Chapter 34 focused attention on the fickle king and people of Jerusalem; chapter 35 introduces the faithful Rechabites. Where Zedekiah, his officials and people vacillated in keeping their covenant promises, the Rechabites were faithful to their covenant promises. Where the Jews in Jerusalem did not obey the commands of the Lord; the Recabites obeyed the command of Jonadab, their forefather (16). Where the disobedient Jews would experience “every disaster . . . pronounced against them” (17), the Rechabites would “never fail to have a man serve me” (19). In these two chapters, we see the contrast between the way of death and the way of life.
The account in chapter 35 takes place during the reign of wicked king Jehoiakim (1). It centers on a nomadic group of Jews known as the “Recabite family” (2). They are a clan descendant from Recab (6) and shaped by a command given by Jonadab, one of his descendants: “Neither you nor your descendants must ever drink wine” (6). Additionally, Jonadab commanded them to live as nomads, living in tents and shepherding flocks. If they did this, Jonadab promised a blessing: “you will live a long time in the land where you are nomads” (7).
Over the ensuing years, the descendants of Recab kept the command of Jonadab. They lived a nomadic life, never settling down to farm. The only reason they were inside the city walls of Jerusalem was because of the danger posed by the “Babylonian and Aramean armies” (11).
Jeremiah is instructed by the Lord to invite the leaders of the Recabite clan into a side room in the temple and offer them wine. Whether or not Jeremiah knew they did not drink wine is not stated. Jeremiah obeys the Lord’s instructions and sets “bowls full of wine and some cups before the men of the Recabite family and said to them, ‘Drink some wine’” (5).
The distinctives followed by the Rechabites were not required by God’s law for all of God’s people. Aspects of their lifestyle were similar to what was required of Nazarites (total abstaining from wine) and of priests (no inheriting property). But the average Israelite would drink wine and own farmland. So the Recabite lifestyle may have seemed to them like the Amish lifestyle seems to us: admirable but somewhat austere.
The response of the Recabite men is clear and definitive. They speak of the command given by Jonadab and assert they have followed it completely in the past and have no intention of violating it in the present or future (6-11). There is no hint that they expected other Israelites to imitate their distinctives; they realize they had been set apart due to their family heritage and command of their patriarch, Jonadab.
After the Rechabites refuse the wine, the Lord gives Jeremiah another message (12-16). This whole event had been set up by God to send a message to the rest of the nation. There was a “lesson” (13) to be learned about obedience. God’s word to Israel follows the logic of the lesser to the greater. If the Recabites would obey the command of their forefather, Jonadab, though it came without divine sanction, why would the Israelites not listen to and obey the words of the “Lord Almighty, the God of Israel” (a phrase used four times in this chapter—13, 17, 18, 19). If human commands are to be followed, how much more should divine commands be obeyed? If there is a blessing for keeping the traditions of one’s ancestors (“you will live a long time in the land where you are nomads”—7), how much more blessing will come from keeping the covenant decrees of the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel (“you will live in the land I have given to you and your fathers”—15)?
The Rechabites’ faithfulness to Jonadab served as an indictment of the nation’s infidelity to their God. They had not obeyed the Lord even though He had sent the prophets to remind and rebuke them (15). They had not turned from their “wicked ways” or reformed their rebellious actions (15). Instead, they had disobediently followed other gods in direct violation of His commands (15).
The Rechabites’ faithfulness to the commands of their forefather contains at least two major lessons for Christians today. The first relates to whether we have the courage to be modern-day versions of this ancient clan. In our culture, obeying God’s commands will make us look like Rechabites, or like the Amish. There was a time when our lifestyle as Christians was quite similar to cultural norms. No longer. In twenty-first century North America, a lifestyle that seemed normal in the 1950’s now looks strange, either quaint or crazy. So the question becomes whether we will remain faithful to God when we look odd and outdated? Will we be ashamed of our distinctives and apologize or adapt them? Will we remain faithful to our God when we stand out and stand alone?
The second lesson from this passage is the primary message of the passage: Will we be faithful to God’s instructions like the Rechabites were to their family traditions? Will we show Him the respect and reverence that some show their forefathers? Will we listen and obey Him or ignore His repeated (“again and again”—14, 15) calls for obedience?
The disobedience of the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem was going to bring judgment on their heads: “I am going to bring on Judah and on everyone living in Jerusalem every disaster I pronounced against them” 17). “Everyone living in Jerusalem” would include the Rechabites. They were not spared from living through the trauma of the siege (which drove them into the city) or conquest (which drove them out). So the promise of Jonadab (“you will live a long time in the land”—7) seemed to be coming to an end (unless they were some of the poor people left behind to live off the land—52:16). But God had a promise for them: “Jonadab son of Recab will never fail to have a man to serve me” (19). Their family line would not only survive physically, but it would also survive spiritually. God would ensure they still had a “future and a hope” in Him (29:11).