What does it say?
Jeremiah 35 is set during a previous siege of Jerusalem. The story appears here as contrast the Jewish covenant breakers of chapter 34. The Rechabites are not Jews, but Bedouin descendants of Jonadab (Jehonadab) that stood with king Jehu of Israel against the Baal-worshippers (2Ki 10:15-23). Jonadab prohibited his followers from drinking alcohol and commanded them to live only in tents.
Jeremiah is banned from entering the temple, but this does not prevent God from speaking his word (Jer 36). God gives Jeremiah a message for king Jehoiakim that the prophet dictates to his servant Baruch, who takes it and reads it in the temple. The king is furious, cuts the message out of the scroll and burns it. God simply gives the message again to Jeremiah.
In the days of Zedekiah, Judah’s last king, Jeremiah is again under attack for his counsel to surrender to the invading Babylonians (Jer 37). King Zedekiah is desperate for divine guidance and secretly has Jeremiah brought to him and arranges for him to be kept in the courtyard of the prison. Jeremiah tells Zedekiah that the Babylonians will capture him.
What does it mean?
Drinking alcohol is not prohibited under the Mosaic Law (drunkenness is, of course) and living in a tent does not necessarily make you any more spiritual. The point is that these Rechabite followers of Jonadab have been faithful to these relatively insignificant vows for over 200 years in contrast to the flagrant disobedience of the Jews to their covenant with God.
We have many examples of faithful obedience that are not “spiritual” in nature. Law enforcement officers, military personnel and others are sworn to service, and most of them take their vows very seriously. Some believers attempt to set themselves up as the moral regulators of society, yet are no more faithful to their wedding vows, each other or God himself than anyone else. Jeremiah’s point in including this story of the Rechabites is to challenge God’s people to take obedience to God seriously.
Jeremiah 36 is great drama. It is also a powerful testimony to the nature of scripture. God gives the prophet a message that he writes onto a scroll. The king cuts it out and burns it in the fire, but man cannot destroy God’s word. God simply gives Jeremiah the same message and he writes it down again.
How will I respond?
Have I broken vows that I need to repair? Can God count on me? Can others count on me?