Taking a Stand at Work (Jeremiah 38)
The bulk of the rest of Jeremiah describes Jeremiah’s trials as a prophet (chapters 35-45), his oracles against the nations (chapters 46-51) and the narrated fall of Jerusalem (chapter 52). One passage stands out with relation to work, the story of Ebed-melech. The narrative is simple: Jeremiah preached to the people as Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian army. His message was that the city would fall and anyone who would go out and surrender the Babylonians would live. The officials of Judah did not take this to be a properly motivational sermon. With the king’s permission, they threw Jeremiah into a cistern where, presumably, he would either die of hunger during the siege or drown during the next rain (Jer. 38:1-6).
Then a surprising thing happened. An immigrant named Ebed-melech, a servant in the royal palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate, Ebed-melech went out of the palace and said to him, “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into a cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-melech, “Take three men with you from here and pull the prophet Jeremiah up from the cistern before he dies” (Jer. 38:7-10).
The turn of the king’s decision most likely showed a simple apathy in the matter. (Though God can use a king’s apathy as much as a king’s activity.) It is the nameless Gentile slave (Ebed-melech simply means “slave of the king”) who stands out as faithful. Although his immigration status and racial difference made him a vulnerable worker, his faithfulness to God led him to blow the whistle on injustice in his workplace. As a result, a life was saved. An anonymous cog in the wheel made a life-and-death difference.
Ebed-melech’s action on the prophet’s behalf illustrated Jeremiah’s message that faithfulness to God outweighs all other workplace considerations. Ebed-Melech could not know in advance whether the king would act justly, or whether going outside the chain of command would be a career-limiting move (or a life-ending move, given what happened to Jeremiah). It appears that he trusted God to provide for him, however the king might respond. So Ebed-melech is praised by God. “I will surely save you…because you have trusted in me, says the Lord” (Jer. 39:18).
“Ebed-melech is a rare man of character in a book filled with evil people and evil behavior. It is ironic that the one man whom we are told trusted God is not an Israelite, but an Ethiopian.” Tom Parker, “Ebed-Melech as Exemplar,” in Uprooting and Planting: Essays on Jeremiah for Leslie Allen, ed. John Goldingay (NY/London: T&T Clark, 2007), 258.