Of all the places to go back to…”


Jeremiah 39-44

Reader: Tim Davison

The year was 586 B.C. and King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, knew that his bacon was about to be fried. The Babylonian army’s two-year siege of his capital city, Jerusalem, was about to end. The protective walls around Jerusalem were collapsing – they had been breached – and the Babylonians were preparing to enter the city to capture it.

In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it. And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city wall was broken through. (Jeremiah 39:1,2)

Zedekiah decided to make a run for it as the Babylonians entered in.

When Zedekiah king of Judah and all the soldiers saw them, they fled; they left the city at night by way of the king’s garden, through the gate between the two walls, and headed toward the Arabah. But the Babylonian army pursued them and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. They captured him and took him to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. (Jeremiah 39:4,5a)

Where was King Zedekiah caught? The plains of Jericho, just before he could cross the Jordan River and thereafter flee east or south to freedom. The plains of Jericho will be the first of three geographical locations that today’s passages beg us to look at.

Project map, focusing on Jerusalem and the plains of Jericho.

1.The Plains of Jericho was the spot at which the Jews first entered the Promised Land. Thus, the start of their journey as a nation and its ending happened at the same spot.

Coincidence? Unlikely. Centuries before, the Israelites could enter the land with their leader Joshua for they obeyed and trusted God back then. In contrast, their forced exit from the land in the day of Zedekiah, was because they neither obeyed nor trusted God. Jeremiah wept for his people. Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem…

The Babylonians set fire to the royal palace and the houses of the people and broke down the walls of Jerusalem. Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard carried into exile to Babylon the people who remained in the city, along with those who had gone over to him, and the rest of the people. But Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard left behind in the land of Judah some of the poor people, who owned nothing; and at that time, he gave them vineyards and fields. (Jeremiah 39:8-10)

Jeremiah had encouraged the people to not resist the Babylonians. He didn’t care for the Babylonians, but he realized that resistance to them was futile for he knew that it was not the Babylonians orchestrating the destruction of his nation Judah. God was orchestrating it. In the same manner, Jeremiah advised Zedekiah to turn himself over to the Babylonians, but the king’s pride would not allow that and, angered by Jeremiah’s advice, Zedekiah had him placed under house arrest in “the courtyard of the guard”. But Jeremiah’s message was correct. The only way for the citizens of Jerusalem to guarantee their survival would be to turn themselves over to Babylon. So, the Babylonians had no particular beef with Jeremiah. In fact, they appreciated him! Besides, prophets like Jeremiah whose predictions were verified, were treated with respect and honour throughout the Ancient Near East.

Now Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had given these orders about Jeremiah through Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard: “Take him and look after him; don’t harm him but do for him whatever he asks.” So Nebuzaradan and all the other officers of the king of Babylon sent and had Jeremiah taken out of the courtyard of the guard. They turned him over to Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, to take him back to his home. So, he remained among his own people. (Jer 39:11-14)

Who was this Gedaliah to whom Jeremiah was turned over? He was the person King Nebuchadnezzar appointed as the governor of Judah. His father, Ahikam, saved Jeremiah’s life at the time of King Jehoiakim. His grandfather, Shaphan, had been one of “Good” King Josiah’s three most trusted advisors and a restorer of the Temple. Thus, Gedaliah came from a righteous family, but he was a commoner, not part of the royal line, which would bring him grief. But, for the moment, he and Jeremiah were the two most prominent Jewish leaders allowed by the Babylonians to remain in the land of Judah.

Archaeology has confirmed Gedaliah’s importance in the discovery of a clay-seal impression found at a dig in Lachish in the Jordan River Valley, which reads, “Belonging to Gedaliah, who is over the house”, a title reserved for the highest office in the royal court next to the king.

Tim just read that Jeremiah had been granted his freedom. But, as The Expositor’s Bible explains, “While captives were being transferred to Babylon, Jeremiah mingled with the people to comfort and instruct them in their new way of life. In the confusion of the mass deportation, Jeremiah was not recognized by the Babylonian soldiers who placed him in chains with the others. At Ramah (about five miles north of Jerusalem), Jeremiah was recognized by officials. When Nebuzaradan heard this, he went to Ramah and freed him.” We read in chapter 40:

The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard had released him at Ramah. He had found Jeremiah bound in chains among all the captives from Jerusalem and Judah who were being carried into exile to Babylon. (Jeremiah 40:1)

Now, listen to the insightful words this Babylonian official said to him:

When the commander of the guard found Jeremiah, he said to him, “The Lord your God decreed this disaster for this place. And now the Lord has brought it about; he has done just as he said he would. All this happened because you people sinned against the Lord and did not obey him. But today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. (Jeremiah 40:2-4a)

The Jews didn’t seem to make the connection between their sins and Judah’s destruction, but that Babylonian commander did. It was “the Lord your God”, he said, who “decreed this disaster for this place because you people sinned against the Lord and did not obey him.” Good for him! As well, did you notice that it was Babylonians who twice freed Jeremiah, not the Jews. Not all Babylonians were bad! Now, with the city of Ramah where Jeremiah was set free, we find the second geographical location in seemingly begging us to take a look.

Project same map, focusing on Jerusalem, Bethlehem (Ramah) and Mizpah

  1. Ramah was the site of the death of Rachel, who was travelling to nearby Bethlehem, where she was then buried; a place of national mourning for all the killed children of Israel; the spot where the birth of Jesus was prophesied by Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:17,18); through Jeremiah & Jesus, Ramah became a place symbolizing freedom and peace.

From the first century AD to now, Ramah has been considered a “Christian” city because of the large number of Christians living there. Ok, back to Jeremiah’s story…The Babylonians recognized that he was not a threat to them. Nebuzaradan even asked Jeremiah to come with him to Babylon and told him he would look after him there.

“Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.” (Jer 40:4b)

But Jeremiah decided to stay with the remaining poor people in Judah to try and assist them in their new circumstances, so he went to the governor Gedaliah’s base in Mizpah, 12 kilometers north of Jerusalem.

However, before Jeremiah turned to go, Nebuzaradan added, “Go back to Gedaliah, whom the king of Babylon has appointed over the towns of Judah, and live with him among the people, or go anywhere else you please.” Then the commander gave him provisions and a present and let him go. So, Jeremiah went to Gedaliah at Mizpah and stayed with him among the people who were left behind in the land. When all the army officers and their men who were still in the open country heard that the king of Babylon had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam as governor over the land and had put him in charge of the men, women and children who were the poorest in the land and who had not been carried into exile to Babylon, they came to Gedaliah at Mizpah. Gedaliah took an oath to reassure them and their men. “Do not be afraid to serve the Babylonians,” he said. “Settle down in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it will go well with you. I myself will stay at Mizpah to represent you before the Babylonians who come to us, but you are to harvest the wine, summer fruit and olive oil, and put them in your storage jars, and live in the towns you have taken over.” (Jer. 40:5-10)

Now, one of the army officers named Ishmael, who was of royal descent, decided a commoner should not lead Judah, but that, he, as part of King David’s royal line, should be Judah’s leader.

Johanan said to Gedaliah, “Don’t you know that Baalis king of the Ammonites has sent Ishmael son of Nethaniah to take your life?” But Gedaliah did not believe them. Then Johanan said privately to Gedaliah in Mizpah, “Let me go and kill Ishmael, and no one will know it. Why should he take your life and cause all the Jews who are gathered around you to be scattered and the remnant of Judah to perish?” But Gedaliah son of Ahikam said to Johanan son of Kareah, “Don’t do such a thing! What you are saying about Ishmael is not true.” (Jeremiah 40:13-16)

But Gedaliah was naïve and wrong in his trust of Ishmael. Tragic!

In the seventh month Ishmael, who was of royal blood and had been one of the king’s officers, came with ten men to Gedaliah. While they were eating together there, Ishmael and the ten men who were with him got up and struck down Gedaliah with the sword, killing the one whom the king of Babylon had appointed as governor over the land. Ishmael also killed all the men of Judah who were with Gedaliah at Mizpah, as well as the Babylonian soldiers who were there. Ishmael made captives of all the rest of the people who were in Mizpah—the king’s daughters along with all the others who were left there, over whom Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard had appointed Gedaliah. Ishmael took them captive and set out to cross over (the Jordan River) to the Ammonites. When Johanan and all the army officers who were with him heard about all the crimes Ishmael had committed, they took all their men and went to fight Ishmael. They caught up with him near the great pool in Gibeon. When all the people Ishmael had with him saw Johanan and the army officers who were with him, they were glad. All the people Ishmael had taken captive at Mizpah turned and went over to Johanan. But Ishmael and eight of his men escaped from Johanan and fled to the Ammonites. Then Johanan and all the army officers who were with him led away all the people of Mizpah who had survived. And they went on, stopping near Bethlehem on their way to Egypt to escape the Babylonians. They were afraid of them because Ishmael had killed Gedaliah, whom the king of Babylon had appointed as governor over the land. (Jeremiah 41:1-3,10-18)

We never hear what happened with Ishmael and his eight colleagues, but we do know about Johanan and his colleagues: they became paranoid, afraid that the Babylonians would blame them for the death of governor Gedaliah as well as the Babylonians soldiers with him. They knew that they had to do something. Jeremiah was nearby…

Then all the army officers, including Johanan, and all the people from the least to the greatest approached Jeremiah the prophet and said to him, “Please hear our petition and pray to the LORD your God for this entire remnant. For as you now see, though we were once many, now only a few are left. Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do.” “I have heard you,” replied Jeremiah the prophet. “I will certainly pray to the Lord your God as you have requested; I will tell you everything the Lord says and will keep nothing back from you.” (Jeremiah 42:1-4)

I love how the people thought of YHWH as being more Jeremiah’s God than their own as is indicated in their request, “Pray to the LORD your God”. Jeremiah agreed to pray for them, but turned the tables on them by saying that, yes, he would pray to “the LORD your God”. That reminder was important. The people vowed to respect whatever God said. “Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the Lord our God”, they told Jeremiah. God didn’t speak right away – we all know that sometimes we have to wait for God to answer our petitions – but ten days later God did speak.

So, he called together all the people and said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your petition, says: ‘If you stay in this land, I will build you up and not tear you down; I will plant you and not uproot you, for I have relented concerning the disaster I have inflicted on you. Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you now fear. Do not be afraid of him, declares the Lord, for I am with you and will save you and deliver you from his hands. I will show you compassion so that he will have compassion on you and restore you to your land.’ “However, if you say, ‘We will not stay in this land,’ and so disobey the Lord your God, and if you say, ‘No, we will go and live in Egypt, where we will not see war or hear the trumpet or be hungry for bread,’ then hear the word of the Lord. “Remnant of Judah, the Lord has told you, ‘Do not go to Egypt.’ Be sure of this: I warn you today that you made a fatal mistake when you sent me to the Lord your God and said, ‘Pray to the Lord our God for us; tell us everything he says and we will do it.’ I have told you today, but you still have not obeyed the Lord your God in all he sent me to tell you. So now, be sure of this: You will die by the sword, famine, and plague in the place where you want to go to settle.” (Jeremiah 42:8-22)

God revealed to Jeremiah that their request had just been a ruse as they had planned all along to go to Egypt. They thought they would be safe in Egypt, which is the third geographical spot begging for a look…

3.Egypt – the land to which the Israelites had decided to go to and in which they ended up in slavery; the place where they turned from the worship of YHWH to other gods; the nations from which God had freed them from slavery; the only spot on earth they were forbidden by God from returning to.

Of all the places to go back to! Listen to the people’s response. They quickly broke their vow to respect & obey whatever God told Jeremiah

When Jeremiah had finished telling the people all the words of the Lord their God—everything the Lord had sent him to tell them— Johanan and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, “You are lying! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You must not go to Egypt to settle there.’ But Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us to hand us over to the Babylonians, so they may kill us or carry us into exile to Babylon.” (Jer 43:1-3)

Poor old Baruch! I can picture him sort of sitting there, on a chair or something, over in a corner of the room, quietly eating some nacho chips or maybe matzoh bread, figuring that he was not a part of that conversation when his name come up and him being blamed! Typical!

So, Johanan and all the army officers and all the people disobeyed the Lord’s command to stay in the land of Judah. Instead, Johanan and all the army officers led away all the remnant of Judah – the men, the women, the children and the king’s daughters – and they took Jeremiah the prophet and Baruch son of Neriah along with them. So, they entered Egypt in disobedience to the Lord and went as far as Tahpanhes. (Jeremiah 43:4-7)

Project same map, focusing on Egypt.

In Tahpanhes the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “While the Jews are watching, take some large stones with you and bury them in clay in the brick pavement at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes. Then say to them, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I will send for my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and I will set his throne over these stones I have buried here; he will spread his royal canopy above them. He will come and attack Egypt, bringing death to those destined for death, captivity to those destined for captivity, and the sword to those destined for the sword. He will set fire to the temples of the gods of Egypt; he will burn their temples and take their gods captive. As a shepherd picks his garment clean of lice, so he will pick Egypt clean and depart. There in the temple of the sun in Egypt he will demolish the sacred pillars and will burn down the temples of the gods of Egypt.’” (Jeremiah 43:8-13)

Archaeological evidence proves those events transpired. Jeremiah then prophesied to the Jews living in Egypt, asking them to learn their lesson from what happened in Judah. God said this through Jeremiah:

“You saw the great disaster I brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Today they lie deserted and in ruins because of the evil they have done. They aroused my anger by burning incense to and worshiping other gods that neither they nor you nor your ancestors ever knew. Again and again, I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do this detestable things that I hate!’ But they did not listen or pay attention; they did not turn from their wickedness or stop burning incense to other gods. Therefore, my fierce anger was poured out. Why arouse my anger with what your hands have made, burning incense to other gods in Egypt, where you have come to live? You will destroy yourselves and make yourselves a curse and an object of reproach among all the nations on earth.” (Jeremiah 44:2-8)

I have a pastor friend who recently told me that he once preached through the first ten chapters of Jeremiah before giving up on the book, for in his words, “All there is in Jeremiah is the call to repent, followed by more sin, which is followed by death. Rinse and repeat.” I suggested to him that there actually is more in Jeremiah, though his statements might be true enough in and of themselves. I told him to give Jeremiah another go, but only next time to “try a little harder”. In any case, Jeremiah continued speaking to the Jews who had moved to Egypt, that land forbidden by God for Jews to ever return to:

Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time, we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” (Jeremiah 44:15-18)

The “Queen of Heaven” being referred to is not Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom many Roman Catholics call the “Queen of Heaven” due to her being the mother of Jesus and the King of Kings who reigns in heaven, but Ishtar/Ashtoreth/Astarte/Artemis, the goddess of fertility in those Ancient Near Eastern nations, with the variations in her name being due to the pronunciations of it in the various languages of those people groups. For centuries, Jewish prophets railed against the worship of her, as God instructed them to do, repeatedly reminding the people of God’s words in the first two of the Ten Commandments. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Exodus 20:2-5). But those Jewish people in Egypt simply didn’t care!

The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?” Then Jeremiah said to all the people, both men and women, who were answering him, “Did not the Lord remember and call to mind the incense burned in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem by you and your ancestors, your kings and your officials and the people of the land? When the Lord could no longer endure your wicked actions and the detestable things you did, your land became a curse and a desolate waste without inhabitants, as it is today. Because you have burned incense and have sinned against the Lord and have not obeyed him or followed his law or his decrees or his stipulations, this disaster has come upon you, as you now see.” (Jeremiah 44:19-23)

Jeremiah responded by mocking the Jews, knowing that, though they hadn’t kept any of their vows to YHWH God, they most certainly were intending to keep their vows to the false goddess, “Queen of Heaven”.

“Go ahead then, do what you promised! Keep your vows! But hear the word of the Lord, all you Jews living in Egypt: ‘I swear by my great name,’ says the Lord, ‘that no one from Judah living anywhere in Egypt will ever again invoke my name or swear, “As surely as the Sovereign Lord lives.” Then the whole remnant of Judah who came to live in Egypt will know whose word will stand—mine or theirs. “‘This will be the sign to you that I will punish you in this place,’ declares the Lord, ‘so that you will know that my threats of harm against you will surely stand.’ This is what the Lord says: ‘I am going to deliver Pharaoh Hophra king of Egypt into the hands of his enemies who want to kill him, just as I gave Zedekiah king of Judah into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, the enemy who wanted to kill him.’” (Jeremiah 44:25b-30)

So, what can we learn from today’s passage? First, we can learn that God is in control of history: The plains of Jericho, the city of Ramah, the nation of Egypt – all the events relating to them, God knew about and determined.

Second, we can learn that the prophet Jeremiah was bang-on correct. Four years after his prophecy, and 4 years after the Jews had entered Egypt, the Babylonians did rush in, crushing the Egyptian army and ending the family dynasty of Pharaoh Hophra king of Egypt.

Third, we can learn that God’s Word must never be mocked, laughed at, argued against, or dispensed with. Only fools do that! Let’s be wise. Let’s not be as God’s chosen people were: foolish. Instead, let’s be as Jeremiah was: wise. Doing so might not make life easier for us in our society, but it will bring us peace of conscience and mind in our relationship with God and with others, for we will know that we have done the right thing. Amen!

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