Bible Commentary: Jeremiah 37:11–38:28

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Jeremiah 37:11–38:28

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Jeremiah Imprisoned

The temporary lifting of the Babylonian siege from Jerusalem provides an opportunity for some movement outside the city. Jeremiah sets off for the land of Benjamin—presumably for his hometown of Anathoth, just three miles outside the capital—to, as one commentator translates verse 12, "attend to a division of property among his people there" (qtd. in Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on verse 12). (The King James translation, "to separate himself thence in the midst of the people," is incorrect.) "The presupposition is that a relative had died in Anathoth; so it was incumbent on Jeremiah to be present in connection with the inheritance" (footnote on verse 12).

But the prophet is arrested on suspicion of defecting to the Chaldeans by a captain of the guard named Irijah. His grandfather's name is Hananiah (verse 13)—possibly, as some have suggested, the false prophet Hananiah who died at Jeremiah's decree from God (see Jeremiah 28).

We then come to Jeremiah's imprisonment. It is not entirely clear if our current reading encompasses two separate imprisonments or two accounts of the same one (compare Jeremiah 37:11-21; Jeremiah 38:1-28). Those who argue for two imprisonments point out that Jeremiah 37:15 mentions the prophet being cast into "prison in the house of Jonathan the scribe," where he is thrown into a dungeon or cistern (verse 18), while Jeremiah 38:6 says he was "cast into the dungeon of Malchiah the king's son" (or Malchiah son of Hammelech). The argument in favor of one imprisonment here is that the two accounts are extremely similar and that, at the end of both, Jeremiah requests of the king that he not be returned to Jonathan's house to die (compare Jeremiah 37:20; Jeremiah 38:26). Indeed, one imprisonment seems rather likely, which would mean that the dungeon or cistern of Malchiah was in the house of Jonathan—easily explainable if ownership had changed, if Malchiah had built the cistern, or if Malchiah was the official in charge of prisoners.

Pashhur, one of the leaders Jeremiah is arraigned before (who was part of Zedekiah's delegation to Jeremiah at the beginning of the Babylonian siege in chapter 21), is the "son of Malchiah" (Jeremiah 38:1)—perhaps the namesake of the dungeon. With Pashhur is Jucal (same verse), the Jehucal of the delegation Zedekiah sent to Jeremiah when the siege was lifted at the beginning of chapter 37.

The officials are outraged at Jeremiah's public proclamation of what they consider to be a seditious message, and they call for his execution. Interestingly, Zedekiah declares himself powerless against these leaders (Jeremiah 38:5). He is evidently insecure in his position. Though he had reigned for a decade, it should be recalled that many still considered Jeconiah, a prisoner in Babylon, as the real king. Also, Zedekiah later mentions his fear of pro-Babylonian factions (verse 19). Many were likely blaming Zedekiah for having instigated the Babylonian siege. Now that it had been lifted for a time, a coup was not out of the question. Nevertheless, Zedekiah certainly wielded a great deal of power still. He could have protected God's prophet, but it didn't seem politically expedient to him.

The leaders order Jeremiah thrown into the prison "dungeon" (verse 6) or "cistern" (NIV)—ostensibly, as they had called for his execution, with the intention of his dying a slow death. "The cistern of Palestine was commonly a pear-shaped reservoir into which water could run from a roof, tunnel, or courtyard. From about the thirteenth century B.C. it was plastered and its opening stopped by a suitable cut stone, large enough for protection, but sometimes quite heavy (cf. Genesis 29:8-10)... [In] abandoned reservoirs there is usually a mound of debris underneath the opening, consisting of dirt and rubbish, blown or knocked in, shattered remnants of water containers, and not infrequently skeletons. These may represent the result of accident, suicide, or some such incarceration as that which Jeremiah endured, although he did not experience the usual fatal end of exhaustion and drowning in water and mud" ("Cistern," The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, 1983, p. 129).

Jeremiah is rescued through the intervention of Ebed-Melech the Cushite, who convinces the king to have the prophet removed from the cistern (Jeremiah 38:7-10). He takes great care in helping Jeremiah out of his confinement (verses 11-13). How ironic that "a foreigner, a once-despised Cushite [and eunuch], cared more for the prophet of God than did the king and princes of Jeremiah's own people" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 11-13). We later learn that this is because he trusts in the God of Israel—and that God will reward him with deliverance from Jerusalem's destruction (39:15-18).

Zedekiah's Wavering

Following the rescue is a dialogue between Jeremiah and Zedekiah, wherein we are afforded insight into the king's thinking. The narrative again demonstrates Zedekiah's instability—constantly wavering and giving in to the pressure of those around him. His day-to-day life was one of rebellion against God, yet there still seemed to be an ingrained fear of one of God's servants. Sadly, Zedekiah was like many leaders today—more intent on pleasing people than following the truth (Jeremiah 38:19-20).

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus makes this comment about the king: "Now as to Zedekiah himself, while he heard the prophet speak, he believed him, and agreed to everything as true, and supposed it was for his advantage; but then his friends perverted him, and dissuaded him from what the prophet advised, and obliged him to do what they pleased" (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 10, chap. 7, sec. 2).

Nations need leaders who are steadfast and not wavering. God also requires the same of His people. "Then we will no longer be like children, forever changing our minds about what we believe because someone has told us something different or because someone has cleverly lied to us and made the lie sound like the truth. Instead we will hold to the truth in love, becoming more and more in every way like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church" (Ephesians 4:14-15, New Living Translation).

Instead of standing fast, "Zedekiah will go down in history as having made more U-turns than a learner-driver breaking in wild chariot horses" (Derek Williams, ed., The Biblical Times, 1997, p. 196).

Jeremiah "was stirred to his most direct eloquence. 'And you shall cause this city to be burned with fire' ([Jeremiah 28] v. 23). This was Zedekiah's last chance to save the city, its walls, its warriors, its women and children. All he had to do was trust the prophet, to lift his head high, take up the flag of truce, walk past the princes and out to the Chaldean armies. This simple act of contrition could have saved the city" (Mastering the Old Testament, Vol. 17: Jeremiah, Lamentations by John Guest, 1988, p. 271).

Biblical historian Eugene Merrill writes: "Zedekiah was nearly persuaded. Only his pride of position and need to maintain a face of courage in the midst of certain calamity prevented him from acceding to the word of the man of God. That stubbornness against the truth proved to be the undoing of the king and all his people with him" (Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 1987, p. 465). Zedekiah could not bring himself to surrender. Jerusalem was to fall.

In verses 24-26, Zedekiah commands Jeremiah to not reveal to the other leaders what the two of them had discussed—but to instead say that he had made a request of the king that he not be put back in the cistern to die. Jeremiah complies (verse 27). So did Jeremiah lie? No, for he actually did make this request as part of their discussion in Jeremiah 37:20—which argues in favor of the two accounts covering the same episode.

While Zedekiah consents to Jeremiah's request that he not be returned to the cistern, the king does not completely free the prophet. Rather he commits him to the "court of the prison" (verse Jeremiah 37:21; Jeremiah 38:13, Jeremiah 38:28) or "courtyard of the guard" (NIV)—"a place near the royal palace where limited mobility was possible, such as in the transaction to purchase the field [mentioned in our next reading] (see Jeremiah 32:1-15; Nehemiah 3:25)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Jeremiah 37:20-21). The Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "The courtyard of the guard, probably a stockade (cf. Nehemiah 3:25), was the part of the palace area set apart for prisoners. (Friends could visit them there.) The soldiers who guarded the palace were quartered there" (note on Jeremiah 32:1-2). Jeremiah will remain in this place until the Babylonians conquer the city (Jeremiah 38:28; Jeremiah 39:11-14).