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The object of the princes being frustrated (for in the "court of the guard" Jeremiah had perfect freedom and opportunity of speech), the princes resolve upon a more effectual means of stopping the prophet's mouth. He is thrown into a miry pit, with the object that he may die of starvation.
Two Pashurs appear to be mentioned here: one probably the same who put Jeremiah in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:1, Jeremiah 20:2); the other a member of the first of Zedekiah's two embassies to the prophet (Jeremiah 21:1). On Jucal, see Jeremiah 37:3. Had spoken; rather, kept speaking.
Jeremiah 38:2, Jeremiah 38:3
He that remaineth, etc. Jeremiah repeats what he had said to Zedekiah's embassy in Jeremiah 21:9, Jeremiah 21:10.
For thus; literally, for therefore; i.e. because he is left in impunity (camp. the use of the phrase in Jeremiah 29:28). He weakeneth the hands of the men of war; i.e. he dispirits them. It is important to get this "outside view" of the preaching of Jeremiah. There is evidently some excuse for the opponents of Jeremiah. It was a matter of life and death to resist the Chaldeans, and Jeremiah was, according to the politicians, playing into the hands of the enemy (see further in general Introduction). The addition of the words, that remain, shows that the bitter end of the resistance was fast approaching.
He is in your hand. The growing power of the "princes" (see on Jeremiah 22:4) seems to have confined the king to a merely secondary role.
The dungeon; more literally, the cistern. "Every house in Jerusalem was supplied with a subterranean cistern, so well constructed that we never read of the city suffering in a siege from want of water" (Dr. Payne Smith). A grotto bearing the name of Jeremiah has been shown at Jerusalem since the fifteenth century. Under its floor are vast cisterns, the deepest of which professes to be the prison into which the prophet was thrown. The objection is that the sacred narrative proves that the prison was in the city, whereas "the present grotto was not included within the walls until the time of Herod Agrippa". The son of Hammelech; rather, a royal prince (as Jeremiah 36:26).
Ebed-melech the Ethiopian. The name means "the king's slave." Ebers remarks that the eunuchs employed in the modern East are nearly all negroes, on whom the shameful operation has been performed by Copts in Upper Egypt. Zedekiah's harem is referred to in Jeremiah 38:22, Jeremiah 38:23.
For there is no more bread in the city. It would almost seem as if the little remaining bread had been brought together by command of the magistrates, and that it was given out in rations by them (comp. Jeremiah 37:21).
Thirty men. Why so many were sent is not clear. Are we to suppose that the princes would resist Jeremiah's release? But "the king is not he," etc. (verse 5). Is it not a scribe's error for "three" (so Ewald, Hitzig, and Graf)?
Under the treasury; rather, to (a room) under the treasury. Old cast clouts, etc.; literally, rags of torn garments and rags of worn-out garments.
The third entry. What this means exactly is not clear; probably the "entry" led from the palace to the temple. It must have been a private place, else it would not have been chosen for this interview. I will ask thee a thing; rather, I will ask of thee a word; i.e. a revelation from Jehovah (comp. Jeremiah 37:17).
Wilt thou not hearken; rather, thou wilt not hearken.
That made us this soul. A very unusual formula (comp. Isaiah 57:16).
The king of Babylon's princes. Nebuchadnezzar himself was in Riblah (Jeremiah 39:5).
All the women that are left; i.e. probably the wives of Zedekiah's royal predecessors, who had passed into his own harem as concubines. Even Hezekiah, as Payne Smith well points out, had a numerous harem ('Records of the Past,' 1:39, where "daughters" is equivalent to "girls"). Zedekiah's own wives are spoken of in the next verse. Thy friends have set thee on, etc. The first half of this taunting song (mashal) reminds of Obadiah 1:7 (for other points of contact with Obadiah, see on Jeremiah 49:7-22). The meaning is that, after urging the weak-minded Zedekiah on to a conflict with the Chaldeans, they have left him involved in hopeless difficulties.
So they, etc.; rather, and they, etc. The women spoken of are different from those in Jeremiah 38:22. Thou shalt cause this city to be burned. The literal rendering is, Thou shalt burn this city; but the Septuagint, Peshito, and Targum have "As for this city it shall be burned," which suits the parallelism better.
He told them according to all these words. A controversy has arisen as to whether Jeremiah was justified in concealing the truth. But is a man bound to confess the truth to a murderer?
And he was there when, etc. The words, of which this is an incorrect version, ought to begin the first verse of the next chapter. Render (with Coverdale), And it came to pass when Jerusalem was taken (in the ninth year of Zedekiah came Nebuchadrezzar, etc.; in the eleventh year …the city was cleft open) that all the princes, etc. The correctness of the reading is, however, open to some doubt (see introduction to next chapter)
Jeremiah in the pit.
I. JEREMIAH PREACHES FAITHFULLY. (Verses 2, 5.)
His conduct is wise, brave, and noble. On the surface it savours of pusillanimity. But so much the greater the wisdom and courage that inspire it. Personally Jeremiah is in greater danger from his fellow citizens than from the invaders. To rouse the anger of the people amongst whom he is living by apparently favouring the plans of their enemies requires no little firmness of character. Moreover, strong moral courage is requisite for such a course as that of Jeremiah's. His patriotism is certain to be taken for treachery, his wisdom for cowardice. He stands alone with his unpopular advice, sure that it will not be followed, sure that his motives will be misunderstood and his character maligned. To a sensitive man the situation would be exquisitely painful. Fidelity under it reveals a noble courage. Thus we see how the bravest man may be he who appears to be most weak, while the rash and boastful daring that rushes heedlessly with the multitude but shrinks from a course of unpopularity, is really feeble and cowardly.
II. THE PRINCES ARE ALARMED. (Verse 4.) They have some reason to dread the effect of Jeremiah's preaching upon the defence of Jerusalem. If they are certain of the wisdom of the course they are pursuing, it is difficult to see how they can regard the prophet with anything less than dismay. Every time his Cassandra notes are heard in the streets it seems as though disaffection were being urged upon the people. The mistake of the princes is in being so wedded to their policy as never to consider the advice of Jeremiah as of any weight and wisdom. Thus we judge and condemn men with absolute certainty to our own mind, but often only because we assume, without reason, the infallibility of our own position.
III. THE KING WEAKLY YIELDS. (Verse 5.) Zedekiah is helpless in the hands of his courtiers. Like Pilate, he thinks to throw off all responsibility on the accusers whom he dare not oppose (John 18:31). But he cannot do this. His weakness is culpable. He is not like a constitutional monarch, legally fettered by a responsible ministry. He is by position a responsible ruler. If he cannot discharge the functions of his position, he should abdicate. In no case is he justified in lending the weight of his name to a deed of which he does not approve. We cannot free ourselves from responsibility by declining to act when it is our duty to interfere and prevent a wrong from being done.
IV. JEREMIAH IS CAST INTO THE PIT. (Verse 6.)
1. The action of the courtiers is cruel They treat the prophet with needless indignity and evidently design for him the slow torture of a death by starvation.
2. It is also cowardly. They dare not execute him openly. The horrible fate is assigned to him because it is less dangerous to themselves.
3. The prophet is now in the lowest condition of wretchedness, down in the pit, sunk in the mire, left in that cold, dark solitude to the horrors of approaching starvation. Those of us who are ready to murmur at slighter trouble should remember how much better men than we have had to endure far greater suffering and humiliation than ours. What shame and agony were heaped upon Christ the Son of God!
V. THE ETHIOPIAN INTERCEDES. (Verses 7-9.)
1. This man was a heathen by nation, but a good man. Character, not profession, is the one thing of significance with all of us.
2. He was a man of an apparently inferior race. It is better to have a black skin and a humane heart than a white skin and a black heart.
3. He was regarded as an effeminate creature. True manliness belongs to our conduct, not to our appearance and manners. God raises up friends in the most unlikely quarters. One of the advantages of trouble is that it reveals unknown friends.
VI. JEREMIAH IS DELIVERED. The weak king only wants the encouragement of his chamberlain to do an act of justice which his own conscience must have urged him to all along. When the distress and danger of Jeremiah are vividly brought before him, he rouses himself. Many people are too weak to do their duty till their imagination and feelings are wrought upon. They live in comfortable indifference to the wretchedness of others simply because they have not been made to feel it. They are not to be excused on this account. But knowing the fact, we should do more to make the needs of the poor, the sick, and the heathen felt by the indifferent who ought to help them. A higher providence leads to the deliverance of Jeremiah. God watches over him in the dungeon, and God sees that he is saved from it. So God will save his people from all their troubles, though in some cases the minister of deliverance is that dark angel of death whose advent the miserable in Andrea Orcagna's picture at Pisa welcome with joy.
The apparent misanthropy of revelation.
The political aspect of these words is evident; let us now consider their moral bearings: The inspired prophet of God is taken for an enemy of his neighbours. The experience of Jeremiah is not without parallel, nor is it wanting in certain reasonable grounds of justification.
I. THERE ARE THINGS IN REVELATION WHICH APPEAR TO INDICATE MISANTHROPY. When God utters his voice he does not always speak in dulcet notes. We may hear harsh, grating thunders of Sinai. The message is not always pleasant. It makes us feel uncomfortable, exposes our worst characteristics, and has no pity on our little contrivances for putting the best face on our conduct. It stays our hand in many a favourite occupation. It cries "vanity of vanities" to our pet schemes. It puts a veto on our proud ambition. It frowns at much of our pleasure. For the future it threatens judgment and hitter penalties. When we fancy we have found some neat plan of escape, it exposes the rottenness of our hope and plunges us for the moment into blank despair. Such is the work of certain parts of revelation, and being so, it is not unnaturally regarded by some as misanthropic. Bearing this fact in mind, we must not be surprised at the aversion that the irreligious feel to religion. Judging from this standpoint, they may regard their best friend as their enemy, and imagine that the angry voice of God indicates nothing but his settled wrath against them.
II. THIS MISANTHROPY IS ONLY APPARENT. Jeremiah was the best friend of Jerusalem, and the fanatical leaders of resistance her most fatal foes. His advice was really wise and patriotic. The Bible, which to some is a gloomy Book, darkening the aspect of human life, contains the secret of its true blessedness. The religion of the Bible may be sombre in the eyes of some when compared with the sunny religion of Greece. But the Hellenic faith could not save its followers from utter moral corruption and ruin. Through the sterner faith of the Jew and the Christian we are led to that one satisfying brightness of life which comes from the rising upon us of the Sun of righteousness. We must judge of words by their aim, not by their sound. The Bible contains threats of terrible doom, hut as we discover the purpose of them we see that they are not curses but warnings. God often opposes us, stays our course, puts up the red signal, only to save us from rushing to some fatal calamity. Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Savonarola, and John Knox were regarded by their contemporaries as misanthropic. Now we see that they were the salt of the earth, true saviours of society. Even Christ uttered words which might seem to indicate misanthropy, but all with the intention of leading men to escape from the evils he deplored and find salvation in his grace.
Old cast clouts and old rotten rags.
I. THERE IS A USE FOR EVERYTHING. These rags were possibly thrown aside as useless. Yet they were found to serve a distinct purpose. Amongst the wonderful combinations of invention and economy in the present day, none are more remarkable than those which turn waste materials to serviceable ends. There is a mission forevery life. No man is so low, so worn, so worthless, but that he may find some way in which to serve God and his fellows. If a rag has a mission, shall a soul find none?
II. IF WE CANNOT ATTAIN THE HIGHEST OBJECT AIMED AT, WE SHOULD NOT NEGLECT THAT WHICH IS WITHIN OUR REACH. The rags may once have been prince's robes. Now they are only fit for the lowest uses. Then let them be so used. There is an impractical idealism which paralyzes all effort. Because a thing cannot be turned to the highest account we will not use it at all. So there are those who refuse to do anything because they can do nothing very great, or who, being compelled to give up a work of honour, are too proud to undertake a more lowly task. We should remember Goethe's maxim, "Do the thing that lieth nearest thee." Thus a useful rag may be a rebuke to a useless man.
III. THE GREATEST MAN MAY HAVE NEED OF THE MOST COMMONPLACE APPLIANCES. A prophet finds comfort from a rag. We are none of us emancipated from relation to the lowest things. This should humble those who make the dignity of their nature a reason for despising the offices of lowly things and persons. It should encourage those who have but small means. They may be of material comfort to some far above them. Great and small, we are linked together for our mutual helpfulness.
IV. DEEDS OF KINDNESS SHOULD BE PERFORMED IN A KIND MANNER. Carelessness and roughness of demeanour may spoil half the effect of the most well meant offices of charity. There are philanthropists who would lift the prisoner from the pit, but with hard, coarse ropes, without any consideration for his sore and, weary body. The purpose is gracious, but the manner is brutal. Christians should not be mere part ons, wounding the feelings of those whom they help in other respects, but the brethren of the distressed, aiding them carefully, gently, courteously. This is the manner of God's great deliverance of mankind; it is by a Saviour who "shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench" (Isaiah 42:2, Isaiah 42:3).
The fear of ridicule.
I. THE FEAR OF RIDICULE IS A COMMON FAILING OF WEAK MEN. Zedekiah is a weak man. His first thought when he contemplates the possible effects of obedience to the Divine command is that it may result in his being delivered into the hands of the captives at Babylon to be mocked by them (Jeremiah 38:17). This he dreads above all things. Many men who would stand up without flinching to be shot at cower before a laugh. Let them understand that their conduct is weak and foolish and wrong.
II. THE FEAR OF RIDICULE IS A FREQUENT CAUSE OF NEGLECT OF DUTY. This is one of the chief weapons of persecution and temptation exercised in our own day. The rack and the stake are out of fashion; the sneer and the gibe have taken their place. Milton's Satan has been superseded by Goethe's Mephistopheles. The young are specially sensitive to ridicule. They especially should seek grace from God to stand firm against it.
III. THE FEAR OF RIDICULE PROVOKES RIDICULE. Jeremiah showed the king that disobedience coming out of his dread of being mocked would result in worse mockery. Fearing the laughter of captive soldiers, he would be mocked by women; dreading the contempt of strangers, he should meet with that of his own house (verse 22). Face a laugh, and you foil its spiteful intention; quail before it, and you give it the victory and furnish occasion for fresh contempt. The young man who sneaks away from his religious principles because his companions in business laugh at him for them is only despised for his contemptible weakness, while that young man who quietly holds his ground unmoved by senseless ridicule wins the secret respect of observers, and makes them inwardly ashamed of their folly.
IV. THE FEAR OF RIDICULE MAY END IN FATAL RESULTS. Jeremiah pointed this out to the king (verse 23). The horrible charge of having brought about the burning of the city would be attached to his name, and the guilt of it to his soul. Here was a far greater cause of alarm than the danger of a laugh. Weak men who are moved by such contemptible motives as those that influenced Zedekiah should be roused by a rude shock, if that is necessary, for them to see the dread and solemn issues of life and the fearful evils they may evoke while trifling with duty in childish timidity.
V. IT IS OUR DUTY TO CONQUER THE FEAR OF RIDICULE BY FAITHFUL OBEDIENCE TO THE WILL OF GOD. Here lies the remedy (verse 20). To some this fear is keen and almost irresistible. But it is wholly selfish. It is associated with morbid, self-regarding thoughts. If we realize the idea that God is speaking to us and watching us, all ideas of the thoughts of men about us should sink to the dust. With earnest convictions of duty and true efforts of obedience inspired by the grace of Christ, which is sufficient for us, we may brave this thorn in the flesh—the fear of man that bringeth a snare,
The blessedness of. obedience.
Jeremiah entreats Zedekiah to obey the voice of God urging him with promises of deliverance. Note here—
I. THE ENTREATY. Jeremiah says, "I beseech thee." This is characteristic of the kindliness and earnestness of the prophet. It is also indicative of the character of God who inspired him. With St. Paul he might have said, "We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating you by us; we beseech you on behalf of Christ,… be ye reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20). This Divine entreaty signifies
(1) earnestness—God truly desires our good;
(2) kindliness and sympathy;
(3) condescension; and
(4) the greatness of the issues at stake.
II. THE DUTY.
1. This is obedience, the cardinal duty of the Old Testament. The importance of this duty in the New Testament has been underrated. There, too, it takes a first place in the teaching of Christ (John 15:14) and of his apostles—St. Paul (Romans 2:8), St, Peter (1 Peter 3:1), St. John (1 John 3:24), and St. James (James 1:22). Indeed, all religion consists in submission (passive faith) and obedience (active faith).
2. Such obedience must be implicit. Zedekiah did not understand the reason of the Divine command. To carry it out was unpalatable to him and his people. But once we know God's will, questions of mystery and of inclination should not affect us. In the gospel dispensation obedience is more intelligent. We have spiritual principles in place of formal precepts, Yet here also there is often mystery and fear as to the results of obedience, and then our duty is the soldier's duty of unquestioning obedience.
"Theirs not to reason why;
Theirs but to do and die."
III. THE CLAIM.
1. It rests on the will of God. The king is to obey the voice of God. The monkish duty of obedience stayed with the ecclesiastical superior. But the spiritual Christian must feel that he owes his supreme allegiance directly to God. Our King and Father commands. We must obey his will.
2. It is determined by the revelation of the will of God. The obedience is to be given to the voice as it is made known by the prophet. "Which I speak unto thee." We are only responsible for obedience to God's will as far as he has revealed it to us. But we cannot plead total ignorance of his will. That has been declared by prophets and apostles, manifested in Christ, confirmed by the Spirit of God in our conscience.
IV. THE PROMISE.
1. Whatever happens. "It shall be well"—a vague promise, but sufficient. We cannot tell what is well for us. The thing God sends may not seem good as it approaches. But in the result it shall be well. That is enough for faith.
2. Life is secured. "And thy soul shall live." What is the use of the preservation of our possessions if our life is taken? Men toil for earthly gain and forget that the one condition of enjoying it may go at any moment. Life in the highest sense, eternal life, is the full reward for obedience.
HOMILIES BY A.F. MUIR
Foreshadowings and analogies of the cross.
The pitiable fate of Jeremiah, so uncalled for and unexpected both in its inflictions and deliverances, the light and shade so strongly contrasted, become charged as we proceed with a certain suggestiveness of something unspeakably greater yet to come. In other words, Jeremiah is perceived to be not only a prophet, but a type of Christ. The charge of treason, the defiance of legal safeguards and requirements by the princes, the wavering and helplessness of the king, the living death in the miry dungeon, and the resurrection through the kind aid of Ebed-Melech, are types of the most unmistakable kind of the characteristic redemptive experiences of the Man of sorrows. And this is only one out of many proofs that human history, especially sacred history, betrays a system of correspondence in its events with those which constituted the earthly experience of the Messiah.
I. THEY CALL ATTENTION TO THE MANIFESTATION OF CHRIST AND HELP TO FIX AND IDENTIFY IT. All along the line of Old Testament revelation there were these finger posts or indicators of the coming struggle between righteousness and sin. The cross is closely associated with the very first pages of revelation, and gives meaning and connection to the loftiest, deepest, and most anomalous utterances and occurrences of the Old Testament. With its many anticipations, echoes, and secondaries, the cross of Christ asserts itself as the central and most commanding principle of human history.
II. THEY REVEAL THE SAME LAW OPERATING THROUGHOUT THE WORLD'S HISTORY AND HUMAN EXPERIENCE. Prehistoric myths and heathen religions, although incapable of attaining to such a Divine conception, yet presuppose and grope after it. And in many an illustrious and obscure human consciousness had the cross made its impress ere the Redeemer of mankind was called upon to suffer.
1. They proved the necessity of Christ's sufferings. As the true character of the issue between good and evil declared itself more and more plainly, it became evident that some more decisive determination of it must take place. Each previous or subsequent experience of the conflict is indecisive and incomplete apart from the Messianic sufferings. Christ must needs suffer, if only to bring to a head and final settlement the long pending question as to whether good or evil is the true law of human life and of the world. It was no accidental, abnormal series of occurrences that constituted our Saviours experience, but the culmination of ages of mutual development in the forces of righteousness and sin, and the true exponent of their respective characters and tendencies.
2. They helped go deepen and educate the spiritual sense of men, and to prepare them for a true appreciation of the mystery of the cross. It is the cross in us that leads us to the cross without. The deep tribulation of the saints of the early Church led them to more profound conceptions of moral action and spiritual requirement. Jeremiah was here a type of Judah, the feet of whose king were" in the mire" (verse 22). Each occasion like this of Jeremiah's condemnation and imprisonment was a loud warning of the possibilities of evil that were still in the womb of time, and showed the direction of the tendency of the world spirit. It showed, too, how closely related was the life of men with the unseen and the eternal. A moral order behind the chain of events was continually declaring itself. Its very peculiarities and anomalies demonstrated the existence of a higher law. The awful depths and heights yet to be attained by the moral nature of man were suggested, and the certainty gradually induced that the kingdom of light would yet meet and overcome the force of the kingdom of darkness. The faith, obedience, and meekness of man would yet be vindicated by the invincible power and authority of God.—M.
Ebed-Melech; or, unlooked for sympathy and help.
I. ITS CIRCUMSTANCES. These were such as to impress the mind of the prophet. He was deliberately consigned by the princes of the people to the dungeon, and the king consented, so that there would appear to be no appeal. His heart must have failed him as he felt himself sinking in the mire. In a prison like that he was in imminent danger of being forgotten and starved. Apparently it was intended as an effectual means of "putting out of the way." And all this was due to what? Doing his duty. The very persons whom he sought to benefit either turned against or ignored him. The whole situation was desperate. It appeared as if no human help could save. It is just at such times that faith receives its confirming, ultimate lessons.
II. ITS CHARACTER.
1. In itself. It Was:
(1) Thoughtful. It has been suggested that, as the dungeon was in the palace, "he came to the knowledge of it by hearing Jeremiah's moans." This may or may not have been; but when he knew of the situation of the prophet he was concerned and full of sympathy. It is this spirit which true religion, and especially the gospel of Christ, ever fosters, and the world has need of it.
(2) Prompt. In a question like that of a few hours at the utmost, no delay had to be made if the prisoner was to be saved. As the king was "then sitting in the gate of Benjamin," he went out immediately and sought an audience. And he urged expedition. One of the finest recommendations of help is that it is given when it is needed. The case is taken up as if it were his own. How many philanthropies miss fire because they are kept too long without being carried into effect? Bis dat qui cito dat.
(3) Courageous. He went straight to the king, by whose order he must have known the thing had been done, and spoke with quick, nervous fearlessness and condemnation. There was not only feeling here, but principle. He was evidently careless as to the consequences to himself.
(4) Practical. Ebed-Melech meant that the thing should be done, and so he took the requisite steps to carry it out. Everything is thought Of and applied to the purpose. Even in the "old cast clouts" there is evidence of forethought and careful, if novel, application of means to ends.
2. In its origin. Ebed-Melech was:
(1) An alien. A negro, and not a Jew, and one from his office disqualified from participating in the benefits of the covenant. It is the more remarkable that none of Jeremiah's countrymen interposed.
(2) A servant of a vicious king. The establishments of such princes are usually stamped with the same character, and their members are but the creatures of their masters. There is something doubly unlooked for, therefore, in such an advocate and friend. It is like a salutation from one of "Caesar's household."
(3) It is also probable that he was one called out by the occasion. No mention of him is made either before or after.
III. WHAT IT TEACHES.
1. True religion does not depend upon conventional forms. Not that these are therefore without value, but they are not of the essence of religion. It is Divine faith, with its outflowing charities and works, that alone can save man and glorify God. Rahab the harlot and Naaman the Syrian are but instances of many for really outside of the kingdom of God, but really within it. Let each ask, "Am I, who have received so much privilege, really a child of grace?"
2. The kingdom of God is always stronger than it seems. As to Elijah the assurance," Yet I have left me seven, thousand, in Israel," so to Jeremiah is this experience. We are never justified in despairing of human nature if God be in his world.
3. Implicit trust in God as the only Saviour. The raising up of such a deliverer was so unique and unexpected as to call attention to it as a work of God, It was supernatural and special, and spoke of gracious intervention. He would not abandon his servant, nor will he any who put their trust in him.—M.
Jeremiah 38:11, Jeremiah 38:12
Old cast clouts.
This incident is very vividly described; and "the touch of human kindliness in the good negro's direction to Jeremiah to put under his armpits the soft rags thrown down to him, to prevent the chafing of the cords which drew him up, is inimitably natural." The sharp cords would otherwise have cut him so severely as to render his elevation exceedingly painful, if not practically impossible. To how many conflicting thoughts and feelings do these rags, brought from the king's house under the treasury, not give rise? What vicissitudes must they have passed through! Now, after they have been cast aside as useless, a new, unthought of use is suddenly discovered for them. Rags it may be of royal garments used in stately pageants; was not even this a kingly service to which they were put?
I. OF HOW EXQUISITE A SYMPATHY WERE THEY THE EXPRESSION! The whole situation of the prophet had been thoroughly entered into and grasped by his friend. He is not satisfied with merely drawing him up; he will do this in the gentlest and most considerate way. It is thinking of these little things that shows the depth of our sympathy for others. They are specially remembered and sought out, and are brought forward with as much care as the thirty men.
1. Our good deeds should not be half conceived or badly executed. "What is worth doing is worth doing well."
2. Where there is a real desire to be kind and helpful, the means will be discovered. We scarcely know whether to admire the most the kindliness or the ingenuity of Ebed-Melech.
3. A true sentiment will dispose of false scruples. Rags! Well, they were best fitted of anything at hand to effect the purpose in view. There was no time to settle the question of the niceties. Much loving and useful work is never done because of such scruples. The servants of God cannot often work in kid gloves.
4. The dignity of a thing consists in the use to which it is put. These rags served the best of purposes, and are worthy of all honour, There is nothing God has made but has some gracious use it we but seek for it.
II. THROUGH WHAT HUMILIATIONS ARE GOD'S SERVANTS DELIVERED! As if the mire and helplessness were not enough! To an unspiritual perception it would appear almost an uncalled for indignity to inflict the rags upon the prophet of God. But they were necessary. And so is it with all the God sent humiliations of life. They are intended to subdue pride, exercise faith, and reveal the hidden grace and power of God.
III. THERE ARE DIVINE USES FOR MEAN THINGS AND THINGS CAST ASIDE. God, who made all things, can see a thousand adaptations and utilities for that which man supposes has been used up. Are there not weapons in the King's armoury that have been allowed to rust when they might have done good service? talents that have been hid in a napkin when they should have been at usury? There need be no idle members in the King's household. He takes out of his treasury things new and old, and calls upon the blind, the halt, the maimed, the aged, the poor, the ignorant, to do him honour and service. "But I have no talents in that direction," etc. Yet God can use you if you will ask him. He will regenerate you by using you; purify you of all the moral dross and filth that adhere to you; and develop higher faculties and a diviner serviceableness, if you will but let him. There were kingly robes in Judah that day that had not a tithe of the honour of these "old rotten rags;" and there are great, wise, and noble who will have to give place in the day of judgment to the weak things, and things which have been despised (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).—M.
God's terms of salvation hard.
I. IN WHAT THEY ARE HARD.
1. They attack our pride. Zedekiah was afraid of the mockery of "the Jews that are fallen to the Chaldeans." He did not like to acknowledge himself in error. There was no glory in surrender. Pride is one of the first hindrances to salvation. We want to be our own saviours.
2. They crush self-will. "Not as I will, but as thou wilt"—the first and last prayer of the true child of God. It was not Zedekiah's plan, and contradicted all the policy of his rebellion. It should be sufficient to the sinner to know that God has appointed the way of escape. He has no right to choose.
3. They require faith. How was the king to be certain that yielding himself into the hands of the princes of the Chaldeans would secure the ends desired? He hardly realized that it could be so. And similarly it is asked, "How can Jesus save?" He is to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness, but to them that believe the Power of God and the Wisdom of God. "Only believe," that is the hardest thing the unregenerate soul can do. Yet it is necessary.
II. THEY DO NOT ADMIT OF COMPROMISE.
1. See how relentless the alternative. There is no middle way, no royal road to salvation. It was a step simple enough in itself, but it involved everything, and could not, therefore, be qualified. Christ and his salvation are our only hope: "And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other Name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved" (Acts 4:12; cf. Galatians 1:8).
2. Nor is the messenger of God at liberty to alter them. These are the terms for all, and they represent the infinite wisdom and love of God. It is not for man to attempt to improve upon them. To do so would be equivalent to creating a human gospel. Jeremiah, although he had reasons for ingratiating himself with the wicked king, yet presents an example of faithfulness to every minister of the truth. He might not suffer himself to corrupt the Word of God even for such considerations.
III. YET IS THEIR HARDNESS MORE APPARENT THAN REAL.
1. Belief and obedience will remove every difficulty. The troubles of Zedekiah were almost wholly imaginary. Had he not been assured that everything would be made sure by adopting the advice given? One act of faith on the part of the sinner will save him. Henceforth is will be infinitely easier to do the things that remain, and to pass from faith to faith.
2. How mild are they compared with the consequences of disobedience!—M.
HOMILIES BY S. CONWAY
Counted an enemy for speaking the truth.
"Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?" said Ahab to Elijah. The Israelites were about to stone the two faithful spies. And here the prophet of God was, as in these other and in many more instances, counted an enemy for speaking the truth. And a like alienation of mind and heart often takes place now for the same reason—the telling of unwelcome truth. Now, note—
I. WHEREFORE DO MEN SO DISLIKE TRUTH? Some of the reasons are:
1. Because truth must often say many things that are unpleasing. No matter by what voice the message comes—Scripture, conscience, or our fellow men,—truth at times will become censure, and that hurts our self-love.
2. We are not really in earnest in our desire to be set right. We profess to be so, but we are not. "I have been a great sinner," said a sick man to his minister, who was sitting by his bedside. "Yes," said the minster, "you have," "Who told you, I should like to know?" angrily exclaimed the sick man indignant that anything more special and personal than vague general confession should be thought to be needed by him. He had no desire for cure, but only for comfort.
3. Pride has much to do with this dislike of truth. Our reprover becomes for the time being our superior, stands above and over us, and we do not like this.
4. There may be real difference of opinion on the point in dispute; hence the censured has the further offence of being condemned on what he deems partial evidence.
5. Because of our suspicion of the motives of him who speaks the unwelcome truth. We are slow to credit such with purity and unselfishness of motive. We think not only of what is said, but of who says it
II. HENCE IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO TELL UNPLEASANT TRUTHS. Most men avoid it, will say nothing, will shirk the duty by every conceivable means. No one likes to act the part of the candid friend. None like to be the bearers of ill tidings. David's servants feared to tell him that his child was dead. How we admire, because of its rarity and difficulty, the fidelity of Nathan's "Thou art the man"!
III. BUT NEVERTHELESS SUCH TRUTH OUGHT TO BE SPOKEN WHEN NECESSARY. It is not always necessary. Often not wise. "The chapter of accidents is the Bible of the fool." To let hard facts speak is sometimes best. But not always. Hence when unwelcome truth has to be spoken, take care:
1. To be very certain of your ground. Do not go upon mere rumour. Let your proof be full, clear, and strong.
2. Let the purity of your motive in speaking, the unselfishness and the love for your brother which prompt you, be made manifest.
3. Choose fit times, tones, and words. Many reserve their telling of such truths for moments when they are in a passion; then they will blurt it out, and, of course, only do more harm than good.
4. Be strengthened by the remembrance of the duty you owe your brother, and the accusation he will have against you of blood guiltiness, if you fail to tell him the truth, unwelcome though it be.
IV. SUCH TRUTH SO SPOKEN, IF REJECTED, IS FOLLOWED BY THE CONDEMNATION OF GOD ON THEM WHO REJECT IT. It is part of that condemnation that men take friends for foes, as Ahab did, and foes for friends. They love flattery and hate truth; the blind lead the blind, and with the inevitable result. Therefore let our feeling be that of the psalmist, who said, "Let the righteous smite me; it shall be kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head."—C.
Put not your trust in princes.
What a proof does this incident give of the wisdom of this counsel! Note—
I. ALL ARE TEMPTED TO PUT TRUST IN MEN. To very many man is the highest being they know or believe in. Then, our fellow men are near at hand; we can understand them and they us; are of like nature—they can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; and they in whom we trust appear to us to possess that which we need but have not.
II. STILL MORE ARE WE PRONE TO PUT OUR TRUST IN PRINCES. We do this because:
1. Of the law of honour which is supposed to bind them. The word of a king, where that is there is power.
2. They have such vast capacity of help. Unlimited resources seem at their command.
3. They are independent of and superior to the influences which govern inferior men.
4. And very often they have rendered great help to men in need thereof.
III. But there are many instances which show that THIS TRUST SHOULD BE VERY LIMITED. Here is a case in point. How miserable this king's conduct! Now, wherefore did Zedekiah, and do such as he, disappoint men's expectations (cf. Shakespeare, 'Henry VIII.,' Wolsey's dying speech)? It is because they are governed, not by principle, but by expediency. A tree standing on the summit of a lofty hill needs to be more firmly rooted than trees in the sheltered valley, for it is exposed to every wind that blows. But if it be not so rooted, it will soon fall. So with exalted personages; they are exposed to influences on all sides; all parties seek to gain them over to their views and to enlist them in their favour. Hence if a prince have not firm principles to guide him, he will sway from side to side and finally fall. So it was with this King Zedekiah. He was influenced now by one party and now by another (cf. homily on The woe of weakness, Jeremiah 34:2). "Like a wave of the sea driven of the wind and tossed." And all this is true in measure and degree of all who fill high stations, and in whom men are apt to put great trust. But,—
IV. UNLIMITED TRUST SHOULD BE IN GOD ALONE. The prophet of God was doubtless less surprised than grieved, but he had long learned to commit his way unto the Lord. Let us do likewise, and then we may rest assured that, let men above us favour or frown upon us, that which is best for us and for all will assuredly be done.
"Ill that thou blessest turns to good,
And unblest good is ill,
And all is right that seems most wrong,
If it be thy sweet will."
Cast down, but not forsaken.
As we look on the prophet as here portrayed, these words of St. Paul are brought to our mind. We have here, as there—
I. A SERVANT OF GOD CAST DOWN. See the prophet's allusions to his sad condition in Lamentations 3:52-57; and Psalms 69:1-36. can hardly be other than descriptive of Jeremiah at this time. And such seasons of depression and distress seem to be the appointed lot of all God's servants. Not one, from our Lord downwards, has been exempted. Manifold are the reasons for such appointment. In this particular case of Jeremiah—
II. THE CAUSES OF HIS DISTRESS were:
1. The cruelty of his treatment acting on a nature such as his.
2. Its coming upon him after he had been led to hope that now he was secure from all such treatment.
3. His knowledge that he desired to be, and was, his foes' best friend, and yet they dealt with him thus.
4. The hopelessness of his condition. Such were the immediate causes of his being cast down.
III. WHEREFORE DOES GOD SUFFER HIS SERVANTS TO BE SUBJECTED TO SUCH DISTRESS? To deepen their hold upon God, as the storms cause the trees to take deeper root in the earth. To make them realize more than ever the help they have in God. To cultivate and foster those fruits of the Spirit, such as patience, humility, trust, etc; which will hardly grow in any other soil or by any other process. To make them mighty witnesses before men of the salvation of God and of the present help he is in trouble. To qualify them to sympathize with and succour others in their distress. How such thoughts are calculated to sustain the soul in distress! And they do, for—
IV. GOD'S SERVANTS ARE, THOUGH CAST DOWN, NOT FORSAKEN. Here was a stranger to the commonwealth of Israel and from the covenants of promise, one who least of all might have been expected to care for the prophet of God, and this stranger proves to be God's good angel of mercy. God raised up this helper in the hour of his servant's need. See what was done in connection with and by this noble-hearted Ethiopian.
1. God caused intelligence of the prophet's sufferings to reach him (verse 7).
2. He touched his heart with compassion (verses 7, 9, 11).
3. He led him to resolve to attempt the prophet's deliverance.
4. He gave him clearly to see the wickedness of the prophet's enemies, and the truth of the prophet himself.
5. He filled his heart with courage. For courage was needed. He was alone. The consequences of his interference might have been fatal to himself. He had to reprove and condemn both the king and the king's counsellors.
6. He gave him good success. The king at once yielded, went right over to his side (contrast verse 5), took all precaution that the deliverance should not be hindered. And he did all this at once. Further, he took oath that Jeremiah should not be so dealt with in the future. Now, all this proves the blessed truth for God's servants that, though they may be cast down, yet they shall not be forsaken.
V. WHAT ARE WE TO LEARN FROM SUCH S RECORD? Much every way.
1. Concerning God. He is never at a loss for messengers of mercy and help to his servants.
2. Concerning his tried and troubled servants. Patiently wait. Trust at all times. Hope continually, till your eyes see his salvation, as they assuredly shall.
3. Concerning the enemies of the Lord. Their designs and purposes must fail, however certain of success they seem to be; for God is against them.—C.
The value of an oath.
The prophet of God evidently attributed such value, or he would not have asked of the king to make oath unto him. On the general subject note—
I. THE TEMPTATIONS TO GO FROM ONE'S WORD ARE OFTEN VERY NUMEROUS AND VERY STRONG. They were so in this case. Jeremiah knew what strong influence there was against him in the court of the king. He had suffered from this already. And he knew how weak and unstable the king was. Hence there was needed that which would steady and strengthen the wavering will. And there is often the like need now.
II. BUT THE VALUE OF AN OATH LIES IN THE FACT THAT IT MEETS THIS NEED. It brings in the thought of God and of his displeasure. And does this in most solemn way. And it has around it human sanctions as well as Divine. And all this tends to strengthen conscience and to resist the temptation to untruth. As a fact, it is found that men who are careless about truth in an ordinary way hesitate much before they will disregard an oath. "An oath for confirmation is an end of all strife."
III. IT IS BEST, HOWEVER, NOT TO NEED SUCH AID. Our Saviour has said, "Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." The taking of oaths is allowed, as other practices, "for the hardness of men's hearts." But for the Christian his word ought to be as sacred as his oath. He is no Christian if it be not.—C.
Jeremiah 38:17, Jeremiah 38:18
The path of obedience the path of safety.
The circumstances here recorded show that—
I. IT MAY BE MUCH ELSE. It may be
(1) a difficult path;
(3) repellant to our whole disposition and will;
(4) seemingly unlikely, arguing after the manner of men.
II. BUT IT WELL BE SAFE.
1. It would have been so in this case. For the king, his misery, exile, and degradation would have been escaped. The city of Jerusalem would not have been destroyed; nor the temple. All that would have been needful was submission to the rule of Babylon, which would have been neither intolerably harsh nor of long duration. For the prophet knew the rapidly approaching doom of both Babylon and her king. Hence he gave the counsel here told of. Whilst, on the other hand, he knew that if the wrath of the King of Babylon was aroused, all that now might be saved would then be utterly lost. Nebuchadnezzar was now like a sated lion, not desiring to destroy or devour. But let him be angered, and then woe to the weakling that had dared his rage! Submission was, therefore, the prophet's perpetual and earnest counsel. It was a case in which arguments were not merely to be counted, but weighed.
2. And it is so always. The path of obedience to God may have much urged against it, and truly urged, but it will ever be found to be the right and best way after all.
III. AND THE REASON IS: the path God commands is the path which pleases him who knows and who controls all events. All other paths are the self-chosen ways of men, who know but little and can control less.
IV. THIS ESPECIALLY TRUE IN REGARD TO THE SINNER'S RECONCILIATION WITH GOD. That path is protested against by voices not a few from within and without. But it is the right way, cannot but be so. We, therefore, as ambassadors for God, beseech you "in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God."—C.
Trying to serve two masters.
Zedekiah was seeking to do this. He wanted to be on the prophet's side, and yet not to break with the princes who were the prophet's foes. We see the shifts to which he was driven, and we know the miserable outcome of his impossible attempt. We learn from it—
I. How DESPICABLE SUCH ATTEMPTS MAKE A MAN IN HIS OWN EYES.
"To thine own self be true,
And it shall follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
But how far from this conscious rectitude he must be who seeks to serve two masters, who acts as Zedekiah did!
II. HOW OTHER MEN DESPISE THEM.
III. HOW GOD CONDEMNS THEM. How do the instances of Balaam, Pilate, Judas, and others shine out as warning beacons!
IV. HOW USELESS, AFTER ALL, SUCH ATTEMPTS ARE. No more miserable fate could have befallen a man than that which came upon King Zedekiah. And in the highest matter of all, what are they who say, "Lord, Lord," but do not the things the Lord commands—what are they but would be servers of two masters? And to them the Lord will say, "I never knew you; depart," etc.
V. HOW MUCH FULL DECISION FOR GOD IS NEEDED. This alone will keep us from such sad endeavour; but this will. Therefore seek grace from God to make and abide by this choice; and bring yourselves under the blessed attraction of Christ; so shall you be drawn to him more and more, and made to abide in him.—C.
A question of casuistry.
A deservedly esteemed commentator observes on this conduct of Jeremiah, "Though we must be so harmless as doves as never to tell a wilful lie, yet we must be so wise as serpents as not needlessly to expose ourselves to danger by telling all we know." But many are not satisfied with this defence, and they hesitate not to apply the terms "equivocation," "subterfuge," and other like censures to the prophet's reply to the princes. Note, therefore—
I. WHAT IS URGED AGAINST SUCH CONDUCT. One says, "The plain meaning of such words is that Jeremiah hoodwinked them. He did not lie to them, certainly; but he did not tell the truth, and left them with a false impression. It comes very near to deception; it was evasive, and certainly was not an honest act. It seems an oblique lie." And this view of the case is supported on grounds such as these:
1. Had he not been afraid, he would have told the whole truth; but fear does not justify falsehood, though it often occasions it.
2. What must the king have thought of a prophet of God so complaisant as this?
3. What would the princes say of his vaunted righteousness when they learnt how he had dealt with them?
4. Our Saviour and his apostles never did the like.
5. It had all the effect of a lie, since it left a false impression on the minds of those to whom he spoke.
6. The very fact that it needs laboured argument to justify it against our instinctive condemnation of it shows that it does not belong to the noble family of truth, etc. But audi alteram partem. Therefore note—
II. WHAT MAY BE URGED IN DEFENCE.
1. In reference to the foregoing arguments. The first assumes that there was no motive but fear. The second and third are assumptions also. The fourth is, to say the least, doubtful (of. John 7:8, John 7:9; Acts 20:20-26). Concerning the fifth, it is not true that all the effect of a lie, nor its worst effect, is that stated. And as to the sixth, it may be said that instinctive condemnations may be unjust as well as just.
2. Other replies to the charge against the prophet are:
(1) He spoke no untruth.
(2) Expediency, if not unlawful, is obligatory.
(3) It has been ever recognized as lawful, under certain circumstances, to mislead an enemy; of Rahab's conduct (Joshua 2:1) and its commendation (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). The commonly supposed case of a murderer asking you which way your friend has gone, in order that he may overtake and murder him; in such case, not only might you mislead, but would you not be bound to do so?
3. There are sacred principles on which such suppression of the truth as Jeremiah's is justified.
(1) The right to truth may be forfeited, as the right to liberty and life may be forfeited, by wrong doing. In the vast majority of cases men have a right to the truth, but in all the cases cited above they had no such right.
(2) Truth is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end, which is the honour of God and the well being of man; and there are occasions, doubtless very rare, when the end can only be secured by the sacrifice of the ordinary means. Therefore let all who presume to condemn great saints of God as guilty of lying, because they had no mere superstitious idolatry of veracity, as some have, hesitate before they bring such charge. Who are we to sit in judgment on such? But, on the other hand, let none pervert these reasonings, as the Jesuits did and many yet do, into a justification for lying and departing from the truth whenever it may be found convenient. It needs a healthy conscience to decide when these reasonings are applicable—a conscience enlightened by God's Spirit and animated by his love, and then such a one, and only such a one, may be left to do as he wills in cases like those we have considered.—C.
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
Prophecy and patriotism.
I. THE ETHICS OF PATRIOTISM. Here are foul men who go to the king with a complaint against Jeremiah; and in doing so they do not take low ground. Indeed, there are many people interested in affairs of state who would say they took very high ground. What sounds more plausible than to say that a whole country should never be more united than when the common enemy attacks it? Should there not at such a time be mutual encouragement, the bold and brave men of a state striving to animate all the citizens with their own ardour and resolution? Thus the whole question is opened up with respect to a man's allegiance to his country. How far does the claim extend of a country upon those who live under its laws, having their person and their property protected by these laws? That national history, great national events, patriotic feelings, have their place in the machinery of government, every Christian would allow; but it may not be so easy to settle exactly what that place is. Everything turns on what should have the first place in a man's affection, duty, and service; and so we have the example of Jeremiah here to guide us. He, a Jewish prophet, teaches us—
II. THE FIRST DUTY OF A CHRISTIAN. From this world's point of view Jeremiah did an eminently unpatriotic thing. Instead of uniting the people into resistance, he, as it were, divided them into two classes. He made it a time for individual and not for common action. But, after all, in every conflict there comes a time for yielding; the attacking party must retire in failure, or the defending party submit in defeat. To Jeremiah it was given to see the certain result. He knew that not the Chaldeans but Jehovah himself had to be reckoned with. The first duty of a prophet was to Jehovah, and so for that matter was the first duty of every Israelite. Thus in the same way, the first duty of a Christian is to Christ. He who serves Christ most completely serves his country best. In such a service the Christian may be misrepresented, miscalled, stamped even as traitor, but that only means that he is called to pass through Jeremiah's experience here. Why, even a man of pagan Rome can teach us in this matter; for Cicero, in the fourth book of his 'De Officiis,' speaking of gradations of duty in the state, says that a citizen's first duty is to the immortal gods, and his second to his country. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."—Y.
A friend in need.
I. THE NATIONALITY OF EBED-MELECH. An Ethiopian. Jeremiah had asked in prophecy, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin?" from which question we may assume that Ethiopians were well known in Israel. One cannot but feel that here we have a sort of counterpart to that other Ethiopian eunuch of whom we read in the New Testament. The Ethiopian Ebed-Melech helps Jeremiah in his temporal need; Philip helps the servant of Queen Candace in his spiritual need. What a rebuke there is here to bigoted and frenzied patriotism!—if, indeed, "patriotism" is the proper word to be used and not rather a spirit of blind nationality. Perhaps the very fact that Ebed-Melech was an alien helped him to see needs and duties, cruelty and injustice, which were hidden from the eyes of the natives. Even natives would be obliged to admit that Ebed-Melech could not be expected to look on the position with their traditionary eyes. Even so it was reserved for a Gentile to say at the Crucifixion, "Truly this was the Son of God."
II. THE HUMANITY OF EBED-MELECH. That the eunuch should have pitied the prophet sunk in the dungeon mire may not seem at first a matter to be singled out for special notice. Why should a man be praised for humanity more than for honesty? We must, however, recollect the difference of times. Those who put Jeremiah in the dungeon thought it served him quite right. And yet if there is nothing extraordinary in the humanity of Ebed-Melech, there must be something exceptionally fiendish in the conduct of those who put the prophet in the dungeon; whereas, in point of fact, they were only doing a usual thing. What a long time it has taken to work the world up even to its present attainments in humanity and compassionate feeling! And still through all these centuries Ebed-Melech rebukes us for our too often thoughtlessness and forgetfulness with respect to human pain.
III. THE COURAGE OF EBED-MELECH. He could not do a thing of this sort without making enemies and running into peril. The humane man has often to be a brave man, going into elements of danger for the sake of humanity, as a lifeboat crew must do, or a hand of explorers in a colliery accident. But there are also exercises of humanity which demand moral courage—courage that will stand alone in protesting against cruelties and brutalities that have been accepted through long custom. If we are resolved to be consistent and thorough in our humanity, we must be prepared for ridicule and scorn. There are only too many who will check us in humane endeavours by calling them mere sentimentality and weakness.
IV. THE INFLUENCE OF EBED-MELECH. His office tells us that he was a man about the court, and his action here tells us that he was a man who had influence with the king. What we see of his conduct here makes us feel that he had won his influence in a perfectly legitimate way. Thus at last the opportunity comes for making good use of it. Here is an example of how good a thing it is to cultivate influence with those in authority, if it can be done in a right way without flattery and servility. Men like kings need some one near them to speak the truth plainly and effectually.
V. THE THOUGHTFULNESS OF EBED-MELECH. Something more is needed than the king's permission to get Jeremiah out of the dungeon. Probably his stay in a miry, pestilential hole had made him very feeble. Ebed-Melech was evidently a man who could take in all that needed to be done in any difficulty. Just the sort of man who could fred usefulness in things that were cast away as worn out and useless. "Useless" is only our ignorant way of naming things we cannot use. The humane man must be thoughtful as well as courageous.—Y.
Obeying the voice of the Lord.
I. GOD HAS A VOICE FOR THOSE IN DOUBT. Poor Zedekiah, king though he be, is in a state of great vacillation. Counsellors speak one thing, and a prophet speaks another. Counsellors proclaim continued and resolute resistance, though it is by no means plain that they believe in what they say, and from Jeremiah 38:19 it is clear that there were very considerable divisions in the city. Jeremiah, on the other hand, speaks like a man who is perfectly sure of his ground. He was oftentimes wretched and depressed in his own heart, but never did he speak the message of Jehovah with a doubt as to whether it was a real message at all. The world abounds in doubters, coming continually to a place where two ways meet, and standing long in uncertainty and fear which way to take. And yet they are uncertain only because they do not see the direction which God has given. For even as at crossroads finger posts are put up to direct strangers, so God has his finger posts forevery doubtful traveller in the ways of terrestrial life. Zedekiah seems to have had a feeling that he was seeking in the right direction when he sent again to Jeremiah. He seems to have made himself ready to listen, without hinting that he expected some particular answer. So to speak, it was Zedekiah's last chance, and he gave the prophet the opportunity of speaking with corresponding plainness. And as God's Word is here, so it is everywhere, spoken with the utmost assurance and from the whole nature of the messenger.
II. THE VOICE CALLS TO IMMEDIATE OBEDIENCE. There is always some duty that lies nearest us. Part of the mischief of doubt is that, while we are doubting, some good thing is left undone, the opportunity for it passing away unused. There was just one thing for Zedekiah to do at this moment—go forth and surrender himself to the generals of the King of Babylon. Repentance and amendment of life—these were no longer available to avert the capture of Jerusalem. That was a thing settled on. But carnage and destruction might be averted by a timely surrender. Every day there is something made plain for us to do that day. It may be difficult, painful, in all ways hard to the flesh; but if it is neglected, then we shall only meet something still more painful tomorrow. "Obey the voice of the Lord, and it shall be well with thee," is a word to us all The voice of self or the voice of others may hint at procrastination or at some qualified obedience. Our only safety is in attending to the clear and urgent voice from heaven. Paradox as it seems, the most difficult way is really the easiest, and the easiest the most difficult. Zedekiah did not attend to the prophet's imperative utterance, and the next chapter tells the dreadful things which happened. The king really made things worse by going out of his way to seek for direction, and then, when he had got it, paying no attention to it.—Y.
The end of Zedekiah's irresolution.
Irresolution it may be called rather than disobedience. There is nothing to show that he had definitely made up his mind not to obey the voice of the Lord. In spite of the clear announcement made to him, he seems to have gone on, hoping against hope that some decisive disaster would overtake the Chaldeans. Yet Jeremiah closes his address by this sentence, so well calculated to bring even an irresolute man to decision: "Thou shalt cause this city to be burned with fire."
I. A DECLARATION OF PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. Already in verse 18 there is the declaration that the Chaldeans will burn the city with fire, and Zedekiah is well able to infer, if he likes, that this is a calamity he may prevent. But he is not left to inference. The prophet's exhortation goes on, maintaining its cogency and directness, and then in the last word he individually is made responsible. The sting of the address is emphatically in the tail. Zedekiah is now brought face to face with his obligations as a king. Jeremiah could not have said to any one else," Thou shalt cause this city to be burned with fire," because no one else could have set in train the course of events which would avert such a calamity. Here is an example to teach those who are tempted to envy the grandeur of kings and the fame of such as are ruling men in a state. Zedekiah's decision affected not himself only, or a few people, but a whole city. The responsibility was further increased by his having sent for the prophet who said this very thing. It is not every ruler who at a critical moment has his way made so clear as was the way of Zedekiah here. How much in the way of preventing evil may depend on one single man!
II. MATTER IS FURNISHED TO EMBITTER THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FUTURE. Whether Zedekiah saw the blazing city we cannot be sure. If he did, what a pang for his heart to think that the city where he was king, in which he and his ancestors had taken such pride, was burning, through his want of decision at a critical time! He feared to do what looked unpatriotic, and in the end he virtually destroyed the city he might have saved.
III. THERE WAS A LIMIT TO ZEDEKIAH'S POWER OVER THE SITUATION. Truly it was a great deal for one man to be able to do—either to save a city from the flames or hand it over to them. But this power only looks great according to the standard given by temporal and superficial relations. An almost boundless area for human powers and opportunities lay altogether outside of Zedekiah's reach. As man is unable purely by his own effort to confer the highest benefits on his fellow man, so he is also unable to inflict the worst evil. The worst evils are ever self-originated. Zedekiah did far more to hurt himself than any one else. Jeremiah had been charged to make it quite clear to every one that he who went forth to the Chaldeans should live.—Y.
The unkingly position of a king.
I. THE PROFESSION OF A KINGLY ATTRIBUTE. The king holds the power of life and death. He can pardon without giving a reason. And Zedekiah maintains the name of this kingly right, even upon the very heels of Jeremiah's awful words. Such is the power of long accepted habit and privilege. Did he really think that if Jeremiah published the conversation he had power to put him to death? Or did he think that such a suggestion would move the prophet in the least? Possibly he did; or more likely he was talking at random; or it may be that in these last decaying days of dignity he asserted, by a kind of instinct, all that was left him to assert. We know well that he had no real power over Jeremiah, for the Lord who had hidden his prophet before could hide him again (Jeremiah 36:26). Pilate followed in the train of Zedekiah when he said to Jesus, "Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?" (John 19:10). This, then, is the first element in the unkingly position, that Zedekiah is professing what he cannot perform.
II. HE IS AFRAID OF THE LEADING MEN IN THE STATE. He will not rise independent of them, neither will he consult them. Instead of fearing Jehovah and trembling at the thought of what he has just heard, his soul is filled with the fear of men who probably derived their places from his own appointment. He shrinks from being forced to tell any of them that he has had to contemplate as a possibility a voluntary surrender to the Chaldeans. Truly it was quite time for a new order of things to rise in Jerusalem, even if it meant the destruction of a city. A true king would not have feared that his interview with a prophet of God should be known anywhere. Kings among men, thee who are kings by nature and by the grandeur of their acts, fear no one but God. They act in the darkness just as if they were in the light; in private relations just as if they were in public. They never need to go begging and entreating people to conceal things.
III. HE IS A SUPPLIANT TO ONE OF HIS SUBJECTS. In the same breath he tells Jeremiah he shall not die and begs Jeremiah to grant him a favour. All at once he sets before this prophet, so straightforward and unreserved, a nice question of casuistry. With the suggestion of burning Jerusalem before him, he is thinking first on the present inconvenience to himself and providing a nice quibble to escape from it. Yet even here is a sign of God's bearing with him to the last. The request he makes, undignified as it is, is nevertheless one within the power of the prophet to grant. If Zedekiah feels it to be consistent with his regal dignity, Jeremiah feels it not inconsistent with his integrity. The impression we get from the whole conversation is that the torches of the Chaldeans did not come at all too soon.—Y.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Jeremiah 38". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20