Jeremiah 38:24-27. “Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, ‘Do not let anyone know about this conversation, or you may die. If the officials hear that I talked to 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.”
Exegesis and Application
This is an extraordinary story of persecution, fear, faith, courage and half-truths. Here is the back story to our Jeremiah passage: Jeremiah has been telling the Judeans and their King, Zedekiah, that God’s judgment was that they would become prisoners of the Babylonians, so they should surrender and not fight it out. That way, they would all survive. Some of the Judean officials were angry with Jeremiah and accused him of being a traitor to the war effort against the Babylonians. These officials captured Jeremiah, beat him and put him in prison. King Zedekiah gets him out of prison, brings him to the palace compound and asks for a positive prophecy. Jeremiah responds with the same God-given message: surrender to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians and live. The officials come once again, capture Jeremiah and this time throw him, not into jail but into a muddy cistern for torture and death. Commentators say a typical cistern of the time had an opening of three feet in diameter, with a long neck opening into a larger bulb where the water was stored. But his cistern had no water, only mud. Josephus tells us that Jeremiah was up to his neck in mud. He was going to die of starvation or exposure because no one knew he was down in this pit. Indeed, skeletal remains have been found in ancient Near East cisterns. And he knew he was going to die for he pleads in Lamentations 3:25-26, “I called on your name, O LORD, out of the lowest pit. You have heard my voice; do not hide your ear from my prayer for relief from my cry for help. You did draw near when I called on you, you did say, ‘Do not fear.’” And in answer to Jerry’s prayer comes Ebed-melech, a black African (“Ethiopian”) official connected to the Judean palace, pleading to the king for Jeremiah’s life. In response, the king says to Ebed, take some men, pull Jeremiah out of the miry pit and bring him to me and be quick and quiet (“secret”) about it. When Jeremiah is brought to the king, he is ordered by Zedekiah to tell the Judean officials, who will surely come and question the prophet if he is saying the same traitorous things he was saying before, only that he was imploring (“pleading”) the king not to send him back to jail. The Judean officials do come and question Jeremiah and he tells them the partial truth which Zedekiah ordered him to tell and he was able to stay in the relative comfort of Zedekiah’s court precincts (38:28).
What a marvelous story to report. Here are the bulleted highlights to note:
1) Here is a king who did not have the courage to confront his own Judean officers in public (“Behold he is in your hands, the king can do nothing against you.” 38:5, 24) and yet is bold in private when there is no cost (38:14). His concern for his safety also helps preserve Jeremiah’s safety. The ways of the Lord are marvelous.
2) The king’s message was true, as far as it went, but it didn’t tell the whole story. It was a partial truth. It concealed the most important facts, like, “Surrender to the Chaldeans.”
3) Here is a wonderful example of the Lord placing his people in critical public positions in a degenerate society in order to preserve His people. Ebed-melech, a foreigner from Ethiopia, saves the life of our great prophet. (38:9-13)
4) Jeremiah says twice (three times if one counts Lamentations 3) in this episode that he is afraid to be imprisoned, tortured and die (37:20; 38:15). Here is another example of biblical honesty of real emotions.
5) While Jeremiah obeys the Judean King Zedekiah’s “instructions” and only tells a partial truth, Jeremiah is earlier concerned about the truth for himself for he shouts to the imprisoning Judean officials that they are “lying” about the charge of his treason (37:14).
6) Playing the same note, King Zedekiah is concerned about the whole truth told to him and doesn’t want any partial truth! (“Do not hide anything from me.” (38:14)!
7) We have Zedekiah’s officials giving him disastrous war advice about not surrendering to the Chaldeans and thus saving the lives of inhabitants in Jerusalem (38:4). Shade of Rehoboams’ bad advice from his “close friends” (38: 22; 1 Kings 12:8).
So what we have here is a frightened Jeremiah following the orders of his sovereign to tell other members of his tribe (Judea) only a partial truth. What are we Christians to make of this story?
1) Christian journalist, once again a partial truth is being told by a hero of our faith. Only this time, God’s honor is not at stake but rather the wishes of a king. If a government official tells us to tell only a partial truth to our neighbors is it okay? Judea is not at war with her own people, yet to save his life (and maybe the king’s), Jeremiah conceals the whole truth. Is it the same as lying to the enemy, the Babylonians? Yet, the Judean officials who had wrongly imprisoned Jeremiah would imprison him again if they knew what Jeremiah’s whole message was to King Zedekiah. Since a breakdown in the relationship between Jeremiah, King Zedekiah and the Judean officials occurred, normal communication candor between them is not to be expected so it doesn’t make any difference if they are warring with another state. This example is unique in that the conditions are not warfare between two warring parties but internal bickering, false accusations and the real threat of an unjust death within the same community. If we are reporters in the court of Zedekiah and we uncover the concealment, we do not have the obligation to report it to the public.
2) We have an obligation not to report everything we know, even when it is confirmed. The public does not always have the right to know everything that we know. We need to know when to report and when to be silent.
3) Christian journalist, you would have the obligation to flesh out the motivation and background of Ebed-melech. Why would he get involved in this inter-tribal conflict?