Historian Lynne Olson relates in her series Unsung Heroes of World War II: Europe:
In the summer of 1940, the people of western Europe were in a profound state of shock. In just a few weeks, Nazi Germany, with blinding speed, had invaded and occupied six countries. One of them was Belgium. Seventeen days after German troops poured over Belgium’s borders, its government surrendered. But one hero did not: Andree de Jongh, also known as Dedee. Dedee was a commercial artist by profession, but when Belgium was invaded, she started working as a nurse for British troops wounded in the fighting there. Along with a group of friends and acquaintances, she began to smuggle injured British soldiers out of German-controlled hospitals and take them to nearby safe houses that she had set up.
Not long afterward, she traveled secretly to Spain, which, during World War II, was a neutral country. There she met with British officials. She told them that many British servicemen were still hiding in Belgium. Some were soldiers; others were airmen shot down on recent bombing missions.
In the past few months, she said, she and several of her friends had set up an escape line through Belgium and France to help these men get back to England. If the British government would give her money to help pay for the line, she could bring out these men.
…By the time the war was over, de Jongh’s escape network, which was called the Comet Line, would be the largest and most important escape line in occupied Europe. It would be credited with rescuing more than 800 British and American servicemen…
…Being part of an escape network was probably the most dangerous form of resistance work in Europe. German officials were keenly aware of the value of these airmen to the Allied bombing effort. If escape line members were caught, they faced torture, the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, and /or execution. It was particularly dangerous for the couriers – most of them young women, many of them still in their teens – who escorted the servicemen hundreds of miles across enemy territory.
…From the time of the Comet Line’s creation in 1941, there had been numerous arrests of its workers, but Dedee herself managed to elude the Nazis for more than 18 months.
…After her capture, Dedee had been sent to a prison in Paris and then to the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp – the only German camp designed specifically for women – which was located north of Berlin. Of the 132,000 women and children sent there during the war, more than 70% died of starvation, torture, beating, hanging, shooting, horrific medical experiments, and, beginning in November 1944, in a newly installed gas chamber.
Dedee was close to dying herself by the time Ravensbruck was liberated in the spring of 1945. She owed her survival, she later said, to the Germans’ stereotyped view of women. Coming from a very traditional, patriarchal society, they viewed women chiefly in their conventional domestic roles as wives and mothers. Therefore, even when Dedee, after her capture admitted to creating the Comet Line, she managed to avoid execution because the Germans could not bring themselves to believe that such a pretty, delicate-looking young woman could have devised such an intricate operation.
Following the war, she was awarded the US Medal of Freedom and the British George Medal, both of them high civilian honors. For most of the rest of her life, she devoted herself once again to saving the lives of others, working first as a nurse in a leper colony in the Belgian Congo and then at a leper hospital in Ethiopia.[i]
From the day we are born till the day we die we are all living in the shadow of death. It may not seem so acute, or the shadow so large as in times of war, famine, plague, or another crisis. Generally, we are rightfully busily engaged in this gift called life and tend not to focus on that inevitable outcome of our lives. But death is always around, stalking and taking the lives of people.
As we consider an unknown future, the thought came to my mind that, ‘When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not need to fear it as a child of God. Death is problematic but fear is an even greater threat. Fear paralyzes people. It keeps them from moving forward, from doing what is right. The challenges the prophet Jeremiah faced in bringing God’s message of impending judgment to an unreceptive nation took continual courage to remain true both to God and His message for His people. People often reject the truth because it is not what they want to hear. While many just ignore the message, others threatened by the message become hostile to the messengers.
Fear does strange things to people. Some are almost superstitious in their avoidance of ‘negative talk.’ It is almost as if they believe that to silence the words means to avoid the reality to which they may point. …That is, if you throw Jeremiah into the cistern, his message will not be heard and hopefully will not come to pass. Better for Jesus to die than for the people to get stirred up. So-called ‘gag orders’ are intended to keep someone from stating a truth publicly when it may prove to be injurious.[ii]
How do we handle opposition toward us? What do we do with death threats? Persecution is a very real reality for believers. Jeremiah’s message was speaking directly against the establishment of his day. His message was counter-cultural and he had many opponents who wanted to silence him. How are we responding to God’s message today?
In Jeremiah 38 we find discover three responses toward God’s message that some reject, while it is the only means of addressing our ultimate enemy: death.
THE FIRST RESPONSE TOWARD GOD’S MESSAGE IS TO COURAGEOUSLY COMMUNICATE IT REGARDLESS OF THE COST
Jeremiah continued to remain true to the message God had given him to preach even though at this season of his life and ministry it was widely misunderstood. I think many of us can relate to this as many in our society today do not understand the nature of God’s message of love and hope to deal with the pain, sorrow, sin, oppression, and ultimately, the destruction of our culture.
A. What was Jeremiah’s message?
Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehukal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people when he said,
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’
And this is what the Lord says: ‘This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’[iii]
These officials were deeply upset and were bringing severe charges against Jeremiah. Robert Davidson explains the serious situation in the midst of a wartime crisis. They were charging Jeremiah with treason.
They condemn him out of his own mouth, quoting his own words against him: verses 2-3 being virtually a quotation of what Jeremiah said in 21:9-10. They rightly demand from the king the death penalty for a man who was undermining the morale of soldiers and civilians; a man who, instead of working for the shalom of his country, was doing his best to destroy it.[iv]
Yet, the reality is that Jeremiah was preaching for the peace of his nation. Only by surrender could they not be destroyed as a nation and taken into captivity.
How does this moment in time have any bearing or application to our own moment? Obviously, we are not being besieged by Babylonians, but the necessity to turn to God or face judgment is very real. We read of this in the book of Revelation where the seals are opened and war, famine and plague will ride across the landscape (cf. Rev. 6), and God’s justice over the injustices of humanity will be poured out. Jesus, in speaking to his generation, pointed out that God required repentance. In trying to help the people of the city of Jerusalem make sense of a recent tragedy in their community, Jesus explains that this was not a specific judgment upon a few individuals, but rather the plight of all the people who refuse to come to God in repentance.
Of those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.[v]
While many are questioning the validity or even the relevance of the Bible in our hour, we need to understand that we are all accountable to God, our Creator. While many live autonomous lives apart from God, we are all still accountable to him for our actions; just like those living in Jerusalem during the siege by the Babylonians, or those living in the hour that Jesus was speaking to his generation warning them of God’s coming judgment which fell upon them 30 years later under the Roman armies of Titus. God is warning us today that sin always brings about death and destruction. Just as Jeremiah, then Jesus, we too are being warned today to turn to Him for He is willing to extend mercy, grace, and forgiveness to us, even though God’s messengers are always faced with courageous choices to do and say the right thing. Are we listening to God’s message or are we allowing our own sinful desires and personal fears to keep us from doing the right thing? Like Zedekiah, will we surrender to the pressures of our society?
News of divine judgment is always bad news. It is unpleasant to hear that God punishes sin rather than overlooks it. But the only thing that really matters is whether or not the bad news of divine judgment is true. When the bad news is God’s news, it needs to be heard.[vi]
Jeremiah was not just preaching judgment, but also a message of grace and salvation. The answer was simply surrender and obey God’s message and embrace God’s provision, which in this case was to surrender to the Babylonians. While we might not be under siege from a foreign army, we certainly are under siege from sin in our lives and in our society. What makes the good news about Jesus so good is that Jesus takes our judgment upon Himself. It becomes efficacious and applicable to us personally when we repent and surrender to God’s provision for our sins.
THE SECOND RESPONSE TOWARD GOD’S MESSAGE IS TO REJECT IT AND TRY TO SILENCE THE MESSAGE
In this example we are going to see that those who were opposed to God’s message wanted the messenger to be destroyed.
A. The Charges and imprisonment of Jeremiah.
Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.”
“He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.”[vii]
We may presume that they are all members of a pro-Egyptian political party, one that looked to Egypt for hope against the Babylonian threat.[viii]
These officials were not only disturbed by Jeremiah’s message but they actively sought the arrest and ultimately the death of the prophet. The King’s response tells us something about his sphere of influence in the nation and his personal indecisiveness.
The king’s true position is revealed, and he is his own critic. The real power lay with the officials who had Zedekiah under their control (cf. Vv. 25-27). He was, of course, a puppet king, set up by Nebuchadnezzar after the exile of Jehoiachin and possibly not accepted by everyone in the nation as the true king. Many hoped for the return of Jehoiachin.[ix]
The fact that he was to support the Babylonians but had rejected that role and had bent to the pressure of rebellion and revolt against the Babylonians, now left him in a compromised position. He lived with great fear and uncertainty. We see from his response that he was abdicating his responsibility and was allowing injustice to prevail, in the abuse of Jeremiah.
So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.[x]
C. The kindly rescue of God’s servant.
But Ebed-Melek, a Cushite, an official in the royal palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate,
Ebed-Melek went out of the palace and said to him,
“My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.”
Then the king commanded Ebed-Melek the Cushite, “Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.”[xi]
A foreign-born servant advocates on behalf of the prophet, Jeremiah. Ebed-Melek’s name means ‘servant of the king.’ Here we are going to discover that he is a man who truly is a servant of the ultimate king, the LORD, most high. He is a man whose trust is in the LORD. Tremper Longman explains through this man’s actions what is motivating this man.
This is our first introduction to Ebed-Melech who is called an official in the royal palace and a Cushite. The former gave him access to the king; the latter indicates that he was Ethiopian by birth or descent. The text at this point does not present any motivation for Ebed-Melech’s actions on Jeremiah’s behalf, but we immediately assume that he is sympathetic toward his message. This intuition is encouraged by the divine oracle that appears in 39:15-18, where God explains why Ebed-Melech will survive the devastation by stating to him, ‘because you trust in me.’ In other words, Ebed-Melech was a true worshiper of Yahweh and must have recognized that the prophet was speaking the words of his God.[xii]
It is worth noting the care and kindness shown to Jeremiah as they lift him out of the miry pit (the muddy cistern). This reveals something of the nature of Ebed-Melech. The way we treat people is indicative of the work of God’s grace in our lives. Not only did he advocate for Jeremiah, but he also treated him with dignity, care and respect.
So Ebed-Melek took the men with him and went to a room under the treasury in the palace. He took some old rags and worn-out clothes from there and let them down with ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern.
Ebed-Melek the Cushite said to Jeremiah, “Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.” Jeremiah did so, and they pulled him up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard.[xiii]
It is interesting that the King assigned 30 men to rescue Jeremiah. Why so many? F. B. Huey makes this assessment.
He now seemed to be acting independently of his officials, whereas earlier he said he could do nothing to oppose their demands (38:5). It was another indication of his indecisive nature. The king had good reason to expect opposition and ordered such a large number of guards to prevent interference from Jeremiah’s enemies when they learned that he was being released.[xiv]
THE FINAL RESPONSE TOWARD GOD’S MESSAGE IS FINDING EXCUSES FOR DISOBEYING THE MESSAGE
Why is truth so often ignored or disregarded? When it is not what we want to hear, or we don’t want to make changes in our lives, we try and find excuses for continuing in the wrong direction in life. Often it is simply motivated by fear. We are unwilling to trust what God has for us though it is exactly what we need and what we will ultimately desire when we do His will.
A. The King sends for the prophet.
Then King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah the prophet and had him brought to the third entrance to the temple of the Lord. “I am going to ask you something,” the king said to Jeremiah. “Do not hide anything from me.”
Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I give you an answer, will you not kill me? Even if I did give you counsel, you would not listen to me.”
But King Zedekiah swore this oath secretly to Jeremiah: “As surely as the Lord lives, who has given us breath, I will neither kill you nor hand you over to those who want to kill you.”
Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “This is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live.
But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be given into the hands of the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from them.’[xv]
Jeremiah has reason to believe that Zedekiah will not only not listen to God’s message, but that by telling him, it will only put his own life back in jeopardy. Here we see that the king makes reassurances that no matter what is said that he will not reverse his position in protecting Jeremiah from his angry opponents.
B. Fear is the real enemy of faith.
Fear often is the underlying reason why people won’t obey God and walk in faith. Faith is what pleases God, and also provides protection and blessings in our lives. Here we gain an understanding of what is motivating the king in his continued disobedience to God’s message.
King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Jews who have gone over to the Babylonians, for the Babylonians may hand me over to them and they will mistreat me.”
“They will not hand you over,” Jeremiah replied. “Obey the Lord by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared. But if you refuse to surrender, this is what the Lord has revealed to me:
All the women left in the palace of the king of Judah will be brought out to the officials of the king of Babylon. Those women will say to you:
“‘They misled you and overcame you—
those trusted friends of yours. Your feet are sunk in the mud; your friends have deserted you.’
All your wives and children will be brought out to the Babylonians. You yourself will not escape from their hands but will be captured by the king of Babylon; and this city will be burned down.”[xvi]
Oddly, Zedekiah does not flinch from or argue against this prophetic verdict (38:19). …The situation of the king is complicated. [Disobedience always creates deep complexities in our lives]. Zedekiah does not fear the Babylonians army or government, as we might expect. Rather, he fears his own people. In this response, he fears the pro-Babylonians party. Perhaps they are hostile to him because he resisted too long in his refusal to submit to Babylon. …The king is immobilized. He is politically incapable of doing what he knows theologically to be correct.[xvii]
Jeremiah also explains to Zedekiah that his decision will affect not only himself, but also his family and the nation.
While their fate is not specified, the king would know what this meant. Enemy women in the ancient Near East were raped, forced into marriages or killed. It was not a pretty picture.[xviii]
We read that these very women in captivity would be singing a dirge that Zedekiah trusted the wrong people and it led to his downfall. ‘Your feet are sunk in mud; your friends have deserted you.’ There is poetic justice in that it is now the king that is in the mire of mud, rather than the prophet of God.
C. Fear that leads to deception.
When we will not walk in the truth, we then embrace a lie. Afraid of what the officials in the land will think of his action, Zedekiah resorts to lying in order to protect himself.
Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Do not let anyone know about this conversation, or you may die. If the officials hear that I talked with you, and they come to you and say, ‘Tell us what you said to the king and what the king said to you; do not hide it from us or we will kill you,’ then tell them, ‘I was pleading with the king not to send me back to Jonathan’s house to die there.’”
All the officials did come to Jeremiah and question him, and he told them everything the king had ordered him to say. So they said no more to him, for no one had heard his conversation with the king.
And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard until the day Jerusalem was captured.[xix]
Obviously knowing that the officials would find out that the king conversed with the prophet; king Zedekiah told Jeremiah not to reveal the total contents of their conversation, but only of Jeremiah’s appeal to not be sent back to the former place of imprisonment. Jeremiah complied with the king’s wishes, for it was advantageous to both himself, and the king. The question discussed by theologians is simply, did Jeremiah lie? Did he have a right not to answer their question fully? Was it justifiable? Is this an example of the humanity and weakness of the prophet? This is one of those difficult questions.
The point of the message is that we are all walking in the shadow that death casts upon the human family. Challenges come our way. Will we succumb to fear? Or will we choose to walk by faith? It is easy to speak about ethics until we come to the moment of testing. How will we respond to the message? Will we obey God’s message regardless of the cost, or will we surrender to fear? Will we ignore God’s word, or will we communicate it courageously?
How will our lives be evaluated? No wonder the writer in Ecclesiastes states: “A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth (Eccl. 7:1).” This is to suggest that death is the conclusion of life. Our journey in this life has come to an end. At the beginning we do not know how we will run our course, overcome the obstacles, or the sorrows and difficulties that will attend our lives. Death speaks of the conclusion of the race. What legacy will we leave behind us? What kind of a character will be shaped within us by God’s grace? Will we, like the apostle Paul, be able to say in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”?
[i] Lynne Olson, Unsung Heroes of World War II, Course Guidebook, (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2020), 3-12.
[ii] Andrew Dearborn, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The New Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 343.
[iii] Jeremiah 38:1-3 The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iv] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 124.
[v] Luke 13:4-5.
[vi] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2016), 571.
[vii] Jeremiah 38:4-5.
[viii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 247.
[ix] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 638.
[x] Jeremiah 38:6.
[xi] Jeremiah 38:7-10.
[xii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 247.
[xiii] Jeremiah 38:11-13.
[xiv] F. B. Huey, F. B. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 336.
[xv] Jeremiah 38:14-18.
[xvi] Jeremiah 38:19-23.
[xvii] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 366-67.
[xviii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 249.
[xix] Jeremiah 38:24-28.