Now when the Chaldean army had withdrawn from Jerusalem at the approach of Pharaoh’s army, Jeremiah set out from Jerusalem to go to the land of Benjamin to receive his portion there among the people. When he was at the Benjamin Gate, a sentry there named Irijah the son of Shelemiah, son of Hananiah, seized Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “You are deserting to the Chaldeans.” And Jeremiah said, “It is a lie; I am not deserting to the Chaldeans.” But Irijah would not listen to him, and seized Jeremiah and brought him to the officials. And the officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him in the house of Jonathan the secretary, for it had been made a prison.
When Jeremiah had come to the dungeon cells and remained there many days, King Zedekiah sent for him and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house and said, “Is there any word from the Lord?” Jeremiah said, “There is.” Then he said, “You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon.” Jeremiah also said to King Zedekiah, “What wrong have I done to you or your servants or this people, that you have put me in prison? Where are your prophets who prophesied to you, saying, ‘The king of Babylon will not come against you and against this land’? Now hear, please, O my lord the king: let my humble plea come before you and do not send me back to the house of Jonathan the secretary, lest I die there.” So King Zedekiah gave orders, and they committed Jeremiah to the court of the guard. And a loaf of bread was given him daily from the bakers’ street, until all the bread of the city was gone. So Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard. – Jeremiah 37:11-21 ESV
Verse 5 of this chapter tells us that there was a brief respite in the siege against Jerusalem when the Babylonians abandoned their camps outside the walls in order to deal with a threat from the Egyptians. During this break in the action, Jeremiah made an attempt to leave the city in order to conduct some personal business in the nearby area belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. But as Jeremiah tried to leave the city, he was recognized by one of the guards and accused of trying to defect to the Babylonians. Obviously, Jeremiah was well known in Jerusalem. He had a reputation and it was not a good one. He was the prophet who was always prophesying doom and gloom. He was not well-liked or appreciated by the people. And even the sentry, a man named Irijah, thought Jeremiah was up to no good. His accusation that Jeremiah was defecting to the Babylonians was essentially a charge of treason. And Irijah probably remembered the words of Jeremiah, spoken to the people of Jerusalem, and assumed that Jeremiah was taking advantage of the lifting of the siege to escape the coming destruction.
“Everyone who stays in Jerusalem will die from war, famine, or disease, but those who go out and surrender to the Babylonians will live. Their reward will be life!” – Jeremiah 22:9 NLT
In the very next chapter, we will see the officials of the city accuse Jeremiah of treason.
“Sir, this man must die! That kind of talk will undermine the morale of the few fighting men we have left, as well as that of all the people. This man is a traitor!” – Jeremiah 38:4 NLT
And the “kind of talk” they refer to are the words of Jeremiah encouraging the people to leave the city and surrender to the Babylonians.
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Everyone who stays in Jerusalem will die from war, famine, or disease, but those who surrender to the Babylonians will live. Their reward will be life. They will live!’” – Jeremiah 38:2 NLT
So, it seems that Irijah had every right to suspect Jeremiah’s intentions. And while Jeremiah would vehemently deny the accusation, he was arrested and dragged before the city officials. They were incensed and had Jeremiah flogged and imprisoned. This is a markedly different reaction from the city officials than the one they had when Baruch read the scroll containing the words of God recorded back in chapter six. On that occasion, they had responded positively. In fact, they had told Baruch and Jeremiah to hide. And when they had brought the scroll to King Jehoiakim and he had burned it, they pleaded with him to stop. But something had changed. At this point in the story, they are fed up with Jeremiah. There is a new king and the intensity of the Babylonian siege has everybody on edge. So, when they get the change to take out some of their frustration and anger on Jeremiah, they do so. He was eventually moved to a dungeon cell, where he remained for many days.
Some time later, King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah and asks him an interesting question: “Do you have any messages from the Lord?” (Jeremiah 37:17 NLT). This is an interesting question. What was Zedekiah expecting Jeremiah to say? For several decades not, Jeremiah had said the same things over and over. His messages had not changed. His words of warning from God had not varied one iota. So, what was Zedekiah thinking the prophet was going to say? Did he really believe that throwing Jeremiah in prison was going to force him to give an upbeat message, rather than a negative one. Was brute force and intimidation against God’s prophet going to change the will of God? We aren’t told what the motivation behind Zedekiah’s question was, but we can assume that he was looking for good news. Yet, he would be disappointed, once again.
Jeremiah’s news was short and sweet: “You will be defeated by the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 37:17 NLT). Probably not what Zedekiah was hoping to hear. But Jeremiah told him the truth. He could have lied and told the king that all would be well. Jeremiah could have told Zedekiah what he wanted to hear and been freed for doing so. But he would not lie. He could not bring himself to speak anything but what he had heard from God.
He did have a question for the king though. He wanted to know why he was being held a prisoner. He had committed no crime. All he had done was prophecy truth. In fact, he challenged the king to compare the words of Jeremiah with those of the false prophets who had been saying that all would be well. What was right? Who had been telling the truth? The siege engines were just outside the walls. The signs of famine, disease and death were everywhere. Jeremiah’s predictions had come true, signifying that they were from God. So, the only thing Jeremiah could be accused of was speaking the truth. And Jeremiah pleads with the king not to put him back in the dungeon for fear that he would die there. Zedekiah agrees to move Jeremiah from the dungeon, but still keeps him a prisoner, placing him in “the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace” (Jeremiah 37:21 NLT), and ordering that he be fed as long as any bread remained available in the city. It seems that Zedekiah still feared that Jeremiah might attempt to run away, so he kept him under lock and key. He was going to make sure that Jeremiah was there to experience every single aspect of the prophecies he had delivered against the city of Jerusalem.
Zedekiah was looking for a way to get out of this terrible jam. He had been placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar. And as soon as he was made king, he had gone out of his way to rebel against Babylon. He attempted to make an alliance with Egypt, which is why the Babylonians had temporarily lifted their siege. They were off dealing with a potential threat from the Egyptians. But it wouldn’t last. The Egyptians would run and the Babylonians would return. And yet, Zedekiah kept looking for ways to change the outcome. He kept hoping for a way out of the predicament they were in. But rather than repent, he kept scheming. Instead of returning to God in humility, he kept searching for ways to escape God’s wrath. Zedekiah represents all those who have heard the call of God, but refuse to heed it. He is that stubborn, hard-headed individual who knows what God requires, but is determined to find another way. He has been offered mercy from God if he will only do what God says. He doesn’t want to do thing God’s way. He has a mind of his own. His will takes precedence over God’s will. He thinks he knows what is best. But he will be proved dramatically wrong. His stubbornness will be his downfall. His refusal to submit to God will result in his humiliation before Nebuchadnezzar.
Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 NLT
Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. – Proverbs 11:2 NLT
Haughtiness goes before destruction; humility precedes honor. – Proverbs 18:12 NLT
Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor. – Proverbs 29:23 NLT
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.