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Occasional Letters: The Other Ethiopian Eunuch

D Newell, Glasgow

Mention the Ethiopian Eunuch and everyone immediately turns to Acts 8. But there's another. In Jeremiah 38 we meet a man raised up by God to rescue Jeremiah from peril. Sometimes we discover friends where we least expect them. Just before the fall of Jerusalem the faithful but much abused prophet found that a foreigner could be kinder to him than his own people. His experience was not exceptional. When even his own son was seeking his life, David enjoyed the support of Ittai the Gittite, a Philistine from (of all places!) Gath (2 Sam 15.21); Elijah was sustained by a Zidonian widow (1 Kings 17.9); Daniel was favoured by the prince of the Babylonian eunuchs (Dan 1.9); Paul was preserved by a Roman centurion (Acts 27.43). God is never at a loss in safeguarding His people from harm. But let's look at Jeremiah's case in a little detail. Accused of treasonous behaviour because of his prediction of Jerusalem's inevitable fall, Jeremiah has been cast into prison.

Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the dungeon…and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire: so Jeremiah sunk in the mire. Now when Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs which was in the king's house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon…Ebedmelech went forth…and spake to the king, saying, My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon; and he is like to die for hunger in the place where he is: for there is no more bread in the city. Then the king commanded Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, saying, Take from hence thirty men with thee, and take up Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon, before he die. So Ebedmelech took the men with him, and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took thence old cast clouts and old rotten rags, and let them down by cords into the dungeon to Jeremiah. And Ebedmelech the Ethiopian said unto Jeremiah, Put now these old cast clouts and rotten rags under thine armholes under the cords. And Jeremiah did so. So they drew up Jeremiah with cords, and took him up out of the dungeon (Jer 38.6-13).

It's one of the great little stories of the Old Testament. Remember that, as a eunuch and an Ethiopian, Ebedmelech was an outsider. As a eunuch (presumably employed as a functionary in King Zedekiah's harem), he was by law excluded from the assembly of Israel, for "he that is a eunuch…shall not come into the congregation of Jehovah" (Deut 23.1, JND). As an Ethiopian, he came from a nation hostile to God's people (2 Chr 14.9), and stood as an emblem of the intransigence of man's sinful heart: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil" (Jer 13.23). Ebedmelech represented exclusion, enmity, and evil – features which characterise Gentiles sinners like you and me: strangers from the covenants of promise, alienated from the life of God, essentially and incurably wicked at heart. And yet God was going to use him for the blessing of Jeremiah!

What do we learn about him? First of all, he was compassionate. The moment he heard of the prophet's plight, he acted. Jeremiah was probably in his 60s at this stage, coming to the close of an arduous 41-year ministry in Judah. Pity should mark the child of God, because God has shown pity on us. We should be "of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful" (1 Pet 3.8). King David's anger was stirred against the rich man in Nathan's parable, "because he had no pity" (2 Sam 12.6). But pity doesn't jellify the backbone. Ebedmelech was courageous, for he "went forth…and spake to the king" (Jer 38.8). Zedekiah was a weak and vacillating monarch who was at that time directing the city's defences from the north, far too busy to be worried about one old man. And those who had arranged for Jeremiah's incarceration were both numerous and powerful. It therefore took real determination to intervene. Like Joseph of Arimath√¶a, who "went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus" (Mk 15.43), Ebedmelech rose to the occasion when others went to ground. It's good to be bold for God.

He was also courteous. A just cause is no excuse for obnoxious conduct. Speaking personally to the king, he summarised the prophet's danger with diplomacy and brevity. He denounced the conspiracy as "evil", referred to the prisoner's honourable position as "prophet" (therefore a mouthpiece of the Lord), while urgently highlighting his peril: "like to die for hunger". He was also considerate in his practical plan to get the prophet out of the sunken dungeon. That pit was not a pleasant place for anyone, let alone an old man. The same word describes the pit into which Joseph was cast by his brothers (Gen 37.20). Probably it was a cistern, "cut into rock and covered with plaster. It was used to gather rainwater in the winter for use during the dry summer" (Bible Knowledge Commentary). But how to get Jeremiah out? Supported by thirty men against any possible interference by the anti-Jeremiah faction, Ebedmelech collected from "the house of the king…old cast clouts and old rotten rags". All this shows an initiative and resourcefulness which bore in mind the age and frailty of the man he sought to help. Placing them under his arms would offer some relief for Jeremiah during the terrible strain of being dragged up from his muddy hole. Those old rags make the point that God can use even the worn-out and discarded in His purposes, just as the Lord Jesus could take the cheap barley loaves of one boy's lunch and multiply them for the blessing of many. No one, and nothing, is too mean for our God to use! As a result Jeremiah was hauled up from the depths and allowed to live in the comparative safety of "the court of the prison".

But this isn't the end of the story. Chapter 38 may give the external narrative, but chapter 39 offers a glimpse within. To our astonishment – and encouragement – we find Ebedmelech was of like passions as we are. It's always comforting to discover that the great men of Scripture were but men. After the heroics came the anxieties. We learn of his deep concern about the consequences of his daring rescue, for the Lord refers to "the men of whom thou art afraid" (Jer 39.17). Ebedmelech was scared stiff! Would the royal family seek vengeance on him for helping Jeremiah? Appropriately, the very man he saved now brought him a word of comfort: "I will deliver thee in that day, saith the Lord…I will surely deliver thee" (Jer 39.17-18). The firm repetition guaranteed his safely. The city would be destroyed, as the Lord had foretold, but the Ethiopian would be spared. And a final word explains why this man involved himself in Jeremiah's troubles in the first place. He was tender towards Jeremiah because he trusted in Jehovah: "I will surely deliver thee…because thou hast put thy trust in me, saith the Lord" (Jer 39.18). He was a man of confidence.

What we believe governs the way we behave. Writes Paul, "we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God" (1 Tim 4.10). Isaiah looks ahead and tells us that an honourable place awaits God-fearing eunuchs in the Lord's millennial reign: "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Is 56.5). Ebedmelech, the mutilated alien, will enjoy perpetual blessing in the coming kingdom. But Gentile sinners have been brought right now into the even greater privilege of an indissoluble union with God's Son. Don't forget Ebedmelech. He demonstrates that, whatever our need, our God is able to raise up help for His people. And, being God, He also rewards the helper.

To be continued.


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