Beginning with chapter 37 and continuing through chapter 44, we read the account of Jeremiah’s life and ministry during the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the city, the ensuing chaos and eventual flight to Egypt by the Jews who were not deported to Babylon. This is the darkest section of the book, set in the darkest period of Israel’s history. The book of Lamentations would have been written within the time period covered by chapters 37-44.
Throughout this terrible time, the leaders and people continue to dismiss or flatly deny Jeremiah’s messages from God; they do not “listen”—a keyword in the entire book but especially in chapters 37-44. They do not listen to Jeremiah’s words even though the words of the false prophets had already proven false. A half dozen years prior, in the fourth year of Zedekiah’s reign, Hananiah had predicted that within two years the Babylonian’s power would be broken (28:10-11). Ahab, Zedekiah (the prophet, not the king) and Shemaiah had predicted similar, sunny outcomes (29:20-32). Their prophetic words had not come true, while Jeremiah’s words had. In spite of this, Jeremiah is ignored, attacked, falsely accused, beaten, imprisoned, starved and ultimately taken to Egypt. Through it all, he continues to faithfully and courageously proclaim God’s word at great personal cost.
The events of chapter 37 must be integrated into those recorded in chapters 21 (Zedekiah’s inquiry) and 32 (Jeremiah’s purchase of property). The precise chronology of these events is challenging to reconstruct, but the main events include Jeremiah’s reply to Zedekiah’s two inquiries when the Babylonians are laying siege to the city (21:1; 37:3), Jeremiah’s imprisonment and purchase of property in Anathoth (32:9), the temporary withdrawal of the Babylonian armies to fight the Egyptians (37:6-10), Jeremiah’s release from confinement and his attempt to visit the property in Anathoth (37:12), his arrest for the false charge of “desertion” and re-imprisonment (37:13-21).
Zedekiah’s life provides a sad case study of a failed leader. He’s a king who asks Jeremiah to pray for the nation (3) and privately inquires about God’s messages (19; 21:1-2; 38:14). However, he does not listen to/obey God’s word: “Neither he [Zedekiah] nor his attendants nor the people of the land paid any attention [listened] to the words of the Lord had spoken through Jeremiah the prophet” (2). He intervenes to spare Jeremiah’s life by moving him to a “better” prison (“courtyard of the guard”—21) and orders that Jeremiah receive bread until it runs out (21); however, he still leaves him imprisoned for no good reason (“What crime have I committed . . .?”—18). Zedekiah is a living example of the truth of Proverbs 29:25: “The fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” (See my notes on chapter 34).
The chapter opens with Zedekiah sending an official (Jehucal) and a priest (Zephaniah) to ask that Jeremiah “pray to the Lord our God for us” (3). The king still sees the LORD as the God of the Israelites even though none of them “paid any attention” to God’s words through Jeremiah (2). Initially, it seems as though God answers their cries for help; the Babylonian armies withdraw from Jerusalem to face off against the Egyptians who have come to Israel’s support (8). But God is not delivering his people as He had done earlier in the days of Hezekiah. He has Jeremiah tell the king: the Babylonians will dispatch the Egyptians and return to capture and burn Jerusalem (8).
What strikes me as especially poignant is one particular line in the message Jeremiah sends Zedekiah: “Even if you were to defeat the entire Babylonian army that is attacking you and only wounded men were left in their tents, they would come out and burn this city down” (10). When God purposes to bring defeat, there is no way to be victorious. Even what would normally be a resounding victory (defeating and wounding the entire Babylonian army) would not be enough. As God had used Gideon’s tiny band of troops to defeat a host of Midianites (Judges 7), He could, if He chose to, easily use a small band of wounded Babylonians to defeat Israel.
Here is the sobering reminder that if God is fighting against us, we have no hope of winning. To invert a well-known verse from Romans (8:31): “If God is against us, who can be for us?” No amount of strategy or skill can bring success. As Proverbs 21:30 says, “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord.” We can’t disregard His Word and then expect Him to favorably answer our prayers (3). Instead, we need to be “paying attention” (listening/obeying) to His Word at all times. For as Ezra said to the king of Persia: “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him” (Ezra 8:22).
While the Lord protects Jeremiah’s life (1:17-19), He does not spare Jeremiah from misunderstanding; Jeremiah was accused of deserting to the Babylonians when he was actually going to see the land he had purchased in Anathoth (11-14; see 32:6-15). Further, the Lord does not spare Jeremiah from mistreatment; he is beaten, imprisoned, locked up and starved (15, 21—the king had to order that he be fed). While ostensibly he was punished for attempting to desert to the enemy, the real reason for the anger and attacks against him was his persistent pronouncement of Israel’s guilt and God’s coming judgment.
In spite of all the hardships he experiences as an unpopular prophet, Jeremiah does not abandon his calling to speak God’s message. Even when brought from his cell to the palace to speak to the king, he still emphasizes God’s coming judgment rather than telling Zedekiah what he wanted to hear (17). Jeremiah fits the example of the faithful prophets spoken of in James 5:10: “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Jeremiah understood that the Lord’s servant and spokesman must be able to “suffer long”. The same quality is expected of those who speak for God today: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).