Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Then Shephatiah the son of Mattan, and Gedaliah the son of Pashur, and Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashur the son of Malchiah, heard the words that Jeremiah had spoken unto all the people, saying,XXXVIII.
(1) Then Shephatiah the son of Mattan . . .—Of the four princes of Judah who are named here, Jucal or Jehucal has been mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3, and would appear, from the frequent occurrence of the name Shelomiah in 1Chronicles 26:1-2; 1Chronicles 26:9; 1Chronicles 26:14, to have been a Levite; Pashur is named in Jeremiah 21:1. Of the other two nothing is known, but the name Shephatiah appears in three or four instances in the royal house of Judah, beginning with a son of David (2Samuel 3:4; 2Chronicles 21:2; Ezra 2:4; Nehemiah 7:9),·and may, perhaps, indicate a connexion with it, like that of Jerahmeel in Jeremiah 36:26. Gedaliah, the son of Pashur (possibly of the man of that name who is mentioned last in the list), must be distinguished from Jeremiah’s protector, the son of Ahikam (Jeremiah 26:24; Jeremiah 40:5). They all belonged obviously to the party of the prophet’s enemies.
Thus saith the LORD, He that remaineth in this city shall die by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence: but he that goeth forth to the Chaldeans shall live; for he shall have his life for a prey, and shall live.(2) Thus saith the Lord.—The words carry us back to Jeremiah 21:9, and in any chronological arrangement of the book the one chapter would follow the other. It is obvious that to all who did not recognise the divine mission of the prophet, words like those which he had then spoken would seem to come from the lips of a traitor. Desertion to the enemy was represented as the only way of safety, and this was the counsel given to those who were defending the city of their fathers against an alien invader. What made it appear worse was that the prophet himself had been caught in an act which, though he denied the charge, might not unnaturally seem like an act of treacherous desertion.
Therefore the princes said unto the king, We beseech thee, let this man be put to death: for thus he weakeneth the hands of the men of war that remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words unto them: for this man seeketh not the welfare of this people, but the hurt.(4) Let this man be put to death.—The hatred of the princes of Judah becomes more bitter than ever, and they seek to overcome the king’s lingering reverence for the prophet. In the reign of Jehoiakim they had said that he was worthy of death (Jeremiah 26:11). Within the last few weeks he had been thrown into a loathsome dungeon, from which the king had but just delivered him. Now they press for a yet severer sentence. The weak king, conscious of his want of power to resist, yields a reluctant consent. The whole history reminds us of Pilate’s conduct in circumstances more or less analogous.
Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the son of Hammelech, that was in the court of the prison: and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire: so Jeremiah sunk in the mire.(6) The dungeon of Malchiah the son of Hammelech.—Literally, the pit, or cistern. The LXX. agrees with the marginal reading in describing him as “a son of the king.” The same phrase is so translated in 1Kings 22:26; 2Chronicles 28:7, and would seem to have been an official or court title, applied to one of the royal house, as distinguished from. others. (See Note on Jerahmeel in Jeremiah 36:26.) We have no data for judging whether this Malchiah is identical with the lather of Pashur in Jeremiah 38:1; but it is not unlikely. In Lamentations 3:53-55 we have probably a reminiscence of these days of horrible suffering. The cistern had been partly dried up (possibly through the supply of water having been cut off during the protracted siege), but there remained a thick deposit, three or four feet deep, of black foetid mud,, and there, it is obvious from Jeremiah 38:9 of this chapter, his enemies meant to leave him to die of hunger. They probably shrank from the odium of a public execution, or thought, with the strange superstition of the Eastern mind, that in this way they could escape the guilt of shedding the prophet’s blood. The death by starva-tion might easily be represented, even to themselves, as a death by disease.
Now when Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs which was in the king's house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon; the king then sitting in the gate of Benjamin;(7) Bbed-melech the Ethiopian.—The name signifies “servant of the king,” but the absence of the article in the Hebrew makes it probable that it had come to be used as a proper name, and so both the LXX. and Vulgate take it. The use of Ethiopian or Cushite slaves in the king’s household, probably as keeping guard over the harem, had been of some standing; perhaps even as early as the time of David, as in the case of Cushr (or the Cushite), in 2Samuel 18:21. Then, as in other countries and times (Terent., Eunuch, i. 2), there was a fashion which led princes and men of wealth to think that eunuchs were part of their magnificence. The law of Moses, it may be noted, forbade such mutilation in the case of Israelites (Deuteronomy 23:1). In Psalm 87:4, we find probably a record of the admission of such persons on the register of the citizens of Zion. Of the previous history of the Eunuch thus named we know nothing but he appears here as the favourite of the king, using his influence to protect the prophet. The Ethiopian descent of Jehudi (Jeremiah 36:21) may probably have brought him into contact with an officer of the king’s household of the same race, and Ebed-melech’s feelings may have been drawn to the prophet by what he thus heard.
In the gate of Benjamin.—This was on the northern wall of the city, the most exposed to the attack of the invading army, and the king apparently had gone there either to direct the operations of the defence, or, perhaps, to prevent others from following, as they might think, Jeremiah’s example, and either deserting to the enemy or abandoning the defence of the city (Jeremiah 37:13). Ebed-melech had accordingly to leave the palace, and went to seek the king at his post, in order to obtain an order of release in time to save the prophet’s life. He alone, as if inheriting the blessing of Isaiah 56:3-6, has the courage to appear as the friend of the persecuted.
My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon; and he is like to die for hunger in the place where he is: for there is no more bread in the city.(9) These men have done evil. . . .—It is noticeable that some MSS. of the LXX., following apparently a different text, represent the Eunuch as assuming that the king himself had given the order, “Thou hast done evil in all that thou hast done.”
He is like to die for hunger.—Literally, and he dies . . . painting vividly what would be the certain issue if no help were sent. It lies in the nature of the case that those who had thrown the prophet into the pit were not likely to continue the supply of his daily rations (Jeremiah 37:21), and the scarcity that prevailed in the besieged city made it all but impossible that his friends, even if they could gain access to him, should help him out of their own resources. Ebed-melech had obviously no power to help him without the king’s sanction.
Then the king commanded Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, saying, Take from hence thirty men with thee, and take up Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon, before he die.(10) Take from hence thirty men.—The number seems a large one for the purpose, especially when we consider that the men were sent from a post from which they could ill be spared, but the king may have wished to guard against resistance on the part of the princes. Hitzig, however, conjectures that “three men” was the original reading of the Hebrew text.
So Ebedmelech took the men with him, and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took thence old cast clouts and old rotten rags, and let them down by cords into the dungeon to Jeremiah.(11) Under the treasury . . .—This was obviously what we should call the “lumber-room” of the palace. Nothing could show the acuteness of the prophet’s sufferings more vividly than the precautions which the thoughtful kindness of the Eunuch thus suggested. The pit was so deep that ropes were needed to draw him up, as they had been to let him down, and lest they should cut into the flesh of Jeremiah’s emaciated form, improvised cushions had to be fastened to the ropes, that he might rest his arm-pits on them. He was, however, at last rescued, and re-instated in his former position, as a prisoner under the king’s protection.
“Clout” in old English was used for a patch of cloth as distinct from the “rags,” which were of linen. So Spenser, “His garments nought but many ragged clouts.”
Then Zedekiah the king sent, and took Jeremiah the prophet unto him into the third entry that is in the house of the LORD: and the king said unto Jeremiah, I will ask thee a thing; hide nothing from me.(14) The third entry that is in the house of the Lord.—In 2Kings 16:18 we read of” the king’s entry without,” an outside entrance, and of “a covert,” or covered gallery, both leading from the palace to the Temple. The passage now mentioned (the name does not occur elsewhere) was probably distinct from both these, leading from the lower city, and may therefore have been chosen by Zedekiah as a more suitable place for a private interview with the prophet. It seems probable from 2Kings 23:11, that there was a chamber for the chief Eunuch, or chamberlain of the king’s household, and if, it may have been arranged by Ebed-melech that the meeting should take place there. As in Jeremiah 37:17, the king has still a secret respect for Jeremiah’s mission, and, it may be, guided now by the Eunuch’s better counsels, hankers after a word of the Lord from him. Will the prophet, after what has passed, tell him the whole truth?
Then Jeremiah said unto Zedekiah, If I declare it unto thee, wilt thou not surely put me to death? and if I give thee counsel, wilt thou not hearken unto me?(15) Wilt thou not surely put me to death?—The prophet obviously speaks as if he believed the king to have sanctioned the severe measures that had been taken against him, and having no other “word of the Lord” to speak than that which he had spoken before, fears to provoke his wrath. The latter part of the sentence is better taken with the LXX., Vulg., and Luther, “thou wilt not hearken unto me “; or the form of the question altered so as to imply that answer.
So Zedekiah the king sware secretly unto Jeremiah, saying, As the LORD liveth, that made us this soul, I will not put thee to death, neither will I give thee into the hand of these men that seek thy life.(16) As the Lord liveth, that made us this soul.—The formula of the oath was obviously intended to be one of unusual solemnity; more so even than the simpler form of “The Lord liveth” (Jeremiah 16:14-15). The king swears by Jehovah as the living God, author and giver of his own life. The two-fold promise shows that the king felt the implied reproof of Jeremiah’s question. He separates himself from those who sought the prophet’s life, and declares that for the future he will not give them even the sanction of acquiescence. It is characteristic of his weakness that even now the oath is given secretly.
Then said Jeremiah unto Zedekiah, Thus saith the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel; If thou wilt assuredly go forth unto the king of Babylon's princes, then thy soul shall live, and this city shall not be burned with fire; and thou shalt live, and thine house:(17) If thou wilt assuredly go forth.—Literally, If going thou wilt go, the Hebrew idiom of emphasis. The prophet places before the king the alternative of surrender and safety, resistance and destruction, and leaves him to make his choice. The princes of the king of Babylon were those in command of the army by which Jerusalem was invested. The king himself was at Riblah, on the Orontes, in Northern Syria (Jeremiah 39:5).
And Zedekiah the king said unto Jeremiah, I am afraid of the Jews that are fallen to the Chaldeans, lest they deliver me into their hand, and they mock me.(19) I am afraid of the Jews . . .—The special form of fear was characteristic of the weak and vacillating king. It was not enough to know that his life would be safe. Would he also be saved from the insults of his own subjects, who had already deserted to the enemy? These were, in the nature of the case, friends and followers of the prophet, and had acted on his advice (Jeremiah 21:9). The king, who had shrunk from Jeremiah’s taunts (Jeremiah 37:19), could not, for very shame, expose himself to the derision of others. Perhaps even he feared more than mere derision—outrage, death, mutilation, such as Saul feared at the hands of the Philistines (1Samuel 31:4).
(20–22) Obey, I beseech thee. . . .—The king’s misgiving is met in part by an earnest entreaty to obey the voice of the Lord, in part by the assurance that thus it “shall be well with him” (literally, there shall be peace to thee); in part also by bringing before him the mockery which is certain to await him if he persists in his defiance. The women of the harem, the surviving wives and concubines of former kings, as well as his own, should become the spoil of the Chaldæan princes, and should take up their taunting proverbs against him. “Thy friends” (literally, the men of thy peace, as in Jeremiah 20:10; the men who promised peace and safety), “they set thee on, and having dragged thee into the mire of shame, have left thee there.” The imagery of the taunt seems drawn from the prophet’s recent experience (Jeremiah 38:6). The king was plunging into a worse “slough of despond” than that into which Jeremiah had sunk in the dungeon of Malchiah.
So they shall bring out all thy wives and thy children to the Chaldeans: and thou shalt not escape out of their hand, but shalt be taken by the hand of the king of Babylon: and thou shalt cause this city to be burned with fire.(23) So they shall bring out . . .—The picture of defeat and destruction is once more repeated from Jeremiah 38:18. Probably, the last clause should be read with a different punctuation of the Hebrew, “This city shall be burnt with fire.” As the text now stands, the marginal rendering, Thou shalt burn, gives the true force of the word. The king himself would have that destruction to answer for. It would be his own act and deed.
(24–26) Let no man know . . .—The weak king vacillated to the last moment. He feared the prophet, he feared the princes yet more. To hush up all that had passed in the interview, to urge the prophet to baffle the eager suspicions of the princes by a prevaricating statement, as if it had been he who had sought the meeting, and had petitioned the king, as before (Jeremiah 37:20), to protect him from the cruelties which he had suffered in the house of Jonathan: this was the only course he could bring himself to follow. The plan so far succeeded that the prophet returned and gave the evasive answer which the king suggested. The nature of the interview was concealed, and events took their course; and Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison till the city was taken. The king’s suggestion as to the house of Jonathan implies either that he believed that the princes would urge that Jeremiah should be sent there after his rescue from the dungeon of Malchiah, or else a wish to slur over that transaction altogether.