We must beware of the sometimes-subtle temptations to disregard what God says and demands. God’s Word is truth. Our responsibility is not to make it conform to our desires but to bring our lives into conformity to it. This is the message for us in Jeremiah 34–36.
Wrong Reactions to the Word of God
Have you upset anybody lately simply because you believe the Bible is the final authority from God Himself?
Not long ago a middle-aged couple visited The Shepherd’s Church, where I have pastored now for many years. That Sunday they noticed the words on the face of my pulpit that read, “Sola Scriptura,” which means “Scripture alone.” In other words, the Bible is the final authority for life.
Well, they made an appointment to see me. He had been the teacher of his Sunday school class for thirty-five years. When we met in my office, he began by telling me how troubled he was—how shocked he was—when he saw those words on my pulpit: Sola Scriptura. I asked him, “What was so shocking about it?” He said, “Well, I didn’t think anybody believed that anymore.” He went on to tell me I was taking the Bible way too seriously—that Jesus was nothing more than a good rabbi, certainly not the Son of God.
This is the kind of reaction to the word of God the prophet Jeremiah is receiving from the nation of Judah. They think Jeremiah is taking God’s word far too seriously, and they want nothing to do with his prophecies.
Although the events recorded in chapters 34 through 36 of Jeremiah all took place before the fall of Jerusalem, these chapters are not arranged chronologically. They are placed here together to emphasize the theme running through these chapters—namely, the people’s reaction to the word of God.
Here in chapter 34, Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, is on the throne. The Babylonian army is conquering one city after another. Verse 7 tells us that only the cities of Lachish, Azekah, and Jerusalem remain free, but they will all fall soon enough.
Jeremiah’s message to King Zedekiah is not a happy one. Zedekiah is not going to put a verse from Jeremiah on his coffee mug to make him feel good in the morning. The Lord’s message to him is given in verses 2-3:
“Behold, I am giving this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. You shall not escape from his hand but shall surely be captured.”
You certainly do not want to read that over coffee in the morning! So, what Zedekiah does here is attempt to twist the message of God’s word.
We read in verses 8-9:
King Zedekiah . . . made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them,that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves.
What does that mean? Well, the Old Testament outlawed the abduction of people to sell as slaves to someone else (Exodus 21:16). But the law did permit what we would call indentured servanthood, where someone could sell himself to another in order to pay off his debts. However, the law of Moses demanded that this service must come to an end every seventh year (see Exodus 21:1-2; Deuteronomy 15:12-15). That way, Israelites would not become enslaved to one another. However, they have ignored this requirement, and Zedekiah now is trying to straighten it all out.
The problem is that Zedekiah is ignoring the real issue and trying to manipulate God into granting him favor. He is also pretty clever because he wants all these freed slaves to help him defend the city.
Now we are told later (see chapter 37) that the Babylonians suddenly leave Jerusalem to confront an Egyptian threat. Jerusalem is given temporary relief here. But what do they do? Verse 11 tells us:
They turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them into subjection.
They decide they do not need God’s help after all, so they return to violating the law of God.
Well, Jeremiah delivers the news to them that the Babylonians are going to return and take the city and burn it to the ground. He adds that everybody who broke this covenant with God and re-enslaved Israelites will face special judgment. Jeremiah states here in verse 20, “Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds . . . and the beasts.” They are not going to put that one on their coffee mug either.
It’s one thing to talk about them, but we too can fall into the rap of trying to manipulate God—trying to bribe Him with our actions and promises when we need His deliverance. That reminds me of the two fellows who had been shipwrecked. They are floating out there in the ocean on a piece of wood, and one of them begins to pray, “Lord, if You deliver me, I will stop stealing from my company, I will stop cheating on my taxes, I will never miss a church service again, I will—” and his friend hollers out, “Hold on! I think I see land.”
These people in Jerusalem are not serious with God. They just want God to bail them out.
In Jeremiah 35, we see another reaction. Here they simply ignore God’s word. The scene shifts back a dozen years to the reign of King Jehoiakim.
A clan known as the Rechabites move into Jerusalem seeking safety. The Lord tells Jeremiah to go out to these people and offer them wine to drink. He does so, but the Rechabites refuse his offer. They explain to Jeremiah here in verses 6-7:
“We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, ‘You shall not drink wine . . . you shall not build a house . . . but you shall live in tents all your days.’”
In obedience to the command of their patriarch, Jonadab, they are committed to living as nomads and abstaining from anything fermented. Now understand that Jonadab lived some 200 years earlier (see 2 Kings 10:15).
The Rechabites’ rejection of Jeremiah’s offer was intended by God as a stunning rebuke to the nation of Judah. The Rechabites had been faithful to the command of an ancestor for over 200 years, but Judah continually ignored the commands of God.
Now in chapter 36 we find another reaction to God’s word. King Jehoiakim is going to try to destroy the word of God. The Lord tells Jeremiah here in verse 4 to dictate prophecies to his friend Baruch. Baruch writes them all down on a scroll and then reads them aloud in the temple.
Royal officials hear Baruch, and in verse 16 we are told, “They turned one to another in fear.” They want the king to hear Jeremiah’s words, but they wisely tell Baruch—and Jeremiah—to go hide while they read this scroll to the king. Verses 22-23 tell us what happens next:
The king was sitting in the winter house, and there was a fire burning in the fire pot before him. As Jehudi [an official] read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire . . . until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire.
So, God instructs Jeremiah to dictate another scroll, but this time a prophecy of judgment against the king is included: he will have no descendants establishing a dynasty on the throne, and his own body will not even be buried after he dies.
Beloved, it’s a sad day—a dangerous day—when people ignore God’s Word or, as we see today, twist God’s Word around and upside down to make it say that something evil is good or that something good is evil. Of course, some simply wish the Bible did not exist at all, and some even try to destroy it.
I am reminded of Voltaire, the French philosopher from the 1700s who hated Christianity. On one occasion he predicted the Bible would fade into oblivion within 100 years of his death. It was not long after Voltaire died that the Geneva Bible Society purchased his home and turned it into a print shop to produce Bibles. Listen, God’s Word is established. In fact, God will have the last word.