In a previous blog, I wrote about how in Jeremiah 34, we are given a negative example of the Jews in Jeremiah’s day concerning how they treated their slaves. In the very next chapter, Jeremiah gives a positive example that believers even today can learn from.
Both the negative and positive examples given in these chapters occurred during a dark period in Israel’s history. They were facing defeat and deportation at the hands of the Babylonians and their allies. In chapter 35, we are introduced to one of the groups of people impacted by these events. They are the Rechabites.
The Rechabites traced their origins to a man by the name of Jonadab (Jer 35:6). About 250 years earlier, he had been a leader in fighting against the idolatry that the northern tribes of Israel had fallen into. This had resulted in these tribes being taken captive to Assyria. The Rechabites were living in Judah, which was now being punished for her idolatry, as seen by the presence of the Babylonians.
Jonadab, many years earlier, had instructed his descendants to leave the cities of Israel and live in tents as nomads. They were also to abstain from drinking wine (35:8-9). Evidently, he considered the cities to be the centers of idol influence and wine was a major part in the worship of such false gods. To protect his family and their future offspring from these influences, he took the measures he did. He had seen what idol worship could do to a nation.
In Jeremiah’s day, the Rechabites had to move inside the walls of Jerusalem because the Babylonians owned the countryside and deserts in which they formerly lived, and it was impossible to live in Judah as nomads (35:11). This was a new experience for them.
Jeremiah used these people as an object lesson for Israel. He called the leaders of the group to come to the temple. He then invited them into the living quarters of important men associated with the temple. The leaders of the Rechabites were men who wanted to honor God and they considered Jeremiah a prophet. In the home of one of these powerful and godly men, this prophet of God told the men to drink wine (35:5).
Charlie Dyer comments, “Why did Jeremiah bring the Rechabites into the temple and offer them wine when he knew they would refuse it? This was to provide a lesson to Judah. The Rechabites consistently obeyed their forefather’s command. They stood in sharp contrast with the people of Judah who had consistently not obeyed God” (“Jeremiah” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 1179).
John Thompson adds, “This group had been scrupulous in their obedience to Jonadab their founder, but Israel, with much more reason to obey Yahweh, had never listened to him. Yahweh had taken great pains to send his prophets over long centuries, without avail. The people stood condemned by the Rechabite community. Jeremiah was not expressing approval for the nomadic type of life and religion practiced by the Rechabites. He was merely using their unswerving obedience to the commands of a human founder as an example of what obedience meant” (Jeremiah, p. 618).
It would have been very easy for these men to partake of that wine. They were dwelling in Jerusalem with people who, like themselves, were under attack. The powerful men they were with, and who were asking them to drink, were providing security to all the Rechabites within the walls of Jerusalem. All of them needed to be unified. A prophet had told them to drink the wine. For the first times in their lives, they were daily around powerful men who had invited them into the homes and were honoring them with wine. It was a part of the culture.
But they refused (35:6). For generations they had taught their families that abstaining from wine might protect them from the lure of idolatry. This was their conviction and to keep their integrity, it would be improper for them to drink wine now. We might add that Jerusalem was full of idolatry.
Through Jeremiah, the Lord tells the people of Jerusalem that they could learn a lesson from these Rechabite leaders. They did what they saw as being right, even though they were under immense pressure to go against their convictions. The Rechabites feared what idolatry could lead to and took measures to avoid it. The people in Jerusalem embraced idolatry and its degradations.
In Jeremiah 35, the Lord praises the Rechabites and rewards them (35:18-19). God did not forbid the drinking of wine in the OT. Their teetotaling lifestyle is not what makes the Rechabites stand out as a positive example. What makes them people to emulate is that they did what they thought was pleasing to the Lord even when they were tempted by the circumstances of the world around them to do otherwise. It would have been the easy road to take to curry the favor of powerful men who could help them. The Rechabites, who were new to the city, could have used a closer friendship with such men.
They chose pleasing the Lord over friendship with the world (Jas 4:4). They chose pleasing Him even over the admonition of a respected man like Jeremiah that they should lay aside their integrity. For them, drinking wine would have been a sin against the Lord. Even though it might cost them a great deal, they chose the approval of God. That is an example to follow, no matter what age we live in.