Good morning! Prophets and kings have had rocky relationships for generations in the Hebrew Scriptures, going all the way back to Nathan confronting David about his treatment of Bathsheba and Uriah. At issue is the power that kings have over all their subjects (including prophets), and conversely, the unusual but essential liberties that prophets take to confront the powerful, even those with the ability to take their lives. Today in Jeremiah 36-38, we read how the prophet endured the consequences of conflict with the kings Jehoiakim and Zedekiah.
Chapter 36 revolves around a scroll that Jeremiah calls to be written, cataloguing complaints against the rulers of Israel and Judah. This takes place during the reign of Jehoiakim, after a last-ditch alliance with Pharaoh Neco in Egypt, who arranged so that the more pliable Jehoiakim would replace Jehoiachin on the throne of Judah. This background helps us understand that the following encounter takes place during a time of fragility for the monarchy, when Jehoiakim is especially touchy about his place on the throne. So when Jeremiah commissions the scribe Baruch to deliver the scroll of critique by public address in the temple on a day of fasting and sacrifice, it immediately comes to the king’s attention. Exercising his authoritarian power, he destroys the scroll as it’s being read to him, and sets out to arrest the prophet and the writer. But Jeremiah pays it no mind and dictates another scroll, because the power he is ultimately responsive to is that of God alone.
A few years later, Zedekiah (favored by Babylon) replaces rebellious Jehoiakim, and asks for Jeremiah’s prayers (perhaps an attempt to gain divine endorsement for the political arena). Jeremiah resists being coopted, and instead of a pro-Judah declaration, he prophesies that Babylonian forces will rout Jerusalem. Later, during a lull in the fighting when Jeremiah leaves town for his ancestral family in Benjamin, he is arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of desertion. Zedekiah interviews the prophet, and we can see again the interplay between these two dynamic forces in Hebrew society. Though Jeremiah has nothing by way of good news for Zedekiah, the king respects the office enough to provide some measures of comfort to the prophet’s imprisonment.
When Jerusalem is under siege in chapter 38, Jeremiah advises its leaders to go into exile as a way of preserving life. City officials call for his head because of this apparent treason, and Zedekiah has lost any power to ease Jeremiah’s troubles. The prophet is thrown into an empty cistern and sinks into the mud, only to be rescued by the intervention of an Ethiopian eunuch (an outsider’s outsider) and the king’s command. Zedekiah again comes to seek Jeremiah’s counsel, hears the prophecy of Babylon’s success over Jerusalem for the umpteenth time, learns that he could save the city from utter destruction by surrendering honorably, yet chooses not to act on this knowledge.
The key difference I see between Jeremiah and the kings in today’s passage is that the prophet is the only one with courage to act on his convictions. The kings know what is right and needed, yet haven’t the moral character to follow through on it. Reflecting on these two character types, I’d rather bypass the absolute power of royalty if it must come at the cost of sacrificing one’s conscience. To my mind, life is better spent with greater (and hopefully increasing) prophetic congruence between what one believes and how one acts. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Jeremiah 39-43. Thanks for reading!