Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
In this chapter two events are mentioned which took place in the last period of the siege of Jerusalem, shortly before the capture of the city by the Chaldeans. According to Jer 38:4, the number of fighting men had now very much decreased; and according to Jer 38:19, the number of deserters to the Chaldeans had become large. Moreover, according to Jer 38:9, famine had already begun to prevail; this hastened the fall of the city.
Jeremiah is cast into a miry pit, but drawn out again by Ebedmelech the Cushite. Jer 38:1-6. Being confined in the court of the guard attached to the royal palace, Jeremiah had opportunities of conversing with the soldiers stationed there and the people of Judah who came thither (cf. Jer 38:1 with Jer 32:8, Jer 32:12), and of declaring, in opposition to them, his conviction (which he had indeed expressed from the beginning of the siege) that all resistance to the Chaldeans would be fruitless, and only bring destruction (cf. Jer 21:9.). On this account, the princes who were of a hostile disposition towards him were so embittered, that they resolved on his death, and obtain from the king permission to cast him into a deep pit with mire at the bottom. In v. 1 four of these princes are named, two of whom, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashur the son of Malchiah, are known, from Jer 37:3 and Jer 21:1, as confidants of the king; the other two, Shephatiah the son of Mattan, and Gedaliah the son of Pashur, are not mentioned elsewhere. Gedaliah was probably a son of the Pashur who had once put Jeremiah in the stocks (Jer 20:1-2). The words of the prophet, Jer 38:2, Jer 38:3, are substantially the same as he had already uttered at the beginning of the siege, Jer 21:9 (יחיה as in Jer 21:9). Jer 38:4. The princes said to the king, "Let this man, we beseech thee, be put to death for the construction, see on Jer 35:14; for therefore i.e., because no one puts him out of existence - על־כּן as in Jer 29:28 he weakens the hands of the men of war who remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking words like these to them; for this man does not seek the welfare of this people, but their ill." מרפּא for מרפּא, to cause the hands of any one to be relaxed, i.e., to make him dispirited; cf. Ezr 4:4; Isa 35:3. דּרשׁ with ל htiw , as Job 10:6; Deu 12:30; Ch1 22:19, etc., elsewhere with the accusatival את; cf. Jer 29:7 et passim. On this point cf. Jer 29:7. The allegation which the princes made against Jeremiah was possibly correct. The constancy with which Jeremiah declared that resistance was useless, since, in accordance with the divine decree, Jerusalem was to be taken and burnt by the Chaldeans, could not but make the soldiers and the people unwilling any longer to sacrifice their lives in defending the city. Nevertheless the complaint was unjust, because Jeremiah was not expressing his own personal opinion, but was declaring the word of the Lord, and that, too, not from any want of patriotism or through personal cowardice, but in the conviction, derived from the divine revelation, that it was only by voluntary submission that the fate of the besieged could be mitigated; hence he acted from a deep feeling of love to the people, and in order to avert complete destruction from them. The courage of the people which he sought to weaken was not a heroic courage founded on genuine trust in God, but carnal obstinacy, which could not but lead to ruin.
The king said, "Behold, he is in your hand, for the king can do nothing alongside of you." This reply indicates not merely the weakness and powerlessness of the king against his princes, but also his inward aversion to the testimony of the man of God. "That he would like to save him, just as he afterwards does (Jer 38:10)," is not implied in what he says, with which he delivers up the prophet to the spite of his enemies. Though the princes had at once put Jeremiah to death, the king would not even have been able to reproach them. The want of courage vigorously to oppose the demand of the princes did not spring from any kindly feeling towards the prophet, but partly from moral weakness of character, partly from inward repugnance to the word of God proclaimed by Jeremiah. On the construction אין וּיכל instead of the participle from יכול, which does not occur, cf. Ewald, 321, a. אתכם is certainly in form an accusative; but it cannot be such, since דּבר follows as the accusative: it is therefore either to be pointed אתּכם or to be considered as standing for it, just as אותך often occurs for אתּך, "with," i.e., "along with you."
The princes (שׂרים) now cast Jeremiah into the pit of the king's son (בּן־מלך, see on Jer 36:26) Malchiah, which was in the court of the prison, letting him down with ropes into the pit, in which there was no water, but mud; into this Jeremiah sank. The act is first mentioned in a general way in the words, "they cast him into the pit;" then the mode of proceeding is particularized in the words, "and they let him down," etc. On the expression הבּור מלכּיּהוּ, "the pit of Malchiah," cf. Ewald, 290, d: the article stands here before the nomen regens, because the nomen rectum, from being a proper name, cannot take it; and yet the pit must be pointed out as one well known and definite. That it was very deep, and that Jeremiah must have perished in it if he were not soon taken out again, is evident from the very fact that they were obliged to use ropes in letting him down, and still more so from the trouble caused in pulling him out (Jer 38:10-12). That the princes did not at once put the prophet to death with the sword was not owing to any feeling of respect for the king, because the latter had not pronounced sentence of death on him, but because they sought to put the prophet to a final death, and yet at the same time wished to silence the voice of conscience with the excuse that they had not shed his blood.
The deliverance of Jeremiah. Ebedmelech the Cushite, a eunuch, heard of what had happened to Jeremiah. אישׁ סריס .haimer signifies a eunuch: the אישׁ shows that סריס is here to be taken in its proper meaning, not in the metaphorical sense of an officer of the court. Since the king had many wives (Jer 38:22.), the presence of a eunuch at the court, as overseer of the harem, cannot seem strange. The law of Moses, indeed, prohibited castration (Deu 23:2); but the man was a foreigner, and had been taken by the king into his service as one castrated. עבד מלך is a proper name (otherwise it must have been written המּלך); the name is a genuine Hebrew one, and probably may have been assumed when the man entered the service of Zedekiah. - On hearing of what had occurred, the Ethiopian went to the king, who was sitting in the gate of Benjamin, on the north wall of the city, which was probably the point most threatened by the besiegers, and said to him, Jer 38:9, "My lord, O king, these men have acted wickedly in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the pit; and he is dying of hunger on the spot, for there is no more bread in the city." הרעוּ את־א, lit.,: "they have done wickedly what they have done." ויּמת cannot be translated, "and he died on the spot," for Ebedmelech wishes to save him before he dies of hunger. But neither does it stand for וימת, "so that he must die." The imperfect with Vav consecutive expresses the consequence of a preceding act, and usually stands in the narrative as a historic tense; but it may also declare what necessarily follows or will follow from what precedes; cf. Ewald, 342, a. Thus ויּמת stands here in the sense, "and so he is dying," i.e., "he must die of hunger." תּחתּיו, "on his spot," i.e., on the place where he is; cf. Sa2 2:23. The reason, "for there is no longer any bread (הלחם with the article, the necessary bread) in the city," is not to be taken in the exact sense of the words, but merely expresses the greatest deficiency in provisions. As long as Jeremiah was in the court of the prison, he received, like the officers of the court, at the king's order, his ration of bread every day (Jer 37:21). But after he had been cast into the pit, that royal ordinance no longer applied to him, so that he was given over to the tender mercies of others, from whom, in the prevailing scarcity of bread, he had not much to hope for.
Then the king commanded the Ethiopian, "Take hence thirty men in thine hand, and bring up Jeremiah out of the pit before he dies." בידך, "in thine hand," i.e., under your direction; cf. Num 31:49. The number thirty has been found too great; and Ewald, Hitzig, and Graf would read שׁלשׁה, because the syntax requires the singular אישׁ after שׁלשׁים, and because at that time, when the fighting men had already decreased in number (Jer 38:4), thirty men could not be sent away from a post in danger without difficulty. These two arguments are quite invalid. The syntax does not demand אישׁ; for with the tens (20-90) the noun frequently follows in the plural as well as in the singular, if the number precede; cf. Sa2 3:20; Kg2 2:16, etc.; see also Gesenius' Grammar, 120, 2. The other argument is based on arbitrary hypotheses; for the passage neither speaks of fighting men, nor states that they would be taken from a post in danger. Ebedmelech was to take thirty men, not because they would all be required for drawing out the prophet, but for making surer work in effecting the deliverance of the prophet, against all possible attempts on the part of the princes or of the populace to prevent them.
Ebedmelech took the men at his hand, went into the king's house under the treasury, and took thence rags of torn and of worn-out garments, and let them down on ropes to Jeremiah into the pit, and said to him, "Put, I pray thee, the rages of the torn and cast-off clothes under thine arm-pits under the ropes." Jeremiah did so, and then they drew him out of the pit by the ropes. תּחת is a room under the treasury. בּלוי, in Jer 38:12 בּלואים, from בּלה, to be worn away (of clothes), are rags. סחבות (from סחב, to drag, drag about, tear to pieces) are torn pieces of clothing. מלחים, worn-out garments, from מלח, in Niphal, Isa 51:6, to vanish, dissolve away. The article at הסּחבות is expunged from the Qeri for sake of uniformity, because it is not found with מלחים; but it may as well be allowed to stand as be removed. אצּילות ידים, properly the roots of the hands, are not the knuckles of the hand, but the shoulders of the arms. מתּחת לחבלים, under the ropes; i.e., the rags were to serve as pads to the ropes which were to be placed under the arm-pits, to prevent the ropes from cutting the flesh. When Jeremiah had been drawn out in this way from the deep pit of mire, he remained in the court of the prison.
Conversation between the king and the prophet. - Jer 38:14. King Zedekiah was desirous of once more hearing a message of God from the prophet, and for this object had him brought into the third entrance in the house of the Lord. Nothing further is known about the situation and the nature of this entrance; possibly it led from the palace to the temple, and seems to have been an enclosed space, for the king could carry on a private conversation there with the prophet. The king said to him, "I ask you about a matter, do not conceal anything from me." He meant a message from God regarding the final issue of the siege, cf. Jer 37:7. Jeremiah, knowing the aversion of the king to the truth, replies, Jer 38:15 : "If I tell thee [sc. the word of the Lord], wilt thou not assuredly kill me? And if I were to give thee advice, thou wouldst not listen to me." Jer 38:16. Then the king sware to him secretly, "As Jahveh liveth, who hath made us this soul, I shall certainly not kill thee, nor deliver thee into the hand of these men who seek thy life." את אשׁר, as in Jer 27:8, properly means, "with regard to Him who has created us." The Qeri expunges את. "These men" are the princes mentioned in Jer 38:1.
After this solemn asseveration of the king, Jeremiah said to him, "Thus saith Jahveh, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If thou wilt assuredly go out to the princes of the king of Babylon [i.e., wilt surrender thyself to them, cf. Kg2 18:31; Kg2 24:12], then thy soul shall live, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and thou and thy house shall live. But if thou dost not go out to the princes of the king of Babylon, then this city will be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and thou shalt not escape out of their hand." The word of God is the same that Jeremiah had already repeatedly announced to the king, cf. Jer 34:2-5; Jer 32:4; Jer 21:4-10. The princes (chiefs, generals) of the king of Babylon are named, because they commanded the besieging army (Jer 39:3, Jer 39:13); Nebuchadnezzar himself had his headquarters at Riblah, Jer 39:5.
Against the advice that he should save his life by surrendering to the Chaldeans, Zedekiah suggests the consideration, "I am afraid of the Jews, who have deserted [נפל אל as in Jer 37:13] to the Chaldeans, lest they give me into their hands and maltreat me." התעלּל בּ, illudere alicui, to abuse any one by mockery or ill-treatment; cf. Num 22:29; Ch1 10:4, etc. Jeremiah replies, Jer 38:20., "They will not give thee up. Yet, pray, listen to the voice of Jahveh, in that which I say to thee, that it may be well with thee, and that thy soul may live. Jer 38:21. But if thou dost refuse to go out i.e., to surrender thyself to the Chaldeans, this is the word which the Lord hath shown me has revealed to me: Jer 38:22. Behold, all the women that are left in the house of the king of Judah shall be brought out to the princes of the king of Babylon, and those [women] shall say, Thy friends have misled thee and have overcome thee; thy feet are sunk in the mud, they have turned away back. Jer 38:23. And all thy wives and thy children shall they bring out to the Chaldeans, and thou shalt not escape out of their hand; for thou shalt be seized by the hand of the king of Babylon, and thou shalt burn this city with fire." - After Jeremiah had once more assured the king that he would save his life by voluntary surrender, he announces to him that, on the other alternative, instead of his becoming the sport of the deserters, the women of his harem would be insulted. The women who remain in the king's house, as distinguished from "thy wives" (Jer 38:23), are the women of the royal harem, the wives of former kings, who remain in the harem as the concubines of the reigning king. These are to be brought out to the generals of the Chaldean king, and to sing a satire on him, to this effect: "Thy friends have misled thee, and overpowered thee," etc. The first sentence of this song is from Oba 1:7, where השּׁיאוּך ere stands instead of הסּיתוּך. The friends (אנשׁי שׁלמך, cf. Jer 20:10) are his great men and his false prophets. Through their counsels, these have led him astray, and brought him into a bog, in which his feet stick fast, and then they have gone back; i.e., instead of helping him out, they have deserted him, leaving him sticking in the bog. The expression is figurative, and the meaning of the figure is plain (רגלך is plural). בּץ, ἁπ λεγ.., is equivalent to בּצּה, a bog, Job 8:11. Moreover, the wives and children of Zedekiah are to fall into the hand of the Chaldeans. מוצאים, the participle, is used instead of the finite tense to express the notion of indefinite personality: "they bring them out." תּתּפשׂ בּיד ".tuo meht gnirb , properly, "to be seized in the hand," is a pregnant construction for, "to fall into the hand and be held fast by it." "Thou shalt burn this city," i.e., bring the blame of burning it upon thyself. Ewald, Hitzig, and Graf, following the lxx, Syr., and Chald., would change תּשׂרף into תּשּׂרף, but needlessly.
From the king's weakness of character, and his dependence on his evil counsellors, neither could this interview have any result. Partly from want of firmness, but chiefly from fear of the reproaches of his princes, he did not venture to surrender himself and the city to the Chaldeans. Hence he did not wish that his interview with the prophet should be known, partly for the purpose of sparing himself reproaches from the princes, partly also, perhaps, not to expose the prophet to further persecutions on the part of the great men. Accordingly, he dismissed Jeremiah with this instruction: "Let no man know of these words, lest thou die." But if the princes should learn that the king had been speaking with him, and asked him, "Tell us, now, what thou hast said to the king, do not hide it from us, and we will not kill thee; and what did the king say to thee?" then he was to say to them, "I presented my supplication before the king, that he would not send me back to the house of Jonathan, to die there." As to the house of Jonathan, see on Jer 37:15. On מפּיל תּחנּתי cf. Jer 36:7; Jer 37:20.
What the king had supposed actually occurred, and Jeremiah gave the princes, who asked about the conversation, the reply that the king had prepared for him. יחרשׁוּ ממּנּוּ .mih rof deraperp, they went away in silence from him, and left him in peace; cf. Sa1 7:8. כּי לא נשׁמע , for the matter, the real subject of the conversation did not become known. So Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison till the day of the capture of Jerusalem. - The last sentence of Jer 38:28 belongs to the following chapter, and forms the introductory sentence of the passage whose conclusion follows in Jer 39:3.