T HE STORY BEGINS in Jeremiah, chapter 37. The year is 587 B.C. Babylon is the world’s major military and they are successfully conquering every nation in the Middle East.
Jeremiah is God’s prophet. Despite Jeremiah’s warnings, King Zedekiah enters into an military alliance with Egypt against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon responds by invading Judah in a 30-month siege of Jerusalem. The blockade prevents people from leaving, food from entering. Physically and spiritually, conditions grow dark.
King Zedekiah secretly sends for Jeremiah and asks, “Is there any word from the LORD?” Jeremiah replies, “Yes, you will be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon.”
Not the news you want to hear, if you are king. Not news you want to hear when your people are dying while you futilely try to remain in power.
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THE BABYLONIAN army slowly chokes the life out of Jerusalem. Food is scarce. Women and children, as always, bear the brunt of the suffering. Jeremiah warns Zedekiah that the best way, the life-saving way, the God-directed way, to bring an end to the hunger, the suffering and certain death is to surrender.
The king will lose his power but the people will live.
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THE POLITICAL LEADERS of Judah think Egypt is their savior. Jeremiah, the prophet of God, is unpatriotic. His talk is treasonous. His words hurt the army’s morale. He is accused of sedition. The government must show confidence in order to ease the minds of the sick, hungry, and weak people of the city. To do that, Jeremiah has to go.
Jeremiah is snatched off the street, like a character in a Russian spy movie, and is thrown into a cistern. If you don’t know, a cistern is a hole in the ground that holds rain water. The bottom is muddy, and when Jeremiah is thrown in, he sinks into the slime.
Jeremiah is left there to starve to death.
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AT THAT MOMENT, Ebed-Melek enters the picture and becomes an “improbable hero.” Ebed means “a servant”; Melek denotes “king.” He is simply a “servant of the king.” Nameless. Known for his job, not as a person. Ebed-Melek is a black Cushite eunuch without an identity. We know his job. His ethnic origin. His sexual status but not his name. He is a foreign, nameless, castrated servant in the court of the king.
But this we do know about him: Ebed-Melek is courageous. He learns that Jeremiah has been put in the cistern and left to die. He goes to the king to save Jeremiah’s life.
If you remember from other stories, going before the king is a risky proposition. Normally in ancient days, the king was a protected person, and only top advisors could gain an audience with him unless it was by invitation.
Ebed-Melek is a servant without position or power. He may be welcomed. He may be imprisoned. He may be killed. With these concerns cast aside, Ebed-Melek goes before the king. Not in private, but in the public square while the king is surrounded by the very people who threw Jeremiah into the pit.
Except for this foreigner, nobody pleads for Jeremiah’s life.
Zedekiah startles everyone by reversing his decision and authorizes Ebed-Melek to rescue him.
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EBED-MELEK is pro-life.
During this time, life is fragile and death is dominant. You can read in Lamentations some of the pain and suffering. Babies are sacrificed on the altars of foreign gods; slaves are held contrary to the law. In extreme cases, mothers eat their young because of the famine’s severity! There is no respect for the intrinsic value of human life.
However, Ebed-Melek believes that people are important, that life is valuable. When an innocent person’s life is at stake, his own safety is not of the greatest consequence. He recognizes inequity and seeks to restore justice. He seeks to free Jeremiah from his death-row prison cell. The result is that Jeremiah is pulled from the pit and lives.
Ebed-Melek, this unnamed black Cushite eunuch, servant is an improbable hero.
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SO WHAT HAPPENS?
King Zedekiah refuses to listen to Jeremiah, God’s prophet. He and his court refuse to surrender.
Seeking to save his own life, Zedekiah and others attempt to sneak out of the besieged city. They are caught by the Babylonians. His courtiers are slaughtered before his eyes. He is then blinded, handcuffed, and forced-marched 1700 miles to Babylon.
The city is burned to the ground, the temple is destroyed and the wealthy are led away. Only the poor are left in freedom.
What happens to our “improbable hero”? The Lord gives Jeremiah a special message for Ebed-Melek.
“Go and tell Ebed-Melek the Cushite, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am about to fulfill my words against this city — words concerning disaster, not prosperity … . But I will rescue you on that day, declares the LORD; you will not be given into the hands of those you fear. I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life.’ ” (Jeremiah 39:15–18)