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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 38

 

 


Verses 1-13

Jeremiah Is Seen As A Traitor And Is Thrust Into A Well Filled With Deep Mud Which Was In The Court Of The Guard, Where He Would Have Died Had He Not Been Rescued By Ebedmelech, A Sudanese (Jeremiah 38:1-13).

Even though he was in the court of the guard Jeremiah had access to the people who would gather there to hear what he had to say (compare Jeremiah 32:12). And nothing could prevent him from proclaiming the word of YHWH which announced the forthcoming surrender of the city. This displeased many of the king’s advisers who felt that he was weakening the city’s resistance and demanded that he be silenced. In consequence the king weakly acceded to their demands, allowing them to put Jeremiah into a deep well which rendered him inaccessible to the people and which would shortly, had he not been rescued, have resulted in his demise through starvation.

Jeremiah 38:1

‘And 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 spoke to all the people, saying,’

In Jeremiah 38:4 these men are described as ‘princes. They were probably prominent among the king’s advisers. As such they would often pass through the court of the guard, and it was while doing so that they became aware of what Jeremiah was declaring to the people. Chronologically chapter 21 also occurred around this time.

Neither Shephatiah nor Gedaliah are mentioned elsewhere. Gedaliah must not be confused with the later Gedaliah, son of Ahikam (Jeremiah 39:14) who would later be governor. Jucal the son of Shelemiah is mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3 where he was sent by the king along with Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah to seek for Jeremiah’s intercession on behalf of the nation, and Pashhur the son of Malchijah is mentioned in Jeremiah 21:1, where he also accompanied Zephaniah with a request to Jeremiah for intercession, when they received the same uncompromising message as the one found here. However the names of both Gedalyahu (Gedaliah) ben Pashhur and Yehu-kual (Yucal) ben Shelemyahu (Shelemiah) have been discovered on seals dug up in the City of David in Jerusalem.

Jeremiah 38:2

“Thus says YHWH, He who abides in this city will die by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence, but he who goes forth to the Chaldeans will live, and his life shall be to him for a prey, and he will live.”

In spite of the danger that he was in Jeremiah continued to proclaim YHWH’s word faithfully without regard for the consequences. Counselling surrender to the enemy was hardly the best way of ingratiating himself with the authorities. Indeed it is indicative of the awe in which he was held as a prophet of YHWH that he was allowed for a while to get away with it.

His message was that death awaited those who remained in the city, either through starvation and disease due to siege conditions, or through the sword when the city was taken, whilst those who surrendered to the Babylonians prior to the taking of the city would live (compare Jeremiah 21:9).

‘His life will be to him for a prey.’ In other words he will seize it like a hunter would a prey and carry it off safely.

Jeremiah 38:3

“Thus says YHWH, This city will surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon, and he will take it.”

An his message in Jeremiah 38:2 was based on the fact that the city would unquestionably be give into the hands of Nebuchadrezzar’s army because that was YHWH’s express word. It was not a message likely to endear him to those who were trying to bolster the resistance of the defenders. It just happened to be the truth.

Jeremiah 38:4

‘Then the princes said to the king, “Let this man, we pray you, be put to death, because he weakens the hands of the men of war who remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words to them. For this man does not seek the welfare of this people, but the hurt.”

Understandably from a human point of view these princes were angry at what Jeremiah was saying, because it weakened the will of the defenders at a time when it was important that their morale be maintained. It was suggesting that resistance was pointless. Thus in their view, far from considering the welfare of the city, Jeremiah was seeking to cause it considerable harm.

Jeremiah 38:5

‘And Zedekiah the king said, “Behold, he is in your hand, for the king is not he who can do anything against you.”

Zedekiah was reluctant to act against Jeremiah himself because he recognised that he was a genuine prophet of YHWH. On the other hand he did not feel able to support him, because to do so might add to the weakening of morale. Thus while making clear that he was not in agreement with the situation he gave them permission to act against Jeremiah in any way that they thought best. As Pilate would later with Jesus, he washed his hands with regard to Jeremiah, thereby no doubt hoping to escape YHWH’s condemnation in respect of what would happen.

Jeremiah 38:6

‘Then they took Jeremiah, and cast him into the pit of Malchijah the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the pit there was no water, but mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire.’

For Jeremiah it was a case of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’. Having previously escaped from the pit in the house of Jonathan (Jeremiah 37:15), he found himself in an even worse situation in being lowered down by means of ropes into a pit which had previously been filled with water, and whose bottom was now covered with a thick layer of mud. It was probably in fact a cistern. It would have a narrow entrance at the top and widen out below the point of entry. The fact that it was empty drew attention to the water shortage in the city, whilst the fact that the mud was still soft indicates that it had not been empty very long.

Jeremiah’s predicament is emphasised by the fact that he sank into the mud. It was not a very happy position to be in.

Malchijah may have been the father of the Pashhur mentioned in Jeremiah 38:1. His description as ‘the king’s son’ (compare Jeremiah 36:26) indicates royal connections, although not necessarily strictly as a son. It is, however, sufficient to demonstrate the high level of the opposition which was against Jeremiah. His cistern would not have been available had he not been in agreement with the princes involved.

It may be asked why they did not immediately put him to death? One possible answer is that that was the one restriction that the king had put on them. This could be seen as supported by his immediate response when he learned that Jeremiah was in danger of death (Jeremiah 38:9). But the answer may well lie in his prophetic status. To have slain a prophet of YHWH directly could have been seen by the people as automatically bringing doom on the city, and could have worsened the very situation that they were trying to alleviate (loss of morale). And they may well themselves have been equally superstitious. On the other hand leaving him in the pit to die could well have been seen as an easy way out. Then they could be seen as throwing the onus on YHWH, in the same way as with Joseph long before (Genesis 37:22-24). Their argument could have been that it would then be up to YHWH to determine whether he survived or not (which they were sure he would not).

Jeremiah 38:7

‘Now when Ebed-melech the Sudanese, a high official (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,)’

News of what had happened did not immediately reach the king because he had temporarily housed himself at the Gate of Benjamin, one of the key defence points for the city, and the gate by which deserters would normally leave if they wished to submit themselves to the Babylonians. It may well have been with the intention of maintaining the morale of the defenders, or he may have been hearing the complaints of disgruntled inhabitants. He may even have been determining who should be allowed to desert to the enemy (leaving less mouths to feed in the city). Whichever it was he was taking his duties seriously.

One whom the news did reach, however, was Ebed-melech (‘servant of the king’), who was a high official in the king’s house. He may indeed have genuinely been a eunuch as superintendent of the king’s harem, but the noun does not necessarily indicate it, and we would not expect such an official to have great influence over the king. On the other hand it would explain his presence at the palace at such a time. It is, however, more likely that Ebed-melech (a Cushite from the Upper Nile region e.g. Northern Sudan) was of higher status, with sufficient influence to stand up to the princes. Why he thus supported Jeremiah we do not know, but he may well have feared that Jeremiah’s death would bring calamity on Jerusalem. As a foreigner or a proselyte he may well have been in greater awe of YHWH than the natives were.

Jeremiah 38:8

‘Ebed-melech went forth out of the king’s house, and spoke to the king, saying,’

So Ebed-melech left the palace and made his way to the Gate of Benjamin in order to seek an audience with the king.

Jeremiah 38:9

“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 pit, and he is likely to die in the place where he is, because of the famine, for there is no more bread in the city.’

Once there he explained what had happened. He pointed out the evil that there was in all that the princes had done to the prophet of YHWH, in that they had cast him into the pit where, in view of the famine, he was likely to die of starvation, for who would bother to feed such a prisoner when the whole city was starving and without bread?

‘He is likely to die.’ Literally ‘he is dying’. In other words he was as good as dead.

Jeremiah 38:10

‘Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Cushite (Ethiopian/Sudanese), saying, “Take from where you are thirty men with you, and take up Jeremiah the prophet out of the pit, before he die.”

The king responded immediately, something which suggests that it had never been his intention that Jeremiah should die. He commanded Ebed-melech to take a platoon of soldiers (‘ a thirty’) with a view to bringing Jeremiah out of the pit before he should die. The number of soldiers supplied suggests that the king recognised that there might be violent opposition to Jeremiah’s release. Feelings were running high. But he clearly felt the situation important enough to take men away from their defence duties. There was still within him a certain awe of YHWH.

Jeremiah 38:11

‘So Ebed-melech took the men with him, and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took there rags and worn-out garments, and let them down by cords into the dungeon to Jeremiah.’

Ebed-melech promptly did as he was commanded, and his genuine humanity was demonstrated in that he took steps to make Jeremiah’s release as painless as possible. He went directly to the store-houses under the king’s treasury and obtained from there patches of cloth and linen which could be used by Jeremiah with his emaciated body to protect his armpits when the cords went under his arms. These he let down to Jeremiah in the pit.

Jeremiah 38:12

‘And Ebed-melech the Cushite (Ethiopian) said to Jeremiah, “Put now these rags and worn-out garments under your armholes under the cords.” And Jeremiah did so.’

He then advised Jeremiah to put the pieces of cloth and linen under his armpits so that they would be protected from the harshness of the ropes, and Jeremiah did as he suggested.

Jeremiah 38:13

‘So they drew up Jeremiah with the cords, and took him up out of the pit, and Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.’

Then they drew Jeremiah out of the pit by means of the ropes, and he was reinstated in the prison in the court of the guards. There does not appear to have been any reaction to his release. Perhaps the princes realised that they had exceeded their remit and kept silent.


Verses 1-28

Jeremiah’s Experiences In The Court Of The Guard (Jeremiah 38:1-28).

But even the fact that Jeremiah was in the court of the guard did not prevent him from further maltreatment by those who saw him as a traitor. This chapter divides into two sections each ending with a reference to his being in ‘the court of the guard’. The first describes how he was seen as a traitor and thrust into a muddy well or cistern where he would have died had he not been rescued by the intervention of Ebedmelech, and the second describes how he was again consulted by the king with strict injunctions to keep the fact a secret from the king’s counsellors.


Verses 14-28

Zedekiah Once Again Consults Jeremiah And Keeps Him Safely In The Court Of The Guard Until Jerusalem Is Taken (Jeremiah 38:14-28).

This was to be Zedekiah’s last consultation with Jeremiah. During it he was offered a lifeline if he was willing to obey YHWH and surrender to the Babylonians. But there were huge pressures on him not to do so from his band of ‘princes’ who were firmly against such a surrender. We must presume that they still hoped that Egypt would come to their aid. And the consequence was that he refused to obey YHWH, with the result that in the end Jerusalem suffered for his disobedience. It was taken, and burned and turned into a ruin. Such is often the case if we listen to the voice of men rather than responding to the voice of God.

Jeremiah 38:14

‘Then Zedekiah the king sent, and took Jeremiah the prophet to him into the third entry that is in the house of YHWH, and the king said to Jeremiah, “I will ask you something. Do not hide anything from me.”

Zedekiah was clearly torn in his mind about what he should do, and he wanted assurance from YHWH that at least YHWH was on his side. Thus he hoped that perhaps YHWH’s message though Jeremiah may have changed. That is presumably why he had him brought to him to a private place in the Temple where he may well have been praying. But prayer is of little value if we are walking in disobedience towards God..

‘The third entry that is in the house of YHWH’ was presumably an easily recognisable spot and may well have been restricted to the king and the royal family, for it would appear that he chose it so that he could meet Jeremiah privately. There was probably a private room in the gateway, suitable for Zedekiah’s purpose. There the king informed Jeremiah that he had something to ask him, and that he wanted him to be totally honest when giving him an answer. We are never in fact told what he wanted to ask him, but in all probability it was as to the options open to him from YHWH’s point of view.

Jeremiah 38:15

‘Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I declare it to you, will you not surely put me to death? And if I give you counsel, you will not listen to me.”

But Jeremiah pointed out that this put him in an invidious position, for if he told him the truth he would have him put to death, and if he gave him advice it would not be listened to. What then was the point of his speaking?

Jeremiah 38:16

‘So Zedekiah the king swore secretly to Jeremiah, saying, “As YHWH lives, who made us this soul, I will not put you to death, nor will I give you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”

The king then swore to Jeremiah secretly man to man that no matter what he said to him he would not have him put to death, nor would he again hand him over to the princes who were seeking Jeremiah’s life.

Jeremiah 38:17-18

‘Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah,

“Thus says YHWH, the God of hosts, the God of Israel.

“If you will go forth to the king of Babylon’s princes,

Then your soul will live,

And this city will not be burned with fire,

And you will live, and your house.”

But if you will not go forth to the king of Babylon’s princes,

Then will this city be given into the hand of the Chaldeans,

And they will burn it with fire,

And you will not escape out of their hand.”

As a consequence of Zedekiah’s promise Jeremiah reiterated what had previously been said. The choice for Zedekiah was clear. If he surrendered to the Babylonians all would be well. If he did not, then disaster awaited both Zedekiah and Jerusalem.

It would seem quite possible that this interview was a consequence of an offer having come from Nebuchadnezzar offering surrender terms, for only such an offer would explain why options were still open. Normally a city that had resisted this long would be automatically doomed. It may therefore be that Nebuchadnezzar was aware of pressures elsewhere and, wanting to bring the siege to a rapid end, had offered favourable terms. And it may have been partly this that was encouraging the princes to hope for his withdrawal without having taken the city.

Looking at the carefully constructed parallels ‘your soul’ may well be referring to Jerusalem as being the king’s very soul. Thus it is stressing that YHWH’s offer would result in life both for Jerusalem and for the royal house.

Jeremiah 38:19

‘And Zedekiah the king said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Jews who are fallen away to the Chaldeans, in case they deliver me into their hand, and they mock me.”

That Zedekiah may have been contemplating surrender comes out in these fears. One thing that was preventing him was his fears lest when he surrendered he might be handed over to ‘the Jews who had fallen over to the Chaldeans’ who would then mock him, and worse. These would themselves have suffered mockery and hatred from Zedekiah and his princes. He thus feared reciprocation.

Jeremiah 38:20

‘But Jeremiah said, “They will not deliver you. Obey, I beg you, the voice of YHWH in what I speak to you. So it will be well with you, and your soul will live.”

Jeremiah then assured him that his fears were groundless. If only he would obey YHWH all would be well. Furthermore he himself would prosper. It is very possible that Jeremiah, as one who was recognised as an influential Babylonian supporter, had received assurances through a secret emissary that if only he could persuade the king to surrender the king would be treated reasonably.

Jeremiah 38:21

“But if you refuse to go forth, this is the word that YHWH has shown me,”

On the other hand if he refused to go forth and surrender, then he would have to bear the full weight of the word of YHWH, in the way now described, and paradoxically this WOULD result in him being mocked, for he would be mocked by the women of his own harem.

Jeremiah 38:22

“Behold, all the women who are left in the king of Judah’s house will be brought forth to the king of Babylon’s princes, and those women will say,

‘Your friends who suggested you would have peace have set you on,

And have prevailed over you,

Your feet are sunk in the mire,

They are turned away back.’ ”

The women who remained in the king’s house would, because of Jerusalem’s demise, become members of the harems of Nebuchadnezzar’s princes. And they themselves would mock Zedekiah and point out to him that he had allowed himself to be over-persuaded and to be led into the mire by his ‘friends’.

‘Your friends who suggested you would have peace’ is literally ‘the men of your peace’, but in context the meaning is clear. It is referring to the men who set Zedekiah on his false course (or ‘deceived’ him), and persuaded him to make the wrong decision, by declaring that by following their advice he would achieve peace and wellbeing. But the only consequence would be that his feet would be as though stuck in the mud (just as Jeremiah had been left in the mud in the cistern - Jeremiah 38:6), while his friends would turn round and desert him leaving him starkly alone. The first two lines of the women’s words reflect Obadiah 1:7.

Jeremiah 38:23

“And they will bring out all your wives and your children to the Chaldeans; and you will not escape out of their hand, but will be taken by the hand of the king of Babylon, and you will cause this city to be burned with fire.”

And not only the royal harem (which would always be taken over by the conqueror in order to demonstrate his superiority, compare 2 Samuel 16:22), but also all the wives and children of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, would be handed over to the Chaldeans, and the city itself would be burned with fire as one that was continually rebellious. Furthermore Zedekiah himself, and his household, would also not escape out of his hand. All would be doomed. (The lack of mention of his being blinded confirms that here we have a prophecy before the event, for an inventor would hardly have failed to mention it).

‘And you will cause this city to be burned with fire.’ Literally ‘and you will burn this city with fire’. Zedekiah would be directly responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem because of his failure to obey YHWH.

Once again we get the feeling that special terms must have been offered in one way or another, for otherwise this would already be the natural consequence of having resisted for so long.

Jeremiah 38:24

‘Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no man know of these words, and you will not die.”

Zedekiah then swore Jeremiah to silence about their conversation and promised him that in return he would ensure Jeremiah’s safety. This brings out the huge pressure that was being exerted by the princes who were against surrender at any price. The king did not dare to let them know that he had even contemplated it.

The warning about death may be an additional assurance of the king’s protection as long as he remained silent, or a warning of what the princes would seek to bring about if they learned that Jeremiah had again exhorted the king to surrender to the Babylonians, or indeed both.

Jeremiah 38:25-26

“But if the princes hear that I have talked with you, and they come to you, and say to you, ‘Declare to us now what you have said to the king. Do not hide it from us, and we will not put you to death, also what the king said to you,’ then you shall say to them, ‘I presented my supplication before the king, that he would not cause me to return to Jonathan’s house, to die there.’ ”

The uneasy relationships between the king and his chief advisers is brought out here. He was even afraid that his princes would seek to undermine him, and that to such an extent that he considered that they would give Jeremiah immunity instead if only they could get cause against the king. That is why he now enjoined total silence on Jeremiah concerning their conversation. As the conversation was from the start private, and was between the king and his subject, that was a perfectly reasonable request. A firm promise to remain silent must be observed. But in view of the fact that the princes might question Jeremiah about what had been discussed, Zedekiah said that he could release the fact of his request that he not be sent back to the prison in Jonathan’s house where he had been treated so badly. That that idea came up may well indicate that both were aware of pressures for such a move being made, which would serve to confirm that that matter was discussed. Furthermore we should note that in these circumstances Jeremiah would be acting on the king’s command which was sacred. To release a state secret would be a great sin.

The duty of a godly man to tell the truth must certainly take into account a guarantee of privacy for matters which are essentially and specifically private, especially when they concerned someone like the king. It was perfectly reasonable not to reveal the whole of such a conversation, and it was therefore by no means deceitful not to do so. It was no business of the princes what Zedekiah had spoken to Jeremiah about, so they had no right to the information. They only wanted it so as to stir up trouble. Thus Jeremiah cannot be faulted for doing what the king asked as long as the matter that he did speak of was also discussed. And this was especially so as disobedience to the kings command might have resulted in a revolution. After all, a prophet of YHWH had to be able to be trusted with secrets, otherwise no one would have consulted him.

Jeremiah 38:27

‘Then all the princes came to 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.’

Sure enough the princes did come to Jeremiah and question him about his meeting with the king, and it was no doubt in not too pleasant a way. Jeremiah responded to them in the way that the king had commanded. Eventually they appear to have been satisfied that there was no more to be discovered from Jeremiah for they let him be. Consequently, whatever their suspicions, they never discovered what had been the main item in the conversation. The uneasy truce between the king and the princes continued.

Jeremiah 38:28

‘So Jeremiah abode in the court of the guard until the day that Jerusalem was taken.’

And in consequence of all this Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard right up to the taking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. He was no longer subjected to vile conditions and was no doubt given such scraps of food as were available, for all would by this time be living on starvation rations.

The treatment of the prophet of YHWH who had brought the word of YHWH that is described in these last two chapters was final proof of the attitude of Jerusalem towards Him. They had broken His covenant (as regards slavery) after having renewed it (chapter 34), they had disobeyed their ‘Father’s’ commands in contrast with the obedience of the Rechabites (chapter 35), they had burned the word that came from YHWH as a deliberate act of rejection (chapter 36), and now finally they had continually mistreated Jeremiah, the very prophet of YHWH (chapters 37-38).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 38:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-38.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 28th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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