38 Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehukal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people when he said, 2 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’ 3 And this is what the Lord says: ‘This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’”
4 Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.”
5 “He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.”
6 So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.
7 But Ebed-Melek, a Cushite, an official in the royal palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate, 8 Ebed-Melek went out of the palace and said to him,9 “My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.”
10 Then the king commanded Ebed-Melek the Cushite, “Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.”
11 So Ebed-Melek took the men with him and went to a room under the treasury in the palace. He took some old rags and worn-out clothes from there and let them down with ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern. 12 Ebed-Melek the Cushite said to Jeremiah, “Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.” Jeremiah did so, 13 and they pulled him up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard.
(Jeremiah 38:1-13 NIV)
As we begin Chapter 38, we immediately notice there are a lot of similarities with Chapter 37. Some scholars have wondered if these two chapters are one in the same event, or if they are two separate events. There is more evidence that these two chapters represent two different incidents, as Jeremiah uses different names, places, and surrounding circumstances in the text. Also, chapter 37 indicated that the Babylonians had temporarily halted their siege against Jerusalem to fight the Egyptians, while chapter 38 shows that the Babylonians had returned and resumed their attack on the city.
Chapter 38 begins with some high-ranking government officials accusing Jeremiah of treason and demanding his execution. Jeremiah’s crime? Preaching God’s word. Note that the phrases they quote are nothing new; in fact, the words they quote are nearly identical to 21:9-10.
The king, being fearful of the officials, does not oppose them. The officials, knowing that the king has a soft spot in his heart for Jeremiah and might take retaliatory action if they do kill Jeremiah, decide to let him die in prison rather than kill him outright. The officials put Jeremiah in a muddy cistern, where he will die a slow death.
It’s interesting to note that the same officials that demanded Jeremiah’s loyalty to Judah and Jerusalem are the same officials that had feigned loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar and are now fighting against him. Jeremiah was not selling out to the Babylonians; he was preaching God’s Word and offering rescue to those who would obey the Lord.
Verses 7 – 13 tell of Jeremiah’s rescuer – not a fellow Jew, but an Ethiopian eunuch, a high-ranking servant in the king’s household. Much like the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, the Lord uses an unlikely hero to honor His promise to preserve Jeremiah’s life and ministry (1:8).
The Ethiopian eunuch pleads his case before the king during one of the king’s public hearings when people could settle their grievances. The king grants the eunuch’s request and sends a group of men to pull Jeremiah out of the muddy cistern-cell-would-be-grave.
Obviously, the eunuch did not need thirty people to rescue one man from the cistern; the majority were probably sent along as protection against the officials who put Jeremiah here in the first place.
The eunuch showed much empathy and compassion toward Jeremiah, sending down rags and old clothing items for Jeremiah to put under his arms before looping the rope around him. The eunuch knew of Jeremiah’s weakened condition, as well as the tremendous force that would be required to overcome the suction of the mud and pull him to safety.
After Jeremiah’s rescue, he returned to the courtyard of the guard, under house arrest, and safe (for the moment) from the other officials.
Like Jeremiah, may we have the strength of conviction and courage to proclaim the Lord’s truths regardless of the personal cost.
Like the eunuch, may we have the empathy and compassion to care for others who are downtrodden and abused, to have the heart of Jesus for those marginalized by society and by those who have the power to make a difference.