Free at Last!
Jeremiah 34:1-22 reminds us that someday all of God’s people will be able to say they are free at last—free from sin and free in every sense of the word.
Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is remembered for highlighting the injustices endured for centuries by African Americans, but it is most remembered for the hopeful refrain at the end, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
No matter what we may think about Martin Luther King as a person, I think we should all agree that freedom for everyone is something worth looking forward to. People have been longing for freedom since time began. Thousands of years ago, even the people of Israel longed to be free at last.
The 34th chapter of Jeremiah tells the story of people who longed to be free—received their freedom—and then had it taken away. This chapter is a record of Jeremiah’s experiences during the siege of Jerusalem just before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. It begins with a warning to Zedekiah about losing freedom.
Jeremiah 34:2 CSB
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Go, speak to King Zedekiah of Judah, and tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will burn it.
Time was running out for Zedekiah, but he was determined not to give up without a fight. All of Judah’s cities had fallen except for Lachish, Azekah, and Jerusalem.
Treachery Against the Slaves
So in one last-ditch effort to save himself and his people, Zedekiah, along with everyone else, made a covenant with God to set the Hebrew slaves free.
Jeremiah 34:9–10 CSB
As a result, each was to let his male and female Hebrew slaves go free, and no one was to enslave his fellow Judean. All the officials and people who entered into a covenant to let their male and female slaves go free—in order not to enslave them any longer—obeyed and let them go free.
Maybe Zedekiah thought this kindness would cause God to relent before Jerusalem was wholly taken over. Or maybe he let the slaves go free so that they would help defend the city.
Either way, setting the enslaved people free was a good thing for Zedekiah to do because no Israelite was supposed to be in servitude longer than six years in the first place. In the Leviticus, one of the books of the law, it says:
Leviticus 25:39–42 CSB
If your brother among you becomes destitute and sells himself to you, you must not force him to do slave labor. Let him stay with you as a hired worker or temporary resident; he may work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released from you, and he may return to his clan and his ancestral property. They are not to be sold as slaves, because they are my servants that I brought out of the land of Egypt.
God was clearly against slavery. The Israelites were allowed to hire workers to work off their debts, but they were not to possess slaves. Slavery was (and still is) an abomination to God because all people are made in his image and his servants.
So, after six years, the hired workers were to be set free without paying anything (Ex 21:2). This release was called the Year of Jubilee, but the Israelites hadn’t been practicing it. And history shows that they were, in fact, keeping and selling slaves (i.e., think of Joseph, who was sold into slavery). Perhaps, if they had obeyed God and allowed the hired workers to go free every seven years, God wouldn’t have sent them into captivity in the first place.
See, God loves to set captives free. He loves it when the disadvantaged and poor are shown mercy. He loves it so much that he set up a government to encourage it. In verse 15, God praises them.
Jeremiah 34:15 CSB
Today you repented and did what pleased me, each of you proclaiming freedom for his neighbor. You made a covenant before me at the house that bears my name.
For one brief moment, the Israelites did what God loves: they did justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly with their God. They proclaimed freedom not for themselves but for their neighbor.
But the freedom they proclaimed was short-lived, which shows that the covenant they made for the slaves wasn’t motivated by compassion, justice, or obedience but by something else. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, even in America’s history.
At the end of the Civil War, a similar thing happened. After President Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, slavery became illegal, but the spirit of slavery—racism remained alive and well.
So, slavery turned into lynching. Lynching turned into segregation. Segregation turned into prejudice. And now, 159 years later, things are better for sure, but there are still many ways black people in America aren’t yet free at last.
This may sound partisan, but I am not trying to promote or persuade you to follow a particular liberal or conservative view of politics. I’m simply trying to be factual about the prejudice that persists to this day and to remind us of the Bible’s non-partisan view of it.
One of the main reasons for all the polarization among Christians about racism is that many of us are being discipled more from the voices of partisan politics than we are from the pages of scripture.
The Sin of the Nation
The sin committed by the nation of Judah was reprehensible to God. They said the slaves could go free, but then they reneged on their promise and profaned the very name of God.
Jeremiah 34:16 CSB
You have changed your minds and profaned my name. Each has taken back his male and female slaves who had been let go free to go wherever they wanted, and you have again forced them to be your slaves.
The reason for the change of heart was a change in the situation. According to Jeremiah 37:5, it seems that when the Egyptians arrived to lend a hand against the Babylonians, Zedekiah and the people no longer felt in immediate danger and the domestic work started to accumulate. So the Israelites wanted their slaves back, broke their promise, and went right back into the sin of slavery.
It’s a serious sin when we break our promises. Yet how many times have we done so? Christians break their marriage vows, vows to their church, their children, and vows to God with great regularity. Often, in times of desperation, we cry out for God to help us and, in exchange, promise to devote our lives to him. We promise to pray and read our Bible and leave our wicked ways behind. But when God helps and the urgency is passed, we return to our old ways.
Here’s what God said to his people who went back to their old ways:
Jeremiah 34:17 (CSB)
You have not obeyed me by proclaiming freedom, each for his fellow Hebrew and neighbor. I hereby proclaim freedom for you—this is the Lord’s declaration—to the sword, to plague, and to famine! I will make you a horror to all the earth’s kingdoms.
Since the kind of “freedom” Judah gave their slaves wasn’t really freedom, God promised to give them the same “freedom” in return. God set them “free” to do what they wanted, releasing them from his protection and resulting in horror.
This sounds awful, but God’s punishment was just, especially considering they used to be slaves themselves (Jeremiah 34:13). And it’s not that they didn’t know the severest of punishments was coming. They knew what they were getting into when they made the agreement.
Cutting a Covenant
See, Judah didn’t just make a covenant. They cut a covenant. Whenever a covenant was made, the people would take an animal, cut it in half, and then walk between the two halves, saying, “may this happen to me if I don’t keep it.”
Jeremiah 34:18 CSB
As for those who disobeyed my covenant, not keeping the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat them like the calf they cut in two in order to pass between its pieces.
Since God is a covenant-keeper and hates covenant-breaking, the harshest punishments are justified when covenants are broken. But God also knows his people are incapable of keeping their word. God knows that his people love him and want to be like him, but he also knows we will fail, so he made an everlasting covenant with himself for our benefit.
Hebrews 6:13 CSB
For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater to swear by, he swore by himself.
When the covenant with Abraham was made, God walked between the animals that had been cut in half, indicating that when we fail to keep it, which is inevitable, God himself promised to suffer the consequences for our sin. And, of course, God kept his promise when Jesus willingly allowed himself to be crucified on the cross. He took upon himself the punishment we deserve.
So God’s people have been set free. We are free at last.
Jesus’ First Sermon
Now, it’s interesting that freedom from slavery was the subject of the first sermon Jesus ever preached.
Luke 4:16–21 CSB
He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. As usual, he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him, and unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. He began by saying to them, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.”
As the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus, he declared that The Year of Jubilee was fulfilled in him because he had come to set the captives free. In other words, he had come to do what Judah couldn’t do. He was going to set people free once and for all.
What kind of freedom? Not necessarily political freedom. After all, after Jesus’ death, the Romans were still in charge, and the Jews had to keep serving them. No, Jesus came primarily to set us free from sin. John 8:34 says that everyone who sins is a slave to sin, which is the worst kind of slavery, but Jesus offers the best kind of freedom—freedom from sin.
Yet, sadly, many who are free in Christ want to go back to slavery. Some of us refuse to give up our guilt and insist on earning our way to heaven. Instead, we should be resting in some of the sweetest words in the Bible, found in Galatians 5.
Galatians 5:1 CSB
For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm, then, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.
The Christian life isn’t a new form of slavery; it’s a new life of freedom. Through Christ’s work on the cross, we have been set free to live for him. And if we have been set free by Christ, it can never be revoked. Once free, always free.
John 8:34–36 CSB
Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. A slave does not remain in the household forever, but a son does remain forever. So if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.
So, God hates all kinds of slavery—literal slavery that treats other people made in God’s image harshly. He hates racism and prejudice, but most of all, God hates our slavery to sin. Thank the Lord he’s done something about it through Jesus Christ!
Someday all of God’s people will be able to say they are free at last—free from sin and free in every sense of the word. But let’s not just hope for that day; let’s please the Lord by doing all we can to make it happen for our neighbors in the communities we live in today.