The Kings Father In Law

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Elnathan was a nobleman, a royal official, and a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah, and the kings Josiah, Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin of Judah. He is mentioned several times in the books of Jeremiah and 2 Kings. Elnathan was the son of Acbor (Jeremiah 36:12), an officer in the court of King Josiah. Acbor was one of the men Josiah sent to consult the prophetess Huldah when the Book of the Law was found during renovations in the temple (2 Kings 22:11-14). Others mentioned in the list of those Josiah sent to Huldah were highly trusted associates of King Josiah, and that was most likely true of Acbor as well, he was a trusted official in the administration of one of Judah’s most godly kings, and was involved in Josiah’s reforms and religious restoration efforts.

Elnathan thus came from a “good” family, a family that was affluent, powerful, and trusted by a righteous king. As such, it is no surprise that he also became prominent in the court of the king of Judah. When King Josiah died (609 B.C.) his son Jehoahaz briefly reigned, but was deposed by Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (2 Kings 23:31-35) and Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, was made king in his place (608 B.C.). Elnathan served Jehoiakim, and was also his father-in-law. Nehushta, daughter of Elnathan, was the mother of Jehoiakim’s heir, Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24:8). God’s message through the prophet Jeremiah was highly critical of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:18-23) and Jehoiachin (Jeremiah 22:24-30) and of their officials (Jeremiah 22:1-5).

The time of Jehoiakim, when Elnathan was an official in his court, was characterized by injustice and idolatry. The king and his cronies lived well in luxury while the poor and needy suffered (Jeremiah 22:15-17), just the opposite of Josiah’s policies. Jeremiah had begun prophesying during the reign of Josiah, about 18 years before Jehoiakim became king, but during the reign of Jehoiakim his message became unwelcome, and Jeremiah was often threatened with death and severely punished for his preaching. Jeremiah 26 tells of an occasion early in the reign of Jehoiakim, when Jeremiah was put on trial for his life. At that time Jeremiah still had enough support among the elders of the land and a few royal officials to escape death, but another prophet who had been proclaiming the same message was not spared. The prophet Uriah prophesied the same things as Jeremiah, and the King Jehoiakim determined to kill him. Uriah fled for his life to Egypt, but King Jehoiakim sent a delegation led by Elnathan, son of Acbor, to Egypt to arrest Uriah and bring him back for execution. Uriah was executed and his body exposed in disrespect (Jeremiah 26:20-23). Elnathan, the son of a man who had helped Josiah reinstate the Law of God, the father-in-law to the king, joined in the capture and execution of a prophet of God whose crime was speaking the truth.

Our last encounter with Elnathan is just a few years later, in the fourth year of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36), when Jeremiah had been directed by God to put his prophecies into a scroll and have the scribe Baruch read them aloud in the temple (Jeremiah had already been banned from going to the temple by hostile authorities). When Baruch read those prophecies in public a royal official heard them, and reported them to a gathering of other royal officials, including Elnathan (Jeremiah 36:11-12). Those officials wanted to hear Jeremiah’s message for themselves, and they sent for Baruch to come and read them the scroll, which he did. The officials (including Elnathan) were fearful when they heard the accumulated prophecies of Jeremiah (36:16) and decided they must report this to the king. Knowing the king, they directed Baruch to hide himself, and Jeremiah, and keep their location a complete secret. Subsequently, as the scroll was read in the presence of Jehoiakim the king, after every few columns the king would cut away and burn what had already been read. Elnathan and a few others urged the king not to destroy the scroll (36:25) but neither the king nor his attendants showed any fear or listened to this urging, instead the king destroyed the scroll and ordered the arrest of Jeremiah and Baruch.

The strange thing here is the behavior of Elnathan. This man, raised during a time of religious revival, apparently by a godly father, participated in the arrest and execution of a prophet of God, Uriah, at the command of the king, his son-in-law Jehoiakim. This same Elnathan was fearful when he heard the words of Jeremiah, and participated in a plot to protect Jeremiah from the same king, and urged the king to listen to, not destroy, the message of God that Jeremiah had delivered. So was Elnathan an evil man or a good man? The final word of Jeremiah on Jehoiakim and his officials is that previously referred to in Jeremiah 22. Jehoiakim’s burial would be like that of the prophet Uriah he had murdered, his body thrown outside the gates (22:19) and his allies and officials would be carried away into exile (22:20-22).

Elnathan, the king’s father-in-law was surely not horribly evil, he was disturbed by Jeremiah’s message, he had a conscience. He came from a good family, affluent, trusted, and aware of God and God’s law. There were two sides to Elnathan, a kind of double standard, he could bring the prophet Uriah forcibly to his death, and yet protect Jeremiah and protest the burning of the scroll. He defended God’s word when he himself had helped destroy a messenger of God. There are two sides to most of us. Most people, even people who participate in great evil, people like Pilate and Judas, or people who participate in mob violence or even Nazi war criminals are not monsters, but are terribly ordinary people, because ordinary people have the capacity for great evil. Those who seem to be good people may do terrible things, in some circumstances, and those who seem to be bad may do great things in others. As Christians we are engaged in a daily struggle against evil, evil out there, and evil within ourselves. The Christian message of salvation in Christ is a message for everyone, because on their own merits everyone is like Elnathan, sometimes making good choices, sometimes bad, altogether falling under the condemning observation that “there is no one righteous” (Romans 3:10) but rather that righteousness is only available to conflicted human beings “through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3:22) The best people with the greatest opportunities can do the worst things, but God has a universal solution for everyone to settle the issue of good and evil, redemption in Jesus Christ.

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