A prophet for our times
In the Bible, Jeremiah chapter 38, there’s a little-known story I ran across the other day. It’s a short tale full of compassion. It moved me, and it cries out to be retold in these winter days of cold and dark, in these days of war and fright and grief.
Jeremiah the prophet had been warning his nation of a military disaster that would befall the citizens if they didn’t amend their ways, because—among other things—they had been building “houses by unrighteousness and the upper rooms by injustice.” He was referring, of course, to the structure of their society, not their homes.
For his pains, Jeremiah was mistreated in a host of ways. On one occasion, he was thrown into a muddy well. An Ethiopian, Ebed-melech, heard of this and pleaded to the king for Jeremiah’s life.
The king granted his request and Ebed-melech took ropes and three men to rescue Jeremiah. Letting some rags and clothes down with the ropes, he told the prophet to put these rags beneath his armpits. The men hauled Jeremiah out.
What strikes me about this story is its touching detail. Very often, the book of Jeremiah tells its tales with such brevity that Biblical scholars to this day scratch their heads and argue over just what happened. But this story is exquisite in its tender details, illustrating Ebed-melech’s thoughtfulness toward Jeremiah.
Ebed-melech was an Ethiopian, a dark-skinned foreigner exported from his homeland to serve in the king’s household. Furthermore, he was an eunuch, castrated at a young age to be a fit guard in a royal harem.
Ebed-melech had every reason to be bitter and not give a fig for any of the folks with whom he lived. Yet he lobbied for Jeremiah’s release, most likely risking his life to do so, and then so lovingly saw to it that he didn’t get rope burns.
In response, the word of the Lord concerning Ebed-melech is that when the city falls, he will have his “life as a prize of war"—not because he rescued Jeremiah, but because he trusted in the Lord.
In a time when flags are waving everywhere and “God bless America” is emblazoned ubiquitously, we might do well to ask ourselves what the details of our lives declare.
Just whom do we trust?
Our coinage proclaims God, but the rhetoric of the day heralds our military prowess, our way of life, our system of values and our sense of wounded righteousness. However necessary this is (and as a people, we must be involved in a conversation on the degree of that necessity), it seems too clear to me that our national trust is first in our abilities and virtues—and only secondarily ranks our trust in God.
Ebed-melech trusted God first and fundamentally, and out of that foundation of trust, he found the courage to love another who was also a victim. Perhaps the sign of our trust in God will also be found in the compassionate details of our lives, not in the bombast of "might making right."