The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
The word which came unto Jeremiah from the LORD in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, saying,The Rechabites
This part of the prophecy takes us back to the earlier years of Jeremiah's life and work. Jerusalem had not been besieged, and Jehoiakim the king had not filled up the cup of his iniquity. The Lord wished to read the king and the people of Judah a solemn lesson; and he preferred to do so by way of example rather than by way of precept. He took what to us appears to be an extraordinary course; but the issue proved that the course which the Almighty adopted was fraught with the very lesson which infinite wisdom intended to apply in all its breadth and pungency to the disobedient kingdom. The Rechabites drank no wine. This was one of the characteristics of the house or family of Rechab. It was a well-known characteristic. By the necessity of the case it was patent to God. Yet what did God do? He sent a strange message by the mouth of the prophet; he said,—
"Go unto the house of the Rechabites, and speak unto them, and bring them into the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers, and give them wine to drink" (Jeremiah 35:2).
We may well pause here a moment and quicken our vision, that we may read the strange words once more to make ourselves quite sure they are what they first sounded like. Did the Lord make a proposal to total abstainers to drink wine? Did he send for them to a kind of wine festival? Is this the meaning of the Lord's Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation"? Will he try the nostrils of the Rechabites with the perfume of wine? This is strange. We gain nothing by slurring over the difficulty; let us face it, consider it, and act wisely concerning it.
Is not the Lord always thus leading men into temptation?—not in the patent and vulgar sense in which that term is generally understood, but in a sense which signifies drill, the application of discipline, the testing of principles and purposes and character? Is not all life a temptation? Does not every day dawn in order that we may be tempted once more? and when the darkness comes, is it not that we may have a larger sphere in which to feel the pressure of the devil? The words are exactly as we have quoted them;—"Bring them into the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers, and give them wine to drink." Was not this hard? But, then, all life is hard. You can never look at another human being without having a chance to wrong him. There is nothing easy in life. One boy cannot sit next to another without being tempted to do something that is unlawful. Society is a school, a drill-house, a fiery furnace. It is a fearful thing to live! If we have by some jugglery come into easiness of relations, it may be because we have quelled the voice of great convictions, because we have undertaken to live a life that shall be undistinguished by the action of great principles. We may only have escaped temptation because we have run into folly. The Lord tries every man.
There need be no hesitation in offering the prayer, "Lead us not into temptation." People have tried to soften the words. They have said instead of "lead" "leave us not in temptation"; but these are the annotations of inexperience and folly, or superficiality. Every man goes through hell to heaven, if he goes at all; some linger there; some never escape from the pit of perdition. We are not men until we have been thus moulded, tried, qualified. We can do little for one another in that pit of temptation. There is no comfort so discomforting as that of superficial consolation. We cannot be healed by maxims, because the maxims themselves are burned up in the furnace in which our life is being scorched. Exhortation goes but a little way in the agony of life. We must be left with God. There is one Refiner; he sits over the furnace, and when the fire has done enough he quenches the cruel flame. Think it no strange thing that temptation hath befallen you; yea, think it not strange that God himself has given you opportunities by which you may be burned. He never gives such an opportunity without giving something else. Alas, how often we see the opportunity and not the sustaining grace! It is useless, and worse than useless, it is quite a sceptic-making business, to evade the difficulties of Scripture and of life; we must look at them, and where we have not time in one brief day to adjust and determine them we must ask for larger time. The question cannot be settled either way by superficial thought. We must remember this, because it is supposed evidently by some that a denial establishes everything, and assertion or affirmation establishes nothing. If the affirmation cannot be instantly proven to the utmost point of satisfaction, the denial must also take its time for being searched and tested and weighed in the scales of adequate experience.
The drinking of wine in this case was to be done in "the house of the Lord." Now light begins to dawn. How thankful we are for one little pale ray of light when the darkness has been a sevenfold midnight! Not only is there wine to be drunk, but if drunk it is to be drunk in the house of the Lord. Mark the limitations of our temptation. The Lord is never absent from his house. If we will choose the sphere of temptation, then let us not blame God if we fall into a snare; if we will persist in trying ourselves, be not amazed if such self-temptation should end in suicide; if we say we will choose the open field without historical association or tradition, without religious sanctions, consolations, or sustaining thoughts, then we shall be brought home dead men: if God will choose the temptation, and choose the place of its application, and himself preside over the tremendous conflict, we may be more than conquerors. Here is no encouragement to men who place themselves in circumstances of temptation, who put themselves in the way of the devil, and beckon him with uplifted finger that he would come and work his will. Always carefully distinguish between the temptations of a truly beneficent providence and the temptations which men bring upon themselves, and the temptations with which men needlessly put their own fortitude to test. Let God tempt me, and he will also save me; let him invite me into his own house, that there under a roof beautiful as heaven he may work his will upon me, and afterwards I shall stand up, higher in stature, broader in manhood, truer in the metal of the Spirit.
Observe the details of this mysterious operation. The men who were taken were proved men:—
"Then I took Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah, the son of Habaziniah, and his brethren, and all his sons, and the whole house of the Rechabites" (Jeremiah 35:3).
When the Lord calls for giants to fight his battle and show the strength of his grace, they are chosen men. The Lord knows the result before the process begins. The Lord never fails in any miracle. No work of his has been left half finished because Almightiness gave up—because Omnipotence shrank through want of strength from the completion of the design. All these men were conspicuous witnesses for the truth: they were identified with the faith of Israel; they were the trustees of the morality of society. It is so in all ages. There are certain men whom we may denominate our stewards, trustees, representatives; as for ourselves, we say, it is not safe to trust us; we are weaker than a bruised reed; we cannot stand great public ordeals; we were not meant to be illustrations of moral fortitude: spare us from the agony of such trial! There are other men in society whom God himself can trust. He might even allow the devil to work almost all his infernal will upon them. There are Jobs that can be brought almost to hell, but cannot be thrown in. If certain men could fail, society itself might collapse, saying, Human life has been defeated, and divine purposes have been dragged down into humiliation and disgrace. But certain men are fireproof; the inflexibility of their will is the strength of social life. Some could never lift up their heads again if men who could be named in Church and State were to fall from their moral supremacy. What could the fir tree do after the cedar had fallen? What could the little stars do when the morning star had slipped its foot and fallen out of the palace of the heavens? It would seem as if God looked for much from some of us; as if, speaking reverently, he were dependent upon us for his own reputation in human history. Are there none that will abide in the day of trial? Is the Lord to be utterly deserted by the creatures whom he made in his own image and likeness? Is not one man to be found who will magnify the grace of God, saying, But for the grace of God I should have fallen: grace triumphs over weakness; grace makes the frailest strong; by the grace of God I am what I am? When such trial can be so borne, the fact becomes argument, and the argument is of that concrete, direct, and conclusive kind which the most skilful disputant can neither answer nor evade. In this way we have it in our power to magnify God, and to show how great is his grace.
What did the sons of Rechab say? "And I set before the sons of the house of the Rechabites pots full of wine, and cups, and I said unto them, Drink ye wine. But they said"—here is the critical point—"But they said, So be it: there can be nothing wrong in following the finger of Providence: we have thirsted for this poison, now give us enough of it; we are well curtained in, the walls are thick, no eye can penetrate them; the windows are high up, there can be no overlookers: fill up the vessel, and see how strong men can drink." The story does not read so, but thus: "But they said, We will drink no wine: for Jonadab the son of Rechab our father commanded us, saying, Ye shall drink no wine, neither ye, nor your sons for ever" (Jeremiah 35:6). Herein is a strange thing, that children should obey the voice of a dead father. Yet this is a most pleasing contention; this is an argument softened by pathos. The men stood up, and did not speak in their own name; they said, We be the sons of a certain man, who gave a certain law, and by that law we will live, and ever will live. "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." The trial took place in the chamber of the sons of Hanan, the son of Igdaliah, a man of God, which was above the chamber of Maaseiah. The father of Maaseiah was Shallum, who was the husband of Huldah the prophetess, who had taken an active part in the reformation wrought in the reign of Josiah. So all these were so many guarantees of probity, and strength, and success. There will be no evil wrought in that chamber! Not only are the Rechabites there, but their fathers are with them in spirit. A man should never be left alone; all his best antecedents should be round about him; voices cheering him in right ways, Benjamins comforting him in sudden distresses. Though our fathers, physical and spiritual, be dead, yet they may live with us in the spirit, and may go with us and sustain us in all the trials and difficulties of life. Our fathers cannot die. The sense in which men die is the narrowest of all interpretations of human history. When the father is dead he is nearer to us than ever he could be whilst he lived: we know not what power of vision he has now; we cannot tell how he operates upon the soul that looks for heavenly help; we know not what tracks he may make in the pathless darkness: here we stand in mystery, but we know that there is something which sustains and animates and strengthens us when the battle is at its sorest point.
"We will drink no wine." Note the definiteness of the answer. No inquiry is made about the kind of wine that was supplied. Always particularly beware of those wines which are warranted not to intoxicate. They are not wines at all if they do not intoxicate. And they lead up to wines that will make you drunk. There is probably hardly any man who is doing more harm to the world than the man who thinks he can cheat the devil by changing a label. God has poured out all the wine we want: let us drink it from its fountains, and we shall be wise and strong. "We will drink no wine." Men are saved by their definiteness. A strong, proud, decisive answer is the true reply to all temptation. An oath that strikes as with a fist of iron, a denial that is like a long sharp two-edged sword,—these must be our policies and watchwords in the time of danger.
The reason is given:—
"For Jonadab the son of Rechab our father commanded us, saying, Ye shall drink no wine, neither ye, nor your sons for ever" (Jeremiah 35:6).
It is a filial argument. Good advice is not always thrown away; and men should remember that though exhortation may be rejected for a long time, yet there are periods when it may recur to the memory and come upon the whole life like a blessing sent from God. Noble exhortation must not be spared from human speech. The preacher may be well aware that every exhortation he utters will be thrown back upon him, and yet by the grace of God he has learned the mystery of patience; so he can say to his soul, The people will remember this exhortation some other day; they will cut themselves with severest reproaches because of their neglect, and in the day of their necessity they will apply to themselves many a rejected discourse. The argument is a fortiori. The Lord has shown how the sons of Jonadab can refuse wine: now he will take this example and apply it to the whole host of Judah, and he will say, See what one section of your country can do; if they can do this, why cannot you be equally loyal and true? why cannot you be equally obedient to the spirit of righteousness? for three hundred years this bond has been kept in this family; never once has it been violated: if one family can do this, why not a thousand families? if one section of the country, why not the whole nation? This was God's method of applying truth to those who needed it. Thus we teach one another. One boy can be obedient: why not all boys? One soul can be faithful: why not all souls? If it had been proved impossible to keep any of the laws of God by any human creature, then the criticism would have been not only practical but final. Where one man can keep the law all men can keep it. This is the very argument of the history. The incident that has taken place in the little chamber connected with the house of God will be enlarged into a great national appeal. This is the use which God makes of every individual experience. This is the true use of history. Without such applications as these history would be lost upon us. God in his providence says: See what others can do, and as they toil and climb and succeed in reaching the highest point, so do ye follow them: the grace that made them succeed will not fail you in the hour of your trial and difficulty. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
Modern Rechabites should remember that they are only obeying one part of the pledge. It must not be forgotten that the pledge was a comprehensive one:—
"Ye shall drink no wine, neither ye, nor your sons for ever: neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye be strangers" (Jeremiah 35:6-7).
Is it not desirable that we should keep a whole pledge, or that we should at least say that we limit our pledge to such and such sections? Let us be careful of a partial obedience. The lesson here goes further than it would seem at first sight to do. A man must not claim to be a Bible moralist because he keeps two of the Ten Commandments. A man ought to be careful to liberate Rechab from all responsibility in relation to his action beyond the one point which is claimed as a point of analogy. When modern Rechabs drink no wine, but build houses and abandon tents, they should say clearly that they are obeying the Rechab vow in one respect only. It is of no consequence in the local incident, for Rechab is dead, but it is of infinite consequence in all the broader paths and bearings of morality. We do not follow Christ because we wear a crucifix; we are not Christian martyrs because we put ourselves or are put to occasional inconvenience of a very superficial kind; we do not keep the Ten Commandments because we obey the first Jesus Christ does not call us to a partial pledge. Upon this he is very severe; both himself and his Apostles teach that if we offend in one point we offend in all. If we have dishonoured our father and our mother, we have broken ten commandments in one; if we have taken that which does not belong to us, we have shattered the decalogue at a blow. Beware of partial morality, sectional respectability, rags and patches of orthodoxy. There are hardly any civilised men who are not apparently good in points. Some have pet commandments which they would not break for the world. Almost every man has chosen one commandment, and thinks in keeping that he is keeping the ten. There are persons who would not, could not steal; yet they would break all the other nine commandments as quickly as they could be handed to them. This is not obedience; this is the worst kind of disobedience. The man who will have nothing to do with the commandments at all may take to himself some kind of reputation for grim consistency; but he who palters with pledges, and histories, and vows, and moralities, pleases himself, and is not exemplifying a spirit of unquestioning obedience. How, then, does it stand with us today? We cannot rid men of this sophism, that to do one good thing is to have at least so much reputation for goodness. The Lord reasons in precisely the contrary way: it is because we can do one thing, and do not do the rest, that he blames us. He never blames the man who wants to keep all his law, who is conscious of failure, and who says nightly, Lord, I have done it again; yea, I have played the fool before high heaven; I have grieved thy Spirit; and yet this night I am filled with bitterness and tears, and broken down with contrition, and thou knowest this night, though I am not worthy to look at anything thy hands have made, I love thee: it is a strange love, a love which no mortal imagination could conceive or understand, yet here it is; Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I would keep the commandments if I could, thou knowest that I love thee. Heaven never shut its door in the face of such a suppliant.
The Lord has promised in these words:—
"Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever" (Jeremiah 35:19).
What is the meaning of that expression? Does it mean that there would be a mere continuance of the family life of the house? Certainly not. Standing before God has a priestly significance. Whenever you find this expression in the Bible, you find that the Lord has chosen this line of men out of which to bring those who shall serve before him in a priestly function. The Lord has made it clear that he will proceed along a moral basis. "Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord." He will have it understood that obedience is the root of priesthood; it must be known that character is the basis of every true ministry; it must be written in stars, in lightnings, that they have no right to be in God's house who are not in God's spirit. We cannot be brought up to this office; assigned to it by some gracious father or mother, thrust into it by some official power; dignified with it as by a kind of family heraldry: we are in God's house because we love God's law; we are in spiritual offices because we are in spiritual relations; if we have not obeyed the Lord, though we have the tongue of men and of angels, we are become as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. He is priest who is obedient. Only he is mighty to the pulling down of the strongholds of Satan who is already himself destroyed by the power of God, and reconstructed by the grace of Christ.