The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them, that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother. And they obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that everyone would set free his slave, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again. They obeyed and set them free. But afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them into subjection as slaves. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service.’ But your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me. You recently repented and did what was right in my eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name, but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back his male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your slaves.
“Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the Lord. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts—the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf. And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. And Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials I will give into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives, into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon which has withdrawn from you. Behold, I will command, declares the Lord, and will bring them back to this city. And they will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire. I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.” – Jeremiah 34:8-22 ESV
It is approximately 588 B.C. and the city of Jerusalem is surrounded. Things are not looking good. Outside the walls of the city, the Babylonian troops can be seen busily at work building siege walls and preparing to assault the city. In the midst of all the chaos and with the words of Jeremiah the prophet ringing in his ears, Zedekiah, the king of Judah, convinces the people to make a covenant with him to release any and all their fellow Hebrews that they owned as slaves. Now, it makes sense to ask why any Hebrew would have a fellow Hebrew as a slave. This was actually quite common in those days. In most cases, the enslavement or servitude was linked to indebtedness. If a Hebrew borrowed money from another Hebrew and could not pay the debt, he become the servant or slave of the lender until the debt was paid off. The book of Proverbs speaks to this situation, warning: “the borrower is the slave of the lender” (Proverbs 22:17 ESV). We find some strong words from God regarding the abuse of this system in the book of Amos.
“The people of Israel have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They sell honorable people for silver and poor people for a pair of sandals.” – Amos 2:6 NLT
The people of Judah and Israel had taken advantage of the poor and needy within their midst. Once again, the book of Proverbs speaks to this problem.
Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty. – Proverbs 22:16 NLT
Don’t rob the poor just because you can, or exploit the needy in court. – Proverbs 22:22 NLT
God had made provision for those who found themselves in debt and in need of help. A Jew who found themselves with no means of income could voluntarily offer themselves as a servant to another Jew. If they owed a debt they could not pay, they could voluntarily become the lenders servant.
“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant and serves you for six years, in the seventh year you must set that servant free.
“When you release a male servant, do not send him away empty-handed. Give him a generous farewell gift from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. Share with him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were once slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you! That is why I am giving you this command.” – Deuteronomy 15:12-15 NLT
But notice that God made provision for their release. They were not to remain in servitude indefinitely. And the lender had no right to sell the debtor in order to profit from their sale. At the seventh year, all Hebrews were to release their Hebrew slaves or servants. Their debt was to be considered paid. And the lender was not to send them away empty handed. So, in this chapter, we see Zedekiah making a covenant with the people to release all their Hebrew slaves. We are not told why Zedekiah made this announcement, but we can speculate that he was hoping this action might appease God in some way. Perhaps it was an attempt to increase the number of free men able to serve in the army in the defense of the city. Whatever his motivation, Zedekiah convinces the people to agree to the conditions of the release. But then they change their minds. They renege on their commitment.
…but later they changed their minds. They took back the men and women they had freed, forcing them to be slaves again. – Jeremiah 34:11 NLT
We do know from verses 21 and 22, that the Babylonians had evidently disappeared for a period of time. It could be that their unexpected departure led the people to change their minds. They could have believed that the siege was over and they had been delivered from destruction. So, they decided not to keep their commitment. What had appeared to be an act of repentance turned out to be nothing of the sort. Even though they had been faced with their own destruction and possible enslavement themselves, the people were not willing to set free their fellow Hebrews. This all reminds me of a parable that Jesus told in response to a question from Peter regarding the topic of forgiveness.
“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” – Matthew 18:23-35 NLT
The people of Judah were indebted to God. They owed Him for the sins they had committed against Him. And they would have longed for Him to show them mercy and forgive their sins. But here they were, refusing to forgive the debts of those who owed them so much less. It should bring to mind the words of Jesus in His model prayer found in His Sermon on the Mount: “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 ESV). And Jesus would go on to comment about the issue of forgiveness of debts. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15 ESV).
God reminds Zedekiah and the people that their actions were reminiscent of the sins of their ancestors. God had given them the command regarding the seventh year, but they had refused to obey. Now, the people of Judah had made a covenant with God and were breaking it.
“Recently you repented and did what was right, following my command. You freed your slaves and made a solemn covenant with me in the Temple that bears my name. But now you have shrugged off your oath and defiled my name by taking back the men and women you had freed, forcing them to be slaves once again.” – Jeremiah 34:15-16 NLT
So, God gives them the bad news. Since they didn’t keep their vow and set their fellow Hebrews free, God was going to set the offenders free to suffer at the hands of the Babylonians. “I will set you free to be destroyed by war, disease, and famine” (Jeremiah 34:17 NLT). At the end of the day, the people of Judah were slaves to sin. They were addicted to wrongdoing. They just couldn’t give up their love affair with evil, even when faced with their own destruction. And they would learn the hard way, that the wages of sin is death.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.