Another Delegation When Egypt Intervenes (Jeremiah 37:1-10; 34:8-22) November 9-10
In chapter 37, Zedekiah sends another delegation to Jeremiah, asking him to pray for Judah and its leaders (verse 3). Spiritually blind people commonly think that the prayerful intervention of a known righteous person will cause God to turn a threatening situation around. They fail to realize that they need to change their behavior and that no other human being can do that for them (Acts 8:22-24).
This time, Zephaniah the priest is again sent, along with an official named Jehucal, an associate of the Passhur sent in the previous delegation (see Jeremiah 38:1, where the official's name is spelled Jucal).
(Jeremiah 37:4 mentions the fact that Jeremiah will later be put in prison, an episode we will soon read about in 37:11-38:28.)
The current inquiry is evidently occasioned by a major change in events—the Egyptians now entering the conflict (compare verse 7). "In the late spring or early summer 588 B.C., Pharaoh Hophra led the Egyptian army into southern Palestine. The Babylonian forces withdrew their siege of Judah and Jerusalem to confront the Egyptians. Zedekiah hoped the Babylonians would be defeated" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 6-8). The "then" of verse 5 is not to denote a new time frame after the inquiry. Rather, verses 4-5 should be understood as parenthetical—giving the background to the inquiry.
The king probably wondered if Jeremiah's message had now changed in light of the Egyptian advance: "The approach of the Egyptian forces (vv. 5, 9) seemed to contradict the message of 34:2-7; moreover, with the withdrawal of the Babylonian army, Zedekiah may have thought that Jeremiah's predictions of doom were wrong after all... Also, Zedekiah may have been encouraged by his alliance with Pharaoh Hophra... He may indeed have doubted his own prophets, and so he wanted to get a message from Jeremiah that would please him. Thus he asked the prophet to pray for him (v. 3)—i.e., to support his actions... In other words, what Zedekiah wanted was for the Lord to make the temporary withdrawal of the Babylonians permanent. He may somehow have felt that the presence of Jeremiah, though he predicted doom, would insure God's protection against Jerusalem's capture. As for his regard for Jeremiah, it was tinged with superstition" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 2-3).
It may be that Zedekiah was thinking that God had relented because of his recent emancipation proclamation, mentioned in the latter part of chapter 34. And indeed, God may have granted the lifting of the siege for this reason—or at least as a test of the people's resolve. Sadly, they had no resolve to continue in their commitment to God and His righteousness. (Human beings in general often try to make God into what they want Him to be—and have Him act as they want Him to. When they need help, they cry out to Him—but not to intervene when and how He deems appropriate, but in the time and manner that they think He should. And when the objective seems met, they want God to retire once again.)
Zedekiah and the rest of the nation's hopes that Egypt would save them were in vain, as God makes clear through Jeremiah. This was a passing circumstance. Even if Egypt's forces managed to weaken the Babylonian army, it would still return to finish its devastating work (37:6-10).
Emancipation Revocation (Jeremiah 37:1-10; 34:8-22)
After God gave the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, having freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, the first judgment He gave them was the maximum time of seven years that fellow Israelites could be kept in servitude (Exodus 21:1-6), whether or not these Israelites "had sold themselves into servitude for the payment of their debts, or though they were sold by the judges for the punishment of their crimes. This difference was put between their brethren and strangers, that those of other nations taken in war, or bought with money, might be held in perpetual slavery, they and theirs; but their brethren must serve but for seven years at the longest" (Matthew Henry's Commentary, note on Jeremiah 34:8-22). In Jeremiah's time, however, the people of Judah had been ignoring this law.
When Nebuchadnezzar with his armies and allies attacked the cities of Judah, and Jerusalem was under siege, King Zedekiah made a covenant proclamation to the citizens of Jerusalem that gave an appearance of repentance (34:8-9). Perhaps this was even in response to God's warning given through Jeremiah at the beginning of the siege: "Deliver him who is plundered out of the hand of the oppressor, lest My fury go forth like fire" (21:12).
The citizens appeared repentant also since they readily responded and emancipated their Jewish slaves (verse 10). However, it soon became obvious that Zedekiah and the Jews were not truly repentant and had no real commitment to that decision. The people soon "changed their minds" (34:11)—they repented of their repentance! Zedekiah either changed his mind or at least weakly failed to enforce his proclamation. (Indeed, we will later find him obviously weak and vacillating.)
Two occurrences led to the Jews reenslaving their servants. First was the lifting of the Jerusalem siege when the Chaldeans left to confront the oncoming Egyptian forces (37:5). Even though God knew the hypocrisy and superficiality of Zedekiah and the people of Jerusalem, He, out of His great mercy, probably orchestrated this timely reprieve for the Jews. The second factor was the people realizing more than ever how advantageous it was to have slave labor. As soon as they got what they really wanted, deliverance from the Chaldeans, they felt they no longer needed God. Big mistake! God is not to be mocked or manipulated.
Their sin was especially egregious because they were reneging on a covenant they had made with God in His temple to right the wrong (34:15). They had even ratified the covenant with a ritual first mentioned in Scripture in Genesis 15:9-17 (Jeremiah 34:18). They "passed through the parts of the animal cut in two, implying that they prayed so to be cut in sunder (Matthew 24:51; Greek, 'cut in two') if they should break the covenant" (Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown's Commentary, note on Jeremiah 34:18). And indeed, the punishment would be severe.
As a result of their treachery, freeing slaves only to reenslave them, God remarks with sardonic irony that He would free them—from His protection. "'Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,' says the LORD—'to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine!'" (34:17). God said He would bring Babylon's army back to conquer and burn Jerusalem—killing or capturing its people.