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Character Counts

13 Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. 14 He says, I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. 15 Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?declares the LORD. 17 But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.

18 Therefore this is what the LORD says about Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah: “They will not mourn for him: ‘Alas, my brother! Alas, my sister!’ They will not mourn for him: ‘Alas, my master! Alas, his splendor!’ 19 He will have the burial of a donkeydragged away and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem.”

Jeremiah 22:13-19 (NIV)

It is possible to govern unjustly and illegitimately and get away with it—for a while. What seems so permanent is quickly washed away never to be seen again. History is often brutally honest and uncompromising in its assessment of personal character. When national rulers—whether they are presidents, prime ministers, or dictators—abuse power to further their own causes and reputations at the expense of their citizens or subjects, disaster is very near both for the nation and the ruler.

This is one in a series of pronouncements by God against the last kings of Judah. To Jehoiakim, the son of Josiah, who succeeded his exiled brother, Jehoahaz, to the throne of Judah, warning of God came against him at his finest hour. At the completion of his most ambitious building project, Jeremiah prophesied that Jehoiakim would be buried with the burial of a donkey (v. 19). He would not be permitted to live in his palatial surroundings which he had given his life to build. The issue is not a matter of currency but of character.

Jehoiakim had built his kingdom through unrighteousness, injustice, and extortion (v. 13). His refusal to pay the laborers (v. 13c) was a direct violation of the law of God (e.g. Lev. 19:13). His ideas for his palace revealed a tyrannical desire for possessions apart from his duty to serve and protect the people. Knowing his heart, Jeremiah boldly asked him if his riches had increased his ability to rule justly. Did his new and improved palace—complete with the latest architectural enhancements (“spacious upper rooms, large windows, cedar decorated in red”{v. 14})—make him a better ruler than his father who enjoyed none of these luxuries (v. 15)?

In contrast, King Josiah enjoyed the favor of God because “he did what was right and just, and all went well with him” (v. 15c). King Jehoiakim was judged by God because his heart was set on “dishonest gain, shedding innocent blood, oppression, and extortion” (v. 17). Jeremiah rightly peered behind the façade and judged the conduct of this king.

The success of a particular ruler should not be judged solely by economic indicators. The favor of God rests on any governmental ruler or leader who actively seeks to use his office or position for noble ends. It is God—not any government—who defines what is noble and what is not. Good government is always classified in terms of what is right and just—not quick and easy—especially as it relates to the poor and needy of society. Godly rulers should see themselves not as siphons from the people but as servants of the people.