8 The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedomfor the slaves. 9 Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. 10 So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. 11 But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.
12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said,14 ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. 15 Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. 16 But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again.
17 “Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.
21 “I will deliver Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them, to the army of the king of Babylon,which has withdrawn from you. 22 I am going to give the order, declares the Lord, and I will bring them back to this city. They will fight against it, take it and burn it down. And I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there.”
(Jeremiah 34:8-22 NIV)
If today’s passage were a sermon, the title would be something like “Promise Makers, Promise Breakers”. There is a lot to this story, but I will attempt to keep my comments succinct.
In verses 8 – 10, King Zedekiah and all the people made a covenant to free all male and female Hebrew slaves. They made this covenant in the Temple (v. 15) in what seems to be a religious ceremony. However, in verse 11, the king and the people went back on their word and forced those emancipated people back into slavery.
This event occurred during the Babylonians’ siege on Jerusalem and surrounding fortress towns. The Babylonians were gaining ground, and the residents of Jerusalem were trapped in their own city and likely worried about running out of food.
While the emancipation was proclaimed as a religious event, the motivation was likely a matter of convenience rather than obedience to the Lord. It would be easier to turn the slaves loose and make them find food on their own rather than have to feed them.
When the Babylonians temporarily left Judah and Jerusalem to fight against the Egyptians, the king and the people then went back on their covenant and forced those emancipated Hebrews back into slavery.
In verses 12 – 16, the Lord gave the King and the people a history lesson, then condemned the people for going back on their word and simultaneously disobeying the Lord. The history lesson was a reminder of how the Lord freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. The Lord also reminded them that He ordered the people to free their Hebrew slaves every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Hebrews enslaved themselves to other Hebrews primarily due to debt issues.
In verse 15, the Lord, in His grace, honored the action of the king and people as a sign of obedience to the Lord’s command to free the Hebrew slaves.He did not question their motives (which became evident when they broke their promise).
In verses 17 – 18a, the Lord uses sarcasm to tell the slave owners that have broken their covenant promise that they will now have “freedom” – the “freedom” to die for their sins.
In verses 18b – 19, the Lord cites the covenant-making practice set forth by the Lord in Genesis 15:10-17. In this Genesis account, an animal was sacrificed and cut in two. The two parts of the sacrificed animal were laid on the ground, with space to walk between the halves. When the Lord made the covenant with Abraham, only the Lord passed between the two parts, indicating a promise the Lord was making to Abraham and his descendants.
Whenever two humans made a covenant agreement with each other and before the Lord, they would lay out the two halves of the sacrificed animal, state the agreement, then walk the path together between the two halves of the sacrificed animal. This walk was a solemn reminder that if either of them broke the covenant, they would incur the same fate as the slaughtered animal. In verse 20, the Lord said there would be dead bodies everywhere, implying that many would, in fact, die for this grievous covenant breach.
The Lord ends chapter 34 by decreeing that the Babylonians will return to finish their conquest of Judah and Jerusalem (verses 21 – 22). In fact, the Lord says He will give the order for the Babylonians to return (v. 22a). In the end, all of Judah will be uninhabited at some point (v. 22b). Historians and archeologists have found this to be true.
May we take seriously our covenant promises to the Lord and each other.
May we, like David, be able to say, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11 NIV).