Jeremiah 34 really consists of two separate messages. We have verses 1-7 which deal with a message given to Zedekiah. And then we have the rest of the chapter which deals with the importance of keeping promises. And it teaches that lesson by using Zedekiah as a bad example that people shouldn’t follow.
We’ll begin with verses 1-7.
Zedekiah Will Not Die | Jeremiah 34:1-7
In Jeremiah 34:1-7 we’re finishing the so-called Book of Encouragement which started back in Jeremiah 30. And these final eight verses of this book within the book of Jeremiah is directed at the last king of Judah, whose name was Zedekiah.
Background | 34:1
Now, despite the fact that these first eight verses appear in the Book of Encouragement, the background to this section that we get in verse 1 seems to be anything but encouraging.
KJV Jeremiah 34:1 ¶ The word which came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, when
Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and
all his army, and
all the kingdoms of the earth [of/under] his dominion, and
all the people,
fought against Jerusalem, and
against all the cities thereof, saying,
So, this is what Zedekiah is facing. His city, Jerusalem, is under siege. The end is near. And the end is certain.
Look at the list of all those who are against this king and this city.
Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man in the world at the time. His mighty army. And that army included people from all the kingdoms of the earth. It was composed of all people.
So, don’t miss the piling-on of people and groups who are coming to destroy Jerusalem and Zedekiah.
It’s the world against Zedekiah.
God’s Message to Zedekiah: Justice | 34:2-3
And rightly so. This massive onslaught against Zedekiah has been orchestrated by God himself because of his justice. That’s what we see in verses 2-3.
2 Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel;
Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah, and tell him,
Thus saith the LORD;
Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon,
and he shall burn it with fire:
3 And thou shalt not escape out of his [hand/clutches],
but shalt surely be [taken/captured],
and delivered into his hand;
and thine eyes shall behold the eyes of the king of Babylon,
and he shall speak with thee [mouth/face] to [mouth/face],
and thou shalt go to Babylon.
And what we’ve seen throughout this book is that this ultimate destruction of Jerusalem has been threatened for a long time. God had been very patient with the rebellious Jews. But finally his patience has now transitioned into a meting-out of his justice. They’ve had his mercy for a long time. But due to their chronic sin and rebellion they will now have his justice.
And that justice is going to be doled out through Babylon, who is at the door, so-to-speak.
God’s Message to Zedekiah: Mercy | 34:4-5
So, we’ve seen the harrowing background for this story – the world against Zedekiah.
We’ve seen the justice of God in this situation.
But now we witness yet still more mercy of God in verses 4 and 5. God’s abundantly merciful encouraging promise to this wavering, bad king is this: “You will not die a violent death. Your death will be peaceful and honorable.”
4 Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah; Thus saith the LORD of thee,
Thou shalt not die by [the sword/in battle or by execution]:
5 But thou shalt die [in peace/a peaceful death]:
and [with/at the funeral will be] the burnings [of incense…] [of/experienced by] thy fathers,
the former kings which were before thee,
so shall they burn odours for thee;
and they will lament thee, saying,
[Ah/Alas/Poor, poor] [lord/master]!
for I have [pronounced/spoken] the word,
saith the LORD.
Now, this is in contrast to what God determined concerning one of the kings before Zedekiah. His name was Jehoiakim. He reigned for 11 years just like Zedekiah. And there was one king that separated Jehoiakim and Zedekiah by just a few months.
In Jeremiah 22:18-19, God said this of this king who preceded Zedekiah by a few months: “Therefore thus saith the LORD concerning Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah; They shall not lament for him, saying, Ah my brother! or, Ah sister! they shall not lament for him, saying, Ah lord! or, Ah his glory! He shall be buried with the burial of an ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem.”
And yet, here we see the exact opposite for Zedekiah. Why?
Why does God decide for one king to die by violence and without honor while he spares the other king this dishonor?
Now, before we answer that, we need to remember that Zedekiah doesn’t get off easy. He pays for his sins. We’ll see him having to witness the murder of his own children right in front of his eyes before having those very eyes put out. So, Zedekiah definitely suffers for his rebellion against the Lord.
And yet, his death will be a peaceful one. His children’s’ death wasn’t peaceful. His eyes being put out certainly wasn’t peaceful. But his death would be. And his funeral would be an honorable one.
Well, God doesn’t say. But I do have two ideas.
First, while Zedekiah was evil in God’s eyes, he was – at least from my vantage point with what I know of him in Scripture – he was nowhere near as devoted to sheer evil as was Jehoiakim.
Jehoiakim was the one who brazenly tore up God’s word and burned it up. We’ll see that happen later on in this book. Jehoiakim was the one who killed a true prophet of the Lord and would have killed Jeremiah, except Jeremiah had someone important looking out for him – both God and a man who was higher up in society. When you think of Jehoiakim, think of a settled, smoldering hatred of God. Think of sheer evil that is bent on actively destroying God’s work.
Zedekiah is a little bit different. I think what we see of him in this book especially is the portrait of a wavering man. He does evil – not because he is settled on being as evil as he possibly can be – but because he just has no backbone. One minute he is wandering toward doing the right thing. But then he’s afraid of what will happen to him if he does right. Another time, he’s pressured into imprisoning Jeremiah in a well – not that Zedekiah wanted to do it. He just gave in to what others wanted because he was unprincipled. But then when someone else comes to Zedekiah and pleads to have Jeremiah released, Zedekiah lets him do it and even lends him some aid.
So, do you see some difference between these two kings? Jehoiakim – pure and active evil. Zedekiah – reluctant and wavering evil. Both are evil. But I do wonder if the sentence passed on each king is different according to the nature and intensity of their evil.
Jehoiakim is killed and buried without honor as payment for his severe opposition to God. Zedekiah is definitely punished, but he lives and when he finally dies he’s treated honorably.
So, that’s one possible reason that these two kings are treated differently.
The second is much more simple and is hard to prove. It’s been said that we can choose our sin, but God chooses our what? Our punishment.
When it comes down to it, both of these kings deserved violent deaths and dishonorable burials. Frankly, that’s the case with every son of Adam who’s ever lived. We all deserve nothing but punishment for our sin. And yet, God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Whenever God is good to man, he’s good despite man’s sin. God’s goodness is never deserved. He just is that kind of being – he’s good.
And even when he’s punishing a wavering king, like we see here, he can sovereignly decide to go a little easy on him. Again, Zedekiah doesn’t get off easy. But compared to what he – or really any of us – deserve, God was merciful to him.
Jeremiah Delivers God’s Message | 34:6-7
Well, after God had given that message to Zedekiah, it remained for Jeremiah to deliver it to the king. That’s what we see in verses 6 and 7.
6 ¶ Then Jeremiah the prophet spake all these words unto Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem,
7 When the king of Babylon’s army fought
against Jerusalem, and
against all the cities of Judah that were left,
against Lachish, and
for these defenced cities remained of [all…] the cities of Judah.
And again here we see the utter hopelessness of Judah’s – and Zedekiah’s – situation. Babylon is here. They’re fighting against three main cities. Why only three? Because as it says – these were the only three left.
How would you like to be the king that inherits the kingdom of the former David and Solomon? The kingdom which was formerly so mighty and so opulent? The king who now is left with only three cities of all that Israel once possessed. How sad.
This is Zedekiah’s situation. He was totally dependent on the Lord’s mercy, and he probably didn’t even think that way about his situation. And yet, the Lord extended mercy to this evil king – despite his evil and his rebellion.
So, God ends the Book of Encouragement by encouraging an evil king who had resisted him. God would see to it that this king lived through the worst of what was to come and that his future burial would be an honorable one.
The Importance of Keeping Promises: Negatively | Jeremiah 34:8-22
Then we reach verse 8 in Jeremiah 34. And we’re brought into a totally new circumstance.
Background | 34:8-11
What we’re going to read is an inspired story. And as with all stories, there’s a portion of it that’s used to set the scene. We see that happening in verses 8-11.
KJV Jeremiah 34:8 ¶ This is the word that came unto Jeremiah from the LORD,
Zedekiah Made a Covenant to Release Slaves | 34:8-9
First of all, in verses 8 and 9 we’ll hear about Zedekiah and all Judah making a covenant – making a promise to do something. Let’s read.
after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people which were at Jerusalem, to [proclaim liberty unto them/grant their slaves freedom];
9 That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free;
that none should [serve himself of them, to wit, of/enslave] a Jew his brother.
OK, so, Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, made a covenant – he and all the people who were still around in Jerusalem. They promised to let their Hebrew slaves go free.
People Released Their Slaves | 34:10
And true to their word, Zedekiah and all the Jews released their slaves according to verse 10.
10 Now when all the [princes/officials/leaders], and all the people, which had entered into the covenant, heard that every one should let his manservant, and every one his maidservant, go free, that none should serve themselves of them any more, then they obeyed, and let them go.
Wow! Did you hear that toward the end of that verse? The people obeyed! You don’t hear very much about that in this book. Most of what God has had to say regards their disobedience. But here we see them making a move toward obedience. They are obeying. They made a promise and they’re actually making steps toward keeping that promise.
People Took Back Their Slaves | 34:11
But then the people do what we’d expect them to do in verse 11. They break their promise and take back their Hebrew slaves.
11 But afterward they [turned/changed their minds], and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids.
So, that’s the background to the rest of what we’ll hear in this chapter. The people all made a promise before God to let their Hebrew slaves go. And they let them go. But then they took them back, breaking their promise which they made before God.
God’s Response | 34:12-22
And so now, from verse 12 to verse 22 we have God’s response to these realities. To summarize, he’s not happy with what they did and he will need to punish their disobedience to him.
12 Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,
13 Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel;
God Released Israelite Slaves from Egypt | 34:13
So, first, God is going to reason with these oppressors. He brings them back to a time when they as a people – all of them – were slaves. And according to verse 13, God released them from that slavery in Egypt.
I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of [bondmen/bondage/slavery], saying,
So, God delivered the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. He released them from their bondage, just like Zedekiah and all Judah promised to do and initially did.
God Commanded Israelites to Release Israelites | 34:14
And when God delivered all the Hebrews from slavery, he commanded them something in particular, that God reminds them of in verse 14.
14 At the end of seven years let ye go every man his brother an Hebrew, which hath been sold unto thee; and when he hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee:
So, if you were wondering what the background was to this whole situation, here it is. God allowed Hebrews to sell themselves into slavery to other Hebrews. Maybe one of them had fallen on hard times. Well, an option for that kind of Hebrew would be to sell himself into slavery to a fellow Hebrew.
But here’s the key! If a Hebrew sold himself to another Hebrew, the “buyer” who bought his fellow-countryman had to let the “bought” Hebrew go after 6 years. Without fail. When that seventh year rolled around, it was time to let that guy go. God said!
So, that was God’s command to the former slaves – let your enslaved brothers go after 6 years of work.
Former Jews Didn’t Obey | 34:14
But according to the end of verse 14, the Hebrews of old time didn’t obey God on this point.
but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear.
Current Jews Didn’t Obey | 34:15-16
And now, God is going to tell them that they themselves have not obeyed him in this matter, either. Even though it seemed like maybe there was a glimmer of hope that they might actually turn from their ways and Submit to God’s Sovereignty in this relatively minor area.
Started with Obedience | 34:15
God communicates to the Jews that he was mindful that they were actually on their way to doing right in verse 15.
15 And ye [were now turned/recently repented/recently showed a change of heart], and had done right in my sight, [in/by] proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbour; and ye had made a covenant before me in the house which is called by my name:
We didn’t know this before, but they actually made their promise in the Temple – before God’s holy presence. Before the God who cannot lie and only speaks truth. He is truth itself. They made their promise in his presence.
Things looked good for a moment.
Ended with Disobedience | 34:16
But then verse 16. They turned back from doing right.
16 But ye [turned/turned around/turned right around] and [polluted/profaned] my name [and did not honor me…], and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom ye had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids.
Breaking your promises pollutes God’s name. It makes him look bad when his people make promises and then don’t keep them. We all need to be careful to keep any promises that we make – and to make only promises that we intend to keep.
God Will Repay | 34:17-22
Because God doesn’t take kindly to his name being polluted and profaned.
And here in the book of Jeremiah at least, God has some really harsh judgements to mete out on those who take his name “in vain” – those who make promises but break them. I think you can summarize verses 17-22 as “God Will Repay.” Let’s read.
17 Therefore thus saith the LORD;
Ye have not hearkened unto me, in [proclaiming liberty/granting freedom], every one to his brother, and every man to his neighbour:
And here’s a sarcastic turn of phrase that God employs to proclaim judgement on his promise-breaking people.
behold, I [proclaim a liberty for you/grant you freedom], saith the LORD,
[the freedom to die…] [to the sword/in war],
[to the pestilence/by starvation], and
[to the famine/by disease];
and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.
18 And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, […continues in verse 20…] which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof,
That’s just speaking of the ceremony they would perform when making solemn covenants. You can see God doing this very thing back in Genesis with Abraham.
19 The princes of Judah, and
the princes of Jerusalem,
the eunuchs, and
the priests, and
all the people of the land, which passed between the parts of the calf;
20 […continued from verse 18…] I will even give them into the hand of their enemies,
and into the hand of them that seek their life:
and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven,
and to the beasts of the earth.
21 And Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes will I give into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army, which [are gone up/have withdrawn] from you.
Now, that last statement should make us pause and consider what was just said.
Verse 21 says that Babylon’s army had gone up from Jerusalem. They had retreated or left in some way. How did that happen? Why did that happen?
Here’s my theory. This was quite possibly an act of mercy on the part of God in response to the Jews doing right. Wouldn’t that be awesome? If that’s what’s happening here, then we see a glimpse of God’s mercy and desire to bless his people’s least efforts at obedience. I mean, they somehow took note of what we’d consider maybe a relatively minor point of the Mosaic Law. And all of a sudden God responds by removing Babylon from them!
And don’t miss how major that would have been. Babylon has been THE threat that God has been promising all throughout this book. I mean, they’re the ultimate punishment in God’s eyes. And he’s been threatening the rebellious Jews with their coming and attacking and conquering. He’s made their coming to be a virtual certainty. From all that we’ve read, there’s no getting out of their coming and destroying the Jews.
And all of a sudden, one little act that tended toward obedience – and BOOM God starts removing this great threat from his people. Do you get the sense that God is really quite inclined to respond to his people’s Submitting to His Authority?
But, alas, the people’s obedience was short-lived. And so God promises to bring back Babylon in verse 22.
22 Behold, I will command, saith the LORD, and cause them to return to this city; and they shall fight against it, and take it, and burn it with fire: and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without an inhabitant.
And I’ll end this message with two final thoughts.
First, this going back and forth that we see here in this chapter – of starting to obey and then ultimately disobeying – is what we’re going to see from this last king of Judah – Zedekiah. This is his modus operandi.
Second, Jeremiah 34:8-22 show the negative side of the importance of keeping promises. And you might think that this promise that they made and kept was really a small matter. Most of them did too, probably. And maybe they would have defended themselves, saying something like “Well, what’s the big deal? It’s a minor command! You really expect us to follow that?!”
And where that’s significant is in the next chapter. Because the next chapter shows the importance of keeping promises in a positive light. In that chapter we’ll see the Rechabites. These men were given some obscure command from some ancient member of their clan a long time ago. And we’ll see them obeying that command and being held out as a model for the rest of their countrymen.
So, may the Lord help us this week to keep the promises we make and to make only promises we intend to keep.