Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 38

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verse 1



There are some similarities between the imprisonment mentioned in the preceding chapter and the one recounted here; but there is absolutely nothing that can justify the critical nonsense about these two chapters giving variable accounts of the same imprisonment. This was the third imprisonment of Jeremiah. The first was by Pashur (Jeremiah 21); the second is recorded in the preceding chapter, and the third imprisonment is the one recounted in this chapter.


The great Jewish historian Josephus preserved a record of both of these imprisonments, (the two in Jeremiah 37 and Jeremiah 38) adding significant details to each, noting, for example, that, in the imprisonment given in this chapter, "Jeremiah stood in the mire up to his neck," and that, "The intention of the rulers was that he might be suffocated."[1]

The following irreconcilable differences deny that the two chapters refer to a single imprisonment: (1) The one occurred early in Nebuchadnezzar's attack on the city, during that intermission following the approach of the Egyptian army under Pharaoh-Hophra; the other took place almost at the very end of the siege, when supplies were low, defenders were few, and the fall of the city was imminent, about a year or more later than the other.

(2) The charges upon which Jeremiah was seized and imprisoned were different. In the first, he was charged with desertion to the Chaldeans; but in the second, he was charged with treason and with damaging the morale of the people.

(3) The prisons were different. The first was in the house of Jonathan; the second was within the court of the guard and belonged to Malchijah the king's son.

(4) Jeremiah's enemies in the first imprisonment acted without the king's permission; but, in the second, they forced the king to grant permission.

(5) The purposes of the imprisonments were not the same. In the first, they merely wanted to silence Jeremiah; but in the second they intended to destroy his life.

(6) The duration of the imprisonments were not the same. The first lasted "many days"; and the second lasted probably less than a single day.

(7) The first was terminated when the king sent for Jeremiah; and the second was terminated by Jeremiah's rescue at the hands of the Ethiopian eunuch Ebel-melech.

(8) There was plenty of water available in the first imprisonment, or Jeremiah could not have survived for "many days"; but there was no water at all in the miry pit which was the scene of the second imprisonment.

(9) The interviews with the king following each imprisonment were utterly unlike each other. Jeremiah spoke freely with Zedekiah in the first; but in the second Jeremiah did not respond at all until Zedekiah had sworn with an oath that he would neither put the prophet to death nor give him into the hands of those who would kill him. Note that this oath, if it had been in the first interview, would have prevented the king's giving Jeremiah into the hands of those who plotted to kill the prophet in this second imprisonment.

(10) The king's delegation leading to the first imprisonment was led by Jehucal; and the delegation seeking the life of Jeremiah was led by Shephatiah.

In this light, how could Thompson write that, "It is tempting to regard Jeremiah 37 and Jeremiah 38 as simply different accounts of the same course of events!"[2] And how could Anthony Ash declare that, "We consider it best to see them (the two chapters) as two accounts of the same series of events!"[3] This writer has found no satisfactory basis for the acceptance of such views as accurate. The text clearly speaks of two events. Significantly, none of the writers with such views attempts to give us the composite account of what really happened; nor do they attempt to reconcile the differences noted above. Our conclusion agrees with that of Green, writing in the Broadman Commentary, who declared that, "Jeremiah 37 and Jeremiah 38 present events in sequence and not in parallel accounts."

Jeremiah 38:1-4


"And Shephatiah the son of Mattan, and Gedaliah the son of Pashur, and Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashur the son of Malchijah, heard the words that Jeremiah spake unto all the people, saying, Thus saith Jehovah, He that abideth in this city shall die by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence; but he that goeth forth to the Chaldeans shall live, and his life shall be unto him as a prey, and he shall live. Thus saith Jehovah, This city shall surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it. Then the princes said unto the king, Let this man, we pray thee, be put to death; forasmuch as he weakeneth the hands of the men of war that remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words unto them: for this man seeketh not the welfare of this people, but the hurt."

The leader of this delegation to the king, Shephatiah, is unknown except for what is written here. Pashur is the prince who cast Jeremiah into the stocks in Jeremiah 21. All of these appear to have been bitter enemies of Jeremiah.

"Let this man be put to death ..." (Jeremiah 38:4). From the ordinary viewpoint, this delegation appears to have been justified in their demand for the execution of Jeremiah; because, certainly, they were accurately reporting exactly what Jeremiah had prophesied; and there cannot be any doubt that such prophecies had destroyed the morale of the whole population, including that of the soldiers.

Was Jeremiah, then, a traitor? Did he deserve to be put to death? Indeed, NO. The whole nation of Israel was a theocracy, their first allegiance belonging to God, as revealed by his servants the prophets. Their "sinful kingdom," from its inception was a rebellion against God and was thus foreordained to destruction. The real welfare of the nation lay in their repentance and return to the God of their fathers who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The dire extremities in which the nation, at this time, found itself could have been alleviated if the people had heeded Jeremiah.

As Henderson noted, "The princes might have been correct in accusing Jeremiah of rebellion (1) IF he had not provided incontestable evidence that he held a divine commission, (2) and IF the government itself had not been in a false position."[4] Zedekiah himself, as a sworn servant of the king of Babylon, was the real traitor in their current situation; and he had completely betrayed the interests of his own nation by entering into a rebellion against Babylon, contrary to the will of God and totally impractical.

Jeremiah was no glib supporter of those in political power, supporting "his country right or wrong!" "He so loved his country that he was not content until it became the embodiment of the highest social, moral, and spiritual ideals; and he was a splendid example of the enlightened type of patriotism so badly needed today."[5]

Verse 5

"And Zedekiah the king said, Behold, he is in your hand; for the king is not he that can do anything against you. Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the dungeon of Malchijah the king's son, that was in the court of the guard: and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire; and Jeremiah sank in the mire."

As noted above, this is impossible to reconcile as a variable account of that same imprisonment where Jeremiah stayed "for many days." Why don't the critics tell us which account is true, and which is false? The answer lies in human unbelief of what the holy Scriptures say.

"The king is not he that can do anything against you ..." (Jeremiah 38:5). What an admission on the part of a man who was called a king! As Smith noted, it is a statement that, "All power is in your hands, and you are ready to exercise it against the king's wishes."[6] All of the real power lay in the hands of the princes; and the king himself had little respect from them. Many of the people, including, no doubt, some of the princes, really wanted to defeat Babylon and bring back Jeconiah from Babylon as the king they really wanted.

Verse 7


"Now when Ebel-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch, who was in the king's house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon (the king then sitting in the gate of Benjamin). Ebel-melech went forth out of the king's house, and spake to the king, saying, My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon; and he is like to die in the place where he is, because of the famine; for there is no more bread in the city. Then the king commanded Ebel-melech the Ethiopian, saying, Take from hence thirty men with thee, and take up Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon, before he die. So Ebel-melech took the men with him, and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took thence rags and worn-out garments, and let them down by cords into the dungeon to Jeremiah. And Ebel-melech the Ethiopian said unto Jeremiah, Put these rags and worn-out garments under thine armholes under the cords. And Jeremiah did so. So they drew up Jeremiah with the cords, and took him up out of the dungeon: and Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard."

"Ebel-melech the Ethiopian ..." (Jeremiah 38:7,10,12). Three times here the fact of Ebel-melech's being an Ethiopian is expressly mentioned. Why? It indicates that in all the land of Judah only a despised foreigner found the grace to intercede for Jeremiah!

"A eunuch ..." (Jeremiah 38:7). There is no need for men to define this as merely "a prominent official in the government." "The Hebrew text shows that the word (eunuch) is to be taken in its proper meaning, and not in the metaphorical sense of an officer of the court."[7] There is nothing strange about a eunuch's being in the court of Zedekiah. "Since the king had many wives, a eunuch was the overseer of the harem; and as the Mosaic law forbade the castration of a Hebrew (Deuteronomy 23:2), Zedekiah's eunuch was an Ethiopian."[8]

"Take thirty men ... and take up Jeremiah ..." (Jeremiah 38:10). The radical critics suppose that was too many men to take, and "Against the authority of all the versions of the Hebrew text, and solely upon the appearance in the Septuagint (LXX) and a single manuscript of the number three in this place have changed the number."[9] The king, knowing what was needed, both for the task itself, and for protection of the rescue group, sent thirty men; and there is no need whatever to allow fallible, unbelieving men, to change the sacred text upon any whim they might have. Why were so many needed? At least four men would have been needed to pull Jeremiah up from a mud-bath reaching up to his neck. One or two men would have been needed to go get the ropes; two more would have been necessary to get the rags and worn-out garments; and one, Ebel-melech the Ethiopian would have commanded the operation. The others, fully armed, would have protected the rescue mission from all interference by the princes. We are still waiting for some radical critic to explain how all of this could have been done with three men!

The providence of God in this rescue of Jeremiah is very evident. "On that day when the greatest of the Benjaminites (Jeremiah) was in his greatest need, the king was already in the Gate of Benjamin, as if waiting to hear his case."[10]

Speaking of the specious arguments vainly proposed in favor of changing the number in this mission from thirty to three, Keil stated that. "The arguments are quite invalid";[11] and Feinberg declared that, "Such slight evidence is insufficient to overrule the MT, and only this kind of hypercriticism would call in question Biblical numbers on such grounds."[12]

Verse 14


"Then Zedekiah the king sent, and took Jeremiah the prophet unto him into the third entry that is in the house of Jehovah: and the king said unto Jeremiah, I will ask thee a thing; hide nothing from me. Then Jeremiah said, If I declare it unto thee, wilt thou not surely put me to death? and if I give thee counsel, thou wilt not hearken unto me. So Zedekiah the king sware secretly unto Jeremiah, saying, as Jehovah liveth, that made us this soul, I will not put thee to death, neither will I give thee into the hand of these men that seek thy life."

"The third entry into the house of Jehovah ..." (Jeremiah 38:14). Nothing is definitely known about this entry into the temple. "It was probably an entry from the palace into the temple; and it must have been a private place, else it would not have been chosen for this interview."[13]

"As Jehovah liveth, that made us this soul ..." (Jeremiah 38:16). "This very unusual addition to the formula of a oath was no doubt intended to strengthen it ... For the usual formula, see 1 Samuel 20:3; 25:16."[14] By his acknowledgment here that God had made his soul, Zedekiah also implied his belief that God continued to have power over it.

Verse 17


"Then said Jeremiah unto Zedekiah, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If thou wilt go forth unto the king of Babylon's princes, then thy soul shall live, and his city shall not be burned with fire; and thou shalt live, and thy house. But if thou wilt not go forth to the king of Babylon's princes, then shall this city be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and thou shalt not escape out of their hand. And Zedekiah the king said unto Jeremiah, I am afraid of the Jews that are fallen away to the Chaldeans, lest they deliver me into their hand, and they mock me. But Jeremiah said, They shall not deliver thee. Obey, I beseech thee, the voice of Jehovah, in that which I speak unto thee: so it shall be with thee, and thy soul shall live. But if thou refuse to go forth, this is the word that Jehovah hath showed me: Behold, all the women that are left in the king of Judah's house shall be brought forth to the king of Babylon's princes, and these women shall say, Thy familiar friends have set thee on, and have prevailed over thee: now that thy feet are sunk in the mire, they are turned away back. And they shall bring out all thy wives and thy children to the Chaldeans; and thou shalt not escape out of their hand, but shalt be taken by the hand of the king of Babylon: and thou shalt cause this city to be burned with fire."

Significantly, the message of Jeremiah to the king in this circumstance was exactly the same as it was given in Jeremiah 21:8-10.

Why did Zedekiah not heed the prophetic warning of Jeremiah? He feared the taunting mockery of the Jews who had already defected to Babylon; but Jeremiah revealed here that if he did not heed God's Word, he would be even more severely taunted by the members of his household, his extensive harem being mentioned here.

One of the reasons why Zedekiah refused to believe Jeremiah might have been the fact that Ezekiel had prophesied that Zedekiah should never see Babylon, Josephus has the following.

"Zedekiah did not believe their prophecies for the following reasons: (1) it happened that Ezekiel and Jeremiah agreed with one another in what they had said in all other things, that the city should be taken, and that Zedekiah himself should be taken captive; but Ezekiel disagreed with Jeremiah, and said that Zedekiah should not see Babylon, while Jeremiah said to him, that the king of Babylon should carry him away thither in bonds (Ezekiel 12:13)."[15]

Thus, Zedekiah was only another sinner who fancied that he had found a contradiction in God's Word! Well, we know what happened. He went to Babylon just like the prophets said, but he never saw the place because Nebuchadnezzar slew his sons before him and then put out his eyes! This wicked king was neither the first nor the last to make the same mistake.

Long before Zedekiah, the wicked Ahab also believed that he had found a contradiction in God's Word. Elijah the Tishbite prophesied to Ahab that in the same place where the dogs had licked up the blood of Naboth, namely the vineyard of Naboth where the pool of Samaria was located, and in which the harlots bathed themselves, there in that very place, the dogs would lick up the blood of Ahab. Three years later, another prophet of God, Micaiah, prophesied that Ahab would fall in battle at Ramoth-Gilead. (See 1 Kings 21:19,22:20-37). A clear contradiction, right? So Ahab went on up to Ramoth Gilead, was struck by a random arrow, bled all day, fell at Ramoth-Gilead; and then the soldiers took the blood-soaked chariot to the old site of Naboth's vineyard and washed it out by the pool of Siloam where the harlots bathed; and the dogs licked up Ahab's blood in the very place where he had murdered Naboth, just like the prophet had said.

Today, when sinners excuse themselves for not heeding the Word of God on the grounds that they think the Bible contradicts itself, they are doomed to the same kind of disappointment.

This picture of the transfer of Zedekiah's harem was a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem; because, "In those times, a conquering king customarily took over the harem of a defeated monarch."[16]

Verse 24


"Then said Zedekiah unto Jeremiah, Let no man know of these words, and thou shalt not die. But if the princes hear that I have talked with thee, and they come unto thee, and say unto thee, Declare unto us now what thou has said unto the king; hide it not from us, and we will not put thee to death; also what the king said unto thee: then, thou shalt say unto them, I presented my supplication before the king, that he would not cause me to return to Jonathan's house, to die there. Then came all the princes unto Jeremiah, and asked him; and he told them according to all these words that the king had commanded. So they left off speaking with him; for the matter was not perceived. So Jeremiah abode in the court of the guard until the day that Jerusalem was taken."

"My supplication ... that he would not cause me to return to Jonathan's house, to die there ..." (Jeremiah 38:26). The mention of Jonathan's house in this passage is alleged to support the notion that only one imprisonment is in view in these two chapters; but such a view is a total misunderstanding.

This was a master-stroke on the part of Zedekiah. By the mention of Jeremiah's petition not to be sent back to Jonathan's house, the princes would have concluded immediately that Zedekiah, displeased with their placement of Jeremiah in the miry cistern, had told Jeremiah that he would send him back to the house of Jonathan where Jeremiah would have been silenced as in the second imprisonment; and they would have instantly supposed that this "second plea" of Jeremiah not to be sent back to the house of Jonathan was a response to Zedekiah's threat, a threat that never took place at all, but from this misunderstanding of the real nature of Jeremiah's supplication, doubtless caused them to accept what they understood as Zedekiah's action as compatible with what they desired.

Thus Jeremiah told nothing but the truth, but not all of the truth, and it served the wishes of both Zedekiah and Jeremiah perfectly. We have yet to find the writing of any scholar which acknowledges what to us is the perfect explanation of this episode.

We have no patience whatever with "scholars" who criticize the "ethics of Jeremiah," suggesting that perhaps he told a lie on this occasion. Nonsense! Jeremiah obeyed his king, which he was honor bound to do; what he said was absolutely true. Of course, it was not "the whole truth," but Jeremiah was under no oath nor any responsibility whatever to tell those crooked murderers the "whole truth." It was not Jeremiah's error that his supplication not to be sent back to the house of Jonathan had occurred at the end of the second imprisonment, and not at the end of the third.

One may only marvel at the genius of Zedekiah who arranged this skillful deception of the crooked princes who were his bitterest enemies.

Keil and many other commentators have pointed out that Jeremiah 38:28 here actually belongs to Jeremiah 39, and "forms the introductory sentence of the passage ending in Jeremiah 39:3."[17]

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Jeremiah 38". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.