There’s a window into the later part of Jeremiah’s ministry in Jeremiah 37-38. Previously I have thought that pastors and spiritual leaders encounter difficulty and persecution when they are young and brash and making a lot of mistakes but that when they are older and more polished they will be loved and appreciated and honored and live largely free of hardship. Sometimes that happens. But that was not the experience of any of the apostles. Likely the least difficult end of ministry scenario for any of them was the apostle John, who was exiled to the island of Patmos. It also was not the experience of Jeremiah. Near the end of his ministry as recorded in Jeremiah 37:11–16 he is falsely accused of defecting to the Babylonians. The Babylonians had been laying siege to Jerusalem but withdrew when the Egyptians came to their aid. Jeremiah was leaving the city to take care of family business but a guard saw him and accused him of defecting. He was then arrested, flogged, and thrown in prison.
What follows in Jeremiah 37:17–38:28 are a series of troubling interactions with King Zedekiah of Judah. Zedekiah quietly asks Jeremiah if he has any message from the Lord. The king couldn’t have liked what he heard as Jeremiah tells him plainly, “you will be defeated by the king of Babylon.” Then Jeremiah appeals to the king as to why he has been thrown in prison and pleads that he may be released. Zedekiah only upgrades him to a little nicer cell, and orders that he be given fresh bread daily as long as there is bread to eat in the city. The situation was dire for everyone. Food was scarce. Jeremiah experienced that difficulty along with everyone else.
Not long after this, another group of people complain to the king that Jeremiah was demoralizing the remaining soldiers left to Judah and the king weakly replies to them. “All right, do as you like. I can’t stop you.”
Then this happens:
Jeremiah 38:6 (NLT) 6 So the officials took Jeremiah from his cell and lowered him by ropes into an empty cistern in the prison yard. It belonged to Malkijah, a member of the royal family. There was no water in the cistern, but there was a thick layer of mud at the bottom, and Jeremiah sank down into it.
He was soon befriended and rescued from the cistern, but remained in prison. Again the king wanted to question Jeremiah as if he was hoping for a better answer from the Lord. But Jeremiah told him:
Jeremiah 38:15 (NLT) . . . “If I tell you the truth, you will kill me. And if I give you advice, you won’t listen to me anyway.”
Jeremiah further explains that there is a way for his life and especially the women in his family to be spared a horrendous fate. But in fear Zedekiah does what he believes will protect himself but not protect his family.
Throughout the reading is this picture of how Jeremiah, though faithful to God, was continually exposed to the business end of king Zedekiah’s weak character.
None of this sounds encouraging, but this too is an important part of God’s word and an illustration of the reality of Jesus’ words with which he encouraged his disciples right before his crucifixion:
John 16:33 (NLT)
33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”