Judah’s Fatal Decision Jeremiah 40—43
In 586 B.C. the Babylonians captured Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and deported the Jewish people to Babylon. Only a remnant of poor Judeans were left in the land to care for and cultivate it. The Babylonians released the prophet Jeremiah and gave him a choice to remain in Judah or immigrate to Babylon. He chose to remain. The king of Babylon then appointed an Israelite named Gedaliah as governor to oversee the remnant.
What transpired next reveals that God is never unwilling to provide guidance, even when He knows people will not follow it. In their stubbornness, the Judeans chose to do things their way; and they paid a heavy price for their decision.
Johanan (a Jewish leader of the remnant) heard King Baalis (an Ammonite) had sent Ishmael the Ammonite to assassinate Gedaliah. He immediately warned Gedaliah, but Gedaliah did not believe him and denied Johanan’s request to kill Ishmael (Jer. 40).
So Ishmael and his men visited Gedaliah; ate with him; and murdered him, along with the Jewish people who were with him and some Chaldean warriors. Then they fled, taking captives. When Johanan heard of the murders, he pursued Ishmael. A battle ensued. Though Ishmael and eight of his soldiers escaped, they left the Judean captives behind (41:1–15).
Despite returning the captives to Jerusalem, Johanan was afraid his good deed might backfire. He feared King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon would blame him for Gedaliah’s murder and take revenge by slaughtering him and the Jewish remnant (vv. 16–18). So he and the remnant decided to flee to Egypt. Before doing so, however, they asked Jeremiah to pray for God’s will and guidance on their decision (42:1–3).
That was the scenario when Jeremiah agreed to pray. He told the people he would reveal God’s entire message, whether good or bad (v. 4). The remnant promised, “Whether it is pleasing or displeasing, we will obey” (v. 6). But the Israelites were like many today who dislike what God says because His Word contradicts their own desires.
Ten days later, the Lord answered Jeremiah’s prayer. The news was good. The Judeans were told to stay in the Promised Land. If they obeyed, God would do three things: He would (1) plant them in the land and not pluck them up; (2) manifest His presence and power, preserving them from Babylon’s attack; and (3) show them mercy and compassion (vv. 7–12).
God also included a strong warning: If the remnant disobeyed the Lord and fled to Egypt, everyone would be destroyed by the sword, famine, and pestilence (disease). The remnant did not know the Babylonians would soon invade Egypt. Jeremiah informed the Judeans they would be cursed, become a reproach (cf. Dt. 28:37), and never see the Promised Land again if they went to Egypt. Jeremiah reemphasized that this warning was from the Lord (Jer. 42:13–18).
The prophet was no fool. He knew these Israelites’ request for prayer was hypocritical because they had already planned to flee to Egypt; and he told them so. They were not truly seeking God’s will but merely hoping to have Him approve their plans. Again Jeremiah warned them they would die in Egypt (vv. 19–22).
Instead of heeding the prophet, they accused Jeremiah of lying and fled to Egypt anyway. They also falsely accused Baruch (Jeremiah’s scribe/secretary) of influencing Jeremiah to halt their escape and of secretly working as a spy for Babylon in order to put them to death or take them captive.
So the remnant of Judah fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them (43:1–7). After Jeremiah arrived there, the Lord told him to bury large stones at the entrance to Pharaoh’s house in Tahpanhes. When Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt, he would capture many Egyptians, kill others, destroy and burn the houses of the Egyptians’ gods, burn their golden idols, and set his throne over the stones Jeremiah buried (vv. 8–13).
We can learn many lessons from chapters 42—43. First, the Judean remnant was wise in seeking divine guidance about whether to stay in the land or flee to Egypt. The decision would be life-changing, affecting Judah for years to come.
Second, the Judeans were correct in disclosing their dilemma to Jeremiah, a prophet of God who could intercede for them to help them discern the Lord’s will regarding which path to take.
Third, the remnant did not become discontent but waited patiently 10 days until Jeremiah provided the Lord’s answer. And God promised deliverance if Judah obeyed His instructions.
When we face a dilemma, it is only proper to request God’s guidance. We must wait patiently until our prayer is answered before making a decision. When the answer comes, we must not be discontent or disobedient to God’s reply but obey His instructions, although doing so might be distasteful and not in accordance with our desires.
However, we must not approach God as the leaders of the remnant did, using deception and double talk, promising to obey while knowing they had made up their minds. The remnant defamed Jeremiah’s character by calling him a liar and saying his message was untrue (43:2).
In defiance to God’s revelation, these people traveled to Egypt (v. 7). They were self-deceived, believing their plan was correct and that the Lord would not carry out the promised judgment against them—even though He repeatedly warned them that death awaited them in Egypt (vv. 10–11).
They also failed to use discernment and to remember their past history, which was filled with God’s judgment on their disobedient forefathers (cf. Lev. 26:14–39; Num. 14—20; Dt. 28:15–68; 2 Ki. 17:4–23).
God is gracious and always willing to provide wisdom and guidance. Let us not succumb to praying hypocritically while all along planning to do our own will in disobedience to Him. The consequences, as they were in Jeremiah’s day, can be devastating.