Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah was saying to all the people: “Thus says the Lord: He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans shall live. He shall have his life as a prize of war, and live. Thus says the Lord: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon and be taken.” Then the officials said to the king, “Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” King Zedekiah said, “Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.” So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud. – Jeremiah 38:1-6 ESV
No water. Only mud. Keep those four words in mind. Jeremiah has already been put in a dungeon for being accused of treason. After pleading with the king, Jeremiah is released to a comfortable internment in the court of the guard. But he obviously continued to speak up and let anyone who could hear understand that God was still offering two options: Stay in the city and die at the hands of the Babylonians or surrender and live. Remember, Jeremiah was initially arrested because they thought he was taking his own advice and trying to leave the city so he could surrender. But now, under armed guard, Jeremiah continued to spread his “treasonous” message. And the king’s officials don’t like what they are hearing, so they take the matter to King Zedekiah.
“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
Off with his head! That’s essentially what these men were demanding. They wanted Jeremiah dead. And the king, exasperated by Jeremiah’s stubbornness, gives in to their demands.
King Zedekiah agreed. “All right,” he said. “Do as you like. I can’t stop you.” – Jeremiah 38:5 NLT
Well, he could have stopped them – if he wanted to, but he didn’t. He had lost patience. He was sick of hearing all of Jeremiah rhetoric about coming judgment and destruction. Zedekiah refused to believe that God was going to destroy the city of Jerusalem. He still held out hope that God would relent and change His mind. I am not quite sure why he held on to that overly optimistic outlook, but he did – to the bitter end.
So, Jeremiah is taken and lowered into an empty cistern. This is an interesting choice on the part of these men. Remember, the city has been under siege by the Babylonians for some time. They have been running low on food and water. The cistern, which normally would have been full of water, was empty. And this should remind us of something God had said two decades earlier and recorded in the second chapter of this same book:
“For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me—the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!” – Jeremiah 2:13 NLT
The cistern into which Jeremiah was lowered was empty. There was no water. Why? Because God was punishing them for having abandoned Him – the fountain of living water. All across Jerusalem, the man-made cisterns were empty and incapable of sustaining life. Just like the false gods on whom they had placed their hope and wasted their worship, these cisterns were proving useless in time of need. No water. Only mud.
This cistern, that should have been full of water and fully capable of slacking the physical thirsts of the people, was empty. And the mud was an apt symbol of the peoples’ filthy moral standing before God. And it was into this dark, dank and death-inducing atmosphere that Jeremiah was placed. But that had been his circumstances from day one. Nothing had really changed. Judah was a lifeless, spiritually waterless place where the living water of God had dried up a long time ago. But God had promised Jeremiah:
“And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 1:8 NLT
They could place Jeremiah in an empty cistern, but it would do nothing to restore their good fortunes. Putting the prophet of God in the dark was not going to shed any light on their circumstances. Because they were the ones who were devoid of living water. They had turned their backs on God long ago, now He was getting ready to turn His back on them. They had already felt the effects of their rebellion against God. Back in chapter 14, God described the circumstances within the walls of Jerusalem.
Her nobles send their servants for water;
they come to the cisterns;
they find no water;
they return with their vessels empty;
they are ashamed and confounded
and cover their heads. – Jeremiah 14:3 ESV
But as we will see in the following verses, God was going to come to Jeremiah’s rescue. Men had placed him in a cistern, but God would redeem him. He would be provided with a way out. But as far as the future of the people of Judah were concerned, their physical and spiritual thirst were going to remain and result in their physical and spiritual death. They would be the ones to suffer in the long run. Jeremiah was in a bad spot, sunk in the mud, and left to die. But God was on his side. He had been faithful. He had done what God had commanded him to do. And God was going to redeem and rescue him.
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.