UNDER SIEGE Jeremiah 34–39
“You will see the king of Babylon with your own eyes. . . . And you will go to Babylon” (Jer. 34:3).Jerusalem was under siege. Jeremiah was imprisoned, the king powerless—and the people unrepentant.
Jeremiah warned Zedekiah to surrender (34:1–7). Judah’s disobedience to God (vv. 8–22) was contrasted with the Recabites’ obedience to an ancestor’s command (35:1–19). Jehoiakim’s destruction of an early Jeremiah scroll is recalled (36:1–32). Returning to Zedekiah’s day, Jeremiah was imprisoned and thrown into a muddy cistern to die (37:1–38:13). The powerless Zedekiah questioned Jeremiah privately (vv. 14–28) just before the city was finally taken (39:1–18).
Understanding the Text
“Go to Zedekiah king of Judah” Jer. 34:1–7.
In a final effort to spare the city God sent Jeremiah to Zedekiah. Only a few pockets of resistance to the invading Babylonians remained in Judah (v. 7); it was clear that further resistance was hopeless. Yet even now if Zedekiah would surrender, God promised to spare his life and give him an honorable burial. The incident reminds us of the two thieves on the cross. All hope of living is past. Death stares grimly from the doorstep. Even then, God gives sinners a chance to repent. “Proclaim freedom for the slaves” Jer. 34:8–22. This passage suggests that Zedekiah did make some effort at reform. In hopes of winning God’s favor he led his officials and Jerusalem’s citizens to free their Hebrew slaves. Old Testament Law required that Hebrew slaves be freed after just a few years of service (Deut. 15:12–18). But the wealthy of Jerusalem violated this law and kept fellow Jews in perpetual servitude. This the people now pledged to correct, and released their Hebrew slaves. But when the feint of an Egyptian army caused a temporary lifting of the siege of Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 37:4–5), “they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.” In this they not only disobeyed the Lord, but also violated a most solemn “covenant of blood,” made by walking between halves of a slain calf. This act symbolized the punishment they merited if they broke the covenant promise, made “before the Lord.” Now God would impose just this penalty. The problem with many “deathbed conversions” is that when death seems imminent, almost any promise will be made. But when the danger recedes, people revert to their old ways. The reality of repentance and faith can never be verified by mere words. True repentance and faith can only be displayed by a lifetime of obedience to God’s commands. “You have obeyed the command of your forefather Jonadab” Jer. 35:1–19. The Recabites were a family of nomadic tribesmen who had carefully followed the instructions of a forefather not to drink wine and not to live in houses or take up agriculture. God pointed out this obedience, and contrasted it with Judah’s persistent refusal to obey One far greater than Jonadab, the Lord Himself. Judah would be punished for her refusal to obey God. As for the Recabites, they were rewarded with the promise that “Jonadab son of Recab will never fail to have a man to serve Me.” It is not emotional protestations of faith, or sudden deathbed conversions, that count with God. These may or may not be real. What pleases God is the believer’s persistent, consistent life of simple obedience to His Word. “The king burned the scroll containing the words that Baruch had written at Jeremiah’s dictation” Jer. 36:1–32. The contrast between the Recabites and the people of Judah continued with this story from the time of Jehoiakim, about 15 years before the other incidents reported in these chapters. The Recabites had remembered the words of Jonadab: God caused His words through Jeremiah to be written in ink, an unforgettable testimony. What had happened? King Jehoiakim had actually burned the manuscript, a futile attempt to blot out the Word of God! The attempt was futile indeed. Jeremiah simply dictated another copy—with added text—to his secretary Baruch, while the prophet and his scribe hid from Jeiakim. And what did this attempt to blot out Scripture gain Jehoiakim? Complete rejection by God. He and his family would be set aside, and David’s royal line would be traced through a brother, not the apostate king. People still try to ignore or discredit the Word of God. But their efforts are just as futile as Jehoiakim’s—and have the same consequence of rejection by the Lord. “Please pray to the Lord our God for us” Jer. 37:1–10. Zedekiah completely ignored God’s word (v. 2), but he wanted Jeremiah to pray for him! How typical of the unconverted. God doesn’t merit their attention—unless they want something from Him. God did respond to Zedekiah’s request. He sent Jeremiah to tell the king that the withdrawal of the Babylonian forces to meet an Egyptian threat was temporary. The Babylonians would return, resume their attack, and burn Jerusalem down. Yes, anyone can pray. But like Zedekiah, those who have ignored God all their lives might not like the answer they receive. “You are deserting to the Babylonians” Jer. 37:11–21. During a break in the siege, Jeremiah tried to leave Jerusalem on business, but was stopped at the gate and accused of deserting to the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s constant urging of surrender clearly had antagonized “patriots.” In their anger they and the king’s officials had Jeremiah beaten and imprisoned. In the first of several private interviews with Zedekiah, Jeremiah again urged surrender. Rather than being returned to a prison where he was in danger of dying, Jeremiah was kept in the “courtyard of the guard” and fed daily. The reaction of the “patriots” is typical. In the stress of the siege the people blamed Jeremiah, who had warned them for years of what must happen if they continued to disobey God. They struck out at him, rather than accepting responsibility for the situation. Blaming others is one of the most useless and destructive of all possible responses in any situation. The only positive response is to look honestly at causes, to accept responsibility for our own role, then to take any appropriate action. In Judah the people still refused to accept responsibility for the actions that brought the Babylonians down on them. The people of Judah simply blamed Jeremiah, and directed their frustration and anger at him. The same trait is common in spouse and child abusers, and in alcoholics. They refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, and instead blame their victims! Until a person accepts responsibility for his own acts, there is no hope of change. Such people will continue to victimize the innocent, just as the officials of Judah victimized righteous Jeremiah. “This man should be put to death” Jer. 38:1–13. The compulsive anger of guilty men who deny their responsibility is further shown in the reaction of high officials to Jeremiah’s continued preaching. The prophet again warned that only those who left Jerusalem would survive to go into Captivity. This additional “treasonous” preaching, which no doubt threatened the morale of the defenders, led to demands that Jeremiah be put to death. Zedekiah, unwilling to resist their pressure, shrugged and turned Jeremiah over to them. Jeremiah was then placed in an empty city cistern, a giant water-storage pit. He sank deep into the muck, and was left there to die. Don’t ever think, if you are in a relationship with an abuser or alcoholic, that things will somehow get better. Even if you do what’s right, as Jeremiah did, you can count on more intense persecution. Only when the abusing individual accepts responsibility for the sinfulness of his own acts is there any hope of change. Until then you can expect more hostility, more anger, and more abuse. Jeremiah’s situation, however, was not hopeless. God sent another official, named Ebed-Melech, to help him. Jeremiah was lifted out of the cistern, and returned to the courtyard of the guard. A neighbor of ours, seriously abused by her husband, prayed desperately that God would send someone to counsel her. That day my wife met her at our community pool, and spent an hour sharing with her. Three weeks later the neighbor, feeling desperate again, uttered the same prayer. Again she “just happened” to meet my wife, who again spent several hours talking with her. God has an Ebed-Melech for you when you are desperate too. Pray, as our neighbor did, and ask God to send someone who can help. Jeremiah was placed in a cistern much like this one, and left to die. “Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes” Jer. 39:1–10. Jerusalem fell, as Jeremiah had predicted. Zedekiah tried to flee, but was captured. His sons were slaughtered as he watched, and then his own eyes were gouged out, so that the last sight the king saw was the murder of his family. Then Zedekiah, and all but a few of the poorest in Judah, were taken into Captivity, as the smoke of burning Jerusalem rose behind them. The king had refused to heed the word of the Lord. The responsibility for what happened to him was his own. The blinded, childless king, being dragged away in shackles, is a graphic reminder of a basic spiritual truth. Anyone can choose to ignore the Word of God. But no one can avoid the consequences of that choice. “Go and tell Ebed-Melech” Jer. 39:11–18. The Babylonians cared for Jeremiah, whom they must have viewed as an asset. Given the choice, Jeremiah chose to remain with the little group of Jews left in the land rather than to accompany the captives to Babylon. After all, Ezekiel and Daniel were both in Babylon. The exiles would not be without guidance. But who would care for the poor remnant remaining in Judah? Jeremiah’s first mission was one of comfort. Ebed-Melech, who had earlier saved the prophet, was told that though the city must be destroyed, he would be saved, “because you trust in” the Lord. This man’s rescue of Jeremiah had been an act of faith. The incident encourages us. Just as there were consequences to Zedekiah’s disobedience, so there were consequences to Ebed-Melech’s act of faith. God does, as Hebrews says, “reward those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).
Pity the Poor, Powerless King(Jer. 38)
TV found a winner when it decided to feature “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Ah, how the average person envies them. Wealth! Power! What more could a human being want? But Jeremiah gave a totally different notion of the “rich and famous” of his time. His portrait of Zedekiah, the King of Judah, takes us behind the scenes, and reveals a man more to be pitied than envied. For this king was powerless! When officials demanded the death sentence for Jeremiah, Zedekiah shrugged and said, “He is in your hands. The king can do nothing to oppose you” (v. 5). After Jeremiah was rescued by the bold Ebed-Melech, Zedekiah went to Jeremiah alone, to ask what was to happen to him in the future (vv. 14–16). The king was told that if he surrendered he and his family would live (vv. 17–18). Zedekiah hesitated, and shared his fears. The Babylonians might hand him over to the Jews who had deserted to them, and he might be mistreated (v. 19). Again Jeremiah urged surrender (vv. 20–23), but the king only begged that Jeremiah not tell his officials what either of them had said, but simply to say that Jeremiah had begged for his life (vv. 24–28). What a portrait of a king! Afraid of the future. Terrified of his own officials. Knowing what was right, but totally unable to do it, even if he wanted to. The most powerful man in Judah was the least free to act; the least able to do what was wise and right. Oh, yes, we should pityäthe poor, helpless king. And we should learn from him. The greatest gift that God can give us is freedom—the freedom to do what we believe is right. Often the rich are too concerned for their wealth to do what they believe is right. They are captives of what they possess. Often the famous are too concerned about what others will think to do what they believe is right. They are captives of their fame. And often the powerful are too concerned about maintaining their position to act on what they believe is right. They are captives, not wielders, of their own power. Only those who care supremely about doing God’s will are truly rich, for they alone are truly free.
Do God’s will, and you will be greater—and happier—than any king.