Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
human history, especially sacred history, betrays a system of correspondence in its events with those which constituted the earthly experience of the Messiah.
I. THEY CALL ATTENTION TO THE MANIFESTATION OF CHRIST AND HELP TO FIX AND IDENTIFY IT. All along the line of Old Testament revelation there were these finger posts or indicators of the coming struggle between righteousness and sin. The cross is closely associated with the very first pages of revelation, and gives meaning and connection to the loftiest, deepest, and most anomalous utterances and occurrences of the Old Testament. With its many anticipations, echoes, and secondaries, the cross of Christ asserts itself as the central and most commanding principle of human history.
II. THEY REVEAL THE SAME LAW OPERATING THROUGHOUT THE WORLD'S HISTORY AND HUMAN EXPERIENCE. Prehistoric myths and heathen religions, although incapable of attaining to such a Divine conception, yet presuppose and grope after it. And in many an illustrious and obscure human consciousness had the cross made its impress ere the Redeemer of mankind was called upon to suffer.
1. They proved the necessity of Christ's sufferings. As the true character of the issue between good and evil declared itself more and more plainly, it became evident that some more decisive determination of it must take place. Each previous or subsequent experience of the conflict is indecisive and incomplete apart from the Messianic sufferings. Christ must needs suffer, if only to bring to a head and final settlement the long pending question as to whether good or evil is the true law of human life and of the world. It was no accidental, abnormal series of occurrences that constituted our Saviours experience, but the culmination of ages of mutual development in the forces of righteousness and sin, and the true exponent of their respective characters and tendencies.
2. They helped go deepen and educate the spiritual sense of men, and to prepare them for a true appreciation of the mystery of the cross. It is the cross in us that leads us to the cross without. The deep tribulation of the saints of the early Church led them to more profound conceptions of moral action and spiritual requirement. Jeremiah was here a type of Judah, the feet of whose king were" in the mire" (ver. 22). Each occasion like this of Jeremiah's condemnation and imprisonment was a loud warning of the possibilities of evil that were still in the womb of time, and showed the direction of the tendency of the world spirit. It showed, too, how closely related was the life of men with the unseen and the eternal. A moral order behind the chain of events was continually declaring itself. Its very peculiarities and anomalies demonstrated the existence of a higher law. The awful depths and heights yet to be attained by the moral nature of man were suggested, and the certainty gradually induced that the kingdom of light would yet meet and overcome the force of the kingdom of darkness. The faith, obedience, and meekness of man would yet be vindicated by the invincible power and authority of God. - M.
I. WHEREFORE DO MEN SO DISLIKE TRUTH? Some of the reasons are:
1. Because truth must often say many things that are unpleasing. No matter by what voice the message comes - Scripture, conscience, or our fellow men, - truth at times will become censure, and that hurts our self-love.
2. We are not really in earnest in our desire to be set right. We profess to be so, but we are not. "I have been a great sinner," said a sick man to his minister, who was sitting by his bedside. "Yes," said the minster, "you have," "Who told you, I should like to know?" angrily exclaimed the sick man indignant that anything more special and personal than vague general confession should be thought to be needed by him. He had no desire for cure, but only for comfort.
3. Pride has much to do with this dislike of truth. Our reprover becomes for the time being our superior, stands above and over us, and we do not like this.
4. There may be real difference of opinion on the point in dispute; hence the censured has the further offence of being condemned on what he deems partial evidence.
5. Because of our suspicion of the motives of him who speaks the unwelcome truth. We are slow to credit such with purity and unselfishness of motive. We think not only of what is said, but of who says it
II. HENCE IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO TELL UNPLEASANT TRUTHS. Most men avoid it, will say nothing, will shirk the duty by every conceivable means. No one likes to act the part of the candid friend. None like to be the bearers of ill tidings. David's servants feared to tell him that his child was dead. How we admire, because of its rarity and difficulty, the fidelity of Nathan's "Thou art the man"!
III. BUT NEVERTHELESS SUCH TRUTH OUGHT TO BE SPOKEN WHEN NECESSARY. It is not always necessary. Often not wise. "The chapter of accidents is the Bible of the fool." To let hard facts speak is sometimes best. But not always. Hence when unwelcome truth has to be spoken, take care:
1. To be very certain of your ground. Do not go upon mere rumour. Let your proof be full, clear, and strong.
2. Let the purity of your motive in speaking, the unselfishness and the love for your brother which prompt you, be made manifest.
3. Choose fit times, tones, and words. Many reserve their telling of such truths for moments when they are in a passion; then they will blurt it out, and, of course, only do more harm than good.
4. Be strengthened by the remembrance of the duty you owe your brother, and the accusation he will have against you of blood guiltiness, if you fail to tell him the truth, unwelcome though it be.
IV. SUCH TRUTH SO SPOKEN, IF REJECTED, IS FOLLOWED BY THE CONDEMNATION OF GOD ON THEM WHO REJECT IT. It is part of that condemnation that men take friends for foes, as Ahab did, and foes for friends. They love flattery and hate truth; the blind lead the blind, and with the inevitable result. Therefore let our feeling be that of the psalmist, who said, "Let the righteous smite me; it shall be kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head." - C.
I. THE ETHICS OF PATRIOTISM. Here are foul men who go to the king with a complaint against Jeremiah; and in doing so they do not take low ground. Indeed, there are many people interested in affairs of state who would say they took very high ground. What sounds more plausible than to say that a whole country should never be more united than when the common enemy attacks it? Should there not at such a time be mutual encouragement, the bold and brave men of a state striving to animate all the citizens with their own ardour and resolution? Thus the whole question is opened up with respect to a man's allegiance to his country. How far does the claim extend of a country upon those who live under its laws, having their person and their property protected by these laws? That national history, great national events, patriotic feelings, have their place in the machinery of government, every Christian would allow; but it may not be so easy to settle exactly what that place is. Everything turns on what should have the first place in a man's affection, duty, and service; and so we have the example of Jeremiah here to guide us. He, a Jewish prophet, teaches us -
II. THE FIRST DUTY OF A CHRISTIAN. From this world's point of view Jeremiah did an eminently unpatriotic thing. Instead of uniting the people into resistance, he, as it were, divided them into two classes. He made it a time for individual and not for common action. But, after all, in every conflict there comes a time for yielding; the attacking party must retire in failure, or the defending party submit in defeat. To Jeremiah it was given to see the certain result. He knew that not the Chaldeans but Jehovah himself had to be reckoned with. The first duty of a prophet was to Jehovah, and so for that matter was the first duty of every Israelite. Thus in the same way, the first duty of a Christian is to Christ. He who serves Christ most completely serves his country best. In such a service the Christian may be misrepresented, miscalled, stamped even as traitor, but that only means that he is called to pass through Jeremiah's experience here. Why, even a man of pagan Rome can teach us in this matter; for Cicero, in the fourth book of his 'De Officiis,' speaking of gradations of duty in the state, says that a citizen's first duty is to the immortal gods, and his second to his country. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." - Y.
I. ALL ARE TEMPTED TO PUT TRUST IN MEN. To very many man is the highest being they know or believe in. Then, our fellow men are near at hand; we can understand them and they us; are of like nature - they can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; and they in whom we trust appear to us to possess that which we need but have not.
II. STILL MORE ARE WE PRONE TO PUT OUR TRUST IN PRINCES. We do this because:
1. Of the law of honour which is supposed to bind them. The word of a king, where that is there is power.
2. They have such vast capacity of help. Unlimited resources seem at their command.
3. They are independent of and superior to the influences which govern inferior men.
4. And very often they have rendered great help to men in need thereof.
III. But there are many instances which show that THIS TRUST SHOULD BE VERY LIMITED. Here is a case in point. How miserable this king's conduct! Now, wherefore did Zedekiah, and do such as he, disappoint men's expectations (cf. Shakespeare, 'Henry VIII.,' Wolsey's dying speech)? It is because they are governed, not by principle, but by expediency. A tree standing on the summit of a lofty hill needs to be more firmly rooted than trees in the sheltered valley, for it is exposed to every wind that blows. But if it be not so rooted, it will soon fall. So with exalted personages; they are exposed to influences on all sides; all parties seek to gain them over to their views and to enlist them in their favour. Hence if a prince have not firm principles to guide him, he will sway from side to side and finally fall. So it was with this King Zedekiah. He was influenced now by one party and now by another (cf. homily on The woe of weakness, Jeremiah 34:2). "Like a wave of the sea driven of the wind and tossed." And all this is true in measure and degree of all who fill high stations, and in whom men are apt to put great trust. But, -
IV. UNLIMITED TRUST SHOULD BE IN GOD ALONE. The prophet of God was doubtless less surprised than grieved, but he had long learned to commit his way unto the Lord. Let us do likewise, and then we may rest assured that, let men above us favour or frown upon us, that which is best for us and for all will assuredly be done.
"Ill that thou blessest turns to good,
I. A SERVANT OF GOD CAST DOWN. See the prophet's allusions to his sad condition in Lamentations 3:52-57; and Psalm 69. can hardly be other than descriptive of Jeremiah at this time. And such seasons of depression and distress seem to be the appointed lot of all God's servants. Not one, from our Lord downwards, has been exempted. Manifold are the reasons for such appointment. In this particular case of Jeremiah -
II. THE CAUSES OF HIS DISTRESS were:
1. The cruelty of his treatment acting on a nature such as his.
2. Its coming upon him after he had been led to hope that now he was secure from all such treatment.
3. His knowledge that he desired to be, and was, his foes' best friend, and yet they dealt with him thus.
4. The hopelessness of his condition. Such were the immediate causes of his being cast down.
III. WHEREFORE DOES GOD SUFFER HIS SERVANTS TO BE SUBJECTED TO SUCH DISTRESS? To deepen their hold upon God, as the storms cause the trees to take deeper root in the earth. To make them realize more than ever the help they have in God. To cultivate and foster those fruits of the Spirit, such as patience, humility, trust, etc., which will hardly grow in any other soil or by any other process. To make them mighty witnesses before men of the salvation of God and of the present help he is in trouble. To qualify them to sympathize with and succour others in their distress. How such thoughts are calculated to sustain the soul in distress! And they do, for -
IV. GOD'S SERVANTS ARE, THOUGH CAST DOWN, NOT FORSAKEN. Here was a stranger to the commonwealth of Israel and from the covenants of promise, one who least of all might have been expected to care for the prophet of God, and this stranger proves to be God's good angel of mercy. God raised up this helper in the hour of his servant's need. See what was done in connection with and by this noble-hearted Ethiopian.
1. God caused intelligence of the prophet's sufferings to reach him (ver. 7).
2. He touched his heart with compassion (vers. 7, 9, 11).
3. He led him to resolve to attempt the prophet's deliverance.
4. He gave him clearly to see the wickedness of the prophet's enemies, and the truth of the prophet himself.
5. He filled his heart with courage. For courage was needed. He was alone. The consequences of his interference might have been fatal to himself. He had to reprove and condemn both the king and the king's counsellors.
6. He gave him good success. The king at once yielded, went right over to his side (contrast ver. 5), took all precaution that the deliverance should not be hindered. And he did all this at once. Further, he took oath that Jeremiah should not be so dealt with in the future. Now, all this proves the blessed truth for God's servants that, though they may be cast down, yet they shall not be forsaken.
V. WHAT ARE WE TO LEARN FROM SUCH S RECORD? Much every way.
1. Concerning God. He is never at a loss for messengers of mercy and help to his servants.
2. Concerning his tried and troubled servants. Patiently wait. Trust at all times. Hope continually, till your eyes see his salvation, as they assuredly shall.
3. Concerning the enemies of the Lord. Their designs and purposes must fail, however certain of success they seem to be; for God is against them. - C.
I. ITS CIRCUMSTANCES. These were such as to impress the mind of the prophet. He was deliberately consigned by the princes of the people to the dungeon, and the king consented, so that there would appear to be no appeal. His heart must have failed him as he felt himself sinking in the mire. In a prison like that he was in imminent danger of being forgotten and starved. Apparently it was intended as an effectual means of "putting out of the way." And all this was due to what? Doing his duty. The very persons whom he sought to benefit either turned against or ignored him. The whole situation was desperate. It appeared as if no human help could save. It is just at such times that faith receives its confirming, ultimate lessons.
II. ITS CHARACTER.
1. In itself. It Was:
(1) Thoughtful. It has been suggested that, as the dungeon was in the palace, "he came to the knowledge of it by hearing Jeremiah's moans." This may or may not have been; but when he knew of the situation of the prophet he was concerned and full of sympathy. It is this spirit which true religion, and especially the gospel of Christ, ever fosters, and the world has need of it.
(2) Prompt. In a question like that of a few hours at the utmost, no delay had to be made if the prisoner was to be saved. As the king was "then sitting in the gate of Benjamin," he went out immediately and sought an audience. And he urged expedition. One of the finest recommendations of help is that it is given when it is needed. The case is taken up as if it were his own. How many philanthropies miss fire because they are kept too long without being carried into effect? Bis dat qui cito dat.
(3) Courageous. He went straight to the king, by whose order he must have known the thing had been done, and spoke with quick, nervous fearlessness and condemnation. There was not only feeling here, but principle. He was evidently careless as to the consequences to himself.
(4) Practical. Ebed-Melech meant that the thing should be done, and so he took the requisite steps to carry it out. Everything is thought Of and applied to the purpose. Even in the "old cast clouts" there is evidence of forethought and careful, if novel, application of means to ends.
2. In its origin. Ebed-Melech was:
(1) An alien.Not a Jew, and one from his office disqualified from participating in the benefits of the covenant. It is the more remarkable that none of Jeremiah's countrymen interposed.
(2) A servant of a vicious king. The establishments of such princes are usually stamped with the same character, and their members are but the creatures of their masters. There is something doubly unlooked for, therefore, in such an advocate and friend. It is like a salutation from one of "Caesar's household."
(3) It is also probable that he was one called out by the occasion. No mention of him is made either before or after.
III. WHAT IT TEACHES.
1. True religion does not depend upon conventional forms. Not that these are therefore without value, but they are not of the essence of religion. It is Divine faith, with its outflowing charities and works, that alone can save man and glorify God. Rahab the harlot and Naaman the Syrian are but instances of many for really outside of the kingdom of God, but really within it. Let each ask, "Am I, who have received so much privilege, really a child of grace?"
2. The kingdom of God is always stronger than it seems. As to Elijah the assurance," Yet I have left me seven, thousand, in Israel," so to Jeremiah is this experience. We are never justified in despairing of human nature if God be in his world.
3. Implicit trust in God as the only Saviour. The raising up of such a deliverer was so unique and unexpected as to call attention to it as a work of God, It was supernatural and special, and spoke of gracious intervention. He would not abandon his servant, nor will he any who put their trust in him. - M.
I. THE NATIONALITY OF EBED-MELECH. An Ethiopian. Jeremiah had asked in prophecy, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin?" from which question we may assume that Ethiopians were well known in Israel. One cannot but feel that here we have a sort of counterpart to that other Ethiopian eunuch of whom we read in the New Testament. The Ethiopian Ebed-Melech helps Jeremiah in his temporal need; Philip helps the servant of Queen Candace in his spiritual need. What a rebuke there is here to bigoted and frenzied patriotism! - if, indeed, "patriotism" is the proper word to be used and not rather a spirit of blind nationality. Perhaps the very fact that Ebed-Melech was an alien helped him to see needs and duties, cruelty and injustice, which were hidden from the eyes of the natives. Even natives would be obliged to admit that Ebed-Melech could not be expected to look on the position with their traditionary eyes. Even so it was reserved for a Gentile to say at the Crucifixion, "Truly this was the Son of God."
II. THE HUMANITY OF EBED-MELECH. That the eunuch should have pitied the prophet sunk in the dungeon mire may not seem at first a matter to be singled out for special notice. Why should a man be praised for humanity more than for honesty? We must, however, recollect the difference of times. Those who put Jeremiah in the dungeon thought it served him quite right. And yet if there is nothing extraordinary in the humanity of Ebed-Melech, there must be something exceptionally fiendish in the conduct of those who put the prophet in the dungeon; whereas, in point of fact, they were only doing a usual thing. What a long time it has taken to work the world up even to its present attainments in humanity and compassionate feeling! And still through all these centuries Ebed-Melech rebukes us for our too often thoughtlessness and forgetfulness with respect to human pain.
III. THE COURAGE OF EBED-MELECH. He could not do a thing of this sort without making enemies and running into peril. The humane man has often to be a brave man, going into elements of danger for the sake of humanity, as a lifeboat crew must do, or a hand of explorers in a colliery accident. But there are also exercises of humanity which demand moral courage - courage that will stand alone in protesting against cruelties and brutalities that have been accepted through long custom. If we are resolved to be consistent and thorough in our humanity, we must be prepared for ridicule and scorn. There are only too many who will check us in humane endeavours by calling them mere sentimentality and weakness.
IV. THE INFLUENCE OF EBED-MELECH. His office tells us that he was a man about the court, and his action here tells us that he was a man who had influence with the king. What we see of his conduct here makes us feel that he had won his influence in a perfectly legitimate way. Thus at last the opportunity comes for making good use of it. Here is an example of how good a thing it is to cultivate influence with those in authority, if it can be done in a right way without flattery and servility. Men like kings need some one near them to speak the truth plainly and effectually.
V. THE THOUGHTFULNESS OF EBED-MELECH. Something more is needed than the king's permission to get Jeremiah out of the dungeon. Probably his stay in a miry, pestilential hole had made him very feeble. Ebed-Melech was evidently a man who could take in all that needed to be done in any difficulty. Just the sort of man who could fred usefulness in things that were cast away as worn out and useless. "Useless" is only our ignorant way of naming things we cannot use. The humane man must be thoughtful as well as courageous. - Y.
I. OF HOW EXQUISITE A SYMPATHY WERE THEY THE EXPRESSION! The whole situation of the prophet had been thoroughly entered into and grasped by his friend. He is not satisfied with merely drawing him up; he will do this in the gentlest and most considerate way. It is thinking of these little things that shows the depth of our sympathy for others. They are specially remembered and sought out, and are brought forward with as much care as the thirty men.
1. Our good deeds should not be half conceived or badly executed. "What is worth doing is worth doing well."
2. Where there is a real desire to be kind and helpful, the means will be discovered. We scarcely know whether to admire the most the kindliness or the ingenuity of Ebed-Melech.
3. A true sentiment will dispose of false scruples. Rags! Well, they were best fitted of anything at hand to effect the purpose in view. There was no time to settle the question of the niceties. Much loving and useful work is never done because of such scruples. The servants of God cannot often work in kid gloves.
4. The dignity of a thing consists in the use to which it is put. These rags served the best of purposes, and are worthy of all honour, There is nothing God has made but has some gracious use it we but seek for it.
II. THROUGH WHAT HUMILIATIONS ARE GOD'S SERVANTS DELIVERED! As if the mire and helplessness were not enough! To an unspiritual perception it would appear almost an uncalled for indignity to inflict the rags upon the prophet of God. But they were necessary. And so is it with all the God sent humiliations of life. They are intended to subdue pride, exercise faith, and reveal the hidden grace and power of God.
III. THERE ARE DIVINE USES FOR MEAN THINGS AND THINGS CAST ASIDE. God, who made all things, can see a thousand adaptations and utilities for that which man supposes has been used up. Are there not weapons in the King's armoury that have been allowed to rust when they might have done good service? talents that have been hid in a napkin when they should have been at usury? There need be no idle members in the King's household. He takes out of his treasury things new and old, and calls upon the blind, the halt, the maimed, the aged, the poor, the ignorant, to do him honour and service. "But I have no talents in that direction," etc. Yet God can use you if you will ask him. He will regenerate you by using you; purify you of all the moral dross and filth that adhere to you; and develop higher faculties and a diviner serviceableness, if you will but let him. There were kingly robes in Judah that day that had not a tithe of the honour of these "old rotten rags;" and there are great, wise, and noble who will have to give place in the day of judgment to the weak things, and things which have been despised (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). - M.
I. THE TEMPTATIONS TO GO FROM ONE'S WORD ARE OFTEN VERY NUMEROUS AND VERY STRONG. They were so in this case. Jeremiah knew what strong influence there was against him in the court of the king. He had suffered from this already. And he knew how weak and unstable the king was. Hence there was needed that which would steady and strengthen the wavering will. And there is often the like need now.
II. BUT THE VALUE OF AN OATH LIES IN THE FACT THAT IT MEETS THIS NEED. It brings in the thought of God and of his displeasure. And does this in most solemn way. And it has around it human sanctions as well as Divine. And all this tends to strengthen conscience and to resist the temptation to untruth. As a fact, it is found that men who are careless about truth in an ordinary way hesitate much before they will disregard an oath. "An oath for confirmation is an end of all strife."
III. IT IS BEST, HOWEVER, NOT TO NEED SUCH AID. Our Saviour has said, "Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." The taking of oaths is allowed, as other practices, "for the hardness of men's hearts." But for the Christian his word ought to be as sacred as his oath. He is no Christian if it be not. - C.
I. IN WHAT THEY ARE HARD.
1. They attack our pride. Zedekiah was afraid of the mockery of "the Jews that are fallen to the Chaldeans." He did not like to acknowledge himself in error. There was no glory in surrender. Pride is one of the first hindrances to salvation. We want to be our own saviours.
2. They crush self-will. "Not as I will, but as thou wilt" - the first and last prayer of the true child of God. It was not Zedekiah's plan, and contradicted all the policy of his rebellion. It should be sufficient to the sinner to know that God has appointed the way of escape. He has no right to choose.
3. They require faith. How was the king to be certain that yielding himself into the hands of the princes of the Chaldeans would secure the ends desired? He hardly realized that it could be so. And similarly it is asked, "How can Jesus save?" He is to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness, but to them that believe the Power of God and the Wisdom of God. "Only believe," that is the hardest thing the unregenerate soul can do. Yet it is necessary.
II. THEY DO NOT ADMIT OF COMPROMISE.
1. See how relentless the alternative. There is no middle way, no royal road to salvation. It was a step simple enough in itself, but it involved everything, and could not, therefore, be qualified. Christ and his salvation are our only hope: "And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other Name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved" (Acts 4:12; cf. Galatians 1:8).
2. Nor is the messenger of God at liberty to alter them. These are the terms for all, and they represent the infinite wisdom and love of God. It is not for man to attempt to improve upon them. To do so would be equivalent to creating a human gospel. Jeremiah, although he had reasons for ingratiating himself with the wicked king, yet presents an example of faithfulness to every minister of the truth. He might not suffer himself to corrupt the Word of God even for such considerations.
III. YET IS THEIR HARDNESS MORE APPARENT THAN REAL.
1. Belief and obedience will remove every difficulty. The troubles of Zedekiah were almost wholly imaginary. Had he not been assured that everything would be made sure by adopting the advice given? One act of faith on the part of the sinner will save him. Henceforth is will be infinitely easier to do the things that remain, and to pass from faith to faith.
2. How mild are they compared with the consequences of disobedience! - M.
I. IT MAY BE MUCH ELSE. It may be
(1) a difficult path;
(3) repellant to our whole disposition and will;
(4) seemingly unlikely, arguing after the manner of men.
II. BUT IT WELL BE SAFE.
1. It would have been so in this case. For the king, his misery, exile, and degradation would have been escaped. The city of Jerusalem would not have been destroyed; nor the temple. All that would have been needful was submission to the rule of Babylon, which would have been neither intolerably harsh nor of long duration. For the prophet knew the rapidly approaching doom of both Babylon and her king. Hence he gave the counsel here told of. Whilst, on the other hand, he knew that if the wrath of the King of Babylon was aroused, all that now might be saved would then be utterly lost. Nebuchadnezzar was now like a sated lion, not desiring to destroy or devour. But let him be angered, and then woe to the weakling that had dared his rage! Submission was, therefore, the prophet's perpetual and earnest counsel. It was a case in which arguments were not merely to be counted, but weighed.
2. And it is so always. The path of obedience to God may have much urged against it, and truly urged, but it will ever be found to be the right and best way after all.
III. AND THE REASON IS: the path God commands is the path which pleases him who knows and who controls all events. All other paths are the self-chosen ways of men, who know but little and can control less.
IV. THIS ESPECIALLY TRUE IN REGARD TO THE SINNER'S RECONCILIATION WITH GOD. That path is protested against by voices not a few from within and without. But it is the right way, cannot but be so. We, therefore, as ambassadors for God, beseech you "in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." - C.
I. GOD HAS A VOICE FOR THOSE IN DOUBT. Poor Zedekiah, king though he be, is in a state of great vacillation. Counsellors speak one thing, and a prophet speaks another. Counsellors proclaim continued and resolute resistance, though it is by no means plain that they believe in what they say, and from ver. 19 it is clear that there were very considerable divisions in the city. Jeremiah, on the other hand, speaks like a man who is perfectly sure of his ground. He was oftentimes wretched and depressed in his own heart, but never did he speak the message of Jehovah with a doubt as to whether it was a real message at all. The world abounds in doubters, coming continually to a place where two ways meet, and standing long in uncertainty and fear which way to take. And yet they are uncertain only because they do not see the direction which God has given. For even as at crossroads finger posts are put up to direct strangers, so God has his finger posts forevery doubtful traveller in the ways of terrestrial life. Zedekiah seems to have had a feeling that he was seeking in the right direction when he sent again to Jeremiah. He seems to have made himself ready to listen, without hinting that he expected some particular answer. So to speak, it was Zedekiah's last chance, and he gave the prophet the opportunity of speaking with corresponding plainness. And as God's Word is here, so it is everywhere, spoken with the utmost assurance and from the whole nature of the messenger.
II. THE VOICE CALLS TO IMMEDIATE OBEDIENCE. There is always some duty that lies nearest us. Part of the mischief of doubt is that, while we are doubting, some good thing is left undone, the opportunity for it passing away unused. There was just one thing for Zedekiah to do at this moment - go forth and surrender himself to the generals of the King of Babylon. Repentance and amendment of life - these were no longer available to avert the capture of Jerusalem. That was a thing settled on. But carnage and destruction might be averted by a timely surrender. Every day there is something made plain for us to do that day. It may be difficult, painful, in all ways hard to the flesh; but if it is neglected, then we shall only meet something still more painful tomorrow. "Obey the voice of the Lord, and it shall be well with thee," is a word to us all The voice of self or the voice of others may hint at procrastination or at some qualified obedience. Our only safety is in attending to the clear and urgent voice from heaven. Paradox as it seems, the most difficult way is really the easiest, and the easiest the most difficult. Zedekiah did not attend to the prophet's imperative utterance, and the next chapter tells the dreadful things which happened. The king really made things worse by going out of his way to seek for direction, and then, when he had got it, paying no attention to it. - Y.
I. A DECLARATION OF PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. Already in ver. 18 there is the declaration that the Chaldeans will burn the city with fire, and Zedekiah is well able to infer, if he likes, that this is a calamity he may prevent. But he is not left to inference. The prophet's exhortation goes on, maintaining its cogency and directness, and then in the last word he individually is made responsible. The sting of the address is emphatically in the tail. Zedekiah is now brought face to face with his obligations as a king. Jeremiah could not have said to any one else," Thou shalt cause this city to be burned with fire," because no one else could have set in train the course of events which would avert such a calamity. Here is an example to teach those who are tempted to envy the grandeur of kings and the fame of such as are ruling men in a state. Zedekiah's decision affected not himself only, or a few people, but a whole city. The responsibility was further increased by his having sent for the prophet who said this very thing. It is not every ruler who at a critical moment has his way made so clear as was the way of Zedekiah here. How much in the way of preventing evil may depend on one single man!
II. MATTER IS FURNISHED TO EMBITTER THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FUTURE. Whether Zedekiah saw the blazing city we cannot be sure. If he did, what a pang for his heart to think that the city where he was king, in which he and his ancestors had taken such pride, was burning, through his want of decision at a critical time! He feared to do what looked unpatriotic, and in the end he virtually destroyed the city he might have saved.
III. THERE WAS A LIMIT TO ZEDEKIAH'S POWER OVER THE SITUATION. Truly it was a great deal for one man to be able to do - either to save a city from the flames or hand it over to them. But this power only looks great according to the standard given by temporal and superficial relations. An almost boundless area for human powers and opportunities lay altogether outside of Zedekiah's reach. As man is unable purely by his own effort to confer the highest benefits on his fellow man, so he is also unable to inflict the worst evil. The worst evils are ever self-originated. Zedekiah did far more to hurt himself than any one else. Jeremiah had been charged to make it quite clear to every one that he who went forth to the Chaldeans should live. - Y.
I. How DESPICABLE SUCH ATTEMPTS MAKE A MAN IN HIS OWN EYES.
"To thine own self be true, II. HOW OTHER MEN DESPISE THEM. III. HOW GOD CONDEMNS THEM. How do the instances of Balaam, Pilate, Judas, and others shine out as warning beacons! IV. HOW USELESS, AFTER ALL, SUCH ATTEMPTS ARE. No more miserable fate could have befallen a man than that which came upon King Zedekiah. And in the highest matter of all, what are they who say, "Lord, Lord," but do not the things the Lord commands - what are they but would be servers of two masters? And to them the Lord will say, "I never knew you; depart," etc. V. HOW MUCH FULL DECISION FOR GOD IS NEEDED. This alone will keep us from such sad endeavour; but this will. Therefore seek grace from God to make and abide by this choice; and bring yourselves under the blessed attraction of Christ; so shall you be drawn to him more and more, and made to abide in him. - C.
II. HOW OTHER MEN DESPISE THEM.
III. HOW GOD CONDEMNS THEM. How do the instances of Balaam, Pilate, Judas, and others shine out as warning beacons!
IV. HOW USELESS, AFTER ALL, SUCH ATTEMPTS ARE. No more miserable fate could have befallen a man than that which came upon King Zedekiah. And in the highest matter of all, what are they who say, "Lord, Lord," but do not the things the Lord commands - what are they but would be servers of two masters? And to them the Lord will say, "I never knew you; depart," etc.
V. HOW MUCH FULL DECISION FOR GOD IS NEEDED. This alone will keep us from such sad endeavour; but this will. Therefore seek grace from God to make and abide by this choice; and bring yourselves under the blessed attraction of Christ; so shall you be drawn to him more and more, and made to abide in him. - C.
I. THE PROFESSION OF A KINGLY ATTRIBUTE. The king holds the power of life and death. He can pardon without giving a reason. And Zedekiah maintains the name of this kingly right, even upon the very heels of Jeremiah's awful words. Such is the power of long accepted habit and privilege. Did he really think that if Jeremiah published the conversation he had power to put him to death? Or did he think that such a suggestion would move the prophet in the least? Possibly he did; or more likely he was talking at random; or it may be that in these last decaying days of dignity he asserted, by a kind of instinct, all that was left him to assert. We know well that he had no real power over Jeremiah, for the Lord who had hidden his prophet before could hide him again (Jeremiah 36:26). Pilate followed in the train of Zedekiah when he said to Jesus, "Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?" (John 19:10). This, then, is the first element in the unkingly position, that Zedekiah is professing what he cannot perform.
II. HE IS AFRAID OF THE LEADING MEN IN THE STATE. He will not rise independent of them, neither will he consult them. Instead of fearing Jehovah and trembling at the thought of what he has just heard, his soul is filled with the fear of men who probably derived their places from his own appointment. He shrinks from being forced to tell any of them that he has had to contemplate as a possibility a voluntary surrender to the Chaldeans. Truly it was quite time for a new order of things to rise in Jerusalem, even if it meant the destruction of a city. A true king would not have feared that his interview with a prophet of God should be known anywhere. Kings among men, thee who are kings by nature and by the grandeur of their acts, fear no one but God. They act in the darkness just as if they were in the light; in private relations just as if they were in public. They never need to go begging and entreating people to conceal things.
III. HE IS A SUPPLIANT TO ONE OF HIS SUBJECTS. In the same breath he tells Jeremiah he shall not die and begs Jeremiah to grant him a favour. All at once he sets before this prophet, so straightforward and unreserved, a nice question of casuistry. With the suggestion of burning Jerusalem before him, he is thinking first on the present inconvenience to himself and providing a nice quibble to escape from it. Yet even here is a sign of God's bearing with him to the last. The request he makes, undignified as it is, is nevertheless one within the power of the prophet to grant. If Zedekiah feels it to be consistent with his regal dignity, Jeremiah feels it not inconsistent with his integrity. The impression we get from the whole conversation is that the torches of the Chaldeans did not come at all too soon. - Y.
I. WHAT IS URGED AGAINST SUCH CONDUCT. One says, "The plain meaning of such words is that Jeremiah hoodwinked them. He did not lie to them, certainly; but he did not tell the truth, and left them with a false impression. It comes very near to deception; it was evasive, and certainly was not an honest act. It seems an oblique lie." And this view of the case is supported on grounds such as these:
1. Had he not been afraid, he would have told the whole truth; but fear does not justify falsehood, though it often occasions it.
2. What must the king have thought of a prophet of God so complaisant as this?
3. What would the princes say of his vaunted righteousness when they learnt how he had dealt with them?
4. Our Saviour and his apostles never did the like.
5. It had all the effect of a lie, since it left a false impression on the minds of those to whom he spoke.
6. The very fact that it needs laboured argument to justify it against our instinctive condemnation of it shows that it does not belong to the noble family of truth, etc. But audi alteram partem. Therefore note -
II. WHAT MAY BE URGED IN DEFENCE.
1. In reference to the foregoing arguments. The first assumes that there was no motive but fear. The second and third are assumptions also. The fourth is, to say the least, doubtful (cf. John 7:8, 9; Acts 20:20-26). Concerning the fifth, it is not true that all the effect of a lie, nor its worst effect, is that stated. And as to the sixth, it may be said that instinctive condemnations may be unjust as well as just.
2. Other replies to the charge against the prophet are:
(1) He spoke no untruth.
(2) Expediency, if not unlawful, is obligatory.
(3) It has been ever recognized as lawful, under certain circumstances, to mislead an enemy; of Rahab's conduct (Joshua 2:1) and its commendation (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). The commonly supposed case of a murderer asking you which way your friend has gone, in order that he may overtake and murder him; in such case, not only might you mislead, but would you not be bound to do so?
3. There are sacred principles on which such suppression of the truth as Jeremiah's is justified.
(1) The right to truth may be forfeited, as the right to liberty and life may be forfeited, by wrong doing. In the vast majority of cases men have a right to the truth, but in all the cases cited above they had no such right.
(2) Truth is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end, which is the honour of God and the well being of man; and there are occasions, doubtless very rare, when the end can only be secured by the sacrifice of the ordinary means. Therefore let all who presume to condemn great saints of God as guilty of lying, because they had no mere superstitious idolatry of veracity, as some have, hesitate before they bring such charge. Who are we to sit in judgment on such? But, on the other hand, let none pervert these reasonings, as the Jesuits did and many yet do, into a justification for lying and departing from the truth whenever it may be found convenient. It needs a healthy conscience to decide when these reasonings are applicable - a conscience enlightened by God's Spirit and animated by his love, and then such a one, and only such a one, may be left to do as he wills in cases like those we have considered. - C.