Please do keep your Bibles open in front of you. Because the document you hold in your hands is the biggest selling book of all time. Its been translated into hundreds of languages, and read daily all around the world. But what kind of book is it? What is the Bible for? Is it just a history book - merely a record of ancient events in the Middle East? A book that provides useful information for academic research or answering quiz questions, but with little relevance to those of us with busy lives in 21st century Britain?
In short, is the Bible a book we can safely ignore? Well, on the contrary, our passage today should remind us that the Bible is a book with unrivalled authority - a book with enduring relevance - a book we can build our lives upon.
- God’s Word gets written! (v.1-8)
If you were here last week, you’ll know we’re following a sermon series called “Monarchs who made history”. It’s a short mini-series learning lessons from three famous monarchs in Old Testament history. Last week we met Josiah - a wise king who rediscovered God’s laws, revamped the Jerusalem Temple and reformed the Jewish religion.
Today we turn to Josiah’s son Jehoiakim, who succeeded him as king in about 608 BC. As we shall see, Jehoiakim didn’t share his father’s wisdom. In fact, the Bible describes Jehoiakim as an evil king – a sinful, idolatrous and ungodly ruler. A king who led the Jewish nation into a time of moral and spiritual decline.
As we join the story in verse 1 today, we’re told that Jehoiakim is “in the fourth year” of his infamous reign. And we’re introduced to another character whose name began with a ‘J’ – not Josiah, or Jehoiakim, but Jeremiah. Jeremiah is one of the OT’s most famous prophets. A man who spoke God’s words to God’s people for over forty years.
In verse 2 today God commands Jeremiah to “Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you”. So we read in verse 4 that “Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and while Jeremiah dictated all the words the Lord had spoken to him, Baruch wrote them on the scroll”.
These verses are a bit like a window that lets us see how the whole Bible came to exist - they illustrate how the Scriptures in general came to be.
For a start, did you notice that its God, not Jeremiah, who takes the initiative to put his words into writing? Its God who tells Jeremiah that his message has a wider audience that simply those who can hear him speak. If his words were to go far and wide and be heard in distance places and in the distant future, then they needed to be written down. They needed to be preserved for posterity.
More importantly, did you also see that the words Jeremiah dictated to Baruch were really God’s words? Jeremiah spoke words that God had originally given to him - and this is great news. Verses 2 to 4 today should give us great confidence that when we read the Bible, we really are reading God’s words, not merely human ones. We are reading words that Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles received from God and committed to paper. Every word we read in the Bible has a dual author. A human author who wrote them down, but also a divine author – God - who inspired and guided them.
Let me quickly quote a couple of New Testament passages that make this same important point. For example 2 Peter chapter 1 says “prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” And 2 Timothy chapter 3 makes the same point, by saying that “all Scripture is God-breathed” making us “wise for salvation…and fully equipped for every good work”.
We can be confident that the words of the Bible are God’s words - they are divine revelation, not simply human speculation. They have God-given power and authority, and are not just a dry history lesson. To quote the author of Hebrews: “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” When we read the Bible we should be ready for an encounter with God. We should be ready to be comforted, counseled, encouraged or challenged by what we read.
God’s words through Jeremiah could certainly be described as challenging. Because Jeremiah’s message from God was to call the people to repentance before it became too late. Jeremiah’s task was to warn Jehoiakim and his kingdom to mend their ways or face God’s judgement. Because if they did not repent, God would send a foreign nation to invade Judah, destroy Jerusalem, and take the nation into exile. It was a terrible prospect, a disastrous message to be given. Jeremiah’s words from God were a doomsday scenario – a scenario even worse than what the Prime Minister predicts for the UK in the event of Brexit!
But Jeremiah’s message contained an offer of salvation as well as a warning of judgement. As we read in verse 3, God says: “Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways - then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.” In verse 6 Jeremiah sends Baruch to the Jerusalem Temple - to a busy public place where he could read out God’s words to a wide audience. Words that threatened judgment but offered salvation.
In many ways, Jeremiah’s warning of judgement and offer of salvation is typical of the whole Bible. Its fair to say that God’s Word as a whole - Old and New Testaments – can be summarized as a warning of judgement and an offer of salvation. Because its not just Jehiokim and his subjects who have sinned and deserve God’s judgment – we all have. And its not just Jehoikim and his kingdom who are offered the gift of forgiveness if they repent and turn back to God – thankfully, so are we! Christians are people who have heard and heeded the warnings of judgment in the Bible, and asked God for forgiveness and new life. Forgiveness and new life that have been made possible through the death and resurrection of Christ.
- God’s Word gets rejected! (v.16-26)
Hearing something is not the same as truly listening is it? We can hear an instruction or a word of advice, but not really listen to it. We can let words go in one ear and out the other. Parents know well that our children have ‘selective’ hearing. Their ears may hear us tell them to go to bed or tidy their room, but their minds choose not to listen and obey. And even as adults, we may not truly listen to words if we are preoccupied with something else, if there’s too much background noise, or if we don’t just like what’s being said. We often ‘filter out’ things that sound unpalatable. Different people can hear the exact same words, but only some will truly listen.
We get a classic example of this in verses 16 to 26 of our passage today. As Jeremiah’s scroll is read out, it struck fear into the heart of some royal officials who were listening. Three officials called Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah realized the severity of the situation. They recognized the urgent need for their nation to repent and return to God. The king needed to know what Jeremiah’s scroll said, so they took it to him.
Sadly, King Jehoiakim heard the same words as his three officials, but would not listen. Rather than responding to God’s word with repentance, he used it as fuel for his fire. We’re told in verse 22 that it was a cold winter’s day, and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the brazier in front of him”. Whenever he heard “three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the brazier, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire.”
King Jehoiakim’s rejection of God’s word that day was intentional, methodical and extremely foolish. He heard God’s word read, but stupidly decided not to listen. Jehoikim’s attitude to Jeremiah’s message is made clear in verses 24 to 26.
- In verse 24, for example, we’re told that “The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes”. To tear you clothes was a sign of repentance and remorse. A sign that God’s warning of judgment had been heeded. But not Jehoikim.
- In verse 25 we’re told that Jehoiakim could’nt even be persuaded by his three officials to take God’s word seriously.“He would not listen to them”, just like he wouldn’t listen to God.
- And in verse 26, rather than thanking Jeremiah and Baruch for bringing him God’s word, Jehoiakim actually sends out a search party to arrest them!
I wonder what your reaction is to Jehoiakim’s folly? Surely we would never do such a thing! Surely no one today would be silly enough to cast aside a message from our Creator! But the sad truth is that God’s words in the Bible are routinely and regularly rejected by the world around us. For example:
- Members of other religions reject the Bible’s claims that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. That he is indeed God’s Son. They refuse to accept Christ’s unique claims to be “the” way, “the” truth and “the” life.
- Other people today are offended by the Bible’s teaching that we are all sinners. They cannot stomach the fact that we’ve all fallen short of God’s standards. Indeed, many in our individualistic Western society deny that there are any universal moral standards at all. They will not accept that they are accountable to God for their behaviour. Their pride prevents them from acknowledging their need for a Saviour.
- Some people specifically reject the Bible’s warning that a day of reckoning will one day come. Like king Jehoiakim in our passage today, they think God’s threat of future judgment is fake, an empty threat – they think the possibility of hell is something that can be safely ignored. These non-Christians don’t appreciate that God is being patient – he’s giving them a chance to come to Christ before its too late.
Of course, its not just non-Christian secular society that refuses to listen to God’s Word. Even Christians can sometimes be selective in which parts of the Bible we choose to listen to and obey. If we are honest, I think we all sometimes ‘tune out’ those parts of the New Testament that we find too challenging or too costly.
- For example, the Church of England is increasingly tying itself up in knots trying to accommodate our culture’s changing attitudes towards things like homosexuality, marriage and gender. Rather than holding firmly to the Bible’s clear teaching on such matters, it has begun to wobble, and losing its prophetic voice as a result. Jeremiah would have stuck to his guns, and so should we!
- Many Christians in our country are also choosing to “tune out” those biblical commands to meet up regularly, week-by-week with our fellow believers. Too many Christians today are not prepared to commit to their local church. And even when they do come, they come as ‘consumers’ ready to receive, rather than as ‘disciples’ ready and willing to serve.
- In a similar way, Christians in wealthy western countries like ours often have selective hearing when it comes to their wallets. As painful as it may sound, the Bible tells us to live simply and sacrificially, giving generously to our local church, to Christian charities, and to mission work overseas. Two years into my time here at St Michael’s, I still remain shocked that over the last decade or so this church has only survived because of its hall rental income. Bible-believing Christians should be giving generously enough to fully fund the costs of their own church!
In 604 BC, King Jehoiakim of Judah foolishly refused to listen to God’s voice. He literally ‘cast aside’ those words from his Creator that he couldn’t stomach. Our society - and we ourselves - we must beware of making a similar mistake today.
- God’s Word can’t be ignored (v.27-31)
I guess we’re all familiar with the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”. That’s certainly the case in our passage today. Because even though Jehoiakim took a knife - a small sword - to Jeremiah’s scroll, God’s word still survived. Even though Jeremiah’s first scroll was consumed by the flames, the prophet quickly penned a second scroll. A second edition that defeated foolish Jehoiakim.
We read about what happened in verses 27 to 31 today. God commanded Jeremiah to re-write everything he had written in his first scroll - to re-create what Jehoiakim had tried to destroy. But this time extra words were added. Words that pronounced a guilty verdict on Jehoiakim and his kingdom. Because he had not listened to God’s words of warning, judgment would fall. Jehoiakim’s rejection of God, meant that God would now reject him. As the Lord says in verse 31: “ I will punish him and his children and his attendants for their wickedness; I will bring on them and those living in Jerusalem and the people of Judah every disaster I pronounced against them, because they have not listened.”’
And so it proved to be. Within a decade the Babylonian army had successfully laid siege to Jerusalem, the Temple was destroyed, and its people were led away into exile. King Jehoiakim lay dead, and his kingdom became a mere province of a foreign empire. Jehoiakim had learnt the hard way that God’s word should never be ignored. On the contrary, they are words that should be trusted, loved and obeyed. Words contained in the Bible we’re holding in our hands today.