The current lesson uses the biography of Jeremiah to teach the principle of faithfulness in times of oppression and adversity. Ezra C. Dalby’s Land and Leaders of Israel: Lessons in the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Church Department of Education, 1930), a seminary textbook in use in the 1930s and ‘40s,uses the book of Jeremiah to teach the same lesson – but instead of focusing on the prophet himself, Dalby emphasizes the heroism of the Ethiopian slave who saved Jeremiah’s life
Jeremiah, the Prophet of Affliction
Lesson Text: Jeremiah 38.
Responsive Reading: Psalms 119:97-104.
Prayer by Student.
Memory Text: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” – Matthew 5:11.
The Message of the Lesson
A Lowly Hero
Shortly after the incident of the Rechabites related in the last lesson, king Jehoiakim died. He had done all he could to anger king Nebuchadnezzar by his repeated revolts, and had few friends even in Jerusalem; for his whole reign was one of oppression and cruelty. With biting sarcasm, Jeremiah asked him if he thought that the fine buildings he had erected by the extortion of money from his subjects made him a great king. The prophet declared that such a ruler would have no mourners when he died, but his burial would be like that of a dead ass that is dragged out of the city.
He left an eighteen-year-old son to succeed him, but Jeremiah declared that neither he nor any of his descendants should sit on the throne of David. Perhaps this statement influenced him to surrender to the Babylonians three months after his father’s death. He and his queen-mother, the royal attendants, and officers all went out and threw themselves on the mercy of the enemy. The conquerors stripped the temple and palaces of all the gold that they could find. The sacred golden vessels that had been carefully guarded since the days of Solomon were taken with the rest of the spoils.
Then, following the example set by the Assyrian kings, Nebuchadnezzar carried off to Babylon ten thousand men, besides women and children. These captives were the leaders of the country – princes, warriors, and skilled workmen. Among them were two men of whom we shall hear later, namely, Ezekiel and Daniel. It was nine hundred miles by the road they traveled, to the low, dusty plain of Babylon, where, footsore and disheartened, the wretched exiles at last came to their new home. Accustomed to the Judean mountains and their own highland scenery, we can imagine how they felt on these hot, monotonous lowlands among proud strangers, who looked upon them as slaves.
Zedekiah, another son of Josiah, was left to rule in Jerusalem. As a king, he proved little better than his brother. His intentions were not so bad, but he was weak and vacillating and completely dominated by his advisers, who seemed to think that they were favored of God over the exiles, upon whom judgment had fallen. Jeremiah told them, on the contrary, that the best had been taken. This would, of course, anger them.
The first exile took place in 597 B.C., and about four years later Zedekiah was ready for another revolt. False prophets counseled the king to join with surrounding nations, and to throw off the Babylonian yoke. Against the advice of Jeremiah the king did this. The prophet dramatically put a yoke on his neck as a symbol of what would happen, if the king persisted in his rebellion. One of the false prophets tore the yoke from his neck and broke it, at the same time predicting that the Lord would return the captives within two years. Soon Jeremiah was back with a yoke of iron in place of that of wood, with the prediction that the false prophet would die within the year.
It all turned out as Jeremiah had said, for in the year 589 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar was again at the gates of Jerusalem to punish the rebellious city. Zedekiah was advised by his counselors and the princes of Judah that they would be able to hold out against their enemies. Jeremiah, on the other hand, declared: “Thus saith the Lord, This city shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army, which shall take it.”
This was too much; the princes and soldiers now decided upon his death. They declared to the king that Jeremiah was hindering the success of their defense of the city, and they insisted on getting rid of him. Notice how weak the king was in this critical situation. Every prediction made by the prophet had been fulfilled; and if any man could help them in this extremity, it was Jeremiah. But the king said: “Behold, he is in your hand; for the king is not he that can do anything against you.” What a poor specimen of a king Zedekiah was!
Then these men put the prophet in a deep dungeon with cold, murky mud on the bottom, where it would be almost impossible to him to move about. What a dramatic picture of torture! And what a fearful death awaited him! Imagine him standing helpless and exhausted in the darkness, growing weaker every hour from hunger and thirst until he could endure it no longer but would sink in the mud and die. Surely service in the cause of truth is costly! Every prophet has had to pay an awful price to deliver his message. Jeremiah had fought every inch of the way and every hour of the day for the safety of the city and country that he loved. And this was his reward! Could human cruelty devise a more horrible death?
But his end had not yet come. Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian servant, was brave enough to attempt his rescue. he was only a poor black slave owned by the king, but he had the courage to go to his master, and say: ‘my lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah, the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon; and he is like to die for hunger in the place where he is; for there is no more bread in the city.” The king was alone, and he listened to his appeal, and gave him permission to rescue the brave prophet who faced certain death. Ebed-melech took thirty men, and with ropes and rags let down into the pit they drew Jeremiah up, and so saved his life. this generous intervention of an obscure servant was sufficient to write his name in the history of brave and unselfish deeds. Slaves are often greater than the kings they serve.
Darker and darker grows the fate of Jerusalem. The dread army that Habakkuk saw is about to capture the holy city. Famine, ghastly famine, has laid its bony fingers upon every home in the sacred city, and the end of the great nation from which so much was expected is at hand. But on the threshold of that calamity two heroic acts shine in the darkness with a light that still shines upon the pathway of men. First is the courage of the prophet who, in the face of death, proclaims that no force of arms can protect the city. Only surrender can save Jerusalem and her people. He had only to keep still to save his life. Why speak at all? Forty years of faithful service were behind him. On that record he might have stood. But not Jeremiah! Tired, discouraged, certain of defeat he might be, but they must know the unpopular truth; and he spoke it out in power.
And now for a moment let us turn our attention on the humble slave who went out of his way to save the prophet’s life. Ebed-melech had no occasion to intercede for Jeremiah. He knew how unpopular he was, and how he was hated by the influential leaders in Jerusalem. Again and again, the slave must have seen how determined they were to bring about Jeremiah’s death. Why should he endanger his own life to save a man whom everybody seemed to hate? It was because he felt that a terrible wrong had been done to a good man in the horrid imprisonment that he was suffering. So he went boldly into the presence of the king and told him that the princes had done a great wrong, and asked permission to save the condemned prisoner. It may seem simple enough when we read about it; but really it was a mighty heroic act for Ebed-melech to go out of his way and at the risk of his own life to save a man who had no claim on him. One word from the king, and his black slave would have died for his temerity in presuming to interfere with the plans of the men who were dictating the policy of the government. But Zedekiah must have felt the justice of his plea, for he generously granted his request. Ebed-melech hurriedly led a party of rescuers to the pit’s mouth and with cords drew Jeremiah out of the dungeon.
Twenty-five centuries have passed since this obscure black servant, at the risk of his own life, stood before his king and pled for the life of Jeremiah. But his name still lives in the annals of heroism, and shines upon the pages of the scriptures for all the ages to come, as an everlasting inspiration to mankind.
And to those of us who may be called to walk in lowly places this lesson brings a message of inspiration and encouragement. We do not have to stand among the mighty or hold responsible positions to find opportunity for noble deeds. Some of the most heroic actions recorded in history were done by men and women in the humble walks of life.
When the great explorer David Livingstone died in the interior of Africa, his black servants, who had watched and cared for him during his sickness, resolved to carry his body a thousand miles to Zanzibar, where it could be shipped to his home in England. After burying the heart and other viscera where he died, they spent fourteen days in embalming and drying the body in the sun. Then they wrapped it in calico and enclosed it in a large piece of bark in the form of a cylinder. Over this a piece of sail cloth was sewed, and the package lashed to a pole. With this they set out on their journey to the coast. For nine long months they remained steadfast to their purpose of showing honor to their master. they passed through unfriendly tribes and over unknown regions, wading rivers and swamps with their precious burden lifted high above their heads. they encountered dangers which constantly taxed their ingenuity to overcome, but they finally reached their goal in safety.
Was greater love ever shown to mortal man than these poor black men showed the Livingstone? One of the most devoted asked permission to accompany the remains of this great hero to England, and there he stood a humble mourner as the body was consigned to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey, while the entire nation mourned its immortal son. But who shall say that the poor black servant was not as great a hero, as the man he came so far to honor?
The sweetest lives are those to duty wed,
Whose deeds, both great and small
Are close-knot strands of an unbroken thread
Where love ennobles all.
The world may sound no trumpets, ring no bells,
The book of life the shining record tells,
Thy love shall chant its own beatitudes
After its own life-workings. A child’s kiss
Set on thy sighing lips shall make thee glad;
A poor man served by thee shall make thee rich;
A sick man helped by thee shall make thee strong;
Thou shalt serve thyself by every sense
Of service which thou renderest.
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Questions and Problems
1. Tell all you can about the first captivity.
2. Give a character sketch of Zedekiah.
3. What fatal mistake did he make in his policy as king?
4. Why was Jeremiah imprisoned? Describe his prison.
5. What fine elements of character do you find in Ebed-melech?
6. In what way did the negro slave show his courage?
7. Give an account of Jeremiah’s rescue.
8. Compare the experience of Jeremiah with that of Jesus.
9. Why does God permit his servants to suffer as Jeremiah and Jesus did?
10. Give reasons why Jeremiah was so unpopular.
11. Who was the greater hero, Livingstone or his servant?
12. Discuss the Memory Gem.
Suggestive Closing Prayer
Gracious Father, we read the heroic story of suffering and sorrow which Jeremiah endured, and glory in his fortitude and courage. His faithfulness and devotion to the mission assigned him is an inspiration to mankind forever. By his side we seem only pigmies, but thou canst make us worthy of the heritage he has given to the world. Wilt thou lift us up and create within our souls a strength that shall do all and dare all for thy name’s sake. May we become valiant champions of truth and righteousness in our day and generation.