We are studying Jeremiah 38:14-23 for Sunday, May 16. This is a portion of “Baruch’s account” of the life of the prophet Jeremiah, during the final siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the aftermath. [Here are some questions about the text.] Here are my notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of the prophet Jeremiah is long and complicated. Commentators’ notes on the book point out that the larger text includes a mix of genres – poetry and prose, prophetic oracles, narrative, laments, sermons. Jeremiah 2 is practically pornographic.
The material is not arranged chronologically; the past keeps coming up, along with visions of future times. The overall message of the book is that the trauma of judgment is terribly real. Faithfulness demands extraordinary courage. But it also knows hope, even in extremity.
“Baruch’s account” comprises chapters 37-45. The narrative begins with Zedekiah, who has been made king by the Babylonians. This follows the deportation of Jehoiachin (aka Jeconiah aka Coniah) to Babylonia (Jeremiah 37:1), along with many others, and the looting of the Temple. (See 2 Kings 24:8-17.) It’s an inauspicious beginning, since v2 tells us that Zedekiah and his officials don’t listen to Jeremiah, which is to say, to the word from God.
They don’t listen, even though Zedekiah consults Jeremiah several times. Why ask a question, and get an answer, only to ignore it?
Verse 5 refers to a brief respite from the long final siege of Jerusalem, due to what at first looks like relief from the Egyptians. This appearance of relief is illusory; the Babylonians will return.
Jeremiah is captured, by Judahite forces, as he leaves the city during this reprieve. He’s confined to “the court of the guard,” where he continues to speak what he knows to be true: the Babylonians are going to come back. When they do, they will destroy, one way or another, everything and everyone who does not surrender to them.
Because of this, some of the officials who support Zedekiah’s policy of rebellion accuse Jeremiah of “discouraging” the defenders of Jerusalem. With Zedekiah’s cooperation – in the sense that all it takes for wickedness to prevail is for those in a position to oppose it not to do so – they throw Jeremiah into a cistern where he sinks in the mud. It’s a death sentence, in effect. Fortunately for Jeremiah – at least arguably – one of the king’s servants secures Zedekiah’s permission to have Jeremiah rescued, and pulls him out of the cistern.
That’s the immediate narrative context for our text, which is a conversation between Zedekiah and Jeremiah that follows this rescue.
The rest of Baruch’s account deals with the end of the siege, and the aftermath – in which people continue to ignore Jeremiah’s advice in favor of other alternatives. Which continues to prove disastrous.
The book concludes with Jeremiah’s “oracles against the nations,” Jeremiah 46 – 51, and a final chapter which reprises the final chapter of 2 Kings, telling the fate of kings Zedekiah and Jehoiachin. The oracles against the nations are prophetic warnings for Judah’s “allies,” like Egypt, and enemies, like Babylonia. Just because Judah is under judgment does not mean other nations can sit back and feel secure. Least of all Babylonia.
This text never comes up in the lectionary, so it’s another one of those things you’ll never know is in the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. Bible Content Exam-inees be warned.
CLOSER READING: We are focusing on verses 14-23, a conversation between Zedekiah and Jeremiah, which takes place at “the third entrance of the house of YHWH.” Commentators suggest this might have been an entrance from the palace to the temple, which might have made it less public. Just right for a secret meeting between Zedekiah and Jeremiah.
I infer: Zedekiah does not want to be publicly associated with the unpopular (“unpatriotic”) prophet, or to be seen consulting him for the “word of YHWH” he had to communicate. This inference is reinforced by verses 24-26, when Zedekiah tells Jeremiah to keep their meeting confidential, to the point of lying about what took place.
I further infer: he’s more afraid of internal party politics than he is of God. There’s a creepy lesson for our time.
There is a striking repetition of the word davar, which can mean “word” or “thing” or “deed” depending on context, throughout this conversation. Zedekiah uses it twice in his opening request that Jeremiah tell him something and hide nothing; Jeremiah uses it twice more in his summation in verses 20-21: if you listen to what I say to you, good; but if not, here’s the word/thing YHWH has shown me.
Then, in v24, Zedekiah will urge Jeremiah not to let anyone know these words, or things, that have passed between them. And these words, or things, remain the central concern of the concluding verses of the chapter.
There’s an even more striking repetition of the word nefesh, which can mean “soul” or “life” or “throat” depending on context. The “life” of the “soul” is on Zedekiah’s mind, and Jeremiah’s answers echo this concern. Zedekiah’s oath in v16 is in the name of “YHWH who made our soul.” He promises he will not turn Jeremiah over to the men who are seeking Jeremiah’s “soul” (life). Jeremiah promises in v17 that Zedekiah’s “soul will live” if he goes out to the Chaldeans (Babylonians). Jeremiah reiterates this promise in v20, that it will “be good with you” and “your soul will live.”
In that second answer, Jeremiah begs Zedekiah to listen to his word from God, rather than fearing the Judahites now behind Babylonian lines. Zedekiah presumably has decent reasons to fear his own people, since it was his disastrous foreign policy that immediately precipitated this debacle. Jeremiah is in effect pleading with him to overcome this fear and do the right thing – that is, trust God, which in these circumstances means surrendering to the Babylonians.
Jeremiah points out that the fate of the city hangs in the balance, along with the fate of Zedekiah’s women and children. The Babylonians will not burn the city with fire (v17) if Zedekiah surrenders, and they will burn the city with fire (v18) if he does not, which means that Zedekiah will cause the city to be burned with fire (v23) if he doesn’t surrender.
In other words, there is still a chance for Jerusalem. Depending on Zedekiah’s decision here.
Also for the women and children.
And for Zedekiah himself.
Because as Jeremiah emphasizes in v17, YHWH is God of hosts (armies) and God of Israel. That is, YHWH is ultimately in charge here.
We might think Zedekiah would pay attention to this. But unfortunately, we already know how this is going to end. So could Zedekiah – if only he would pay attention.
Image: Prophet Jeremiah (Sistine Chapel ceiling), Michelangelo, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons