Today’s chapter flashes forward quite a bit, approximately 20 years, to the latter portion of the last king of Judah’s reign prior to the Babylonian sacking of Jerusalem. That kind of time-shift sometimes happens in the book of Jeremiah given the fact that it isn’t arranged according to a strict chronology. The chapter opens by informing us that God gave Jeremiah an answer to the question of King Zedekiah (vs.1-2) – a fact that was in itself gracious. Zedekiah sent two messengers to Jeremiah with the request that he would inquire of the LORD on their behalf (vs.2a). The occasion? To use the words of the messengers, “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon makes war against us” (vs.2b). The hope? “Perhaps the Lord will deal with us according to all His wonderful works, that the king may go away from us” (vs.2c).
Now don’t make the mistake of thinking that Zedekiah was a humble king who loved God, loved people, was doing the best he could, and earnestly desired God’s intervention for God’s glory. That’s not what’s happening here. This king was willingly deaf to the messages that God gave both to him and the people of Judah for the eleven years of his reign (597-586 B.C.). And one of the ways we know he was willingly deaf to what the LORD had been saying is because he was hoping that the LORD would do a miracle, a wonderful work, and send away the Babylonian king on behalf of an awfully unrepentant king and people. Despite all the truth he heard, he was, to use language from forthcoming prophecies of Jeremiah, a bad fig (Jer. 24:8) who was a bad king that did evil in the sight of the LORD (Jer. 52:2).
It’s a remarkable thing when a man who has been under the preaching of God’s Word not only refuses to be convicted but continues to feel entitled. The prophetic rebukes slid right off his conscience like water off of a duck’s back, and so even when things were reaching critical mass he didn’t see why a wonderful work couldn’t have happened to him, as if there wasn’t a critical difference between the king he was and the king that Hezekiah was. If God wrought supernatural deliverance from the Assyrians why couldn’t He bring supernatural deliverance from the Babylonians? Hezekiah had Isaiah; he had Jeremiah; and this was, perhaps he thought, Jeremiah’s opportunity to be ‘the next Isaiah.’
Well, the hope of the wicked comes to nothing (Prov. 10:28) and Zedekiah received the answer he should have expected – an emphatic no. In fact, God said through Jeremiah,
“Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands, with which you fight against the king of Babylon and the Chaldeans who besiege you outside the walls; and I will assemble them in the midst of this city.” (vs.4b)
If all that the people of Judah had to worry about was the Babylonians, the odds would have still been against them; but, even as unlikely as it might have been, they could have hoped to pull up off the military upset. But Babylon was not their only problem; nor was it their biggest problem. God was. And if God was against them, the odds would never be for them. God would defeat their efforts at self-defense (vs.4); His “strong arm” and “outstretched hand” would deliver them to (and not from) the Chaldeans (vs.5); and, as both a consequence of the siege and promised covenant judgment, both man and beast would die of a great pestilence (vs.6).
But God was not done. There was more. A message with personal application for Zedekiah – he and all who survived the pestilence, sword, and famine would be delivered into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and he would not spare them or have pity or mercy (vs.7). Surely not the response that Zedekiah wanted to hear; but then again, he hadn’t really wanted to hear anything else God had to say either.
But God did not leave him and Judah without consolation. Although the conquest was inevitable, death didn’t have to be (vs.8). There was a way out. The way out was surprising. You wouldn’t have expected it. I’m sure many refused to believe it. The way out was surrender – he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war (vs.9b ESV). If the people stayed the course that they were on they would die, but if they left the city and surrendered to the King of Babylon they would live.
Surprising indeed. But it does fit a pattern that we are familiar with – God’s ways of deliverance are surprising. So it is with the Gospel – Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23). Who would have thought that the way out of eternal punishment would be surrendering to a crucified King? But it is. It’s the only way. If a person stays on the course of unrepentance and unbelief, even as the people in Judah did, judgment is inevitable. But if one surrenders to the king who is infinitely greater than Nebuchadnezzar, the One who, yes, was crucified and buried, but also resurrected and ascended, they will receive a prize far greater than the one spoken of in Jeremiah 21:9 and escape a punishment far worse than the one described in Jeremiah 21:10. They will receive new life in Christ in the here and now, which is a newness of life that never ends.
Don’t make the mistake that Zedekiah made: don’t expect deliverance without repentance. If you haven’t already, surrender to Jesus, turn from your sin, and believe the good news that God has made a way out. And even more surprising than the means – a crucified and resurrected Savior – is the motive (at least part of it). God made that way, not only for His glory (1 Jn. 2:12) but also because of His great love for the sinners He would make saints (Eph. 2:4).