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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture
Jeremiah 39

 

 

Verses 1-10

Jeremiah

THE LAST AGONY

Jeremiah 39:1 - Jeremiah 39:10.

Two characteristics of this account of the fall of Jerusalem are striking,-its minute particularity, giving step by step the details of the tragedy, and its entire suppression of emotion. The passionless record tells the tale without a tear or a sob. For these we must go to the Book of Lamentations. This is the history of God’s judgment, and here emotion would be misplaced. But there is a world of repressed feeling in the long-drawn narrative, as well as in the fact that three versions of the story are given here [Jeremiah 52:1 - Jeremiah 52:34, 2 Kings 25:1 - 2 Kings 25:30]. Sorrow curbed by submission, and steadily gazing on God’s judicial act, is the temper of the narrative. It should be the temper of all sufferers. ‘I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.’ But we may note the three stages in the final agony which this section distinguishes.

I. There is the entrance of the enemy. Jerusalem fell not by assault, but by famine. The siege lasted eighteen months, and ended when ‘all the bread in the city was spent.’ The pitiful pictures in Lamentations fill in the details of misery, telling how high-born women picked garbage from dung-heaps, and mothers made a ghastly meal of their infants, while the nobles were wasted to skeletons, and the little children piteously cried for bread. At length a breach was made in the northern wall {as Josephus tells us, ‘at midnight’}, and through it, on the ninth day of the fourth month {corresponding to July}, swarmed the conquerors, unresisted. The commanders of the Babylonians planted themselves at ‘the middle gate,’ probably a gate in the wall between the upper and lower city, so securing for them the control of both.

How many of these fierce soldiers are named in Jeremiah 39:3? At first sight there seem to be six, but that number must be reduced by at least two, for Rab-saris and Rab-mag are official titles, and designate the offices {chief eunuch and chief magician} of the two persons whose names they respectively follow. Possibly Samgar-Nebo is also to be deducted, for it has been suggested that, as that name stands, it is anomalous, and it has been proposed to render its first element, Samgar, as meaning cup-bearer, and being the official title attached to the name preceding it; while its second part, Nebo, is regarded as the first element in a new name obtained by reading shashban instead of Sarsechim, and attaching that reading to Nebo. This change would bring Jeremiah 39:3 into accord with Jeremiah 39:13, for in both places we should then have Nebo-shashban designated as chief of the eunuchs. However the number of the commanders is settled, and whatever their names, the point which the historian emphasises is their presence there. Had it come to this, that men whose very names were invocations of false gods {‘Nergal protect the king,’ ‘Nebo delivers me’ if we read ‘Nebo-shashban,’ or ‘Be gracious, Nebo,’ if Samgar-nebo} should sit close by the temple, and have their talons fixed in the Holy City?

These intruders were all unconscious of the meaning of their victory, and the tragedy of their presence there. They thought that they were Nebuchadnezzar’s servants, and had captured for him, at last, an obstinate little city, which had given more trouble than it was worth. Its conquest was but a drop in the bucket of his victories. How little they knew that they were serving that Jehovah whom they thought that Nebo had conquered in their persons! How little they knew that they were the instruments of the most solemn act of judgment in the world’s history till then!

The causes which led to the fall of Jerusalem could be reasonably set forth as purely political without a single reference to Israel’s sins or God’s judgment; but none the less was its capture the divine punishment of its departure from Him, and none the less were Nergal-sharezer and his fellows God’s tools, the axes with which He hewed down the barren tree. So does He work still, in national and individual history. You may, in a fashion, account for both without bringing Him in at all; but your philosophy of either will be partial, unless you recognise that ‘the history of the world is the judgment of the world.’ It was the same hand which set these harsh conquerors at the middle gate of Jerusalem that sent the German armies to encamp in the Place de la Concorde in Paris; and in neither case does the recognition of God in the crash of a falling throne absolve the victors from the responsibility of their deeds.

II. We have the flight and fate of Zedekiah and his evil advisers [Jeremiah 39:4 - Jeremiah 39:7]. His weakness of character shows itself to the end. Why was there no resistance? It would have better beseemed him to have died on his palace threshold than to have skulked away in the dark between the shelter of the ‘two walls.’ But he was a poor weakling, and the curse of God sat heavy on his soul, though he had tried to put it away. Conscience made a coward of him; for he, at all events, knew who had set the strangers by the middle gate. Men who harden heart and conscience against threatened judgments are very apt to collapse, when the threats are fulfilled. The frost breaks up with a rapid thaw.

Ezekiel [Ezekiel 12:12] prophesied the very details of the flight. It was to be ‘in the dark,’ the king himself was to ‘carry’ some of his valuables, they were to ‘dig through’ the earthen ramparts; and all appears to have been literally fulfilled. The flight was taken in the opposite direction from the entrance of the besiegers; two walls, which probably ran down the valley between Zion and the temple mount, afforded cover to the fugitives as far as to the south city wall, and there some postern let them out to the king’s garden. That is a tragic touch. It was no time then to gather flowers. The forlorn and frightened company seems to have scattered when once outside the city; for there is a marked contrast in Jeremiah 39:4 between ‘they fled’ and ‘he went.’ In the description of his flight Zedekiah is still called, as in Jeremiah 39:1 - Jeremiah 39:2, the king; but after his capture he is only ‘Zedekiah.’

Down the rocky valley of the Kedron he hurried, and had a long enough start of his pursuers to get to Jericho. Another hour would have seen him safe across Jordan, but the prospect of escape was only dangled before his eyes to make capture more bitter. Probably he was too much absorbed with his misery and fear to feel any additional humiliation from the mighty memories of the scene of his capture; but how solemnly fitting it was that the place which had seen Israel’s first triumph, when ‘by faith the walls of Jericho fell down,’ should witness the lowest shame of the king who had cast away his kingdom by unbelief! The conquering dead might have gathered in shadowy shapes to reproach the weakling and sluggard who had sinned away the heritage which they had won. The scene of the capture underscores the lesson of the capture itself; namely, the victorious power of faith, and the defeat and shame which, in the long-run, are the fruits of an ‘evil heart of unbelief, departing from the living God.’

That would be a sad march through all the length of the fair land that had slipped from his slack fingers, up to far-off Riblah, in the great valley between the Lebanon and the anti-Lebanon. Observe how, in Jeremiah 39:5 - Jeremiah 39:6, the king of Babylon has his royal title, and Zedekiah has not. The crown has fallen from his head, and there is no more a king in Judah. He who had been king now stands chained before the cruel conqueror. Well might the victor think that Nebo had overcome Jehovah, but better did the vanquished know that Jehovah had kept his word.

Cruelty and expediency dictated the savage massacre and mutilation which followed. The death of Zedekiah’s sons, and of the nobles who had scoffed at Jeremiah’s warnings, and the blinding of Zedekiah, were all measures of precaution as well as of savagery. They diminished the danger of revolt; and a blind, childless prisoner, without counsellors or friends, was harmless. But to make the sight of his slaughtered sons the poor wretch’s last sight, was a refinement of gratuitous delight in torturing. Thus singularly was Ezekiel’s enigma solved and harmonised with its apparent contradictions in Jeremiah’s prophecies: ‘Yet shall he not see it, though he shall die there’ [Ezekiel 12:13].

Zedekiah is one more instance of the evil which may come from a weak character, and of the evil which may fall on it. He had good impulses, but he could not hold his own against the bad men round him, and so he stumbled on, not without misgivings, which only needed to be attended to with resolute determination, in order to have reversed his conduct and fate. Feeble hands can pull down venerable structures built in happier times. It takes a David and a Solomon to rear a temple, but a Zedekiah can overthrow it.

III. We have the completion of the conquest [Jeremiah 39:8 - Jeremiah 39:10]. The first care of the victors was, of course, to secure themselves, and fires and crowbars were the readiest way to that end. But the wail in the last chapter of Lamentations hints at the usual atrocities of the sack of a city, when brutal lust and as brutal ferocity are let loose. Jeremiah 52:1 - Jeremiah 52:34 shows that the final step in our narrative was separated from the capture of the city by a month, which was, no doubt, a month of nameless agonies, horrors, and shame. Then the last drop was added to the bitter cup, in the deportation of the bulk of the inhabitants, according to the politic custom of these old military monarchies. What rending of ties, what weariness and years of long-drawn-out yearning, that meant, can easily be imagined. The residue left behind to keep the country from relapsing into waste land was too weak to be dangerous, and too cowed to dare anything. One knows not who had the sadder lot, the exiles, or the handful of peasants left to till the fields that had once been their own, and to lament their brethren gone captives to the far-off land.

Surely the fall of Jerusalem, though all the agony is calmed ages ago, still remains as a solemn beacon-warning that the wages of sin is death, both for nations and individuals; that the threatenings of God’s Word are not idle, but will be accomplished to the utmost tittle; and that His patience stretches from generation to generation, and His judgments tarry because He is not willing that any should perish, but that for all the long-suffering there comes a time when even divine love sees that it is needful to say ‘Now!? and the bolt falls. The solemn word addressed to Israel has application as real to all Christian churches and individual souls: ‘You only have I known of all the inhabitants of the earth; therefore I will punish you for your iniquities.’


Verse 18

Jeremiah

EBEDMELECH THE ETHIOPIAN

Jeremiah 39:18.

Ebedmelech is a singular anticipation of that other Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip met on the desert road to Gaza. It is prophetic that on the eve of the fall of the nation, a heathen man should be entering into union with God. It is a picture in little of the rejection of Israel and the ingathering of the Gentiles.

I. The identity in all ages of the bond that unites men to God.

It is a common notion that faith is peculiar to the New Testament. But the Old Testament ‘trust’ is identical with the New Testament ‘faith,’ and it is a great pity that the variation in translation has obscured that identity. The fact of the prominence given to law in the Old Testament does not affect this. For every effort to keep the law must have led to consciousness of imperfection, and that consciousness must have driven to the exercise of penitent trust. The difference of degrees of revelation does not affect it, for faith is the same, however various the contents of the creed.

Note further the personal object of Faith-’in ME.’ The object of Faith is not a proposition but a Person. That Person is the same in the Old Testament and in the New. The Jehovah of the one is the God in Christ of the other. Consequently faith must be more than intellectual assent, it must be voluntary and emotional, the act of the whole man, ‘the synthesis of the reason and the will.’

II. The contrast of a formal and real union with God.

The king, prophets, priests, the whole nation, had an outward connection with Him, but it meant nothing. And this foreigner, a slave, perhaps not even a proselyte, a eunuch, had what the children of the covenant had not, a true union with God through Faith.

Judaism was not an exclusive system, but was intended to bring in the nations to share in its blessings. Outward descent gave outward place within the covenant, but the distinction of real and formal place there was established from the beginning. What else than this is the meaning of all the threatenings of Deuteronomy? What else did Isaiah mean when he called the rulers in Jerusalem ‘Rulers of Sodom’? Here the fates of Ebedmelech and of Zedekiah illustrate both sides of the truth. The danger of trusting in outward possession and of thinking that God’s mercy is our property besets all Churches. Organisations of Christianity are necessary, but it is impossible to tell the harm that formal connection with them has done. There is only one bond that unites men to God-personal trust in Him as ‘in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.’

III. The possibility of exercising uniting faith even in most unfavourable circumstances.

This Ebedmelech had everything against him. The contemptuous exclusion of him from any share in the covenant might well have discouraged him. The poorest Jew treated him as a heathen dog, who had no right even to crumbs from the table spread for the children only. He was plunged into a sea of godlessness, and saw examples enough of utter carelessness as to Jehovah in His professed servants to drive him away from a religion which had so little hold on its professed adherents. The times were gloomy, and the Jehovah whom Judah professed to worship seemed to have small power to help His worshippers. It would have been no wonder if the conduct of the people of Jerusalem had caused the name of Jehovah to be blasphemed by this Gentile, nor if he had revolted from a religion that was alleged to be the special property of one race, and that such a race! But he listened to the cry of his own heart, and to the words of God’s prophet, and his faith pierced through all obstacles-like the roots of some tree feeling for the water. He found the vitalising fountain that he sought, and His name stands to all ages as a witness that no seeking heart, that longs for God, is ever balked in its search, and that a faith, very imperfect as to its knowledge, may be so strong as to its substance that it unites him who exercises it with God, while the possessors of ecclesiastical privileges and of untarnished and full-orbed orthodox knowledge have no fellowship with Him.

IV. The safety given by such uniting faith.

To Ebedmelech, escape from death by the besiegers’ swords was promised. To us a more blessed safety and exemption from a worse destruction are assured. ‘The life which is life indeed’ may be ours, and shall assuredly be ours, if our trust knits us to Him who is the Life, and who has said ‘He that liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.’

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Jeremiah 39:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/jeremiah-39.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, September 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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