History is full of infamous betrayals. Although the relationship between Brutus and Caesar was likely not as close as depicted in Shakespeare’s play, and although the famous question that Caesar posed to Brutus – ‘Et tu, Brute?’- likely didn’t happen, nonetheless, the betrayal of Brutus and the other Roman senators engaged in Caesar’s assassination is legendary in its infamy. Then there’s the man whose name is virtually synonymous with betrayal – ‘Benedict Arnold’, the former American hero who felt under-appreciated by his countrymen, found some measure of the recognition he felt he deserved from the British, not to mention the prospect of quite a pay day along with the potential expulsion of his lingering financial obligations. He betrayed America and sought to give West Point over into the hands of the British. Then of course there’s the man whose act of betrayal was the most heinous and universally well known, Judas Iscariot’s kiss of identification in the Garden of Gethsemane when he handed Jesus over to His persecutors. And if the list were to go on and on one name that wouldn’t appear on it is that of the prophet Jeremiah – though a captain of the guard at the gate of Benjamin would have said differently. More about that shortly. First let’s create context.
Happy days were there again… or so many in Jerusalem thought. The Babylonian army “left the siege of Jerusalem for fear of [or, better translated, “because of”] Pharaoh’s army” (Jer. 36:11). Unbelieving Judah, at least much of it, thought the Egyptians had become their personal savior. But Egypt’s mobilization and Jerusalem’s celebration was to be short-lived. The LORD warned the people through Jeremiah not to be deceived (vs.9), Judah’s defeat and Babylon’s victory was as assured as assured could be. Granted, this may only be our introduction but let’s not miss the instruction – even if deliverance looks like it has come, if its arrival is in contradiction to God’s revelation it ought to be in the same category of Zedekiah’s spurious anticipation of salvation: a false hope. As it pertains to ultimate deliverance, there’s only one name given to men whereby they must saved (Acts 4:12). One solid rock. All other ground – sinking sand.
That brings us to the beginning of our passage, the Babylonians left and it looked like Jeremiah was going to as well! He was going “out of Jerusalem” and “into the land of Benjamin to claim his property there among the people” (Jer. 37:12), likely the property in Anathoth that he purchased while in prison (Jer. 32:6-12), but that didn’t go too smoothly. When he arrived at the Gate of Benjamin the captain of the guard seized him and said, “You are defecting to the Chaldeans!” (Jer. 37:13). When you look at the guard’s immediate genealogy, there was perhaps an aspect of personal vengeance involved in his accusation – his grandpa appears to have been the false prophet who had his death accurately predicted by Jeremiah (Jer. 28:16). Leaving aside his potential motive let us hear again his accusation. The guard essentially cried, “Traitor!”
Can you believe it? Yes, Jeremiah told the people that if they surrendered to the Babylonians they would live (Jer. 27:17), but not because he was a double agent, but because he was God’s messenger. This man, Jeremiah, cared deeply for his people. He had wept many tears and offered up many prayers on their behalf (Jer. 9:1; 13:17; Lam. 1:16; cf. Jer. 7:16; 11:14; 14:11). Yet here he is, like his Savior would be years later – falsely accused. After the evening and morning of ‘kangaroo court’ trials the multitude of Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus to Pilate (Lk. 23:1) and began to accuse Him saying, “We have found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (vs.2). You can see what they were saying – they were essentially calling Jesus a traitor to Rome, an insurrectionist who instructed His followers to avoid paying taxes. These accusations were blatantly false and they knew it. Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees, “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s… (Lk. 20:25a).” Jesus fanned no flames of insurrection and revolution, nor did He practice or incite tax evasion. But that’s what makes false accusations false. Oftentimes the accusers are more interested in achieving their goals than in finding the truth (see also Mt. 9:34; 26:59; Jn. 18:30).
Jeremiah did about all he could do at that moment. He said, “False! I am not defecting to the Chaldeans” (vs.14a). He kept it simple. What else was he to say? He wasn’t turning traitor, he was simply trying to take care of some personal business. But Irijah did not listen to him; instead, he seized him and brought him to the princes (vs.14b). And it wasn’t simply a matter of seizure, it was mingled with some brutality – “the princes were angry with Jeremiah, and they struck him and put him in prison in the house of Jonathan the scribe. For they had made that the prison” (vs.15). Again, this suffering servant walked in a path of persecution that bore similarities to the Suffering Servant – the men who held Him also struck Him (Lk. 22:63-65).
So they put Jeremiah in the dungeon (Jer. 37:16a), likely some underground pit of sorts with horrible ventilation, little-to-no light, and doubtless other characteristics that made his stay there difficult. And while we don’t know exactly how long he was there, the text tells us he remained there many days (vs.16), until Zedekiah took him out to ask him a secret question: “Is there any word from the Lord?” (vs.17b). We’re not explicitly told what drove this question, though some suppose that after the “many days” of the previous verse Babylon had either returned or was on its way back (cf. vs.19). Be that as it may, think about who’s asking this question. This is Zedekiah – “neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land gave heed to the words of the LORD which He spoke by the prophet Jeremiah” (vs.2). He who had repeatedly rejected God’s Word in the past was hoping that there was some new word that would modify the old. Granted, in that Old Testament context, announcements of coming judgment often had within them implicit conditional promises of relenting upon the display of repentance (Jer. 18:7-8), but Zedekiah hadn’t done any repenting, only wishing. He hadn’t changed; he only wished God’s word had. But God made it clear – the city was going to be given to Nebuchadnezzar. The judgment was fixed. It was settled in heaven (cf. Ps. 119:89). But Zedekiah, like many today, was likely hoping that there was some secret revelation for him that modified the word that had already been revealed. God’s Word to you and me is what it is – it doesn’t change and it doesn’t amend; what it is has been set down in the revelation once and for all delivered to the saints in the canon of Scripture.
Well, Zedekiah asked the question and you have to love Jeremiah’s response:
And Jeremiah said, “There is.” Then he said, “You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon!” (v.17b)
This is undoubtedly one of my many favorite scenes from Scriptural narratives. I’d define it as ‘epic.’ Imagine it. After dismissing the revelation of God time after time, here’s Zedekiah, still curious, still drawn for whatever reason to inquire of God’s prophet. Perhaps hoping against hope that his vain hope was a blessed hope. So he asked Jeremiah if there was any word from the Lord, and you have to love the resolute, undaunted truthfulness of God’s persecuted prophet: “There is…you shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon (vs.17b).” While Jeremiah had no problem with questioning the sentence he was sentenced with (vs.18), or dismissing the efficacy of the false prophets (vs.19) or asking for better accommodations (vs.20), which were, to Zedekiah’s credit, granted to him (vs.21), he had his face set like flint as it concerned not trifling with, watering down, or hiding God’s Word. Jeremiah was far from a traitor. He was the opposite: a grace-granted model of faithfulness.