Chapter 38 continues the narrative begun in the previous chapter by telling us what transpired after Jeremiah was accused of desertion and imprisoned in the courtyard of the guard. Things go from bad to worse for Jeremiah and for king Zedekiah. Yet in the midst of the mire, there are glimmers of God’s grace in the way God preserves the life of his faithful, suffering prophet. There are also glimpses of the inner workings of Zedekiah’s heart, especially the dynamics that keep him from trusting and obeying God.
Though under arrest and imprisoned in the courtyard, Jeremiah is not silenced. Evidently, he continues to proclaim a message of impending destruction for the city, encouraging people to surrender to the Babylonians (“whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live”—2). This message doesn’t sit well with some of the king’s officials; they complain to the king that Jeremiah is “discouraging the soldiers . . . as well as the people by the things he is saying to them” (4). Jeremiah is branded as a traitor, one who aids the agenda of the adversary. The officials contend he is “not seeking the good (שָׁלוֹם) of these people but their ruin” (4). Actually, the reverse is true.
Four officials are mentioned as petitioning the king to put Jeremiah to death for what they see as treasonous words. One of the men (Gedaliah) may have been the son of the Pashhur who had earlier punished Jeremiah (20:1-6). The king’s response to their request reveals his pattern of weak, unprincipled leadership. “‘He is in your hands,’ Zedekiah answered. ‘The king can do nothing to oppose you’” (5). He abdicates his role as leader; like Pilate, he washes his hands and claims to be innocent of the outcome.
God’s grace and fidelity to His promise to protect Jeremiah’s life (1:18-19) are seen in what happens next. First, the officials do not kill Jeremiah (though evidently given tacit permission to do so); instead, they lower him, Joseph-like, into a pit. Second, another court official, Ebed-Melech, takes it on himself to approach the king, accuse the other officials of acting “wickedly” (9), and plead for Jeremiah’s removal from the cistern. A third evidence of God’s preserving grace is seen in Zedekiah’s response: he uses his rediscovered royal authority to have Jeremiah extricated from the cistern and held (once again) in the courtyard of the guard (10-13). Fourth, he grants Jeremiah favour with the vacillating king so that Zedekiah uses his power to protect Jeremiah from the officials who are still seeking his life (16).
This chapter presents a contrast between Jeremiah and Zedekiah. Both are confined: Jeremiah in a courtyard; Zedekiah in a besieged city. Both have enemies who are (or at least may be) seeking to kill them: for Jeremiah, it’s some of the royal officials (4, 16); for Zedekiah, it’s (at least in his mind) some of the Jews who surrendered to the Babylonians (19). Both receive the word of the Lord: Jeremiah through revelation; Zedekiah through proclamation. The big difference between the two is their response to God’s word: Jeremiah trusts and obeys it; Zedekiah does not (20). For his courageous faith in God’s word, Jeremiah was lowered into a cistern and literally “sank down into the mud” (6). For his fearful disobedience to God’s word, Zedekiah would figuratively have his “feet . . . sunk in the mud” (22). Jeremiah would be lifted out of the “mud and mire” (Psalm 40:2), where Zedekiah would remain mired in a terrible situation. He would be captured, his city burned, his “trusted friends” would desert him (22) and his family killed before his eyes.
Zedekiah’s fear of man (“I am afraid of the Jews who have gone over to the Babylonians, for the Babylonians may hand me over to them and they will mistreat me”—19) trumps his fear of God. He swears by God’s name (16) but won’t trust and obey God’s word. He wants to hear what Jeremiah has to say (14) but won’t commit to doing what he hears. He leans on his “trusted friends” (“men of peace”—22) instead of trusting in the Lord. When faced with a binary choice to obey or disobey, he chooses to disobey by choosing not to obey. Sadly, his disobedience as a leader proves terribly costly, both for him and those he leads. The city, which could have been spared (17), is demolished. His family members, who could have lived (17), are killed before his eyes (39:6). Where Jeremiah is pulled out of the mud, Zedekiah and his people sink into it.
One touching aspect of this episode is the courageous action taken by Ebed-Melech to rescue Jeremiah from death in the cistern (7-13). Ebed-Melech (“servant of the king”) is one of the king’s officials (perhaps a eunuch) and was a foreigner (a Cushite—person of colour from the Upper Nile region). He approaches the king as he is “sitting in the Benjamin Gate” (7). Authorities often administered justice in the city gates, so perhaps Zedekiah was judging internal matters that day. Ebed-Melech publically accuses his fellow officials of “acting wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet” (8). The king orders Ebed-Melech to take thirty men (perhaps expecting resistance) and pull Jeremiah out of the pit (in spite of his earlier decision to allow the officials to punish Jeremiah—5).
Ebed-Melech is the Old Testament equivalent of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner who shows compassion when others will not. God uses an unlikely hero to fulfill His promise of protecting Jeremiah’s life. Because of Ebed-Melech’s courageous support of Jeremiah and his “trust” in the Lord (39:17), God promises to protect his life when the city falls (39:15-17). Here is another example that those from any nation who trust in the Lord and take action to live out their faith (in spite of the personal risk) are noticed and blessed by “the Lord Almighty” (39:16). God is no respecter of persons and desires to bless all who trust in Him.
One interesting side note relates to how Jeremiah answers the officials who want to know about his conversation with the king (24-27). Zedekiah tells Jeremiah to hide some of their private conversation from the officials for his safety’s sake. Jeremiah complies: “he told them everything the king had ordered him to say” (27) Though he regularly and fearlessly proclaims God’s message, he uses discretion as well.