Explaining the Book

Bible Study Guide

Jeremiah

Jeremiah 41 Commentary

Jeremiah 41.

We’re in the second chapter of what I’ve labeled a “fiasco.” That fiasco started in Jeremiah 40. Gedaliah was appointed governor of Judah by Babylon. Then all the Jews who were scattered from the war started returning to Gedaliah. Things seemed to be going well. It almost seemed like maybe God was beginning to restore and bless his rebellious people – even before the promised 70-year exile was over!

But all of that will change in this chapter. Because here, we’ll see any hope for peace dashed.

KJV Jeremiah 41:1 ¶ Now it came to pass in the seventh month,

Now, let’s pause briefly and get the timeframe of this story in view.

The year we’re talking about would have been somewhere between 586 and 581 BC.

Jeremiah 39:2 tells us that the wall of Jerusalem was breached in the fourth month. Then the palace was burned and the wall of Jerusalem was broken down in the fifth month, according to Jeremiah 52:12.

And now, here we are in the seventh month. I think we can assume that this is the same year in which those previous things happened.

Between the fifth month (early August) and the seventh month (October) the Jews would have had time to gather in their summer fruit and oil like their new Governor Gedaliah ordered them to do in Jeremiah 40.

OK, now that we’ve established where we are in the timeline of events, let’s see what actually happened.

that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah the son of Elishama, [of the seed royal, and the princes of the king/who was a member of the royal family and had been one of Zedekiah’s chief officers], even ten men with him, came unto Gedaliah the son of Ahikam to Mizpah; and there they did eat bread together in Mizpah.

Well, that sounds pleasant. Doesn’t it?

Here these folks are, sharing a meal together. Ishmael, who’s the son of Nethaniah who is the son of Elishama is there. And we don’t know anything about Ishmael’s father Nethaniah. But it seems that his more distant ancestor – Elishama – is mentioned several times in the Old Testament as a man born to David in Jerusalem. Elishama’s name appears in 2Sa 5:16; 1Ch 3:6,8; 14:7.

So, Ishmael – a descendant of David – comes to dine with his new Governor. And with Ishmael is this posse of ten men.

You wonder about the backstory to this gathering. Why did they get together?

Gedaliah had been warned about Ishmael in Jeremiah 40 by Johanan. Johanan told Gedaliah that Ishmael had been commissioned by a foreign king to kill Gedaliah. This warning was issued to Gedaliah twice. And both times, he rejected that message as false.

I suppose that Gedaliah is still believing the best about Ishmael. He’s willfully and blissfully ignorant as to the danger he’s in.

Perhaps this meeting was conducted under the pretense of Ishmael reporting to the Governor what was happening in the territory of Judah. Maybe Gedaliah was wanting to try to endear himself to Ishmael.

But again, Gedaliah exudes a level of naivety. OK, he was just warned about this guy by Johanan – not once, but twice. So, even if Gedaliah didn’t believe the report from Johanan, would it be wise to at least not let the ten men come along? It’s clear from later in this story that Gedaliah had several Babylonian soldiers with him. But with ten men, Ishmael would be able to overcome Gedaliah and his men.

That is, if Ishmael is as violent and malevolent as Johanan’s supposedly-false report. And yet, the report was true, as we see played out in verse 2.

2 Then arose Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, and the ten men that were with him, and smote Gedaliah the son of Ahikam the son of Shaphan with the sword, and slew him, whom the king of Babylon had made governor over the land.

Note the last phrase of that verse. This story is going to make the point several times that the king of Babylon appointed Gedaliah as governor over Judah. And this hearkens back to God’s command that had been in effect for a decade at least by this point. That command was “submit yourself to Babylon, my representative on earth.”

And we’ve seen nothing but rebellion in every area from both the people of Judah and their king especially. They especially didn’t want to obey Babylon. And yet, God commanded that they do so. And here after God had to bring extraordinary punishment on his people and on the king’s household, now we have Ishmael – a Davidic descendant – again rebelling against God’s appointed leadership of Babylon.

Rebellion after rebellion after rebellion. That’s what we see in this section that started in Jeremiah 36 and ends in Jeremiah 45. Rebellion heaped on top of rebellion. These people need help. These people need a righteous Davidic king. And equally as important, they need a new heart. That’s the message we heard in the Book of Encouragement in Jeremiah 30-34.

And yet, that encouragement was all future. At this point in Israel’s history, it’s just more rebellion. And it gets even worse.

So, Gedaliah is dead. He signed his own death certificate when he failed to investigate Johanan’s claims against Ishmael. His insistence on keeping a positive mental attitude resulted in a negative physical condition – that is, death.

This assassination of Gedaliah had serious consequences. In fact, it was such a tragedy that it became the subject of a fast in post-exilic Judah. Zechariah 7:5 mentions a fast on the seventh month that the Jews would practice after this time recorded here in Jeremiah 41. Apparently, this was a fast commemorating the assassination of Gedaliah in this timeframe of 586-581 BC.

Well, Ishmael’s murderous tendencies continue in verse 3.

3 Ishmael also slew all the Jews that were with him, even with Gedaliah, at Mizpah, and the Chaldeans [that were found there/who happened to be there], and the men of war [i.e., the Chaldeans were “men of war” or “soldiers”].

Now, this isn’t saying that all the Jews in Mizpah were killed by Ishmael. We know from later in this chapter that Ishmael kidnaps a number of Jews and takes them elsewhere. But what verse 3 is telling us is that Ishmael killed the Jews who were with Gedaliah at this meal. He killed Gedaliah, the Jews who were eating with them, and the Babylonian soldiers who were there at the meal.

And Ishmael’s murderous escapades continue.

4 ¶ And it came to pass the second day after he had slain Gedaliah, and no man knew it,

5 That there came certain from Shechem, from Shiloh, and from Samaria, even [fourscore/eighty] men, having their beards shaven, and their clothes [rent/torn], and having [cut/gashed] themselves [i.e., to show they were mourning…], with offerings [i.e., of grain as opposed to animal] and incense in their hand, to bring them to the [house/temple] of the LORD.

Verse 5 can be a little confusing at first. Who are these people and what is the significance of them coming?

Well, each of these three cities were located in what was previously Northern Israel. They were outside of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Israel was deported in 722 BC. After that point, there were some Israelites and some from Judah that lived in these cities. According to 2 Ch 30:11 and 34:9 these people cooperated with the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah. They apparently were following the Jewish religious calendar.

And if they were following the Old Testament religious calendar and were coming to Jerusalem in the 7th month of the year, then they were probably on their way to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths/Temporary Shelters, which was held on the 15th day of the 7th month according to Leviticus 23:34.

Now, the passage says that they were coming to make offerings to the Lord in the Temple. It’s not clear to me whether the Temple was still standing at this point or if it was burned down. But whatever the case, these men were under the assumption it was still standing. If it was actually burned down, then maybe news never reached them.

And I think what the reader is asked to take away from these considerations is this. Look what could have been. In Jeremiah 40 you had Israel reeling from God punishing them through Babylon. But then they were given a Governor who seemed like a good guy. He wanted them to enjoy good things in the land and not be concerned about Babylon.

Jews who had been hiding in fear started coming back to this Governor. And now here in Jeremiah 41 you have even Jews from Northern Israel coming. This is almost like what God had promised concerning his restoring Israel and Judah to their land. Wow – could it be happening now?!

Well, no, it couldn’t be happening at this point. For two reasons. First, God explicitly said that the Jews would be restored to their land after 70 years. 70 years had not passed by this point, so no, this was not the time of restoration.

The second reason that this was not God’s promised restoration of the Jews to their land is because…well, a son of David is on the loose killing people and scattering the Jews from their land as we continue reading about in verse 6.

6 And Ishmael the son of Nethaniah went forth from Mizpah to meet them [these genuine pilgrims…], weeping [faking their religious devotion…] all along as he went: and it came to pass, as he met them, he said unto them,

Come to [meet] Gedaliah the son of Ahikam.

7 And it was so, when they came into the midst of the city, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah slew them, and cast them into the midst of [the pit/a cistern], he, and the men that were with him.

This wicked descendant of David is murdering his fellow-Jews who are humble and observing God’s law to travel to Jerusalem in the 7th month. This is outrageous.

I fear that after all the destruction and judgement from God and all the wickedness we’ve seen from the Jews in this book, we might tend to become desensitized to the sheer evil that Ishmael is.

Don’t miss it. This guy is really, really bad. And he’s a testimony to the utter corruption of Judah – that even a royal descendant is behaving so ungodly.

And not only is Ishmael murderous, but he’s also greedy as we see next in verse 8.

8 But ten men were found among them [the 80…] that said unto Ishmael,

Slay us not: for we have [treasures/stores] [i.e., hidden] in the field, of wheat, and of barley, and of oil, and of honey.

So he forbare, and slew them not [among/with] their [brethren/companions].

OK, so Ishmael is a murderer. And his blood-letting is made all the more odious because he’s not doing it for any sort of noble reason. In fact, it seems like he has no reason at all for doing what he’s doing in killing all these people. In fact, it turns out here that if you give him money, he’ll let you go. So in other words, to Ishmael, a man’s life is only about as valuable as a bit of food.

Ishmael’s lack of respect for the dignity of human life and his opportunistic greed should make us sick. We are all free to hate this man. He’s one of these men in the Bible that is characterized as a total villain. There is no nuance to his character that might make us feel sorry for him. His presence is a curse and his departure will be a cause for rejoicing.

Now, one more detail is noted that highlights the fact that this point in Judah’s history was not the time of restoration of the two kingdoms to be united as one. We see that in verse 9.

9 ¶ Now the pit wherein Ishmael had cast all the dead bodies of the men, whom he had slain because of Gedaliah, was it which Asa the king had made for [fear of/defense against] Baasha king of Israel:

and Ishmael the son of Nethaniah filled it with them that were slain.

Apparently, centuries before this point the king of southern Judah made a well as part of a defense against Northern Israel. This is where Ishmael threw the dead bodies of those men from Northern Israel.

I think this detail is included here to demonstrate the fact that the enmity that was present hundreds of years ago between Asa and Baasha – Southern Judah and Northern Israel – had not been overcome. But God foretold through Jeremiah in this very book that one day the rupture between these two factions of God’s people would be healed. And yet, that wouldn’t be happening any time soon. It would have to wait for at least 70 years.

So, now in verse 10 we start to see Ishmael’s main plan behind all his senseless acts of violence. He’s going to carry the people away to the neighboring country of Ammon.

10 Then Ishmael carried away captive all the [residue/rest] of the people that were in Mizpah, even the king’s daughters,

and all the people that remained in Mizpah, whom Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard had committed to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam:

and Ishmael the son of Nethaniah carried them away captive, and departed to go over to the Ammonites.

Now, at the first reading of Ishmael’s violent episode, you might wonder if there was some ulterior motive to his madness.

For example, maybe someone in his position would have been so violent because he was a nationalist at heart and wanted to free his fellow-Jews from Babylonian oppression.

Or maybe he killed those visiting Northern Israelites because he was so pro-Judah in his sentiments. He was against immigration and wanted to have only pure Judeans in Judah – or something like that.

At least having some sort of reason for doing what he was doing would indicate that the man had some tendencies that we could perhaps admire, though at the same time recognize that he was wrong.

And yet, none of that seems to be the motivating factor for Ishmael. All that motivates him is violence and greed. And now that he’s spent his violent tendencies, he’s going to go collect on his greed by bringing these people back to Ammon. No doubt, Ishmael would be rewarded by Baalis the king of Ammon.

And this is just like Johanan warned would happen in Jeremiah 40. If only Gedaliah had listened to him.

And while we’re considering Johanan’s ignored warning to Gedaliah, at this point in the story, you do kind of wonder about Johanan. Where is he? Was he taken with the other captives? Was he killed by Ishmael with the other soldiers?

What we discover in verse 11 is that he’s still alive and well. And he’s ready to save the Jews from their new violent oppressor.

11 ¶ But when Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the [captains of the forces/army officers] that were with him, heard of all the [evil/atrocities] that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah had done,

12 Then they took all the men, and went to fight with Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, and found him by the [great/large] [waters/pool] that are in Gibeon.

What is so puzzling here is where Johanan finds Ishmael. Mizpah is where they started. Gibeon is south-west of Mizpah. Ammon is north-east of Mizpah. So, Ishmael is wanting to go north-east ultimately, but he actually goes south-west.

Why?

It could be that the Babylonians were stationed north of Mizpah – maybe between Mizpah and Ammon. And so maybe Ishmael wanted to go south around the Dead Sea and then back up north to get to Ammon.

Otherwise, I really can’t even guess as to why Ishmael went the direct opposite way of where he should have been headed if he wanted to get to Ammon from Mizpah.

It could be that this is just one more thing that is meant to make us really hate this man. He can’t even get his directions right.

So, finally the villain meets someone strong enough to resist him. And there’s great rejoicing – verse 13.

13 Now it came to pass, that when all the people which were with Ishmael saw Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the [captains of the forces/army officers] that were with him, then they [were glad/rejoiced].

14 So all the people that Ishmael had carried away captive from Mizpah [cast about/turned around] and [returned/came back], and went unto Johanan the son of Kareah.

That’s rather anti-climactic. I was expecting a battle. But we don’t get it. The people simply turn around and go back to Johanan.

It almost gives me the impression that Ishmael didn’t really care whether he had the people or not. He just wanted to kill Gedaliah and collect the bounty from Baalis the King of Ammon.

And we have support for that kind of thinking when we see Ishmael just run away in verse 15.

15 But Ishmael the son of Nethaniah escaped from Johanan with eight men, and went to the Ammonites.

And by the way, earlier this chapter we saw Ishmael with 10 men. He has only 8 now. The other two must have deserted or maybe were killed in all the fighting. Or maybe 2 of those men surrendered and were among the captives who came back to Johanan. Maybe they were sick of Ishmael’s evil and wanted to get away from him.

Well, anyway, the good guys have come! Johanan has come to liberate the captives. What a relief.

And this relief seems to continue in verse 16.

16 Then took Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the captains of the forces that were with him, [here’s whom they took…] all the remnant of the people whom he had recovered from Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, from Mizpah, after that he had slain Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, [here’s whom Johanan recovered and took…] even mighty men of war, and the women, and the children, and the eunuchs, whom he had brought again from Gibeon:

Well, this sounds alright so far. Johanan and his army is taking the people from Gibeon. But, where is he taking them? Verse 17.

17 And they departed, and [dwelt/stopped] in [the habitation of/Geruth] Chimham, which is [by/near] Bethlehem,

OK, so they’re near Bethlehem… Are they going back to Jerusalem or Mizpah, though? Nope…

to go to enter into Egypt,

Well, why’s that?

18 Because of the Chaldeans: for they were afraid of them, because Ishmael the son of Nethaniah had slain Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, whom the king of Babylon made governor in the land.

So, Johanan is worried that Babylon will retaliate for the violence of Ishmael. And so, he’d rather flee to Egypt – Babylon’s enemy at the time – and perhaps find some safety there, so far away from Babylon.

But God’s people need to recognize over and over again that it’s not pragmatism that wins the day. It’s not “what works” that matters, but rather “what does God want?” that is the question to be answered.

So, for Johanan, the question is whether God wants them to go to Egypt. Maybe God would rather have them stay in Mizpah and would protect them there. And if God doesn’t want them to travel to Egypt, will Johanan show himself to be a true hero and listen to God’s command? Or will he and the Jews do their own thing – like they’ve been doing throughout this entire book?

That’s what we’ll discover next time, Lord-willing.

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