James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, September 12, 2013


The army of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon and conqueror of the Middle East, had marched through Judah and Jerusalem once already. At that time Nebuchadnezzar appointed Zedekiah king in place of the rightful heir believing he would be a more docile vassal. He was wrong.

In spite of the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings, Zedekiah joined a rebellion that resulted in a visit to Babylon to answer to the king. Upon returning, Zedekiah formed an alliance with Egypt that resulted in a visit from Babylon to answer to the king’s army. Nebuchadnezzar, who took oaths of fealty seriously, placed Jerusalem under siege.

Now Zedekiah was something less than a godly and god-fearing man. Ezekiel called him “unhallowed wicked one” (Ezekiel 21:25) and the book of Jeremiah tells us, “neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the Lord which he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet” (Jeremiah 37:2).

On top of that, Zedekiah was filled with self-doubt. On the one hand, he didn’t listen to Jeremiah (listen in the sense of heed and obey God’s word through his prophet). He listened to public opinion as it swirled around him. On the other hand, he wanted to know what Jeremiah thought.

At one point during the siege, Zedekiah retrieved Jeremiah from prison to question him in secret (Jeremiah 38: 15-28). “I will ask you a question; hide nothing from me.”

Jeremiah was skeptical. "If answer you," he told the king, "you’ll kill me and besides, you never listen to the counsel I give any way."

“As the Lord lives, who made our souls,” the king replied, “I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.” Notice, he said nothing about heeding and obeying.

Jeremiah gave it to him straight. "If you surrender to the Babylonians, all will be well. Your life will be spared, your family will be spared, and the city will be spared. But if you don’t surrender, Jerusalem will be destroyed, your family will be taken captive, and you will too."

To the king’s credit, he kept his word, keeping Jeremiah safe. As to acting on God’s warning … well, he never said he would. And he didn’t.

This is one of the great tragedies of the Old Testament. Zedekiah, the leader of his people, knew the right thing to do to save his city and his people, but because of political considerations — his fear of his officials and constituents — he knowingly did the wrong thing. That led to death, misery, destruction and exile. As Confucius put it, “To see what is right and not do it, is the want of courage.”

When Moses, about to die, handed leadership over to Joshua, he told him repeatedly, “Be strong and courageous.” Why? Because the virtue of courage is vital to successful leadership particularly when the flow of events run in dangerous directions and need to be stopped.

When I read Jeremiah 38 this past week, I couldn’t help think about question of bombing Syria. Somebody drew “a red line.” Mr. Obama says it wasn’t him, but somebody did and now the prestige and credibility of the presidency is at stake. So there’s a call to fire a shot across Syria’s bow along with the promise of no follow up if the shot across the bow doesn’t work — making it something less than a shot across the bow. Then Secretary of State Kerry told us and the world that the attack on Syria will be “unbelievably small.” And on Tuesday night the president made a speech that has even his ardent supporters in the press wondering what these people are thinking.

Wouldn’t the prestige and credibility of the presidency be better served by a courageous admission of error? That way all the energy currently going into convincing Congress and the American people to support bombing can go into creating a new strategy.

Without the courage to stop, change course, and do the right thing, Syria and Egypt haven’t got a chance. And neither does the EU, the US or anyone else.

Beyond national and international policy, how many divorces could be stopped with a little courageous backpedaling? How many family arguments averted or settled? How many abortions aborted? How many friendships repaired? How many communities healed? How many corporations rescued from the brink? How many peoples and cities saved beginning with Israel and Jerusalem back in July 587 BC?

As Thomas Jefferson said, “One man with courage is a majority.” Make it you.