Blog Note: If you are a regular reader of the blog, you know that we are in a series through the Gospel of John. Most weeks, I blog the sermons I preach at Faith Church, breaking each sermon into five posts, a kind of daily devotional, Monday through Friday. You haven’t seen any posts so far this week because this past Sunday we had a guest speaker from Church World Service. Normally when we have a guest speaker who isn’t continuing the current sermon series, I pause the blog for a week. But this week I’m adding a midweek devotional. I started writing these every week for Faith Church during the Covid shutdown in 2020. People appreciated them, so I’ve continued. As you’ll see below, in the midweek devotionals, I’ve been studying the life of the prophet Jeremiah, already having covered chapters 1-39. Who was Jeremiah? Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem during the period of final kings of Judah. He was called by God to prophesy about Jerusalem’s coming destruction if the people of Judah persisted living in rebellion to God. Well, the Judahites ignored Jeremiah’s warning, and in chapter 39, Babylon destroyed the city.
Sometimes my wife and I disagree with one another. Maybe you have a spouse, relative or friend with whom you disagree, and you know the feeling. We disagree because we have differing opinions about a situation. I think I know best, and she thinks she knows best. In some of those disagreements, she will say, “Trust my gut.” What she means is that she has a sense about the situation that I don’t have, and I should take her gut feeling seriously. I will often balk at this suggestion because it insinuates that I don’t have the capability to evaluate the situation properly. I think I do have the capability to evaluate the situation. I want to trust my gut, not hers. I want to believe that I am smart, intuitive and discerning, all on my own. But if I simply trust my gut, I will be making a grave mistake. Today we learn about someone who made that mistake.
The person we’re learning about is an obscure biblical character mentioned in Jeremiah chapters 39-41. The story takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Babylonian devastation of Jerusalem in chapter 39. Babylon’s military exiled most of the people of Judah back to Babylon. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, commanded that only a remnant of Israelites would remain in the land. He appointed a Jewish governor of the remnant, Gedaliah.
In Jeremiah 40 verses 7-10, Governor Gedaliah speaks to the remnant, encouraging them to settle down in the land and serve the Babylonians. In his speech to the people, Gedaliah says, “Do not be afraid to serve the Babylonians,” as there were still Babylonian soldiers patrolling the remnant.
Imagine being those Jews in the remnant. The only reason they are allowed to remain in Judah is because the Babylonians deemed them unworthy to be exiled because they were poor. The Babylonians are basically saying, “We think so little of you that we don’t want to bring you back to our country.” These Jews, who are already accustomed to the difficulties of being marginalized and looked down upon because of their poverty, could easily be thinking, “We’re worthless.” They could be very fearful that the powerful Babylonians could change their minds and destroy them.
But they had one thing going for them. The land. The land of Judah at that time had bountiful farms and vineyards which the Babylonians wanted to profit from. So Gedaliah encourages the people to take heart and submit to serving the Babylonians by farming the land. In so doing, they need not fear. As we will see, though, not everyone agrees with Gedaliah’s approach to the situation.
The narrative continues, and word of the survival of a remnant in Judah makes it to some surrounding nations (Moab, Ammon, and Edom) where other communities of Jews lived. We read in verses 11-12 that at least some of those Jews now return to the land of Judah and helped with the harvest. It seems that after awful suffering at the hands of Babylon, a new time of blessing is underway. Jews are reuniting to work the land, and the land produces abundantly.
Just like that, the story takes a negative turn. In verses 13-16, one of the remnant, Johanan, informs Gedaliah that the king of the Ammonites has marshaled one of the other Jews, Ishmael, to take Gedaliah’s life. Clearly, this was a wild west era. The Babylonians had swept in, destroyed the city, carted off nearly all the Jews to exile in Babylon, leaving only a tiny group of disestablished people to work the land under the leadership of governor Gedaliah. Most of the Babylonian army returns to Babylon, posting behind a much smaller force to stay and monitor the remnant in Judah. In that power vacuum, Ammon sees an opportunity to capitalize on Babylon’s weakness and vulnerability. All Ammon believes it needs to do is assassinate the governor, and Ammon could take control. What will Gedaliah do in response?
He could alert the Babylonian soldiers still there. He could ask Johanan how he learned about the plot. Gedaliah could take all kinds of precautions. But nope. He does nothing. He says he does not believe that the plot is real. Imagine being Johanan at this point. You’ve heard about the plot. You know it is real. But the governor just dismisses it. The governor doesn’t believe you. What does Johanan do now?
Johanan asks Gedaliah for permission to preemptively strike, killing the assassin, Ishmael, who is also a Jew in the remnant. Gedaliah, however, refuses believe the threat is valid. Their conversation in verses 13-16 gives the impression that Gedaliah believes he knows something of Ishmael, and he cannot fathom that Ishmael would do something so evil. Why is Gedaliah insisting on not taking Johanan seriously?
Some personalities are low on trust, some are high on trust. There are people who instantly believe others until they have a reason not to. There are people who start with caution, only trusting others until those others have earned the right to be trusted. At best, Gedaliah seems to be a very trusting person. At worst, he is naïve or arrogant. How will it work out?
In chapter 41, verses 1-3, we learn that Gedaliah’s trust in Ishmael is misplaced. Ishmael gathers ten men, and not only do they kill Gedaliah, but they also kill the Jews and the Babylonian soldiers in the town of Mizpah where Gedaliah ruled from. Why would they massacre the governor, other Jews and do something so provocative as to even kill Babylonian soldiers? Wouldn’t the Babylonians find out? Wouldn’t they return in force and further destroy Judah? This was a seriously risky move.
We already read in verse 40:13 that the King of neighboring Ammon is behind this. We also just read in 41:1 that Ishmael has a connection to the royal house of Judah. Ishmael, it seems, is family with King Zedekiah whom Babylon previously captured when they destroyed Jerusalem (see 39:5-7). It could be that Ishmael and his cohort believe Gedaliah was a traitor, submitting to be a puppet leader of the remnant for Babylon. It appears that Ammon and the Jewish royalists are in cahoots to rebel against Babylon. But how far are they going to take this? What is their end goal? As we’ve learned in 41:1-3, thus far Ishmael and his gang have been very successful. Furthermore, by killing the leaders and soldiers in Mizpah with Gedaliah, there’s little chance word will get out.
The next day, we read in verses 4-9 that no one yet knows about the mass killing in Mizpah. In the meantime, 80 other Jewish men from the remnant perform a ritual of mourning and sacrifice, which seems sincere, since their capital city and people have been devastated by Babylon. Again, it is important to remember that the 80 men have no idea about Ismael’s killing of Gedaliah. So Ishmael falls in with the men, fake weeping and lying to them about going to meet with Gedaliah, who the 80 men do not yet know is dead. At Mizpah, Ishmael and his mercenaries then slaughter the men, except for ten who promise to disclose the location of hidden grain, oil and honey. Ishmael’s wicked success is mounting. What is his end game?
Next in verses 10-15, we learn that Ishmael captures the rest of the people in Mizpah, taking them captive, moving them out to cross the border into the land of the Ammonites. Now we have a clue to what Ishmael is trying to accomplish. He is in league with Ammon, and he is hoping to bring a bunch of captive Jews there, perhaps thinking they will be safe.
Word of Ishmael’s many crimes could not be contained for long, though, and Johanan finds out. Remember him? We met him in 40:13. Johanan is the man who attempted to warn Gedaliah about Ishmael. Now Johanan and the army officers with him intervene, attacking Ishmael and his mercenaries before they make it to Ammon. In the battle, all the captives are freed, but Ishmael and 8 of his men safely flee to Ammon.
Johanan and the people now head to Egypt. We read in verses 16-18 that they believe Babylon will seek retribution for Ishmael’s crimes. They are probably right. Ishmael not only slaughtered Babylon’s appointed ruler of the remnant, Gedaliah, but he also killed Babylonian soldiers and tried to steal away many Jews. So Johanan and the people evacuate, believing Egypt to be a safe haven. In chapter 41, however, they only make it as far as Bethlehem. Why? We’ll find out next week.
For now, what can we learn about this story? Gedaliah trusted himself, and it got Gedaliah killed. Does that mean we should never trust ourselves? I’m not saying that. Trust is the basis for all relationships. Without trust we have nothing. We must trust in God, in ourselves and others. When I recently traveled to India, I trusted that the airline’s computer system would arrange my flights. When I arrived at the airport in Delhi, I had nothing but an email to vouch for me. I had never talked to a person, and I had no paper tickets. The guard at the door scanned my email, and at first it didn’t seem to work. But he checked my passport, read my email, and waved me through. I arrived at the check-in desk, and sure enough, there I got my boarding passes.
Broken or misplaced trust that can happen to any of us. But I do not believe that those instances of broken trust should lead us to conclude that it is always unwise to trust others. We are wise, however, to be cautious, to place boundaries, to use the powers of reasoning and evaluation that God has given us. I am not, therefore, advocating for blind trust.
Gedaliah should have listened to Johanan to at least inquire of the basis for Johanan’s concern. Where Gedaliah was so wrong was his unwillingness to conceive of a possibility that he himself hadn’t thought of. I suppose we could accuse Gedaliah of being arrogant. Or maybe he was just lazy. He should have known that Johanan was of a quality that Johanan’s word was important. We can think too highly of ourselves and our ability to assess a situation. It seems Gedaliah fell prey to an inflated sense of his own powers. Instead, we need to be teachable, humble, eager to say, “I might be wrong about this situation,” eager to learn more.
Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash