Persevere in Obedience

 

Week of August 26, 2012

 

Bible Verses:  Jeremiah 37:11-17; 38:4-6,14-18.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about persevering in serving the Lord by refusing to compromise godly convictions no matter what the cost.

 

Persevere When Attacked:  Jeremiah 37:11-17.

 

[11]  Now when the Chaldean army had withdrawn from Jerusalem at the approach of Pharaoh's army, [12]  Jeremiah set out from Jerusalem to go to the land of Benjamin to receive his portion there among the people. [13]  When he was at the Benjamin Gate, a sentry there named Irijah the son of Shelemiah, son of Hananiah, seized Jeremiah the prophet, saying, "You are deserting to the Chaldeans." [14]  And Jeremiah said, "It is a lie; I am not deserting to the Chaldeans." But Irijah would not listen to him, and seized Jeremiah and brought him to the officials. [15]  And the officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him in the house of Jonathan the secretary, for it had been made a prison. [16]  When Jeremiah had come to the dungeon cells and remained there many days, [17]  King Zedekiah sent for him and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house and said, "Is there any word from the LORD?" Jeremiah said, "There is." Then he said, "You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon."  [ESV]

 

[11-15]  There was probably a three-month period when the Babylonian troops were withdrawn due to the presence of Pharaoh’s army. This period allowed some supplies to get into the city although the surrounding countryside would already have been devastated by the Babylonians. And it also permitted many to desert from the city. Both these factors probably led to the prolongation of the siege when it was resumed. Also the numbers trying to leave the city laid the background of suspicion against which Jeremiah’s actions were assessed. Jeremiah, who was from Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin, set out to leave the city in order to return to his home town. The reason given for Jeremiah’s desire to return home was to receive his portion of the land. Due to the upheaval caused by the Babylonian invasion plus the death of a relative there meant that Jeremiah needed to go home in order to receive his share of his relative’s land as an inheritance. So he sought to leave the city evidently unaware that his departure would be noticed and prevented. The Benjamin Gate was on the north side of the city and so called because the road to the territory of Benjamin went through it. The suspicions of the officer on sentry duty were not without foundation when all that Jeremiah himself had so publicly said is considered, including the fact that he had urged the people to submit to Babylon [21:8-10; 38:2], and evidently considerable numbers had done so. However, it was a most improbable time to try to defect, in that the Babylonians had raised the siege and were now miles away. When seized by the sentry Jeremiah protested that he was not deserting but he was not believed by the soldier. Jeremiah was brought to the officials of the city who were outraged at Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned. The house of Jonathan the secretary had been made into a prison evidently because the number of would-be deserters at this time required additional accommodations for them. The officials saw Jeremiah trying to destroy the morale and resistance of the soldiers and the civilian population of Jerusalem by deserting to the Babylonians.

 

[16-17]  Verse 16 tells us that Jeremiah’s prison cell was in a dungeon. Evidently Jonathan’s house had attached to it a separate building which was called a dungeon. It was probably a cistern pit hewed out of the rock and filled with rainwater that was run-off from the roofs of the houses. The sides of the pit would be plastered to retain the water for use during the dry season. This particular pit, however, seems to have been used for storage of commodities such as grain, in that there were cellars there. It was in such an underground prison that Jeremiah was confined in airless, gloomy, and probably damp conditions. It certainly seems to have constituted on its own a threat to his health [20]. It seemed that the city officials had silenced the mouth and ministry of the troublesome prophet by imprisoning him. Meanwhile the Egyptian army retreated, the Babylonians returned in force, and the siege of Jerusalem resumed and dragged on, while conditions within the city deteriorated. The influential men of the city thought they had dealt with the word of God by imprisoning Jeremiah, but the need for the light from God was acutely felt in the deteriorating situation, and especially by the king, who had Jeremiah brought to him, not out of compassion for the prophet but because the king was looking for something more certain than the prevailing conjectures of his politicians. King Zedekiah is here torn two ways. He has respect for Jeremiah, indeed he privately seems to recognize that he is a true prophet of the Lord, and hence his request if there has been further revelation for the city in its distress. But at the same time he does so secretly, so that his court officials, and perhaps also the people, do not get to hear about it. They were antagonistic to Jeremiah, and Zedekiah does not want to do anything that will rub them the wrong way. Jeremiah recognizes that the king’s primary concern is for his own position, and he answers on that basis. To the king’s terse question, Jeremiah gives an equally terse response, which exhibits his unwavering resolution to be true to what the Lord had revealed to him, no matter what difficulties it might bring to him personally. Since there has been no change in Zedekiah’s position [see 32:4; 34:3], there can be no change in Jeremiah’s message. Otherwise the prophet would have been seeking favor with men at the expense of being true to the word of the Lord.

 

Persevere When Others Waver:  Jeremiah 38:4-6.

 

[4]  Then the officials said to the king, "Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm." [5]  King Zedekiah said, "Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you." [6]  So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king's son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.  [ESV]

 

[4-6]  Chapter 38 takes up the story with Jeremiah confined in the courtyard of the guard [37:21]. Here Jeremiah was able to conduct business, and also to speak to any who came to the palace and to the soldiers stationed there. It was here that four of the officials heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people. Jeremiah was not telling a new message to the people but the same message of doom if the people did not surrender to the Babylonians. Since so much of what he had warned about had already come to pass, the people ought to have been in no doubt that they would not escape the full measure of divine justice, and therefore they should act as they had been advised by Jeremiah. Of course, by saying that continued resistance was futile and by urging the people to align themselves with the enemy forces, Jeremiah was uttering what the officials could interpret only as high treason. But Jeremiah’s message was not born out of a lack of patriotism, or out of fear for his personal safety, or for some personal advantage. He was the loyal spokesman of the Lord, and he had a deep concern for the well-being of his people. They could not escape the impending catastrophe, but they could rescue their own lives by prompt surrender to the Babylonians. Whatever would then happen to them would not be glorious or grand, but it would be better than the horrors of life in a city under prolonged siege or the massacre that would ensure when the city fell. So once more Jeremiah’s life is in danger. The officials complain to the king about Jeremiah’s message and demand the death penalty because he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. Weakening the hands is an idiom that denotes dejection and loss of nerve and morale. This man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm indicates the difference between the prophet and the politician. The people’s good can be sought either by worldly stratagem, or by conformity to the message of God. Those who rely on the former cannot get to grips with the motives of the latter, and the reality of what it is that they point to. To continue in the face of the divine message is not heroism but blind obstinacy. When the two courses of action move forwards to the culminating crisis, an irreconcilable gulf of hostility opens out between them. For the king can do nothing against you are the words of a man who acknowledges his own powerlessness. The officials constituted a powerful pressure group who were able to ensure that they had their own way. It is not likely that Zedekiah personally wished to see Jeremiah killed. His attitude both before and after shows that the king stood somewhat in awe of the man who was as fearless and uncompromising as he himself was vacillating and intimidated. Given that on other occasions Zedekiah did succeed in modifying the actions of the officials, it seems probable that the powerlessness to which he refers here is the impossibility of anyone, even a king, defending Jeremiah’s speech from charges of treason. What precisely was it that was implied by he is in your hands? Given that the officials had demanded the death penalty it does not seem possible to read these words in any other way than Zedekiah acquiescing in their demand. But we do not read of Jeremiah’s execution. The course followed shows that the officials themselves were acting under constraint. They seem to be trying as hard as possible to clear themselves of being directly responsible for the prophet’s death. It is one thing to have him executed by the direct command of the king’s officials; it is quite another should he die while in custody, particularly of starvation or natural causes – just another casualty of the siege. So they take Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son. Unlike Jonathan’s cistern which had been dry [37:16], this cistern was evidently used to store rainwater, and though empty, remained damp and unhealthy. It was also fairly deep because it is recorded of the officials, who had certainly no concern for Jeremiah’s well-being, that they lowered Jeremiah down by ropes. The lack of water in the cistern meant that he did not die immediately of drowning, but he was being virtually condemned to a slow death in the wet mud.

 

Persevere Through Obedience to God’s Word:  Jeremiah 38:14-18.

 

[14]  King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah the prophet and received him at the third entrance of the temple of the LORD. The king said to Jeremiah, "I will ask you a question; hide nothing from me." [15]  Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, "If I tell you, will you not surely put me to death? And if I give you counsel, you will not listen to me." [16]  Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, "As the LORD lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life." [17]  Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, "Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. [18]  But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape from their hand."  [ESV]

 

[14-18]  In 38:14-28 we have described the final interview between Jeremiah and Zedekiah. It probably occurred only weeks before the fall of Jerusalem. It is part of the world of intrigue and pressure as the crumbling regime faced up to the stresses and strains of the ever intensifying siege of the city. The king and his officials were intensely suspicious of one another. So King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah to come to him at the third entrance of the temple. We do not know where precisely this entrance lay, but presumably it was from the palace into the Temple. This was probably a covered walkway restricted to royal use possibly only on state occasions, and the shadows would have afforded Zedekiah a suitable place for a secret interview. Certainly Zedekiah hoped he would be unobserved there. This reinforces the picture of a man who lacked confidence in anything he did and who lived in fear of those around him. The king was no doubt regally dressed while Jeremiah’s condition showed how he had been living recently, but still it is Zedekiah who is the suppliant as the interview begins. Though in the event the king does not actually get round to posing his question, it is clear that he wants information from Jeremiah about the Lord’s attitude to what is going on, and how the siege will end. Zedekiah does not want to change his own course of action. It is rather that he is hoping against hope that the Lord will relent and not carry out his threat – even at the last moment. Hide nothing from me suggests that the king was well aware that Jeremiah’s recent treatment might make him fearful of speaking. He might not be prepared to tell all he knew for fear of the consequences. The response Jeremiah makes does reveal his anxiety about how the king will act. Had it not been with the king’s approval that he had been consigned to the cistern? As there had been no change in the message the Lord had given the prophet to deliver, it was not improbable that the king might react negatively to the bearer of the message. Jeremiah reasons that an answer true to his divine commission would only lead to the resurrection of the charge of treason and undermining morale. He also recognizes that Zedekiah is not going to listen, no matter what advice is given him. He had previously received repeated warnings, and the possibility was remote of a different response this time. Zedekiah, however, is a man consumed with anxieties and doubts. He is at his wits’ end, and will do anything to hear a favorable response. Secretly emphasizes the unusual nature of the oath, which would normally involve a public commitment to a course of action, but Zedekiah’s weak personal position was such that he was trying to keep everything as quiet as possible. The reference to the Lord as the maker of our souls involves the implied malediction that if Zedekiah does not keep his word, then the Lord, who has the power of life and death in His hands, should take Zedekiah’s life away. No doubt Zedekiah acted sincerely in giving this commitment, but one might well wonder what degree of reliance could be given to the word of this weak and temporizing monarch, even when it was bolstered by an oath. Though Zedekiah’s ability to carry out the commitment he has given might be questioned, nonetheless Jeremiah replies to him. Jeremiah emphasizes that the message he is giving comes from the Lord Himself. Zedekiah is being confronted with the absolute authority of God. But the message is not what Zedekiah wants to hear because it is identical to what Jeremiah has announced many times before. The need to surrender is urgently pressed upon the king. He would have to submit to the officers of Nebuchadnezzar because the emperor was not encamped at Jerusalem but at Riblah 200 miles to the north. Of course, Zedekiah’s surrender would not be the same as that of a private individual. If the king capitulated, the whole city would be surrendering. But if he complies with the divine word, he is given three divine guarantees: his own life would be spared, his family would be spared, and the city would escape conflagration. None of these were automatic consequences of his surrender. On the contrary those who rebelled against an overlord such as Nebuchadnezzar would normally be subject to harsh and humiliating treatment, especially when they had held out against him for a long time. Subject kings were frequently mutilated and then killed to discourage others from rebelling. The Lord promises to intervene to modify the Babylonian treatment of Zedekiah and Jerusalem, but it would take faith in the word Jeremiah has brought for the king to venture on that promise. There is, however, the stark alternative given in verse 18. Continued resistance will meet with destruction, and it is implied the king will be captured and at the mercy of Babylon. His worst fears will be realized.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         Even in the midst of suffering and imprisonment Jeremiah remained true to God’s Word. He did not compromise his calling by seeking favor from King Zedekiah. We live in a day when it is becoming increasingly unpopular to hold to the teaching of God’s Word. Pray that, like Jeremiah, we will not compromise but remain faithful to God’s Word.

 

2.         What do we learn from Jeremiah in these verses?

  (1.)  He had a clear and definite word from God. He did not change that message in order to appease men, even the king.

  (2.)  Even when confronted by opposition, suffering and imprisonment, he did not stop speaking God’s Word.

  (3.)  He did not add to nor subtract from the Word he received from God. He remained faithful in speaking exactly what God had given him to speak.

 

References:

The Message of Jeremiah, Derek Kidner, Inter Varsity.

Jeremiah, John Mackay, Mentor.

The Book of Jeremiah, J.A. Thompson, Eerdmans.