Today’s reading, occurring in the pivotal “fourth year of Jehoiakim” (mentioned three times in the Book of Jeremiah!) is a culmination to crisis. God instructs Jeremiah to write down the 23 years of prophecy that God had given him from the reign of King Josiah until now, the reign of Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim (25:3). Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch will then go to the Temple “on a day of fasting” and read the totality of these words to “all the people of Judah who come in from their towns”(verse 6). Even after 23 years of calling for repentance, God makes clear there is still a chance for Judah to avert disaster (verses 3, 7).
The tension quickly escalates in verses not included in the lectionary text. As the scribes recognize the severity of the word that Baruch proclaimed, they immediately invite Baruch to read the scroll again, this time to them privately (verses 11-15). Verse 16 tells us, “when they heard all the words, they turned to one another in alarm.” Before the scribes approach the king with the words, they advise Baruch and Jeremiah to go into hiding (verse 19).
Today’s verses tell us how King Jehoiakim responds when he hears the prophetic word: with outright rejection. Jehoiakim ignores God’s invitation to repentance and forgiveness, as well as the warnings about imminent destruction at the hands of Babylon. Jehoiakim only wants to seek success on his terms alone, and demonstrates no reverence for the ways of God. Verse 23 is therefore the death knell for Judah’s sovereignty; destruction is now guaranteed. In an act of poetic justice, God declares that the body of Jehoiakim, who in verse 22 sat cozily in his winter house beside the fire, will “be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night”(verse 30).
The condemnation contained in Jeremiah 36 is indeed heavy. And yet there is hope. In verse 28, God instructs Jeremiah to take another scroll and write down the words again. Those very words became the book of Jeremiah that we still read today.
The lectionary also includes words from chapter 31, earlier in Jeremiah, where God promises a new covenant. These verses serve as the only reference to such a covenant in the Hebrew Bible, though there are similarities to passages in Ezekiel (11:19-20, 18:31, 36:26). This promise of post-exilic hope elicits a couple questions: what is the significance that the covenant no longer needs to be taught, but will be written on the heart? And how should the church understand this promise in a way that doesn’t lead to supersessionism?
Today’s reading also features a couple key contrasts that are only apparent if we read the entirety of Jeremiah 36:
- The scribes versus the king’s servants: scribes such as Elishama, Elnathan, Delaiahah, and Gemariah understood the severity and impact of the prophetic word (verse 16). They even advise Baruch and Jeremiah to hide, for fear of the fallout from these words (verse 19). Yet the king’s servants were not alarmed, and calmly watched the king burn the entirety of the scroll (verse 24). The prophetic word then, as well as now, continues to elicit a divided response.
- King Josiah versus his son, Jehoiakim: 2 Kings 22:11 tells us that when Josiah “heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.” This tearing acted as a sign of repentance, as well as the beginning of a campaign for national reform. Contrast this with his son Jehoiakim, who “did not tear [his] garments” in response to the prophetic word (Jeremiah 36:24). All that Jehoiakim tore was the scroll itself (verse 23).
Melanie Weldon-Soiset, a #ChurchToo survivor, served as a pastor at a nondenominational church for immigrants in Shanghai, China, and preached regularly at a United Methodist congregation in Washington, DC. She’s now a poet and contemplative prayer leader who blogs regularly on the role of poetry in everyday life at melanieweldonsoiset.com.
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