When I young, I was very interested in comic books, especially Marvel Comics. I tended to like their superheroes better than those of the other main publisher, DC Comics. Marvel placed (and still places) its characters in the real world. It’s New York City, not Gotham City or Metropolis.
Among my favorite comic books were Dr. Strange (the Sorcerer Supreme!) and the Incredible Hulk. I admired him for his eloquence, his articulate way with words. His favorite line was “Hulk smash!”
Probably my favorite character wasn’t a superhero at all. He was kind of an anti-hero. He lived in Cleveland, having become trapped on our Earth. He was simply a duck, Howard the Duck, and he would continually be amazed at how we “hairless apes,” as he put it, ran things on this planet. You see, on his Earth, ducks are the dominant species.
I really don’t know how deliberate this was, but is it possible that Marvel was making a statement about superheroes? Is it necessary to be muscle-bound, or otherwise skill-laden? Is it possible to be merely a duck? Hold that thought!
In the book of Jeremiah, we see something that we rarely do with the other Hebrew prophets. We get a quite vivid view of the emotions of the man. We see much of his psychological makeup. That’s largely due to what’s called the confessions of Jeremiah. There are five of them, located between chapters 11 and 20. These are the poems of the prophet in which he expresses his feelings of pain, of anger, and even his sense of betrayal by God. These laments are borne of the abuses he’s been forced to endure.
We see yet another example of that unfair treatment in chapter 38. If there is anyone in need of some heroic intervention, it’s definitely the prophet Jeremiah.
At this point in the book, the Babylonians are outside the walls of Jerusalem. Jeremiah, who’s been warning about this for years, is seeing his words coming true. Things are getting very grim. Having taken position outside the city, the Babylonians have set up a blockade. They’re cutting off supply lines, stopping shipments of food. The situation will get so dire that some will resort to cannibalism. They will eat their own young (19:9, Lm 2:20, 4:10).
Zedekiah, the final king of Judah, has sought Jeremiah for words of wisdom, but he doesn’t like what he hears. Zedekiah’s biggest problem is that he’s afraid. He does nothing to prevent his officials from arresting Jeremiah, who claim the prophet “ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city.” They say he isn’t “seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm” (v. 4).
Just how does Zedekiah respond? How does this sound? “Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you” (v. 5). He thinks he’s saving his own skin, but he’s doing the exact opposite. Jeremiah has tried to tell him, and everyone else, that this war is a lost cause. Zedekiah can still come to terms with the Babylonians.
But fear can easily overwhelm reason. The most dangerous people in the world are the fearful. When people are afraid—when we are afraid—we become capable of stuff we otherwise would never do. People who are afraid are easier to manipulate, because they aren’t thinking clearly. They aren’t asking the right questions. As we sometimes say, they check their brains at the door—or before entering the arena.
As for Jeremiah, he gets lowered into a cistern. It would be bad enough if the bottom were dry, but listen to the way the Bible describes it: “Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire” (v. 6).
Jeremiah is being buried alive. He can’t find any solid foothold, which need it be said, has levels of meaning.
Fortunately for the prophet, there is someone willing to intervene on his behalf. This one goes to Zedekiah and says, “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, for there is no bread left in the city” (v. 9). Some manuscripts even have him saying “you have acted wickedly”!
Who is this bold advocate? Who dares to step forward this way? Perhaps someone from the king’s family? Not exactly. He’s a fellow known to us as Ebed-melech. But that really isn’t his name. “Ebed-melech” (עֶבֶד־מֶלֶךְ) simply means “servant of the king.” And what’s more, he’s a foreigner, an Ethiopian. He’s a nobody, a zero—although truth be told, I might be overstating this “zero” bit. He would have needed some influence to get an audience with Zedekiah.
What reaction does he provoke from the king? Punishment? Rebuke? No, Zedekiah tells Ebed-melech to find some help…and get Jeremiah out of that well! Sometimes we need to be asked—we need to be reminded—to do the right thing, to be the person we claim to be, to be the person we want to be.
Christine Pohl has written: “a friend of mine asked if there was anyone who consistently spoke truth into my life.” She reminds us how important it is that “[e]ach of us [have] someone, or a small community, who will name what is going on and speak a word of truth to us when it is needed.”
But more than being the one who reminds Zedekiah of his moral, and indeed his legal, duty, Ebed-melech is something else. As I’ve indicated, he is the voice of Jeremiah when Jeremiah has no voice. It’s hard to plead your case when you’re at the bottom of a muck-filled cistern.
If for no other reason (and surely there is more than one), but if for no other reason than his showing compassion for Jeremiah, Ebed-melech’s actions should be considered heroic. In my humble opinion, this zero is a hero. And I’m far from alone in making that judgment. Jewish legend even goes so far as to say that he’s among those who ascended to heaven. That seems to be a pretty firm vote of confidence!
Actually, calling Ebed-melech a hero isn’t a tough call, given the message to him in chapter 39. The prophet is told to go to Ebed-melech and reassure him of something. The city is still going to be invaded and conquered. Destruction is on the way. But it won’t touch him. And the people he’s angered by helping Jeremiah won’t touch him, either.
So what will happen? “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” (v. 18). Ebed-melech will survive the fighting with his own plunder, that plunder being his life.
He might not be a superhero, but he does a pretty good job as a duck!
Here’s a question. “Who is the biggest zero of all time?” (That is, if a zero can be called “big”!) Who is it? I would suggest Jesus. Let me elaborate. We have a peasant among a people under military occupation. There are legitimate questions regarding his parentage. He is an obscure man from an obscure town. In fact, it was asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).
The powers-that-be grow weary of his wandering around, spreading his dangerous teachings. He is executed, though not in a way befitting a political prisoner, but as a common thug on a cross, along with two other thugs. His followers disperse (with the exception of some of the women!) The dream, just like Jesus, is dead—dead as a doornail. A couple of his disciples, reflecting on this utter failure, said “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). We had hoped.
Of course, we know that’s not the end of the story.
Bringing this business of zero into our time, we should note that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian. I wonder, between the two of us, who would be more likely to be “randomly” stopped and checked at the airport?
That is the beauty of Jesus as zero. He takes the lowest possible position. (Mind you, I’m not suggesting that being a Middle Eastern Palestinian qualifies as being zero.) Jesus takes utter defeat and transforms it, and perhaps you’ll agree that there’s no greater defeat than being dead!
I imagine some of us have felt like zero. Some of us, if not all of us, have had the sense that we’re nothing, at least once in our lives. I would daresay it’s happened many more times than that. (I would call it part of the human condition.)
Maybe we’ve even felt like Jeremiah in that deep, dark hole. Earlier I mentioned the anguish revealed by the prophet: he’s been the object of mockery, hatred, unjust imprisonment, torture, just to name some of his mistreatment. Still, this is the perfect summation of his agony. He’s been tossed into what must look like a bottomless pit. There seems to be no way out.
As noted before, it would be bad enough if solid ground were at the bottom. However, here he is (here we are) sinking in sludge, maybe even to the point of it closing overhead. The walls are moving in. One need not be claustrophobic for a sense of panic to take hold. The light is beginning to fade.
Some might say this is well-deserved. After all, why does he find himself in this predicament to begin with? It was no accident. Many say by spreading his message, he really didn’t want the best for his people.
How often have we seen this take place? Have we been with Jeremiah in that deep, dark hole and been told, “That’s where you belong.”
Shelley Rambo, who’s written quite a bit on trauma, says “for many people who experience trauma, Christianity has offered judgment, not good news… The sense that a person is at fault for what has happened to them is often threaded into Christian responses, sometimes unconsciously.”
Have we ever been on the other side of that deep, dark hole and acted like a zero (though not in a good sense!)? Have we ever shown impatience with someone in the midst of pain and suffering and said, “Okay, this has gone on long enough. It’s time to move on! That is, unless you enjoy this.”
Still, despite whatever suffering we endure—or whatever suffering we inflict—when hope has almost died, a servant of the king is there. An ebed-melech shows up. When we do speak the words of truth and get thrown into the mud, our ebed-melech stands next to us and defends us.
May the Lord raise in each of our lives an ebed-melech, a servant of the King Jesus, the One who became obedient to death and who brings us through the battle, giving us the power to rise from the dead.
 11:18-12:6, 15:10-21, 17:14-18, 18:18-23, 20:7-18
 Christine Pohl, “Sin insulation,” Christian Century 118:24 (29 Aug-5 Sep 2001): 12.