This is the first of two recounting of the fall of Jerusalem; the final chapter in the book (52) gives a more detailed version of the same events. Chapter 39 tells the grim news in chronological sequence with the surrounding chapters. Chapter 52 concludes the book with a rehearsal of God’s promise through Jeremiah to bring judgment on his stubbornly rebellious people. Both chapters end with a reminder that God is not finished with His people: chapter 39 ends with the promise of rescue to Ebed-Melech; chapter 52 ends with the kindness shown to Jehoiachin. In this way, the book ends with hope. Amidst the devastation, God’s mercies are still new every morning; great is His faithfulness (Lamentations 3:23).
As with other epic events (JFK’s assignation; 9/11), the exact timing of them stays frozen in our collective memory. So both chapter 39 and 52 record when the final siege of Jerusalem began (10th day, 10th month, 9th year of Zedekiah’s reign) and when the city was overrun (9th day, 4th month, 11th year).
The Babylonian officials and officers enter the city and “took seats in the Middle Gate” (3), symbolically showing they were now ruling the city. Zedekiah, who had been told by Jeremiah that surrendering the city would spare life and property, now realizes that all is lost. With some of his select soldiers, Zedekiah tries to flee, leaving the city by way of the king’s garden at night and heading east towards the Jordan valley (“the Arabah”—4). Again, as Jeremiah had promised (34:3), he does not escape but is captured and brought before Nebuchadnezzar near “Riblah in the land of Hamath” (5), a city located on the Orontes River in what is now Syria. There the lights go out for Zedekiah: his eyes are put out after he watches his sons and officials slaughtered by the Babylonians. He is chained and forced to walk with the rest of the exiles on the long road to Babylon—the blind, leading the blind. Had Zedekiah trusted God and obeyed His Word through Jeremiah, the city would not have been destroyed and his sons would not have been killed (38:17). Here is a cautionary tale reminding us that disobedience ultimately brings disaster.
Another difference in emphasis is how chapter 39 and 52 retell the capture and destruction of Jerusalem is the emphasis on what happens to the Temple. While chapter 52 goes into considerable detail (17-23), chapter 39 does not even mention the Temple. Instead, chapter 39 only highlights the burning of the “royal palace”, the houses of the people and the tearing down of the city walls (8). This may be because chapter 39 is showing the damage Zedekiah’s disobedience had on him, his place and the city he ruled. When we choose to disobey, we get burned.
By contrast, this chapter highlights the protection God afforded Jeremiah. Amidst the carnage and chaos, God keeps his promise to preserve Jeremiah’s life (15:20-21). Zedekiah runs from the captured city, but can’t get away. Jeremiah is confined in a burning city but is kept safe. While the rest of the people are put into chains (“bronze shackles”—7), Jeremiah has his removed (11-14). Where Zedekiah and the Jewish captives were forced into exile, Jeremiah is free to choose where he will live. Where others have no say in their future, Jeremiah is given “whatever he asks” (12). Where Nebuchadnezzar pronounces harsh judgment on Zedekiah (5), he commands that Jeremiah be treated well (“Take him and look after him; don’t harm him but do for him whatever he asks”—12). The chapter is emphasizing, through contrast, God’s judgment on a faithless king and His protection of a faithful servant.
One of the great ironies of the book is seen in this chapter: Jeremiah is honoured, respected and protected by Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan king of Babylon. Throughout his ministry, Jeremiah had been ignored, oppressed and imprisoned by the final kings of Israel (Josiah’s sons). Jehoiakim actively attacked him; Zedekiah passively abandoned him. But when Jerusalem falls, the conquering Babylonian king makes sure that Jeremiah is given safety and freedom. Nebuchadnezzar’s treatment of Zedekiah, his sons, and the palace officials shows that he could be ruthless and severe. Yet, he gives a royal command to Nebuzaradan, the commander of the imperial guard, to take good care of Jeremiah (11-12).
Nebuchadnezzar had obviously heard of Jeremiah and his predictions of Babylonian success. Likely, his familiarity came from the reports of the Jews who had “gone over” to the Babylonians (9). Beyond that, God had worked in Nebuchadnezzar’s heart (“my servant”—25:9) to move him to be favourably inclined towards Jeremiah. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1). In this way, God elevated Jeremiah in the eyes of the Babylonian leaders (13). God also kept His promise to protect him from the “grasp of the cruel”—whether the cruel kings of Judah or the king of Babylon (15:20-21).
The chapter ends with a flashback to a message God sent through Jeremiah to Ebed-Melech in the final days of the siege of Jerusalem (15-18). Ebed-Melech, who is always identified as a Cushite (a Gentile), was a court official who had courageously spoken up for Jeremiah when other officials had lowered him into a mire-filled cistern (38:7-13). His actions saved Jeremiah’s life; now God has a life-saving message to him in the face of impending death and destruction: “I will rescue you . . . I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life” (17-18).
The reason given for God’s saving intervention is Ebed-Melech’s reliance on God (“because you trust in me”—18). This trust in God had been shown by his willingness to speak up for Jeremiah, risking the king’s rejection and the retaliation of his fellow officials. His trust was seen as genuine though he, like others in the city, was afraid of the enemies at the gate (“those you fear”—17). His trust in God would not keep him from seeing the coming devastation (“before your eyes”—16) but would allow him to escape with his life (18). As 2 Peter 2:9 says, “the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials.” Jeremiah and Ebed-Melech would be living proof.