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Consequences of disobedience (Jeremiah 34:1–22)

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I. A Warning to Zedekiah of His Fate (34:1–7)
A. Nebuchadnezzar was joined in the fight by “all the kingdoms and peoples in the empire he ruled.”
1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army, all the kingdoms of the earth under his dominion, and all the people, fought against Jerusalem and all its cities, saying, 2 “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah and tell him, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. 3 And you shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be taken and delivered into his hand; your eyes shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon, he shall speak with you face to face, and you shall go to Babylon.’ ” ’
With his superior forces Nebuchadnezzar was overcoming all opposition in Judah as he simultaneously attacked Jerusalem and the surrounding towns. During the height of the siege, the Lord sent Jeremiah to King Zedekiah with another warning. He told the king that the city was going to be taken by Nebuchadnezzar and burned.
Zedekiah himself would be taken to Babylon as a prisoner of war. God gave Jeremiah a message for King Zedekiah. This message was that Zedekiah’s rebellion against Babylon would not succeed. God had already determined to hand the city over to the Babylonians, who would burn it down.
B. In the midst of judgment God did offer a promise of peace.
4 Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah! Thus says the LORD concerning you: ‘You shall not die by the sword. 5 You shall die in peace; as in the ceremonies of your fathers, the former kings who were before you, so they shall burn incense for you and lament for you, saying, “Alas, lord!” For I have pronounced the word, says the LORD.’ ”6 Then Jeremiah the prophet spoke all these words to Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem, 7 when the king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem and all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and Azekah; for only these fortified cities remained of the cities of Judah.
Because of his rebellion Zedekiah could have been executed by Nebuchadnezzar, but God promised that he would not die by the sword. He would die peacefully and would receive a proper funeral befitting a king (in contrast with Jehoiakim; cf. 22:18–19). The people would kindle a funeral fire to honor and lament Zedekiah.
Jeremiah delivered his message to King Zedekiah as the army … of Babylon relentlessly continued its attack against Jerusalem and the two other fortified cities that remained in Judah-Lachish and Azekah. All the other Judean cities had already fallen.
II.A Broken Promise of Freedom for the Slaves (34:8–11)
8 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty to them: 9 that every man should set free his male and female slave—a Hebrew man or woman—that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage. 10 Now when all the princes and all the people, who had entered into the covenant, heard that everyone should set free his male and female slaves, that no one should keep them in bondage anymore, they obeyed and let them go. 11 But afterward they changed their minds and made the male and female slaves return, whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male and female slaves.
A. If an Israelite could not pay his debts, he sometimes sold himself, his family, or his children to serve the creditor for a period of years.
The Mosaic law provided for the freeing of Israelite slaves after six years of servitude. Lifetime servitude of a Hebrew was prohibited by the law. Apparently slave owners had been ignoring the law, which is not surprising since they violated most of the other laws.
During the siege Zedekiah made a covenant with the people of Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. Some owners may have believed that by obeying the law and freeing the slaves, they would gain favor with God and he would deliver them from the Babylonians.
B. During a lull in the siege, they violated the law of release and took back the slaves they had freed.
They probably assumed that the danger had passed and that the Babylonian army would not return.
So the people reneged on their promise to God when it seemed that life would return to normal.
III. God’s Denunciation of the Broken Promise (34:12–16)
12 Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, 13 “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, 14 “At the end of seven years let every man set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to him; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you.” But your fathers did not obey Me nor incline their ear. 15 Then you recently turned and did what was right in My sight—every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. 16 Then you turned around and profaned My name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom he had set at liberty, at their pleasure, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.’
A. The Lord was not pleased with what the slave owners had done.
He reminded them that he had made a covenant with their forefathers when he brought them out of Egypt, out of the “land of slavery”. A people who had experienced slavery in their past should have had a more compassionate attitude toward others who were enslaved.
Jeremiah reminded them that the law required that every seventh year they must free any Hebrew who had sold himself to them. After serving for six years the slave was to be freed. The seventh year was considered to be a year of rest for the slave, as well as for the land.
B. God was pleased when the slave owners decided to release the slaves.
Their act of liberation was right in his sight. He reminded them of the seriousness of their commitment by making a covenant in the temple. Now he was angry because they had turned away from their commitment.
By repudiating such a solemn agreement, the effect was to profane His name. They retook them by force in total disregard for their covenant with God.
IV. Punishment for Not Freeing the Slaves (34:17–22)
17 “Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and every one to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,’ says the LORD ‘to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine! And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it—19 the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf—20 I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth. 21 And I will give Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army which has gone back from you. 22 Behold, I will command,’ says the LORD, ‘and cause them to return to this city. They will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.’ ”
A. The Lord announced the fate of the rebellious people.
They had not given freedom to the slaves, so, by use of irony, God was now going to give them freedom. It was not a freedom they would desire but freedom to fall by the sword, plague, and famine.
The punishment of those who violated their covenant would be more severe than a slap on the wrist. God announced that he would treat them like a calf they cut in two by making them walk between its pieces.
B. All the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem and “court officials” would be handed over to their enemies.
They would not be given honorable burial, an omission that was considered a horrible fate by the Hebrews. Their unburied corpses would become food for birds and wild animals.
Whatever other lessons and warnings may be gleaned from God’s angry announcement of punishment, it reminds us that he takes covenants seriously. He does not require that we make them. It is better not to enter a covenant than to enter it and not keep it.
The chapter reveals again the treachery and hardness of the hearts of the leaders and people of Jerusalem. The broken covenant and the retaking of the slaves served as one more justification for the punishment that was already decreed. God is not mocked. Whatever one sows, one reaps.
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