1One day, Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jehucal, and Pashhur heard me tell the people of Judah 2-3 that the Lord had said, “If you stay here in Jerusalem, you will die in battle or from disease or hunger, and the Babylonian army will capture the city anyway. But if you surrender to the Babylonians, they will let you live.”
4 So the four of them went to the king and said, “You should put Jeremiah to death, because he is making the soldiers and everyone else lose hope. He isn’t trying to help our people; he’s trying to harm them.”
5 Zedekiah replied, “Do what you want with him. I can’t stop you.”
6 Then they took me back to the courtyard of the palace guards and let me down with ropes into the well that belonged to Malchiah, the king’s son. There was no water in the well, and I sank down in the mud.
7-8 Ebedmelech from Ethiopia was an official at the palace, and he heard what they had done to me. So he went to speak with King Zedekiah, who was holding court at Benjamin Gate. 9 Ebedmelech said, “Your Majesty, Jeremiah is a prophet, and those men were wrong to throw him into a well. And when Jerusalem runs out of food, Jeremiah will starve to death down there.”
10 Zedekiah answered, “Take thirty of my soldiers and pull Jeremiah out before he dies.”
11 Ebedmelech and the soldiers went to the palace and got some rags from the room under the treasury. He used ropes to lower them into the well. 12 Then he said, “Put these rags under your arms so the ropes won’t hurt you.” After I did, 13 the men pulled me out. And from then on, I was kept in the courtyard of the palace guards.
After the books of history in the Old Testament there are four books of poetry – Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. Although beautiful, these books don’t contain much in the way of ‘stories you’ve missed’, so we’re skipping over these for now. On the other side of the books of poetry are the books of the prophets, and here we will again dip to find stories of nameless or barely-named individuals who we might have missed among the long-winded prophecies of the time.
Today we start in the book of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is a prophet in Jerusalem during the final years of Judah’s time before they are captured and exiled by the Babylonians. He champions the cause of YHWH – God – in an era when people had long since stopped paying attention. The priests are corrupt, the officials are power-hungry, the king is a puppet. Nothing is as it should be and no amount of Jeremiah proclaiming the Word of the Lord has made any difference. But he is faithful to following God in spite of it – which keeps getting him in trouble!
Now, after decades of fighting, the Babylonians have surrounded Jerusalem and it’s just a matter of time before the siege results in death by ‘sword, famine or plague’. But apparently this is not the best place (or time) for Jeremiah to state the obvious. Jeremiah’s statements are seen as unpatriotic. They’re discouraging to the people and the soldiers. He’s bad for morale. And the officials responsible for trying to keep tabs on these things have a solution. It’s very simple: throw Jeremiah down into an empty well and let him starve to death.
They get permission from the king for their plan, and practically run to get Jeremiah and throw him down the well before the king might change his mind.
A Foreigner – Ebed-Melech – and the ‘Next Right Thing’
For some reason, though, there is a foreigner named Ebed-Melech in the palace. He’s a Cushite (from modern-day Sudan/Ethiopia). We’re not told why he’s here and we’re not told what his role is. We only know that he is an official. So he has some sort of job to do at the palace.
Perhaps it’s a small role to play. Maybe it’s a big one. It’s possible he’s there of his own free will. More likely he’s a slave. He may or may not be a eunuch, but it’s a distinct possibility. The text gives us no clue as to these bigger questions. All we know is that he’s there, and that when he hears that Jeremiah has been put down the well, he chooses to act. And when he acts it doesn’t fix everything about the world he lives in – it is simply the ‘next right thing’ that he can do something about.
He goes back to the king. He chooses his time wisely for when the king is sitting out in public at the city gate. This is the same king, after all, who gave carte blanche to Jeremiah’s captors to put him in the well in the first place. He petitions to speak to the king and doesn’t get himself killed. Good first step. Then, in front of an audience of citizens, he fights for Jeremiah’s case. He points out that if Jeremiah is left in the well he will starve to death.
What Happens Next
Perhaps Jeremiah was a crowd favourite. Maybe the king is simply incredibly fickle. Ebed-Melech was possibly an impressive orator. I guess there’s even the potential that Ebed-Melech had a dirty secret on the king that he didn’t want anyone to find out. We don’t know. Yet somehow this nobody ‘foreigner’ manages to persuade the king to bend.
The King sends Ebed-Melech off with thirty men to rescue Jeremiah. Then he takes him and keeps him in protective custody, making sure that he gets fed as long as there is bread in the city.
It isn’t big or heroic. It doesn’t change the course of Judah’s history. But Ebed-Melech’s ‘next right thing’ sure makes a difference to Jeremiah, and possibly to many others who watched him fight for justice that day.
- Do you ever feel like you’re under siege? Like there are huge forces moving against you or those you care about and you’re not actually sure if you can stand the pressure long enough to survive?
- Do you ever feel powerless to change things for the better? Perhaps when you look at an environmental, political or maybe even personal issue?
- What can you learn from Ebed-Melech and his ‘next right thing’ today? Is there a small-yet-concrete step you could do in the midst of all of the uncertainty?
- Ebed-Melech seems to have chosen the time and place for his encounter with the king quite intentionally. He could have just waltzed into the throne room unannounced, but that might not have ended as well. What wisdom do you need to bring to your ‘next right thing’? Is there someone in your community or sphere of support who might be worth talking to about your plans before you start?
This summer we are looking at ‘stories you missed’ in the Bible. Feel free to check out the other stories in the series here.