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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 38

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Jeremiah 38:0


(The parentheses represent poetic literary units)

Jeremiah Thrown Into the CisternJeremiah In the DungeonJeremiah, Zedekiah and the Siege (Jeremiah 37:1-6)Jeremiah in the Dry WellJeremiah Is Thrown Into the Storage Well
Jeremiah 38:1-13Jeremiah 38:1-13Jeremiah 38:1-6Jeremiah 38:1-4Jeremiah 38:1-3
Jeremiah 38:4-6
Jeremiah 38:5-6Ebed-melech Intervenes
Jeremiah 38:7-13Jeremiah 38:7-13Jeremiah 38:7-13
Zedekiah's Fears and Jeremiah's AdviceZedekiah Asks Jeremiah's AdviceThe Last Conversation Between Jeremiah and Zedekiah
Jeremiah 38:14-16Jeremiah 38:14-16Jeremiah 38:14-16Jeremiah 38:14Jeremiah 38:14-23
Jeremiah 38:15
Interview With ZedekiahJeremiah 38:16
Jeremiah 38:17-23(vv. Jeremiah 38:22b)Jeremiah 38:17-23(vv. Jeremiah 38:22b)Jeremiah 38:17-23(vv. Jeremiah 38:22b)Jeremiah 38:17-18
Jeremiah 38:19
Jeremiah 38:20-22(vv. Jeremiah 38:22b)(vv. Jeremiah 38:22b)
Jeremiah 38:23
Jeremiah 38:24-28Jeremiah 38:24-28Jeremiah 38:24-28Jeremiah 38:24-28Jeremiah 38:24-26
Jeremiah 38:27-28

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. The Anchor Bible Commentary by John Bright says that Jeremiah 37:11-21 is the first recorded interview of Jeremiah face to face with Zedekiah and Jeremiah 38:1-28 is a second account.

B. R. K. Harrison, in the Tyndale OT Series lists the similarities of Jeremiah 37:11-21 and Jeremiah 38:1-28.

1. Jeremiah charged with treason

2. Jeremiah imprisoned

3. Jeremiah has a secret meeting with Zedekiah

However, there are also differences which leave open the possibility of separate events (p. 154).

Verses 1-13

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Jeremiah 38:1-13 1Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, and Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, and Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchijah heard the words that Jeremiah was speaking to all the people, saying, 2”Thus says the LORD, 'He who stays in this city will die by the sword and by famine and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans will live and have his own life as booty and stay alive.' 3Thus says the LORD, 'This city will certainly be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon and he will capture it.'“ 4Then the officials said to the king, “Now let this man be put to death, inasmuch as he is discouraging the men of war who are left in this city and all the people, by speaking such words to them; for this man is not seeking the well-being of this people but rather their harm.” 5So King Zedekiah said, “Behold, he is in your hands; for the king can do nothing against you.” 6Then they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchijah the king's son, which was in the court of the guardhouse; and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. Now in the cistern there was no water but only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud. 7But Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch, while he was in the king's palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. Now the king was sitting in the Gate of Benjamin; 8and Ebed-melech went out from the king's palace and spoke to the king, saying, 9”My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet whom they have cast into the cistern; and he will die right where he is because of the famine, for there is no more bread in the city.” 10Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, saying, “Take thirty men from here under your authority and bring up Jeremiah the prophet from the cistern before he dies.” 11So Ebed-melech took the men under his authority and went into the king's palace to a place beneath the storeroom and took from there worn-out clothes and worn-out rags and let them down by ropes into the cistern to Jeremiah 1:0; Jeremiah 1:02Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Now put these worn-out clothes and rags under your armpits under the ropes”; and Jeremiah did so. 13So they pulled Jeremiah up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern, and Jeremiah stayed in the court of the guardhouse.

Jeremiah 38:2 “die” This chapter uses this VERB (BDB 559, KB 562) often.

1. those who stay in Jerusalem will die, Jeremiah 38:2

2. those who desire to kill Jeremiah, Jeremiah 38:4

3. Jeremiah's death as a result of being put into the empty cistern, Jeremiah 38:9, Jeremiah 38:26

4. desire to save Jeremiah, Jeremiah 38:10

5. Jeremiah's message to Zedekiah, Jeremiah 38:15

6. Zedekiah's response to Jeremiah, Jeremiah 38:16

7. Zedekiah's threat to Jeremiah, Jeremiah 38:24

8. the official's threat to Jeremiah, Jeremiah 38:25

“the sword and by famine and by pestilence” These are the three killers of the siege experience. See full note at Jeremiah 14:12.

“live” As “die” is used often in this chapter, so too, “live” (BDB 310, KB 309).

#1-3. In Jeremiah 38:2 “will live” - The Kethiv (written in the MT) has it as a Qal IMPERFECT but the Qere (suggested in the margin by MT formatters) has a Qal PERFECT, which matches the next two VERBS. The second use of “will live” is a Qal IMPERFECT.

#4-6. In Jeremiah 38:17 (twice) and again in Jeremiah 38:20, are Jeremiah's words to Zedekiah.

Obedience to YHWH's message through Jeremiah brings life, but disobedience brings death. In a sense it reflects the “two ways” of Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (cf. Jeremiah 21:8). Life is a gift of which we are stewards. There are consequences, both temporal and eternal, connected to human choices and actions!

Jeremiah 38:3 “This city will certainly be given” The prophecy by Jeremiah of the complete destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon has not changed!

The VERB (BDB 678, KB 733, Niphal IMPERFECT) is matched by the INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE of the same root which denotes certainty! There was no hope for Jerusalem and the Temple to be spared.

Jeremiah 38:4 “the men of war who are left” Apparently there had been casualties and desertions.

“this man is not seeking the well-being of this people” These court officials still totally misunderstood Jeremiah and his message. They purposefully ignored the promise of “life” in Jeremiah 38:2.

Jeremiah 38:5 This verse shows the weakness of Zedekiah (so too, Saul, cf. 1 Samuel 15:24 and even of David, cf. 2 Samuel 3:39).

Notice the play on “hand.”

1. “discouraging” of Jeremiah 38:4 is literally “weakening the hands”

2. “all the people” of Jeremiah 38:4 is literally “the hands of all”

3. “he is in your hands” of Jeremiah 38:5 is an idiom of power over someone (see Special Topic: Hand)

Jeremiah 38:6 “the king's son” This was an official title, not necessarily a blood relationship, but probably someone of the royal family (cf. Jeremiah 36:26).

“Jeremiah sank into the mud” Josephus adds the tradition that it was up to his neck (Antiq. 10.7.5). He was meant to die there (cf. Jeremiah 38:4). The “mud” would have been the sediment which had collected in the bottom of a cistern. Cisterns caught the runoff of rain water.

Jeremiah 38:7 “Ebed-melech” This term (BDB 715) is literally “servant of the king.” It is not a name but a title also found in other Semitic cultures.

“Ethiopian” This (BDB 469 I) is often translated “Cushite” (cf. Jeremiah 13:23), which denotes a person from the nation just south of Egypt. This was a foreign servant/official in the Judean palace.

“a eunuch” This term can be translated “official” (BDB 710). Physical castration was often involved (cf. Isaiah 56:3-5), but not always (i.e., Potiphar in Genesis 39:1ff).

“the king was sitting in the Gate of Benjamin” The gate was the place of social and legal activities. Apparently Zedekiah, the King, was holding public court.

Jeremiah 38:8 “spoke to the king” Either he was a trusted official who had the ear of the king or he took advantage of public court to speak.

Jeremiah 38:9 The reason for Jeremiah's feared death is stated as famine. Conditions are much worse now than in Jeremiah 37:21.

Jeremiah 38:10 “thirty men” One Hebrew MS and the LXX have “three” (cf. RSV, NEB, NIV). The UBS Text Project gives “thirty” an A rating (very high probability).

Jeremiah 38:11

NASB“beneath the storeroom” NKJV“under the treasury” NRSV“to a wardrobe of the storehouse” TEV“the palace storeroom” NJB“the treasury wardrobe” JPSOA“a place below the treasury” LXX“the underground chamber”

The exact site is uncertain. It refers to a cistern somewhere in the palace.

Jeremiah 38:12 “put these worn-out clothes and rags under your armpits” Apparently a room close by had some worn out clothes that could be used to cushion Jeremiah as he was pulled from the cistern. This shows the man's concern for Jeremiah. This is an eyewitness detail!

Jeremiah 38:13 He was rescued from the cistern but would stay in custody!

Verses 14-16

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Jeremiah 38:14-16 14Then King Zedekiah sent and had Jeremiah the prophet brought to him at the third entrance that is in the house of the LORD; and the king said to Jeremiah, “I am going to ask you something; do not hide anything from me.” 15Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I tell you, will you not certainly put me to death? Besides, if I give you advice, you will not listen to me.” 16But King Zedekiah swore to Jeremiah in secret saying, “As the LORD lives, who made this life for us, surely I will not put you to death nor will I give you over to the hand of these men who are seeking your life.”

Jeremiah 38:15 Zedekiah still holds Jeremiah in a sacred position (i.e., Herod and John the Baptist) but

1. meets with him secretly (cf. Jeremiah 38:16, Jeremiah 38:24-27)

2. will not act on his words

He wants to know the word of YHWH (cf. Jeremiah 38:14) but he will not do it (James 1:22).

Jeremiah 38:16 The king promises

1. not to kill Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 38:15-16)

2. not to turn him over to his officials who want to kill him (cf. Jeremiah 38:4)

Zedekiah swore by the covenant Deity's name (“As the LORD lives”) and His creative action (“who gave us life/breath”). Zedekiah was a religious man but a weak, indecisive one!

Verses 17-23

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Jeremiah 38:17-23 17Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “Thus says the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel, 'If you will indeed go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will survive. 18But if you will not go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be given over to the hand of the Chaldeans; and they will burn it with fire, and you yourself will not escape from their hand.'“ 19Then King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I dread the Jews who have gone over to the Chaldeans, for they may give me over into their hand and they will abuse me.” 20But Jeremiah said, “They will not give you over. Please obey the LORD in what I am saying to you, that it may go well with you and you may live. 21But if you keep refusing to go out, this is the word which the LORD has shown me: 22'Then behold, all of the women who have been left in the palace of the king of Judah are going to be brought out to the officers of the king of Babylon; and those women will say, “Your close friends Have misled and overpowered you; While your feet were sunk in the mire, They turned back.” 23They will also bring out all your wives and your sons to the Chaldeans, and you yourself will not escape from their hand, but will be seized by the hand of the king of Babylon, and this city will be burned with fire.'“

Jeremiah 38:17 Notice the three titles of the One in whose name (cf. Jeremiah 35:17) Jeremiah speaks.


2. God of hosts

3. God of Israel

The VERB “go out to” means “surrender” (BDB 422, KB 425) in this context. It is intensified by the presence of the INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE of the same root!

Notice, if the king will respond appropriately, even at this late date, to YHWH's words, there is hope for the city/temple! But if not Jeremiah 38:18!

Jeremiah 38:19 As Zedekiah was afraid of the officials in Jeremiah 38:4-5, now he is afraid of the Judean deserters! He should have been afraid of YHWH! If only he would have trusted in YHWH's promise (cf. Jeremiah 38:20). Divine promises are linked to human choices!

Jeremiah 38:20 This reaffirmation of YHWH's promise has

1. a command to obedience - BDB 1033, KB 1570, Qal IMPERATIVE

2. two conditional JUSSIVES

a. it may go well with you - BDB 405, KB 408, Qal IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense

b. you may live - BDB 310, KB 309, Qal JUSSIVE (cf. Jeremiah 38:2)

Jeremiah 38:21-23 YHWH's promises, ignored or refused, result in consequences.

1. women of the palace will be given over to the officials of the Babylonian army

2. they will accuse the king of vacillation and weakness to his counselors (“your feet were sunk in the mire” is an idiom of indecision)

3. Zedekiah's wives and children will be exiled. The VERB may imply

a. sexual abuse

b. humiliation

c. exile

4. Zedekiah will be tortured as he feared

5. the city and temple will be destroyed

Verses 24-28

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Jeremiah 38:24-28 24Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no man know about these words and you will not die. 25But if the officials hear that I have talked with you and come to you and say to you, 'Tell us now what you said to the king and what the king said to you; do not hide it from us and we will not put you to death,' 26then you are to say to them, 'I was presenting my petition before the king, not to make me return to the house of Jonathan to die there.'“ 27Then all the officials came to Jeremiah and questioned him. So he reported to them in accordance with all these words which the king had commanded; and they ceased speaking with him, since the conversation had not been overheard. 28So Jeremiah stayed in the court of the guardhouse until the day that Jerusalem was captured.

Jeremiah 38:26 “you are to say to them” Jeremiah agrees to the cover story. He did ask the king this very question in Jeremiah 37:20.


This is a study guide commentary, whichmeans that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. How much time separates chapter 36 from 37?

2. What does Jeremiah 37:3 and 17 imply about the king?

3. Why was Jeremiah arrested in chapter 37?

4. Did the officials have any grounds for his arrest?

5. What does Jeremiah 37:20 say about Jeremiah?

6. Why do some scholars see chapters 37 and 38 as two accounts of one occurrence?

7. In which verse of chapter 38 does the weakness of Jeremiah show clearly?

8. Why did the officials want to kill Jeremiah?

9. Who is Ebed-melech?

10. Did Jeremiah lie in Jeremiah 38:27?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Jeremiah 38". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/jeremiah-38.html. 2021.
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