Now when all the princes, and all the people, which had entered into the covenant, heard that every one should let his manservant, and every one his maidservant, go free, that none should serve themselves of them any more, then they obeyed, and let them go. But afterward they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids. — Jeremiah 34:10-11
My father was a businessman who put a high value on personal integrity and was well known for conducting his dealings honestly. He was of the generation who believed that “your word is your bond.” As the owner of retail shoe stores, he once went to a bank to obtain a loan for business expansion. An agreement in principle was reached and the proper papers were drawn up. When the banker brought up the matter of collateral to secure the loan, my father told him that he intended to use the value of the store inventory as security. The banker agreed, but then said, “Mr. Habre, that would be fine, but I would need to come to one of the stores and confirm that there are shoes in the boxes.” The very idea of such scrutiny stunned my father and he was so insulted by this lack of trust in his word that he stood up, said the deal was off, and walked out of the bank. Later he made arrangements to secure a loan from another lending institution that had no problem with taking him at his word, believing that he had adequate security to cover the loan. After all, you can trust the word of a person of integrity.
King Zedekiah and the people of Judah had not learned this important lesson. Hoping to win God’s favor when their country was under siege, they covenanted with God that they would let their Hebrew slaves go free, and they did so for a time. However, as the focus verses reveal, they soon went back on their word and once again violated their covenant with God. Re-enslaving their brothers and sisters was no insignificant matter, and they would pay for their covenant-breaking behavior with the loss of their own freedom when they were taken into captivity.
Today, God wants His children to keep their word. It is important to be sincere when we tell Him that we will serve Him and do what He wants us to do. Then we need to follow through and live out that commitment. Our obedience will be demonstrated, in part, by keeping our word to those around us — business associates, family members, employees, and employers. God will honor those who keep His Word and their commitments.
Jeremiah 34 was written as Jerusalem and Judah were falling to the Babylonians in 588 B.C. King Zedekiah had been allegiant to Babylon, but then went back on his word and turned instead to the Egyptians for aid against the Babylonians. This political backdrop explains the covenant-making and covenant-breaking behavior of King Zedekiah and the people of Judah. Before allying with the Egyptians, King Zedekiah and his people renewed their covenant with God in the hope that He would intervene on their behalf against the Babylonians. As a sign of the renewed covenant, they released all their Hebrew bondslaves.
However, when Zedekiah broke his agreement with King Nebuchadnezzar, his people followed his example and broke their renewed covenant with God. Since the Egyptians were stepping in to provide a brief respite from the onslaught of the Babylonians, the people of Judah thought that they could get away with re-enslaving their fellow Hebrews.
Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God announced that He had had enough of this covenant-breaking behavior. Jerusalem would fall to King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, and the people of Judah would be taken into captivity. The Jewish historian Josephus recorded the words that King Nebuchadnezzar supposedly spoke to King Zedekiah as he held the Jewish leader accountable for breaking their treaty: “When he was come, Nebuchadnezzar began to call him a wicked wretch, and a covenant-breaker, and one that had forgotten his former words, when he promised to keep the country for him.” Evidently, even the pagan leader of Babylon could see that the Hand of God was working against Zedekiah and Judah for their broken promises, for he said, “God is great who hateth that conduct of thine, and hath brought thee under us.”(1)
(Hannah’s Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
II. The pronouncement of judgment against Judah
D. The circumstances of the prophet
1. Jeremiah’s experiences before Jerusalem’s fall
a. The message to Zedekiah (34:1-22)
(1) The fact of approaching judgment (34:1-7)
(2) The reason for approaching judgment (34:8-22)
(a) The covenant broken (34:8-11)
(b) The covenant reviewed (34:12-16)
(c) The result of breaking the covenant (34:17-22)
As followers of Christ who seek to emulate our Heavenly Father, we should never allow personal expedience to undermine our promises. As God the Father is faithful, we too must be faithful to keep the covenants and promises that we make.
1. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Baker Book House, 1984, Book 5, Chapter 8, Section 2.