When we watch the news or peruse social media, it can seem like good moral character is in short supply. Additionally, as Christians, we may find ourselves in situations where we are condemned or punished for our beliefs. Each day, our character is tested. Often our true character comes out during times of great stress. We can choose to have faith, be courageous and kind, or we can choose to give in to the pressures of the situation and act cowardly or pridefully.
We can see examples of these different character reactions in the book of Jeremiah and the story of the muddy cistern.
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Who Was Jeremiah?
Jeremiah ministered for 40 years under Judah’s last five kings. The last king, Zedekiah, had Jeremiah thrown in a muddy cistern at the request of his officials (or princes.) They did not like Jeremiah’s prediction of Judah’s fall to Babylon and requested that Zedekiah have the prophet put to death. King Zedekiah, who had previously sought Jeremiah’s words from the Lord — and yet failed to heed them — let the officials do as they pleased. Jeremiah was lowered into a deep well, known as a cistern, which “had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud” (Jer. 38:6).
The prophet would have died there, if not for the courage of another official, Ebed-Melech. He appealed to the king for Jeremiah’s release. The King commanded Ebed-Melech to take thirty men with him to rescue Jeremiah. Ebed-Melech did so and Jeremiah was set free.
The lessons from this story have nothing to do with wells or mud. They lie in the timeless lessons about character we can learn from those involved: Jeremiah, King Zedekiah, the princes demanding the prophet’s death and, most significantly, the heroic actions of Ebed-Melech.
1. We Must Be Obedient to God Even When it Is Difficult
Jeremiah’s entire life was about obedience to God. Though his message of repentance to Judah landed on deaf ears for decades, he did not give up. Even after being thrown in the muddy cistern for prophesying the fall of Judah to Babylon, he still spoke the truth of God. Jeremiah was not successful in saving Judah, but he did escape being killed by the Babylonians and ended up being treated with respect by them. Though Jeremiah’s life was never easy and doesn’t have a happy ending in earthly terms, he never stopped being obedient to God.
As believers, we are called to this same unwavering obedience to God no matter the circumstances. Jeremiah ministered during a time of false prophets. The people of Judah (and especially the leaders) liked the false prophets because they preached only good news. This didn’t keep Jeremiah from preaching the message of repentance God had given him. Like Jeremiah, we are not on earth to win a popularity contest. We are here to live by and speak of God’s truth — even when it’s not trending on social media or well received by our friends — and even if we find ourselves in a muddy pit.
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2. Cowardice Leads to Self-Destruction
King Zedekiah’s cowardice — his fear — is revealed in several ways. One is his inability to stand up to his own men. He gave in under public pressure when he allowed Jeremiah to be thrown in the muddy cistern. He would not stand up to those in his court who wanted to destroy the prophet.
When Ebed-Melech’s plea convinced Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be released from the cistern, the king ordered 30 men to go with him. It’s not clear why he ordered such a large number to accompany the official, but we can assume it was to have enough muscle to stand against any opposition they may face in their task — opposition from the same men Zedekiah had caved under. What country can stand when led by a man who doesn’t even know what he stands for? Giving in to peer pressure led to injustice and, ultimately, despair for the entire country.
King Zedekiah’s cowardice also shows up in his fear of ridicule. He would not heed Jeremiah’s advice to flee to Babylon because he was afraid how the exiled Jews there would mock him. Even though Jeremiah reassured him he would be much better off in the long run by fleeing to Babylon, he refused to heed the prophet’s advice and enter an unknown situation. Because he didn’t do as Jeremiah said, Zedekiah would end up being ridiculed for being misled. He would be the one who ultimately ended up with his feet figuratively sunk in mud, and there would be no escape for him (Jer. 38:22).
We cannot follow God half-way, or only when it is convenient. If we waffle under peer pressure, or only heed God’s commands when they fit into our lifestyle, we are essentially living under the influence of fear. Our fear is often grounded in the belief that God is not enough for us, or what He has in store for us in not enough. We want control over our own situation. We want comfort and the approval of others. Giving in to our fears may make us feel better in the moment, but the result can be disastrous and have eternal consequences.
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3. Pride Comes before the Fall
The king’s princes, his court, didn’t believe Jeremiah’s warning about Babylon because it went against what they already believed to be true. They didn’t think Jerusalem could be overtaken by Babylon and didn’t want Jeremiah’s words to discourage the people or the soldiers. They could not hear God’s truth because they clung steadfastly to their own beliefs and desires. The princes’ unwillingness to see the city’s vulnerability and humble themselves led not only to the unjust treatment of Jeremiah but also to the fall of a nation.
Pride is one of the most difficult sins to see in ourselves. Admitting we are wrong and need to take a different course of action requires humility, which is the opposite of pride. God’s word warns against pride throughout the old and new testaments. From Proverbs, such as verse 16:18, to 1 John 2:16, God warns us of the dangers of pride. It leads to self-destruction and keeps us from being led by the Holy Spirit.
4. Justice Requires Courage
To better understand the significance of Ebed-Melech’s role in the muddy cistern, we need to learn a little more about who he was.
Ebed-Melech was an African official in Zedekiah’s court. The name Ebed-Melech means “king’s slave” in Hebrew and may have been a title for the man instead of a proper name. Some believe he was a eunuch and probably looked after King Zedekiah’s harem. Others believe he was a high-ranking official. Whatever the details of his position were, two things are certain: (1) He was foreigner, and (2) He risked his career and possibly his own life by petitioning the king while he was holding court in a public place.
Ebed-Melech not only saw the cruel injustice done to Jeremiah, but took heroic action to remedy the situation. The possible risk to his life own life didn’t stop him. Fear of what the princes would say or do didn’t stop him. His petition to the king was earnest, simple and effective.
Sometimes we see injustice but are afraid to speak up because no one else is, or because we fear the repercussions to our own reputation, comfort or safety. When we see an injustice, we would do well to be more like Ebed-Melech, who didn’t let fear stop him from pursuing the rescue of Jeremiah.
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5. No Matter Who or Where We Are, God Can Use Us if We Let Him
Jeremiah was a Jewish prophet. The message God gave him to share was for the Jews to repent and be saved. Yet the man God used to save Jeremiah was not a Jew, and, by the law of the time, he was not even eligible to be under the covenant of God. It’s not clear whether Jeremiah had a friendship of some kind with Ebed-Melech, but it would seem Jeremiah had at least made an impression on him. We can assume Ebed-Melech believed in the God of the Jews, because before the Babylonians broke down the walls of Jerusalem and set it on fire, Jeremiah gives him this message from God:
“’But I will save you on that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘and you will not be handed over to the men of whom you are afraid. For I will assuredly rescue you, and you will not fall by the sword; but you will have your own life as plunder, because you have trusted in Me,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 39:17, emphasis added).
Since we can’t be certain of Ebed-Melech’s exact position in the king’s court, we don’t know if he was there by choice. What we do know is that God used his position, even if it was a low one, for His purposes. Ebed-Melech followed the prompting of his heart, his conscious, and took courageous action. His part in this story reminds us that God can use anyone, even us, if we let Him.
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6. Deeds of Kindness Should Be Performed in a Kind Manner
Though Ebed-Melech was quick to take action in his appeal to the King, he was intentional and thoughtful in how he carried out the rescuing of Jeremiah. The prophet was undoubtedly already weak with hunger and thirst. He was probably not adequately clothed. Instead of rushing to the pit with nothing more than a rough rope, Ebed-Melech went to the palace to get some old rags and worn-out clothes, then lowered them down to Jeremiah with the rope. He told Jeremiah to put the rags under his arms to pad the ropes. This kind action spared Jeremiah from being injured by the ropes as he was being pulled out of the cistern. I imagine it also made Jeremiah feel not only grateful for his rescue, but genuinely loved.
Sometimes in our good intention to help others, we fail to see how our actions may actually cause them harm, or simply make them feel uncomfortable or disrespected. How good is it to mow a neighbor’s lawn if we destroy their flower bed in the process? Or what does it show the hungry if during a food drive we only give the items we don’t really like or that are inexpensive, rather than giving away something we would enjoy eating ourselves? If we don’t plan out our course of action, even if it is with good intentions, the good work we do might be overshadowed by the harm we cause. Even if the extra bit of thought doesn’t change the final result, it shows the one we are helping that we genuinely care about him or her. It demonstrates that we aren’t performing a good deed because we want applause, but because of love.
“And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:3).
Many of us have found ourselves in difficult situations this last year. We may have felt, at times, that we were in our own muddy pit. In those moments, we can despair, be fearful and give up. Or we can trust in God and choose to let the experience build our faith and character. The story of the muddy cistern shows us that those who follow God and act with courage and kindness will fair far better than those who are led by cowardice and pride. By following the examples of men like Jeremiah and Ebed-Melech, we can remain faithful to God and help each other through hard times.
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Melanie Campbell is a member of Oregon Christian Writers and ACFW. Her debut novel, One Woman Falling, won the Oregon Christian Writers Cascade Award and is a finalist for the Selah Award. She lives in Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley with her husband, their three children, and several spoiled pets. You can learn more about her writing and sign up for her newsletter by visiting her website at melaniecampbellauthor.org. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.