Desperate situations can lead to desperate measures. They can also lead to counterfeit repentance. That essentially appears to be the idea behind the latter portion of Jeremiah thirty-four. Now, at first glance, the counterfeit had some of the external markings of the true. After all, when you begin reading verses 8 through 10 you hear what appears to be a bit of good news: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD” (vs.8a) came “after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty to them” (vs.8b). That’s a positive. But to be clear, this wasn’t a general declaration of freedom spoken to an already free people; this was an overdue announcement to people whose liberty was long overdue. Per Exodus 21:2, a reference God would implicitly remind the people of through Jeremiah (Jer. 34:13-14), slaves were only supposed to serve for six years and in the seventh year they were to go free (Ex. 21:2). But when we look at the words that come later on in the chapter (vs.14-15) it looks like Zedekiah and the people of Jerusalem had not followed that command up until this point. So Zedekiah, the people of the land, and just about everyone in between (vs.19), likely induced to a point of desperation because of the surrounding Babylonians, sought to make amends for their dismissal of God’s Law. With the pomp and circumstance of a covenant ceremony, they cut a calf in two, walked through the halves (vs.18-19), and issued the following proclamation:
“that every man should set free his male and female slave—a Hebrew man or woman—that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage.” (vs.9)
This was a wholesale Jewish emancipation proclamation! The people heard it, bought into it, obeyed it, and oh if that were the end of it… but it’s not.
We’ll get to what follows shortly but first, as an important aside, slavery in ancient Israel, as was allowed for and regulated by the Old Covenant was not to be an ethnically-induced, indefinite, abusive situation. It was, for instance, largely optional – those who became poor and were without means of supporting themselves or their families could sell themselves into another Israelite’s service to provide needed sustenance, and their service was both temporary and regulated (see Lev. 25:39-46). Those caught and convicted of theft, but without the means to make proper restitution according to the Mosaic Law, could sell themselves into servitude (Ex. 22:3-4). This also applied to those who were no longer able to pay their debts (2 Ki. 4:1). Bankruptcy wasn’t an option, but servitude was, and in some cases it was the only option. But with all that being said, it’s important to emphasize that slavery was not to be indefinite. A slave would be mandated for six years of service and appointed to freedom on the seventh, and in the year of Jubilee all debts were ‘written off.’ So never buy the lies that (a) the Bible created slavery or (b) that the Bible endorsed slavery as the abusive, indefinite, wholesale ownership of another person’s life. In the Old Testament, slavery, as mandated and allowed in the Old Covenant, was an ethical (but not perpetual) means of restitution; and in the New Testament the case is not made for a revolution against the slavery system of Rome because servants who had received spiritual emancipation had a higher calling than temporal emancipation – adorn the Gospel they proclaimed with faithful, diligent service that communicated the freedom that comes with knowing that one is only a vapor-like breath away from receiving a kingdom and rewards from the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-24; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-20).
Back to the matter at hand. Zedekiah made the announcement; the people wholeheartedly heeded it (vs.10); and then they changed their minds:
“But afterward they changed their minds and made the male and female slaves return, whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male and female slaves. ” (vs.11)
What exactly prompted the change of heart? Besides the fact that there was apparently no real change of heart in the first place, I think the answer comes in the end of the chapter. Apparently, the Babylonian armies that were surrounding the city left. We know from other passages of Scripture that they had to contend with an approaching Egyptian army so they withdrew their forces from Jerusalem so as to deal with the greater threat (cf. Jer. 37:5). But even though they left, because Zedekiah and the people repented of their repentance, God promised that the Babylonians that had “gone back” (vs.21) would “return” (vs.22). Those who offer false repentance and seek to make ‘temporary amends’ with God are usually most concerned with seeing their circumstances changed rather than seeing themselves reconciled to God. Like Zedekiah and the people, if the crisis is removed so goes the contrition. They made the mistake of thinking their biggest problem was the Babylonians. It wasn’t. It was their sin and the rightful wrath of the one true God against such sin. Learn a lesson from Zedekiah and company – offer to God true repentance, not because you want to make a difficult circumstance go away, but because you see how wicked your sin is, how wrathful His righteous indignation is, and how great His love and grace is towards repentant sinners.
It is the truly repentant that become the rescued redeemed. And unlike Zedekiah, King Jesus never revokes His proclamation of freedom to those He has bought out of bondage. If the Son has set you free you are free indeed (Jn. 8:36). Once and for all, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets the believer free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). Yes, you and I must beware entanglement with any yokes of legalistic bondage (Gal. 5:1). Yes, we must lay aside the sin and weights that could easily entangle and encumber us (Heb. 12:1). But Jesus will never pull a Zedekiah. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty (2 Cor. 3:17); and when He, the Spirit of Christ, is given to a believer He is there to stay. He is the seal of divine ownership, redemption, and freedom (2 Cor. 1:22; 3:17; Eph. 1:13). Those promises will never be repealed or retracted; they are certain and sure. After all, One much truer than Zedekiah has promised it.