A. The word of the LORD against Zedekiah, King of Judah.
1. (1-3) God tells Zedekiah of the soon fall of Jerusalem.
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army, all the kingdoms of the earth under his dominion, and all the people, fought against Jerusalem and all its cities, saying, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah and tell him, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. And you shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be taken and delivered into his hand; your eyes shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon, he shall speak with you face to face, and you shall go to Babylon.’”’
a. Fought against Jerusalem and all its cities: This prophecy against Zedekiah and his kingdom came in his tenth or eleventh year. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army had come against Jerusalem and circled the city in a siege.
i. Verses 21 and 22 of this chapter give further information about the time and context. God said regarding the Babylonian army that they had gone back from Jerusalem, but that He would command…and cause them to return to this city (Jeremiah 34:22). The events of this chapter are in the context of when the Egyptians came against the Babylonians during this siege, and Nebuchadnezzar briefly withdrew from the siege of Jerusalem to fight the Egyptians to the south (Jeremiah 37:5-10). The leaders and people of Jerusalem thought they were delivered, but God and His prophet knew the Babylonians would return.
ii. “The strategy of the invaders was to hold the capital under siege and reduce the outlying strongholds one by one during the next year. When only Lachish and Azekah remained (Jeremiah 34:7) it seemed that some hope of relief had at last appeared, as news of the approach of an Egyptian army under Pharaoh Hophra (Jeremiah 44:30) had reached the capital, probably in the late spring or early summer of 588 BC” (Thompson)
iii. All the kingdoms of the earth under his dominion: “Daniel 3:2-4 and 4:1 show the vast extent of the neo-Babylonian empire. Soldiers came from subject countries to join in the siege (cf. 2 Kings 24:2).” (Feinberg)
b. I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon: Despite the temporarily lifted siege, God wanted Zedekiah to know that the city and the kingdom would be conquered by the will and command of God. It wasn’t just the Babylonians who were against Judah.
i. Jerusalem was indeed burned with fire. He burned the house of the LORD and the king’s house; all the houses of Jerusalem, that is, all the houses of the great, he burned with fire (2 Kings 25:9).
c. You shall not escape from his hand: Sometimes when a city or a kingdom falls, the king escapes. God wanted Zedekiah to know this would not be the case. He would be captured by the Babylonian king who set him on the throne of Judah as a vassal king (2 Chronicles 36:10), the same Nebuchadnezzar whom he rebelled against. Nebuchadnezzar would judge him face to face.
i. “It was expected that he would suffer severe punishment. The Hebrew idiom is very vivid, ‘Your eyes will look at the eyes of the king of Babylon and his mouth will speak with your mouth.’ Such confrontations are well known in the extant documents of the ancient Near East.” (Thompson)
ii. “The Lord’s message to him was that he was not to be led astray by the temporary respite in the siege; the situation was actually hopeless.” (Feinberg)
iii. “Remembering the readiness of God to take back a threat (Jeremiah 18:8, 11), and the clemency of Nebuchadnezzar to Jeremiah for his advocacy of surrender (Jeremiah 39:11-12), we may wonder whether even now Zedekiah might have found mercy had he repented.” (Kidner)
2. (4-5) The promise that Zedekiah would die a natural death.
Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah! Thus says the LORD concerning you: ‘You shall not die by the sword. You shall die in peace; as in the ceremonies of your fathers, the former kings who were before you, so they shall burn incense for you and lament for you, saying, “Alas, lord!” For I have pronounced the word, says the LORD.’”
a. You shall not die by the sword: Zedekiah had a terrible fate in front of him, but he did not die by the sword. Soon after this prophecy, the Babylonians captured Zedekiah. Then they killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, put out the eyes of Zedekiah, bound him with bronze fetters, and took him to Babylon (2 Kings 25:7).
i. You shall not die by the sword: “And yet Josiah, his father, a far better man, did; so unsearchable are God’s judgments, and his ways past finding out.” (Trapp)
b. So they shall burn incense for you and lament for you: Zedekiah had the small consolations of a peaceful death and remembrance with lament by his subjects. Some believe this was a conditional promise, and because Zedekiah did not turn to God it was never fulfilled.
i. “The Jews have a tradition that Nebuchadnezzar, upon a festival day, caused him to be brought out of prison, and so abused him before his princes to make them sport, that for shame and grief thereof he died soon after; and then Nebuchadnezzar, to make him some recompense, caused him to be honourably buried, suffering his former subjects to burn sweet odours and to bewail his death.” (Clarke)
ii. “The ‘funeral fire in honor of you fathers’ is not to be confused with the funeral pyre so well known in India. Cremation has never been a prevailing custom among the Jews.” (Feinberg)
3. (6-7) Jeremiah brings the word to King Zedekiah.
Then Jeremiah the prophet spoke all these words to Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem, when the king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem and all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and Azekah; for only these fortified cities remained of the cities of Judah.
a. Jeremiah the prophet spoke all these words to Zedekiah: Jeremiah remained a courageous prophet. Zedekiah had the power to harm Jeremiah in many ways, but the prophet did not fail to deliver the message from God.
b. The cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and Azekah: The city of Lachish was some thirty miles southwest of Jerusalem. Because of the Egyptian threat, Nebuchadnezzar had to secure the strategic points to the south before the complete conquest of Jerusalem.
i. Archaeologists have discovered a pit in Lachish with the remains of about 1,500 casualties of Nebuchadnezzar’s attack. The Lachish Letters were discovered, urgent writings on bits of pottery, all regarding the Babylonian attack and conquest of cities like Lachish and Azekah (which are specifically mentioned in the Lachish Letters).
iii. “A Lachish, twenty-one ostraca (i.e. broken pieces of pottery used for writing lists, letters, etc.) have been discovered dating from the time of the Babylonian invasion. One of them (Ostracon iv) reads, ‘… we are watching for the signals of Lachish, according to all the indications which my lord hath given, for we cannot see Azekah.’ This is usually taken as an allusion that Azekah had just fallen to the Babylonians, and that the smoke-signal or beacon, indicating that the city was still holding out, was no longer made.” (Cundall)
iii. “These were two cities of Judah of considerable importance: they had been strongly fortified by Rehoboam, 2 Chronicles 11:9-11; 2 Chronicles 32:9.” (Clarke)
B. The sin of setting slaves free and bringing them back into servitude.
1. (8-11) Going back on a covenant to release slaves from their service.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty to them: that every man should set free his male and female slave—a Hebrew man or woman—that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage. Now when all the princes and all the people, who had entered into the covenant, heard that everyone should set free his male and female slaves, that no one should keep them in bondage anymore, they obeyed and let them go. But afterward they changed their minds and made the male and female slaves return, whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male and female slaves.
a. King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty: At some time in his reign (likely when the Babylonians threatened to conquer Jerusalem), King Zedekiah proclaimed emancipation for the Hebrew slaves in Judah.
i. With ancient Israel, as in the entire ancient world, there were people who worked for others on the principle of servitude. They were slaves in some sense, though not necessarily in the brutal and degraded sense most think of slavery.
ii. Some think that the Bible is responsible for slavery. The opposite is true; slavery existed long before Israel or Moses. The Bible is responsible for the elimination of slavery, not its establishment.
iii. There were four basic ways a Hebrew might become a slave to another Hebrew.
· In extreme poverty, they might sell their liberty (Leviticus 25:39).
· A father might sell a daughter as a servant into a home with the intention that she would eventually marry into that family (Exodus 21:7).
· In the case of bankruptcy, a man might become servant to his creditors (2 Kings 4:1).
· If a thief had nothing with which to pay proper restitution (Exodus 22:3-4).
iv. “That the people of Israel might be enslaved to their own countrymen was largely a matter of economics. Men in debt might accept a status of servitude till their debt was liquidated.” (Thompson)
v. The ideas of man-stealing and life-long servitude – the concepts many have of slavery – simply do not apply to the practice of slavery in the Old Testament. Normally, slavery was:
· Chosen or mutually arranged.
· Of limited duration.
· Highly regulated.
vi. Hebrew: “The term Hebrew (ibri) is significant. In the OT it was not normally used by the people of Israel of themselves but appeared in periods in the history when they were in a condition of servitude, as in Egypt in pre-Exodus days, and at the time of the Philistine domination.” (Thompson)
b. They obeyed and let them go: Because of Zedekiah’s command and leadership, they immediately set their slaves free. However, from the words following in this chapter, it seems that they did not let their slaves free before their appointed time. It seems that these were slaves who had been kept past the six years set by the Law of Moses (Exodus 21:2-4).
i. “In their distress they made some shows of remorse, and some overtures of reformation.” (Clarke)
ii. It seems that Zedekiah and the people of Israel did not make a generous act; they simply stopped disobeying the command of God in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15:12-15. It seemed that the people of Jerusalem and Judah of that time followed the ancient laws regarding property transfer to the letter (Jeremiah 32:9-15). They didn’t obey at all the ancient laws regarding setting Hebrew slaves free in the seventh year.
iii. If we are generous to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, we might say they obeyed the command to set the slaves free because they were desperate and sorry under the Babylonian siege and repented of their prior sin. It is more likely that they did this because under siege the masters did not want to be responsible for feeding their slaves, there was no work in the fields for them to do, and they might be better soldiers against the Babylonians if they were free. This was either panic, piety. or cold self-interest.
iv. “At this point news arrived that an Egyptian army was marching to relieve Jerusalem, and these tidings caused the Babylonians to lift the siege temporarily so as to regroup and attack the advancing Egyptians.” (Harrison)
c. Afterward they changed their minds and made the male and female slaves return, whom they had set free: They changed their minds when the Babylonian siege was lifted. With the threat gone, there was no more need to radically repent, so they repented of their repentance and forced these slaves back into servitude.
i. “The Chaldeans had drawn off, to go, belike, to fight with the relief that was coming out of Egypt; [Jeremiah 37:7; Jeremiah 37:11] and now these silly Jews thought themselves out of the reach of God’s rod perfidiously repealed their vows.” (Clarke)
ii. When the siege was lifted, “Now there was no longer a food problem but a servant problem. So the release of the slaves was cancelled, and these unfortunates were back where they had started.” (Kidner)
iii. “In this prophecy one of the sins which characterized the times is clearly manifest – oppression of the poor and helpless, against which the indignation of Jehovah is graphically set forth.” (Morgan)
iv. By the law of God, by the command of the king, and by the action of their former masters they were free – yet now forced back into servitude. We don’t know what power or threat they used to force them. Perhaps they worked hard to persuade them that they really weren’t free after all and had to continue to live as slaves. In spiritual analogy, Satan hopes to deceive believers along similar lines. He hopes to persuade them that they are not really free and must come back under his service.
2. (12-16) Reminding them of the law of Moses.
Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, “At the end of seven years let every man set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to him; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you.” But your fathers did not obey Me nor incline their ear. Then you recently turned and did what was right in My sight — every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. Then you turned around and profaned My name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom he had set at liberty, at their pleasure, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.’”
a. I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: God began by reminding them that they all came from a slave past. This should have made them more generous and compassionate to their slaves, but it did not.
i. Who has been sold to him: “MT can also be translated literally who shall have sold himself, reflecting the long Near Eastern tradition of the voluntary adoption of servitude by individuals for economic reasons.” (Harrison)
b. When he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you: This was God’s command in Exodus 21:2-4. This was the law that they long disobeyed (your fathers did not obey Me) and under Zedekiah’s command obeyed (you recently turned and did what was right).
c. Then you turned around and profaned My name: Their going back to disobedience was unholy before God, especially because of the terrible oppression it placed upon others.
i. “All injustice of man to man creates in the mind of those who suffer, questionings about God. Thus His name is profaned; and His anger is ever stirred against those causing the profanation. The wrong of man to man inflicts on God a deeper wrong.” (Morgan)
3. (17) Proclaiming liberty of judgment.
“Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and every one to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,’ says the LORD — ‘to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine! And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth.’”
a. You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty: The people of Jerusalem had a great opportunity to obey God and do good to their fellow Hebrews by proclaiming liberty to those who were already free by the law of Moses. They did not obey God and missed this great opportunity.
i. The believer under the new covenant takes great peace in knowing that Jesus is the Liberator who never takes back the liberty He has granted.
b. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you…to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine: This was the “liberty” God proclaimed to these disobedient, cruel slave masters. God would free them from His protection; and they would see the sword, pestilence, and famine coming at them with full liberty; and they would see trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth.
4. (18-22) The punishment to those who broke the covenant.
“‘And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it — the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf — I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth. And I will give Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army which has gone back from you. Behold, I will command,’ says the LORD, ‘and cause them to return to this city. They will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.’”
a. Who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me: God had appointed a special judgment for those who went back on their promise to set their slaves free in obedience to the law. This covenant was made formally, by walking through the parts of a sacrificed animal (as with Abraham in Genesis 15:9-21). In the phrasing of Biblical Hebrew, you don’t make a covenant; you cut a covenant.
i. “As in the Assyrian inscriptions, the intention was that, as they passed through the pieces of the divided sacrifice, they invoked on themselves a curse that, if they broke the covenant, they would be cut in pieces like the sacrificial calf.” (Feinberg)
b. I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life: God promised that they would not escape judgment. They felt free to determine the destiny of others by acting as master over them; God would show His freedom to destine them for judgment.
c. I will command…and cause them to return to this city: Because of the Egyptian threat (Jeremiah 37:5-10), the Babylonian army had gone back from Jerusalem. When the people of Jerusalem and Judah went back on their promise to set their slaves free, God would bring the Babylonians back to complete the work of judgment.
i. Which has gone back from you: “Nebuchadnezzar, hearing that there was an Egyptian army coming to the relief of Jerusalem, raised the siege, went out, and met and defeated the Egyptians. It was in the interim this prophecy was delivered.” (Clarke)
ii. “Many towns were destroyed at the beginning of the sixth century BC and never again occupied; others were destroyed at that time and partly reoccupied at some later date; still others were destroyed and reoccupied after a long period of abandonment…There is not a single known case where a town of Judah proper was continuously occupied through the exilic period.” (Albright, cited in Thompson)