Jeremiah 38 Commentary

This is the third chapter in what we’re calling the “Bitter End” of Judah. That major section of the book of Jeremiah runs from chapter 36 through chapter 45.

The first chapter we saw in this section – Jeremiah 36 had Jehoiakim burning the Lord’s written message.

The second chapter – Jeremiah 37 had God’s spoken word through Jeremiah temporarily imprisoned.

And now this third chapter – Jeremiah 38 consists of two major scenes.

The first consists of verses 1-13. In that section we’ll see Jeremiah narrowly saved from death at the hands of the evil Jewish leaders. We’ll also see an unlikely savior for Jeremiah. He’s a gentile.

Then the second section of this chapter runs from verses 14-28. There we see a very personal exchange between Jeremiah and King Zedekiah. And it seems from that conversation that there’s a chance of Zedekiah’s repenting. But alas, he stops short of the true repentance that God was looking for.

Officials, Zedekiah, Ebed-Melech, Jeremiah (1-13)

So, let’s begin explaining the first section of Jeremiah 38.

Judahite Officials Hear Jeremiah’s Message (1-3)

In verses 1-3 we see the officials of Judah hearing Jeremiah’s characteristic message of judgement – with the corollary that if people in Jerusalem surrender to Babylon, they will live. Despite the fact that they are less than two years away from total destruction, they will live if they submit to God’s authority.

KJV Jeremiah 38:1 ¶ Then

Shephatiah the son of Mattan, and
Gedaliah the son of Pashur, and
Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and [probably the Jehucal of 37:3, sent by Zedekiah…]
Pashur the son of Malchiah, [the same Pashur as in 21:1 whom Zed sent to Jer to plead to God for mercy from Babylon’s attack; not the Pashur in 20 who was a false prophet/priest…]

heard the words that Jeremiah had spoken unto all the people, saying,

2 Thus saith the LORD,

He that remaineth in this city
shall die by [the sword/battle], by [the famine/starvation], and by [the pestilence/disease]:

but he that goeth forth to the Chaldeans
shall live;

for he shall have his life for a prey, and
shall live.

3 Thus saith the LORD,

This city shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army, which shall take it.

Let’s just notice two things about the list of people Zedekiah sent to Jeremiah.

First, very simply, two of the four we know nothing about. Shephatiah and Gedaliah are relatively unknown to us from Scripture’s record of events of this time.

Second though, the other two have been sent to Jeremiah before by king Zedekiah. So, they’ve heard Jeremiah’s message of judgement and punishment unless the people repent. They’ve also heard before God’s merciful allowance for the people of Jerusalem to surrender to Babylon and keep their lives as a result.

Judahite Officials Seek Zedekiah’s Permission to Kill Jeremiah (4)

And you might think that the response of these officials to hearing this message would have been for them to obey. Maybe you’d expect them to surrender to Babylon. You could expect them to be thankful to God for this merciful offer.

Instead though, we see in verse 4 these four officials of Judah seeking permission from king Zedekiah to kill the prophet Jeremiah.

4 Therefore the [princes/officials] said unto the king,

We beseech thee, let this man be put to death:

for thus he [weakeneth the hands of/demoralizing] the men of war that remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words unto them:

for this man seeketh not the welfare of this people, but the hurt.

Now, by the admission of these officials, the city of Jerusalem was already fairly devastated. They speak of “the men of war that remain in this city” as in – there are not many left. And the ones that remain are being demoralized by God’s word.

And yet, what these men count as demoralization, God intends as humbling.

And this kind of thing happen to this very day. Whenever you or I speak God’s word, there is a significant chance that we will be labeled as “bigoted.” They will view us as “homophobic” because we believe God’s testimony concerning the biblical definition of marriage. They will label us as “misogynists” because of the way that Scripture cuts cross-grain to the current ungodly feminism of this culture. In this day and age of stressing a “positive mental attitude” the Bible message of the depravity and condemnation of all men will earn us perhaps the worst label of all – we’re supposedly “negative.”

Being mislabeled is something we’ve all learned to deal with, I trust. And we’re helped in that regard by remembering that our dear friend and brother Jeremiah – one man in that great “cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews – experienced the same exact thing in his day.

Zedekiah Acquiesces to the Officials’ Request (5)

So, the officials – who, remember, were among the “losers” that Zedekiah inherited when he was installed as king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar about ten years prior to this event we’re reading about. Well, these officials come to Zedekiah and demand death for Jeremiah, because he’s supposedly demoralizing the troops with God’s infallible message.

So, how does Zedekiah respond? Well, amazingly, in verse 5 we witness Zedekiah acquiescing to the wicked request of these officials.

5 Then Zedekiah the king said,

Behold, he is in your hand:

for the king is not he that can do any thing against you.

This last statement of Zedekiah’s is yet another head-scratcher. This king tends to say some very bizarre things.

In the last chapter we saw him asking the prophet Jeremiah who had devoted decades to proclaiming God’s message – and as we’ve seen throughout this book, that message didn’t really change all that much during that time. Well, the king asked if God had a message for him. OF COURSE HE DOES – It’s been given to you and all Judah many times.

And now this. The king of Judah tells these officials – whom I would assume he himself appointed – he tells them that he can’t do anything to stop him.

Now, what’s more demoralizing? Having a prophet speaking God’s infallible word that is able to deliver those who receive it? Or a king who won’t even stand up to the men he’s appointed?

I get the feeling that this move is akin to Pontius Pilate’s hand-washing. He really doesn’t want to rouse the anger of the ruling Jews who were opposed to God’s prophet. Yet, he himself doesn’t want to kill the prophet. But he’s not going to hinder anyone who actively wants to kill the prophet.

It’s a case of deadly inactivity.

The Officials Carry Out their Desire to Kill Jeremiah (6)

Well, so, the king caves in as we just saw.

And so, with permission granted from the king, the officials carry out their plan to attempt to murder the prophet Jeremiah.

6 Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the [dungeon/cistern] of Malchiah the son of [Hammelech/the king] [i.e., one of the royal princes…], that was in the [court/courtyard] of the [prison/guard/guardhouse]:

and they let down Jeremiah with [cords/ropes].

And in the [dungeon/cistern] there was no water [which you would expect in a cistern…], but [mire/mud only]:

so Jeremiah sunk in the [mire/mud].

And the way this is reported might not give you the sense of the danger that Jeremiah faces. And yet he is in a very dangerous position.

It’s hard to know how deep the mud was in this cistern. What kinds of creatures were in there that could be harmful? There was probably very little light. The air quality would have been very poor with probably quite a bit of mold. There was no way for Jeremiah to escape. The officials let him down and walked away, fully intending this cistern to be Jeremiah’s tomb.

Ebed-Melech Pleads for Jeremiah’s Life (7-9)

But God had other plans for his prophet.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a gentile comes to Jeremiah’s rescue in verses 7-9.

7 ¶ Now when Ebedmelech [heb. “A King’s Servant”] the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs which was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the [dungeon/cistern];

the king then [sitting/holding court] in the gate of Benjamin;

8 Ebedmelech went forth out of the [king’s house/palace], and spake to the king, saying,

9 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/cistern];

and he is like to die for hunger in the place where he is:

for there is no more bread in the city. [chronologically after Jeremiah 37…]

So, this man is from Ethiopia. Now, Ethiopians in the Old Testament were sometimes called upon as mercenary fighters. So, this man is in Jerusalem probably fighting alongside the Judeans. He’s on their side. He’s no traitor.

And yet, he for some reason cares about what happens to Jeremiah. And we’re going to see later in this book why this was the case. You see, this man – an African national hired to fight against Babylon for Judah – he came to trust in the God of Judah.

And this man is bold. He goes to the king in public while the king is holding court. So, this approach is very public. Those four murderous officials may have even been there.

Zedekiah Acquiesces to Ebed-Melech’s Request (10)

And just like Zedekiah unadvisedly caved in to the wicked officials, he also grants the request of this godly gentile – no questions asked – in verse 10.

10 Then the king commanded Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, saying,

Take from hence thirty men with thee, and take up Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon, before he die.

If you’re shocked by Zedekiah’s wavering, you should be. He goes from hastily ordering the death of Jeremiah to now ordering his rescue. And he does it with zest – 30 men?! How many men do you need to get a man out of a cistern? Well, four officials did it just a few verses ago.

And so some who have studied this passage wonder if it’s a typo in the copies of the Scripture – they think maybe that number should be 3 rather than 30. And yet, there’s no textual evidence for that. And so it’s best to see this as Zedekiah’s pendulum swinging in the completely opposite direction as where it was when the officials came to him.

First it was – yeah, go ahead and kill him. I can’t do anything to stop you. Now it’s – take as many men as you need – even 30! – and go rescue that prophet before he dies!

Doesn’t the statement in James 1 about a double-minded man come to mind when you think of Zedekiah’s behavior here? A double-minded man like Zedekiah is unstable in all his ways. He wavers and such a one like a wave of the sea – driven with the wind and tossed.

Ebed-Melech Saves Jeremiah’s Life (11-13)

Well, with permission from the king, Jeremiah’s gentile deliverer executes his plan to save the prophet Jeremiah in verses 11-13.

11 So Ebedmelech took the men with him,

and went into the house of the king under the treasury,

and took thence [old cast clouts/old rags/worn-out clothes] and [old rotten rags/worn-out clothes/old rags],

and let them down by cords into the [dungeon/cistern] to Jeremiah.

12 And Ebedmelech the Ethiopian said unto Jeremiah,

Put now these old cast clouts and rotten rags under thine [armholes/armpits] under [to pad…] the [cords/ropes].

And Jeremiah did so.

13 So they drew up Jeremiah with [cords/ropes],

and took him up out of the [dungeon/cistern]:

and Jeremiah remained in the [court/courtyard] of the [prison/guard/guardhouse].

Ebed-Melech shows an extraordinary amount of compassion for Jeremiah. That’s why he’s in that room under the treasury looking for old rags – so that he could put them between the ropes and Jeremiah’s body so that the prophet could be as comfortable as possible as he’s lifting him out of the cistern – which just a little while ago was set to be the prophet’s grave.

And then we see the summary of Jeremiah’s status and safety in verse 13 there. The Lord got Jeremiah through this very trying time and afterwards he remained safe. And – under God – Jeremiah owed his very life to this African gentile.

So, the Lord rescued Jeremiah from this latest trial of his.

Zedekiah Approaches Jeremiah (14-28)

Now, following Jeremiah’s near-death experience, Zedekiah – who was dangerously close to killing this true prophet of the Lord – approaches Jeremiah in verses 14-28.

Zedekiah Asks Jeremiah to Answer His Question (14)

To begin, Zedekiah asks Jeremiah to answer a question he has in verse 14.

14 ¶ Then Zedekiah the king sent, and [took/had x brought] Jeremiah the prophet unto him into the third entry that is in the house of the LORD:

and the king said unto Jeremiah,

I will ask thee a [thing/question];
hide nothing from me.

Jeremiah Communicates Apprehension Regarding Answering the King (15)

And as you can imagine after that last episode, Jeremiah has some apprehension about answering this king forthrightly – seeing as the king is given to imprisoning and signing off on the death of Jeremiah. So, Jeremiah communicates that apprehension to the king in verse 15.

15 Then Jeremiah said unto Zedekiah,

If I [declare it unto thee/tell you], wilt thou not surely put me to death?

and if I give thee counsel, wilt thou not hearken unto me?

Zedekiah Assures Jeremiah of His Safety (16)

Nevertheless, the king gives Jeremiah assurance of his safety if he answers the king’s question in verse 16.

16 So Zedekiah the king sware secretly unto Jeremiah, saying,

As the LORD liveth, that made us this soul, I will not put thee to death,

neither will I give thee into the hand of these men that seek thy life.

This is the last conversation we have recorded of this king. And the words coming out of his mouth seem to be rather sober. He speaks of the Lord who created the life or soul of each individual. He’s speaking this just maybe months or even weeks before his kingdom crashes down around him. Has this double-minded man finally turned to the Lord with his whole heart?

Jeremiah Speaks God’s Counsel to Zedekiah (17-18)

Well, emboldened by the king’s assurance of safety, Jeremiah goes on to speak God’s counsel to Zedekiah in verses 17-18.

17 ¶ Then said Jeremiah unto Zedekiah,

Thus saith the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel;

If thou wilt assuredly [go forth unto/surrender to] the king of Babylon’s [princes/officials/officers],

then thy soul shall live,
and this city shall not be burned with fire;
and thou shalt live, and thine house:

18 But if thou wilt not go forth to the king of Babylon’s princes,

then shall this city be given into the hand of the Chaldeans,
and they shall burn it with fire,
and thou shalt not escape out of their hand.

So, the word from God for Zedekiah is – surrender to Babylon and you will be rewarded with life.

It’s interesting to note that God promises Zedekiah life for obedience. And yet, he doesn’t specify death for disobedience. And we’ve seen already that God ends the so-called Book of Consolation in Jeremiah 34 with a promise to Zedekiah that he would not die. And yet, the Lord here threatens Zedekiah to such an extent that until he gets that promise that he won’t die – he wouldn’t be able to just sit back and assume things would be fine for him.

Zedekiah Expresses Fear of Men (19)

But, despite receiving God’s very message from his true prophet, Zedekiah in verse 19 expresses his fear of men, which evidently outweighs his fear of God.

19 And Zedekiah the king said unto Jeremiah,

I am afraid of the Jews [that are fallen/who have deserted] to the Chaldeans,
lest they [Babylon] deliver me into their [Jews] hand, and they [Jews] [mock/deal cruelly with/torture] me.

And this is such a sad and pathetic statement. This king is wrestling between submitting to God’s authority and fearing his fellow-man. And what Zedekiah needed to do is what the Lord Jesus commanded his hearers – don’t fear the one who is able to destroy only the body – but rather fear him who is able to cast both body and soul into hell.

Jeremiah Assures Him that He Should Fear God More than Men (20-23)

Well, Jeremiah seeks to assure the king that he should indeed fear God rather than man in verses 20-23.

20 But Jeremiah said,

They [Babylon] shall not deliver thee.

Obey, I beseech thee, the voice of the LORD, which I speak unto thee:

so it shall be well unto thee, and thy soul shall live.

So, that’s blessing for obedience. But here’s the opposite side of the coin.

21 But if thou refuse to go forth,

this is the [word/vision] that the LORD hath shewed me:

22 And, behold, all the women that are left in the king of Judah’s house shall be brought forth to the king of Babylon’s [princes/officers],

and those women shall say [to you, Zedekiah…],

Thy [trusted…] friends have [set thee on/deceived you/misled you],
and have [prevailed against thee/gotten the best of you]:

Maybe this is speaking of people like those four officials we saw earlier.

thy feet are sunk in the mire,
and [instead of helping you…] they are turned away back.

And that sounds a lot like what these officials did to Jeremiah earlier.

23 So they shall bring out all thy wives and thy children to the Chaldeans:

and thou shalt not escape out of their hand, but shalt be taken by the hand of the king of Babylon:

and thou shalt cause this city to be burned with fire.

So, that’s God’s message to Zedekiah. Submit to God’s Authority and Live. If not, he will suffer greatly.

How will he respond? We’ve seen some soberness from him. Maybe he will submit to God.

Zedekiah Ends the Conversation and Orders Jeremiah to be Silent (24-26)

And yet, after receiving God’s counsel and admonitions from the prophet Jeremiah, Zedekiah abruptly ends the conversation. Furthermore, Zedekiah orders Jeremiah to not tell anyone anything in verses 24-26 – especially those officials who sought Jeremiah’s death back in the first section of this chapter.

24 ¶ Then said Zedekiah unto Jeremiah,

Let no man know of these words, and thou shalt not die.

25 But if the [princes/officials] [at least those four from earlier…] hear that I have talked with thee,
and they come unto thee,
and say unto thee,

Declare unto us now what thou hast said unto the king,
hide it not from us,
and we will not put thee to death;

also what the king said unto thee:

26 Then thou shalt say unto them,

I [presented my supplication/made a humble plea] before the king,
that he would not cause me to return to Jonathan’s house, to die there.

And so the king seals his fate here. He had God’s word proclaimed clearly and pointedly to him. And he’s made his decision to fear men rather than God.

The Officials Speak with Jeremiah About His Conversation with Zedekiah (27)

Now, just as Zedekiah thought might happen, the officials do end up coming to Jeremiah and asking him about his conversation with the king in verse 27.

27 Then came all the [princes/officials] unto Jeremiah, and asked him:

and he told them according to all these words that the king had commanded.

So they left off speaking with him; for the [matter/conversation] was not [perceived/overheard].

Summary of Jeremiah’s Condition Until the Destruction of Jerusalem (28)

And finally, the chapter ends with a summary of Jeremiah’s condition until the fall of Jerusalem in verse 28.

28 So Jeremiah abode in the court of the [prison/guard] until the day that Jerusalem was taken:

and he was there when Jerusalem was taken.

And next time we will see the fall of Jerusalem.