Jeremiah 38


This chapter is very similar to the last chapter, Jeremiah 37. These are three events that are very similar to each other. Jeremiah is charged with desertion, a secret meeting with Zedekiah takes place, and Jeremiah is imprisoned again.

There are, however, other events that separate the two accounts. Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern and is rescued by a foreigner. The one big point here is that the only one who comes to his aid is a stranger, a foreigner.

Although there are some similarities between the imprisonments in the last chapter and this one, it is not true, as some scholars say, that this is one story repeated for the second time in this chapter. This was the third imprisonment of Jeremiah. The first was by Pashhur in Jeremiah 20. The second one we dealt with in the last chapter, Jeremiah 37.

And this is a completely different imprisonment in Jeremiah 38. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was born just a few years later after Jesus died and was a witness to many of the Roman atrocities, records both of these imprisonments, he also tells us that Jeremiah ‘stood in mire up to his neck’, and that, ‘The intention of the rulers was that he might be suffocated.’

‘Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehukal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people when he said, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’ And this is what the LORD says: ‘This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’ Then the officials said to the king, ‘This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.’ ‘He is in your hands,’ King Zedekiah answered. ‘The king can do nothing to oppose you.’ So, they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.’ Jeremiah 38:1-6

The leader of this delegation, Shephatiah, is not known, apart from what is written here. Pashhur was the official who put Jeremiah into prison in Jeremiah 20. All of these appear to be bitter enemies of Jeremiah. The opposition party get wind of Jeremiah’s messages of doom and destruction. This vexes them greatly, so they complain to Zedekiah. Their appeal is that Jeremiah should die.

They complain that he is discouraging the spirit of the soldiers who are fighting against the Babylonians. They also claim that he doesn’t have the good of the people in his heart. We know that nothing could have been further from the truth. His speeches were given with patriotism. There was love for his people in his heart.

But Zedekiah told them to go ahead, all he did was wash his hands of the whole thing. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Doesn’t this remind you of Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus?

Zedekiah was so wishy-washy. The real power was in the hands of the officials, and the king had very little respect for them. But he appears to be frightened of upsetting them, and therefore seems to agree with everything just to keep the peace.

So, the four complainers take Jeremiah and throw him into a cistern which had mud in it, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud. And there he remained until action was taken to save him. No doubt the opposition thought that they had seen the last of him.

‘But Ebed-Melek, a Cushite, an official in the royal palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate, Ebed-Melek went out of the palace and said to him, ‘My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.’ Then the king commanded Ebed-Melek the Cushite, ‘Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.’ So Ebed-Melek took the men with him and went to a room under the treasury in the palace. He took some old rags and worn-out clothes from there and let them down with ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern. Ebed-Melek the Cushite said to Jeremiah, ‘Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.’ Jeremiah did so, and they pulled him up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard.’ Jeremiah 38:7-13

An Ethiopian named Ebed-Melech, who was employed as a court official in the royal palace, recognised that Jeremiah’s messages were from God. And his belief and concern were clearly seen when he pleaded for Jeremiah’s delivery from death. He in fact put his life on the line when he asked for the release of Jeremiah.

He approached the king without being summoned to appear before him, and this could have been interpreted as an attempt on the life of the king. Not only that, if the opposition party had seen him helping a traitor he would have faced the same sentence and punishment as Jeremiah.

Three times in this chapter we are told that Ebed-Melech was a Cushite or an Ethiopian. Why?

Because it indicates that in all of the land of Judah the only one to come to Jeremiah’s aid was a despised foreigner. There is a footnote in my version, the NIV, and probably in yours, that says that the word ‘official’ could be ‘a eunuch’. There is nothing odd about a eunuch being in the royal palace.

The king seems to have had many wives, so it was wise to employ a eunuch as an overseer in the king’s harem. Deuteronomy 23:1-2 tells us that it was forbidden by the Law of Moses to castrate a Hebrew, which is why Zedekiah’s eunuch was a foreigner, from Ethiopia.

Verse 9 is interesting. This foreigner says to the king, Jeremiah ‘will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.’

In Jeremiah 52:6, we see that the food supplies lasted until just before the fall of the city. If there was no bread left, then the end was pretty near. At the end of Jeremiah 37, Zedekiah had promised to supply Jeremiah with a loaf every day, until all the bread in the city was gone. If bread was still available at this time, then he wasn’t doing what he had promised to do.

So Ebed-Melech had a powerful argument for the prophet’s release. Zedekiah agreed to release the prophet and sent someone else, other than himself, of course, to do the work. The Ethiopian, along with 30 others, rescued the prophet from the cistern, and they took great care in doing so. They gave thought to his comfort by supplying rags so that he wasn’t given rope burns as he was lifted out.

Just a little side-line here. As I was checking my notes I noticed that many scholars believed that 30 people were far too many to go and get one man out of a cistern, so for this reason they have amended God’s word, and said that there were only three. Verse 10 specifically says, ‘30’, and I understand that all versions, except possibly one, of the Hebrew text say ‘thirty’.

Although some say 30 is too many, three seem to be too many. At least three or four, or more, would be needed to pull Jeremiah up from the mud, remember the mud was up to his neck. One or two would have been needed to go and get the ropes. Two would have been needed to go and get the rags. And one, presumably the Ethiopian, would need to be in charge of the operation. The others would have been armed and ready to meet any attack from the officials.

What is my personal opinion? Who cares! Some men went along, as ordered by the king, to lift Jeremiah out of the cistern. Does it really matter how many? Why does there have to be pages of commentaries by different scholars arguing over this issue?

‘Then King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah the prophet and had him brought to the third entrance to the temple of the LORD. ‘I am going to ask you something,’ the king said to Jeremiah. ‘Do not hide anything from me.’ Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, ‘If I give you an answer, will you not kill me? Even if I did give you counsel, you would not listen to me.’ But King Zedekiah swore this oath secretly to Jeremiah: ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who has given us breath, I will neither kill you nor hand you over to those who want to kill you.’ Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, ‘This is what the LORD God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared, and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live. But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be given into the hands of the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from them.’ King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, ‘I am afraid of the Jews who have gone over to the Babylonians, for the Babylonians may hand me over to them and they will mistreat me.’ ‘They will not hand you over,’ Jeremiah replied. ‘Obey the LORD by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared. But if you refuse to surrender, this is what the LORD has revealed to me: All the women left in the palace of the king of Judah will be brought out to the officials of the king of Babylon. Those women will say to you: ‘They misled you and overcame you—those trusted friends of yours. Your feet are sunk in the mud; your friends have deserted you.’ ‘All your wives and children will be brought out to the Babylonians. You yourself will not escape from their hands but will be captured by the king of Babylon; and this city will be burned down.’ Jeremiah 38:14-23

Once again Zedekiah consults with Jeremiah. But this time he said to Jeremiah, don’t hide anything from me. And once again Jeremiah tells him it as it is, if you surrender to the Babylonians you will be spared, if you don’t then you will be severely punished.

I like the latter part of verse 22, ‘your feet are sunk in the mud.’

This is quite funny because shortly before this Jeremiah himself was up to his neck in mud. Perhaps the experience was still fresh in his mind, which gave him a good personal example to use before the king. So, Zedekiah gets the message quite clearly.

Why didn’t Zedekiah take notice of Jeremiah’s prophetic warning?

Perhaps because he feared the mockery of the Jews that had already been taken into captivity. But verse 22 is advising the king that, if he doesn’t obey God’s word, he will be taunted by his own household, including women from his harem.

But Zedekiah still felt that he knew better than God, so off he went to Babylon. However, he never actually saw Babylon, because his sons were killed before his very eyes, and his eyes were put out. He wasn’t the first, neither will he be the last, to make the mistake of ignoring God’s word.

Verse 14 talks about the ‘third entrance to the temple.’

Nothing is really known about this entrance. It may have been a private entrance from the temple to the palace. In fact, it needed to be a quiet and private entrance as it was chosen for a very private interview.

‘Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, ‘Do not let anyone know about this conversation, or you may die. If the officials hear that I talked with you, and they come to you and say, ‘Tell us what you said to the king and what the king said to you; do not hide it from us or we will kill you,’ then tell them, ‘I was pleading with the king not to send me back to Jonathan’s house to die there.’ All the officials did come to Jeremiah and question him, and he told them everything the king had ordered him to say. So, they said no more to him, for no one had heard his conversation with the king. And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard until the day Jerusalem was captured. This is how Jerusalem was taken:’ Jeremiah 38:24-28

These verses are self-explanatory. Jeremiah only told the officials what the king had told him to tell them. So, he didn’t give the king away. Zedekiah didn’t want his officials to know what they had discussed, so he said, if these officials ask you why you went to see the king, tell them, ‘I was pleading with the king not to send me back to Jonathon’s house.’

This was a good ploy by Zedekiah. The officials would have known how much Jeremiah had hated the dungeon below Jonathon’s house. And we know from verse 27 that the officials were more than happy with this explanation. Jeremiah had told the truth, if not all of the truth, and it certainly helped both Jeremiah and Zedekiah.

I guess we could marvel at the genius of Zedekiah because he had so skilfully deceived these officials. The final verse tells us that Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the palace until the day that Jerusalem was captured.

Go To Jeremiah 39



"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."