Jeremiah 38 – The Prophet in the Pit
A. Jeremiah in the pit.
1. (1-3) Jeremiah preaching in the days of Zedekiah.
Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah had spoken to all the people, saying, “Thus says the LORD: ‘He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes over to the Chaldeans shall live; his life shall be as a prize to him, and he shall live.’ Thus says the LORD: ‘This city shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army, which shall take it.’”
a. Shephatiah…Gedaliah…Jucal…Pashur: These men were princes of Judah, men connected to the royal family in some way. The aristocrats had their own status and interest to protect as the catastrophe of the complete Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem drew near.
i. “Those clamouring princes were unquestionably the politicians who had influenced the king against the word of the prophet; and had advocated resistance to Babylon when Jeremiah had persistently declared its futility.” (Morgan)
ii. In 2005 and 2008, Dr. Eilat Mazar discovered in the City of David area of Jerusalem two seal impressions in clay (bulla) with the names Gedaliah the son of Pashur and Jeucal the son of Shelemiah – two of the names as recorded here and in Jeremiah 37:3. These are some of the most recent of the 52 specific people of the Hebrew Bible to be confirmed by archaeology. (Biblical Archaeology Review, 41.5, page 18 – September/October 2015)
b. He who remains in this city shall die by the sword: As he had consistently done through his prophetic ministry, Jeremiah told the people to surrender to the Babylonians so that they could live in exile and wait for the promised restoration of God’s people.
i. He who goes over: “The verb ‘go out to’ probably bears the sense ‘desert to’ or ‘give oneself to.’ Jeremiah’s remarks seemed to be traitorous and to give the officials good grounds to arrest the prophet.” (Thompson)
c. This city shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army: God’s message through Jeremiah didn’t change. The conquest of Jerusalem was certain.
2. (4-6) For his preaching, Jeremiah is cast into a pit.
Therefore the princes said to the king, “Please, let this man be put to death, for thus he weakens the hands of the men of war who remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man does not seek the welfare of this people, but their harm.” Then Zedekiah the king said, “Look, he is in your hand. For the king can do nothing against you.” So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the king’s son, which was in the court of the prison, and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire. So Jeremiah sank in the mire.
a. Please, let this man be put to death: The princes of Judah mentioned in Jeremiah 38:1 asked King Zedekiah to execute Jeremiah because his message was bad for the morale of those defending Jerusalem.
i. He weakens the hands of the men of war: “A similar expression occurs in the Lachish Letter VI. The military commander there referred to certain elements among the officials in Jerusalem.” (Thompson)
ii. The men of war who remain: “Apparently Judah had lost a few good men. No doubt some had fallen in battle while defending the city walls. Others were slipping out at night by ones and twos and going over to surrender to the Babylonians.” (Ryken)
b. This man does not seek the welfare of this people, but their harm: This was exactly opposite to the truth. Jeremiah didn’t like preaching his message of doom and catastrophe, but in doing it he knew it gave the people of Judah their only chance of survival against the Babylonian threat.
i. Sometimes God’s servants are accused of the exact opposite of the truth. Moses was a remarkably humble man (Numbers 12:3), but was accused of pride (Numbers 16:3). Job was a righteous man (Job 1:1), but was accused of great sin by his friends (Job 4:7-8, 8:20, 11:14-17). Jesus was the spotless Son of God and was accused of being demon possessed (John 7:20, 8:48, 8:52).
ii. “Ahab charged the like crime upon Elijah; the Jews upon Christ, and afterwards upon Paul; the heathen persecutors upon the primitive Christians; the heretics still upon the orthodox, that they were seditious, antimonarchical, etc.” (Trapp)
c. Look, he is in your hand: Zedekiah could not find the courage to stand up to the princes of Judah and allowed them to do to Jeremiah as they pleased. They lowered him down into a dungeon-like pit, where Jeremiah sank in the mire.
i. “He was, of course, a puppet king, set up by Nebuchadnezzar after the exile of Jehoiachin and possibly not accepted by everyone in the nation as the true king.” (Thompson)
ii. “Poor weak prince! you respect the prophet, you fear the cabal, and you sacrifice an innocent man to your own weakness and their malice!” (Clarke)
iii. “Zedekiah is one more instance of the evil which may come from a weak character, and of evil which may fall on it. He had good impulses, but he could not hold his own against the bad men round him.” (Maclaren)
iv. “The intimidation of the princes seem to have paralyzed his will. He was a king with a wish-bone instead of a back-bone.” (Cundall)
v. “The king’s capitulation to his princes (Jeremiah 38:5) was perhaps the most abject surrender in biblical history until the moment when Pilate washed his hands before the multitude.” (Kidner)
vi. “Zedekiah seems to have been an alumnus of the same school of politics that Pontius Pilate later attended.” (Ryken)
vii. “If we would judge him, we may be judging ourselves, for his weakness might never have revealed itself had he not been thrust into a position that was far beyond him.” (Kidner)
d. They let Jeremiah down with ropes: The intention of the princes was clearly to kill Jeremiah (Please, let this man be put to death). Yet in the most hypocritical way, they did not want to bear the guilt of shedding his blood. So instead of pushing him into the dungeon and allowing him to fall, which would likely open a wound and cause blood to be shed, they carefully lowered the prophet down with ropes into the dungeon where he would die a slow death from famine, exposure, or disease – but technically without blood being shed.
i. This dungeon at the house of Malchiah with no water but only mud-like mire was certainly a cistern. “Most houses in Jerusalem had private cisterns (cf. 2 Kings 18:31; Proverbs 5:15) for storing water collected from rainfall or from a spring. They were usually pear-shaped with a small opening at the top, which could be covered over if necessary to prevent accidents or contamination of the water.” (Harrison)
ii. “The final intention of the officials was to bring about Jeremiah’s death without bloodshed (cf. Genesis 37:18-19). He could well die a slow and painful but bloodless death in a cistern.” (Thompson)
iii. “The princes, stopping short of making a violent end to Jeremiah, threw him unceremoniously into a disused water-cistern, with the obvious intention of causing his death either by exposure or starvation.” (Cundall)
3. (7-13) Jeremiah rescued from prison pit.
Now Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs, who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon. When the king was sitting at the Gate of Benjamin, Ebed-Melech went out of the king’s house and spoke to the king, saying: “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 dungeon, and he is likely to die from hunger in the place where he is. For there is no more bread in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, saying, “Take from here thirty men with you, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon before he dies.” So Ebed-Melech took the men with him and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took from there old clothes and old rags, and let them down by ropes into the dungeon to Jeremiah. Then Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Please put these old clothes and rags under your armpits, under the ropes.” And Jeremiah did so. So they pulled Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the dungeon. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison.
a. Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs: With evil hatred, the princes of Judah put Jeremiah into a dungeon where he would probably soon die. God sent a foreigner, Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, to help Jeremiah and to appeal to the king on the prophet’s behalf.
i. It is possible that Ebed-Melech was not a literal eunuch. “Saris did not always mean a castrated person but had a broader meaning, such as ‘officer’ or ‘court official.’” (Feinberg)
ii. Being a foreigner (and possibly a literal eunuch), Ebed-Melech was excluded from the temple and many Jewish rituals (Leviticus 21:20). Yet he had a more godly and compassionate heart than most of the ruling class who did participate in those rituals.
iii. “A stranger, but (as that good Samaritan in the Gospel) more merciful than any of the Jewish nation, who gloried in their privileges.” (Trapp)
iv. “We may not even know his name, for ‘Ebed-Melech’ simply means ‘servant of the king.’ It was not much of a name. Even if it was the man’s proper name, it shows that he had no identity of his own.” (Ryken)
b. Lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon before he dies: King Zedekiah was a weak man, easily influenced by others. When the princes of Judah demanded Jeremiah be cast into the pit, he agreed. When Ebed-Melech asked he be brought out, he also agreed. Jeremiah was near death, so the king commanded that thirty men be called upon to help rescue him.
i. There is no more bread in the city: “The suggestion that food supplies were exhausted was somewhat exaggerated in the heat of the moment, since stocks lasted until just before the city fell (Jeremiah 52:6f.).” (Harrison)
ii. “What a brave man was this, to oppose so many princes, and so potent that the king himself dared not displease them! It was God’s Holy Spirit that put this mettle into him, and gave him the freedom of speech.” (Trapp)
iii. Thirty men: So many men were needed not to do the work of pulling, but to be a guard so that none of the influential people who wanted Jeremiah dead could prevent his rescue. “Because the LXX and one Hebrew MS read ‘three’ for ‘thirty,’ a number of scholars choose the lesser figure. But such slight evidence is insufficient to overrule the MT.” (Feinberg)
c. Please put these old clothes and rags under your armpits, under the ropes: Ebed-Melech was not only concerned to rescue Jeremiah, but to do it in the safest and most comfortable way.
i. “It is instructive that Ebed-Melech went about his work of deliverance in a thoughtful, compassionate way, knowing how the naked ropes would cut into the limbs of a half-starved Jeremiah.” (Cundall)
ii. Psalm 18:16, 35 could be taken out of its context and put into the mouth of a grateful Jeremiah, thanking God and Ebed-Melech:
He sent from above, He took me;
He drew me out of many waters….
Your gentleness has made me great (Psalm 18:16, 35).
iii. Jeremiah 39:15-18 describes how “Ebed-Melech received the same reward as Jeremiah. When Jerusalem fell, both men were rescued, for God delivers all who trust in him. Like all true servants of the King, Ebed-Melech was saved by faith.” (Ryken)
d. Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison: Jeremiah was rescued from the dungeon pit but remained in custody of the prison.
B. Jeremiah and King Zedekiah.
1. (14-16) The agreement between King Zedekiah and the Prophet Jeremiah.
Then Zedekiah the king sent and had Jeremiah the prophet brought to him at the third entrance of the house of the LORD. And the king said to Jeremiah, “I will ask you something. Hide nothing from me.” Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I declare it to you, will you not surely put me to death? And if I give you advice, you will not listen to me.” So Zedekiah the king swore secretly to Jeremiah, saying, “As the LORD lives, who made our very souls, I will not put you to death, nor will I give you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”
a. The king sent and had Jeremiah the prophet brought to him at the third entrance of the house of the LORD: As in Jeremiah 38:16-17, King Zedekiah wanted a private meeting with Jeremiah.
i. There are several similarities between the events of Jeremiah 37 and Jeremiah 38 and some commentators (such as Thompson) believe the two chapters describe the same event from different perspectives. Nevertheless, the two chapters (Jeremiah 37 and 38) are more different than alike.
· Different charges made against Jeremiah.
· Different places of incarceration.
· Different manners of rescue.
· Different places of meeting with the king.
· Different conversations with the king.
ii. Given this, it is more likely that they are indeed separate though similar events. Jeremiah was true to his character and Zedekiah was true to his character, so the same drama might have been acted out in similar, yet different ways.
b. If I declare it to you, will you not surely put me to death: Zedekiah begged Jeremiah to tell him the truth, but Jeremiah feared the king could not handle the truth. Jeremiah feared that at best he would be ignored (you will not listen to me); at worst he would be put to death.
c. I will not put you to death: Zedekiah swore to Jeremiah in the name of the LORD that he would not kill the prophet nor allow others to do so.
i. Strangely, a king who did not live as the LORD lived swore an oath, as the LORD lives. “But what credit was to be given to his oath, who was notoriously known to be a perjured person, as having broken his oath of fidelity to Nebuchadnezzar?” (Trapp)
ii. “He also knows what poor security a solemn oath (Jeremiah 38:16) from this man amounts to (in inverse ratio, as often happens, to the strength of his language).” (Kidner)
2. (17-18) A final word to Zedekiah, a final offer of mercy.
Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘If you surely surrender to the king of Babylon’s princes, then your soul shall live; this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. But if you do not surrender to the king of Babylon’s princes, then this city shall be given into the hand of the Chaldeans; they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape from their hand.’”
a. Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: Jeremiah agreed to take the risk and deliver God’s message to King Zedekiah. In speaking through Jeremiah, God began the word by identifying Himself.
· He was the LORD, Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel.
· He was the God of hosts, the God of heavenly armies and all their power.
· He was the God of Israel, the Master and Lord of the covenant descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
b. If you surely surrender to the king of Babylon’s princes, then your soul shall live: This was not a new word to Zedekiah. Perhaps it had a new urgency, but it was not a new word. The Babylonians were God’s instrument of judgment against Judah and therefore resistance against them was foolish and futile. It was better to surrender to them and to God’s will.
i. “All was indeed lost, as God announced (Jeremiah 38:3), and Jerusalem’s suicidal stand had not even a tactical value, now that the whole country was overrun and the Egyptian thrust had failed. Only obstinacy, at whatever cost in lives, could prolong the agony; and it was obstinacy not only against the enemy but against the Lord.” (Kidner)
ii. This was God’s remarkable patience and mercy to a king who rejected God’s word many, many times before. Zedekiah could not prevent the conquest of Jerusalem by his repentance, but he could make that conquest much less severe. Even now, at this late hour:
· If he surrendered, his soul shall live – he would survive and not be put to death.
· If he surrendered, this city shall not be burned with fire – Jerusalem would be spared total destruction.
· If he surrendered, your house shall live – his wives, children, and royal family would be largely spared from death.
iii. “All he had to do was trust the prophet, to lift his head high, take up the flag of truce, walk past the princes and out to the Chaldean armies. This simple act of contrition would have saved the city.” (Guest, cited in Ryken)
iv. Surrender to the king of Babylon’s princes: Zedekiah knew what it was to surrender to princes; he shamefully surrendered to the princes of Judah (Jeremiah 38:4). Through Jeremiah, God warned Zedekiah to surrender to the right princes.
c. This city shall not be burned with fire: The fate of the city rested with one man’s repentance and trust in the LORD. Surrender to the Babylonians would spare the city of Jerusalem. They would be conquered but not destroyed and burned with fire.
i. “It was an astounding invitation, all the more so for the previous withholding of all hope for Jerusalem, apart from hope for its rebuilding.” (Kidner)
3. (19-23) God’s assurance to Zedekiah through Jeremiah.
And Zedekiah the king said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Jews who have defected to the Chaldeans, lest they deliver me into their hand, and they abuse me.”
But Jeremiah said, “They shall not deliver you. Please, obey the voice of the LORD which I speak to you. So it shall be well with you, and your soul shall live. But if you refuse to surrender, this is the word that the LORD has shown me: ‘Now behold, all the women who are left in the king of Judah’s house shall be surrendered to the king of Babylon’s princes, and those women shall say:
“Your close friends have set upon you
And prevailed against you;
Your feet have sunk in the mire,
And they have turned away again.”
‘So they shall surrender all your wives and children to the Chaldeans. You shall not escape from their hand, but shall be taken by the hand of the king of Babylon. And you shall cause this city to be burned with fire.’”
a. I am afraid of the Jews who have defected to the Chaldeans: Like all of us, Zedekiah could always think of a reason why obedience to God wasn’t such a good idea. He thought that those who had already defected to the Chaldeans might abuse him in some way.
i. “Once again Zedekiah’s weakness of character shows up. There was a course of action to be followed which he knew to be right, but he lacked the courage to take it.” (Thompson)
ii. It may be that the only abuse he had to fear was mocking and contempt from those who surrendered earlier: “We surrendered months ago when you told us to continue to the fight. Look who has surrendered now. Look how wrong you were.”
b. Please, obey the voice of the LORD: Jeremiah appealed to the king, knowing that always, the safest thing to do is to obey the voice of the LORD. There would be a blessing for obedience (it shall be well with you, and your soul shall live) and a curse for disobedience (they shall surrender all your wives and children to the Chaldeans).
i. Jeremiah warned the king, “You’re worried about what these defectors will say. Don’t worry about that. Worry about what the wives of your harem will say when they are surrendered to the king of Babylon’s princes.”
c. Your close friends have set upon you: Jeremiah spoke a short piece of poetry voicing the devastation that the wives and children of Zedekiah and Jerusalem would feel at the violence and destruction that would come if the king continued his disobedience to God.
i. “Women and children of the king’s household would be led out to the Babylonians officials, chanting as they went what may have been a brief traditional song about being betrayed by friends and being deserted as you sank in the mud (cf. Psalm 69:14).” (Thompson)
ii. “In the utterance of the prophet hears the female court-members and the royal household singing a bitter taunt-song (Jeremiah 38:22) expressing the shame of their captivity and degradation by enemy military and diplomatic personnel.” (Harrison)
iii. “More cutting than the ridicule of the defectors, whom Zedekiah feared, would be the ridicule the palace women would heap on him for his gullibility in trusting faithless allies.” (Feinberg)
d. They shall surrender all your wives and children to the Chaldeans…you shall cause this city to be burned with fire: Nothing could change the fact that, as God’s instrument, the Babylonians would conquer Judah and Jerusalem. Yet the obedience or disobedience of one man could determine the extent of the misery and destruction in that conquest.
i. This was a strong, courageous word Jeremiah brought to Zedekiah. The king had previously shown him mercy and promised him bread (Jeremiah 37:21), but the bread the king put in the mouth of the prophet did not prevent Jeremiah from speaking the truth to Zedekiah.
ii. “Nothing is more marked throughout all this story than the absolute and unswerving loyalty of Jeremiah to the message of judgment which he was called on to deliver.” (Morgan)
4. (24-28) Zedekiah, Jeremiah, and the princes of Judah.
Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no one know of these words, and you shall not die. 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, and also what the king said to you; do not hide it from us, and we will not put you to death,’ then you shall say to them, ‘I presented my request before the king, that he would not make me return to Jonathan’s house to die there.’” 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 stopped speaking with him, for the conversation had not been heard. Now Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison until the day that Jerusalem was taken. And he was there when Jerusalem was taken.
a. Let no one know of these words: Mindful of his own interests, Zedekiah did not want anyone else to know what the LORD told him through Jeremiah. Perhaps he did not want the blame for the catastrophe of misery and destruction that his disobedience would bring.
i. “Even the preview of what he is bringing on his family (Jeremiah 38:23) fails to pull the king together. Like a child, he is only scared for having his secret talk found out. His parting words – virtually, ‘Don’t tell on me!’ – show that God’s latest and last call to turn back from the brink (Jeremiah 38:20ff.) has not even registered with him.” (Kidner)
b. He told them according to all the words that the king had commanded: When the princes of Judah asked Jeremiah about his conversation with the king, Jeremiah did as the king asked. He did not reveal what God said to Zedekiah, apparently believing that it was between the king and God.
i. “This was telling the truth, and nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth. The king did not wish him to defile his conscience, nor did he propose any thing that was not consistent with the truth.” (Clarke)
c. Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison until the day that Jerusalem was taken: Jeremiah was taken again to the pit dungeon and remained there until Jerusalem was conquered, just as he prophesied.
i. Jeremiah went back to the prison; Zedekiah went to the palace. It would turn out better for the prophet than for the king. “Zedekiah returned to the palace to suffer the anguish of knowing what was right to do but lacking the courage to do it.” (Thompson)