The last days of a nation in its death throes tend to make things clearer. Men become more who they are, as the press of events sharpens what was amorphous and draws out what was latent.
I wince even to read about King Zedekiah. I know it is because I see too much of myself. We learn from the book of Jeremiah that he does not give heed to the words of the Lord (37:2). But even this he does with no character, but as someone slouching half-conscious into sin. We want to shout, with Martin Luther, "Sin boldly!"
When his courtiers are not around to feign bravery before, he sends a lone messenger to Jeremiah asking for prayer. We are reminded of other weak men: John the Baptist's Herod (Mark 6:14-29) and Saint Paul's Felix (Acts 24:1-27), also effeminate leaders who forfeited their moment of salvation.
Jeremiah does pray and God gives answer. (It is the same answer as before, but Zedekiah keeps hoping for something different.) The silence you hear in the ensuing verses is the sound of vacillation in the king's response, and the next scene sees the politically anathema Jeremiah cast into prison by princes (Do they even respect the contemptible king enough to have asked his permission?), who name him traitorous for preaching surrender to Babylon.
Jeremiah---like John and like Paul and like the Lord they follow---never looks more noble and courageous than in his prison cell, against the black backdrop of the cowardly Zedekiah. The one figure flails desperately for his life but will lose it; the other cares nothing for his life (John 12:25; Acts 20:24) but God will save it.
The king now springs him from jail "secretly" (Jeremiah 37:17), which is his typical modus operandi. The motive is his motive for every act he commits: craven self-interest and fear of man. He is desperate for better news from God, even if he has to pose the same question a hundred times. Think Balak.
Jeremiah replies unflinchingly to the man who holds his life in his unstable hands: "You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon." But this is a mercy, not a final sentence. It is a last hopeful shaking of the monarch to his senses, to the purpose that he might obey and avert disaster---for the Lord is always ready to relent of the disaster he has decreed when a man repents (Jeremiah 18:8).
The prophet follows a terse pronouncement of unpopular truth with a request for release from prison. The king, always pandering to the last person who has breezed through throne room, obliges. But now, in trot the princes, who call for Jeremiah's execution. Mr. Pillar of Jello replies: "Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you" (38:5). Indeed.
The Lord, never lacking humor even in the extremities of human pathos, produces an Ethiopian eunuch to be the king's foil, the courage to his cowardice. Thinking, perhaps, as Esther thought when she screwed up fortitude to enter the royal presence unannounced (Esther 4:14), Ebed-Melech tells the king that the men he has surrounded himself with are "evil." He succeeds in persuading the ever-persuadable monarch to allow him to fetch Jeremiah from a slimy pit. This is nice for the king, since he would just as soon not have Jeremiah's blood on his hands, just in case God is really on his side.
Newly extracted from yet another incarceration, the prophet is hauled off to the king, who once again asks "secretly" for word from the Lord (Jeremiah 38:16). Perhaps at this point any prophet would be grateful for a little black bag of oracles, just for variety sake. The message from the Lord, however, is the same boring truth: If you surrender, you can still save yourself.
Both Jeremiah and the Lord know they have to deal with Zedekiah as befitting a coward. The man in a king's suit is reduced to this: "I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me" (38:19).
Since he will not do right for the sake of doing right, since he is not that kind of man, Jeremiah must stoop to appealing to him on the basis of his own safety, not the best interests of the kingdom of God. God deals with the brave as brave, and with the weak as weak. The prophet paints two scenarios, of personal well-being or personal disaster. The king makes Jeremiah swear to not tell the princes of their conversation.
The sequel: The kingdom of Judah is conquered by Babylon. Zedekiah dithers to the end and is carried off to his death---though he has died a thousand times. Jeremiah is shown mercy and finishes his life among the remnant in the Promised Land. Oh, for leaders of valor.
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