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3 Lessons from the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35)

 (Old Facebook Post – Lightly edited and reposted May 31, 2015)

I recently heard a sermon based on the story of the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35), who faithfully obeyed the commands of their ancestor Jonadab, who lived several hundred years earlier and commanded them not to drink wine, etc. (See the end of this post to read the story for yourself.) I’ve pondered this story some since hearing that sermon, and here are my thoughts.

We can learn three lessons from this story. The first lesson is the lesson that is most central to the Jeremiah passage, but it is sometimes barely noticed by preachers and teachers. The second lesson is also noted briefly by the Bible, and is usually given due attention by preachers. The third lesson is not mentioned in the Jeremiah passage at all, but sometimes becomes the central theme of pastors who chose this text—especially conservative pastors, including conservative Anabaptists.

In reverse order, here are the three lessons:

Lesson 3 is based on the example of Jonadab, father of the Rechabites, who established rules for his descendents. These rules (don’t drink wine, build houses, or possess vineyards) separated his descendants from wicked Israelite society and, it is said, preserved his family for generations to come. The application is often made that we fathers (and perhaps churches) should imitate him and set rigorous rules for our own descendents—rules which call them to remain obviously and arbitrarily different and distant from surrounding culture. Problem: the text never once affirms either Jonadab’s rule-setting or the inherent value of any of his rules. Why didn’t God set these rules for the entire nation before they ever entered Canaan, instead of promising wine and houses and vineyards as blessings? Why didn’t Jeremiah learn from these rules and command the faithful remnant in Israel to start following the Rechabite rules? Why didn’t Jeremiah himself follow these rules? We are explicitly told that Jeremiah was commanded by God to buy a field, as proof that “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” after the exile (Jer. 32:15). Actually, the main point of the passage (Lesson 1) is strengthened by the fact that these rules were only man-made and did not necessarily have any intrinsic value. As Tremper Longman III writes: “God never required such a mode of living; these seem to be human laws. Whether their mode of life was right or not is not the issue in this chapter, however. It rather has to do with the quality of their obedience” ([amazon text=Jeremiah, Lamentations&asin=0801046955], New International Biblical Commentary series, 232). This observation leads us to the next two lessons.

Lesson 2 is based on the exceptional quality of the obedience of the Rechabite descendents to their ancestor Jonadab. This is emphasized in the text when God promises that they will be rewarded by never failing to have a man to stand before him. Notice he does not promise that their obedience to Jonadab’s rules will preserve the whole family from sliding into the sins of surrounding culture; only that Jonadab will always have at least one survivor serving God. One application of this lesson would be the value of honoring and obeying our own parents.

Lesson 1 is based on the contrast between Jonadab and God. This is an argument from the lesser to the greater: If the Rechabites faithfully obey laws that are merely man-made, then how much more should Israel obey laws that were given by God himself! Longman writes that the Rechabite “obedience to conscience is commended, but the point is that this requirement is one imposed by a human authority figure. While the Recabites obey their forefather, the rest of the people do not obey God himself” (234). The application for us today parallels the lesson God intended for ancient Israel: We should faithfully obey all that God has commanded us to do, eager to “receive instruction and listen to [his] words” (Jer. 35:13). In particular, we should respond with ready obedience when God calls us to repentance, for his promises of deliverance and his warnings of judgment far exceed anything that accompany obedience to any merely human commands. This call to repent and obey God’s own words is the true reason why God called Jeremiah’s attention to the Rechabites in the first place. Therefore, it should also be the main lesson we draw from their example today.

Here is the story of the Rechabites, from Jeremiah 35 (ESV). Read it for yourself to test my observations:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah: “Go to the house of the Rechabites and speak with them and bring them to the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers; then offer them wine to drink.” So I took Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah, son of Habazziniah and his brothers and all his sons and the whole house of the Rechabites. I brought them to the house of the Lord into the chamber of the sons of Hanan the son of Igdaliah, the man of God, which was near the chamber of the officials, above the chamber of Maaseiah the son of Shallum, keeper of the threshold. Then I set before the Rechabites pitchers full of wine, and cups, and I said to them, “Drink wine.” But they answered, “We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, ‘You shall not drink wine, neither you nor your sons forever. You shall not build a house; you shall not sow seed; you shall not plant or have a vineyard; but you shall live in tents all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you sojourn.’ We have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he commanded us, to drink no wine all our days, ourselves, our wives, our sons, or our daughters, and not to build houses to dwell in. We have no vineyard or field or seed, 10 but we have lived in tents and have obeyed and done all that Jonadab our father commanded us. 11 But when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up against the land, we said, ‘Come, and let us go to Jerusalem for fear of the army of the Chaldeans and the army of the Syrians.’ So we are living in Jerusalem.”

12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Go and say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, Will you not receive instruction and listen to my words? declares the Lord. 14 The command that Jonadab the son of Rechab gave to his sons, to drink no wine, has been kept, and they drink none to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. I have spoken to you persistently, but you have not listened to me. 15 I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your deeds, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me. 16 The sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have kept the command that their father gave them, but this people has not obeyed me. 17 Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem all the disaster that I have pronounced against them, because I have spoken to them and they have not listened, I have called to them and they have not answered.”

18 But to the house of the Rechabites Jeremiah said, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Because you have obeyed the command of Jonadab your father and kept all his precepts and done all that he commanded you, 19 therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me.”

What do you think? What can we learn does God intend for us to learn from this story? Share your thoughts in the comments below.