In Jeremiah 41 there’s an interesting account of a man named Ishmael. This man is obviously evil. He is invited to a meal at the home of Gedaliah, the newly installed governor of Judah. Ishmael brings some men with him and during the meal they kill their host and all the other dinner guests.
But Ishmael doesn’t stop there. The next day he and his men kill 70 religious pilgrims who’ve come to Judah to worship the Lord. The murderers then cast the bodies into an old well (Jer 41:1-7).
As terrible as the story sounds, it’s actually even worse. These crimes were committed immediately after the Babylonians had taken control of Judah. The governor had been appointed by the Babylonians to lead the Jews who were left in the land. Ishmael’s actions almost guaranteed that the Jews in the land would suffer more punishment at the hands of the Babylonians, especially in light of the fact that Ishmael had been hired by the king of Ammon to commit these treacherous deeds (40:14). Ammon was an enemy of Babylon and wanted the chaos to continue in Judah. Ishmael was causing great harm to his own country.
Why did Ishmael do these things? Jeremiah does not tell us explicitly, but we can figure it out. Ishmael was a descendant of David (41:1), and Gedaliah wasn’t. The Lord had installed the line of David as the kings of Israel (2 Sam 7:12-16). In Ishmael’s view, Gedaliah was an illegitimate ruler; Ishmael, or one of his relatives, should have been in that position.
In addition, Ishmael hated the Babylonians. They had destroyed the temple of God in Jerusalem. Gedaliah was a puppet ruler whom the Babylonians had placed in power. Gedaliah was telling the people to submit to Babylon, an idolatrous nation. Ishmael clearly saw Gedaliah as a traitor to his people.
Ishmael, no doubt, thought he was doing the Lord’s work. The problem, however, was that God had told the people through Jeremiah that Babylon was doing the Lord’s work: punishing the nation of Judah for its sin. The Lord told the people to submit to Babylon’s rule (Jer 27:6).
In other words, Ishmael thought that he knew what was right, while the Lord didn’t. He went against God’s word. He thought that the murders and rebellion were a way for him to help God restore His honor among the nations, but he was, in fact, disobeying God’s command.
The lesson for us is obvious. We can look at something in the Scriptures and wrongly conclude that we know what is best. We can justify disobeying what the Lord has said. We can convince ourselves that our motives are good. As Ishmael was killing all those people, he thought he was a mighty warrior of the Lord.
It seems to me that there’s a clear example of how we can do the same thing today. The Bible tells us to fight for sound doctrine (Jude 3; Gal 1:8). We are clearly told not to work with those who do not hold to such teachings (2 John 10-11).
But there’s a problem. We meet others who do not hold to sound doctrine and who even preach a different gospel. But they are good people. We can convince ourselves that we should work with them. We could accomplish so much if we banded together. Such joint labor is surely pleasing to the Lord. The world would see us working together, and more people would come to know the Lord. This work would be an example of Christian love. Even though the Scriptures command us not to do such things, we conclude that we can give the Lord a helping hand.
In this example, we know what happens. The sound doctrine we are commanded to defend will become watered down. The gospel of eternal life will be perverted. Whatever good intentions we started with end in disaster.
That is what happened in the story of Ishmael. This man, thinking he was fighting for the Lord, caused great harm to the Lord’s people. Many had to flee to Egypt. All who went there were exposed to idolatry and died in that land. Under Gedaliah, the remnant left in Judah had been beginning to experience God’s blessings as they obeyed what the Lord was saying through Jeremiah. Ishmael’s actions changed the lives of many people for the worse.
We may not like what the Word of God tells us in certain areas. That is irrelevant. We are told to obey. The Lord knows what is best and doesn’t need our helping hand.