Jeremiah is a prophetic book. We don’t think of it as a historical record but it is. In fact, it bridges the gap between the books of Kings/Chronicles and the books of Ezra/Nehemiah. It is almost the only source of historical information about what happened in Jerusalem after the destruction of the temple and before the return of the exiles from Babylon. In contrast to 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, the story is not over—there are a few Jews left in the land—there is a remnant of the most poor and humble. We can only assume they survived because of their righteousness.
Jeremiah 40:1 Nebuzar-adan… had taken him being bound in chains among all that were carried away captive of Jerusalem
Chapter 39 leaves the impression that Jeremiah was released immediately from the king’s prison upon the capture of the city, “they sent, and took Jeremiah out of the court of the prison, and committed him unto Gedaliah… that he should carry him home” (Jer. 39:14). However, chapter 40 makes it sound as if Jeremiah was first taken prisoner and taken with the rest of the captured. Some sorting of captives apparently occurred later. So it appears that Jeremiah was not released immediately by the Babylonian soldiers. As one of the captives, he was taken north. As Ramah is only 5 miles north of Jerusalem, he was not taken that far before Nebuzar-adan realized who he was and offered him a life of ease in Babylon or a life of poverty in Israel.
Jeremiah 40:4-5 whither it seemeth good and convenient for thee to go, thither go
It seems as if the text is missing Jeremiah’s response, which belongs between verses four and five. We will take some historical license and insert a response from Jeremiah.
Nebuzar-adan: Go wherever it seems good and convenient for you to go (verse 4)
Jeremiah: I appreciate your offer but I would much rather stay. I am a Jew and belong here. I am quite content to remain even if it is among the ruins of our once great city. I feel compelled to stay and witness the misery of what remains here.
Nebuzar-adan: As you wish. (Turns to leave but stops before leaving Jeremiah’s presence to say one more thing) Perhaps, you should go back to Gedaliah… whom the king of Babylon hath made governor over the cities of Judah, and dwell with him: or go wherever it seems convenient to you to go. Here, I will make sure you have sufficient food and money for the journey. (verse 5)
Jeremiah: Thank you sir, yet there is one more thing… My scribe Baruch has long been my companion. He is no threat to the king nor to thee. If you please, release him also, that he may remain with me in the land.
Nebuzaradan... took Jeremiah the prophet out of prison, and would have persuaded him to go along with him to Babylon… But the prophet had no mind to follow him, nor to dwell anywhere else, but would gladly live in the ruins of his country and in the miserable remains of it…
Jeremiah… desired of Nebuzaradan that he would set at liberty his disciple Baruch, the son of Neriah, one of a very eminent family, and exceeding skilful in the language of his country. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, 9:1)
And so both Jeremiah and Baruch were preserved by the hand of the Lord, for the Lord will “support his children at the last day” (Alma 30:60). “And the righteous need not fear, for they are those who shall not be confounded.” (1 Ne. 22:22)
Jeremiah 40:6 Then went Jeremiah… to Mizpah; and dwelt with him among the people that were left
Mizpah means “watchtower.” With the walls of Jerusalem destroyed, the town Mizpah of Benjamin was a good location to spot the enemy coming from the north. Likely located about 6-8 miles north of Jerusalem, the watchtower location of Gedaliah’s governorship belies the insecurity the Jews had without the traditional fortress of Jerusalem’s walls.
“[Jeremiah] decided to remain in Judah and immediately went to Mizpah to his friend Gedaliah, whose father Ahikam had once saved Jeremiah from death (Jer. 26:24)… Sometime in this period, if the tradition of authorship is correct, he would have written one of his final laments found in the book of Lamentations.” (Kent P. Jackson, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 4: 1 Kings to Malachi [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1993], 209)
Jeremiah 40:7-8 all the captains of the forces which were in the fields… came to Gedaliah to Mizpah
Small troops of soldiers from surrounding villages obviously escaped the destruction that was fated for Jerusalem. Their captains and their men now had nowhere to go, no king to follow, no leader to support. Joining Gedaliah seemed like the best option. They seemed to sense the immediate need to start over, to rebuild, to protect a threadbare people dangerously exposed to their enemies.
Jeremiah 40:9 Fear not to serve the Chaldeans
For a captain of the king’s army, serving the Chaldeans seemed like treason. Such was the “treason” that Jeremiah had been preaching for years, “submit yourselves to Babylon. Don’t think that God will save you from their swords. Your best bet is to serve the Chaldeans. Do so, and you will live.” For the fighting men of Judah, this would not have been an easy pill to swallow. Yet, they had been beaten. What other choice did they have? They wisely choose to submit to the strength of Babylon and the wisdom of Gedaliah.
Jeremiah 40:11-12 all the Jews that were in Moab, and among the Ammonites, and in Edom… returned out of all places whither they were driven
News of Gedaliah’s governorship travelled fast. That was not necessarily a good thing for him. The Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites had been traditional enemies of the Jews. If news had spread among those people, it meant that vengeful enemy kings could take opportunity to fill the void left by Nebuchadnezzar.
Jews living in the lands of their enemies may have been driven away as criminals, enemies of the king, women who had married outside the families of Israel, or perhaps even Hebrew slaves. With Zedekiah gone, they were free to return to the land of their inheritance. They followed the irrepressible instinct God has implanted into the hearts of his people—an unquenchable desire to inherit the land of Israel and gather with fellow Jews, so they “returned out of all the places whither they were driven, and came to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah, unto Mizpah, and gathered wine and summer fruits very much.”
Jeremiah 40:14-16 Baalis the king of the Ammonites hath sent Ishmael the son of Nethaniah to slay thee
Johanan the son of Kareah has a brief role in the saga of Jewish history. He is a man of great spirit like Gideon of the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 19-20). Apprised of a plot to kill the governor, he offers his services to Gedaliah. Intuitively, he understands that the Jews are now in a very precarious position. Gedaliah must be protected as the shepherd of a ravaged flock.
It is a story of good guys and bad guys. The bad guy is Ishmael who was known to Gedaliah. He was one of the captains that came to Gedaliah (v. 8) and claimed allegiance. He was an associate of Johanan and the other captains. Previously, he had spent time among the Ammonites. Perhaps he fled the wrath of the Chaldeans in going to the Ammonites for refuge and there made friends with the Ammonite king. Now back among his own people, he was acting like he had the Jews best interest at heart. Apparently Ishmael was earlier one of the princes of the king’s court. The governor knew him from before and thought more highly of Ishmael than he should have. Ishmael’s treason was to serve the Ammonites instead of his own people. His act is an act of cowardice not bravery for he betrayed his own people to the enemy—a traitor through and through.
Gedaliah is wise but perhaps a bit naïve. He can’t believe that Ishmael would have such evil intentions. He is the kind of person who always thinks the best of another, which is normally a good quality. The plan of Johanan to preemptively take out Ishmael must have seemed too rash, too violent, too vindictive. Perhaps it was, but Johanan was right about the plot.
Jeremiah 41:1 Now it came to pass in the seventh month
We presume this was the seventh month of the eleventh year of the reign of Zedekiah (Jer. 39:2) which was only three months after Jerusalem was taken. That means that Gedaliah has only been the governor for a few months.
Jeremiah 41:1-2 Ishmael… and the princes of the king… came unto Gedaliah… and there they did eat bread together
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies (Ps 23:5)
Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me (Ps. 41:9)
Jeremiah 41:3 Ishmael also slew all the Jews that were with him… and the Chaldeans
There are two important points to make when we consider Ishmael’s traitorous assassination of Gedaliah. First, where was Jeremiah? The last we knew about Jeremiah was that he was released from the Chaldeans and had gone to Mizpah to dwell with Gedaliah (Jer. 40:6). According to the record as it exists, Jeremiah should have been with Gedaliah at the time of the assassination but he and Baruch obviously escaped. Perhaps they were long gone by the time of this feast, as they may have met with Gedaliah initially and then decided to settle elsewhere. In any account, the Lord made sure to preserve them from a violent end.
Second, Ishmael has done a couple of things to anger the Babylonians: he killed the governor they established and killed the Chaldeans that were with him. The Jews had reason to expect a violent retribution from Babylon. Ishmael had placed the Jews in a more precarious position than they already were in.
Jeremiah 41:5 fourscore men, having their beards shaven, and their clothes rent, and having cut themselves
These 80 men were apparently so upset about the destruction of the temple that they abased themselves as an outward expression of their indignation. It was a humiliation to have your beard shaved or to be naked in public. So this combination of shaved beard, clothes rent with underwear showing, and self-mutilation were signs of abjection representing their distraught and traumatized condition. They had a great love for the temple and for the Lord. They brought offerings but where could they be offered? There were no priests. There was no altar. There was no temple.
Being devout was nothing that Ishmael respected. He had no love for the Lord, nor the temple, nor his fellow Jews. It is not even clear why he killed these men. Probably, Mizpah was en route to Jerusalem from the north and an obvious stop along the way. We might imagine these men wanted to meet with Gedaliah. Would they have uncovered the murder and investigated its cause? It seems Ishmael preemptively killed these men so they would not discover the assassin. His conscience had already made him paranoid.
Jeremiah 41:9 the pit… was it which Asa the king had made for fear of Baasha king of Israel
The Bible doesn’t elsewhere record the pit that Asa, king of Judah, dug for his enemy Baasha. It does record that Baasha and Asa were enemies all their days and that Asa built the city of Mizpah (1 Kgs. 15:16, 22).
Jeremiah 41: Ishmael carried away captive all the residue of the people that were in Mizpah, even the king’s daughters
Remember that all the king’s son (except Mulek, Hel. 8:21) had been killed by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 39:6). The king’s daughters had lost their homes, their father, and their brothers. Now they were captives headed for the Ammonites and had great reason to fear what would befall them there.
Jeremiah 41:11 Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the captains… went to fight with Ishmael… by the great waters that are in Gibeon
We have already compared Johanan to Gideon of the Book of Mormon. In this passage, his actions are more reminiscent of captain Moroni who had to head off a group of his own people who were about to join the enemy (Alma 62:1-10; see also Alma 50:25-36).
Jeremiah 41:16-18 Then took Johanan… all the remnant of the people whom he had recovered… And they departed, and dwelt… by Bethlehem.
Zechariah said, “smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered” (Zech. 13:7). Gedaliah is dead. Johanan is in charge but not recognized by Nebuchadnezzar. What are the people to do? Gedaliah was instated by the Babylonians and had power to keep the remnant safe. Would the Babylonians send another war party to avenge the death of Gedaliah and the Chaldeans that were with him at the time of the assassination? Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar would decide to destroy all the Jews.
Where could the Jews look for safety? In whom could they trust for protection? The walls of Jerusalem are destroyed. They are surrounded by Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, Babylonians, and the armies of Egypt. Of them all, Egypt had been the least threatening. Stability and commerce had brought the Egyptian language into common use among some Jews (1 Ne. 1:2). The people had really only two choices: they could trust in the Lord or trust in the Egyptians. Their choice to dwell near Bethlehem indicates that they are already thinking of heading to Egypt for safety.