Keeping Vows, Following God’s Word, – Or…


Scripture: Jeremiah 34-39,45,52

Reader: Shannon Robertson

Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of Judah’s final kings: Josiah, 640 – 609 BC

Jehoahaz, Josiah’s youngest son, 609 BC

Jehoiakim, Josiah’s oldest son, 609-598 BC (1st exile to Babylon)

Jehoiachin, Josiah’s grandson, 598/597 BC (2nd exile to Babylon)

Zedekiah, Josiah’s middle son, 597-586 BC (3rd exile to Babylon)

Today, we will look at Jeremiah’s prophecies and interactions with the two kings who opposed him the most: first, Jehoiakim and then, his younger brother, Zedekiah. The northern kingdom of Israel had been taken away into exile in Assyria, due to the people’s sins and turning of their backs on God, wishing Him to be out of their lives, a desire He granted. Knowing all that while living in the southern kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah did not want the same kind of result for his nation. Thus, he spoke God’s prophetic words to the nation, begging it to return to God, knowing that exile in Babylon would be the result, if they did not. You should know that today’s sermon will be difficult to follow if you are expecting the chapters to go sequentially. Since, they were not put down in chronological order, we will be jumping back and forth, going first to events with King Jehoiakim, starting with this one.

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord during the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah: “Go to the Rekabite family and invite them to come to one of the side rooms of the house of the Lord and give them wine to drink.” (Jeremiah 35:1,2)

The Rekabites had descended from Rekab, a friend of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro. They were not Jewish. Centuries after that day of Rekab, a descendant of his by the name of Jehonadab helped King Jehu to rid Israel of the Baal-worship that the previous king, King Ahab and his evil wife, Queen Jezebel, had instituted. As part of his personal spiritual renewal, Jehonadab vowed that he and his descendants would not follow the norms and ways of society but would refrain from doing various things – one of them being drinking wine. Two centuries after that vow, Jeremiah invited Jehonadab’s descendants to join him in a side room of the Temple. Jeremiah explains he was hospitable, even offering them wine. “So, I went to the whole family of the Rekabites. I brought them into the house of the Lord…Then I set bowls full of wine and some cups before the Rekabites and said to them, “Drink some wine.” But they replied, “We do not drink wine, because our forefather Jehonadab gave us this command: ‘Neither you nor your descendants must ever drink wine’…We have obeyed everything Jehonadab commanded us. Neither we nor our wives nor our sons and daughters have ever drunk wine…We have fully obeyed everything Jehonadab commanded us. (Jer 35:3-10)

That was a test of the Rekabites that Jeremiah was certain they would not fail. He used their faithfulness to teach an important lesson to the Jews. Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying: “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. ‘Jehonadab ordered his descendants not to drink wine and this command has been kept. To 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. Again and again, I sent all my servants the prophets to you. They said, “Each of you must turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; do not follow other gods to serve them. Then you will live in the land I have given to you and your ancestors. But you have not paid attention or listened to me. The descendants of Jehonadab have carried out the command their forefather gave them, but these people have not obeyed me.’ “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.’” (Jeremiah 35:12-15)
Going next to chapter 36, Jeremiah had been prophesying for 21 years by this time. It was the year 605 B.C. He had been silenced by and barred from King Jehoiakim’s presence. Enter from stage left Baruch! We read, In the fourth year of Jehoiakim, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now. Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.” So, Jeremiah called Baruch, and while Jeremiah dictated all the words the Lord had spoken to him, Baruch wrote them on the scroll. Then Jeremiah told Baruch, “I am restricted; I am not allowed to go to the Lord’s temple. So, you go to the house of the LORD on a day of fasting and read to the people from the scroll the words of the Lord that you wrote as I dictated. Read them to all the people of Judah who come in from their towns. Perhaps they will bring their petition before the Lord and will each turn from their wicked ways, for the anger and wrath pronounced against this people by the Lord are great.” Baruch did everything Jeremiah the prophet told him to do; at the Lord’s temple he read the words of the Lord from the scroll. (Jeremiah 36:1-8)

By having his assistant, the scribe Baruch, write down all of his oral prophecies from the past 21 years, Jeremiah hoped that the written record would be used to cause the people to turn back to God. Poor Baruch! He received a lot of opposition for carrying out a ministry that was not really his own. And then those warnings from God weighed him down! In chapter 45, we read that Baruch had a bit of a melt-down.

When Baruch wrote on a scroll the words Jeremiah dictated in the fourth year of Jehoiakim, Jeremiah said this to Baruch: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, ‘Woe to me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ But the Lord has told me to say to you, ‘This is what the Lord says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the earth. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’” (Jeremiah 45:1-5)
This “woe-is-me” prayer of Baruch’s had God react in two ways: 1. God asked, “Should you really be seeking glory for yourself? Isn’t serving me glory enough. Do not seek glory for yourself.”. This is a message that Jesus also gave: that those seeking glory for themselves, God will bring down, but those who are humble, God will exalt; and

  1. “Wherever you go I will let you escape with your life”, i.e. God would look after Baruch. We aren’t told Baruch’s response to that encounter with God, but we do read that one year later, he was told to go back to the people – who, not the king, had called for a time of fasting and prayer in response to the Babylonian threat. So, back to read the various prophecies of Jeremiah, Baruch had to do, once again!
    In the ninth month of the fifth year of Jehoiakim, a time of fasting before the Lord was proclaimed for all the people in Jerusalem and those who had come from the towns of Judah. From the room of Gemariah the secretary, which was in the upper courtyard at the entrance of the New Gate of the temple, Baruch read to all the people at the Lord’s temple the words of Jeremiah from the scroll. (Jeremiah 36:9,10)

As it happened, there were, in Jehoiakim’s court, still some holdover righteous officials from the days of “Good” King Josiah. When they heard what Baruch and Jeremiah had to say, they wondered if a spiritual revival might sweep the land as it did in Josiah’s time when the Book of the Law had been discovered back then. They hoped!

‘After Micaiah told them everything he had heard Baruch read to the people from the scroll, all the officials sent Jehudi, to say to Baruch, “Bring the scroll from which you have read to the people and come.” So, Baruch went to them with the scroll in his hand. They said to him, “Sit down, please, and read it to us.” So, Baruch read it to them. When they heard all these words, they looked at each other in fear and said to Baruch, “We must report all these words to the king.” Then they asked Baruch, “Tell us, how did you come to write all this? Did Jeremiah dictate it?” “Yes,” Baruch replied, “he dictated all these words to me, and I wrote them in ink on the scroll.” Then the officials said to Baruch, “You and Jeremiah, go and hide. Don’t let anyone know where you are.”’ (Jeremiah 36:13-19)

Those noble officials were looking out for Jeremiah and Baruch’s lives.

‘After they put the scroll in the room of Elishama the secretary, they went to the king in the courtyard and reported everything to him. The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and Jehudi brought it from the room of Elishama the secretary and read it to the king and all the officials standing beside him. It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the fire pot in front of him.’ (Jeremiah 36:20-22)

Those righteous officials hoped that Jehoiakim would respond in a similar way to how his father King Josiah had, but, instead…’Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the fire pot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes. Even though Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. Instead, the king commanded Jerahmeel to arrest Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet. But the Lord had hidden them.’ (Jeremiah 36:20-26)

Can you imagine the tension in the room? The king’s slow, methodical destruction of Baruch’s written scroll, that record of God’s words given through Jeremiah, made his rejection of the message far more emphatic that it would have seemed if he had simply instantaneously reacted or waited until the end before reacting and burning the scroll.

‘After the king burned the scroll containing the words that Baruch had written at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Take another scroll and write on it all the words that were on the first scroll, which Jehoiakim king of Judah burned up. Also tell Jehoiakim king of Judah, ‘This is what the LORD says: You burned that scroll and said, “Why did you write on it that the king of Babylon would certainly come and destroy this land and wipe from it both man and beast?” Therefore, this is what the LORD says about Jehoiakim king of Judah: He will have no one to sit on the throne of David; his body will be thrown out and exposed to the heat by day and the frost by night. I will punish him and his children and his attendants for their wickedness; I will bring on them and those living in Jerusalem and the people of Judah every disaster I pronounced against them, because they have not listened.’” So, Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah, and as Jeremiah dictated, Baruch wrote on it all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them.’ (Jeremiah 36:27-32)

Good old Baruch got to deliver Jeremiah’s prophetic message yet again, a third time! Shortly, after Baruch did so, the religious leaders of Judah were so frustrated with Jehoiakim that they seized him and threw him outside the city walls to the Babylonian army, who killed him and buried him in a fashion similar to what they would do with a dead donkey, an fact that Jeremiah had prophesied about years before. Ok, moving on to the responses Jehoiakim’s younger brother and eventual successor as king, Zedekiah, had to Jeremiah. When the Babylonians were attacking Judah, this word came to Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Go to Zedekiah and tell him, ‘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. 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. Yet hear the Lord’s promise to you, Zedekiah. This is what the Lord says concerning you: You will not die by the sword; you will die peacefully…I myself make this promise, declares the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 34:1-5)

Zedekiah would indeed die a “peaceful” death in Babylon, if not being violently put to death is what dying “peacefully” means. Jeremiah had tried to tell Zedekiah that future bad things did not need to come to him or his family or his nation, because God’s prophetic utterances of disaster and doom were conditional, based on “if-and-then’s”, as in if the people would repent, then God would relent. The prophesied doom scenario was not set in stone but could be prevented if only Zedekiah and his nation repented. It is interesting to note that as the Babylonian army laid siege to his city, Zedekiah did temporarily repent of a certain sin he and his people were committing, the sin of keeping fellow Jews as slaves. The siege wall that the Babylonians had erected around Jerusalem was a common method of warfare in those days of securely walled cities, intended to prevent all business and trade from entering or leaving the city, with the ultimate goal of driving the starving, thirsty people into submission. The Jews, in desperate need of God’s help, or so they thought, came up with the idea of stopping their sin of having slaves, and by doing so, just maybe, finding favour with God.

‘The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. So, all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed and set them free. But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.’ (Jeremiah 34:8-10)

The Jews’ vow to free their slaves was a desperation tactic, a good-faith bargaining chip with God so that He might agree to, in exchange, arrange for the Babylonians to leave them alone. Now, the slavery of other Jews in was really indentured slavery, i.e., for economic reasons. Slavery existed long before Judah, or even before when Moses wrote down God’s law. Slavery was practiced all around the world as researchers have come to see. But the people who claim that the Bible supports and promotes slavery have not read deeply enough. God is opposed to slavery, but would allow it as a way to help out those poor Jews, though, sold themselves into slavery for any of the following four reasons:
· A person was in extreme poverty and would sell their liberty (Leviticus 25:39)

· A father might sell a daughter as a servant into a home with the intention that she would eventually marry into that richer family (Exodus 21:7)

· In the case of bankruptcy, a man might become servant to his creditors (2 Kings 4:1)

· If a caught thief had nothing with which to pay proper restitution (Exodus 22:3,4)

That indentured slavery was intended to end once a debt had been paid off. However, the slave-holding Jews manipulating things so that their slaves never got free; they always owed their masters. The Jews knew, though, that according to Moses’ Book of the Law, Hebrew slaves were to be set free every 7 years, and all slaves were to be freed in the 50th year, the Year of Jubilee. Unsurprisingly, there is no record of such things ever happening. Slavery was too good of a set-up for the slave-owners, but it was against God’s will. In fact, when Jesus began his ministry, he declared that his coming marked the day of Jubilee, of freedom and liberation. Back to Zedekiah’s time, after the Babylonian army lifted its siege to go and fight against Egypt – a temporary reprieve as things would turn out – the slave-owning Jews concluded that with the threat gone, there was no need of any deal with God. So they broke their vow and took their slaves back.

Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah:

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again…You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So, I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord – ‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. (Jeremiah 34:8-17)

Jeremiah’s reminded the people that his prophecy still stood. He said,

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says:

“Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it down.” This is what the Lord says: “Do not deceive yourselves, thinking, ‘The Babylonians will surely leave us.’ They will not! Even if you were to defeat the entire Babylonian army that is attacking you and only wounded men were left in their tents, they would come out and burn this city down.” (Jeremiah 37:7-10)

Note the difference between the Rekabites who 20 had kept their vow and these slave-owners who broke theirs. You may recall last week Jeremiah bought land in his ancestral home just outside Jerusalem as a testament to the people that they would surely be returning to their homes after 70 years of Babylonian exile. In buying that land, he was telling everyone his family would have a home to return to.

After the Babylonian army had withdrawn from Jerusalem because of Pharaoh’s army, Jeremiah started to leave the city to go to the territory of Benjamin to get his share of the property among the people there. But when he reached the Benjamin Gate, the captain of the guard, whose name was Irijah arrested him and said,

“You are deserting to the Babylonians!” “That’s not true!” Jeremiah said. “I am not deserting to the Babylonians.” But Irijah would not listen to him; instead, he arrested Jeremiah and brought him to the officials. They were angry with Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned him in the house of Jonathan the secretary, which they had made into a prison. Jeremiah was put into a vaulted cell in a dungeon, where he remained a long time. Then King Zedekiah sent for him and had him brought to the palace, where he asked him privately, “Is there any word from the Lord?” “Yes,” Jeremiah replied, “you will be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon.” Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “What crime have I committed against you or your attendants or this people, that you have put me in prison? Where are your prophets who prophesied to you, ‘The king of Babylon will not attack you or this land’? But now, my lord the king, please listen. Let me bring my petition before you: Do not send me back to the house of Jonathan the secretary, or I will die there.” Zedekiah then gave orders for Jeremiah to be placed in the courtyard of the guard and given a loaf of bread from the street of the bakers each day until all the bread in the city was gone. So, Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard. (Jeremiah 37:11-21)

Things were about to get worse for Jeremiah for that current crop of court officials were not like the righteous ones 20 years earlier for they did not like Jeremiah’s message and complained to Zedekiah.

Then the officials said to the king,

“This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.” “He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.” So, they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud. But Ebed-Melek, a Cushite, an official in the royal palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate, Ebed-Melek went out of the palace and said to him, “My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-Melek, “Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.” So Ebed-Melek took the men with him and lifted Jeremiah out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard. (Jeremiah 38:4-10,13)

By the way, did you notice that Jeremiah was not saved by a fellow Jew but by an outsider, a Cushite, an Ethiopian named Ebed-Melek?

Then King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah the prophet and had him brought to the third entrance to the temple of the Lord.

“I am going to ask you something,” the king said to Jeremiah. “Do not hide anything from me.” Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I give you an answer, will you not kill me? Even if I did give you counsel, you would not listen to me.” But King Zedekiah swore this oath secretly to Jeremiah: “As surely as the Lord lives, who has given us breath, I will neither kill you nor hand you over to those who want to kill you.” Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “This is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live. But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be given into the hands of the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from them.’” And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard until the day Jerusalem was captured. (J 38:14-18,28)

You should know that the final destruction of Jerusalem is written about twice in the Book of Jeremiah, first by Jeremiah in chapter 39 and then again, more fully, in chapter 52, where a retelling of it devoid of Jeremiah the weeping prophet’s usual emotion, takes place. It is a historic retelling of the facts, believed to have been added to the book by good old Baruch sometime after Jeremiah’s death.

Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years…He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as Jehoiakim had done. It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end, he thrust them from his presence. Now Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. So, in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. They encamped outside the city and built siege works all around it. The city was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat. Then the city wall was broken through, and the whole army (and King Zedekiah) fled. (52:1-7a)

Suffering, followed by a chance of escape, Zedekiah thought.

They left the city at night through the gate between the two walls near the king’s garden, though the Babylonians were surrounding the city. They fled toward the Arabah, but the Babylonian army pursued King Zedekiah and overtook him in the plains of Jericho. All his soldiers were separated from him and scattered, and he was captured. He was taken to the king of Babylon…The king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon, where he put him in prison till the day of his death. (Jeremiah 52:7b-11)

Do you recall where the place where the Israelites and Jews, under the leadership of Joshua, entered the Promised Land all those centuries before? The plains of Jericho. Where was Zedekiah captured and his sons slaughtered before him? The exact same place. This is more than irony, in my opinion. The very spot where Israel first experienced their own promised land was where their nation ended.

On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the Lord, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building, he burned down. The whole Babylonian army, under the commander of the imperial guard, broke down all the walls around Jerusalem. Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard carried into exile some of the poorest people and those who remained in the city, along with the rest of the craftsmen and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon…So, Judah went into captivity, away from her land. (Jeremiah 52:13-15,27)

The end of the story is that the Rekabites were blessed for their faithfulness, Baruch was protected and given long life by God, Jeremiah survived the demolishing of his city and ended up prophesying for another 16 years, and all those who followed his advice also were given life. As for everyone else, well, it was the end. Let us learn some important lessons from this history. Let’s pray…

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