Jeremiah prophesied during the last days of Judah. After the great king Josiah (2 Kgs 21:26-23:30), wicked leaders, like Jehoahaz (2 Kgs 23:30-33), Jehoiakim (2 Kgs 23:34-24:5), Jehoiachin (2 Kgs 24:6-16; 25:27-30), and Zedekiah (2 Kgs 24:17-25:7), reigned in Jerusalem. The book of Jeremiah records several of the prophet’s interactions with Zedekiah (Jeremiah 21, 32), whose rebellion earned him an awful fate. Despite persecution from Judah’s kings and the final siege on the city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was preserved from destruction, even by the Babylonian king.
Jeremiah 34-36 records the prophet’s indictments of Judah’s leaders for their sinful lifestyles. Zedekiah failed to lead according to the word of the Lord (ch. 34). After Zedekiah lead the people in a jubilee covenant—which pleased the Lord —he allowed the slave owners to take back their property, fellow descendants of Abraham (Jer 34:8-16; Deut 15:12-17). Zedekiah’s rebellion was not a new pattern of behavior for Judah’s kings (chs. 35-36). During the days of Jehoiakim, whose reign preceded the inauguration of Zedekiah by only a few months (2 Kgs 23:34-24:20), the Lord urged Jeremiah to set forth the Rechabites as an example of obedience for Judah and her leaders. The Lord’s case against Judah was based upon the fact that the sons of Jonadab, son of Rechab, carried out their ancestor’s command, while Judah had ignored the word of the Lord. “I have spoken to them, but they have not obeyed, and I have called to them, but they would not answer,” the Lord said (Jer 35:17b).
Further, Jehoiakim was culpable for destroying Jeremiah’s scroll—a precious document that contained all the words God had revealed to him (ch. 36). Since Jeremiah had been banned from the temple, his scribe Baruch read the scroll to the people there in hopes that the reading of this scroll would cause the people to turn each one from their evil ways. Judah’s king would have none of it. Intermittently after hearing a few columns, King Jehoiakim would cut the scroll and throw pieces into the fire (Jer 36:23-24).
Jeremiah’s bold speech toward Judah’s kings was not always appreciated (chs. 37-38). Since Jeremiah continued to urge the people to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar, the military officials of Judah were concerned for the morale of their troops. King Zedekiah was worried, too. He allowed a cohort to lower Jeremiah into a muddy cistern in the guard’s courtyard—a place where his preaching would have less persuasive power (Jer 38:1-6). Ebed-melech, a court official, interceded for Jeremiah and he was rescued from the cistern—only to be brought before King Zedekiah once again (Jer 38:7-13). There Jeremiah restated the Lord’s sovereign plan: the city would be destroyed, and the only way of survival was to submit to the yoke of the Chaldeans (Jer 38:14-28).
During this period of Zedekiah’s reign, the Lord demonstrated the truthfulness of His word through Jeremiah despite the forces that opposed the Lord’s prophet (ch. 39). While Jeremiah was yet in Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar and his army broke into the city (2 Kings 25). When Zedekiah and his officials saw the Chaldean army advancing through the gates of the city of David, they fled by night (Jer 39:1-4). Zedekiah’s rebellion against the word of the Lord cost him dearly: his own sons were slaughtered before his eyes, and then his eyes were gouged out. One can hardly imagine a more horrifying last sight (Jer 39:5-8). Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and left only the poorest there, those who had to fend for themselves in a ruined homeland (Jer 39:9-10). Despite the destruction, Jeremiah was spared, and he settled among his own people (Jer 39:14).
Jeremiah’s situation in chs. 34-39 provides insight into the storyline of Scripture. Judah had rejected the Lord and would suffer the consequences of her choice. John wrote concerning Jesus’ mission, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him” (John 1:11). John went on to note, “But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God” (John 1:12), a matter Paul explained in Romans 9-11. Paul’s thesis was that only a remnant of Jacob’s descendants would be saved, only those who relinquished all self-sufficiency and relied wholly on God’s word of grace in Christ. Paul explained the hard-heartedness of his countrymen in light of their forefathers. Just as “all did not obey the gospel” (Rom 10:16) in Jeremiah’s day—even though the word of grace through the prophets shone like the sun (Rom 10:18)—so the Jews of his day did not obey the gospel either. Nonetheless, in the history of redemption, the hard-heartedness of the Jews has worked out for the advantage of the Gentiles. Paul wrote that the in-gathering of the Gentiles will eventually stimulate jealousy (and repentance) among a remnant of Israel—with the result that all Israel will be saved (Rom 11:26).