It’s tough to be a prophet for God, especially during a season when His wrath is being poured out on people. This was Jeremiah’s lot. Many prophets before him had warned rebellious Israel over and over again that God’s anger was burning against her, but she just didn’t care. Over and over God made graphic threats about what He would do to Jerusalem if His people didn’t return to Him in their hearts, but they didn’t listen. Jeremiah was the one of the prophets who lived to see the moment that God fulfilled His terrifying threats.
Jeremiah had a very long career of speaking for God. He prophesied through the reigns of Judah’s last five kings, then he lived through the terrible fall of Jerusalem, was dragged off to Egypt by more rebel Jews, and continued to prophesy there. He was a worldwide traveler, delivering God’s messages not only to what was left of Israel, but also to every other nation around. And everything he said was, well, grim. So you just didn’t look at Jeremiah and think of him as friend material.
Before the fall of Jerusalem, tensions within the troubled city were very high. The people were engaging in all forms of evil, the king was a spiritual zero, and everyone was sick to death of hearing Jeremiah’s words from God. Plus, there was a huge army camped outside of the city walls: the terrifying Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonians had set up camp and cut off all supplies to the city so that they could starve the people out. This is just what God has said He would do: hand Jerusalem over to the Babylonians. Everyone is freaking out when suddenly word comes that the pharaoh of Egypt is marching towards them with his army in order to save the day. When the Babylonians hear about it, they pack up and leave in order to intercept this troublesome ally. Now everyone breathes a sigh of relief. The big bullies left. Obviously God was just blowing smoke. The city wasn’t going to fall. Jeremiah was just an old windbag.
At this point Jeremiah’s feeling pretty weird. God hadn’t said anything about the Babylonians calling off their attack. Has He changed His mind about destroying Jerusalem? Not hardly. New instructions come to the prophet from the Holy Spirit: go tell King Zedekiah (Judah’s last king) not to breathe any sigh of relief. The Babylonians will be coming back, and when they do, Jerusalem will fall.
Blah, blah, blah, Jeremiah, we’ve heard all this before. Now wait a second—why are you leaving the city? Are you trying to sneak off to join the Babylonians? Deserter!
“That’s not true!” Jeremiah said. “I am not deserting to the Babylonians.” But Irijah [the captain of the guard] would not listen to him; instead, he arrested Jeremiah and brought him to the officials. They were angry with Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned in the house of Jonathan the secretary, which they had made into a prison. Jeremiah was put into a vaulted cell in a dungeon, where he remained a long time. (Jer. 37:14-16)
Ah, the joys of being a prophet. You do the hard thing, and you get beat up and thrown into some dark hole. Notice how it says Jeremiah remained there “a long time.” Bummer.
After a bunch of time passes, twerpy Zedekiah sends for his abused prisoner, gets him alone in a room and asks, “Is there any word from the Lord?” Nice.
People always know who the real guys are, and when it comes to wanting to know the future, Zedekiah knows his other prophets are worthless. Jeremiah says the same thing he’s been saying all along: “You will be handed over to the king of Babylon.” He then protests about all of the abuse he has received. He pleads to not be returned to prison because he’s afraid he’ll die in that awful place. Zedekiah finally shows a humane side and lets Jeremiah hang out in the courtyard of the guards. He even gets to have bread. Good.
But things don’t stay this pleasant for long. God isn’t going to let His man just stand around like some kind of mute. Word gets out that Jeremiah is telling all the people to run out and join the Babylonians as soon as they arrive. Sounds rather treasonous. With this infamous prophet constantly preaching that defeat is inevitable, the moral among military officers is starting to tank. When some officials complain to Zedekiah, the king pulls a Pontius Pilate and says, “He is in your hands.” The next thing Jeremiah knows, he’s thrown into a nasty, muddy cistern where he sinks down into the muck. Yuck. He can’t move, he’s covered in slime, and he’s going to starve to death. This is an even worse situation than he was in before. Where is God in all this?
Now at last our hero steps onto the scene. His name is Ebed-Melek. He’s one of the officials in the royal palace—possibly a eunuch. He’s not a Jew but a Cushite. He waits until the king is outside of the palace, and then he goes up to him and says:
“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.” (Jer. 38:9)
By now it’s clear that Zedekiah is not the kind of man who is willing to go against the crowd in public. The fact that Ebed-Melek waits for the king to be outside seems like a strategic move to try and catch the king when perhaps he’ll feel like less people are watching him. The plan works because Zedekiah says:
“Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.” (Jer. 38:10)
Zedekiah doesn’t need someone to tell him how badly Jeremiah has been treated, but he’s not about to do anything about it himself. Happily Ebed-Melech is twice the man that Zedekiah is. Ebed-Melech actually listens to the Holy Spirit’s promptings and cares about siding with God. He immediately goes out and rescues poor Jeremiah, who goes back to being confined to the courtyard of the guard.
Just as Jeremiah predicted, the Babylonians return, surround the city, and lay siege to it for one and a half years. Conditions inside the city are pretty horrible, with starvation and cannibalism, by the time the Babylonians finally break through the wall and launch their attack on an army they have intentionally weakened. That coward Zedekiah tries to make a run for it—no surprise there—but God makes sure he is captured and treated horribly. It’s just what he deserves after all he’s done to poor Jeremiah.
The Babylonians then set fire to the whole city: burning homes and the royal palace. Then they break down all the walls and drag most of the people away by force. It’s a terrifying time to live in Jerusalem. Everyone is scared out of their wits. But then a shocking bit of news comes to Jeremiah. King Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon, knows who the prophet is. Not only does he know him, he actually likes him. Nebuchadnezzar knows that Jeremiah told everyone that the Babylonians would defeat Jerusalem. He approves of the message and decides to reward Jeremiah because of it. Instead of hauling the prophet off with the rest of the people to some frightening fate in a foreign land, he gets Jeremiah out of confinement and lets him remain free in his own land. How nice. But before all of this happens, back when everyone is still terrified about what’s going to happen when the Babylonians finally break through the wall, Jeremiah receives a special word from God. It’s about that palace official, Ebed-Melech—the one who came to the prophet’s rescue. God has a specific word for this man.
“Go and tell Ebed-Melek the Cushite, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am about to fulfill My words against this city—words concerning disaster, not prosperity. At that time they will be fulfilled before your eyes. But I will rescue you on that day, declares the Lord; you will not be given into the hands of those you fear. I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life, because you trust in Me, declares the Lord.’” (Jer. 39:16-18)
Wow. What a special moment. Usually God just addresses the general masses or some important ruler. But here He speaks directly to Ebed-Melek—one of many palace employees—and gives him a personal promise that God will be with him through the frightening times ahead. God knows that Ebed-Melek is as scared as everyone else. He knows that he’s worried about dying some horrible death, or being dragged off to some life of slavery and torture. Yet God wants Ebed-Melek to know that his act of kindness towards Jeremiah has not been forgotten. Nobody else cared whether the prophet lived or died, but Ebed-Melek put his own neck on the line in order to try and help him. Moody Zedekiah might have ordered Ebed-Melek to be thrown into the cistern next. By siding with Jeremiah, Ebed-Melek sided with God. In his heart, he loves Yahweh and has been trying to trust Him through all of this turmoil. Now God tells him that He will personally rescue him the day that the Babylonians come crashing through the walls. He promises that Ebed-Melek will not be handed over to those terrifying warriors, nor will he be cut down by a sword. Instead, he will live. He will escape. He will be saved because he trusted in God.
The important lesson in this story is not that Ebed-Melek was promised protection. God doesn’t always choose to physically protect the people He is pleased with. What we learn from Ebed-Melek’s story is that God always knows who His friends are. Even when He is pouring His wrath down on the heads of thousands of rebels, God never loses track of who really cares about Him. His eyes are always on us. His Spirit is always with us. He sees into our hearts.
The tone God uses towards Ebed-Melek is radically different than the tone He’s been using with everyone else. Towards the rest of the people, God has been crisp, sarcastic, unsympathetic, furious, and harsh. But towards Ebed-Melek He is suddenly kind, comforting, and even complimentary. God never confuses the obedient with the defiant. No matter how scary things are or how angry God is with those around us, we never have to fear that His anger will be directed at us personally as long as we are sincerely desiring to please Him in our hearts.