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, “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.’ 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.’ ” 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.” “He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.” 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. 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, Ebed-Melek went out of the palace and said to him, “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.” 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.” 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. 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, 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
I got seriously side-tracked by multiple overlapping events the last couple of weeks and have been off the water. I am back on the water today exploring this passage about a muddy cistern used to imprison Jeremiah. Actually, as I reflect on the last couple weeks off the water I have been feeling a little like a dried up cistern myself. Time for a refill from the Great Cistern.
This passage begins with a group of apparently influential leaders, “Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehukal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah” worried about the prophecies that Jeremiah is sharing. In a nutshell, Jeremiah is saying that those who stay in “the city” will die and those who go into exile in Babylon will live. These leaders are pleading with the King to do something because they think that Jeremiah is discouraging the soldiers who are tasked with defending the city. They do not like what Jeremiah is saying and they intend to do put a stop to it.
They seem to be missing the point that God is the true defender of the City of David. They do not seem so concerned with discerning whether this prophecy is from God and if so what that might say about their behavior and actions. This reminds me of the Pharisees and scribes in the time of Jesus. They also did not like the message Jesus was bringing and rather than reflect on why God would be sending such a message they got angry and imprisoned and killed the messenger. Of course, in the end, God won, and I suspect these leaders will find out that, in this case, God will have His way as well.
King Zedekiah chooses the same path as Pontius Pilate did in the time of Jesus. He says “He is in your hands,”…“The king can do nothing to oppose you.” So these leaders take the already imprisoned Jeremiah and they “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.” This had to be a time of very mixed feelings for both the leaders and Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was probably feeling somewhat discouraged that his faithful sharing of God’s message has landed him waist deep in mud in a smelly dark cistern. The leaders might be thinking to themselves, “well that did not work out as planned, now what”. There are interesting similarities here between the path that Jesus walked to his crucifixion and Jeremiah’s descent into the muddy cistern.
In Ephesians 9:4 Paul discusses Jesus’ ascent which implies some sort of prior descent. There are two ways of looking at Jesus’ descent and subsequent ascent. The first is to envision God, through his son Jesus, descending into Hades to battle the forces of darkness on our behalf after his death and prior to His resurrection. The other is that in coming to Earth Jesus did the equivalent of descending into a muddy cistern on our behalf. Perhaps it is a distinction without a difference. Either way, God entered enemy territory on our behalf and rescued those who choose to be rescued. We are all, like Jeremiah, stuck in a muddy cistern.
Jeremiah is eventually rescued by another leader willing to consider that He is, in fact, God’s messenger and putting him in a cistern to die is probably not a good move. He is rescued by “Ebed-Melek, a Cushite, an official in the royal palace”. Ebed-Melek reminds me of Nicodemus in the new testament (John 3). Both men were part of an oppressive establishment that was oppressing a messenger of God. Nicodemus, and apparently Ebed-Melek, are teachable, willing to ask hard questions, and consider the possibility that the establishment is wrong.
The take home message for me in this passage is that those in positions of leadership should continually ask themselves whether they are teachable and truly listening to the messages, and messengers, from God. If we become deaf to hearing hard truths, and God’s quiet whisper, then we may end up assisting in something as ludicrous and evil as lowering someone into a muddy cistern or crucifying the Son of God.
Prayer: God help us to listen intently to your messages and messengers, even when they are telling us hard truths.