God’s Model of Obedience

Posted on April 29, 2013


by David Ettinger

 Introduction: The Call to Obedience
Obedience-300x225One of the dominant themes of Israel’s prophets is obedience. The call to obey is not an exercise in spirituality God expects His people to perform solely as a way to secure His favor during times of need. Instead, obedience to God is to be a way of life for the Christian and to be as natural as eating, drinking, and breathing. The Lord persistently called upon His prophets to deliver the message of obedience, but the Israelites consistently refused to heed the call.

The failure to obey is exclusively one-sided. The call to obedience has resounded throughout the centuries, and there is no mistaking the message:

  • The early prophet Samuel tells Israel that obedience is far greater than ritual: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).
  • Isaiah tells of the rewards of obedience and punishments for disobedience: “If you are willing and obedient, You shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You shall be devoured by the sword” (Isaiah 1:19-20).
  • Jeremiah reminds Israel of the special relationship with God to be had if she would but obey: “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people” (Jeremiah 7:23).
  • Daniel confesses Israel’s failure to obey: “Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, and has departed so as not to obey Your voice; therefore the curse and the oath written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us” (Daniel 9:11).

By the time of Jeremiah, Israel is so steeped in sin and disobedience under wicked King Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.) that the nation cannot see the doom that awaits her as the Babylonians are just little more than a decade away from destroying Jerusalem. As the days continue to dwindle, the Lord ceaselessly tries to reach His people. One way God attempts to communicate His message of obedience is through the example of a special clan of people called the Rechabites. This group, which exists at the uttermost fringe of Israelite society, proves to be the Lord’s ideal illustration of obedience.

The Foundations of Obedience
midianThe Rechabites are a nomadic tribe that came out of Midian, located in the Sinai Peninsula, whose founder was a man of great zeal. To understand the Rechabites is to understand this man known as “Jehonadab the son of Rechab” (Jeremiah 35:6).

We first encounter Jehonadab in the book of Second Kings, and what a breathtaking encounter it is! The northern kingdom of Ephraim (also called Israel, in contrast to Judah in the south), had endured 48 awful years of sin and apostasy under the dynasty of King Omri and his descendants, the most notorious of whom was King Ahab. God’s fury against the royal family has reached its end, and He is ready to act. He chooses an army official and warrior named Jehu to be the new king of Israel and to exact punishment upon Ahab’s descendants. Commissioned by a prophet of God, Jehu’s orders are clear: “You shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, that I may avenge the blood of My servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord, at the hand of Jezebel. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish” (2 Kings 9:7-8).

What follows is a bloodbath. Not only does Jehu obey, wiping out the house of Ahab, but he goes a step further, decreeing death for all of the prophets, ministers, and priests of Baal, the vile fertility deity. To accomplish his purpose, Jehu enlists the help of Jehonadab (2 Kings 10:15), an Arab chief. Jehu, with Jehonadab at his side (10:23), succeeds in destroying every one of them, thus “Jehu destroyed Baal out of Israel” (10:28).

The Rechabites, from whom Jehonadab was descended were related to the Kenites (1 Chronicles 2:54-55), themselves descendants of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Judges 1:16). The Rechabites later would dwell in the wilderness of the Negev (Judges 1:16; 1 Samuel 15:6), the vast desert region between Israel and Egypt. Jehonadab himself instituted their rigid lifestyle of abstinence from drinking wine, building homes, and planting vineyards (Jeremiah 35:6-7), perhaps as a way to prevent the people from falling back into Baal worship.

Remarkably, now 300 years after Jehonadab’s death, the Rechabites continue to adhere to their founder’s instructions, even to the time of Jeremiah the prophet.

The Testing of Obedience (Jeremiah 35:1-2)
jeremiahJeremiah’s life as a prophet was difficult. On several occasions he was the victim of a plot to kill him (Jeremiah 11:18-19; 38:1-6); beaten and imprisoned (37:15-16); and called a liar and taken against his will to Egypt (43:4-7). He would also be present to see his beloved nation taken captive to Babylon and the cherished Temple laid waste. Jeremiah was also enlisted to the most difficult assignment of all: preach God’s message in the Temple courts, where the opposition against him was the fiercest (19:14; 26:2). Therefore, it must have seemed unusual when one day the Lord gives him this puzzling instruction: “Go to the house of the Rechabites, speak to them, and bring them into the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers, and give them wine to drink” (35:2).
If Jeremiah has any questions about why he is to go to a people with an impeccable reputation for obedience, he keeps them to himself. Perhaps he marvels at the beauty of God’s plan. First, Jeremiah is to bring the Rechabites into the Temple. This would be an uncomfortable and awkward setting for this tribe which worships God from its desert tents and disdains city life. Second, once in the Temple, Jeremiah is to lead the Rechabites “into one of the chambers” (v. 2). Various chambers surrounded the Temple court and were used for meetings, storage, and as living quarters for the priests (1 Kings 6:5; 1 Chronicles 28:12; 2 Chronicles 31:11-12; Nehemiah 13:7-9). Perhaps it is God’s intention to overwhelm the Rechabites with the beauty and grandeur of Solomon’s Temple in order to lure them away from their rigid lifestyle.

Third, once the Rechabites are seated, Jeremiah is to “give them wine to drink” (v. 2). No doubt Jeremiah knows how much of an offense this is to the clan, its reputation having been honorably established over the course of three centuries. As he prepares to set the cups of wine before them, we can imagine Jeremiah wondering how the Rechabites will react. Far from their desert home and thrust into the midst of a sinful society that practices customs they revile, will the Rechabites find their resolve so weakened as to compromise their covenantal lifestyle?

Temptation in the Midst of Obedience (vv. 3-5)
Jerusalem-TempleHaving obeyed God by bringing the Rechabites to the Temple, Jeremiah then “brought them into the house of the Lord, into the chamber of the sons of Hanan, the son of Igdaliah, the man of God, which was by the chamber of the princes, which was above the chamber of Maaseiah the son of Shallum, the keeper of the door” (v. 4). Jeremiah is not simply leading the Rechabites to the first chamber he comes to, but guiding them to the precise location where God wants them.

We know nothing about the sons of Hanan other than that their forefather Igdaliah was “a man of God” (v. 4). Perhaps it is the Lord’s purpose to put the Rechabites in a setting associated with a holy man so that they may feel a sense of compatibility and thereby begin to feel at ease in their new surroundings (something that would work against them). Furthermore, the chamber in which the Rechabites are now seated is just above the chamber of “Shallum, the keeper of the door” (v. 4). The position of doorkeeper in the Temple is a lofty one; at least the Babylonians thought so. Evidence of this is that doorkeepers were subject to Babylonian judgment along with the chief priests (2 Kings 25:18-21; Jeremiah 52:24-27). In short, the Rechabites find themselves in the bowels of some of the most important real estate Jerusalem has to offer.

With the Rechabites having viewed all that the Lord has intended them to see, Jeremiah then “set before the sons of the house of the Rechabites pots full of wine, and cups,” and said to them, “Drink wine” (v. 5). We can only imagine the looks on the faces of the Rechabites as Jeremiah pours the wine, how they must have run the gamut between confusion and disgust. No doubt Jeremiah feels uneasy in this role as a waiter of temptation; after all, he strives just as rigorously as the Rechabites to live a holy life and instruct others to do the same. Above all things, the prophet is not in the business of turning men and women away from doing what is right.

Despite this, Jeremiah obeys God’s instructions. He persuades the Rechabites to enter the Temple; he brings them to the choicest chamber; and he offers them wine.

The temptation is complete.

The Response of Obedience (vv. 35:6-11)
wineDespite the august surroundings and the enticing red wine that glistens before them, the Rechabites refuse to be moved. “We will drink no wine” (v. 6), comes their resounding reply to Jeremiah. This is a people not easily swayed. Unlike so many Israelites who have compromised their beliefs and morals for sinful gratification, the Rechabites would have none of it. Their covenantal vow to their forefather Jonadab is far greater than anything the world has to offer, and there is nothing of material value worth breaking their vow for.

Though the ritualistic loyalty might seem cultish to their neighbors, the Rechabites could in no way be called “legalists.” Rather, their rigid lifestyle is one of commitment, not blind observance. The Rechabites are a special people who were founded and set apart by the zealous, bold Jehonadab, who had witnessed the moral and spiritual destruction caused by idol worship. By establishing strategic guidelines to be adhered to, Jehonadab knew that his people would have a far better chance of avoiding the spiritual snares to which so many of the surrounding nations had fallen captive.

In refusing Jeremiah’s offer to partake of wine, the Rechabites dutifully share with the prophet their reasons for doing so. First, they say, Jehonadab has commanded them to “You shall drink no wine, you nor your sons, forever” (v. 6). Furthermore, the Rechabites are not to “build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any of these” (v. 7). Jehonadab’s thinking was simple, yet astute: If you don’t want to fall into sin, then don’t surround yourself with the things that will cause you to sin. Instead, Jehonadab commanded his people that “all your days ye shall dwell in tents” (v. 7). Jehonadab preached separation, and obviously it worked.

Remarkably, for the next 300 years the faithful Rechabites “obeyed the voice of Jehonadab … in all that he had charged” (c. 8). Such faith is a rarity in Jeremiah’s day, and for that matter, still is. Only in the face of possible extinction do the Rechabites leave the desert to temporarily dwell in the city: “But it came to pass, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up into the land, that we said, Come, and let us go to Jerusalem for fear of the army of the Chaldeans” (v. 11).

The Example of Obedience (vv. 12-16)
After the Rechabites’ astonishing demonstration of obedience to their calling, the Lord is ready to talk to His people Israel, contrasting the Rechabites’ faithfulness to the Israelites’ sinful disobedience. The Lord begins by imploring the people: “Will you not receive instruction to obey My words?” (v. 13). God is telling His people to open their eyes and look at the example they have living among them. In other words, the Lord is saying, obedience is not impossible; the Rechabites have proven this.

The Lord then contrasts His efforts to reach His people to Jehonadab’s success in reaching his: “The words of Jonadab the son of Rechab, which he commanded his sons, not to drink wine, are performed; for to this day they drink none, and obey their father’s commandment. But although I have spoken to you, rising early and speaking, you did not obey Me” (v. 14). The word “father’s” here is important. As the “father” (v. 6) of the Rechabites, Jehonadab simply gave the word and his people obeyed for generations. In stark contrast, the Lord, as “Father” of Israel, had endured centuries of disobedience. The theme of God as Father of Israel is visited later by the prophet Malachi: “A son honors his father, And a servant his master. If then I am the Father, Where is My honor?” (Malachi 1:6).

To further illustrate Israel’s sin, the Lord explains His efforts to reach His people: “I have also sent to you all My servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them, saying, ‘Turn now everyone from his evil way, amend your doings’ … But you have not inclined your ear, nor obeyed Me” (v. 15). Mixed in with the Lord’s anger is also a hint of sadness and pain. We can almost picture a loving father imploring his disobedient children to listen to reason. It is almost as if the Lord is saying, “The Rechabites had but one man giving them instructions, and they have obeyed for hundreds of years. I, however, have sent a multitude of messengers to reach you, but you continue to turn away from me.”

The Lord then tells the Israelites that they, in essence, ought to be ashamed of themselves: “Because the sons of Jehonadab the son of Rechab have performed the commandments of their father … but this people has not obeyed Me” (v. 16).

The Punishment of Disobedience (v. 17)
destruction jeruHaving made expert use of the obedient example of the Rechabites, the Lord has convincingly presented His case against Israel, both verbally and by illustration. He has proven Israel to be guilty beyond any reasonable doubt and is ready to pronounce judgment. Because of Israel’s disobedience, the Lord says, “Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will bring on Judah and on all the inhabitants of Jerusalem all the doom that I have pronounced against them; because I have spoken to them but they have not heard, and I have called to them but they have not answered” (v. 17).

Just exactly what the “evil” is the Lord will bring upon Israel is uncertain. Possibly, God is referring back to the curses foretold for Israel should they break their covenantal promise made with the Lord at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:8). Those curses are vividly outlined in Leviticus 26:14-39 and Deuteronomy 28:15-68. However, a careful reading of those dire judgments seems to indicate that they did not come upon Israel until long after Jeremiah’s day, instead finding their fulfillment during the destruction of the Temple by Rome in A.D. 70 and the subsequent dispersion of most of the Jews from the land.

More likely, the “evil” being referred to here would be something that would come in that generation’s lifetime. Even as Jeremiah preached to the people during his long ministry, the likelihood of destruction hung over Israel like a looming storm cloud. More than a century earlier, the northern kingdom of Israel, consisting of ten tribes, had been vanquished to exile by the Assyrians. Now, in Jeremiah’s day, the Babylonians are waiting to do the same to the southern kingdom of Judah and its two tribes (Judah and Benjamin).

In fact, had Israel been willing to listen to God’s warning through Jeremiah, they would have been fully aware of what the Lord had in store for them should they fail to respond: “And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:11). Therefore, it seems more likely that the “evil” soon to come upon Israel because of their disobedience would be that of the 70-year exile in Babylon. All this was to come upon Israel for the simple reason that the Lord “called unto them, but they have not answered” (v. 17).

The Rewards of Obedience (vv. 18-19)
Gold trophy cup isolatedLest anyone think that the Lord is concerned solely with disciplining the disobedient, He now focuses his attention back on the Rechabites, reassuring them that their 300 years of unyielding obedience will be rewarded: “And Jeremiah said to the house of the Rechabites, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Because you have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts and done according to all that he commanded you, therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before Me forever’” (vv. 18-19).

Next, the Lord promises the Rechabites that they will never lack to “stand before” (v. 19) God forever. The phrase “stand before” – and variations of it – is used throughout Scripture and refers to those who have the opportunity and honor to serve and worship God in a very special way. In Leviticus 9:5, the Israelites as a whole “drew near” to the Lord when the first priestly offerings were being made by Aaron. In Deuteronomy 4:10, Moses reminds the people how they “stood before the Lord” so that they may “learn to fear him all the days that they shall live upon the earth,” a reference back to Exodus 19:16 when the Lord visited the people in the “thick cloud upon the mountain.”

Just as Israel throughout her history had been permitted to “stand before” God, so would the Rechabites be permitted to “stand before” the Lord, forever worshiping Him. The Lord assures the Rechabites that their years of faithful obedience are not in vain but will be rewarded in the best way possible: a special nearness in God’s presence for eternity.

Conclusion: The Ultimate Act of Obedience
Today, all men and women are invited by God to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shalt be save” (Acts 16:31). To accept this invitation is the ultimate act of obedience. Just as the Rechabites heeded the call of their forefather Jehonadab and were rewarded for it, so today are the followers of Jesus Christ rewarded for their obedience: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:20).

Read more insightful articles by David Ettinger and Marv Rosenthal at zionshope.org.
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