THE account of Ebed-melech, ‘the Ethiopian eunuch’, in the Old Testament book of the prophet Jeremiah, may seem a vignette but it is of profound spiritual significance.
Jeremiah proclaimed the word of the Lord in the kingdom of Judah from 627 BC until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587. He became extremely unpopular for predicting that the Babylonians would succeed in their siege against Jerusalem as a divine punishment on the people of Judah for their idolatry and unfaithfulness to their Lord and God.
During the reign of Zedekiah (597-587), the king of Judah who eventually had his eyes put out on the order of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar, palace officials had Jeremiah thrown into an underground dungeon where ‘there was no water, but mire: so Jeremiah sank in the mire’ (Jeremiah 38v6). Ebed-melech, who the Authorised (King James) Version of the English Bible describes as an ‘Ethiopian’ and ‘one of the eunuchs in the king’s house’, persuaded Zedekiah to send a posse of men to lift the prophet out the dungeon.
Jeremiah 38v11-13 records: ‘So Ebed-melech took the men with him, and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took thence old cast clouts and old rotten rags, and let them down by cords into the dungeon to Jeremiah. And Ebed-melech the Ethopian said unto Jeremiah, Put these old clouts and rotten rags under thine armholes under the cords. And Jeremiah did so. So they drew up Jeremiah with cords, and took him up out of the dungeon: and Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison’ (AV).
It is important to note that under Old Testament law a man whose testicles had been cut off was not permitted to participate in the worship of the Jerusalem Temple (cf. Deuteronomy 23v1). This would have made Ebed-melech a double outsider. He was not an ethnic Jew and if, as is probable, he was a Gentile convert to Judaism (a proselyte), he would not have been permitted to take part in Jewish corporate worship owing to his emasculated state.
But, if one may use Piers Morgan-ese on this occasion, Ebed-melech had, by God’s grace, grown a pair. He was a man of true faith in the God of the Jews and he showed the sincerity of his faith by his deeds. He put his life on the line in support of the Lord’s persecuted prophet.
When Jeremiah’s prophecy came true and Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, this word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘Go and speak to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, saying, Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring my words upon this city for evil, and not for good; and they shall be accomplished in that day before thee. But I will deliver thee in that day, saith the Lord: and thou shalt not be given into the hand of the men of whom thou art afraid. For I will surely deliver thee, and thou shalt not fall by the sword, but thy life shall be for a prey unto thee: because thou hast put thy trust in me, saith the Lord’ (Jeremiah 39v16-18).
Thus Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian eunuch, was saved by his faith in the God of the Bible. The evidence of his true saving faith was his love and good deeds towards the man of God. The New Testament records the same God, about 630 years later, saving another Ethiopian eunuch from the universal divine judgement to come upon sinful humanity at the end of the world. He did this through Philip the evangelist who showed Ebed-melech 2.0 that Old Testament prophecy had found its fulfilment in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, through whom the forgiveness of sins is graciously given to all, Jew and Gentile, who put their trust in him.
The story of the ‘man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem to worship’ is recorded in chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles.
The Book of Common Prayer Collect for today, the Third Sunday after Trinity, breathes the spirit of Ebed-melech’s faith in God, as that Old Testament belief has now come to be fulfilled in the revelation of Jesus Christ:
‘O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to hear us; and grant that we, to whom thou hast given a hearty desire to pray, may by thy mighty aid be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’