This section today begins with the prediction of Jerusalem’s fall and Zedekiah’s captivity. The fulfillment of this prediction comes at the end of today’s reading. Jeremiah’s messages underline the truth that the old covenant had been irreparably broken, especially by the kings of David’s line who should have been the most committed to it. The Lord encouraged Zedekiah even though he was a weak leader who lacked courage. The message to him includes both a judgement and a promise. It was a hard message. No matter what Zedekiah did, Jerusalem would fall. The Lord would not rescue the city. God promised to protect Zedekiah and he would die peacefully and be honored by the survivors of the siege. However, we read in 39:5-7 a description of Zedekiah’s being captured, tortured, and led away to Babylon. Early on, king Rehoboam had made Lachish and Azekah into forts. These two cities were southwest of Jerusalem and guarded the key roads leading up from the great highway on the coast into the heartland of Judah. King Nebuchadnezzar would attack them before Jerusalem. From 34:8-22 we see the faithless and from 35:1-19 we see those who kept the covenant. King Zedekiah ordered the people to release their slaves, perhaps trying to gain favor with the Lord by reinforcing the covenant requirements regarding Hebrew slaves. It was a good thought but the people soon went back to their old ways and reclaimed their slaves. This was by no means the first time the people had broken a covenant promise with the Lord. He would punish them accordingly. The slave holders had done what was right in releasing their slaves but the covenant promise was made in the temple which made breaking it even worse because they defined God’s name in the process.
Now the Lord would cut them apart and separate them from His protective care. This is a reference to cutting an animal in half from head to tail, laying the two halves apart from each other and walking between them to seal a covenant deal. See Genesis 15:9-18. Now the people would receive the punishment they had agreed upon when they made the covenant deal. Egypt’s pharaoh had a treaty with Judah in case of Babylonian attack but they left to fight Egypt. Chapters 35-36 look backwards two decades to a time when Jehoiakim was on the throne, but we begin with the story of the Recabites. They were related to Moses’ father in law, Jethro the Kenite. They were not ethnic Jews but they were nomads who lived among or near the Israelites and zealously attempted to be faithful to the Lord. They got their name from their forefather Recab, whose son Jonadab had helped to remove Baal worship from Israel some 250 years earlier. From one generation to the next they all took a vow not to drink wine and they obeyed Jonadab’s other instructions to live in tents rather than in houses and towns…until the Babylonian invasion forced them into Jerusalem. Their faithfulness to their community’s values contrasted starkly with the lack of integrity in Judah as a whole, and particularly in Jerusalem, regarding the people’s covenant with God. Jeremiah most likely knew the Recabites didn’t drink wine but he was obedient to the Lord’s command. He was most careful to note that Hanan, the man in charge was a man of God. After being offered wine, the Recabites declined citing their promise to their forefathers. The Lord used this example to compare their faithfulness to that of the people living in Jerusalem who were anything but faithful. The Lord promised punishment on Judah’s sins. When we read Nehemiah 3:14 we see that at least one of the Recabites returned to Jerusalem after the exile to help rebuild the city and its walls.
The fourth year of Jehoiakim was 605 B.C. What we see here is God’s attempt to call him to repentance and covenant obedience…to no avail. In fact, Jehoiakim thumbed his nose at the Lord. Nowhere else in the Old Testament do we find this much detail about the process of preserving spoken messages in written form. This year was the first that King Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem. In those days a scroll was a roll of papyrus or leather strips joined together edge to edge and rolled up. The Lord gave the people of Judah every opportunity to repent. He wanted the messages of judgement not to just alarm His people but to awaken them to the judgement they would face if they did not turn from idol worship. If they would just repent God would forgive their sins and wrongdoings. But no.
It seems that Jeremiah was not skilled at writing so he enlisted the services of a scribe named Baruch. As they sat in their quarters, Jeremiah repeated message after message from memory and Baruch wrote them down. Whether or not he had a hand in the composition is not known. It is clear that Jeremiah was a prisoner and could not leave wherever he was. The following day, after Baruch had finished writing, was a national festival. Jeremiah instructed Baruch to go to the temple and read what he had written from Jeremiah’s messages. This would have placed Baruch in great danger of arrest or assault. Jeremiah still had hopes that the people would repent. This would have been in the 604 B.C. time frame. Baruch faithfully read the scroll to the gathered people, gaining permission from Gemariah, one of the high officials. Gemariah had a godly heritage, his father Shaphan participating in the reading of the scrolls found in the temple in Josiah’s day. Another official, Micaiah, recognized the importance of what Baruch was reading and made sure the other administrative officials knew what was being said. They were terrified and reported this to the king. The officials seemed to have a measure of respect for Jeremiah and Baruch. They wanted to know the source of the scroll and its messages and then they encouraged both Jeremiah and Baruch to hide. They also placed the scrolls in clay jars for safekeeping while they went to the king. The king sent Jehudi to retrieve the scrolls. He may have been a scribe as well. Only the elite were trained to read and write.
Jehoiakim was so hard hearted and antagonistic that after three or four columns of the scroll were read, he cut that section off the scroll and tossed it into the fire. His father, Josiah, had responded very differently when the book of the law was read to him. The three officials who begged the king not to destroy the scroll most likely held positions of great power or the king would have had them killed. Once the Lord had hidden Jeremiah and Baruch no one betrayed them, and while they were hiding, Jeremiah once again dictated the messages and Baruch wrote them down. NO human king can destroy the Word of the Lord. Instead, Jehoiakim was brought before God’s court and sentenced to death. Dying without heirs or a decent burial was to suffer the worst imaginable fate. Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin ruled for three months but unlike his father he took Jeremiah’s warning seriously, surrendered to the Babylonians, and was taken captive to Babylon.
With chapters 37-38 the focus returns to Zedekiah, who succeeded his nephew Jehoiachin as king of Judah. These chapters record encounters between Jeremiah and Zedekiah and it is clear that Zedekiah lacked the ability to make a wholehearted commitment to the Lord and His Word. The first two verses summarize Zedekiah’s reign and his entire response to the Lord’s message through Jeremiah. In asking for prayer, Zedekiah apparently hoped that Jeremiah’s petition would somehow magically enable them to defeat the enemy. The Babylonians first came after Jerusalem but they were marching north to help Judah. Babylon turned their attention to Egypt, giving Jerusalem a breather but before long they were back building siege works against Jerusalem. In yet another message from Jeremiah to Zedekiah, he reminded them they would not escape the Babylonians. This was fulfilled in 586 B.C. When the Babylonians went to fight Egypt Jeremiah decided to walk the three miles to his hometown, Anathoth, to claim his share of the property among his relatives there. This was his newly purchased property. However, the sentries and guards misread Jeremiah’s intentions as desertion and arrested him. Later king Zedekiah called for Jeremiah to come to the palace, secretly. He was fearful of the future and was still hopeful that the Lord would defeat the Babylonians. Jeremiah answered quickly and emphatically that there was no hope for divine intervention. It is also clear that Jeremiah thought the king was involved in his arrest and imprisonments. He would have been in poor shape after his arrest, flogging, and confinement without medical treatment or food. Defying his officials, the king ordered Jeremiah be kept in the courtyard of the guards. And, considering the scarcity of food, a whole loaf of bread everyday was a very generous ration.
Jeremiah was free to talk to people while he was in the prison courtyard. He repeated the Lord’s decrees of judgement and this stirred some anger among the officials. Zedekiah showed his cowardice by allowing these officials to put Jeremiah in a muddy cistern. But he also showed a courageous moment when he allowed a palace servant to rescue Jeremiah and return him to the palace prison. These officials seemed to believe that the men fighting the Babylonians would lose their morale if Jeremiah kept prophesying, so they put him on trial for treason. They confronted Zedekiah with demands but again we see the king being cowardly, and again Jeremiah was lowered into a cistern filled with mud. We also see great courage in the part of an Ethiopian, an important court official who ran to the king without ceremony. He demanded that Jeremiah be brought up from the muddy cistern and the king allowed him to do that. It took 30 men to pull Jeremiah up from the bottom of the cistern. Either Jeremiah was stuck in the mud, or the king felt the rescuers needed protection while they brought Jeremiah back up. No doubt Jeremiah was in a very weakened condition.
Zedekiah wanted a miracle so desperately he called Jeremiah for another secret meeting. This time they met in the third entrance of the Lord’s temple. The gates of the temple had small rooms nearby so the meeting probably took place there. Again Jeremiah laid out the Lord’s decree. Zedekiah could surrender and save the city or he could watch as it was destroyed by the invaders. Zedekiah was a very fearful man and he was more worried about the Jews who had defected than he feared the Lord or the Babylonians. This was Jeremiah’s last message to the king. If Zedekiah would obey things would go well but if he didn’t, the city would fall and even his friends would abandon him. Zedekiah ordered Jeremiah to be quiet and he was. Jeremiah spent his final days of the siege in the palace prison under the kings protection.
Just as Jeremiah had predicted, the Lord’s judgement fell on Zedekiah and Judah. The Babylonian siege took a long time because the stone walls of Jerusalem were thick and their resistance strong. High ranking Babylonian officials came to the city to oversee its destruction and they sat in triumph at the city gates. There were steep slopes on the south, east, and west sides of Jerusalem which forced the Babylonians to focus their attack on the north side of the city. This made it possible for Zedekiah, his family, and his officials to slip out the south end of the city. They left under the cover of darkness but they were noisy and this alerted the Babylonian guards. They were captured near Jericho and the Babylonians forced them to March some 200 miles north to Riblah where king Nebuchadnezzar had his field headquarters. Zedekiah’s last sight was the slaughter of his sons and all the nobles of Judah. Now Zedekiah’s rule could never continue. Next, Nebuchadnezzar gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes. Blinded, he had to walk another 600 miles to Babylon, in great pain, and his arms in bronze chains. The rest of the people of Jerusalem were taken to Babylon as well. The usual practice was to tie a persons hands together and then tie them to the person in front of them, making a long line of grief stricken captives. It is not known how Jeremiah and his urging them to surrender to Babylon came to Nebuchadnezzar’s attention but perhaps it came through the messages he had sent to the exiles. We end with the Lord pronouncing blessings on the Ethiopian who was courageous enough to rescue Jeremiah.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W