Many members of our churches do not occupy leadership positions. Not making decisions that directly affect the lives of others, they may wonder, Does my life make a difference at all?
The Bible contains a story showcasing the character of Ebed-Melek. Unlike the Davids, Pauls, and Peters, Ebed-Melek stands as a symbol of church members who, though not occupying positions of power, influence, or fame, can, indeed, make a difference.
Who was Ebed-Melek, and what can we learn from this “improbable hero”?
Jeremiah in a pit
The story begins in Jeremiah, chapter 37. Despite Jeremiah the prophet’s warnings, Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, enters into an alliance with Pharaoh Hophra of Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon responds by invading Judah in a 30-month siege of Jerusalem. Partway through the siege, Hophra sends an army from Egypt, and the Babylonians withdraw from Jerusalem to meet the threat.
During this lull, Jeremiah—accused of defecting to the Babylonians—is brought before a court of pro-Egyptian princes who throw him into prison. Meanwhile, the forces of Pharaoh Hophra are defeated by the Babylonians, and Nebuchadnezzar reimposes the siege on Jerusalem. King Zedekiah secretly sends for Jeremiah and asks, “Is there any word from the LORD?” (Jer. 37:17),1 to which Jeremiah replies, “Yes, you will be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon.”
At the same time, Jeremiah asks Zedekiah, “What crime have I committed against you or your attendants or this people, that you have put me in prison? . . . Do not send me back . . . , or I will die there” (vv. 18–20).
Zedekiah allows Jeremiah to live in the courtyard of the guard. While there, Jeremiah receives further messages from God that he proclaims to the city: “This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it” (Jer. 38:3). And “whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live” (v. 2).
When four powerful princes hear what Jeremiah has said, they come before Zedekiah and charge Jeremiah with sedition, declaring that “this man should be put to death” (v. 4).
Weak and vacillating, Zedekiah capitulates, saying: “He is in your hands. . . . The king can do nothing to oppose you” (v. 5). The princes cast Jeremiah into the dungeon of Malchiah. The dungeon is an old cistern no longer containing water, but the bottom is muddy and damp, and Jeremiah sinks into the slime.
When the princes drop Jeremiah into the cistern, it is effectively an execution. With Jerusalem under siege, famine is rampant. The plan is that Jeremiah will be left there until he perishes.
At that moment, Ebed-Melek enters the picture. Ebed means “a servant”; Melek denotes “king.” His name, then, simply means “servant . . . of the king.”2 Though surely King Zedekiah has many servants, this one is identified as the Cushite, the Ethiopian. Ebed-Melek is a stranger, a foreigner, in the court.
When Ebed-Melek learns that Jeremiah has been put in the cistern, he goes to the king, who is holding court by the Benjamin gate, to plead for Jeremiah’s life. Zedekiah startles everyone by reversing his decision and authorizes Ebed-Melek to rescue him. The king even tells Ebed-Melek to take 30 men with him and draw the prophet out of the cistern.
Ebed-Melek stops by a room under the treasury and gathers some worn-out clothes. Lowering them to Jeremiah, Ebed-Melek tells the prophet to “put these old rags . . . under your arms to pad the ropes” (v. 12).
Jeremiah is pulled from the pit and receives a new lease on life. In short, Ebed-Melek, this otherwise unknown man, plays the role of a hero.
Traits of a hero
What qualities made Ebed-Melek a remarkable person?
Person of courage. When Ebed-Melek hears what the princes have done to Jeremiah, he acts without hesitation. He does not wait for a private audience. He goes directly to the gate where Zedekiah is holding court. Notice that he approaches the king immediately and publicly. In front of the court, Ebed-Melek tells Zedekiah that Jeremiah’s accusers are evil men and “have acted wickedly” (v. 9). Ebed-Melek is challenging the real power of the land—the princes whom even the king dared not resist. This act took courage.
The king telling Ebed-Melek to take 30 men with him is evidence that Jeremiah’s rescue is dangerous. Thirty persons are probably not required to pull Jeremiah out of the cistern. Rather, given the bitter hatred of those who want to eliminate Jeremiah, there is a clear danger of interference.
In short, Ebed-Melek refuses to let others intimidate him. How easily he could keep his own peace and safety. Why jeopardize his standing with the king or make enemies of powerful princes by championing Jeremiah, a prophet despised by most in the royal court? Ebed-Melek, however, boldly approaches the king, reproaches the princes, and risks his own life in an act of mercy.
Many persons attempt to gain influence through wealth, threats, or intrigue. Ebed-Melek, however, was influential because of his integrity.
Person of integrity. In a place filled with selfish actions and immoral behavior, Ebed-Melek rises above his surroundings. At a time when basic dignity is degraded, when there is no respect for the inherent value of human life, Ebed-Melek is sensitive to someone’s rights being trampled.
Ebed-Melek is a person of steadfast character. He believes that people are important, that life is valuable.3 When an innocent person’s life is at stake, his own safety is not of the greatest consequence. He recognizes inequity and seeks to restore justice.
Person of compassion. As the cistern was deep and Jeremiah had sunk into the mire, significant force would be required to extract him. However, bare ropes would lacerate his armpits, probably bruised already from having been roughly lowered into the cistern.
Ebed-Melek wants to help Jeremiah but does not want to bring greater harm to the prophet in the process. So, he finds pieces of clothing and lowers these to Jeremiah, with the instruction to put the rags between his armpits and the ropes as a cushion. With compassion, Ebed-Melek tries to make the rescue as painless as possible.4
The rest of the story
What happened to Ebed-Melek? He believes Jeremiah’s prophecy that Jerusalem will fall to the Babylonians. As a palace servant, he could be taken captive or killed. He certainly feels anxiety for the future and fear of the unknown. And so, the Lord gives Jeremiah a special message for Ebed-Melek. “Go and tell Ebed-Melek the Cushite, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am about to fulfill my words against this city—words concerning disaster, not prosperity. . . . But I will rescue you on that day, declares the LORD; you will not be given into the hands of those you fear. I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life’ ” (Jer. 39:15–18).
How thankful Ebed-Melek must have been to hear those words. As he had valued Jeremiah’s life, so God would regard his life and preserve him. What made Ebed-Melek so remarkable a person? In verse 18, we find God’s explanation for why Ebed-Melek came to Jeremiah’s rescue. When God instructed Jeremiah to assure Ebed-Melek of special protection when the invaders entered the city, the prophet explains that this was “because you trust in me.”
Ebed-Melek had faith in God. And his trust in God was the secret of his noble life—a life of courage, integrity, and compassion.
Insights from the unlikely hero
What can we learn from Ebed-Melek? It requires courage to stand up for someone unfairly attacked, especially when unpopular to do so. It requires boldness to stand with those who refuse to compromise God’s message, especially when that message is mocked and despised. It takes courage to bravely stand for what is right when it involves personal risk, when your own reputation and future are at stake. But it is such courage that makes one a leader for God (Deut. 31:23; Josh. 1:9).
Many persons attempt to gain influence through wealth, threats, or intrigue. Ebed-Melek, however, was influential because of his integrity. His approach, his eloquent appeal to the king to release Jeremiah, indicates his commitment to justice. He stood firm for his convictions and did not allow the popular view to sway him.
We also must live our lives with integrity. When we do so, our thoughts and suggestions can be considered with respect. Even more important it is this commitment to integrity and justice that makes one great before God (Mic. 6:8; Jer. 22:3).
As Christ’s followers, we must have a heart for the hurting. We must be careful, however, that, when we try to help others, we do so with discernment and understanding, lest we cause more damage than good. We must do what is right with kindness. Tender compassion is a hallmark of God’s chosen people (Col. 3:12).
Convenience or courage
He was neither a prophet nor a prince—only a palace worker, an obscure servant.5 But when Ebed-Melek saw a great injustice, he acted, stepping out of his comfort zone. Then, with gentleness and compassion, he rescued Jeremiah.
Although surrounded by the godless and corrupt, Ebed-Melek stands out as a person of courage and compassion, committed to doing right. His sympathetic character and unwavering trust in God exemplify who we can be.
His story reminds us that faithfulness to God is not a matter of convenience. Rather, it involves courage and often costly choices. Such service, however, will receive a reward, sometimes in this life, as with Ebed-Melek, and always in the life to come. “God . . . will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Heb. 6:10).
Although, like so many of our church members, Ebed-Melek was not a person of wealth, standing, fame, and worldly power, he was used by God in a great way. An unlikely hero—but a hero, nonetheless. So it may be with us. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all” (Gal. 6:10).
- Scripture is from the New International Version.
- “Ebed-Melech,” All the Men of the Bible, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/all-men-bible/Ebed-Melech.
- John L. Kachelman, “Personalities of the Old Testament: Ebed-Melech—Help for those in the dumps!” Bible Topics in the Christian Library, 1999, http://christianlibrary.org/authors/John_L_Kachelman_Jr/people-ot/ebed-melech.htm.
- “Ebed-Melech, the Ethiopian,” International Bible Studies, Lesson for August 8, 1948, http://dawnbible.com/1948/4808ib08.htm.
- Ken, Matto, “Ebedmelech and You,” accessed January 15, 2021, https://scionofzion.com/ebedmelech_and_you.htm.