EW WOULD SUGGEST THAT EBED-MELECH was a major personality in Scripture. If asked to identify him, many Bible students and teachers would knit their brows, straining to recollect where he appears in the sacred oracles. Chagrined over our shaky memories we’d scramble for the concordance. Ah, yes, there he is—in the book of Jeremiah. Let’s see his story.
He emerges at the very time Jeremiah sinks from view, thrust into a dungeon so neglected that it’s nothing more than a foul slime-pit. Guards are not needed there—the only point of entry being a manhole down which prisoners are lowered. Exit is generally by way of death through starvation. Rats and maggots are the only ones fed there, their diet being the flesh of the condemned.
Speaking for God, Jeremiah had borne a faithful message of warning to his compatriots. The people having strayed so far from their covenantal bond with God, the Lord had decreed their subjection to Babylon for 70 years, after which they were to be freed. Jeremiah bore this message of chastisement and urged the people, in repentance toward God, to submit to their conquerors.1 But to carnal ears, a prophecy of long-term subjugation, coupled with an appeal to obey their heathen captors, sounded unpatriotic and insulting.
“This man does not seek the welfare of this people,” the princes contended in a formal complaint against Jeremiah, “but their harm; he ought to be put to death.”2 And Judah’s godless king Zedekiah, keeping his reservations to himself, spinelessly acceded to Jeremiah’s arrest and imprisonment.
Profile in Courage
But Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian eunuch, and the king’s slave, bristled with indignation over this officially sanctioned injustice.
Ebed-melech knew that Jeremiah was a true man of God. He’d not only seen and heard the prophet, but had probably also enjoyed some brotherly interaction with him. Jeremiah saw all people as God’s children,3
and this, no doubt, fully expressed itself in his relations with Ebed-melech, a man whom most of Jeremiah’s contemporaries would have seen as nothing more than a nondescript servitor with ebony skin, a chattel, a semiperson of no consequence.
What makes us humans, however, is not our color or even our chromosomes. It’s our character.4 And Ebed-melech was a human being. A person of principle, a person with a passion for truth and equitability, a person not afraid to risk his life for the sake of justice.
It’s always risky to stand up to oppressors on behalf of the oppressed. Ebed-melech did this with a directness so rarely seen that it commands our admiration and respect. I imagine he could have sidled up to the king and made the following statement: “Your Majesty, it strikes me as somewhat impolitic and overreactive to consign one of your priests to prison for an offense that may be deemed little more than imprudent zeal in declaiming visions quite subject to various interpretations, according to the parallax position from which one considers the prisoner’s mystic and, at times, somewhat brash utterances! I would therefore recommend clemency in the form of parole for that impetuous, would-be prophet named Jeremiah now in custody for mere metaphysical divagations that have brought understandable, though quite needless, distress to the rulers whose patriotic fervor and love for hallowed tradition no one can deny.”
Ebed-melech could have spoken that way, but he didn’t. Such diplomatic drivel never trickled from the lips of that noble slave who knew more about soul-liberty than the king ever would. Without a grain of cringing court-craft or cowardly circumlocution, Ebed-melech declared: “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger.”5
These straightforward words of reproof and exhortation pricked the king’s conscience.
Drawing together the tattered shreds of his courage into a semblance of royal dignity, he stoutly ordered Ebed-melech and a deputation of 30 men to pull Jeremiah out of the squalid hole where he languished.
This is precisely what Ebed-melech wanted to hear. Swiftly, he gathered the needed materials and rushed with his rescue party to the place of Jeremiah’s confinement. What a welcome moment it must have been to Jeremiah to hear the rich bass voice of his deliverer calling to him from the mouth of the shaft so high above. On hearing Jeremiah’s echoing response from the dank depths below, Ebed-melech told him that he was lowering ropes with a bundle of old rags attached.
Why these wads of discarded cloth? So that Jeremiah could put them under his arms to keep the ropes from cutting into his flesh or bruising him as his liberators drew him up.
What a considerate touch! Jeremiah would gladly have accepted deliverance, however rough and chafing the ropes. But Ebed-melech was the servant of heaven’s King, and he acted with ambassadorial grace in his treatment of people. Brief though the rescue would be, his thought was to ease the strain of the cords as they dug into Jeremiah’s armpits.
What We Can Learn
Is there not an enduring lesson for us here? Doesn’t Ebed-melech’s action resemble the Spirit of the Master who stated, “I am among you as one who serves”?6 Christ’s service to us is not minimal or mechanical, nor is it ever brusque or unfeeling. He bears the bruises, He takes the brunt of the blows that are meant for us. He carries our sorrows; in all of our affliction He is afflicted; He cushions the harsh jolts of life with nameless and often unrecognized comforts. Surely, the closer we come to Him in grateful servanthood, the more we shall be like Him, and the more abundantly will moral courage, coupled with the kind of thoughtfulness modeled by Ebed-melech, characterize our actions.
And just as Ebed-melech did not forget the politically disfavored Jeremiah, but labored to secure his freedom and meet his needs, the Lord did not forget Ebed-melech in the times of crisis that awaited him. Through Jeremiah He sent a message to that faithful interceder and advocate of justice, “Go and say to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to fulfill my words against this city for evil and not for good, and they shall be accomplished in your presence on that day. But I will save you on that day, . . . says the Lord, and you shall not be handed over to those whom you dread. For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have trusted in me, says the Lord.”7
In the time of trouble, whose gathering shadows fill the horizon and portentously roll toward the foreground of our days, the Lord will do no less. His faithful servants, whose highest delight is in colaboring with Christ to break every cruel yoke and set the captives free, will taste the incomparably sweet joys of final deliverance when He comes.
1See Jer. 21:3-14; 25:1-11; 38:2.
3See Jer. 4:2; 7:5, 6; 22:3.
4See Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 520. “The members of the human family are entitled to the name of men and women only when they employ their talents, in every possible way, for the good of others.”
5Jer. 38:9, NRSV.
6Luke 22:27, NRSV.
7Jer. 39:16-18, NRSV.
Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Brian Jones pastors the Seventh-day Adventist churches in Spencer, Glenville, and Gassaway, West Virginia. He also serves as communication director for the Mountain View Conference.