One of the most well-known verses in the NT is Rom 6:23, where Paul states that, “…the wages of sin is death.” While most people think Paul is talking about what sends a person to the lake of fire, that’s not the case. In chapter six, Paul is talking about what sin does in the life of the believer. The statement means exactly what it says. Sin in the life of a believer brings death. Death here can mean loss of fellowship with the Lord, physical death, or other kinds of destruction sin can bring. It comes about when a believer walks according to the flesh–in his own power–which Paul discusses at length in chapter seven. Life is the experience of the believer who walks in obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It occurred to me that there’s a graphic illustration of this truth in a little-known passage in Jeremiah (Jer 41:1-10). A man named Ishmael didn’t like what was happening in his country of Judah. He was a descendant of David and thought that the king should be a descendant of David, based upon 2 Sam 7:12-16. The Babylonians had just defeated Judah, destroyed the temple, and burned all the homes in Jerusalem. They placed, as leader over the country, a Jewish man who was not a descendant of David. Ishmael resented what the Babylonians had done to his people and thought the Jews ought to rebel against them.
The problem was that Jeremiah the prophet had made it clear that God was behind what the Babylonians had done, and that the new governor was to be obeyed. But Ishmael had a better idea: In his own flesh he would try to make everything better.
The first thing he did was to kill the new governor. While doing so, he, along with some accomplices, killed a number of Babylonian soldiers as well as many Jews who supported the new regime. Finally, he killed 70 Jews who were coming to the ruins in Jerusalem to worship the Lord in the place where the temple once stood. This would teach a lesson to all the Jews in Judah that Ishmael thought were traitors to the cause of the Lord. He detested the fact that his own countrymen were accepting what had happened to them. He knew better than the prophet sent from God.
Jeremiah makes a strange comment about the 70 men who were slain by Ishmael. Ishmael threw their bodies into an abandoned pit, or cistern. This pit had been built many years before by a king named Asa, whom the OT calls a good king (1 Kgs 15:22; 2 Chron 14:1-5). The cistern was used to store water. Like any well, it was to be a source of life.
But we see what Ishmael turned it into. It became a place of death. One can imagine what that hole was like filled with the corpses of 70 men. It would have reeked with death. Those bodies would soon begin to decompose. This is what Ishmael did to men who had come to honor the Lord. If he had hoped to honor the Lord himself, he was seriously mistaken.
This is what Ishmael produced by acting in the power of his own strength and flesh. Even if we say his motive was to please the Lord, such actions led to death. We should try to picture in our minds what the cistern could have been. One can imagine that if Ishmael had not rebelled against the Lord, that cistern would have become full of water, and the people there would have been blessed by it as the Lord blessed them for their obedience. It would have become a well full of life. We can picture a town of people surrounding it to get their daily water–water that would provide life for their families and their livestock.
But that is not the picture in Jeremiah 41. Instead, the cistern was full of death. In any age, that is the wages of our sin.