The Written Word
Jeremiah 36:20-26
And they went in to the king into the court, but they laid up the roll in the chamber of Elishama the scribe…

Jeremiah continued to prophesy close up to the time of the first captivity. The days were evil, the cup of the nation's iniquity was filling rapidly, as rapidly, indeed, as the cup of its predicted desolation and sorrow, yet the people discerned not the signs of the times.

I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES WHICH LED TO THE PREPARATION OF THIS ROLL. Jeremiah had now been a preacher to the people for three-and-twenty years, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and warning the nation" every one night and day with tears." The effect of these spoken addresses, however, had been utterly disappointing; under Divine guidance he must now have recourse to another expedient. He must prepare a summary of all his sermons, revive upon the minds of the people the warnings which seemed to have passed away; must enable them to read, each in the solitude of his secret chamber, words which, as heard with the outward ears, had neither moved them to repentance nor kindled in them any sense of alarm. "And the word came unto Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Take thee a roll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken unto thee against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spake unto thee, from the days of Josiah, even unto this day." It is worthy your noting how frequently in the Old Testament the Almighty gives instructions to have His words committed to writing; to Habakkuk it is said, "Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables." The commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai must be preserved on two tables of testimony, — tables of stone, written with the finger of God; and the commission given to Ezekiel shall be contained in "the roll of a book, written within and without." Of all this, no doubt the design is to make us appreciate the value of a written revelation, of a written rule of faith, of a written charter of salvation, of a written and inspired record of the mind and will of God. In a matter so vital to man's happiness, God would not leave us at the mercy of man's memories — to the fidelity with which oral traditions might be handed down. But let us see what this history teaches us is the avowed purpose of the Most High in giving us this written revelation. "Write all these words, for it may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them"; and the same thought is repeated in the seventh verse, where Baruch is instructed to go and read the writing to the assembled people. "It may be, they will present their supplication before the Lord, and will return every one from his evil way." But how striking is this language on the part of Almighty God. "It may be" that such and such effects will follow on the use of certain means. In the infinite prescience of the everlasting mind we know there can be no such thing as a "may be"; gathering into its sweep as that mind does the issues of all being, chance, time, space, every circumstance with regard to every soul, is an inevitable must be. While still further, with regard to this very people of whom it is said, "It may be that they will turn," we know it was a settled fact, in the order of the Divine omniscience, that they would not turn, but would "deal very treacherously." Too humble we cannot be in dealing with those apparently conflicting difficulties of moral state, nor too thankful either. They teach us that in relation to the acts and purposes of an infinite mind there are things which are too high for us; that however much two statements may seem to cross each other, if they are clearly revealed we must accept both. "An intellect to which nothing would be paradoxical," says Bishop Horsley, "would be an infinite intellect." It is a bad way of reconciling two Scripture doctrines to ignore or overlook or hide under a bushel one of them. The denial of the doctrine of the Divine predestination, of a knowledge on the part of God of how you or I shall act at any given moment of our future history, is simple atheism; the dethronement of God from the rule of the universe, and a passing of the sceptre to the hands of a thousand wild contingencies, that each may contend for it as it will. And yet with all this "must be" in the Divine purposes, room should be left for the "may be" in the human volition and acts. I bid you take a practical example. Look at the apostle Paul and his companions in the storm. All the men in that ship were to be saved; he knew that, as an absolute purpose of God, which nothing could prevent. It was "a must be"; but the sailors did not believe in this assurance. Hope was gone, the ship must be abandoned. "Down with, the boats instantly, and let each for himself take his chance of deliverance." Now, how did Paul act, with his foreknowledge that all the passengers should be saved? Did he sit quietly? Just the reverse; with all the earnestness and solemnity of one who felt that on the assistance of these sailors he and all that sailed with him were dependent for their life, he cried out, "Except these abide in the ship ye cannot be saved." I have told you that there shall be no loss of any man's life among us and I believe that It shall be even as it was told. He seems to add, God s predestinations are accomplished not by the superseding of human efforts, but by the employment of them; not by forcing our moral liberty, but in harmony therewith. The end is fixed; but for the fulfilment of it my earnestness is necessary, your submission to my directions is necessary; the labour and skill of these seamen to lighten the ship, to take up the anchor, to loose the rudder-bands, to hoist up the mainsail to the wind are necessary. There is a sense in which it "must be" that you shall be saved, and there is a sense in which it may be that you shall perish. You have, to do, not with the certainty, but with the contingency, and it hangs upon this, "Except these abide in the ship." And it is under like limitations that God uses the expression, "it may be," in regard to the effect which the writings of Jeremiah might have upon the minds of those who should read them, — whether the Jews or ourselves. But, in our case, the putting of the Bible into our hands is, so to speak, a moral experiment. To us, His ministering servants, God says, "Here is a book fitted by the nature of its discoveries to commend itself to every man's conscience; calculated by its discoveries of a Saviour's love, and power, and tenderness, to win the most hardened heart to repentance, and accompanied, moreover, with such piercing and persuasive energy, through the influences of the Spirit, that only on the supposition of the most resolved obduracy and pride can any conscience remain unconvinced of its guilt, or any sinner continue in the error of his ways. I, in My infinite foresight, may know that in the case of this man, or of that, the message will fail, but I will have the experiment tried with all. Thou shalt speak My word unto them, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear.'" You must preach upon contingencies; "Take thee a roll of a book, 'it may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil that I purpose to do unto them.'" But let us look at this "may be" — this merciful contingency that God, in condescension to our forms of thought, is pleased to speak of. These possible results, which it is in the heart of God to do, should be produced by our taking the Book of Scripture into our hands. First, God hopes thereby to excite in us a holy fear of His just displeasure — "It may be that they will hear all the evil that I purpose to do unto them." Yes, will hear it and believe in it — will not suppose that I speak parables, will not think that I have just menaced merely to humble, or have drawn pictures of calamity only to terrify, but will be persuaded of a truth that if My message be not accepted these results will follow. I will leave men to themselves, I will withdraw from them the influences of My Holy Spirit, I will bid the great High Priest offer up no more prayers for them, I will even suffer them to delude themselves into a false peace. Oh! ye who despise the Word, will ye hear all the evil which God purposes to do unto you? But see, God has better hope of His work. He trusts it may produce amendment of life, accompanied with earnest desires for forgiveness — "It may be that they may return every man from his evil way, that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin." Do not fail to note here the import of that expression. "That I may forgive." It touches upon another of God s deep things, namely, upon what God is able to do, what are the limits imposed upon Him by the nature of His own attributes, upon some things which cannot be done by Him, to whom, nevertheless, we are accustomed to say that "all things are possible." Sins of longest life I can forgive, and sins of the blackest dye; I can forgive infirmity, forgive years of despised grace and despised opportunity, but it is beyond the power of My holy nature, beyond the reach of the great propitiation, to forgive where there is no returning, where the heart is still in love with evil, enslaved under the uncast-off yoke of sin. "It may be that they may return, that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin." I must note one other of these contingent results which God hopes for through His written Word, put by the Spirit into the mouth of Jeremiah; namely, that it will set the people upon much earnest prayer. "It may be," he says to Baruch, in the seventh verse, "that they will present their supplications before the Lord, and will return every one from his evil way." Very beautifully does this come in, for none of the other results were to be expected without this the sense of spiritual danger, the heart to turn from sin, the desire for experimental assurance of the Divine forgiveness, are, it is true, not things that we could ever obtain by ourselves, but are the gifts of God, promised to earnest and per. severing prayer. You are told to pray, told that it is the will of God that you should pray. There you have something; use that, and then God will give more. You pray that you may know how to pray; if the heart so turned to God be not yours, yet you desire that you may have that heart, and all hinges upon your honest use of God's kind" contingencies. This merciful experiment He is making with you as to the use of His written Word, "it may be they wall present their supplications before the Lord." If they do, the next step will follow, "they will return every one from his evil way." Such is the design of a gracious God, in ordering Jeremiah to prepare the roll; such were His ends in restoring it after it was destroyed, and presenting it, with all its subsequent enrichments, for the use of us and of our children unto this day.

II. THE ROLL DESTROYED. Jeremiah, as we learn from the narrative, was at this time under restraint; not in prison, where he was not placed until afterwards, but only forbidden by Jehoiakim to exercise his prophetic functions, or even to be present at the services of the temple. Accordingly he gives it in charge to Baruch, a man who had taken all the Lord's words in his mouth, to go up and recite all the words of the Lord in the ears of the people who would assemble in the Lord's house on the fast day. Whether there was no congregation assembled, or in obedience to some unrecorded instruction, the first reading of the roll seems to have taken place in the hearing of a single person only, in one of the side courts in the entrance of the gates of the Lord's house. This noble hearer was Michaiah, the son of Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, the scribe, who was so arrested by the words he had heard that he lost no time in going to tell them, as well as he could remember, to the princes at the time resident in the court of Jehoiakim. Interested in this second-hand recital, the princes thought they should like to hear for themselves, and they accordingly sent for Baruch to the palace, that they might have a private hearing of the words of this roll. And here it concerns us nearly, to watch what effect the reading of this roll had upon the princes. Well, in the first instance, it produced in the minds of these princes sentiments of deep emotion. "It came to pass, when they had heard all the words, they were afraid, both one and the other, and said unto Baruch, We will surely tell the king all these words." Easily can we conceive how encouraged Baruch would be by this first fruit of a faithful message; he had stirred up the dormant activities of conscience; the arrows of conviction were rankling sharply in the soul, a sudden fear had evidently taken hold of the men, — "they trembled." For this, as we know, is the sequel: the princes tell the matter to the king, the king sends for the book, commands one of his servants to read out of it, and is so irritated at its disclosures, that at the end of the third or fourth leaf he takes the roll from the hand of Jehudi, and having cut it up to pieces that no part of it might be recovered, waits with awful deliberation until all the roll is consumed in the fire on the hearth. The marvel of the sacred writer seems to be less at the burning than at what followed the burning, or rather at what did not follow the blasphemous hardihood that could go so far and not tremble at the mischief itself had wrought, "yet they were not afraid, nor rent their garments, neither the king nor any of his servants that heard all these words." It is just here that an important practical lesson comes in for us, for it tells us what despised religious conviction may lead to; what a soul-hardening tendency there is in warnings which we have felt once, and felt keenly too, but which we resolved afterwards we would put aside and try to forget all about; and the danger is the same to this day. Show me a man who has never been the subject of one serious or solemn thought, whom the Word, whether read or preached, has never penetrated with a sense of sin or danger, and of that man, I say, I have hope. The arrow is yet on the wing, it may pierce him yet. But when we come to the case of a man who, like Judah's princes, has trembled under the power of the Word, or who, like Jehoiakim himself, has felt it to be so pointedly addressed to his own heart that he could bear its presence no longer, then I say there is room for nothing but the most distressing apprehension, and fearful standings in doubt. Ay! better had it been for Elnathan, and Delaiah, and Gemariah never to have seen that roll at which their consciences trembled, than having seen it and having trembled at it, to have relapsed into their former indifference, and even to stand by whilst its dishonoured pages were blazing on the hearth.

III. THE ROLL RESTORED AND REPLENISHED WITH MORE AWFUL JUDGMENTS. Who ever hardened his heart against God and prospered? Who ever kicked against the pricks of an accusing conscience and did not live to mourn in bitterness his folly? The anger of Jehoiakim against the roll was great, because it told him that the king of Babylon should certainly come and destroy the land. And so, like the foolish Brahmin who crushed the microscope with a stone because it showed him insects in his food, he thought to be revenged on the roll by burning it in the fire. Well, what are the consequences? Why, the new roll Jeremiah was to write contained not only the former things, but some worse, even the utter ruin of the royal house, the condemnation of Jehoiakim's posterity to captivity and shame, and the exposure of his own body to the burial of an ass, as an eternal monument of God's displeasure against all who despised the warnings of His written Word. Not only was Jeremiah to rewrite all the words of the Book which had been burned in the fire, but, says the sacred historian, "There were added besides unto them many like words." And what is the great practical lesson I wish you to derive from this part of the history? That the Word of God is imperishable. A singular and wonderful Providence, as we all know, has watched over that Word. Every jot and tittle shall have its complete fulfilment, for indeed there is something beyond the mere writing. Oh, suffer me to remind you of its double aspect, its double lesson, its double tendency, either to strengthen the mind and hopes of the righteous, or to cover with overwhelming hopelessness the prospects of the ungodly and the sinner. Let me say a word first to those who feel that they do not belong to Christ, have no part in the covenant, know well enough they are not washed, not sanctified, not justified by the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God. Must I not in all faithfulness say to them, even as Baruch would have said to Jehoiakim when he threw the strips and shreds of heavenly truth into the flame, "Be thou well assured that all the words written in this roll shall come to pass, yes, and there shall be added unto them many like words"? The neglect of the preached Word can but aggravate the condemnation. "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away." More grateful, however, is it to the minister of the Gospel of love and peace to approach this imperishableness of the written Word from its other side, and see what are the promises to them that fear God. And to them I say, even to all that are in Christ Jesus, to all that have found peace, this unfailing certainty of all that God hath written in His Word is like a footing on the everlasting rock. Yes, it is yours to live in a world of change, changes in nature, changes in Providence, changes in the Church of God, changes in the rolling seasons, changes in your own frames and feelings, and desires and spiritual experiences; and what protection and refuge against your own inconstancy, your own fluctuations of purpose, and will, and power, is it to be able to fall back on the unchanging, eternal, indefeasible Word of promise of the Most High God, of Jesus "the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever."

(D. Moore, M. A.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And they went in to the king into the court, but they laid up the roll in the chamber of Elishama the scribe, and told all the words in the ears of the king.

WEB: They went in to the king into the court; but they had laid up the scroll in the room of Elishama the scribe; and they told all the words in the ears of the king.

The Story of a Penknife
Top of Page
Top of Page