For I will surely deliver thee, and thou shalt not fall by the sword, but thy life shall be for a prey unto thee: because thou hast put thy trust in me, saith the LORD. (Jeremiah 39:18)
Jeremiah prophesied before, during, and after the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem and the captivity that followed. His ministry started during the in the 13th year of good king Josiah’s reign. Josiah was eight years old when he started to reign thus making him about 21 when Jeremiah started his ministry.
Josiah was the last of Judah’s “good” kings, and the Bible records that he reigned for 31 years. He was killed in a battle at Megiddo (Armageddon) attempting to stop Pharaoh Necho who was on his way to assist Assyria at Carchemish against the Babylonians.
Josiah was succeeded on the throne by his son, Jehoahaz (a.k.a. Shullum) who reigned for only three months. Pharaoh Necho lost the battle at Carchemish, and on his return to Egypt through Judah, he stopped off at Jerusalem and took Johoahaz captive to Egypt replacing him with his brother Jehoiakim (a.k.a. Eliakim).
Jehoiakim reigned for 11 years. It was during his reign that Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and took away the first round of captives to Babylon. Daniel the prophet was taken in this first round of captivity. Jehoiakim was also taken captive, and his son (Josiah’s grandson), Jehoiachin (a.k.a. Jechoniah, a.k.a. Coniah), took his place on the throne. Jechoniah appears in Jesus’s genealogy through Joseph. However, Jechoniah’s (Coniah’s) line was cursed by God so that none of his descendants could sit on the throne of David. This fact could have disqualified Jesus for the throne had Joseph been his earthly father.
Jechoniah’s reign was shortlived as Nebuchadnezzar replaced him with another of Josiah’s sons, Mattaniah, whose name he changed to Zedekiah. Zedekiah reigned in Jerusalem as a vassal king of Babylon for eleven years. However, in the ninth year of his reign, he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and refused to pay the required tribute. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem a second time, and two years later, after exhausting all their food and water stores, the city surrendered. Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah watch as his children were all slaughtered before his eyes. That was the last thing Zedekiah saw before his eyes were gouged out. Then Nebuchadnezzar took Zedekiah and the remaining able-bodied people back to Babylon leaving only the poorest and weakest of the population behind. This was the second captivity.
Jeremiah is known as the “Weeping Prophet” because he prophesied during the final 40 years before the complete demise of Jerusalem. His unpopular message of pending doom fell on deaf and rebellious ears. He was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned for sounding the call to repent with the promise that repentance would stay the pending punishment of God.
During Zedekiah’s reign, Jeremiah urged the king to submit to Nebuchadnezzar so that Jerusalem would experience peace. Zedekiah’s refusal to submit brought the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar upon the city. During the two-year siege, conditions became so bad that women cannibalized their children for food. Jeremiah encouraged men to surrender to the Babylonians to save themselves and their families.
For this, Jeremiah was treated as a traitor and thrown into a cold, muddy dungeon. “Now when Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs which was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon; the king then sitting in the gate of Benjamin; Ebedmelech went forth out of the king’s house, and spake to the king, saying, My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon; and he is like to die for hunger in the place where he is: for there is no more bread in the city” (Jeremiah 38:7-9, emphasis mine).
We do not know a lot about Ebedmelech. We can surmise that he was a black man since Scripture records that he was an Ethiopian. He also served the king since he is identified as a eunuch. Jeremiah does not record his name, only his position in the king’s service. It is possible that Jeremiah did not even know his advocate. “Ebedmelech” is two words in Hebrew, ‛ebed melek. “Ebed” means “servant” and “melek” means “king.” The two words together mean “servant of the king.” We can infer from the fact that he was a eunuch that he was a high ranking servant of the king holding a very trusted position. As such, he could approach the king on Jeremiah’s behalf.
Surely the servant of the king had heard Jeremiah’s warnings. He probably understood that Jeremiah was the Lord’s prophet, and he took it to heart when Jeremiah said, “Thus saith the Lord.” He probably perceived that Jeremiah’s preaching was for the good of the people and that his intentions for their welfare.
When the servant of the king learned of Jeremiah’s plight, he went directly to the king to plead his case, and Zedekiah listened to his servant. “Then the king commanded Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, saying, Take from hence thirty men with thee, and take up Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon, before he die” (Jeremiah 38:10). Jeremiah was not set free. However, his conditions were much improved. The eunuch transferred him from the “miry pit” to the “court of the prison” allowing him more freedom and improved conditions although he was still under “house arrest.”
In spite of opposition and his subservient position, this humble servant did the right thing. Doing the right thing in the midst of opposition takes real courage especially when there is little, if any, hope for reward.
Not long after this, Jerusalem surrendered. Nebuchadnezzar’s army entered the city, destroyed the Temple and carried away captives including the humiliated king Zedekiah.
Just before the fall of Jerusalem, God spoke to Jeremiah the prophet and said, “Go and speak to Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring my words upon this city for evil, and not for good; and they shall be accomplished in that day before thee. But I will deliver thee in that day, saith the LORD: and thou shalt not be given into the hand of the men of whom thou art afraid. For I will surely deliver thee, and thou shalt not fall by the sword, but thy life shall be for a prey unto thee: because thou hast put thy trust in me, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 39:16-18, emphasis mine).
Doing the right thing requires trusting the Lord. When we trust the Lord, abundant life (our “prey”) is our reward. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Doing the right thing is always the right thing to do. The nameless servant may have been unknown to Jeremiah, but his righteous deed did not escape God’s notice, and God blessed him for doing the right thing. Likewise, we should follow his example with purity of heart and “not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God” (Colossians 3:22). May God catch us all doing the right thing!