Jeremiah on Trial for His Life (Jeremiah 26) June 23
The incidents described in this chapter take place at the beginning of Jehoiakim's reign—thus around 608 B.C. Some commentators believe this chapter is parallel with chapter 7 because in both places God has Jeremiah proclaim at the temple the object lesson of Shiloh. If they are the same incident, then chapters 7 through 10 should fall here in time order. And that may be. However, the wording of chapter 7 could imply that Josiah had not yet destroyed Tophet, the place of child sacrifice, which would lend support to the chronological arrangement followed in the Bible Reading Program. Jeremiah, therefore, may be essentially repeating a proclamation he gave more than 13 years earlier (as he likewise later repeats some of the statements concerning Tophet in chapter 19).
The reference to "all the cities of Judah" coming to worship (26:2) indicates that this was most likely one of the nation's annual festivals. The essence of Jeremiah's address to the people was that Judah needed to repent or Jerusalem would suffer the same fate as Shiloh. As explained in the highlights for Jeremiah 7, even though Shiloh had been the resting place of the tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant, God had allowed it to be destroyed. The people were at this time still placing too much trust in the temple and Jerusalem and their forms of worship. God, they reasoned, would never allow His holy temple and city to be destroyed. But they were wrong.
Verse 3 of chapter 26 highlights an important principle found throughout Scripture. Even though God threatens dire consequences, He is prepared to relent if the people respond and turn from their evil ways (see 18:7-8; 1 Kings 21:29; Joel 2:13; Jonah 3:10). If they don't, the punishment would fall. Jerusalem would be made a "curse to all nations"—that is, destroyed to provide an example to all nations (Jeremiah 26:6).
The religious leaders then stirred up the assembled worshipers against Jeremiah. They basically arrested him, telling him he would receive the death penalty for what they saw as his blasphemy in saying God's temple would be destroyed. Jesus would later suffer similar reaction from religious leaders over the many proclamations He made that they perceived as a threat to their continuing power, including His declaration that the temple would be destroyed (see Luke 21:5-6; 22:2).
In Jeremiah's case, a hearing was convened before "all the princes and all the people" (Jeremiah 26:11-12), which may have denoted a bicameral national council or high court. The "princes" here didn't necessarily belong to the royal family, even though they came from the king's house. The Hebrew word from which the word "princes" is translated "may denote leaders, chieftains.... [The word] also appears frequently as a word representing royal rulers and officials, no doubt of sundry ranks and titles.... Thus Jer[emiah] 26:11 speaks of the princes of Judah, and the context (vv. 10-16) depicts them as occupying the 'king's house,' to possessing judicial power, ordering Jeremiah to die or to be spared" (Harris, Archer and Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1980, Vol. 2, p. 884). Verse 17 says that certain "elders of the land" addressed the "assembly of the people." Perhaps these elders were members of this assembly, serving as clan or town representatives.
"Jeremiah gave a threefold defense on his own behalf. First, he announced that the Lord had sent him to deliver the message they had heard. He was not a false prophet. Second, he announced that his message was conditional. If the people would reform their ways (cf. 3:12; 7:3) God promised not to bring about the disaster. Thus Jeremiah's message did offer some hope for the city. Third, Jeremiah warned that if they put him to death they would bring the guilt of innocent blood on themselves. They would be guilty in God's sight of murdering an innocent man" (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, note on Jeremiah 26:12-17).
While this may have caused some of them a measure of concern, the reaction of the officials in verse 16 is based more on legal technicality than on any belief in what Jeremiah was saying. A prophet could not be put to death unless he spoke in the name of another god or his prophecy turned out to be false. The latter could not as yet be determined. And the former had not been committed, as Jeremiah had spoken in the name of the true God of Israel. So Jeremiah seemed to be off the hook. But what really tipped the scales in his favor was the citing of a precedent by certain elders in verse 17—that of Micah's proclamation of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple given more than 90 years earlier, in which King Hezekiah, the supreme judge of the time, did not have Micah executed. "This is really a fine defense, and the argument was perfectly conclusive. Some think that it was Ahikam [mentioned in verse 24] who undertook the prophet's defense" (Adam Clarke's Commentary, note on verse 17).
The chapter ends with a brief story of another prophet of God named Urijah (or Uriah), mentioned only here in Scripture. Jehoiakim had sought to put him to death, so he fled to Egypt. But being a vassal of Egypt at this time, Judah had extradition rights and Urijah was brought home to his execution. This episode may have been inserted here to show that even though Jeremiah's case seemed pretty ironclad, the state still posed a danger—as a corrupt king such as Jehoiakim could quite easily see to it that a prophet was executed. In any event, Jeremiah was saved with the help of Ahikam, which may refer to the preceding court defense or perhaps the prophet actually taking refuge with him.
Interestingly, Ahikam was the son of Shaphan, who had served under faithful King Josiah. "The family of Shaphan played an important part in the final years of Judah.... Shaphan was King Josiah's secretary who reported the finding of the Law to Josiah (2 Kings 22:3-13). Shaphan had at least four sons—three of whom were mentioned in a positive way by Jeremiah (Ahikam, Gemariah, and Elasah). The fourth son, Jaazaniah, was the 'black sheep' of the family; his presence among the idol-worshipers in the temple caught Ezekiel by surprise (Ezek. 8:11). Ahikam's son, Gedaliah, was appointed governor of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c." (Bible Knowledge Commentary, note on verse 24).