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34 King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon led his army, and all the kingdoms and peoples of his empire, to begin the final assault against Jerusalem and all the towns and villages. One by one they fell. As this dreaded ruler and his vast army drew closer to Jerusalem, the word of the Eternal came to Jeremiah.

Eternal One: The Eternal God of Israel has this to say: Go and deliver this message to Zedekiah, king of Judah: “I, the Eternal, am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will burn it to the ground. As for you, you will not escape from him. No, you will be captured and turned over to the king of Babylon. You will have to stand before him and look this powerful ruler in the eyes as you are sentenced to exile in Babylon.

“But hear this promise from the Eternal, O Zedekiah, king of Judah: ‘I declare that if you obey Me now, you will not die in battle, but you will die in peace.’ People will burn spices at your funeral in your honor, just as they did for your ancestors, the kings who ruled before you. Mourners will weep for you saying, ‘O, our king is dead!’ I, the Eternal, promise you this can still happen.

The prophet Jeremiah faithfully related all of this to Zedekiah, king of Judah, while both were still in Jerusalem. This was when the Babylonian king’s siege of Jerusalem and the rest of Judah’s cities was under way, with Lachish and Azekah the only other fortified cities that had not been conquered.

Now as the siege continued and the conditions became more severe, another message came to Jeremiah from the Eternal after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with the citizens of Jerusalem to free the slaves in the city. The king commanded all those who held Hebrew slaves to release them—both men and women—so that no Jew would hold a fellow Jew in slavery. 10 So all the leaders and people of the city entered this covenant and agreed with the king to free all of their Hebrew slaves.

11 Not long after the people had freed their slaves, they changed their minds and forced the men and women they released back into slavery. 12 It was then that a word from the Eternal came to Jeremiah regarding the people of Jerusalem:

Eternal One: 13 I, the Eternal God of Israel, am reminding you that I made a covenant with your ancestors when I rescued them from slavery in the land of Egypt. I told them: 14 After six years of service, a fellow Hebrew slave must be freed from slavery in the seventh year.[a] But your ancestors never took My directive seriously or obeyed Me. 15 Not long ago, you changed your mind and did what was right in My eyes: you set your kinsmen free from bondage. You even established a sacred covenant before Me in the house that bears My name. 16 But now you have reversed yourselves, turned around, and broken that covenant! You have defiled My name by forcing these men and women you freed back into slavery.

17 That is why I proclaim the following: Since you have disobeyed Me and not declared that your fellow countrymen are set free, I will now set you free from My protection. I declare that you will be “free” to die by war, disease, and famine. The destiny I set before You will terrify the watching world. 18 Those who violated this covenant with Me will now be treated like the calf they cut in two and walked between when this promise was made.

In Jeremiah’s time, the agreeing parties affirm the terms of a covenant by participating in an ancient ritual. They gather in a sacred place, cut an animal in half, and pass between the two parts. These ritual actions depict an implicit threat that if either covenant partner violates this agreement, he will become like the sacrifice and suffer the consequences of death and dismemberment. It is hard to imagine people taking such solemn ceremonies lightly, but they do. They always will.

Eternal One: 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court servants, the priests, and all people in the land who walked between the halves of the calf will suffer a common fate. 20-21 I will hand them over to their enemies, to those who want them dead. Their corpses will not be buried; they will lie on the ground and become food for the birds and wild animals. I will also hand Zedekiah (king of Judah) and his officials over to their enemies, to those who want them dead. Although King Nebuchadnezzar and his army have pulled back from your city, that is only temporary. 22 I, the Eternal One, will give the order and call them back to Jerusalem. They will fight against this city, capture it, and burn it to the ground. I will use the army of Babylon to destroy the towns of Judah so no one can live there.

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