King Zedekiah comes off looking very bad in the Scriptures, but he would be inconspicuous enough in today’s political landscape.
The lesser son of Josiah ruled in crisis times (rather like ours), as the pounding of war hooves could be heard at the gates of Jerusalem. Yahweh’s ancient curse on His people’s perfidy has finally overtaken them, notwithstanding Josiah’s reforms.
Zedekiah gives a good imitation of a man on a sinking ship, running back and forth from starboard to port as the craft lists to one side and the other. He and his court are worldly men at heart, giving only formalistic heed to the word of the Lord (Jeremiah 37:2). But after the princes throw Jeremiah in prison, Zedekiah goes to him secretly, asks for prayer (cover all the bases), and inquires whether there is any word from the Lord. The beleaguered prophet replies: “There is. You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon” (v. 17).
The king’s handlers (no evidence he has a mind of his own) protest the prophet’s freedom and demand his re-incarceration. Milquetoast monarch replies: “Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you” (38:5). Whereupon a brave Ethiopian court eunuch named Ebed-Melech tells the king that just ain’t right, and procures permission to take 30 men and hoist Jeremiah out of the pit with twisted rags.
Next, Zedekiah has Jeremiah brought to an out-of-the-way entrance to the temple and promises protection from the pack in exchange for the inside track from God (38:14-16). Jeremiah replies: What difference does it make? Whatever I tell you, you won’t do it anyway. Nevertheless, he reiterates the choice he has explained many times before: If you surrender to the Babylonians, as God commands, you won’t die (which, truth be told, is all the king cares about).
Zedekiah blubbers that he is afraid of the Jews who have already gone over to the Babylonians, and he is also afraid of his princes who oppose surrender: What’s a monarch to do? Jeremiah (I imagine him at this point idly filing his nails and not bothering to look up at the king) tells Zedekiah that the only possible way out of his bind is to obey God, and that if he does not, the Babylonian army will overrun Jerusalem even if all that remains of it is wounded men (37:10).
Moreover, Jeremiah says, all Zedekiah’s wives and children will be taken and the whole city will be burned and it will be his fault (38:21-23). Looking both ways, Zedekiah sends his divine informer off with strict instructions that if any of the princes hear they have talked, Jeremiah is to say he was pleading not to be sent back to house arrest (38:26).
Well now, the deportation of all his wives and children and the burning of Jerusalem is something to seriously consider, muses the king. On the other hand, he has assurances from Jeremiah that if he does things his own way, he will get to speak to Nebuchadnezzar face to face (34:3), his royal person will die in peace and not by sword (34:4-5), and he will be fussed over by the nation after he dies (34:5). That’s not a bad deal, all things considered.
Like some fertile crescent Neville Chamberlain, Zedekiah vacillates to the end, till the armies are climbing the walls. He slinks out of town by night and is last seen hiking his skirts and plucking his way through the garden (39:4). The army overtakes him and the prophecies come true, but not as expected: He does get to see Nebuchadnezzar with his own eyes, but just before Zedekiah gets those eyes plucked out.
Sequel: Nebuchadnezzar sends his captain of the guard to Jeremiah, instructing Nebuzaradan to take care of the prophet and to do whatever he asks. For even an enemy ruler knows courage when he sees it, and respects it.
Sometimes God says: Surrender. Sometimes He says: Stay and fight. The point of the story is courage and seeking the Lord. Self-protection is to no avail. I still remember Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia under the dome of the Capitol, looking me in the eye and saying, “Where are all the great men?”