A Lesson from the Life of King Zedekiah
“Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:5).
By Percival Blenman
It might be the weekend, and you are headed to the supermarket when you stumble upon a friend you have not seen in months. As you open your mouth to say “Hello,” you realize that you made a promise to that friend months ago that you completely forgot to keep. If you have ever had an experience like this, you could imagine the awkward feeling this person had at that moment.
A lapse in memory might cause you to face an awkward reunion with an old friend, much like the scenario above. However, imagine what is going on in the mind of someone who deliberately fails to keep their word. This problem would be much worse if the person gave an oath before God. That was the case with King Zedekiah. As a requirement of his appointment to the throne of Judah, he swore before God his allegiance to the king of Babylon, which he would later fail to keep (2 Chronicles 36:11‑13). Soon we will see how neglectful he was in keeping this solemn promise in addition to other vows. However, let us first look at how he ascended to the throne of Judah.
Mattaniah Becomes King Zedekiah
Zedekiah, whose name was originally Mattaniah, was the son of righteous king Josiah (2 Kings 22:1‑2, Jeremiah 37:1, 1 Chronicles 3:15). However, he would not have become king if it were not for a series of events that included the intervention of Egypt and then later Babylon. After the death of Josiah, Judah saw a series of new kings ascend to the throne, one after another, and all of them were evil. These kings included the nephew of Zedekiah, king Jehoiachin. God prophesied that king Jehoiachin would not have a descendant to sit on his throne after him. As a result, he was removed from office by the king of Babylon and replaced by his uncle Zedekiah (Jeremiah 36:30, 2 Kings 24:17). Thus, one might say that King Zedekiah was quite fortunate to have become the king of Judah.
Even though he was very fortunate to become king at the age of twenty‑one, Zedekiah did very little to follow the righteous traditions of his father before him (2 Kings 24:18, 19). This is ironic when one considers that his name, Zedekiah (Tzedeq‑Yah), means “Yah is righteousness.” As the king, he was supposed to be a source of relief for the people and rule in righteousness (Isaiah 32:1‑2). Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.
Zedekiah met the qualifications to become king as prescribed by the Law (Deuteronomy 17:14, 15). As the king of Israel, having access to the advice of the priests and the prophet Jeremiah, he would have known about the commandment from God not to turn back to Egypt (Deuteronomy 17:16). Yet, Zedekiah would later ignore the commandment regarding Egypt and would wrongly put his faith in that nation. Moreover, he had sworn an oath before God to remain loyal to Babylon but later turned his back on that oath also (2 Chronicles 36:13).
King Zedekiah was a conflicted leader when it came to his decisions. Some have described him as being double minded. He was warned in detail by Jeremiah as to the consequences that Israel would face as a nation if they decided to rely on Egypt (Jeremiah 37:6‑10). However, the king ignored these warnings from the prophet. He had secretly agreed to an alliance with the Egyptian king and depended on Egypt for help. Later, Jeremiah even warned the people that they should not put their faith in Egypt because the king of Egypt would be handed over to Babylon. Sadly, the people would later ignore the prophet and disobediently enter Egypt (Jeremiah 43:4‑7).
King Zedekiah and Jeremiah
Evidence that King Zedekiah was conflicted in his loyalty and decision making was his interaction with Jeremiah. He was afraid of the princes in Israel and would, on the one hand, ask Jeremiah to inquire of God for him (Jeremiah 37:17). However, on the other hand, he would tell Jeremiah to keep his information from Jehovah secret (Jeremiah 38:24). Additionally, the king decided to free the enslaved people in Israel, which was in harmony with the law, since those in servitude were supposed to be free from their labor every seven years (Jeremiah 34:8‑10). Unfortunately, he would later renege on his promise by allowing those in authority to enslave the people again (Jeremiah 34:11). This double mindedness angered God, who pronounced through his prophet that the king and the people would be punished for going back on their word (Jeremiah 34:17‑22).
A person who is uncertain and not resolute about their decisions will not stay on one path very long. Instead, they will waver back and forth. The apostle James describes that type of person as being double minded and unstable in all they do (James 1:8). This indecisiveness appeared to be the case with King Zedekiah. The king’s conflicted decision making did not end with broken promises and oaths. His interactions with Jeremiah also revealed his double mindedness. First, the king would allow his officials to beat Jeremiah and even imprison him. But later, on Jeremiah’s request, he would provide the prophet with less harsh accommodations and even arrange for him to be fed daily (Jeremiah 37:11‑21).
However, this kind of personal conflict happened more than once when Zedekiah dealt with Jeremiah. On one occasion, under pressure from officials, Zedekiah crumbled and allowed the prophet to be mistreated and placed into a dry well (Jeremiah 38:6). Then, he would trust in the misleading advice of his friends and ignore the instructions of God’s prophet. Afterward, under the appeal of Ebedmelech, he had Jeremiah released from those harsh conditions. Nevertheless, the king continued to be afraid of his officials (Jeremiah 38:4‑13). At times, it appeared that he wanted to do some good things, but those good intentions soon disappeared when he allowed others to influence his decisions. The fear of man seemed to have dictated the course of the king’s actions. This fear of displeasing men ultimately failed to keep King Zedekiah from suffering harm. “The fear of man bringeth a snare” (Proverbs 29:25) is similarly a lesson for us today.
Therefore, what were the consequences of King Zedekiah’s conflict of spirit and oath breaking? True to Jeremiah’s prophecy, the Babylonians marched against Jerusalem in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign and sieged the city. The city was surrounded and starved. The landmark buildings were burned when the city walls were finally “broken through.” The army of Judah fled the city. The land’s nobles were taken away as captives, and only the poor were left behind. King Zedekiah was captured along with his sons and taken to Riblah, in Babylon. His sons were then executed before his eyes. Thereupon, the king’s eyes were blinded, so that the last thing he saw was the murder of his sons (2 Kings 24:20, 25:1‑12).
Due to the sins of Zedekiah, the entire nation suffered at the hands of Babylon. However, as a nation, Babylon did not escape their moment of reckoning for their sins. Babylon was guilty of sinning against Jehovah, doing evil in Zion, destroying Jerusalem, and slaying many in Israel. As a result, God promised that He would repay Babylon for her sins (Jeremiah 50:14, Jeremiah 51:24, 34, 49). Through a prophecy, God foretold Babylon’s punishment when this empire would be vanquished by the Medes (Isaiah 21:1‑10).
A Lesson for Us
As we reflect on the experience of this king, there is a valuable lesson for Christians. First, before committing ourselves to anything, we should carefully consider the matter to determine if we can follow through on it. Do we have the time, strength, money, or resources to commit to this promise? Are we taking on more than we can handle? Are we saying yes and making a promise to please others? Before making a promise of great consequence, our guiding principle should be based on the Lord Jesus’ words in Luke 14:28 (ESV): “Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”
This practical advice could save us a lot of trouble and heartache later. This advice is especially true when we make a vow to God. In Deuteronomy 23:21‑23 (ESV), we learn that God views vow taking seriously. “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth.
For us to make a solemn promise to God and then later fail to keep it would put us at odds with our Heavenly Father (see Numbers 30:2). Therefore, we should take the matter in prayer before we commit to our God. We can even ask Jehovah for help to guide our steps whenever we consider making a vow before Him (Psalms 119:133).
When we reflect on our feelings after seeing an old friend and then recall a forgotten promise, we might regret letting our friend down and even feel disappointment in ourselves because of our memory lapse. But what if we realize that, in one way or another, we failed to keep a vow that we made before God? Thankfully, it is not too late. First, we can go before the throne and ask for forgiveness for our failures (see 1 John 1:9). Then, as we resolve to be unwavering in our commitment, we can ask our Father in heaven for help in getting us back on track with our promises to Him (see Psalms 51:9‑12 and Ephesians 4:22‑24).
Remember, everything works out to benefit those who love God (Romans 8:28). If we love God, we will want to keep our vows to Him as a sign of our love for and obedience to Him (John 14:15, 1 John 5:3). Therefore, let us be more determined than ever to keep our promises and remain faithful to the very end. Those who remain steadfast in their oaths to God to the very end will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23 ASV).