In the seventh month, Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, son of Elishama, of the royal family, one of the chief officers of the king, came with ten men to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, at Mizpah. As they ate bread together there at Mizpah, Ishmael the son of Nethaniah and the ten men with him rose up and struck down Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan, with the sword, and killed him, whom the king of Babylon had appointed governor in the land. Ishmael also struck down all the Judeans who were with Gedaliah at Mizpah, and the Chaldean soldiers who happened to be there.
On the day after the murder of Gedaliah, before anyone knew of it, eighty men arrived from Shechem and Shiloh and Samaria, with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, bringing grain offerings and incense to present at the temple of the Lord. And Ishmael the son of Nethaniah came out from Mizpah to meet them, weeping as he came. As he met them, he said to them, “Come in to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam.” When they came into the city, Ishmael the son of Nethaniah and the men with him slaughtered them and cast them into a cistern. But there were ten men among them who said to Ishmael, “Do not put us to death, for we have stores of wheat, barley, oil, and honey hidden in the fields.” So he refrained and did not put them to death with their companions.
Now the cistern into which Ishmael had thrown all the bodies of the men whom he had struck down along with Gedaliah was the large cistern that King Asa had made for defense against Baasha king of Israel; Ishmael the son of Nethaniah filled it with the slain. Then Ishmael took captive all the rest of the people who were in Mizpah, the king’s daughters and all the people who were left at Mizpah, whom Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, had committed to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam. Ishmael the son of Nethaniah took them captive and set out to cross over to the Ammonites. – Jeremiah 41:1-10 ESV
To full comprehend what is going on in this passage, we have to take a look back at an earlier part of the book where God had Jeremiah deliver a message to King Zedekiah. This was the occasion when God had commanded Jeremiah to make a yoke of wood and leather, put it around his neck and then prophesy the following words to the king:
“I made the earth and the people and animals on it by my mighty power and great strength, and I give it to whomever I see fit. I have at this time placed all these nations of yours under the power of my servant, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. I have even made all the wild animals subject to him. All nations must serve him and his son and grandson until the time comes for his own nation to fall.” – Jeremiah27:5-7 NLT
The presence of Nebuchadnezzar and his troops in Judah was by the decree of God. This wasn’t a case of happenstance or even the result of decision made by Nebuchadnezzar himself. Yes, he obviously had to issue the orders to invade Judah, but it was under the sovereign will and by the decree of God Almighty.
We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NLT
The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases. – Proverbs 21:1 NLT
What Ishmael failed to realize was that Gedaliah’s role as the governor of Judah was part of God’s foreordained plan. He mistakenly saw the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of King Zedekiah to Babylon as an opportunity to seize the throne. As a member of King David’s family, he saw himself as a legitimate heir with every right to be king. But what he overlooked was that God had a plan for Judah and even the king of Babylon was being used by God to accomplish that plan. So, in essence, Gedaliah was God’s choice to rule over Judah after the fall of Jerusalem. And yet, Ishmael had other plans. He had no interest in what God might be trying to do. He saw an opportunity and he seized it – even if it meant committing murder and violating the will of God to do it.
It is important to note that Ishmael is clearly presented as a descendant of David. He is referred to in the passage as “Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, son of Elishama, of the royal family” (Jeremiah 41:1 ESV). Elishama’s name is found in the list of the sons born to David.
And David took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron, and more sons and daughters were born to David. And these are the names of those who were born to him in Jerusalem: Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, Ibhar, Elishua, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet. – 2 Samuel 5:13-15 ESV
Why that is important is because it provides a stark contrast between Ishmael and his ancestor, David. If you recall, after David had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel, hand-picked by God to replace King Saul, he ended up spending several years of his life running from Saul. God had arranged for David to be anointed, but His plan did not include David’s immediate ascension to the throne. Saul remained king. And he greatly feared David and did everything in his power to see that he be eliminated. And on two separate occasions, David had the opportunity to take Saul’s life, but he refused. On the first occasion, Saul happened to walk into a cave where David and his men were hiding. When David’s men encouraged him to take advantage of the opportunity to kill Saul and take his throne, David responded:
“May the Lord keep me far away from doing such a thing to my lord, who is the Lord’s chosen one, by extending my hand against him. After all, he is the Lord’s chosen one.” – 1 Samuel 24:6 ESV
On the second occasion, David and one of his men made their way into the camp of King Saul and his troops as they slept. They were able to make it unnoticed right to the place where the king slept. Abishai, David’s companion, offered to kill Saul on the spot, but David once again responded:
“Don’t kill him! Who can extend his hand against the Lord’s chosen one and remain guiltless?” – 1 Samuel 26:9 NLT
David was unwilling to take Saul’s life because he had not been given permission to do so. He recognized that, until God chose to remove Saul, he would remain the king of Israel, and as a result, David was obligated to honor him as such.
David went on to say, “As the Lord lives, the Lord himself will strike him down. Either his day will come and he will die, or he will go down into battle and be swept away. But may the Lord prevent me from extending my hand against the Lord’s chosen one!” – 1 Samuel 26:10
Now, compare the actions of David with those of his descendant, Ishmael. Gedaliah had been appointed the governor of Judah by the king of Babylon. But the king of Babylon, according to God Himself, was under His direct orders. And yet, Ishmael didn’t seem to care. Unlike his ancestor, Ishmael had no problem raising his hand against the Lord’s anointed. With careful planning and premeditation, he murdered Gedaliah. Not only that, “Ishmael also killed all the Judeans and the Babylonian soldiers who were with Gedaliah at Mizpah” (Jeremiah 41:3 NLT).
We know that Ishmael was operating under the influence and direction of the King of Ammon. He was taking his cues from an enemy of Judah rather than seeking what the Lord would have him do. There is little doubt that Baalis, the Ammonite king, had no love for the Babylonians. In fact, on that occasion when Jeremiah had been commanded by God to make and wear the yoke, he was also commanded to deliver his message to the king of Ammon regarding God’s plan to use Nebuchadnezzar as His tool of punishment.
“Make a yoke out of leather straps and wooden crossbars and put it on your neck. Use it to send messages to the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon. Send them through the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to King Zedekiah of Judah. Charge them to give their masters a message from me.” – Jeremiah 27:2-4 NLT
But Baalis and Ishmael didn’t care what God had to say. They didn’t approve of God’s plan and weren’t willing to submit to God’s appointed leader. Perhaps Baalis believed that if he could stir up trouble in Judah by having the Babylonian-appointed governor murdered, it would force Nebuchadnezzar to concentrate all his efforts and resources in Judah and leave the land of Ammon alone. But whatever his motivation, he was clearly violating the will of God. And the murdering rampage of Ishmael would continue, filling a cistern with the bodies of the slain.
Don’t overlook the significance of Ismael’s choice to throw the bodies of the dead into a cistern. Normally designed to provide life-sustaining water for the people of the city, this cistern was re-purposed by Ishmael to hold the lifeless bodies of those he had slain. Their corpses would end up polluting the water, making the cistern a place of death rather than life. This should bring to mind a stinging indictment from God, delivered earlier in the book of Jeremiah.
“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
Opposing God’s will brings death, not life. Refusing to submit to His divine plan for our lives will never result in an improved outcome. Ishmael would learn the hard way that God’s way is always the best way.
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.