It is hard to say which is more astonishing, God’s permitting or men’s perpetrating such villanies as here we find committed. Such base, barbarous, bloody work is here done by men who by their birth should have been men of honour, by their religion just men, and this done upon those of their own nature, their own nation, their own religion, and now their brethren in affliction, when they were all brought under the power of the victorious Chaldeans, and smarting under the judgments of God, upon no provocation, nor with any prospect of advantage—all done, not only in cold blood, but with art and management. We have scarcely such an instance of perfidious cruelty in all the scripture; so that with John, when he saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, we may well wonder with great admiration. But God permitted it for the completing of the ruin of an unhumbled people, and the filling up of the measure of their judgments, who had filled up the measure of their iniquities. Let it inspire us with an indignation at the wickedness of men and an awe of God’s righteousness.
I. Ishmael and his party treacherously killed Gedaliah himself in the first place. Though the king of Babylon had made him a great man, had given him a commission to be governor of the land which he had conquered, though God had made him a good man and a great blessing to his country, and his agency for its welfare was as life from the dead, yet neither could secure him. Ishmael was of the seed royal (Jer. 41:1) and therefore jealous of Gedaliah’s growing greatness, and enraged that he should merit and accept a commission under the king of Babylon. He had ten men with him that were princes of the king too, guided by the same peevish resentments that he was; these had been with Gedaliah before, to put themselves under his protection (Jer. 40:8), and now came again to make him a visit; and they did eat bread together in Mizpah. he entertained them generously, and entertained no jealousy of them, notwithstanding the information given him by Johanan. They pretended friendship to him, and gave him no warning to stand on his guard; he was in sincerity friendly to them, and did all he could to oblige them. But those that did eat bread with him lifted up the heel against him. They did not pick a quarrel with him, but watched an opportunity, when they had him alone, and assassinated him, Jer. 41:2.
II. They likewise put all to the sword that they found in arms there, both Jews and Chaldeans, all that were employed under Gedaliah or were in any capacity to revenge his death, Jer. 41:3. As if enough of the blood of Israelites had not been shed by the Chaldeans, their own princes here mingle it with the blood of the Chaldeans. The vine-dressers and the husbandmen were busy in the fields, and knew nothing of this bloody massacre; so artfully was it carried on and concealed.
III. Some good honest men, that were going all in tears to lament the desolations of Jerusalem, were drawn in by Ishmael, and murdered with the rest. Observe, 1. Whence they came (Jer. 41:5)-- from Shechem, Samaria, and Shiloh, places that had been famous, but wee now reduced; they belonged to the ten tribes, but there were some in those countries that retained an affection for the worship of the God of Israel. 2. Whither they were going—to the house of the Lord, the temple at Jerusalem, which, no doubt, they had heard of the destruction of, and were going to pay their respects to its ashes, to see its ruins, that their eye might affect their heart with sorrow for them. They favour the dust thereof, Ps. 102:14. They took offerings and incense in their hand, that if they should find any altar there, though it were but an altar of earth, and any priest ready to officiate, they might not be without something to offer; if not, yet they showed their good-will, as Abraham, when he came to the place of the altar, though the altar was gone. The people of God used to go rejoicing to the house of the Lord, but these went in the habit of mourners, with their clothes rent and their heads shaven; for the providence of God loudly called to weeping and mourning, because it was not with the faithful worshippers of God as in months past. 3. How they were decoyed into a fatal snare by Ishmael’s malice. Hearing of their approach, he resolved to be the death of them too, so bloodthirsty was he. He seemed as if he hated every one that had the name of an Israelite or the face of an honest man. These pilgrims towards Jerusalem he had a spite to, for the sake of their errand. Ishmael went out to meet them with crocodiles’ tears, pretending to bewail the desolations of Jerusalem as much as they; and, to try how they stood affected to Gedaliah and his government, he courted them into the town and found them to have a respect for him, which confirmed him in his resolution to murder them. He said, Come to Gedaliah, pretending he would have them come and live with him, when really he intended that they should come and die with him, Jer. 41:6. They had heard such a character of Gedaliah that they were willing enough to be acquainted with him; but Ishmael, when he had them in the midst of the town, fell upon them and slew them (Jer. 41:7), and no doubt took the offerings they had and converted them to his own use; for he that would not stick at such a murder would not stick at sacrilege. Notice is taken of his disposing of the dead bodies of these and the rest that he had slain; he tumbled them all into a great pit (Jer. 41:7), the same pit that Asa king of Judah had digged long before, either in the city or adjoining to it, when he built or fortified Mizpah (1 Kgs. 15:22), to be a frontier-garrison against Baasha king of Israel and for fear of him, Jer. 41:9. Note, Those that dig pits with a good intention know not what bad use they may be put to, one time or other. He slew so many that he could not afford them each a grave, or would not do them so much honour, but threw them all promiscuously into one pit. Among these last that were doomed to the slaughter there were ten that obtained a pardon, by working, not on the compassion, but the covetousness, of those that had them at their mercy, Jer. 41:8. They said to Ishmael, when he was about to suck their blood, like an insatiable horseleech, after that of the companions, Slay us not, for we have treasurers in the field, country treasures, large stocks upon the ground, abundance of such commodities as the country affords, wheat and barley, and oil and honey, intimating that they would discover it to him and put him in possession of it all, if he would spare them. Skin for skin, and all that a man has, will he give for his life. This bait prevailed. Ishmael saved them, not for the love of mercy, but for the love of money. Here were riches kept for the owners thereof, not to their hurt (Eccl. 5:13) and to cause them to lose their lives (Job 31:39), but to their good and the preserving of their lives. Solomon observes that sometimes the ransom of a man’s life is his riches. But those who think thus to bribe death, when it comes with commission, and plead with it, saying, Slay us not, for we have treasures in the field, will find death inexorable and themselves wretchedly deceived.
IV. He carried off the people prisoners. The king’s daughters (whom the Chaldeans cared not for troubling themselves with when they had the king’s sons) and the poor of the land, the vine-dressers and husband-men, that were committed to Gedaliah’s charge, were all led away prisoners towards the country of the Ammonites (Jer. 41:10), Ishmael probably intending to make a present of them, as the trophies of his barbarous victory, to the king of that country, that set him on. This melancholy story is a warning to us never to be secure in this world. Worse may be yet to come when we think the worst is over; and that end of one trouble, which we fancy to be the end of all trouble, may prove to be the beginning of another, of a greater. These prisoners thought, Surely the bitterness of death, and of captivity, is past; and yet some died by the sword and others went into captivity. When we think ourselves safe, and begin to be easy, destruction may come that way that we little expect it. There is many a ship wrecked in the harbour. We can never be sure of peace on this side heaven.