Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education
Estimated Reading Time: 7 min.
Did you know that the prophet Jeremiah was thrown into a dungeon but was rescued by an Ethiopian eunuch?
Because Jeremiah faithfully prophesied the Babylonian captivity of the House of Judah and Jerusalem in 587/586 BC and urged surrender to the enemy forces, he was declared a traitor by his countrymen and punished. In my daily Bible reading not long ago I revisited this story, sparking an idea for this Digging Deeper. Regular readers of this column may remember my article, “A Lesson from the Ethiopian Eunuch,” from the Book of Acts. Today’s Old Testament story will add the second of these two Ethiopian eunuchs who displayed more spiritual sense and faithfulness than most Jews of their time.
“…Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”
The scriptural references for this story are Jeremiah 38:7-13 and Jeremiah 39:16-18. As I checked a cross-reference from the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, I was drawn to a particular prophecy from the Book of Psalms: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God (Psalm 68:31 KJV)”. These two stories portray the active response by Ethiopian Gentiles to the God of Israel. These Africans recognized the superiority of Israel’s God and wanted to loyally serve Him. The Old Testament makes plain that God intended His salvation message to reach non-Israelite peoples. These two Ethiopians, separated by several centuries, displayed courageous responsiveness that many of God’s elect nation did not.
Servant of the King
During the Babylonian siege of the House of Judah, the Jewish king, Zedekiah, acquiesced to some of his princes who requested that Jeremiah be cast into a dungeon (probably a cistern) for his pointed preaching (Jeremiah 38:1-6). The ESV Study Bible comments that “Cisterns were dug out of rock, had a small opening, and spread out at the bottom. Escape from such a place was virtually impossible, so perhaps only notorious prisoners were put there…(Tecarta Bible App)”. Because of the prolonged siege, the cistern may have had only mire (mud) and not water. Being left there with no food would induce Jeremiah’s slow, filthy death. Recognizing the threat to the prophet’s life, an Ethiopian eunuch came to the rescue (Jeremiah 38:7-9). This man’s name was Ebed-melech, which means “servant of the king.” The Expository Notes of Dr. [Thomas L.] Constable defines his origin: “He happened to be an Ethiopian or Cushite (from modern-day southern Egypt, northeastern Sudan, Eritrea, and northern Ethiopia) (e-Sword 12.2)”.
Ebed-melech is described as a eunuch. Most likely, this meant that he was an emasculated man who was placed in charge of the king’s harem, ensuring that he would not stealthily beget the heir to the throne. This extreme measure preserved royal bloodlines. The word later evolved in common usage to refer to a high court official (chamberlain), whether or not the man had been physically altered. Even into fairly modern times, this practice of castration of servants was common in royal courts. Notice this comment from The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary: “The eunuchs over harems in the present day are mostly from Nubia or Abyssinia (e-Sword 12.2)”. Physically mutilated men were forbidden from entering into the congregation of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:1). As a result, Ebed-melech served the king as his slave with a courtly position but was not a full Jewish convert. This office gave him frequent access to the king himself, enabling him to appeal to King Zedekiah for Jeremiah’s life (Jeremiah 38:8-9).
Who was Ebed-Melech?
The Pulpit Commentary, edited by H. D. M. Spence, D.D. and Joseph S. Exell, M.A. characterizes this man who came to Jeremiah’s rescue as
“(1) An alien. A negro, and not a Jew, and one from his office disqualified from participating in the benefits of the covenant. It is the more remarkable that none of Jeremiah’s countrymen interposed.
(2) A servant of a vicious king. The establishments of such princes are usually stamped with the same character, and their members are but the creatures of their masters. There is something doubly unlooked for, therefore, in such an advocate and friend. It is like a salutation from one of ‘Caesar’s household.’ [in the time of Paul in Rome]
(3) It is also probable that he was one called out by the occasion. No mention of him is made either before or after.” (e-Sword 12.2)
As a castrated male, Ebed-melech had no hope of becoming a Jewish proselyte to the Israelite faith. However, Ebed-melech had more spiritual sense than most native Jews during this tragic period. He recognized the injustice shown to one of God’s faithful prophets and was moved with compassion for Jeremiah. The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell, explains that this Ethiopian eunuch was:
“1. Deeply affected by the miseries of God’s servant (Jeremiah 38:7). To hear of what was done troubled him. He had ‘a heart at leisure for itself to soothe and sympathise.’
2. Impelled by pity to attempt his help (Jeremiah 38:8). Not passive sympathy only; he set himself to aid his deliverance. ‘A little help is worth a deal of pity.’
3. Saw the wickedness of the cruelty shown to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:9). The inhumanity was shocking to his kind nature; but the sin of it was equally evident, for abuse of God’s messenger was defiance of God!
4. Dealt very tenderly with him in rescuing him (Jeremiah 38:12). His gentleness is touching. He realised how sick and weak the prophet must be through the horrors of his imprisonment, and from being deprived of food. A tender heart makes the hand gentle.” (e-Sword 12.2)
An Unexpected Friend
Robert Hawker’s Poor Man’s Commentary explains the significance of this act: “See how the Lord raiseth instruments, from the most unexpected quarters, for the deliverance of his people. Here was a stranger, and a Gentile, prompted to fly to the rescue of one of the Lord’s prophets, when all the people of the land were consenting to his death (e-Sword 12.2)”. This story portrays how impious and uncivil were most of the national and religious leaders of the House of Judah before its captivity to Babylon. Fausset’s Bible Dictionary draws out a lesson for us: “Often God raises friends to His people from quarters from whence least they could expect it. Ebedmelech’s courageous interference in Jeremiah’s behalf, at a time when he might naturally fear the wrath of the princes to which even the king had to yield (Jeremiah 38:4-13; 39:16-18), brought deliverance not only to the prophet, but ultimately to himself as his reward from God (e-Sword 12.1).” Jeremiah was rescued from the dungeon because of the efforts of this merciful and brave Gentile (Jeremiah 38:10-13). For his faithfulness to Jeremiah, God protected Ebed-melech when the city of Jerusalem finally fell to the Babylonians, during which time thousands of Jews perished (Jeremiah 39:16-18). Ebed-melech had put his trust in the God of Israel (Jeremiah 39:18).
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Entire Bible summarizes the character of this faithful African: “Christ found more faith among Gentiles than among Jews. Ebed-melech lived in a wicked court and in a very corrupt degenerate age, and yet had a great sense both of equity and piety. God has his remnant in all places, among all sorts. There were saints even in Caesar’s household (e-Sword 12.2)”. Israelite genetics do not matter to God as much as responsive, faithful, and obedient hearts of those who desire to serve him. These two Ethiopians longed to serve the God of Israel as best they could. They were not granted all the privileges of God’s nation but they possessed the kind of responsive faith that God treasures. What a touching lesson may be drawn from this little-known story for believers of all nationalities today!
Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.