In today’s Old Testament reading, we read about Jeremiah being thrown into the cistern after prophesying the doom of Jerusalem. Most of the times I have read this story my focus has been on Jeremiah. But in the reading I took note of the other characters: a Cushite named Ebed-Melek, who saved Jeremiah’s life, and Zedekiah, a cowardly king who came to a bitter end.
The situation was this: Jerusalem was being besieged by the Babylonians, and the city was in dire straits; food reserves were running low, some of the people had already defected, and the situation seemed hopeless. However, King Zedekiah had sent for help from Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Egyptian army was on its way. The Babylonians, upon hearing of the Egyptian army’s approach, strategically withdrew from the siege.
Because of this, it seemed that even though the situation was bleak, the city might yet not be lost. Jeremiah had been prophesying its overthrow for quite some time, and in doing so had earned his share of enemies. The coming of the Egyptian army had raised hopes, and now Jeremiah was being branded as a traitor. He had tried to leave the city to deal with some personal property matters, and had been roughed up and thrown into a makeshift prison on the charge of desertion.
However, King Zedekiah eventually had him released, on the pretense of asking for a word from the Lord, even though Jeremiah had been prophesying for quite a long time. Perhaps fearing that he might cross God by crossing his prophet, Zedekiah had Jeremiah released into the custody of the city guard, no doubt to keep tabs on him.
Jeremiah continued to prophesy the city’s coming doom, which eventually ruffled the wrong feathers. Powerful princes (who it seems did not give a fig for the King or his orders, owing to his weakness) brought their complaint to Zedekiah:
Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehukal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people when he said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’
And this is what the Lord says: ‘This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’”
Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.” (Jeremiah 38:1-4)
The King, sensing that they know that he knows he cannot oppose them, offers the reply that all who wish to wash their hands of innocent blood proffer:
“He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.” (Jeremiah 38:5)
Zedekiah is ostensibly the king, and was even able to flex his muscles to free Jeremiah earlier from certain doom. But now when confronted with the possibility of a coup, he admits his weakness and throws Jeremiah to the wolves.
Possibly to thumb the king’s weakness in his face, or possibly because the king’s own family is turning against him, these royal officials take Jeremiah and place him in the cistern of the king’s son and leave him there to die, where there is not even water for him to drink.
The king was earlier a fair weather protector or Jeremiah; now Jeremiah has no recourse to anyone.
There is an interesting power dynamic going on here, in that the real power in the kingdom seems to lie elsewhere than with the king. The king still has power, as is evident from his fiat to release Jeremiah from his earlier confinement; however, he is weak and afraid: cowed by the Babylonian siege, reliant upon the threat of the Egyptian army, subservient to the machinations of his officials and his own family.
Throughout the siege has has secretly brought Jeremiah in to speak with him, hoping to hear a word from God that will be in his favor, something to overcome the inevitability of Jerusalem’s fall. In his fear he even ordered Jeremiah to hide the true purpose of their previous meeting from his own officials. Yet God’s word has been consistent: Jerusalem’s days are numbered.
Unwilling to face this truth, the king becomes paralyzed in his own weakness and is willing to allow an innocent man to be put to death.
However, not all in Jerusalem are willing to compromise so easily.
One official in the palace, named Ebed-Medek, is appalled at the injustice of the situation. Facing a weakened king on one side and the real and ruthless power among his colleagues on the other, Ebed-Melek approaches the king to demand Jeremiah’s release:
“My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.” (Jeremiah 38:9)
There is a certain irony in Ebed-Melek’s words here. Firstly, he leaves the palace to confront the king at the city gate, which in the ancient world was traditionally where justice was meted out. Ebed-Melek’s demand for justice thus gives the lie to the king’s position here, as Zedekiah has acted unjustly by allowing his officials to essentially execute Jeremiah.
Further, the charge against Jeremiah revolved around his prophesying of the destruction of Jerusalem, how those remaining would die of the sword or plague or famine. However, what is interesting is that when the king released Jeremiah perviously, he provided that Jeremiah would be given bread until it ran out, which implies that everyone was aware that the bread was going to run out, even the officials. Thus, the king is being weak and two-faced, for he provided for Jeremiah’s needs on the one hand because of his role as bringer of God’s word, but then allows him to be deprived of bread for fulfilling his role. Ebed-Melek’s words here accentuate the injustice of it all.
Lastly, Ebed-Melek is a Cushite, and thus not even of the Israelites. The irony here is that a foreigner has more regard for the word of the Lord and the Lord’s prophet than does the king who is descended from the line of David. A foreigner is willing to risk his life to speak out against injustice, while the king admits he will do nothing to oppose it.
Zedekiah has likely realized his injustice and lamented Jeremiah’s fate, although fear has paralyzed him into inaction. Convicted at the gate of justice by Ebed-Melek’s words, the king is willing to make right the injustice, but still plagued by his cowardice he is not willing to actually speak out against his officials, or even admit they were wrong. Instead:
Then the king commanded Ebed-Melek the Cushite, “Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.” (Jeremiah 38:10)
Ebed-Melek was willing to speak out against injustice even when likely faced with the same fate as Jeremiah. The fact that he is ordered to take thirty men with him implies that the king fears his officials will attempt to stop Jeremiah’s rescue.
Even now Zedekiah is unable or unwilling to face his powerlessness; in his fear and attempting to hold on to what little he has left, he has allowed himself to be controlled by others. To him justice has become something that is measured by expediency. When some officials demand Jeremiah’s death, he complies to avoid a coup. When confronted with his sin, he still tries to straddle the fence and have others correct his mistakes.
Ebed-Melek, on the other hand, is not paralyzed by his fear but is willing to face the truth head on. Jeremiah has prophesied that the city is doomed, and Ebed-Melek is willing to accept the word of the Lord, unlike the king and his officials. Even when faced with the Babylonian onslaught, he is willing to do what is right.
The king eventually has another secret conversation with Jeremiah after his rescue, hoping against hope for a positive word from the Lord. But Jeremiah’s word remains consistent: Jerusalem will fall. Jeremiah’s advice comes from God himself:
If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live. But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be given into the hands of the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from them. (Jeremiah 38:17-18)
But Zedekiah has allowed his fear to rule him. Although specifically summoning Jeremiah for a word from the Lord, Zedekiah is unwilling to abide by it. His terror causes him to worry about those who have already surrendered or defected, that they will murder him in his sleep.
Jeremiah assures him that God has promised him his life, if only he will obey, if only he will face the truth of the situation and submit to God’s will.
Yet instead of obeying and saving the city, Zedekiah again hushes up the conversation, still holding out hope that the Egyptians will come through and Jerusalem can hold off Babylon. Eventually, the city falls and he is forced to watch as his family is killed in front of him, compelled to witness the razing of the city, and then made to suffer the ignominy of having his eyes put out.
Blinded by an unwillingness to face the truth, the truth has come full circle in a now unavoidable way.
However, because of his willingness to tell the truth and to confront injustice head-on even at risk to his own life, Ebed-Melek was remembered when it counted, before the walls fell:
Go and tell Ebed-Melek the Cushite, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am about to fulfill my words against this city—words concerning disaster, not prosperity. At that time they will be fulfilled before your eyes. But I will rescue you on that day, declares the Lord; you will not be given into the hands of those you fear. I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life, because you trust in me, declares the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 39:17-18)