:1-6). "Jucal" was probably the Jehucal who visited Jeremiah during the temporary withdrawal of the Babylonians (Jeremiah 37:3). Pashhur ben Malchijah also visited Jeremiah at the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in 588 B.C. (Jeremiah 21:1).
The plot to arrest Jeremiah 38:1-6
These nobles complained to Zedekiah that Jeremiah was weakening the morale of the soldiers and discouraging the people from resisting the enemy. They accused the prophet of desiring to harm the people, rather than seeking their well-being. This was a seditious thing to do, and Jeremiah could have been put to death if his accusers proved him guilty of treason.
"It was ironical . . . that the leaders who had played the traitor against Babylon, their overlord, were such sticklers for internal loyalty, and that they should profess concern for the peace and welfare (shalom, Jeremiah 38:4 b) of the citizens whom they insisted on sacrificing." [Note: Kidner, p. 124.]
Zedekiah turned Jeremiah over to the nobles. He claimed he could not overrule their will. Obviously he should have stood up for Jeremiah, but he feared his state officials (cf. Jeremiah 38:25-27). He was an early-day Pontius Pilate who washed his hands of his responsibility (cf. Matthew 27:24).
The nobles had Jeremiah placed in a cistern of one of the royal princes, Malchijah, which was in the court of the guardhouse. Jeremiah had previously been confined in this court or stockade (Jeremiah 37:21), but now he was lowered into the cistern with ropes. The cistern had no water in it, but the bottom was very muddy, and Jeremiah sank into the mud. The nobles wanted him to die there of "natural causes," i.e., hunger-probably to alleviate their guilt (cf. Genesis 37:18-20; Genesis 37:24; Genesis 37:26-27).
"A typical cistern was dug out of limestone rock and consisted of a narrow neck perhaps three feet across and three or four feet in depth opening into a much longer bulbous cavity of varying depth. Water from catchment areas was directed to the opening." [Note: Thompson, p. 638.]
A courtier in the palace, Ebed-melech (lit. "servant of the king"), heard about Jeremiah’s plight. He happened to be an Ethiopian or Cushite (from modern-day southern Egypt, northeastern Sudan, Eritrea, and northern Ethiopia). [Note: See J. Daniel Hays, "The Cushites: A Black Nation in the Bible," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:612 (October-December 1996):404-6.] Often courtiers were eunuchs, but the Hebrew word translated "eunuch" here, saris, often means simply a male court official (cf. Jeremiah 29:2; Genesis 39:1; Daniel 1:7; et al.). Ebed-melech sought out the king, who was then at the Benjamin Gate, to speak to him. Kings went to city gates to hear complaints from their citizens (cf. 2 Samuel 15:2-4), so Ebed-melech went there with his complaint.
". . . only a despised foreigner cared enough for the prophet to risk trouble in saving him (cf. Jeremiah 39:15-18)." [Note: Graybill, p. 683. Compare the foreigner who carried Jesus’ cross, Simon of Cyrene, also from Africa.]
Jeremiah’s rescue from the cistern 38:7-13
Ebed-melech informed the king that Jeremiah’s enemies had acted wickedly by putting him in the cistern. The prophet would die if he remained there because there was no more food in Jerusalem and he would be neglected. Zedekiah had previously promised to provide food for Jeremiah as long as there was food available (Jeremiah 37:21), so Ebed-melech may have been appealing to this promise.
"God, as is His way so often, used an insignificant person to touch off Jeremiah’s rescue." [Note: Jensen, p. 100.]
Zedekiah authorized Ebed-melech to use 30 of the eunuch’s own men to extract Jeremiah from the cistern. [Note: The Septuagint and one ancient Hebrew manuscript have "three" instead of "30," but 30 is probably correct.] Evidently Zedekiah expected that Ebed-melech might encounter some opposition and would need a lot of manpower.
Ebed-melech assembled his men and gathered together old clothes and rags from the palace wardrobe storeroom and let them down by ropes to Jeremiah.
The Ethiopian then told Jeremiah to use the clothes to cushion the ropes that he was to put under his armpits. Jeremiah did this, and the men were able to pull the prophet out of the mucky cistern. However, he remained confined in the court of the guardhouse.
Shortly after this event, Zedekiah had Jeremiah brought to him at one of the temple entrances, possibly the king’s private entrance (cf. 2 Kings 16:18). He told the prophet that he was going to ask him a question and he wanted a straight answer.
Zedekiah’s last interview with Jeremiah 38:14-28
Jeremiah replied that if he did give the king a straight answer, Zedekiah would execute him and disregard what he said.
The king swore to Jeremiah, by the living Lord who gave life, that he would neither kill him nor turn him over to his enemies-who were plotting to kill him. The implication of this oath was that since Yahweh gives life, He could take Zedekiah’s life if he proved unfaithful to his word.
We do not know what Zedekiah’s question was, but it must have been: "Has the Lord changed His mind?" No, He had not, but Zedekiah needed to change his. Jeremiah promised the king on the authority of Almighty Yahweh, Israel’s God, that if he surrendered to the Babylonian military officers, he would live. Furthermore, they would not burn down the city, and his whole household would survive. This must have seemed like a very unlikely possibility to Zedekiah since he had proved to be a rebellious vassal of Nebuchadnezzar. Suzerains usually mutilated and killed rebel kings who surrendered to them. [Note: Harrison, Jeremiah and . . ., p. 156.] Ironically, Chaldean officials would have spared Zedekiah’s life, but Judean officials were seeking to snuff out Jeremiah’s life.
If Zedekiah did not surrender, the Chaldeans would capture the city and burn it, and the king would not escape.
Zedekiah admitted that he feared the Jews who had already surrendered. He feared that if he surrendered, the Babylonians would turn him over to those Jews, and they would torture him.
Jeremiah assured him that what he feared would not happen if he surrendered. He also urged the king to obey the Lord and surrender, so that things would go well with him.
If Zedekiah kept refusing to give himself up, the Lord promised that all the women in the palace would end up as the property of the enemy officers. It was customary for a conquering king to take over the harem of his defeated foe (cf. 2 Samuel 16:21-22). These women would curse Zedekiah for allowing his friends to mislead him. They would use the words-that Jeremiah here composed or perhaps quoted from a traditional song-about being betrayed and deserted by friends (cf. Jeremiah 20:10; Psalms 41:9; Psalms 69:14; Obadiah 1:7). While the king delayed, his officers would get away. What had happened to Jeremiah physically (Jeremiah 38:6) would happen to Zedekiah politically, militarily, and spiritually: both were stuck in the mud.
Moreover, all the family members of Zedekiah would fall into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar-along with himself-and the Babylonian king would burn the city.
Zedekiah made Jeremiah promise that he would not tell anyone that they had had this conversation. If he kept it a secret, the prophet could live.
If Zedekiah’s nobles asked Jeremiah what he and the king had talked about, he was to say that he had asked the king not to send him back to the house of Jonathan because he would die there. He had asked the king not to return him there earlier (Jeremiah 37:20).
Sure enough, the state officials asked Jeremiah about his conversation with the king, but Jeremiah responded as Zedekiah had instructed him. He only told the nobles what was necessary and no more.
Zedekiah kept his word to Jeremiah, who was able to stay in the court of the guardhouse until the city fell to the Babylonians.
"Nothing is more marked throughout all this story than the absolute and unswerving loyalty of Jeremiah to the message of judgment which he was called on to deliver." [Note: Morgan, p. 334.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Jeremiah 38". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
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