FORCIBLY LOWERED into the deep mire of a dungeon pit in the prison at Jerusalem, Jeremiah could feel himself gradually sinking. The more he struggled, the deeper he sank. His shouts for help were futile. (Jeremiah 38:1-6.) Now that his eyes had become adjusted to the gloom, he could see that the men who had brought him there, at the orders of the princes, had departed and left him helpless in a stinking cesspool.
A Noble Ethiopian
One of King Zedekiah's trusted attendants, an Ethiopian by the name of Ebed-melech, happened to learn what had happened to Jeremiah through men who were discussing the prophet's plight and were greatly amused by it. This black man was one of the king's favorite officials because he was alert, intelligent, conscientious and had proved himself trustworthy. Being a fervent follower of God, he was shocked that God's servant should be treated so cruelly. He hurried and reported the incident to his master, even though he realized that the king, an idolater, might not wish to be bothered by the matter. "Those responsible have done an evil thing that could cause more misery to fall on Jerusalem," Ebed-melech respectfully suggested to Zedekiah. "There is no more bread left to keep Jeremiah from starving, but unless he is rescued soon, he could die in a much shorter time by smothering in the mire of the cesspool!" Although Zedekiah had told the princes that he wouldn't interfere with their depraved treatment of Jeremiah, he was so angered by the way they were trying to cause the prophet's death that he decided to step in again to save him. "Do what you can to rescue that man and bring him back to the cell where he was," the king instructed that trusted aide. "Just don't try anything by yourself. I'll give you thirty palace guards to help protect you from any trouble you run into." The first thing Ebed-melech did was obtain ropes and an armful of old rags. When he and the thirty men arrived at the pit, they let the ends of the ropes down to Jeremiah and tried to pull the prophet up. But he had sunk up to his shoulders, and pulling him created a suction that held him so firmly that the pressure under his arms was quite painful. The Ethiopian had expected this difficulty. Tossing the rags to Jeremiah, he called down to him to stuff them between his arms and the ropes, so that the men could pull harder without hurting him too seriously. After the prisoner was lifted to freedom from the miry trap, Ebedmelech saw to it that he had an opportunity to bathe and put on clean clothes before being taken back to his cell. He also managed to bring him a little food. (Jeremiah 38:7-13.) Following a rest, the prophet was surprised to be taken to a room in the temple, where Zedekiah was waiting to talk privately with him. "You've told me before what you believe will take place here soon," the king said. "Now I'm asking you to tell me again, including anything that's new or anything you've withheld, and what I should do." "I've angered you many times by what I've said," Jeremiah observed, shaking his head. "If I say anymore, how do I know but what you'll become so angry that you'll have me beheaded? As for advice, you won't accept any from me."
Zedekiah's Half-Strong Promise
Zedekiah wanted to be thought of as strong and a doer of good. But he had refused to repent and he was afraid of his political advisers. He glanced quickly around to make sure that he and Jeremiah were alone, then moved a step closer to the prophet. "I swear that no matter what you have to say, I will not put you to death," the king earnestly declared. "Neither will I turn you over to anyone who seeks your life. May God end mine if there is no truth in what I say." Zedekiah's sincerity was evident to Jeremiah, who decided to give the king a complete account of what would soon happen. "What I have to say isn't anything I've made up," the prophet explained. "This is what the one and only God has revealed to me. To begin, King Nebuchadnezzar is no longer in Judah. He and part of his army have gone to the city of Riblah in Syria. The whole Babylonian army has defeated the Egyptians, who have fled back to their country. The victors haven't pursued them because they are anxious to return here and continue the siege of Jerusalem. "You would be wise to go out and surrender to Nebuchadnezzar's generals. If you do, you will save your life and the lives of many others, and the city won't be burned. If you don't, the enemy will break down the walls, pour into Jerusalem and set fire to it. Many people will be slaughtered. Many will be captured — including you and your family!" "Months ago I turned against the Babylonians," Zedekiah said after a period of thought. "Now if I suddenly surrender, and have to join my countrymen who are already prisoners in Babylonia, they will never cease mocking me." (Jeremiah 38:14-19.) "If you surrender, that won't happen," the prophet pointed out. "It could happen if you are captured, but I doubt the Babylonians would let you live that long. I implore you, sir, to bury your pride and save yourself and your people! If you refuse, you will be mocked by the women of your harem, who will seek safety by willingly turning themselves over to Babylonian officers. The children you have had by these women will become slaves to the enemy!" (Jeremiah 38:20-23.) Zedekiah swallowed nervously, still afraid to trust God, although he wanted to help God's prophet. He glanced cautiously about, then stared earnestly at the prophet. "Don't tell anyone else what you have told me today," he warned. "Keep silent about these things, and I'll keep my promise that you won't die by my order or at the order of the princes. If they ask you if you talked to me, and tell you that they'll see that you live if you tell them what we talked about, tell them that you wanted me to spare your life, and I promised that you wouldn't be taken back to that dungeon under Jonathan's house."
Evil Princes Outsmarted
At a gesture by the king, Jeremiah's guards, waiting at a respectful distance, approached and escorted the prophet back to his cell. It wasn't long before he was visited by the princes, who had been informed of his meeting with Zedekiah, and who hoped to learn if he had made any kind of contact with the Babylonians through Jeremiah. "Tell us about the conversation you had with the king at the temple, and we'll do what we can to see that you are freed from this place," one of them told Jeremiah. "I told the king that I don't deserve to be put back in a dungeon where it isn't possible to keep on living," Jeremiah answered. "He assured me that I wouldn't die by his hand or yours." This reply didn't tell the prophet's visitors much, but it caused them to confer among themselves. "The king must have a good reason for sticking up so staunchly for this fellow," one of them remarked. "Whatever it is," another said, "I don't think this miserable prophet has the ability to be a spy for the Babylonians or a secret messenger for the king — especially as long as he's behind bars. Let's leave him where he is and, for the present, forget about him." Jeremiah drew a breath of relief as he watched his visitors stride away. (Jeremiah 38:24-28.) Just as the prophet had told Zedekiah, most of the mighty Babylonian army soon returned to Jerusalem, whose inhabitants fearfully realized that they were woefully unprepared for another siege — even a short one. Food had been difficult to obtain. There was never enough to stock for the future. In spite of the many days the siege had been lifted, many people were on the verge of starvation. Besides, sickness was still taking its toll. Frenzy and dismay settled on the inhabitants. Even while the enemy was still miles away, excited men slammed the gates shut and barred and reinforced them with huge props. Anyone who happened to be on the outside was cut off from returning. "Let no one in from now on!" was the order. "They could be Babylonian spies or soldiers disguised as Jewish food deliverymen or even as our troops!" As for the king, he knew that he didn't have long to make up his mind what to do, though probably his decision would be simply determined by what he wanted to do, regardless of the consequences. For the time being, he was busily conferring with his officers who were frantically organizing their soldiers for defense.
The Ethiopian Honored
Again the Babylonians spread out around the city, pitching tents at a safe distance. They built corrals for their horses and for the livestock they had taken on their way back from their victorious encounter with the Egyptians. It was obvious that they were determined to take up where they had left off, and were prepared to stay for a longer period than the city could hold out. When Jeremiah heard of the return of the enemy, he managed to get word to Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, to come to his cell. The black man came at once, wondering if the prophet needed his help again, but he received a more pleasant surprise. "I have some good news for you from God," Jeremiah told him. "He has asked me to inform you that because you have put your trust in Him and have obeyed His laws, there is no need for you to fear the Babylonians. You won't be wounded or killed by them." (Jeremiah 39:15-18.) Thankful for this encouraging information, Ebed-melech went back to his duties, one of the few people in Jerusalem who could harbor any hope under the fearful threat of the Babylonians. Within only a few days many of the city's inhabitants were so desperate for food that they were forced to consume animals that weren't meant for man to eat. Horses, donkeys, cats, dogs and even rats and mice became common fare. When these items were exhausted and the final stages of starvation set in, a few people secretly resorted to the horrible, grisly pursuit of cannibalism. Possibly these miserable humans would have preferred to give themselves up to the Babylonians, but no one was allowed outside the walls. The misery and death could have been prevented if one man, the king, had walked through the gates and given himself up to the besiegers. (Jeremiah 21:1-10; 32:23-24; 38:17.) While matters were worsening inside the city, things were changing on the outside. Using teams of chariot horses, the Babylonians brought load after load of soil as close to the wall as they could safely come under cover of their own shielding. As the days passed, the loads of soil grew into rising mounds that eventually became as high as the walls they faced. Under cover of careful but difficult shielding, the invaders dumped much more soil over the mounds on the wall side, thus extending the mounds closer and closer to the walls. Fortifications were built atop some of the higher mounds so that it was possible for Babylonian soldiers to face Jewish wall guards at the same height, and well within range of spears and arrows. Huge catapults were pushed up other mounds, making it possible for boulders to be easily hurled to the wall tops and even beyond.
Final Phase of Siege
After some months of struggling under the lethal handicap of soaring spears, hissing arrows and catapulted hot boulders, the Babylonians managed to finish the fortified mounds that were part of their plan of attack. Early one morning the Jews on the wall tops were startled to see that the mounds were fully manned. More ominous was the sight of battering rams on wheels, soon surrounded by burly troops with especially wide shields. The Babylonians had obviously been prepared to attack with the first sufficient light of day. The shrill blowing of horns and loud shouting caused much excitement and stir among the men on the walls. They didn't know exactly what to expect, but when they saw the huge battering rams rapidly advancing toward the walls, they realized that this wasn't going to be a matter of simply killing off one Babylonian ram crew after another. Jewish archers and spearmen swarmed to the wall edge to discharge their weapons down on the troops rushing forward with the weighty rams, only to find themselves the targets of spears and arrows from the nearby Babylonian fortifications. After their one fusillade, which wasn't very effective against the wide, horizontally held shields of the enemy ram crews, the Jewish archers and spearmen were forced to dodge for shelter. To add to their peril, Babylonian catapults bombarded the wall tops with smashing boulders, some of them nearly red hot. The conflict had hardly begun, but it was obvious that the Jews were going to have a difficult struggle in defending their capital. The long, heavy rams, pushed by the running Babylonians, slammed noisily against the walls, cracking the stone and mortar. As quickly as possible the crews dragged their mammoth weapons back out of spear and arrow range, where fresh crews took over and aimed the rams into the cracked areas. This time, sizeable chunks of stone fell away under the crashing blows of the iron noses of the log shaped hammers. The walls were being pierced! It was yet a long way through the walls, but the encouraged invaders kept the rams in action. With each thunderous blow, more of the stones cracked and fell away, constantly enlarging the openings. This limited success cost many Babylonian lives. Comrades on the mound fortifications weren't able to entirely prevent the Jews from hurling or shooting their share of missiles. Killed and wounded on both sides were immediately dragged off and replaced, inasmuch as there was only limited space for soldiers, and neither side could afford to lessen its efforts. The frantic struggle was made grimmer by screams and groans of men in pain, the hissing of arrows and boulders, the thuds of spears against wood, stone and flesh, the pounding of the rams, the shouts of excited officers and the general clatter of this unusual kind of battle. The frantic pace had to lessen when twilight came, and stop completely when darkness set in. This was to the advantage of both sides. They could rest and prepare to continue the battle next morning. Neither side could gain much of an advantage during darkness.
The Walls Breached!
It was almost impossible for Jewish officers to tell how much damage had been done to the walls. They couldn't look down and determine the size or depth of the gouged-out holes, although several soldiers on the wall top claimed that the rams' metal noses had appeared to penetrate several yards during the last attacks. When Zedekiah heard this report, he was gripped with fear. For a time he considered a personal surrender to the enemy as soon as morning came. Then he reasoned that it would be the same as suicide to expose himself during a continued battle, and decided that the wisest course would be to gather his family together, if worst came to worst, and try to escape from the city by a secret exit known only to a few. At dawn the attack and defense were resumed with greater fury. For a while the Babylonians greatly deepened the breaches in the walls. Progress was later slowed when some of the ram trucks began to fall apart from rough usage. Some of them had to be withdrawn. Others were put to work in teams, so that the deepening breaches would become wider. One of the rams was finally applied to a gate. The unshatterable hardwood proved to be tougher than stone. However, when bolts and iron straps started to shake loose, the attackers decided to continue. That afternoon, despite their reverses, the Babylonians completely broke through the wall at one point. About the same time, the battered gate began to fall loose. The invaders kept up the hammering because they wanted the openings to be wide enough to admit several men at once. They knew that if they tried to enter single file, the Jews could easily pick them off.
The King Deserts
When Zedekiah learned that the enemy was about to try to get troops into the city, he excitedly ordered some officials, attendants and servants to prepare to accompany certain members of his family in swift departure. All his wives and children weren't included because there were some with whom he didn't care to be burdened. The more in the party, the less chances of escape there would be. Accompanied by picked guards, the king and the chosen part of his family rushed to a secret passage which took them under the north wall of the city. It emerged in a bouldery area uncomfortably close to a part of the line of Babylonians encircling Jerusalem. Darkness was coming on, making it possible for the escapers to quietly move from boulder to boulder until all reached a ravine out of sight of the enemy. Just then the sound of many voices welled up from the city, indicating that the invaders were inside and clashing with the defenders. (II Kings 25:1-4; Jeremiah 29:1-4.) For a few moments the king paused to listen to the frenzied sounds of battle, then turned on his intended way to safety in Egypt. He was resigned to the painful loss of his nation and city, but he exulted in having escaped from the enemy. Terror would have replaced exultation if he could have known what would happen in the next few hours.