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Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 3: Courageous Prophets of Change
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 16, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Jeremiah 38:14-23
Key Verse: Jeremiah 38:15
- Explain the context of Jeremiah’s ministry in the days of King Zedekiah.
- Contrast Zedekiah’s indecision with Jeremiah’s resolve.
It is reported that Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and university professor in Japan, for years worried that many of Japan’s nuclear power plants were at risk for significant damage from earthquakes. Though he and his colleagues warned about possible catastrophe, they were largely ignored. However, when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the northeastern coast of Japan’s main island in March 2011, the resulting tsunami caused massive damage to the nuclear power station in Fukushima.
The ensuing radioactive fallout forced some 160,000 people to evacuate their homes across an area of approximately 300 square miles. Additional studies and reports since published vindicated Ishibashi’s warnings about possible disaster at the site.
When the nation of Judah faced God’s wrath for their numerous violations of the covenant with God, God commissioned Jeremiah to sound the warnings and call them to repentance. Perhaps it was not too late for their faltering nation and their king to avert the disaster and desolation that awaited them.
The prophet Jeremiah delivered God’s message to the nation of Judah from 627 until the mid-580s BC. That was roughly a century after the prophet Isaiah. Five kings reigned over Judah during Jeremiah’s ministry. Josiah, the first of these five, was righteous (2 Kings 23:25). The four following him, however, were all wicked. These included Jehoiachin, who was removed from the throne and taken into captivity when the Babylonians invaded in 597 BC (2 Kings 24:12). At that point, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia replaced Jehoiachin with that man’s uncle, Mattaniah, and renamed him Zedekiah in the process (2 Kings 24:17).
We are informed that Zedekiah wavered between services to the Babylonian king and rebellion against that overlord. Zedekiah ruled for Judah’s final decade as a nation before it fell in 586 BC.
The destruction of Judah at the hands of Babylon that Isaiah had foreseen decades earlier (see 2 Kings 20:16-18) drew near during Jeremiah’s day. Like the northern kingdom of Israel before, Judah’s unfaithfulness to the covenant had exhausted God’s great patience. Jeremiah proclaimed that God would use the Babylonians as instruments of judgment against Judah (Jeremiah 20:4-6).
Throughout his prophetic ministry, Jeremiah warned Jerusalem in word and in deed of the coming destruction. He illustrated this message in symbolic actions (examples: Jeremiah 13:1-11; 19:1-15). Yet rarely did anyone take this prophet seriously (Jeremiah 37:2). His oracles were misunderstood and dismissed as the rhetoric of a traitorous, pro-Babylonian sympathizer (Jeremiah 37:11-13).
On the other hand, Jerusalem’s more “loyal” prophets proclaimed peace, safety, and deliverance. And even though their fabricated, uninspired message was false, it was believed among the populace.
Two times in Judah’s closing months, while Jerusalem was under siege, Jeremiah endured punishments for his message of doom. First, he was beaten and held in a dungeon cell for many days (Jeremiah 37:15,16). Zedekiah, however, summoned him from the dungeon and released him into the courtyard of the guard (37:21). There he continued to reveal the unpleasant things God told him (Jeremiah 38:1-3).
Now, Zedekiah’s officials took exception to Jeremiah’s preaching because his warnings were understood as treasonous and demoralizing (Jeremiah 38:4). And with Zedekiah’s unwillingness to oppose them, the officials had Jeremiah put down into a muddy cistern. But a high official named Ebed-Melek (pronounced Ee-bed-mee-lek) gathered 30 men (also with Zedekiah’s concession) to lift Jeremiah out of the mud and rescue him from certain death (Jeremiah 38:8-13).
A Secret Meeting
When the Babylonians returned and besieged Jerusalem and defeat seemed near, Zedekiah began to summon Jeremiah for conversations. It is suggested that “the third entrance to the temple of the Lord” probably indicates a backdoor access from the palace to the temple. Apparently, the king wanted a private setting where he could talk with Jeremiah outside his officials’ hearing. It could be that Zedekiah thought that Jeremiah might reverse his oracles of judgment and the Lord would grant Jerusalem a reprieve after all.
As we know, this conversation is not the first such conversation. Zedekiah’s repeated summoning of Jeremiah shows that at least part of him respected Jeremiah’s advice, if not his standing, as an inspired prophet of God. Yet his terse command to Jeremiah, “Do not hide anything from me,” shows that Zedekiah did not yet realize that Jeremiah always told the king everything God told the prophet.
So Zedekiah asked for the full truth! But Jeremiah, mindful of previous experiences of rejection, exacted an oath of protection from the king before he spoke. Undoubtedly, Jeremiah knew that Zedekiah was hoping for a more favorable word from the Lord this time. But the prophet also knew that no favorable word would be forthcoming.
Zedekiah swore a solemn oath that he would neither put Jeremiah to death nor deliver him to his bitter enemies. Zedekiah swore: Jeremiah believed that even a moral weakling like Zedekiah would hold to a sacred oath.
A Private Prophecy
Now, Jeremiah knew that this king would likely waffle on his prophecy, given past behavior (example: Jeremiah 34:8-22). Even so, the prophet still proclaimed the word from God, come what may. The message from God was like a fire in Jeremiah’s bones, impossible to hold back whether anyone listened or not (Jeremiah 6:10,11).
Recently, I ran across a paper I had prepared on what I consider the “Qualities of Good Preaching.” These were the qualities I mentioned: relevance, personal warmth, clarity, interest, emotion, and urgency. No question, Jeremiah had an urgency about his prophecy. It was like a fire burning inside of him.
Jeremiah’s referring to “the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel,” was referring to the true king of Israel. It also has implications for how the people were called to conduct themselves (compare Leviticus 26). However, idolatry and injustice had landed them in a position to face God’s punishment. Simply stated, they did not act as people who belonged to God.
In verse 17b, the Lord’s offer to spare Zedekiah’s life upon surrender to the Babylonians accords with terms previously stated (Jeremiah 21:8-9). God’s offer to spare the “city” from her destruction might seem like an astonishing, last-minute reversal (compare Jeremiah 21:10; 34:2, 22: 37:9-10). But God has the freedom to change his mind about either blessing or punishment for a nation that alters its course (Jeremiah 18:5-10). Remember, God did so for Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:10). Note here that God did not offer a solution in which Zedekiah was allowed to remain king in Jerusalem. But God did offer a solution that would avoid Jerusalem being “burned down” or Zedekiah’s experiencing great personal violence.
The nation of Judah apparently had chances early on to avert disaster entirely (Jeremiah 4:1-4). Yet God eventually was determined unreservedly to punish Judah (4:27,28). Although judgment in Babylon was by this time assured, God still offered mercy to his people and their king (compare 1 Kings 21:20-29). As Jeremiah made clear to Zedekiah, accepting God’s mercy even in judgment would lessen some of the horrible consequences that otherwise would follow.
We are reminded that Christians still experience God’s discipline tempered by his mercy, even though we don’t recognize it as such (1 Corinthians 11:31-32; Hebrews 12:4-11). Yet this is part of the process of God using all things for our good (Romans 8:28). It doesn’t mean we will enjoy all things or that “all” things seem good. Instead, “all” things that happen to us and around us are meant to make us into the image of Jesus.
Now, Jeremiah is crystal clear that if Zedekiah does not act properly, he will be handed over to a terrible fate at the hands of the Babylonians and the city will be destroyed by fire and he himself will not escape.
In verse 19, had Zedekiah feared the Babylonians it would be hard to blame him. Even fearing his own officials is understandable since his predecessor Jehoiachin was probably murdered by his own officials the last time the Babylonians invaded (Jeremiah 22:18-19; 36:29-31). Therefore, since some of Jerusalem’s citizens had already surrendered to the Babylonians, Zedekiah did not want to expose himself to them for his own safety.
In verse 20, Zedekiah tried to make the issue into a purely political matter, but he was oblivious to the real issue. Jeremiah then directed the king back to the core spiritual realities. Obedience! Obedience to the Lord was Zedekiah’s only visible course of action. The promise “your life will be spared” probably referred more to quality of life than mere survival. Indeed, the quality of Zedekiah’s life after remaining rebellious to both God and Nebuchadnezzar ended up being quite poor (Jeremiah 52:8-11).
At this point, we look at the consequences of Zedekiah’s rebellion (Jeremiah 38:21-23). Jeremiah makes it clear that this preview of the future comes from God. Jeremiah himself has no more control of God’s message than a weather forecaster can control over the weather.
Zedekiah’s palace would fall if he didn’t do as the Lord revealed. This could refer to his family in general, his descendants, or (less likely) the Davidic line.
Jeremiah underscores the violent fate of the women (referring to women of the court, wives, and concubines) and their children: rape and enslavement for the women and likely execution or, at best, enslavement for the royal sons. The children are a clear escalation of Jeremiah’s appeal not to Zedekiah’s logical side, but to his emotional center. What father would willingly subject his children to seeing their mother “captured and their city burned down?”
The choice before the king is not simply a matter of his own fate. It has ramifications for everyone in his court. That connection is understood by the lament Jeremiah places on the lips of the women being led to their violent fate. The lament of the women takes the form of a taunt song, accusing the king of being enticed by his trusted friends into a mode of conduct that brings about his own downfall.
Yet even hearing the sad fate that awaited his family and court failed to move Zedekiah. He was more concerned about keeping the secret from his officials, maybe even protecting Jeremiah, than about obedience to God or the consequences that awaited him (see Jeremiah 38:24-26, not in our printed text).
For his disobedience, Zedekiah paid a heavy price. His sentence was to see his owns sons put to death and then his own eyes be blinded afterward. Jerusalem was burned to the ground and Zedekiah remained in shackles in Babylon till he died.
As we know, Zedekiah’s demise came at the hand of God (Jeremiah 34:22; Ezekiel 12:13,14). Even the Babylonians themselves realized it (Jeremiah 40:3). So, such was the fate of one who trusted in human wisdom rather than believing that God’s word could and should be trusted (Proverbs 3:5-8).
Hear me now! What we desperately need is God’s mind on the serious issues of life and culture. And God offers it to us through the teaching of his word and the inner guidance of his Holy Spirit. Thus, our task is not to think that we know better than God. Dr. Jim Dennison, of the Dennison Forum, stated “Our problem is that we tend to measure God’s capacities by ours, assuming we are experiencing all that he is doing.” I repeat, our task is not to think that we know better than God.
Jeremiah was a failure by human standards – accused falsely instead of believed, persecuted by officials, betrayed by family. No one honored or obeyed Jeremiah’s words. Even after his predictions about Zedekiah and Jerusalem were fulfilled, Jeremiah continued to be disbelieved.
Yet from the standpoint of faith, the life of Jeremiah was successful by God’s standards. He always remained true to his calling, willing to deliver God’s word, regardless of the personal cost. And Jeremiah was open to God’s leading even through doubts, tears and fears. You see, Jeremiah reminds us that sometimes the purposes of God are not identified with national well-being, and that often leads to trouble. In Jeremiah’s life, it did!
As we discover, Jeremiah is a book for today’s times. People of faith in our time can expect the world to ignore our message and ridicule our convictions. And we can also expect hostility to flare up in areas where the gospel is proclaimed boldly. Though Christ is with us always (Matthew 28:20), Christian discipleship carries no guarantees of personal comfort or applause. But like Jeremiah, we must learn to see the world as God sees it and remain faithful to our calling. Prayer will be a necessity.
Resources for this lesson
- Which speaks to you most deeply: the moral courage of Jeremiah or the moral cowardice of Zedekiah?
- Should consequences for others be the primary factor in your moral choices? Why, or why not?
- What do you admire most about Jeremiah? Please explain!
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 313-320.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VI” pages 850-853.
- “Commentary on Jeremiah” by Andrew Blackwood, Jr. pages 259-260.
- “A Popular Survey of the Old Testament,” by Norman L. Geisler, pages 245-246.