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Sunday, June 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 38

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-28




Jeremiah 37:11-21, Jeremiah 38:1-28, Jeremiah 39:15-18

"Jeremiah abode in the court of the guard until the day that Jerusalem was taken."- Jeremiah 38:28

"WHEN the Chaldean army was broken up from Jerusalem for fear of Pharaoh’s army,

Jeremiah went forth out of Jerusalem to go into the land of Benjamin "to transact certain family business at Anathoth. {Cf. Jeremiah 32:6-8}

He had announced that all who remained in the city should perish, and that only those who deserted to the Chaldeans should escape. In these troubled times all who sought to enter or leave Jerusalem were subjected to close scrutiny, and when Jeremiah wished to pass through the gate of Benjamin he was stopped by the officer in charge-Irijah ben Shelemiah ben Hananiah-and accused of being about to practise himself what he had preached to the people: "Thou fallest away to the Chaldeans." The suspicion was natural enough; for, although the Chaldeans had raised the siege and marched away to the southwest, while the gate of Benjamin was on the north of the city, Irijah might reasonably suppose that they had left detachments in the neighbourhood, and that this zealous advocate of submission to Babylon had special information on the subject. Jeremiah indeed had the strongest motives for seeking safety in flight. The party whom he had consistently denounced had full control of the government, and even if they spared him for the present any decisive victory over the enemy would be the signal for his execution. When once Pharaoh Hophra was in full march upon Jerusalem at the head of a victorious army, his friends would show no mercy to Jeremiah. Probably Irijah was eager to believe in the prophet’s treachery, and ready to snatch at any pretext for arresting him. The name of the captain’s grandfather-Hananiah-is too common to suggest any connection with the prophet who withstood Jeremiah; but we may be sure that at this crisis the gates were in charge of trusty adherents of the princes of the Egyptian party. Jeremiah would be suspected and detested by such men as these. His vehement denial of the charge was received with real or feigned incredulity; Irijah "hearkened not unto him."

The arrest took place "in the midst of the people." The gate was crowded with other Jews hurrying out of Jerusalem: citizens eager to breathe more freely after being cooped up in the overcrowded city; countrymen anxious to find out what their farms and homesteads had suffered at the hands of the invaders; not a few, perhaps, bound on the very errand of which Jeremiah was accused, friends of Babylon, convinced that Nebuchadnezzar would ultimately triumph, and hoping to find favour and security in his camp. Critical events of Jeremiah’s life had often been transacted before a great assembly; for instance, his own address and trial in the Temple, and the reading of the roll. He knew the practical value of a dramatic situation. This time he had sought the crowd, rather to avoid than attract attention; but when he was challenged by Irijah, the accusation and denial must have been heard by all around. The soldiers of the guard, necessarily hostile to the man who had counselled submission, gathered round to secure their prisoner; for a time the gate was blocked by the guards and spectators. The latter do not seem to have interfered. Formerly the priests and prophets and all the people had laid hold on Jeremiah, and afterwards all the people had acquitted him by acclamation. Now his enemies were content to leave him in the hands of the soldiers, and his friends, if he had any, were afraid to attempt a rescue. Moreover men’s minds were not at leisure and craving for new excitement, as at Temple festivals; they were preoccupied, and eager to get out of the city. While the news quickly spread that Jeremiah had been arrested as he was trying to desert, his guards cleared a way through the crowd, and brought the prisoner before the princes. The latter seem to have acted as a Committee of National Defence; they may either have been sitting at the time, or a meeting, as on a previous occasion, {Jeremiah 26:10} may have been called when it was known that Jeremiah had been arrested. Among them were probably those enumerated later on: {Jeremiah 38:1} Shephatiah ben Mattan, Gedaliah ben Pashhur, Jucal ben Shelemiah, and Pashhur ben Malchiah. Shephatiah and Gedaliah are named only here; possibly Gedaliah’s father was Pashhur ben Immer, who beat Jeremiah and put him in the stocks. Both Jucal and Pashhur ben Malchiah had been sent by the king to consult Jeremiah. Jucal may have been the son of the Shelemiah who was sent to arrest Jeremiah and Baruch after the reading of the roll. We note the absence of the princes who then formed Baruch’s audience, some of whom tried to dissuade Jehoiakim from burning the roll; and we especially miss the prophet’s former friend and protector, Ahikam ben Shaphan. Fifteen or sixteen years had elapsed since these earlier events; some of Jeremiah’s adherents were dead, others in exile, others powerless to help him. We may safely conclude that his judges were his personal and political enemies. Jeremiah was now their discomfited rival. A few weeks before he had been master of the city and the court. Pharaoh Hophra’s advance had enabled them to overthrow him. We can understand that they would at once take Irijah’s view of the case. They treated their fallen antagonist as a criminal taken in the act: "they were wroth with him," i.e., they overwhelmed him with a torrent of abuse; "they beat him, and put him in prison in the house of Jonathan the secretary." But this imprisonment in a private house was not mild and honourable confinement under the care of a distinguished noble, who was rather courteous host than harsh gaoler. "They had made that the prison," duly provided with a dungeon and cells, to which Jeremiah was consigned and where he remained "many days." Prison accommodation at Jerusalem was limited; the Jewish government preferred more summary methods of dealing with malefactors. The revolution which had placed the present government in power had given them special occasion for a prison. They had defeated rivals whom they did not venture to execute publicly, but who might be more safely starved and tortured to death in secret. For such a fate they destined Jeremiah. We shall not do injustice to Jonathan the secretary if we compare the hospitality which he extended to his unwilling guests with the treatment of modern Armenians in Turkish prisons. Yet the prophet remained alive "for many days"; probably his enemies reflected that even if he did not succumb earlier to the hardships of his imprisonment, his execution would suitably adorn the looked for triumph of Pharaoh Hophra.

Few however of the "many days" had passed before men’s exultant anticipations of victory and deliverance began to give place to anxious forebodings. They had hoped to hear that Nebuchadnezzar had been defeated and was in headlong retreat to Chaldea; they had been prepared to join in the pursuit of the routed army, to gratify their revenge by massacring the fugitives, and to share the plunder with their Egyptian allies. The fortunes of war belied their hopes: Pharaoh retreated, either after a battle or perhaps even without fighting. The return of the enemy was announced by the renewed influx of the country people to seek the shelter of the fortifications, and soon the Jews crowded to the walls as Nebuchadnezzar’s vanguard appeared in sight and the Chaldeans occupied their old lines and reformed the siege of the doomed city.

There was no longer any doubt that prudence dictated immediate surrender. It was the only course by which the people might be spared some of the horrors of a prolonged siege, followed by the sack of the city. But the princes who controlled the government were too deeply compromised with Egypt to dare to hope for mercy. With Jeremiah out of the way, they were able to induce the king and the people to maintain their resistance, and the siege went on.

But though Zedekiah was, for the most part, powerless in the hands of the princes, he ventured now and then to assert himself in minor matters, and, like other feeble sovereigns, derived some consolation amidst his many troubles from intriguing with the opposition against his own ministers. His feeling and behaviour towards Jeremiah were similar to those of Charles IX towards Coligny, only circumstances made the Jewish king a more efficient protector of Jeremiah.

At this new and disastrous turn of affairs, which was an exact fulfilment of Jeremiah’s warnings, the king was naturally inclined to revert to his former faith in the prophet-if indeed he had ever really been able to shake himself free from his influence. Left to himself he would have done his best to make terms with Nebuchadnezzar, as Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin had done before him. The only trustworthy channel of help, human or divine, was Jeremiah. Accordingly he sent secretly to the prison and had the prophet brought into the palace. There in some inner chamber, carefully guarded from intrusion by the slaves of the palace, Zedekiah received the man who now for more than forty years had been the chief counsellor of the kings of Judah, often in spite of themselves. Like Saul on the eve of Gilboa, he was too impatient to let disaster be its own herald; the silence of Heaven seemed more terrible than any spoken doom, and again like Saul he turned in his perplexity and despair to the prophet who had rebuked and condemned him. "Is there any word from Jehovah? And Jeremiah said, There is: thou shalt be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon."

The Church is rightly proud of Ambrose rebuking Theodosius at the height of his power and glory, and of Thomas a Becket, unarmed and yet defiant before his murderers; but the Jewish prophet showed himself capable of a simpler and grander heroism. For "many days" he had endured squalor, confinement, and semi-starvation. His body must have been enfeebled and his spirit depressed. Weak and contemptible as Zedekiah was, yet he was the prophet’s only earthly protector from the malice of his enemies. He intended to utilise this interview for an appeal for release from his present prison. Thus he had every motive for conciliating the man who asked him for a word from Jehovah. He was probably alone with Zedekiah, and was not nerved to self-sacrifice by any opportunity of making public testimony to the truth, and yet he was faithful alike to God and to the poor helpless king-"Thou shalt be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon."

And then he proceeds, with what seems to us inconsequent audacity, to ask a favour. Did ever petitioner to a king preface his supplication with so strange a preamble? This was the request:-

"Now hear, I pray thee, O my lord the king: let my supplication, I pray thee, be accepted before thee; that thou do not cause me to return to the house of Jonathan the secretary, lest I die there."

"Then Zedekiah the king commanded, and they committed Jeremiah into the court of the guard, and they gave him daily a loaf of bread out of the bakers’ street."

A loaf of bread is not sumptuous fare, but it is evidently mentioned as an improvement upon his prison diet: it is not difficult to understand why Jeremiah was afraid he would die in the house of Jonathan. During this milder imprisonment in the court of the guard occurred the incident of the purchase of the field of Anathoth, which we have dealt with in another chapter. This low ebb of the prophet’s fortunes was the occasion of Divine revelation of a glorious future in store for Judah. But this future was still remote, and does not seem to have been conspicuous in his public teaching. On the contrary Jeremiah availed himself of the comparative publicity of his new place of detention to reiterate in the ears of all the people the gloomy predictions with which they had so long been familiar: "This city shall assuredly be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon." He again urged his hearers to desert to the enemy: "He that abideth in this city shall die by the sword, the famine, and the pestilence; but he that goeth forth to the Chaldeans shall live." We cannot but admire the splendid courage of the solitary prisoner, helpless in the hands of his enemies and yet openly defying them. He left his opponents only two alternatives, either to give up the government into his hands or else to silence him. Jeremiah in the court of the guard was really carrying on a struggle in which neither side either would or could give quarter. He was trying to revive the energies of the partisans of Babylon, that they might overpower the government and surrender the city to Nebuchadnezzar. If he had succeeded, the princes would have had a short shrift. They struck back with the prompt energy of men fighting for their lives. No government conducting the defence of a besieged fortress could have tolerated Jeremiah for a moment. What would have been the fate of a French politician who should have urged Parisians to desert to the Germans during the siege of 1870? The princes’ former attempt to deal with Jeremiah had been thwarted by the king; this time they tried to provide beforehand against any officious intermeddling on the part of Zedekiah. They extorted from him a sanction of their proceedings.

"Then the princes said unto the king, Let this man, we pray thee, be put to death: for he weakeneth the hands of the soldiers that are left in this city, and of all the people, by speaking such words unto them: for this man seeketh not the welfare of this people, but the hurt." Certainly Jeremiah’s word was enough to take the heart out of the bravest soldiers; his preaching would soon have rendered further resistance impossible. But the concluding sentence about the "welfare of the people" was merely cheap cant, not without parallel in the sayings of many "princes" in later times. "The welfare of the people" would have been best promoted by the surrender which Jeremiah advocated. The king does not pretend to sympathise with the princes; he acknowledges himself a mere tool in their hands. "Behold," he answers, "he is in your power, for the king can do nothing against you."

"Then they took Jeremiah, and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah ben Hammelech, that was in the court of the guard; and they let Jeremiah down with cords. And there was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud."

The depth of this improvised oubliette is shown by the use of cords to let the prisoner down into it. How was it, however, that, after the release of Jeremiah from the cells in the house of Jonathan, the princes did not at once execute him? Probably, in spite of all that had happened, they still felt a superstitious dread of actually shedding the blood of a prophet. In some mysterious way they felt that they would be less guilty if they left him in the empty cistern to starve to death or be suffocated in the mud, than if they had his head cut off. They acted in the spirit of Reuben’s advice concerning Joseph, who also was cast into an empty pit, with no water in it: "Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him." {Genesis 37:22-24} By a similar blending of hypocrisy and superstition, the mediaeval Church thought to keep herself unstained by the blood of heretics, by handing them over to the secular arm; and Macbeth having hired some one else to kill Banquo, was emboldened to confront his ghost with the words:-

"Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake

Thy gory locks at me."

But the princes were again baffled; the prophet had friends in the royal household who were bolder than their master: Ebed-melech the Ethiopian: a eunuch, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the cistern. He went to the king, who was then sitting in the gate of Benjamin, where he would be accessible to any petitioner for favour or justice, and interceded for the prisoner:-

"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 cistern; 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."

Apparently the princes, busied with the defence of the city and in their pride "too much despising" their royal master, had left him for a while to himself. Emboldened by this public appeal to act according to the dictates of his own heart and conscience, and possibly by the presence of other friends of Jeremiah, the king acts with unwonted, courage and decision.

"The king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, saying, Take with thee hence thirty men, and draw up Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern, before he die. So Ebed-melech took the men with him, and went into the palace under the treasury, and took thence old cast clouts and rotten rags and let them down by cords into the cistern to Jeremiah. And he said to Jeremiah. Put these old cast clouts and rotten rags under thine armholes under the cords. And Jeremiah did so. So they drew him up with the cords, and took him up out of the cistern: and he remained in the court of the guard."

Jeremiah’s gratitude to his deliverer is recorded in a short paragraph in which Ebed-melech, like Baruch. is promised that "his life shall be given him for a prey." He should escape with his life from the sack of the city "because he trusted" in Jehovah. As of the ten lepers whom Jesus cleansed only the Samaritan returned to give glory to God, so when none of God’s people were found to rescue His prophet, the dangerous honour was accepted by an Ethiopian proselyte. {Jeremiah 39:15-18}

Meanwhile the king was craving for yet another "word with Jehovah." True, the last "word" given him by the prophet had been, "Thou shalt be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon." But now that he had just rescued Jehovah’s prophet from a miserable death (he forgot that Jeremiah had been consigned to the cistern by his own authority), possibly there might be some more encouraging message from God. Accordingly he sent and took Jeremiah unto him for another secret interview, this time in the "corridor of the bodyguard," a passage between the palace and the Temple.

Here he implored the prophet to give him a faithful answer to his questions concerning his own fate and that of the city: "Hide nothing from me." But Jeremiah did not respond with his former prompt frankness. He had had too recent a warning not to put his trust in princes. "If I declare it unto thee," said he, "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 to Jeremiah, As Jehovah liveth, who is the source and giver of our life, I will not put thee to death, neither will I give thee into the hand of these men that seek thy life.

"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, thy life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned, and thou and thine house shall live; but if thou wilt not go forth, then shall this city be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it, and thou shalt not escape out of their hand."

"Zedekiah said unto Jeremiah, I am afraid of the Jews that have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest they deliver me into their hand, and they mock me."

He does not, however, urge that the princes will hinder any such surrender; he believed himself sufficiently master of his own actions to be able to escape to the Chaldeans if he chose.

But evidently, when he first revolted against Babylon, and more recently when the siege was raised, he had been induced to behave harshly towards her partisans: they had taken refuge in considerable numbers in the enemy’s camp, and now he was afraid of their vengeance. Similarly, in "Quentin Durward," Scott represents Louis XI on his visit to Charles the Bold as startled by the sight of the banners of some of his own vassals, who had taken service with Burgundy, and as seeking protection from Charles against the rebel subjects of France.

Zedekiah is a perfect monument of the miseries that wait upon weakness: he was everybody’s friend in turn-now a docile pupil of Jeremiah and gratifying the Chaldean party by his professions of loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar, and now a pliant tool in the hands of the Egyptian party, persecuting his former friends. At the last he was afraid alike of the princes in the city, of the exiles in the enemy’s camp, and of the Chaldeans. The mariner who had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis was fortunate compared to Zedekiah. To the end he clung with a pathetic blending of trust and fearfulness to Jeremiah. He believed him, and yet he seldom had courage to act according to his counsel.

Jeremiah made a final effort to induce this timid soul to act with firmness and decision. He tried to reassure him: "They shall not deliver thee into the hands of thy revolted subjects. Obey, I beseech thee, the voice of Jehovah, in that which I speak unto thee: so it shall be well with thee, and thy life shall be spared." He appealed to that very dread of ridicule which the king had just betrayed. If he refused to surrender, he would be taunted for his weakness and folly by the women of his own harem:-

"If thou refuse to go forth, this is the word that Jehovah hath showed me: Behold, all the women left in the palace shall be brought forth to the king of Babylon’s princes, and those women shall say, Thy familiar friends have duped thee and got the better of thee; thy feet are sunk in the mire. and they have left thee in the lurch." He would be in worse plight than that from which Jeremiah had only just been rescued, and there would be no Ebed-melech to draw him out. He would be humiliated by the suffering and shame of his own family: "They shall bring out all thy wives and children to the Chaldeans." He himself would share with them the last extremity of suffering: "Thou shalt not escape out of their hand, but shalt be taken by the hand of the king of Babylon."

And as Tennyson makes it the climax of Geraint’s degeneracy that he was not only-

"Forgetful of his glory and his name,"

but also-

"Forgetful of his princedom and its cares,"

so Jeremiah appeals last of all to the king’s sense of responsibility for his people: "Thou wilt be the cause of the burning of the city."

In spite of the dominance of the Egyptian party, and their desperate determination, not only to sell their own lives dearly, but also to involve king and people, city and temple, in their own ruin, the power of decisive action still rested with Zedekiah: if he failed to use it, he would be responsible for the consequences.

Thus Jeremiah strove to possess the king with some breath of his own dauntless spirit and iron will.

Zedekiah paused irresolute. A vision of possible deliverance passed through his mind. His guards and the domestics of the palace were within call. The princes were unprepared; they would never dream that he was capable of anything so bold. It would be easy to seize the nearest gate, and hold it long enough to admit the Chaldeans. But no! he had not nerve enough. Then his predecessors Joash, Amaziah, and Amon had been assassinated, and for the moment the daggers of the princes and their followers seemed more terrible than Chaldean instruments of torture. He lost all thought of his own honour and his duty to his people in his anxiety to provide against this more immediate danger. Never was the fate of a nation decided by a meaner utterance. "Then said Zedekiah to Jeremiah, No one must know about our meeting, and thou shalt not die. If the princes hear that I have talked with thee, and come and say unto thee, Declare unto us now what thou hast said unto the king; hide it not from us, and we will not put thee to death: declare unto us what the king said unto thee: then thou shalt say unto them, I presented my supplication unto the king, that he would not cause me to return to Jonathan’s house, to die there."

"Then all the princes camie to Jeremiah, and asked him; and he told them just what the king had commanded. So they let him alone, for no report of the matter had got abroad." We are a little surprised that the princes so easily abandoned their purpose of putting Jeremiah to death, and did not at once consign him afresh to the empty cistern. Probably they were too disheartened for vigorous action; the garrison were starving, and it was clear that the city could not hold out much longer. Moreover the superstition that had shrunk from using actual violence to the prophet would suspect a token of Divine displeasure in his release.

Another question raised by this incident is that of the prophet’s veracity, which, at first sight, does not seem superior to that of the patriarchs. It is very probable that the prophet, as at the earlier interview, had entreated the king not to allow him to be confined in the cells in Jonathan’s house, but the narrative rather suggests that the king constructed this pretext on the basis of the former interview. Moreover, if the princes let Jeremiah escape with nothing less innocent than a suppressio veri, if they were satisfied with anything less than an explicit statement that the place of the prophet’s confinement was the sole topic of conversation, they must have been more guileless than we can easily imagine. But, at any rate, if Jeremiah did stoop to dissimulation, it was to protect Zedekiah, not to save himself.

Zedekiah is a conspicuous example of the strange irony with which Providence entrusts incapable persons with the decision of most momentous issues; It sets Laud and Charles I to adjust the Tudor Monarchy to the sturdy self-assertion of Puritan England, and Louis XVI to cope with the French Revolution. Such histories are after all calculated to increase the self-respect of those who are weak and timid. Moments come, even to the feeblest, when their action must have the most serious results for all connected with them. It is one of the crowning glories of Christianity that it preaches a strength that is made perfect in weakness.

Perhaps the most significant feature in this narrative is the conclusion of Jeremiah’s first interview with the king. Almost in the same breath the prophet announces to Zedekiah his approaching ruin and begs from him a favour. He thus defines the true attitude of the believer towards the prophet.

Unwelcome teaching must not be allowed to interfere with wonted respect and deference, or to provoke resentment. Possibly, if this truth were less obvious men would be more willing to give it a hearing and it might be less persistently ignored. But the prophet’s behaviour is even more striking and interesting as a revelation of his own character and of the true prophetic spirit. His faithful answer to the king involved much courage, but that he should proceed from such an answer to such a petition shows a simple and sober dignity not always associated with courage. When men are wrought up to the pitch of uttering disagreeable truths at the risk of their lives, they often develop a spirit of defiance, which causes personal bitterness and animosity between themselves and their hearers, and renders impossible any asking or granting of favours. Many men would have felt that a petition compromised their own dignity and weakened the authority of the divine message. The exaltation of self-sacrifice which inspired them would have suggested that they ought not to risk the crown of martyrdom by any such appeal, but rather welcome torture and death. Thus some amongst the early Christians would present themselves before the Roman tribunals and try to provoke the magistrates into condemning them. But Jeremiah, like Polycarp and Cyprian, neither courted nor shunned martyrdom; he was as incapable of bravado as he was of fear. He was too intent upon serving his country and glorifying God, too possessed with his mission and his message, to fall a prey to the self-consciousness which betrays men, sometimes even martyrs, into theatrical ostentation.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 38". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/jeremiah-38.html.
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