‘A mix of the expected and unexpected’ – that’s a good way to summarize the opening half of Jeremiah thirty-eight. You’d expect to see the princes of Judah continue to pursue their persecution of Jeremiah – no surprises there. You’d expect to see King Zedekiah cooperate with them, at least if there was enough pressure to do so. What you wouldn’t expect is for Ebed Melech to be the lowercase “h” hero of the story; not only because you don’t know him prior to this point but even more so because of who he is. And you wouldn’t expect Zedekiah to cooperate with his rescue efforts after he had just signed off on Jeremiah’s imprisonment. It’s a good reminder that although God’s dealings in providence are not relentlessly unexpected, neither are they relentlessly expected. With that said, let’s look at the passage before us, expecting to see the unexpected.
Well, Shephatiah…. Gedaliah… Jucal… and Pashur, princes of Judah (cf. Jer. 38:4a), heard the words that Jeremiah spoke to the people and they didn’t like it. To them, Jeremiah’s message was traitorous doom and gloom (vs.4b); but they failed to see how Jeremiah’s message provided an escape from an even more doom-filled and gloomy scenario. Jeremiah beat the same drum that he had been – anyone who stayed in the city would die (vs.3a) but anyone who surrendered to the Chaldeans would save their life (vs.3b). The primary thrust of the message was simple: the city would be sacked but lives could be saved. The princes, in reaction to Jeremiah’s message, did not approach him, shake his hand and say, ‘Amen, thank you brother Jeremiah for telling it like it is and explaining the way to escape the wages of our sin!’ No. Instead they approached Zedekiah and said, “Please let this man be put to death…” (vs.4a), contesting that Jeremiah’s message weakened the hands of soldiers (at least those who were left) and civilians alike (vs.4b). Now even if that were true to some degree, what followed was not. They said, “For this man does not seek the welfare of this people, but their harm” (vs.4c).
Jeremiah again found himself standing in the midst of a long line of God’s misrepresented servants. They said he sought the city’s harm, when in reality he sought the people’s welfare. His message provided a way of escape; Judah’s leaders blocked the exit. Elijah knew what it was like to be called a troubler of Israel by the one who was actually commander-in-chief of troubling Israel. Paul was falsely accused of preaching that people should sin so that grace might abound. And the Savior, the Lord Jesus, was accused of doing things that He didn’t do (i.e. forbidding people to pay taxes unto Caesar) by adversaries who also misrepresented the good that He did (‘this one casts out demons by the prince of demons’). If you speak often enough in Jesus’ name you’ll likely join such company. When you arrive you won’t see a welcome sign that reads, ‘Welcome to the Big Easy.’ Besides the fact that such an expression is associated with New Orleans, metaphorically it’s not a fitting expression for the Christian life. If there was a sign that accompanied our arrival into the land misrepresentation, the heading could read “Blessed,” with the text below being a reminder of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you when they…say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake” (Mt. 5:11).
Zedekiah, although apparently lacking the authority that Pilate had (cf. Jn. 19:10), in a Pilate-like way, verbally ‘washed his hands of Jeremiah’, said that there was nothing that he could do – apparently the princes had some measure of power, and he gave Jeremiah into their hands (Jer. 38:5). John the Baptist, he was not. Zedekiah submitted to the injustice proposed to him without a hint of vocal opposition to it.
Interestingly, the guys who wanted Jeremiah dead didn’t want to kill him themselves, at least not instantly. So, as opposed to dropping Jeremiah head-first into the dungeon they lowered him down with ropes (vs.6). Oh the blessedness of God’s providence! The princes were by no means ‘going easy’ on Jeremiah; throwing God’s prophet into the mire of a dungeon prison to rot would hardly qualify them to speak on the subject of compassionate humanitarianism. But because they wanted Jeremiah to suffer, they afforded time for him to be rescued. You could say that Jeremiah was providentially rescued before he was physically delivered.
Enter the unexpected hero of the story – “Ebed Melech” (vs.7a), literally meaning, ‘servant of the king.’ No, he wasn’t a rogue, morally-conscientious prince of Judah; and no, he wasn’t even a Jew. He was an “Ethopian, one of the eunuchs, who was in the king’s house” (Jer. 38:7b), perhaps a keeper of the king’s harem. Jeremiah had, you could say, a Friend in the highest place, and He could raise up friends from unexpected places. This man went to the king (Jer. 38:8), decried the injustice done to Jeremiah while using a little bit of circumstantial hyperbole (vs.9), and, in another unexpected ‘turn of events,’ the king agreed and ordered thirty men to go with Ebed Melech to lift Jeremiah out of the dungeon before he died (vs.10).
And so as to appreciate one more piece of the unexpected, you need only imagine Jeremiah’s countenance when he saw “old clothes and old rags” (vs.11b) being “let down by ropes into the dungeon” (vs.11c). Then came the instructions – “Please put these old clothes and rags under your armpits, under the ropes” (vs.12b). Rotten rags never looked so good! Jeremiah did as he was advised and Ebed-Melech and Co. pulled him out of the dungeon and set him in the court of the prison (vs.13). While he wasn’t a free citizen, he was a living one. Spared by God’s providence and the courage of an Ethiopian foreigner.
Deliverance doesn’t always come in the way we’d expect it. Who, after all, would think that the Messiah would save His people by not saving Himself? The cross was a stumbling block to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek (1 Cor. 1:23). It was unexpected, even though it was predicted (Ps. 22:1-21; Isa. 53:1-12). So, to those who expect salvation to come by a divine evaluation of the moral scales, be assured that such a measuring will not lead to words like, “Well done good and faithful servant” but “depart me…you workers of iniquity.” After all, all have sinned; and all have fallen short of God’s standard of perfect righteousness. But the good news is – God has a track record in redemptive history of bringing about deliverances through unexpected means, i.e. Shamgar’s oxgoad, Gideon’s three-hundred, a donkey’s jawbone, a shepherd boy’s sling, old clothes and rags, and most importantly, for all who repent and believe the Gospel, a Nazarene’s cross.