Sunday, December 12, 2021

Scrolling by the Fireside: A Sermon on Jeremiah 36

It's early December, and Gemariah stands in the palace, watching King Jehoiakim warm himself in front of a fire pot. Gemariah is awfully nervous – nervous because of what he and the other members of the royal cabinet have had to bring to the intemperate thirty-year-old king. Closest to Jehoiakim stands the royal envoy Jehudi, grasping the scroll in his hands – the one-of-a-kind scroll at the heart of the whole uproar. He begins to read.

Gemariah can't help, as he watches and listens, to recall a similar (but much less unnerving) scene he'd heard of from eighteen years before, when he was a much younger man and when his father Shaphan was still alive and a key member of King Josiah's administration. Shaphan, then the secretary of state, was the first man on scene when the high priest Hilkiah, serving back then, uncovered a lost treasure in the Temple during repairs. It had been an ancient scroll, the Book of the Law, filled with holy Moses' dying sermons to the people of Israel. The find was revolutionary – a whole God-given program for a compassionate society. Gemariah remembered how, as Shaphan told their family over dinner that night, Shaphan had read the whole scroll to King Josiah in one long sitting; how profoundly it had affected the king, who'd ripped his royal robes. “Great is the wrath of the LORD that's kindled against us, since our fathers haven't obeyed the words of this book!” Josiah had shouted. And so Josiah had commissioned a team – including Gemariah's dad Shaphan and big brother Ahikam, plus the high priest and a few other officials like Achbor – to go talk to the prophetess Huldah about it. Through her, the LORD had told them – Gemariah's dad heard this firsthand – that while Judah was still in danger, Josiah would be blessed for his attitude toward the scroll. Disaster was delayed. But the clock was ticking (2 Kings 22).

Fast forward, then, twelve years, Josiah's time of striving mightily to reform the nation, purify its worship, and “establish the words of the Law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the House of the LORD (2 Kings 23:24). Those twelve years were all the young king had had. Five years and four months ago, Josiah – not yet in his fortieth year of age – sallied forth into battle at Megiddo, trying to cut off an Egyptian advance through the land to join their Assyrian allies. Spying King Josiah at Megiddo, the pharaoh targeted him. Josiah was killed (2 Kings 23:28-29). The king's servants rushed his body and chariot back from the battlefield to Jerusalem with sorrowful news. Scarcely was the funeral over than a rising tide of popular outrage shouted for Josiah's likeable younger son Shallum, 23 years old, to be installed on the throne of David. Shallum was anointed and crowned, taking a new name as king: 'Jehoahaz' (2 Kings 23:30-31).

Alas, Shallum – Jehoahaz – didn't have much of his father's heart (2 Kings 23:32). Not that it mattered much: in three months, the Egyptians stepped in. Under the pretext of a diplomatic conference, Pharaoh invited Jehoahaz north to their camp at Riblah in the land of Hamath, about 240 miles from Jerusalem. There, they took the king prisoner, stripped him of office, and ultimately led him captive back to Egypt when all was done (2 Kings 23:33-34; cf. Ezekiel 19:4). Having deposed Jehoahaz, the pharaoh – Josiah's killer – handpicked Shallum's elder half-brother Eliakim, age 25, and forced Judah to crown him as their king instead. Eliakim was pliable, eager to make a deal, willing to accept Egypt's gospel of submission. And like Shallum, Eliakim took a new name as king: 'Jehoiakim.' From one angle, his claim to the throne made sense. He was the older son of Josiah, he had seniority over Shallum all along. But his wheeling and dealing came at a price. Egypt wanted paid for selling him the throne of David. So that winter, Jehoiakim hiked taxes substantially, collecting silver and gold to send to Egypt, reversing the plunder of the days of the exodus (2 Kings 23:35). It was a time of discontent, and certainly there were those hoping that Jehoahaz might somehow escape Egyptian exile and retake his throne.

'Twas amidst all this, Gemariah recalled, that one day at the temple, a priest stood and made a scene. Though in his early forties, the priest had been prophesying since Josiah's days. His name was Jeremiah, and he caused quite a stir when he barged into the temple court and started shouting. “Listen to what the LORD says!” he preached. “If you won't listen to me, to walk in my Law that I've set before you, and listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send you urgently though you haven't listened, then I'll make this house like Shiloh and I'll make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth!” (Jeremiah 26:1-6). Gemariah was chilled to hear it. Shiloh was a defunct shrine in Israel, overseen by Jeremiah's ancestor Eli, which had come to ruin. This prophet threatened Jerusalem and its Temple with the same dire destruction unless they heard him.

Well, the priests and temple prophets were furious – they filed charges, they wanted Jeremiah dead. The common people were deeply offended, too, at what smelled to them like unpatriotic sacrilege. In the face of the mob, it was Gemariah's big brother Ahikam who took Jeremiah under his personal protection. Their family had somewhat known Jeremiah for years. They knew he was sincere, suspected he might be the real deal. Never married, but harassed, abandoned, prone to tears, wearing a conflicted heart on his sleeve... nobody'd choose the life Jeremiah led unless under conviction. Either he was mad in the mind or mad for the LORD. This time, Gemariah had to admit: Under Jehoahaz and now Jehoiakim, their country was on track for ruin. So was it a matter of mere mortal mismanagement? Or was it, as Jeremiah said, a case of sin and divine wrath, fermented over generations into a lethal brew? Gemariah was beginning to believe (Jeremiah 26:7-19, 24).

So Jeremiah they helped. But when another prophet, Uriah, started echoing Jeremiah's message, well, the sons of Shaphan had enough on their plate in keeping one prophet from peril. With no cover, Uriah caught wind he was a wanted man, and fled to Egypt – a fool thing to do, given Jehoiakim's alliance. They were most happy to extradite. Jehoiakim sent Gemariah's colleague Elnathan – Achbor's son – to fetch Uriah. Dutifully Elnathan went, but was horrified, on bringing Uriah back, to find himself complicit in the summary execution of a man of God. Jehoiakim was a prophet-killer (Jeremiah 26:20-24).

The next few years were mainly uneventful, but last summer everything started to unravel. News came that the Egyptians went north to help their Assyrian allies take a stand against an upstart power, Babylon, at Carchemish on the banks of the Euphrates. And for Egypt and Assyria, the Battle of Carchemish was a disaster. It was just a few months into Jehoiakim's fourth full year as king, and his backers were humiliated. Soon, the Babylonian commander-in-chief, crown prince Nebuchadnezzar, was rumored to be on his way. But a month later, they got word of King Nabopolassar's death in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar hastened back to ensure no scheming sibling could keep him from the throne. Then, last winter, King Nebuchadnezzar led his army back down, pressing all Judah's neighbors to forget Egypt's allures and bow the knee to him instead. He went home in January, and all Judah – Jehoiakim especially – breathed a sigh of relief. But not for long. The Babylonians came back six months ago. They campaigned all summer and fall, waging war into Philistia. As November closed, news reached Jerusalem that one of the Philistine city-states, Ashkelon, was reduced to rubble and ash, and their king and his people taken prisoner. It was a warning to other Egyptian vassals like Judah: Submit or suffer.1

So as December began, things were tense in Jerusalem. The Babylonians were still near. Nebuchadnezzar, with Ashkelon's ex-king Agga chained in his camp, was daring anyone else to refuse him. No wonder all the people crowded to the temple to fast and weep and throw themselves on God's mercy. But Jehoiakim and many in the administration saw no need to interrupt business for a little thing like salvation. There were meetings to be had, after all. So King Jehoiakim sat in his winter apartment while his cabinet met in Secretary of State Elishama's office. Gemariah was there, and so were Elishama, Delaiah, Zedekiah, Elnathan, Jehudi, and other top brass. So, since Gemariah didn't need his own office in the chambers around the temple's upper court that day, he thought little of loaning it out on request to a connected young scribe named Baruch (Jeremiah 36:9-10, 12).

A few hours into the cabinet meeting, Gemariah heard footsteps hot and fast down the hallway. And in burst his son Micaiah, whom he'd assigned to keep security in his temple office. Panting, tripping his tongue, Micaiah spilled out descriptions of a scroll Baruch had brought, using the office's elevated window to declaim its words to everybody in earshot of the temple courts. It was a shocking message, fearsome and subversive, painful and woeful, which seemed both religiously relevant and also tied to the national security interest. So, Micaiah said, he knew he had to report it to his dad and the other officials.

The cabinet was all a-titter. Without delay, they sent Jehudi – their fastest runner – to the temple to get Baruch and summon him for an interview (or interrogation). Gemariah was relieved when Baruch showed up, scroll in hand. But they had questions. Where'd Baruch get the scroll? Baruch said he'd written it out himself, filled it with prophetic oracles from Jeremiah. It had been an exhausting project, but God promised Baruch's life would be spared although disaster was coming for all flesh. So, he said, he'd persisted in writing out the fearful scroll. The cabinet members asked Baruch to sit and read it to them. They wanted – no, needed – to hear these words for themselves, unfiltered and unabridged (Jeremiah 36:13-15; 45:1-5).

But what words! Sheet after sheet Baruch unrolled, reading down column after column. All of it was cutting, sharp and deep. But then was the final oracle, the last note stitched at the end of the scroll: “For 23 years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah ben Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the LORD has come to me, and I've spoken persistently to you, but you haven't listened.... Therefore, thus saith the LORD of Hosts: Because you haven't obeyed my words, behold, I'll send for all the tribes of the north... and for Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, my servant, and I'll bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all these surrounding nations. I'll devote them to destruction and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. I'll banish from them the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the grinding of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon for seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:1-11).

By the time Baruch rolled up the scroll, just about all the blood had drained from Gemariah's face. It couldn't be real. If this were really from Jeremiah, all of it, then it had to be authentic, but that couldn't be, so surely it was a forgery! So he asked, pressed Baruch. But under fiercest questioning, Baruch insisted he'd sat face-to-face with Jeremiah, taking down dictation, word-for-word, all last year, with the latest notes added this year, and that Jeremiah had given strict instruction to keep the scroll safe until the next spontaneous day of fasting would be called, and then to read it to all Judah. And that's just what Baruch had done (Jeremiah 36:15-18).

Gemariah knew – he hated knowing, but he knew – that the king had to be told. The implications for national policy, to say nothing of Jehoiakim's soul, were immense. But after the Uriah incident, the cabinet knew it was essential for Jeremiah to make himself scarce. Even Baruch would be better off incommunicado for a while. Even the cabinet members didn't want to know where to find Jeremiah and Baruch (Jeremiah 36:19). Baruch handed over the scroll at their request, and left to go find Jeremiah and hide. The officials filed the scroll there in Elishama's office, safe and secure, while they marched the palace halls to the winter apartment. There was King Jehoiakim, warming himself by his fire pot. He was surprised to see them, since no meeting was on the agenda. But the monarch's face fell as Gemariah told him what had happened. When they finished, there was awkward silence. Then, in a soft but sharp voice, the king looked Jehudi in the eye and said, “Run for the scroll and bring it here. Stand by me and read every word.” And off Jehudi went (Jeremiah 36:20-21).

There was no defying the king. It had to be done. Gemariah, for his part, was a believer. He suspected others in the cabinet were unsure but thought Jeremiah's message deserved archiving and to be taken under advisement – and still others would make up their mind in accordance with whatever the king thought. Jehudi returned with scroll in hand. Standing inches from the king, he began to read. It was the second time Gemariah heard these words verbatim. Were they only the opinions of a man? Or were these indeed the words of the LORD, words to be revered like the scrolls of the Law given through Moses? Gemariah watched in a cold sweat as the king, his face hard as stone, reached out, grabbed a scribe's knife, and sliced the first sheet of papyrus off the scroll at its seam. Jehudi had finished reading the columns on that page, and Jehoiakim saw no more need for them. In silent contempt, he balled up the sheet and threw it in the fire pot at his feet (Jeremiah 36:21-23).

Gemariah cried out, dismayed, begging the king not to do it. So did Delaiah and Elnathan. But Jehoiakim's eye of hate burned into theirs, and without saying a word, he gestured for Jehudi to keep reading. Another three columns, another slash of the knife, another sheet of papyrus on the coals, curling up in smoke and ash, fueling the king's warmth on a cold day. Jehoiakim was nothing like his father, Gemariah thought. When Josiah heard the scroll of Moses, he tore his garments in reverent fear. But when Jehoiakim hears the scroll of a prophet, he tears not his garments but the scroll. Josiah believed the LORD's words, while Jehoiakim judges them. One by one, the papyrus vanished, and with it the written warning of Babylon's threat. That, most especially, did King Jehoiakim hurl into the flame. Jehoiakim and his attendants were the last in Judah to hear, but now that they'd heard, they showed no fear, no concern, only unbelief and offense. Jehoiakim sent three attendants to go hunt down Baruch and Jeremiah. Now, all the prophecies were ash, and Jehoiakim seemed to believe that, by cutting and burning the scroll, he'd made the LORD's words null and void (Jeremiah 36:24-26).

Gemariah, with a heavy heart, wondering if it could be true, goes about his day. Perhaps, leaving the king's winter apartment, he plods through the cold air to the temple courts, to pray to the LORD for Jeremiah and Baruch's safety. We aren't told what he does. We are told that the LORD answered that prayer if he made it. Not the most extensive police search can find the prophet or his scribe. And in their refuge, the LORD speaks to Jeremiah again, bidding him have Baruch take a second scroll and Jeremiah to dictate all those words afresh, leaving nothing out. But now, more will be added, starting with a direct address from God to Jehoiakim, in essence saying this: You just wasted your last chance (Jeremiah 36:26-32).

Sure enough, that's what comes to pass. Maybe Gemariah lived to see it. Jehoiakim begrudgingly submitted to Babylon for three years, but the moment he saw a sign of weakness, he put his hope in Egypt rising again, and so rebelled. Terrible move. Jehoiakim met his disgraceful end. His son Jeconiah ruled no longer than Jehoahaz – and then, just as the pharaoh put Jehoiakim on the throne, so Nebuchadnezzar put Jehoiakim's little half-brother Mattaniah on the throne as 'Zedekiah.' But Zedekiah didn't learn the lesson either. Before long, all that was done to the scroll was done to Jerusalem. The prophetic word could not be overturned or turned away.

And that's one of the lessons we might draw from this history, to our spiritual benefit. Down through the years, every prophet spoke of a Savior to come. Jeremiah would have read the scroll of Isaiah, how a virgin from the house of David would miraculously conceive and give birth (Isaiah 7:14). Jeremiah read, too, the scroll of Micah, how Israel's true Ruler would come from little Bethlehem, David's hometown roots (Micah 5:2). And to his expanded scroll, Jeremiah would eventually add a promise of exile's end and that there'd be a righteous branch on David's tree – one nothing like Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, or Zedekiah. No, this new branch would reign as king with wisdom and justice, would be salvation for all Judah (Jeremiah 23:1-8). And in his days, God would renew the covenant, restore their fortunes, give them a new song (Jeremiah 30-31). And six centuries after Jehoiakim first burned the scroll, these words, too, came to pass. All this, Jehoiakim's knife and flame would not stop. As we near our celebration of Christmas, the long-awaited birth of the One foretold by Jeremiah and other prophets, let us rejoice, rejoice, that no ruler in frozen rage could ever efface the promises of the Almighty, whether his warnings to the wayward or his hope in the winter dark.

In looking back on this truth, some early Christians even saw in the story itself a promise of what was to come!2 In the words of the LORD being spoken by Jeremiah, they saw an image of the Word being eternally spoken by the Father before all creation. In the words from Jeremiah's mouth being written down by Baruch on papyrus and so made visible, they saw an image of the Word from the Father's mouth being 'written down' by the Holy Spirit on human flesh and human blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and so made visible when Christ was born. In the scroll being read out by Baruch in the temple to all Judah and Jerusalem, they saw an image of the ministry of Christ: the Spirit read Jesus to all Judah and Jerusalem as he preached and did miracles and loved. But then the scroll was summoned before a bitter king, Jehoiakim, and here they saw an image of Jesus' trials before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate. And in the scroll being cut and burnt, they saw an advance image of the crucifixion, when human rage killed the Word-made-flesh. But the story cannot be completed without words being written again on a scroll, a scroll longer and greater than before; and in this, they saw, and we might see, an image of the Word resurrected to glory as if rising from the ashes of death. There, there is the gospel!

There is a third lesson. In this wintry story, the scroll of God's words takes center-stage in the action. Clearly, it's meant to be cherished as a treasure, the physical expression of God's own words. And when the king lashes out against it, he commits a gravely serious sin.3 What he does to the scroll will be the fate of his city, and he himself will be thrown as each sheet was thrown. Refusing to repent, Jehoiakim sealed his doom. But others would imitate him. In February 303, the Roman emperor Diocletian commanded that churches be leveled to the ground and the scriptures destroyed by fire.4 To that end, they made a concerted effort to wipe out the words of God. But when the persecution passed, a council met and ordered that any church leader proven to have handed the “holy scriptures” over to the authorities had to be removed from office.5 For the Bible is more than valuable treasure. Scripture is holy, physically holy, and each and every true copy deserves reverence.

And so, in time, volumes of the Scriptures came to be lavished with artistry and richness. They were designed to impress, they were revered as holy items as much as the altar. By the 1500s, listen to the way one witness, Erasmus, says the Book of the Gospels was treated in churches: “The text in use is beautifully decorated with gold and ivory and precious stones. It is scrupulously preserved among the sacred treasures, and not laid down or taken in hand without signs of reverence.... It is sanctified by perfuming with frankincense and oil of myrrh, with balsam and with spices.... The book is carried round, held in deep reverence close to the bosom, that every man may show his adoration with a kiss, until at length it is reverently replaced among the sacred treasures.”6 Picture it! But today, the Bible is a consumer object of mass production. Each of us has unprecedented access to the words – but how do we treat the scrolls of prophets and apostles when they're bound up for us, however they're printed? Do we act like it's an ordinary book? Do we throw it around, toss it to the floor, shelve it with the rest, leave it in tatters? Or is there a sign we know what a treasure we have – the words that make holy?

But our witness Erasmus had more to say. He said it was clearly good for the Scriptures physically to be treated like that. But, he asked, “what purpose is served by a text adorned with ivory and silver and gold, with silk and precious stones, if our way of life is defiled with the taint of vices that are execrated by [it]?... Of what use is it to press a volume close to our heart, if that heart is far removed from what the volume teaches and if what it condemns is sovereign in the heart? What does the fragrance of all this incense signify if its teaching smells stale to us while our way of life stinks to the grave?”7 In other words, what does outward reverence for the Bible amount to – needful as it is – if you don't inwardly love the LORD's words enough to live by them?

Which brings us to the final lesson. Paul goes beyond Jeremiah's scroll to speak of “a letter from Christ... written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3). For was it not God's promise through Jeremiah himself that “I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33)? The scroll is not merely outside us. The scroll is within. And as one early Christian named Jerome advised, “Rend not the letter written on your heart as the profane king cut with his penknife that which was delivered to him by Baruch!”8 In other words, be a Josiah, not a Jehoiakim. Don't slice up or mangle what God in Christ has written in you in his good news. Don't cut it out, don't throw it away, don't reject it in your life. Cherish it, respond to it, read it over and over without tiring of the gospel you've learned.

But do see in Jehoiakim one thing to imitate, of a sort. He cast the scroll into the flame to destroy it. With this letter of Christ, don't destroy it, but do use it as an inexhaustible fuel for living. When the word of God reaches your heart, as I hope it has found a home there today, lift your heart heavenward in expectation that the Spirit will come down and light the flame. And as the inward scroll of the LORD's words burns but isn't consumed, take from it the warmth of your life in the bleak onset of wintry days – warmth against the bitter winds of grief, against the chill of doubt, against the ice of sin. Yes, as we approach the shortest day of the year, as darkness hangs heavy, as temperatures plummet and weather teases but freezes, reflect on the words of the LORD. Take heart in the gospel, portrayed in advance, and the unstoppable promises of God by his prophets. Hear and heed the letter of Christ written in you, enlarged and enlarged in the preaching and teaching of the church. Cherish it and take warmth from it. And this winter, as you sit by the fireside – or, in modern days, with your thermostat adjusted accordingly – see what else you can read or hear as the scroll of the LORD's words is unrolled by Christ to you. Amen.


1  Details from outside the Bible are taken from the Babylonian royal chronicles of these years, as found in Jean-Jacques Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles, Writings from the Ancient World 19 (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 227-229.

2  Theodoret of Cyrrhus, On Jeremiah 7.36

3  Augustine of Hippo, Letter 51.1

4  Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 8.2.1, 4

5  Council of Arles (314), canon 14.

6  Erasmus of Rotterdam, Paraphrase on John, dedicatory letter, 5 January 1523, in Collected Works of Erasmus 46:7.

7  Erasmus of Rotterdam, Paraphrase on John, dedicatory letter, 5 January 1523, in Collected Works of Erasmus 46:8.

8  Jerome of Stridon, Letter 31.2.

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