In contrast to the Rechabites, who listened and obeyed the words of their forefather Jonadab (chapter 35), this chapter highlights the callous and defiant attitude of king Jehoiakim and some of his officials (not all!) to the word of the Lord.
Jeremiah is instructed to compile all the words the Lord had spoken to him in his ministry as a prophet (2, 4). Since this command was given in the “fourth year of Jehoiakim” (1), Jeremiah would have been speaking God’s message for around 22 years (1:1). He enlists the help of Baruch, son of Neriah (4) to write the words “in ink on the scroll” as he dictated them (18). How long the process took, we aren’t told. However, we know that it’s not until the “ninth month of the fifth year of Jehoiakim” that Jeremiah dispatches Baruch to read the scroll in the temple (9).
The reason Jeremiah doesn’t go proclaim the message himself is that, by this time, he had been barred from entering the temple (5). This information helps us determine the chronology of other chapters in the book. For example, chapter 26—which tells of Jeremiah being arrested and threatened with death—is said to occur “early in the reign of Jehoiakim” (26:10). This near-death experience must have happened earlier than the fourth year of Jehoiakim as Jeremiah was still permitted in the temple. Perhaps this was the event that led to his banishment from the temple grounds.
Several other episodes in the book are dated during the “fourth year of Jehoiakim”: the message about a seventy-year subjugation to Babylon (25), Baruch’s lament (45) and the message about Egypt’s defeat at the hands of the Babylonian armies (46).
Jeremiah, with the help of Baruch, records all the messages he had given during his two-decades of prophetic ministry. We don’t know if he remembered them all or had written notes; we do know he “dictated all the words the Lord had spoken to him” (4). Some months later, he dispatches Baruch to read the scroll in the temple on a day set aside for fasting (9). Historians note that the fast day may have been in response to the news that the Babylonian armies had overrun the nearby Philistine city of Ashkelon. Fear would have gripped the Jews who had been looking to Egypt to assist them (in spite of Jeremiah’s prophetic word against Egypt—chapter 46).
The Lord’s goal in having Jeremiah compile all the previous messages was to give the king and the people another chance to repent and be rescued: “Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, each of them will turn from his wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin” (3). Jeremiah echoes the same thought when dispatching Baruch: “Perhaps they will bring their petition . . .” (7). Here is another evidence of the truth that the Lord is “slow to anger and rich in mercy” (Exodus 34:6). Further, it shows that even when the Lord’s “anger and wrath” are “great” (7), He still is rich in mercy!
God’s mercy and faithfulness to Jeremiah and Baruch is shown in the way He protects them and keeps His promise to Jeremiah (1:19; 15:21) and Baruch (“I will let you escape with your life”—45:5). God’s providential protection of His messengers is seen in the surprising response of the king’s officials who hear Baruch read the scroll (12). One of the officials—Elnathan son of Acbor—had been responsible for extraditing Uriah the prophet from Egypt and delivering him to Jehoiakim’s death sentence (26:20-23). Evidently, Elnathan’s heart has changed, perhaps by seeing what happened to Uriah or by the recent advance of the Babylonian armies. Elnathan (and the other officials) reacts to the scroll’s message with “fear” (16; Isa. 66:2) and warns Baruch and Jeremiah to “go and hide” (19). While Jeremiah and Baruch do make efforts to hide, the reason they are not found is given in verse 26: “But the Lord had hidden them.”
The chapter contrasts the response to God’s Word by two groups of leaders: the first group of government officials and that of the king has his attendants. Both groups hear the same words read. Both groups know the scroll contains the words Jeremiah dictated to Baruch. However, the two groups respond in opposite ways:
Court Officials King and attendants
“looked at each other in fear” (16) “showed on fear” (24)
told Baruch/Jeremiah to hide (19) called for Baruch/Jeremiah’s arrest (26)
urged king not to burn scroll (25) burned the scroll (23)
listened to the Lord’s word (15) did not listen (31)
The king’s callous disregard for God’s Word is highlighted in the way he burns the “entire scroll” piece by piece (“three for four columns” at a time—23). In other words, he makes multiple decisions to reject and destroy the message God sent through Jeremiah. Rejecting the message, he calls for the arrest (and likely the death) of the messengers (26). He hears the message, but “did not “listen” to it (31).
God’s Word is received or rejected based on the condition of the hearer’s heart. When the heart is like hard soil, the seed of Scripture does not penetrate; Satan quickly takes it away (Matthew 13:19). When the heart is receptive, the seed begins to grow. Time will tell whether it will germinate and bear fruit (good soil versus rocky or weed-infested soil—Matthew 13:20-23). Clearly, Jehoiakim was hard soil. The first group of court officials was more responsive. Whether they truly “listened” (i.e. obeyed) would be revealed by their ongoing responses to the message they heard. The same is true for us.
For his brazen attitude and actions, God would judge Jehoiakim and his family line. He would “have no one to sit on the throne of David” (30); his dead body would be mistreated (“thrown out and exposed”—30); his children would experience “every disaster” predicted in Jeremiah’s message. These prophecies were fulfilled, albeit in unexpected ways: his son, Jehoiachin, reigns for three months before being deported; after his death, his bones exhumed and exposed (8:1-2; 22:18-19); his children experience the horrific fall of Jerusalem.