It was back in the late 1960s that I recall with great clarity annual Sunday school prizegiving days. Prizes were awarded for attendance and learning bible verses. It seems like a million years ago now! And I suppose that many people today would frown upon such a practice as being unfair and unkind to those children who did not receive a prize. The principle, however, is a biblical one – faithfulness is valued by God and is rewarded by him.
The theme of chapters 34 and 35 is faithfulness. As we shall see, Jeremiah describes a group of faithless people and a group of faithful people, but first he has something to say to king Zedekiah.
- Zedekiah’s fate
Zedekiah was made king in the year 597 BC by the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar. He was just 21 and his reign lasted 11 years. His brother Jehoiakim had made the error of rebelling against the Babylonians as he aligned with Egypt: it was this revolt against Babylon that brought about his downfall. The people installed Jehoiakim’s son (Jehoiachin) as king in 597, but the Babylonians removed Jehoiachin and made his uncle Zedekiah king. One would have thought that Zedekiah would have learned the lesson of his brother Jehoiakim not to rebel against Babylon by forming an alliance with Egypt. But not so. He sided with Egypt against Babylon: a response from Nebuchadnezzar was inevitable! By 589 BC Jerusalem was again under siege by the Babylonians, a siege that would last 30 months and end in the destruction of the city. It was during that final siege that the events recorded in chapter 34 took place.
Jeremiah had persistently warned the people that the Babylonians were God’s instrument of judgment on the wayward nation, but the people would not listen, and one can imagine that the longer the city remained intact, the less the people would listen to Jeremiah’s message of doom! By the time of the Babylonian siege, Jeremiah was imprisoned in the palace courtyard. It was during this time that God once again spoke to Jeremiah: he had a message for Zedekiah. The first part of the message was about Jerusalem: This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it down (verse 2).’ Zedekiah had heard this message before, and I suspect that he already had a contingency plan to escape the city should it fall to Babylon. But if he thought he could escape; he was sadly mistaken: ‘3 You will not escape from his grasp but will surely be captured and given into his hands. You will see the king of Babylon with your own eyes, and he will speak with you face to face. And you will go to Babylon.’ That was not the best of news for Zedekiah, but there was better news: ‘you will not die by the sword; 5 you will die peacefully.’ This turned out to be accurate, but it did not tell the whole story. Zedekiah did not follow Jeremiah’s advice to surrender to the Babylonians, rather he tried to escape with the result that he lost his family, was deliberately blinded by the Babylonians and was ultimately exiled to Babylon. One wonders if his fate would have been much less bad had he surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar as God had instructed him time after time after time.
Meanwhile Judah continued to fall into the grasp of the Babylonians, by this time, Jerusalem held out along with just two other fortified cities (Lachish and Azekah). Interestingly, in 1935 a British archaeologist discovered letters (known as the Lachish letters) on the site of Lachish, the letters were probably written just before the fall of the city. Some of the letters are on display in the British museum.
- Freedom for slaves
God likes working in sevens. He created the world in 6 days and rested on the seventh. He instructed the Israelites to rest on the seventh day of the week too. Chronobiology (the study of biological time rhythms) has recognised the importance of circadian (daily) as well as circa-monthly and circannual biological rhythms. Interestingly the seven-day rhythm has been little studied, presumably because there is no obvious cosmic driver (such as the spin of the earth, its orbit of the sun and the orbit of the moon). This seventh day need for rest has however been recognised and at least hypothesised as having an endogenous rather than an exogenous source (e.g. Seven-day human biological rhythms: An expedition in search of their origin, synchronization, functional advantage, adaptive value and clinical relevance.Reinberg et al. Chronobiol Int. 2017;34(2):162-191). The source is of course the divine creator! Not only are weekly periods of 7 of importance, but God had specifically asked the Israelites to observe periods of 7 years in their social structure too. The book of Deuteronomy sets out the Mosaic law in which slaves were to serve for a period of 7 years, the seventh of which they were to be permanently set free. Debts were also to be cancelled on the seventh year. Imagine that! (See Deuteronomy 15). Some have speculated that God’s timeline for this created world spans 7 periods of 1,000 years. The final period is certainly set as with a duration of 1,000 years which is characterised by the reign of Christ (Revelation 20). Perhaps this is indeed the final seven for this earth before the new creation. Bishop Ussher, using the bible as his source, reckoned that the creation is of the order of 6,000 years old at the present time. We certainly cannot be certain, but could this all suggest that the Lord’s coming to start the final 1,000 years really is imminent?
The Deuteronomic law of the release of slaves after 6 years’ service seems to have only partly been observed over the centuries of the Israelite nation. Now imagine for a moment that you are living in besieged Jerusalem. Food is scarce to say the least. Having a slave to look after was another mouth to feed. Guess what law the slave owners of Jerusalem suddenly recalled! They promptly freed their slaves under the seven- year-rule. This was not done in a corner. It was the official policy of the King and Jerusalem residents. I think there is evidence that God was pleased with this return to the law – even although it was not exactly prompted by pure motives! Historians tell us that during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, the Egyptian army was mobilised to oppose Babylon. Thus, the siege of Jerusalem was temporarily lifted. Verse 21 of chapter 34 indicates this indeed occurred: ‘the king of Babylon …has withdrawn from you.’
So, the with the immediate danger now gone, one can imagine that those who opposed Jeremiah were walking around feeling not only pleased that the Babylonians had withdrawn but that Jeremiah had been proved wrong! The city returned to something approaching normality: food was again available. Guess what the slave owners did? They reversed their public promise and forced the slaves back into servitude. One can imagine that this reversal would have been dressed up to make it seem respectable, but it was a dishonest, dishonourable and dreadful collective act of the people. It disregarded the Mosaic law and was thus a direct rebellion against the Lord. Whilst the Lord commended the original ‘free-the-slaves-covenant’ he confronted the people as he said: ‘But now you have turned round and profaned my name (verse 16).’ God then acted by declaring a ‘freedom’ for those who had taken it away: ‘freedom to fall by the sword, plague and famine (verse 17b)’ You may recall that when God ratified his covenant with Abraham he moved between the halves of slaughtered animals (see Genesis 15), this strange event seems to have been a common procedure when two parties agreed a solemn covenant. God refers to this procedure in verse 18, the Israelites will be like the calf that is cut in two! ‘Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals (verse 20).’
This was to be the fate of those who were wilfully unfaithful to the Lord.
- An example of faithfulness
In this 35th chapter, Jeremiah takes us back to the days of the King Jehoiakim, (king Zedekiah’s brother)– it is probably 10 years or more before the time of chapter 34. Jeremiah is instructed to approach the Rekabite family and to invite them to a gathering in one of the temple rooms.
The whole family turned up and were duly taken into the allotted room in the temple. Jeremiah had set the room up with bowls of wine and drinking cups and invited the Rekabites to ‘drink some wine.’ No doubt the family were not in the least impolite but nonetheless they refused to drink. Jaazaniah explained that their forefather Jehonadab son of Rekab had commanded his people and their descendants not to drink wine. Jehonadab had supported Jehu the king of the Northern kingdom who opposed the worship of Baal and the supporters of the wicked king Ahab: he was clearly a man who supported what was right! The command that he gave his family was not restricted to drinking wine but included living as nomads. For several generations the family had faithfully lived in obedience to the command of their forefather Jehonadab. I guess that Jeremiah may have wondered why then were they living in the city of Jerusalem? He did not have to wait long for an answer: ‘when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invaded this land, we said, “Come, we must go to Jerusalem to escape the Babylonian and Aramean armies.” So, we have remained in Jerusalem. (verse 11).’ They had set aside their nomadic lifestyle temporarily for the safety of the family.
Having met the Rekabites, Jeremiah was tasked with using their example as a lesson in faithfulness for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Verse 13: ‘13 ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: go and tell the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, “Will you not learn a lesson and obey my words?” declares the Lord.’ Jeremiah was to challenge the people by holding the Rekabites as an example of faithful obedience. The Rekabites had simply obeyed the command of Jehonadab. The Lord then contrasts the failure of the people of Judah to obey: ‘14bTo this day they do not drink wine, because they obey their forefather’s command. But I have spoken to you again and again, yet you have not obeyed me.’ The lesson was clear: the Rekabites had faithfully obeyed their long since dead forefather but Judah refused to obey the living God!
In some ways it is surprising that the Rekabites were commended in the way that they were. We would, I’m sure, have lots of reasons for considering them a bit odd to have followed an apparently arbitrary commend of a man who had lived a couple of hundred years before! The command was after all not part of the Mosaic law and whilst the avoidance of drunkenness was a clear benefit, there was no obvious merit in living a nomadic lifestyle. And yet they were commended. I see some lessons for us too. Many people will quite legitimately say that there is nothing specific in their lives that is wrong and yet, I observe in myself and in the church generally a somewhat easy going attitude to our Christian activities – do we exhibit the sort of faithfulness that the Rekabites showed or is our commitment somewhat qualified by what is convenient to our selfish natures? Do we have a tendency to be what used to be called ‘fair weather Christians?’ Perhaps we do, and if so, we should look to the Rekabites as an example to follow.
Faithfulness is not only valued by God, but it is also rewarded by him – and vice versa! The Judeans and inhabitants of Jerusalem would be justly rewarded for their lack of faithfulness: ‘17 ‘Therefore this is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Listen! I am going to bring on Judah and on everyone living in Jerusalem every disaster I pronounced against them. I spoke to them, but they did not listen; I called to them, but they did not answer.”’ Notice that they heard the call of the Lord, but they did not listen! What about the Rekabites? Wouldn’t they be caught up in the judgement of Jerusalem? Perhaps, but chapter 35 finishes with these words: ‘Jehonadab son of Rebab shall never fail to have a descendant to serve me.’ The family name would survive the Babylonian judgment. Indeed, this was the case. In the book of Nehemiah, we briefly meet a Rekabite who had returned to Jerusalem after the exile. What was he up to? He was faithfully rebuilding one of the gates to the city – what a lesson for us!