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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 38

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Verses 1-4

Jeremiah Accused

Jeremiah, who is now an old man, is imprisoned, but he continues to preach the word of the LORD (Jeremiah 38:1). Among those who hear it and are displeased by it is Pashhur, whom we may have encountered earlier (Jeremiah 20:1-Joshua :; Jeremiah 21:1). Jeremiah’s message is unchanged and reads unabridged that those who remain in the city will die, and those who surrender will live (Jeremiah 38:2). He presents the way of death and of life. For the city will be taken by the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 38:3).

This word does not please these officials (Jeremiah 38:4). The words spoken by Jeremiah have a very demotivating effect on the soldiers, they think. It is clear, they argue, that Jeremiah’s sermons seek not welfare, but calamity for the people. They present themselves as the true patriots, while portraying Jeremiah as someone who is in league with the enemy. This is how it has often been reasoned about men who have brought God’s Word when that Word did not please to the hearers.

How little can worldly Christians understand that true love for God’s people leads to the people being told their sin and shown its dangers. These four accusers also understand nothing of the prophet’s deep sorrow and soul struggle for their sake. Jeremiah is like Paul, who also becomes less loved by the Corinthians the more he loves them (2 Corinthians 12:15).

It is one of the hardest trials for a servant of the Lord when evil is spoken of the good he does. His deep affection is mistaken for evil because he cannot let the people continue to sleep in their sins and therefore raises his warning voice. Yet this is the part of many faithful, God-fearing believers and above all of our Lord Himself. The world speaks well of the false prophet, but the Lord says: “Woe [to you] when all men speak well of you” Luke 6:26).

Verses 5-6

Jeremiah in the Cistern

Zedekiah, as always a weakling, surrenders Jeremiah into the hands of these people, without any offence having been committed by him (Jeremiah 38:5). Zedekiah innocently delivers him into the hands of murderers. He acknowledges to them that he, the king, is in their power. He is a powerless straw man. It does not make him any less guilty, any more than it does later Pilate, who also concedes because he is in the power of the people.

The murderers are also torturers. They throw Jeremiah into the cistern, but do so in such a way that he will die a slow death (Jeremiah 38:6). In utter and almost palpable darkness, Jeremiah slowly sinks into the mud. He will have kept dead still so as not to speed up the process of sinking. This must have been an enormous psychological torture for him. No matter how slow it is, he knows that death is approaching. Death will come more quickly if he does not remain standing and be overcome by fatigue and sleep.

Jeremiah is again a picture of the true Servant of the LORD, the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus preached the Word and was therefore hated. He was thrown by His people “in deep mire” without “foothold” (Psalms 69:2). By God He “brought … up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay” (Psalms 40:1-Exodus :).

Verses 7-13

Deliverance of Jeremiah

Then Ebed-Melech appears on the scene (Jeremiah 38:7) to speak up for Jeremiah. Therefore, we hear of this man, of whom we would never have heard otherwise. We hear of him for the first time here and for the last time in the next chapter. He appears in the hour of Jeremiah’s greatest distress and of the greatest opposition from the people to the man of God. Ebed-Melech means “servant of the king”. In him it is revealed that he is a servant of the most high King.

He is an Ethiopian, a colored person. In the heart of this dark colored stranger burns compassion and sympathy and lives the conviction of the Divine service of Jeremiah. All of this is completely missing from the four accusers who are leaders of God’s people. God finds this servant willing to deliver His prophet. When Ebed-Melech hears what has happened to Jeremiah, he leaves his place of work and goes to the king (Jeremiah 38:8), who is in the Gate of Benjamin to administer justice.

Undaunted, but with tact and wisdom, he speaks to the king that what the men have done to Jeremiah is evil (Jeremiah 38:9). He is careful not to accuse the king, who is after all the main culprit. He points out to Zedekiah that it was not at all necessary to throw Jeremiah into the cistern to make him die, because if he had remained a prisoner in the city, he would have died too. After all, the bread had run out.

In his changeable indecisiveness, Zedekiah orders the Ethiopian Ebed-Melech to take thirty men and bring up Jeremiah from the cistern (Jeremiah 38:10). He also urges Ebed-Melech to hurry, for Jeremiah must be freed before he dies. The king is well aware that he has delivered Jeremiah to death. Perhaps his conscience still speaks somewhat and he now sees an opportunity to appease it. However, there is no confession of his sin in Jeremiah’s condemnation, not even an apology for his so unjust surrender of him into the hands of his officials.

Be that as it may, Ebed-Melech goes straight to work (Jeremiah 38:11). However, he is not tempted by his enthusiasm to go straight to the cistern. He realizes the condition of Jeremiah and what he needs to bring him up out of the cistern of mud in the most painless way possible. Jeremiah will be sucked in. Then ropes under his armpits without soothing cloths will cause tremendous pain. That is why Ebed-Melech first goes “to [a place] beneath the storeroom” to bring from there “worn-out clothes and worn-out rags”, and then uses the ropes to let them down into the cistern.

We may well compare the work with the worn-out clothes to the cup of water given to persecuted people in the Name of the Lord (Mark 9:41). The Lord will not forget to reward that on the day when everything comes into the light. Thus He will not forget to reward Ebed-Melech for what he did to ease Jeremiah’s pain. It is also remarkable with how much emphasis this facet is spoken of in Jeremiah’s deliverance. It is also remarkable that this old, worthless clothing has to come all the way from under the storeroom. Do we have to go so deep to give someone some relief from pain? How important even what is old can be.

How Jeremiah must have looked up, both literally and figuratively, when up there over the edge of the cistern appears the dark head of Ebed-Melech. The voice of Ebed-Melech must have sounded like music to his ears. It is the voice of a deliverer with a message of deliverance with instructions for that deliverance. Ebed-Melech tells Jeremiah to put the worn-out clothes and rags under his armpits and the ropes under them (Jeremiah 38:12). Jeremiah obediently does what Ebed-Melech says.

Then Jeremiah is pulled up from the cistern with the ropes (Jeremiah 38:13). Not all thirty of the king’s men will have pulled on the ropes, but superiors will have helped. It was impossible for Ebed-Melech to do it alone. The other soldiers must have provided protection during this liberation operation. After all, the adversaries can just show up.

The use of the worn-out clothes and rags holds a practical lesson for those who help others who are in need. It is not only a matter of saying the right things, but they must also be said in the right tone and at the right time. Someone who is in need should be treated with gentleness and not with rudeness. Good intentions alone are not enough; wisdom must also be exercised.

Verses 14-23

Zedekiah’s Conversation with Jeremiah

The indecisive Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:14). He wants to know something from him, and Jeremiah doesn’t have to beat around the bush about it. Jeremiah knows the man, how unaccountable he is. This time he first wants assurance that what he is about to say will not lead to his death (Jeremiah 38:15). At the same time he adds that Zedekiah will not listen anyway. This is very clear language. Zedekiah swears to the LORD that he will not put Jeremiah to death or give him over to the men who would love to kill him (Jeremiah 38:16).

After promising that his life will be spared, Jeremiah relays to Zedekiah the words of the LORD (Jeremiah 38:17). Again he places God in all His greatness before this king. The message is still the same. Surrender to the king of Babylon means life for him and his house and preservation of the city. If he does not surrender, the city will fall into the hands of the Chaldeans who will burn it with fire (Jeremiah 38:18). He himself will not escape them either.

Zedekiah is indecisive because he is unwilling to surrender to the LORD. He loves the honor of men more than the LORD. The saying “fear of man [someone] lays a trap” (Proverbs 29:25) applies to him. His argument for not listening is his fear that the already defecting Judeans will mock him (Jeremiah 38:19). He does not think he can bear that shame and therefore he continues to disobey the word of the LORD.

Many put off a decision for the Lord Jesus with such reasons, only to be ultimately rejected by Him. The first to be named among those who will be in hell are “the cowardly” (Revelation 21:8). They are not afraid of God, but of men. They reject God in order not to be rejected by men.

Jeremiah assures him that his premonition is deceiving him and that what he fears will not happen (Jeremiah 38:20). He begs the king to listen to the voice of the LORD anyway and points out the good it will bring him. It is his last chance. If he does not listen, he has another message (Jeremiah 38:21). Jeremiah unflinchingly presents Zedekiah with what awaits him then. His wives will be carried off (Jeremiah 38:22). They will scold him for deceiving them and as a result his feet will sink in the mire. All solid ground under his feet will disappear.

His whole family will be taken away (Jeremiah 38:23). He himself will not escape. The escape attempt he will make will fail. The king of Babylon will seize him and Jerusalem will go up in flames. That is what awaits him if he does not listen. It is the last word the prophet spoke to Zedekiah in great earnestness and with love for the city, the people and the king. But it is in vain.

Verses 24-28

Questions of the Officials

When Jeremiah is finished speaking, Zedekiah tells him not to speak to anyone about it (Jeremiah 38:24). If Jeremiah complies, he will not die. The weakling misses the opportunity to be saved and to save the city. The only thing he fears are the people who surround him (Jeremiah 38:25). From that side he foresees problems and he wants to cover himself against them. That he has to deal with the eternal God, he ignores. He knows his officials and knows that they will ask Jeremiah what he has discussed with him. They will threaten Jeremiah with death if he does not tell.

Zedekiah puts into Jeremiah’s mouth what he should answer the officials (Jeremiah 38:26). All he has to say to the officials is that he has asked that they no longer have to go to Jonathan’s house to die there. Jeremiah also asked that, though not in this but in their first interview (Jeremiah 37:20). Zedekiah has correctly assessed the action of the officials. They come to Jeremiah and question him about the interview he had with Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:27). Jeremiah answers with the words the king said to him. With that, the officials are satisfied and they leave Jeremiah alone. Jeremiah spends the rest of his days in the court of the guardhouse until the day that Jerusalem is captured (Jeremiah 38:28).

The sentence, “stayed in the court of the guardhouse until the day that Jerusalem was captured”, shows that he is still alive at that moment, which is evidence of God’s faithfulness to him. God proves that He preserves those who trust in His promise of preservation and are obedient to His Word. Not every believer receives the pledge of preservation from sickness or death. Every believer does receive the promise of the Lord that He will not put to shame the trust placed in Him.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Jeremiah 38". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/jeremiah-38.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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