Thrown Into a Cistern
Jeremiah 38:1-13 reminds us that being faithful to God's word may be unpopular but it's worth it in the end.
Jeremiah loved his country and people, yet when he was unwilling to compromise with God’s word, they called him a traitor and nearly killed him in a cistern.
Since God’s plans are often different than those of other nations, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves at odds. For example, God’s word requires us to take up our cross and love others, even our enemies. But the methods of nations and politics often require us to take up our weapons and beat our opponents into submission verbally, if not literally, in order to “win.”
Those that resist the world’s agenda and embrace God’s will are likely to experience suffering at the hands of ungodly men, including being called a traitor. And this is precisely what happened to Jeremiah. So, let’s first look at the accusation against Jeremiah that led to his suffering.
The Accusation Against Jeremiah
In verse one, we’re told King Zedekiah had four advisors who strongly recommended making a political treaty with the Egyptians. So they weren’t at all pleased with Jeremiah when he advised the king to surrender to the enemy.
Jeremiah 38:2 CSB
This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine, and plague, but whoever surrenders to the Chaldeans will live. He will retain his life like the spoils of war and will live.’
It’s not hard to understand why this message wasn’t popular. In addition to food and soldiers, the people needed a message of hope, but Jeremiah’s message didn’t sound hopeful at all. It sounded treasonous. So they accused Jeremiah of weakening the troops’ morale and not acting in the people’s best interest.
Jeremiah 38:4 CSB
The officials then said to the king, “This man ought to die, because he is weakening the morale of the warriors who remain in this city and of all the people by speaking to them in this way. This man is not pursuing the welfare of this people, but their harm.”
Now, part of the accusation was true. Jeremiah’s message was weakening the troops' morale, but it was definitely not true that Jeremiah didn’t have the people’s best interests in mind.
Surrendering was in the people’s best interest; it just didn’t make sense even though it was what God wanted. And it was definitely in the people’s best interest to surrender since God had taken Babylon’s side against his own people. It was useless to resist, but they resisted anyway.
What does this tell us? It tells us that it’s more important to be on God’s side than our country’s. When the two sides conflict and they eventually will, it’s better to be thought a traitor to our country than a traitor to God.
Jeremiah seemed like a traitor to his people, but his recommendation to set aside their pride and trust in God alone really was the best way forward. In contrast, Zedekiah’s advisors wanted to do things their own way. They wanted mercy without justice. They wanted victory without suffering and love without discipline. In other words, they only wanted half a god, but half a god is a false god.
What they wanted was similar to what most people want today. Most don’t want a God who points out our sins of greed, pride, false worship, and sexual immorality. Instead, many only want to hear about love and grace, but people also need to hear about their sinfulness so that they will repent and see their need for God’s abundant grace.
I think this is why before Jesus was crucified, his most frequent message was “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” For example,
Luke 13:3 CSB
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well (see also Matt. 3:2; 5:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 5:32, etc).
Once I told someone that repentance was a part of the gospel, and they accused me of preaching “works.” Was Jesus preaching a gospel of works when he told people to repent? No, of course not.
It’s not that we are saved by our effort, but neither are we saved by knowledge alone. Even demons have true knowledge, but since they refuse to submit themselves to God, they don’t have saving faith.
The fact is, true faith leads to repentance, without which we will perish, just as Jesus said, and this is essentially the message Jeremiah was conveying to God’s people. He told them to stop trusting in political advisors or anyone else besides God. Instead, they needed to surrender, repent, and trust in the promises of God and God’s plan for salvation.
Now, let’s look at how this message nearly got Jeremiah killed before God intervened.
Jeremiah in the Cistern
We’ve all heard the phrase “don’t shoot, I’m just the messenger,” and I’m sure Jeremiah would have said exactly that if they’d had guns back then. Further, if they’d had guns, they would’ve hauled him out to the firing squad and shot him because that’s what you do to traitors.
But the king didn’t want to get his hands dirty, so he told his four advisors to handle it.
Jeremiah 38:6 CSB
So [the four men] took Jeremiah and dropped him into the cistern of Malchiah the king’s son, which was in the guard’s courtyard, lowering Jeremiah with ropes. There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Since the city was running out of water, a mostly dry cistern wasn’t hard to find. When they threw him in he sank in the mud, and I can imagine Jeremiah, who knew the scriptures, praying these words from Psalm 69:
Psalm 69:14–15 CSB
Rescue me from the miry mud; don’t let me sink. Let me be rescued from those who hate me and from the deep water. Don’t let the floodwaters sweep over me or the deep swallow me up; don’t let the pit close its mouth over me.
Of course, Psalm 69 is a Psalm of David, but it also prophetically points forward to the sufferings of Jeremiah and, more importantly, to Christ, which we’ll get to in a minute.
The point is that being faithful to God’s word led to false accusations and an attempt on Jeremiah’s life. But it also led to Jeremiah’s rescue.
The Rescue of Jeremiah
The attempt on Jeremiah’s life shouldn’t be that surprising to us, but neither should his rescue since God had promised:
Jeremiah 1:8 CSB
Do not be afraid of anyone, for I will be with you to rescue you. This is the Lord’s declaration.
When God spoke these words to him, Jeremiah probably had no idea God meant to rescue him from a muddy cistern, but that’s precisely what God did. God saved him.
Again, the words of David seem to fit so well with his situation:
Psalm 40:1–2 CSB
I waited patiently for the Lord, and he turned to me and heard my cry for help. He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the muddy clay, and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure.
God rescued David by faith as David “waited patiently” for the Lord to save him. And Jeremiah’s rescue occurred by faith too. Of course, Jeremiah had faith, but there was another man of faith that God used to rescue Jeremiah, and he wasn’t even an Israelite.
Ebed-melech was a Gentile from the land of Cush, which meant he was probably a black African from Ethiopia or Sudan. His name means “servant of the king,” so it’s likely we don’t even know his real name. Jeremiah’s rescuer was a humble slave.
To Jewish eyes, our hero was a nobody, but to God, he was a man of faith because he was the only one willing to take a public stand against those in authority and call out their evil. Ebed-melech said,
Jeremiah 38:9 CSB
“My lord the king, these men have been evil in all they have done to the prophet Jeremiah. They have dropped him into the cistern where he will die from hunger, because there is no more bread in the city.”
No one else was willing to speak up, so God honored Ebed-melech’s bravery and changed the king’s mind. Zedekiah approved thirty men to go with Ebed-melech to rescue Jeremiah, which is a lot of men and probably indicates just how upset the people were. Since only a few soldiers were needed to pull Jeremiah out, the rest were probably there to keep the angry citizens from killing them.
So, without incident, Jeremiah was rescued just as God promised, but God honored Ebed-melech’s bravery by rescuing him, too.
Jeremiah 39:18 CSB
Indeed, I will certainly deliver [Ebed-melech] so that you do not fall by the sword. Because you have trusted in me, you will retain your life like the spoils of war. This is the Lord’s declaration.
Ebed-melech, a relative nobody, was also saved by trusting in God. He was saved by faith, just as God’s people always are.
Similarities with Jesus
Jeremiah was considered a traitor. He was beaten and imprisoned. And Jesus was also beaten and mistreated and thought of as a traitor to his country. Jeremiah was put into a hole in the ground and raised out of it, and so was Jesus. But, of course, Jesus’ rescue was much more incredible because the Father raised Jesus Christ from the grave and gave him a glorified, perfect body that would never die again.
Unlike Jesus, however, Jeremiah and Ebed-melech still haven’t received their glorified bodies. Even though they are with their Savior now, their bodies are still in the ground somewhere, but someday all will be fulfilled. As it says in Hebrews about people of faith:
Hebrews 11:39–40 CSB
All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.
The perfection spoken of here will occur at the resurrection. The “something better” for all who trust in Christ is eternal life with new, perfectly restored, resurrected bodies. But, like the rest of God’s people, we have to wait in faith.
And as we wait faithfully, we shouldn’t expect the world to love us for being true to God’s word. Our favorite political party won’t like it when we demonstrate “loving the enemy.” But if they persecute us, at least there’s some comfort in knowing we’re in good company. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). So let’s not put our hope in what the world thinks. Instead, let’s put our hope in “something better”—in the truth that all will be made perfect when Christ returns.