Ebed-melek is one of the Bible’s more obscure characters. He is not famous, and we know very little about him. If you think of the Bible as a drama, he makes a brief appearance in one of the middle acts – hardly more than a walk-on part. And yet he is inspirational.
During the final siege of Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah was put in prison because he was advising the people to save their lives by surrendering to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 37 & 38). But he had powerful enemies in high places – men who were not satisfied with his imprisonment but wanted him dead. And they were able to persuade the king to allow them to do whatever they wanted. Perhaps thinking that a quick execution was too good for him, they put Jeremiah into an empty cistern, there to die a lingering and miserable death.
Enter Ebed-Melek (Jeremiah 38:7). He has not been mentioned before in the book of Jeremiah, and we have no reason to suppose that up to this point he has ever actually met the prophet in person. Nevertheless, he knows of him and respects him as a man of God. And when he hears (on the palace grapevine?) of Jeremiah’s fate, he knows that he just has to do something.
Ebed-Melek is no high-ranking official, merely a palace servant. He is also a dark-skinned foreigner – and, worse than that, a eunuch. He has neither political clout nor religious standing (his mutilation means that he can never be accepted as a proselyte – Deuteronomy 23:1). His speech to the king is short and unprepared (the whole city is likely to starve as a result of the siege, so why is that a reason to give Jeremiah a reprieve?), but comes tumbling out from his heart. And, by God’s overruling, the king (always persuadable!) is persuaded. Ebed-Melek is able to go to the prison with royal authority to rescue Jeremiah from the cistern.
Ebed-Melek would not have expected any reward for his action; he did it simply because he knew it was the right thing to do. Jeremiah must have been more than grateful to him, but was not in a position to repay him. But God is no man’s debtor. “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is My disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:41,42) Before the city fell, God gave Jeremiah a personal message for Ebed-Melek: he was not to fear for his safety, for God would protect him (Jeremiah 39:15-18). Like another Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:34-39), his trust in God was his passport to life.