In the seventh month Ishmael son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama, who was of royal blood and had been one of the king’s officers, came with ten men to Gedaliah son of Ahikam at Mizpah. While they were eating together there, Ishmael son of Nethaniah and the ten men who were with him got up and struck down Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, with the sword, killing the one whom the king of Babylon had appointed as governor over the land. Ishmael also killed all the men of Judah who were with Gedaliah at Mizpah, as well as the Babylonian soldiers who were there. The day after Gedaliah’s assassination, before anyone knew about it, eighty men who had shaved off their beards, torn their clothes and cut themselves came from Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria, bringing grain offerings and incense with them to the house of the Lord . Ishmael son of Nethaniah went out from Mizpah to meet them, weeping as he went. When he met them, he said, “Come to Gedaliah son of Ahikam.” When they went into the city, Ishmael son of Nethaniah and the men who were with him slaughtered them and threw them into a cistern. But ten of them said to Ishmael, “Don’t kill us! We have wheat and barley, olive oil and honey, hidden in a field.” So he let them alone and did not kill them with the others. Now the cistern where he threw all the bodies of the men he had killed along with Gedaliah was the one King Asa had made as part of his defense against Baasha king of Israel. Ishmael son of Nethaniah filled it with the dead. – Jeremiah 41:1-9
Well this is certainly a bloody interlude here in the book of Jeremiah. The invasion of Jerusalem is complete and the king of Babylon has installed a governor, Gedaliah, to rule over Jerusalem and Judah. There are Jews in the region who apparently are not happy with this state of affairs and are taking things into their own hands. A gang of 10, led by Ishmael son of Nethaniah, assassinate Gedaliah, the governor appointed by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Ishmael and his gang also kill all the Jews and Babylonians with the governor. It sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel or a Hollywood action movie in search of an audience.
The passage then gets a little confusing. A group of men come to Jerusalem, “eighty men who had shaved off their beards, torn their clothes and cut themselves came from Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria, bringing grain offerings and incense with them to the house of the Lord”. On the face of it this would seem to be a good thing. These men have taken off their facial hair, torn their clothes, and come with offerings to God. They are trying to reconnect with God. Unfortunately for them God asked them to leave and go into exile. So they will reap the consequences of the inability to trust God and His plan.
Ishamael goes out to meet this group of pilgrims weeping. They were unaware that the governor and a bunch of other people had been murdered by Ishmael and his gang. It is unclear why Ishmael is weeping. Is he conflicted about the murderous rampage he has already committed or the one that is in his heart to commit in the future? It seems like he feels like he has committed himself to a path that he knows to be wrong and apart from the path God has asked the people to walk. Perhaps he feels powerless to turn aside from this path now that he has started down it. As Paul from the new testament demonstrated, it is never too late to turn back and retrace our steps to follow the path God has for us.
Ishmael and his men slaughter the people who are on their way to make offerings in the house of the Lord and throw them into the cistern. My sense is that Ishmael is upset that the people of Jerusalem and Judah have given up without a fight. Even though that is exactly what God has instructed them to do through the prophet Jeremiah. Ultimately, neither these pilgrims in search of grace or Ishmael trust God’s plan because it involves “giving up” to the Babylonians. They do not believe that God has their back.
Sometimes God requires us to “give up” for the sake of a larger purpose. God needed His people to walk humbly into exile, and those that obey his command will return and prosper. Those that chose to follow their own way have a much more bleak future.
Prayer: God help us to humbly follow the path you have set before us, even when that path seems to be leading us toward something we do not understand.