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Jeremiah Is Charged with Treason and Put in a Cistern to Die

38 Now Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehucal[a] son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur[b] son of Malkijah had heard[c] the things that Jeremiah had been telling the people. They had heard him say, “The Lord says, ‘Those who stay in this city will die in battle or of starvation or disease.[d] Those who leave the city and surrender to the Babylonians[e] will live. They will escape with their lives.’”[f] They had also heard him say,[g] “The Lord says, ‘This city will certainly be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon. They will capture it.’”[h] So these officials said to the king, “This man must be put to death. For he is demoralizing[i] the soldiers who are left in the city as well as all the other people there by these things he is saying.[j] This[k] man is not seeking to help these people but is trying to harm them.”[l] King Zedekiah said to them, “Very well, you can do what you want with him.[m] For I cannot do anything to stop you.”[n] So the officials[o] took Jeremiah and put him in the cistern[p] of Malkijah, one of the royal princes,[q] that was in the courtyard of the guardhouse. There was no water in the cistern, only mud. So when they lowered Jeremiah into the cistern with ropes he sank in the mud.[r]

An Ethiopian Official Rescues Jeremiah from the Cistern

An Ethiopian, Ebed Melech,[s] a court official in the royal palace, heard that Jeremiah had been put[t] in the cistern. While the king was holding court[u] at the Benjamin Gate, Ebed Melech departed the palace and went to speak to the king. He said to him, “Your royal Majesty, those men have been very wicked in all that they have done to the prophet Jeremiah. They have thrown him into a cistern and he is sure to die of starvation there because there is no food left in the city.”[v] 10 Then the king gave Ebed Melech the Ethiopian the following order: “Take thirty[w] men with you from here and go pull the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before he dies.” 11 So Ebed Melech took the men with him and went to a room under the treasure room in the palace.[x] He got some worn-out clothes and old rags[y] from there and let them down by ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern. 12 Ebed Melech[z] called down to Jeremiah, “Put these rags and worn-out clothes under your armpits to pad the ropes.”[aa] Jeremiah did as Ebed Melech instructed.[ab] 13 So they pulled Jeremiah up from the cistern with ropes. Jeremiah, however, still remained confined[ac] to the courtyard of the guardhouse.

Jeremiah Responds to Zedekiah’s Request for Secret Advice

14 Some time later[ad] Zedekiah sent and had Jeremiah brought to him at the third entrance[ae] of the Lord’s temple. The king said to Jeremiah, “I would like to ask you a question. Do not hide anything from me when you answer.”[af] 15 Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I answer you, you will certainly kill me.[ag] If I give you advice, you will not listen to me.” 16 So King Zedekiah made a secret promise to Jeremiah and sealed it with an oath. He promised,[ah] “As surely as the Lord lives who has given us life and breath,[ai] I promise you this: I will not kill you or hand you over to those men who want to kill you.”[aj]

17 Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “The Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel,[ak] says, ‘You must surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon. If you do, your life will be spared[al] and this city will not be burned down. Indeed, you and your whole family will be spared. 18 But if you do not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be handed over to the Babylonians[am] and they will burn it down. You yourself will not escape from them.’”[an] 19 Then King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Babylonians.[ao] The Babylonians might hand me over to them and they will torture me.”[ap] 20 Then Jeremiah answered, “You will not be handed over to them. Please obey the Lord by doing what I have been telling you.[aq] Then all will go well with you and your life will be spared.[ar] 21 But if you refuse to surrender, the Lord has shown me a vision of what will happen. Here is what I saw: 22 All the women who are left in the royal palace of Judah will be led out to the officers of the king of Babylon. They will taunt you saying:[as]

“‘Your trusted friends misled you;
they have gotten the best of you.
Now that your feet are stuck in the mud,
they have turned their backs on you.’[at]

23 “All your wives and your children will be turned over to the Babylonians.[au] You yourself will not escape from them but will be captured by the[av] king of Babylon. This city will be burned down.”[aw]

24 Then Zedekiah told Jeremiah, “Do not let anyone know about the conversation we have had.[ax] If you do, you will die.[ay] 25 The officials may hear that I have talked with you. They may come to you and say, ‘Tell us what you said to the king and what the king said to you.[az] Do not hide anything from us. If you do, we will kill you.’[ba] 26 If they do this, tell[bb] them, ‘I was pleading with the king not to send me back to die in the dungeon of Jonathan’s house.’”[bc] 27 All the officials did indeed come and question Jeremiah.[bd] He told them exactly what the king had instructed him to say.[be] They stopped questioning him any further because no one had actually heard their conversation.[bf] 28 So Jeremiah remained confined[bg] in the courtyard of the guardhouse until the day Jerusalem was captured.

The Fall of Jerusalem and Its Aftermath

The following events occurred when Jerusalem was captured.[bh]


  1. Jeremiah 38:1 tn The name is spelled “Jucal” in the Hebrew text here rather than “Jehucal” as in Jer 37:3. The translation uses the same spelling throughout so that the English reader can identify these as the same Jehucal was a member of the delegation sent to Jeremiah by Zedekiah in Jer 37:3.
  2. Jeremiah 38:1 sn Pashhur was a member of the delegation sent to Jeremiah in 21:2. For the relative sequence of these two delegations, see the study note on 21:1.
  3. Jeremiah 38:1 tn J. Bright (Jeremiah [AB], 226, 30) is probably correct in translating the verbs here as pluperfects and explaining that these words are prophecies Jeremiah uttered before his arrest, not prophecies of his delivered to the people by intermediaries he sent while confined in the courtyard of the guardhouse. For the use of the vav consecutive + imperfect to denote the pluperfect, see the discussion and examples in IBHS 552-53 §33.2.3a and see the usage in Exod 4:19. The words that are cited in v. 2 are those recorded in 21:9 on the occasion of the first delegation, and those in v. 3 are those recorded in 21:10; 34:2; 37:8; 32:28, all except the last delivered before Jeremiah was confined in the courtyard of the guardhouse.
  4. Jeremiah 38:2 tn Heb “by sword, by starvation, or by disease.”
  5. Jeremiah 38:2 tn Heb “those who go out to the Chaldeans.” For the rendering “Babylonians” for “Chaldeans,” see the study note on 21:4.
  6. Jeremiah 38:2 tn Heb “his life will be to him for spoil, and he will live.” For the meaning of this idiom see the study note on 21:9. The words “and he will live” have been left out of the translation because they are redundant after “will live” and “they will escape with their lives.”sn See Jer 21:9 for this prophecy.
  7. Jeremiah 38:3 tn The words “They had also heard him say” are not in the Hebrew text but are in the translation for clarity, to eliminate any confusion possible if no introduction preceded a literal translation: “Thus says the Lord.”
  8. Jeremiah 38:3 sn See Jer 21:10; 32:28; 34:2; 37:8 for this same prophecy. Jeremiah had repeatedly said this or words to the same effect.
  9. Jeremiah 38:4 tn Heb “weakening the hands of.” For this idiom see BDB 951 s.v. רָפָה Pi. and compare the usage in Isa 13:7 and Ezek 21:7 (21:12 HT).
  10. Jeremiah 38:4 tn Heb “by saying these things.”
  11. Jeremiah 38:4 tn The Hebrew particle כִּי (ki) has not been rendered here because it is introducing a causal clause parallel to the preceding one. The rendering “For” might be misunderstood as a grounds for the preceding statement. To render “And” or “Moreover” sounds a little odd here. If the particle must be represented, “Moreover” is perhaps the best translation.
  12. Jeremiah 38:4 tn Or “is not looking out for these people’s best interests but is really trying to do them harm”; Heb “is not seeking the welfare [or “well-being”; Hebrew shalom] of this people but [their] harm [more literally, evil].”
  13. Jeremiah 38:5 tn Heb “Behold, he is in your hands [= power/control].”
  14. Jeremiah 38:5 tn Heb “For the king cannot do a thing with/against you.” The personal pronoun “I” is substituted in the English translation due to differences in style. Hebrew style often uses the third person or the title in speaking of oneself, but English rarely, if ever, does. Compare the common paraphrasis of “your servant” for “I” in Hebrew (cf. BDB 714 s.v. עֶבֶד 6 and see 1 Sam 20:7, 8). Also, see Pss 61:6-7 (61:7 HT) and 63:11 (63:12 HT), where the king is praying for himself as “the king.” For the meaning of יָכֹל (yakhol) as “to be able to do anything,” see BDB 407 s.v. יָכֹל 1.g.
  15. Jeremiah 38:6 tn Heb “they.”
  16. Jeremiah 38:6 sn A cistern was a pear-shaped pit with a narrow opening. Cisterns were cut or dug in the limestone rock and lined with plaster to prevent seepage. They were used to collect and store rainwater or water carried up from a spring.
  17. Jeremiah 38:6 tn Heb “the son of the king.” See the translator’s note on Jer 36:26 for the rendering here.
  18. Jeremiah 38:6 tn Heb “And they let Jeremiah down with ropes, and in the cistern there was no water, only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.” The clauses have been reordered and restructured to create a more natural and smoother order in English.
  19. Jeremiah 38:7 sn This individual, Ebed Melech, is mentioned only here. Later he will be promised deliverance from destruction when the city falls because he had shown trust in God (see Jer 39:16-18).
  20. Jeremiah 38:7 tn Heb “Ebed Melech, the Cushite, a man, an eunuch/official, and he was [= who was; a circumstantial clause] in the house of the king, heard that they had put Jeremiah…” The passive construction “Jeremiah had been put” was chosen to avoid the indefinite subject “they” or the addition of “the officials.” For the translation of סָרִיס (saris) as “official” here rather than “eunuch,” see the translator’s note on 29:2 and see also the usage in 34:19. For the translation of “Cushite” as Ethiopian, see the study note on 13:23.
  21. Jeremiah 38:7 tn Heb “And the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate.” This clause is circumstantial to the following clause, thus signifying, “while the king was…” Most commentators agree that the reference to sitting in the gate here likely refers to the same kind of judicial context that has been posited for 26:10 (see the translator’s note there for further references). Hence the translation renders “sitting” with the more technical “holding court” to better reflect the probable situation.
  22. Jeremiah 38:9 tn Heb “Those men have made evil all they have done to the prophet Jeremiah in that they have thrown him into the cistern, and he will die of starvation in the place where he is because there is no more food in the city.” The particle אֵת (ʾet) before “they have thrown” (אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִשְׁלִיכוּ, ʾet ʾasher hishlikhu) is explanatory or further definition of “all they have done to” (i.e., the particle is repeated for apposition). The verb form “and he is sure to die” is an unusual use of the vav (ו) consecutive + imperfect that the grammars see as giving a logical consequence without a past nuance (cf. GKC 328 §111.l and IBHS 557-58 §33.3.1f).sn “Because there isn’t any food left in the city” is rhetorical exaggeration; the food did not run out until just before the city fell. Perhaps the intent is to refer to the fact that there was no food in the city for people so confined (i.e., in solitary confinement).
  23. Jeremiah 38:10 tc Some modern English versions (e.g., NRSV, REB, TEV) and commentaries read “three” on the basis that thirty men would not be necessary for the task (cf. J. Bright, Jeremiah [AB], 231). But cisterns could be 15 to 20 feet deep. Though the difference in “three” and “thirty” involves minimal emendation (שְׁלֹשָׁה [sheloshah] for שְׁלֹשִׁים [sheloshim]), there is no textual or versional evidence for it except one Hebrew ms. The number could also have been large to prevent officials from hindering Ebed Melech in accomplishing the task.
  24. Jeremiah 38:11 tn Heb “went into the palace to under the treasury.” Several of the commentaries (e.g., J. Bright, Jeremiah [AB], 227; J. A. Thompson, Jeremiah [NICOT], 639, n. 6) emend the prepositional phrase “to under” (אֶל תַּחַת, ʾel takhat) to the noun “wardrobe” plus the preposition “to” (אֶל מֶלְתַחַת, ʾel meltakhat). This is a plausible emendation, which would suggest an historical loss of מֶל (mel) due to its similarity with the אֶל (ʾel) that precedes it. However, no textual or versional evidence supports such a reading, and the compound preposition is not in itself objectionable (cf. BDB 1066 s.v. תַּחַת III.1.a). The Greek version reads “the part underground” (representing a Hebrew Vorlage of אֶל תַּחַת הָאָרֶץ, ʾel takhat haʾarets) in place of אֶל תַּחַת הָאוֹצָר (ʾel takhat haʾotsar). The translation follows the Hebrew text but adds the word “room” for the sake of English style.
  25. Jeremiah 38:11 tn Heb “worn-out clothes and worn-out rags.”
  26. Jeremiah 38:12 tn Heb “Ebed Melech the Ethiopian.” The words “the Ethiopian” seem unnecessary and are not repeated in the translation because he has already been identified as such in vv. 7, 10.
  27. Jeremiah 38:12 tn Heb “under the joints of your arms under the ropes.” The two uses of “under” have different orientations and are best reflected by “between your armpits and the ropes” or “under your armpits to pad the ropes.”
  28. Jeremiah 38:12 tn Or “Jeremiah did so.” The alternate translation is what the text reads literally.
  29. Jeremiah 38:13 tn Heb “Jeremiah remained/stayed in the courtyard of the guardhouse.” The translation is meant to better reflect the situation; i.e., Jeremiah was released from the cistern but still had to stay in the courtyard of the guardhouse.
  30. Jeremiah 38:14 tn The words “Some time later” are not in the text but are a way of translating the conjunction “And” or “Then” that introduces this narrative.
  31. Jeremiah 38:14 sn The precise location of this entrance is unknown since it is mentioned nowhere else in the OT. Many commentators equate this with the “king’s outer entry” (mentioned in 2 Kgs 16:18), which appears to have been a private entryway between the temple and the palace.
  32. Jeremiah 38:14 tn The words “when you answer” are not in the text but are implicit in the connection. They are supplied in the translation for the sake of clarity and smoothness of style.
  33. Jeremiah 38:15 tn Or “you will most certainly kill me, won’t you?” Heb “Will you not certainly kill me?” The question is rhetorical and expects a positive answer. In situations like this BDB s.v. לֹא 4.b(β) says that הֲלֹא (haloʾ) “has a tendency to become little more than an affirmative particle, declaring with some rhetorical emphasis what is, or might be, well known.” The idea of certainty is emphasized here by the addition of the infinitive absolute before the finite verb (Joüon 2:422 §123.e).
  34. Jeremiah 38:16 tn Heb “So King Zedekiah secretly swore an oath to Jeremiah, saying.”
  35. Jeremiah 38:16 tn Heb “who has made this life/soul/ breath [נֶפֶשׁ, nefesh] for us.” The Hebrew term נֶפֶשׁ refers to the living, breathing substance of a person that constitutes his very life (cf. BDB 659 s.v. נֶפֶשׁ 1; 3).
  36. Jeremiah 38:16 tn Heb “who are seeking your life.”
  37. Jeremiah 38:17 tn Heb “Yahweh, the God of Armies, the God of Israel.” Cf. 7:3 and 35:17 and see the study note on 2:19.
  38. Jeremiah 38:17 tn Heb “Your life/soul will live.” The quote is a long condition-consequence sentence with compound consequential clauses. It reads, “If you will only go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, your soul [= you yourself; BDB 660 s.v. נֶפֶשׁ 4.a] will live, and this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will live.” The sentence has been broken down and restructured to better conform with contemporary English style. The infinitive absolute in the condition emphasizes the one condition, i.e., going out or surrendering (cf. Joüon 2:423 §123.g, and compare usage in Exod 15:26). For the idiom “go out to” = “surrender to,” see the full idiom in 21:9, “go out and fall over to,” which is condensed in 38:2 to “go out to.” The expression here is the same as in 38:2.
  39. Jeremiah 38:18 tn Heb “Chaldeans.” See the study note on 21:4 for explanation.
  40. Jeremiah 38:18 tn Heb “will not escape from their hand.”sn Zedekiah held out this hope of escape until the end. He tried to escape but was unsuccessful (cf. 39:4-5).
  41. Jeremiah 38:19 tn Heb “Chaldeans.” See the study note on 21:4 for explanation.
  42. Jeremiah 38:19 tn Or “and they will badly abuse me.” For the usage of this verb in the situation presupposed, see Judg 19:25 and 1 Sam 31:4.
  43. Jeremiah 38:20 tn Heb “Please listen to the voice of the Lord with regard to what I have been telling you.” For the idiom “listen to the voice” = “obey,” see BDB 1034 s.v. שָׁמַע 1.m. Obedience here is expressed by following the advice in the qualifying clause, i.e., “what I have been telling you.”
  44. Jeremiah 38:20 tn Heb “your life [or you yourself] will live.” Cf. v. 17 and the translator’s note there for the idiom.
  45. Jeremiah 38:22 tn Heb “And they will say.” The words “taunt you” are supplied in the translation to give the flavor of the words that follow.
  46. Jeremiah 38:22 tn Heb “The men of your friendship incited you and prevailed over you. Your feet are sunk in the mud. They turned backward.” The term “men of your friendship” (cf. BDB 1023 s.v. שָׁלוֹם 5.a) is used to refer to Jeremiah’s “so-called friends” in 20:10, to the trusted friend who deserted the psalmist in Ps 41:10, and to the allies of Edom in Obad 7. According to most commentators it refers here to the false prophets and counselors who urged the king to rebel against Nebuchadnezzar. The verb translated “misled” is a verb that often refers to inciting or instigating someone to do something, frequently with negative connotations (so BDB 694 s.v. סוּת Hiph.2). It is generally translated “deceive” or “mislead” in 2 Kgs 18:32 and 2 Chr 32:11, 15. Here it refers to the fact that his pro-Egyptian counselors induced him to rebel. They proved too powerful for him and prevailed on him (יָכֹל לְ, yakhol le; see BDB 408 s.v. יָכֹל 2.b) to follow a policy that would prove detrimental to him, his family, and the city. The phrase “your feet are sunk in the mud” is figurative for being entangled in great difficulties (so BDB 371 s.v. טָבַע Hoph and compare the usage in the highly figurative description of trouble in Ps 69:2 [69:3 HT]).sn The taunt song here refers to the fact that Zedekiah had been incited into rebellion by pro-Egyptian nobles in his court. They prevailed on him to seek aid from the new Egyptian Pharaoh in 589 b.c. while withholding tribute from Nebuchadnezzar. This led to the downfall of the city, which is depicted in Jeremiah’s vision from the standpoint of its effects on the king himself and his family.
  47. Jeremiah 38:23 tn Heb “Chaldeans.” See the study note on 21:4 for explanation.
  48. Jeremiah 38:23 tn Heb “you yourself will not escape from their hand but will be seized by [caught in] the hand of the king of Babylon.” Neither use of “hand” is natural to the English idiom.
  49. Jeremiah 38:23 tc This translation follows the reading of the Greek version and a few Hebrew mss. The majority of the Hebrew mss read, “and you will burn down this city.” This reading is accepted by the majority of modern commentaries and English versions. Few of the commentaries, however, bother to explain the fact that the particle אֶת (ʾet), which normally marks the accusative object, is functioning here as the subject. For this point of grammar see BDB 85 s.v. I אֵת 1.b. Or this may be another case where אֵת introduces a new subject (see BDB 85 s.v. אֵת 3.α and see usage in 27:8; 36:22).
  50. Jeremiah 38:24 tn Heb “about these words.”
  51. Jeremiah 38:24 tn Or “so that you will not die.” Or “or you will die.” See the similar construction in 37:20 and the translator’s note This is probably not a threat that the king himself will kill Jeremiah, but a premonition that if the pro-Egyptian party that was seeking to kill Jeremiah found out about the conversation, they would go ahead and kill Jeremiah (cf. 38:2-4).
  52. Jeremiah 38:25 tn The phrase “and what the king said to you” is actually at the end of the verse, but most commentators see it as also under the governance of “tell us,” and many commentaries and English versions move the clause forward for the sake of English style as has been done here.
  53. Jeremiah 38:25 tn Or “lest we kill you”; Heb “and we will not kill you,” which, as stated in the translator’s note on 37:20, introduces a negative purpose (or result) clause. See 37:20 and 38:24 for parallel usage.
  54. Jeremiah 38:26 tn Verses 25-26 form a long compound-complex conditional sentence. The condition is found in v. 25 and contains a long quote. The consequence is found in v. 26 and contains another long quote. The Hebrew sentence literally reads: “And if the officials hear that I have talked with you and they come to you and say to you, ‘Please tell us what you said to the king—do not hide from us, and we will not kill you [so that we will not kill you]—and [tell us] what the king said to you,’ then tell them.” The sentence has been broken up to better conform with contemporary English style.
  55. Jeremiah 38:26 tn Heb “I was causing to fall [= presenting] my petition before the king not to send me back to Jonathan’s house to die there.” The phrase “dungeon of” is supplied in the translation to help the reader connect this petition with Jeremiah’s earlier place of imprisonment, where the officials had put him with every intention of letting him die there (37:15-16, 20).sn See Jer 37:15-16, 20.
  56. Jeremiah 38:27 tn Heb “All the officials came to Jeremiah and questioned him.”
  57. Jeremiah 38:27 tn Heb “And he reported to them according to all these words that the king had commanded.”
  58. Jeremiah 38:27 tn Heb “And they were silent from him because the word/matter [i.e., the conversation between Jeremiah and the king] had not been heard.” According to BDB 578 s.v. מִן 1.a the preposition “from” is significant in this construction, implying a verb of motion. That is, “they were [fell] silent [and turned away] from him.”
  59. Jeremiah 38:28 tn Heb “And Jeremiah stayed/remained in the courtyard of the guardhouse…” The translation once again intends to reflect the situation. Jeremiah had a secret meeting with the king at the third entrance to the temple (v. 14). After the conversation with the king, he was returned to the courtyard of the guardhouse (cf. v. 13), where the officials came to question him (v. 27). He was not sent back to the dungeon in Jonathan’s house, as he feared, but was left confined in the courtyard of the guardhouse.
  60. Jeremiah 38:28 tc The precise meaning of this line and its relation to the context are somewhat uncertain. This line is missing from the Greek and Syriac versions and from a few Hebrew mss. Some English versions and commentaries omit it as a double writing of the final words of the preceding line (see, e.g., REB; W. L. Holladay, Jeremiah [Hermeneia], 2:268). Others see it as misplaced from the beginning of 39:3 (see, e.g., NRSV, TEV, J. Bright, Jeremiah [AB], 245). The clause probably does belong syntactically with 39:3 (i.e., כַּאֲשֶׁר [kaʾasher] introduces a temporal clause that is resumed by the vav consecutive on וַיָּבֹאוּ (vayyavoʾu; see BDB 455 s.v. כַּאֲשֶׁר 3), but it should not be moved there because there is no textual evidence for doing so. The intervening verses are to be interpreted as parenthetical, giving the background for the events that follow (see, e.g., the translation in D. Barthélemy, ed., Preliminary and Interim Report on the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project, 4:280). The chapter is not so much concerned with describing how Jerusalem fell as it is with contrasting the fate of Zedekiah, who disregarded the word of the Lord, with the fates of Jeremiah and his benefactor Ebed Melech. Without actually moving the line before 39:3a, the best way to treat it is as a heading, as has been done here.