Sin & sympathy

A few weeks ago I said goodbye to a biblical caricature. Our Sunday morning Bible study had brought us to Jeremiah 37-38, usually noted for Jeremiah’s brief imprisonment in a muddy cistern during the latter years of the last king of Judah. The king was Zedekiah and until recently he was a cookie-cutter character of no more than two dimensions–one more rotten king in a long list of rotten monarchs from Israel’s divided kingdom.

In Jer 37:1-2 we’re told that:

. . . neither [Zedekiah] nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet.

And 2 Chron 36:12 corroborates:

[Zedekiah] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD his God. He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the LORD.

If statements like these were all we had to go on it would be easy to assume–as I have–that Zedekiah was just another arrogant, hard-hearted rebel who ignored the word of the Lord. But the picture of Zedekiah we find in Jeremiah 37-38 requires we leave room for the fear factor in his disobedience:

37:17 — King Zedekiah sent for him and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house and said, “Is there any word from the LORD?”

38:5 — King Zedekiah said, “Behold, [Jeremiah] is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.”

38:16 — Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, “As the LORD lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”

38:19 —  King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.”

38:24 — Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no one know of these words, and you shall not die.

In A History of Israel, John Bright ties these biblical strands together and presents us with a more complex, if not sympathetic, character:

Nor was Zedekiah the man to guide his country’s destinies in so grave an hour. Though he seems to have been well intentioned (cf. Jer. 37:17-21; 38:7-28), he was a weakling unable to stand up to his nobles (ch. 38:5), and fearful of popular opinion (v. 19). Furthermore, his position was ambiguous in that his nephew Jehoiachin was still regarded as the legitimate king by many of his subjects and, apparently, by the Babylonians as well. . . . The ambiguity of Zedekiah’s position undoubtedly undercut whatever authority he may have had. (328)

This view of Zedekiah is what the French call nuanced. [His erudition is astounding. -Shive]

But seriously, reconsidering Zedekiah offered some good reminders:

  1. Our sin isn’t always simple. Selfishness, deceit, doubt, pride–on their own any of these impulses are potent catalysts for sinful behavior. But the spiritual heart is a complex organ and often lies beyond our ability to diagnose (Jer 17:9), especially when our examination consists of little more than a passing glance.
  2. Sin is no less damnable when it solicits our sympathy. While we might consider Zedekiah’s fear of man to be a mitigating factor in his disobedience, the divine pronouncement is unswerving: Zedekiah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. This isn’t to suggest that God judges all men the same (Jer 17:10), but that all sin is equally damning no matter the circumstances.
  3. Sympathy can still be an appropriate response to sin. Although every sin leads to death not every sin requires the same treatment (Gal 6:1; Jude 22-23). The classic example is Prov 26:4-5 which offers two contrasting instructions on how to respond to a fool–don’t answer him (v4), give him an answer (v5)–leaving the reader to draw on wisdom for the appropriate action for the moment at hand. We might also consider that our monotonous mantras concerning another man’s sin betray our ignorance of the weakness of our own hearts. So I’ll just say I have a little more sympathy for Zedekiah these days.

 

Sounds familiar

Jeremiah develops the idea of prophets who are deluded [23:25-32], contrasting the power of the genuine with with the worthlessness of the counterfeit. He finishes with an attack on the cheapening of the Lord’s word, where it is everywhere sought but only to be tamed, and where everyone’s claim to have it makes it impossible to hear a true word when it comes.  –Gordon McConville (New Bible Commentary, 691)