Ruth 3-4; Acts 28; Jeremiah 38; Psalms 11-12
IT IS NOT EASY TO SEE HOW the events of Jeremiah 38 are tied to the events of Jeremiah 37:11-21. Some think they are two entirely separate episodes in the life of the prophet; others think Jeremiah 38 is an expansion of the previous chapter. However one resolves the issue, the final exchange in this chapter between Jeremiah and King Zedekiah demands serious reflection.
The events themselves are easily understood. For several decades Jeremiah has been preaching the imminent destruction of Jerusalem. For the most part, he has been ignored or mocked. With Nebuchadnezzar’s troops all around the walls, however, Jeremiah’s credibility is doubtless at an all-time high. So when he reports that the Lord says that anyone who remains in the city will die by sword, famine, or plague, while those who surrender will survive (Jer. 38:2), he is much more likely to be believed than he would have been five years previously. The city’s officials, however, not believing that these words are from the Lord, see this religious God-talk as nothing more than treason—treason with the pernicious effect of undermining the confidence of the remaining troops.
The punishment Jeremiah faces is unpleasant. Most dwellings in Jerusalem in this period had cisterns, often bottle-shaped, for retaining drinking water. This one was unused, but had thick mud in its bottom. Left for very long in this place, probably without food and water, Jeremiah would die.
What saves Jeremiah, humanly speaking, is the fact that King Zedekiah still seeks his counsel. Jeremiah does not pull any punches. Though it is politically inexpedient, Jeremiah tells the king that he should obey the Lord and submit to the Babylonians: the alternative is the route to disaster (Jer. 38:20-21). Perhaps Zedekiah found this hard to believe for historical reasons: the pattern of siege warfare meant that because he had resisted even this far, he was slated for execution even if he surrendered. Doubtless he also found Jeremiah’s words hard to believe for another reason: he was still far too dependent upon his “friends”—who, Jeremiah insists, would one day be mocked as useless allies who led the king into the mud (38:22).
The juxtaposition of chapters 37 and 38 (yesterday’s meditation and today’s) is no accident. Leadership of God’s people can go disastrously wrong at the top, with the underlings being better but too weak or afraid to effect the desperately needed change (Jer. 37). Or leadership may be weak or corrupt throughout the hierarchy, with the top figure too indecisive or too much of a wimp to clean things up. Saddest of all are the Christian institutions where weakness or corruption prevails at both levels.