Amid the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah gives his customary message as he predicts the fall of the city (Jeremiah 38:2-3). His nation has only two options: submit or resist. While the government is committed to resistance, the prophet does what prophets often do and dissents. In his theological reading of the situation, Jeremiah encourages submitting to the empire noting the inevitable consequences of the siege: death, famine and pestilence (Jeremiah 38:3).
The local patriots cannot accept this perceived endorsement of Babylonian supremacy and respond by charging the prophet with treason and advise a death sentence (Jeremiah 36:4).
Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) analyzes:
The officials’ accusatory report to the king includes its own suggested verdict. Jeremiah is portrayed as a deliberate agitator, and his bad influence is described—perhaps exaggerated to bolster the accusation—as percolating through the city, affecting the military stationed in Jerusalem and civilians alike, and damaging the war effort. Not even the king could deny the accusation or verdict, and he assigned the officials to carry out the verdict (cf. Jeremiah 26:14). Publicly committed to the war effort, he had no option but to accede to their demand, which led to Jeremiah’s being moved to wretched conditions of imprisonment. (Allen, Jeremiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 413)The officials’ report puts king Zedekiah’s weakness on display. Caught in the middle between zealous patriots and the disapproving prophet, Zedekiah abdicates just like Pilate would do centuries later (John 19:6). The indifferent monarch claims to be powerless (Jeremiah 37:5) and as he was appointed king by Nebuchadnezzar (II Kings 24:17; II Chronicles 36:10; Jeremiah 37:1), this is not entirely inaccurate. The king takes orders from his subjects and Jeremiah, just as he had been in the previous chapter (Jeremiah 37:15), finds himself imprisoned (Jeremiah 38:6). Only this time, his cell is much worse.
Then they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchijah the king’s son, which was in the court of the guardhouse; and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. Now in the cistern there was no water but only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud. (Jeremiah 38:6 NASB)The entire account of Jeremiah’s cistern imprisonment is highly detailed and demonstrates that the author clearly has intimate knowledge of the events (Jeremiah 38:1-13). The passage even chronicles information as trivial as the source of the rags used to raise the prophet (Jeremiah 38:11). Many have seen this as evidence of the passage recalling recent historical facts.
Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) demonstrates that Jeremiah is an enemy of the state:
[Jeremiah] is undermining the war effort, and that cannot be tolerated. His is an effective act of sabotage of royal policy because it combines an intelligent political assessment of the chances for Jerusalem with a claim of theological insight. The government does not — indeed dares not — agree with him. It only wants him silenced. On any “realistic” reading of the situation, Jeremiah is an enemy of the government, preparing a counteroption against the “well-being” (shalom) of the city as defined by the government. The issue is joined between the government and this formidable dissent. Indeed, this entire chapter is about the problem of public dissent which claims to be the voice of God. (Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 362)Consequently, Jeremiah is incarcerated in a cistern (Hebrew: bowr) near the palace. The word “cistern” (ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) is also translated “dungeon” (ASV, KJV, NKJV) and “well” (CEV). Though the word is best understood by the dominant reading, the older translations are correct in deeming it a dungeon as in this case, that is its function.
A cistern was a reservoir into which rainwater could drain to be collected and stored. Cisterns were a fairly common feature in Israelite homes, typically dug out of limestone rock to varying depths. Cistern water was inferior; previously, Jeremiah had contrasted the water of cisterns with the springs that produced “living” water (Jeremiah 2:13).
Philip J. King (b. 1925) describes:
In agricultural societies, cisterns (bor, borot; bo’r, bo’rot) are important for several reasons. A principal use of these underground chambers is as storage for rainwater collected through drains as it accumulated on flat roofs or in courtyards. This rainwater is then stored for use in the dry season (from May through September). Cisterns were of various sizes and shapes in antiquity. Many were bottle-shaped, approximately ten feet wide and sixteen feet deep, with a stone-covering over the small opening at the top. The neck was the narrow shaft through which vessels were lowered into the cistern by rope. Other cisterns were bell-shaped, approximately eight feet wide and twelve feet deep. Some cisterns had steps–for example, the cisterns at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Cisterns were hollowed out of natural rock or converted from natural cave formations. (King, Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion, 154)It is unknown why this specific cistern is selected but convenience (it is close and dry) is probable.
Entrance to cisterns was difficult, hence the references to the prophet being admitted and removed by ropes (Jeremiah 38:6, 13). The fact that a cistern was more than twice the height of a person made for difficult escape. Cisterns were often pear-shaped with a small opening at the top leading to a wider basin. As such, Jeremiah is trapped like a genie in a bottle.
The cistern made for abhorrent prison conditions. The prophet finds himself in solitary confinement, sinking in a filthy, slimy pit (Jeremiah 38:6). Quarters are also cramped leaving him unable to move easily or rest. He will not be able to survive long in this environment.
Beth Moore (b. 1957) imagines:
Sinking inch by inch. That’s what happens in a pit. Jeremiah knew the feeling...Jeremiah 38:6 describes his pit as a place of sinking down. Imagine how much worse it was in sandals. No matter what’s on your feet, you can take this fact to the spiritual bank: a pit only gets deeper. Low ground always sinks. There’s no living at maintenance level in a pit. (Moore, Get Out of That Pit: Straight Talk About God’s Deliverance, 15)Worse and more importantly for his suitors, his solitary confinement severely limits his audience. His voice, a critical prophetic word, is presumably silenced.
The prophet of doom is himself doomed to a slow lingering death. As the cistern is muddy, the government is clearly not attempting to drown him. Instead he is left for dead: starvation is the death that awaits the prophet.
Ironically, like sterilizing a needle to be used in a lethal injection, his vindictive captors go to great lengths to not harm Jeremiah themselves, gently lowering him into the pit (Jeremiah 38:6). Some have speculated that they wish to humiliate the prophet by producing a slow, ignominious death. Perhaps they do not wish to make him a martyr.
There is likely a more selfish reason. F.B. Huey, Jr. (b. 1925) explains:
No reason is given for putting Jeremiah in the cistern to die rather than killing him outright (cf. Joseph, Genesis 37:22-24). Perhaps they wanted him to suffer, but it is more likely that they had a superstitious fear of killing a prophet or shedding innocent blood. Shedding of innocent blood was considered to be one of the most abhorrent sins that could be committed (cf. Deuteronomy 19:10, 13, 21:8; Jonah 1:14). (Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations (New American Commentary), 334)To add insult to injury, it was Jeremiah’s very faithfulness to God that brought him his shame and isolation.
John M. Bracke (b. 1947) interprets:
Jeremiah was in a precarious position. Jeremiah’s public dissent of the government’s pro-Egyptian policy placed him in a life-threatening situation. However, it was finally not Jeremiah’s politics that placed him in danger but his theology, the way he understood who God was and what God was about in his time and place. God promised Jeremiah, “I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless” (Jeremiah 15:21; compare Jeremiah 1:8, 17-19). God’s assurances to Jeremiah will be tested. (Bracke, Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (Westminster Bible Companion), 69-70)Prophets often (in this case quite literally) are required to get down and dirty.
Do prophets ever agree with the majority opinion? Who protests war in your society? Are they being prophetic? Who is trying to silence their voices? When have you seen misguided patriotism in opposition to the word of God? What organizations are currently attempting to silence the word of God? Have you ever been persecuted for your religious beliefs? Who do you know who has suffered for God?
Even amid Jeremiah’s terrible circumstances, there is hope: The cistern is empty. Not only does this indicate that he will not drown but it is also evidence of water scarcity; Jeremiah’s prophecy of famine is coming true. His view of God is correct.
Thankfully, Jeremiah’s tenure in the pit is short-lived. A foreign official named Ebed-Melek the Cushite inexplicably appears out of nowhere and intercedes on Jeremiah’s behalf (Jeremiah 38:7-9). There is no hint of his motives but the puppet king yields again and the prophet is delivered (Jeremiah 37:10-13). The will of the government cannot silence God’s voice. The Word works even in the face of determined opposition.
Just as the prophet is delivered from the cistern, there is hope for his nation. And hope for us. The pit is a symbol that many believers can relate to. John Calvin (1509-1574) viewed the cistern as a sort of grave and Jeremiah as a resurrected figure. Though Jeremiah 38:1-13 is not a resurrection passage it does provide hope.
Kathleen M. O’Connor (b. 1942) sees another Biblical allusion:
The cistern...connects Jeremiah’s captivity with the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers leave him to die in the cistern (bôr) and from there sell him into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:24, 28). Later Potiphar imprisons Joseph in a cistern (Genesis 40:15) and from there he finally escapes (Genesis 41:14). The allusion to the story of Joseph cloaks Jeremiah’s imprisonment in the cistern with ancient meaning. The word joins his captivity to that of an ancestor who knows similar peril and escapes imprisonment to flourish another day. Jeremiah’s story thereby gains the aura of ancestral authority and promises hope of survival to the people also trapped in the pit of suffering. (O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise, 154)There is no pit so deep as to eliminate the possibility of God’s rescue. There is always hope for redemption.
Has your life ever felt as gloomy as if you were trapped in a miry pit? Who helped you through your ordeal? How did you maintain hope amid the trial? What does this text say to those who are in the pit with seemingly no reprieve? Is there anyone you know struggling in the pit that you can help?
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
— Psalm 40:1-2, NASB