We first meet him in Jeremiah 38 when he rescued Jeremiah. The prophet was in trouble—discarded to die in a muddy cistern—until Ebed-melech acted. In the rescue this African’s faith invites admiration and imitation. And through his story we gain another facet in knowing God.
But before taking up any lessons let’s review the episode.
First, who was Ebed-melech? We don’t know him apart from Jeremiah. His name in the text seems to be a title rather than a personal name. It means “servant of the king.” And so he was: one of the palace staff for Zedekiah, King of Judah. This raises a related question. Was he a free man? Probably not. He was an Ethiopian and a eunuch. Men don’t volunteer to be eunuchs and as an Ethiopian—an African—he was almost certainly a black man serving in a non-African setting. This is the profile of slavery.
Second, who was Jeremiah? God’s iron-like prophet in a nation of balsawood characters. He spoke on God’s behalf to warn Judah, a nation miraculously rescued from an Assyrian invasion only a few decades before, of coming doom. Judeans, with the earlier rescue, felt they were bulletproof because God lived among them in his Jerusalem temple. And with that they were spiritually faithless as this citation reveals, among many, from Jeremiah 18:11-12.
Jeremiah speaking—“Return, every one from his evil way, and amend you ways and your deeds.”
The answer—“But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”
The Judeans soon wanted to kill this messenger for exposing their sin. Jeremiah, we should add, was an equal opportunity prophet. His targets included almost everyone: the people, other prophets, the priests, and the kings of his era. Even his own family wanted to kill him. So he was, to say the least, a lonely voice.
Yet Jeremiah was reliable. Whatever God told him, he told the people—and whatever he said came true. So when we pick up the cistern episode the local disaster was nearly at a crescendo. Jeremiah warned that the Babylonian Army would soon defeat Judah; and the Babylonians already had Jerusalem—Judah’s capital—under siege.
Jeremiah was imprisoned at this stage but still safe. The question—given the hostility towards him—was how long this would last. Eventually a group of officials came to King Zedekiah and asked for permission to kill him. The king gave his passive approval—“[I] can do nothing against you”—and Jeremiah was soon in the cistern.
Cisterns—emergency water tanks carved into bedrock stone—didn’t have outlets; so any dirt or debris that collected on roofs and in rain channels were washed into the tank and settled to the bottom over time. With Jerusalem under siege—and her main water springs located outside the city walls—all the free water had already been drawn out of this cistern. All that remained was deep mud. The only way out was by the mouth of the tank and that was beyond Jeremiah’s reach. He was without food and the suffocating ooze would drown him if he tried to sleep. Jeremiah was doomed.
That’s when the African servant had enough. He went to the king and called for a moral reversal: “My lord the king, these men have done evil!” His stunning charge either cowed the king or stirred his conscience—or both. Zedekiah quickly gave new orders, this time for Jeremiah to be rescued and Ebed-melech led the effort. This part of the account was uniquely specific: a looped rope was lowered and Ebed-melech told Jeremiah to use rags to pad his arms against the rope as he was drawn out of the thick muck. Jeremiah survived and was then protected to the end.
The story of Ebed-melech didn’t end with the rescue. It concludes later, in chapter 39:16-18, with another rescue, this one from God who spoke to Ebed-melech through Jeremiah when the Babylonians finally conquered Jerusalem: “For 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 put your trust in me, declares the LORD.”
We leave the story with some final reflections.
First and foremost, Ebed-melech was not passive in the face of evil. Even though he was virtually powerless—an African slave—he stepped out to stir the king’s conscience. God also spoke of Ebed-melech’s conduct as his “trust in me.” By this trust he refused to be intimidated by powerful men. And this, in turn, gives us the source of his courage: a vision of God that matched Jeremiah’s at a moment when it counted most.
This is what faith in God can and should produce: courage and action whenever it’s needed.