The eighth of Jeremiah’s action sermons occurred during the reign of Jehoiakim and is recorded in chapter 35. Jeremiah was instructed by the Lord to go to the house of the Rechabites and bring them to the temple precinct where he was to set wine before them to drink. Notwithstanding the growing inevitability of the Babylonian siege, and the apparent encouragement of Jeremiah, the Rechabites remained resolutely faithful to their ancestral custom of abstinence and would not drink.
The Lineage of the Rechabites
The Rechabites were Kenites (1Ch 2:55), originally a nomadic people from the region south and east of Israel between Judah and Edom. Moses’ father-in-law was a Kenite, and it was among them that Moses learned his pastoral skills, keeping Jethro’s flocks for 40 years in the wilderness after fleeing Pharaoh’s wrath in Egypt. Incidentally, some scholars identify the Kenites (Cainites) as descendants of Cain. It is a testament to God’s grace that a Gentile linked by ancestral ties to the curse brought upon the earth by Cain’s sin should be blessed in association with Moses and the nation redeemed by blood.
Specifically, the people known as Rechabites were descended through Rechab’s son, Jonadab, who briefly became famous as the ally of Jehu in the destruction of wicked King Ahab’s family. Unlike Jehu, whose “zeal for the LORD” (2Ki 10:16) appears to have been little more than a cloak for personal ambition, Jonadab seems to have been a sincere man of simple faith. Just as ambitious politicians do today, it’s likely that Jehu sought to gain credibility by espousing the cause of the Lord, with Jonadab as his “running mate.”
The Loyalty of the Rechabites
Although some Kenites had since adopted a settled, urban lifestyle (1Sa 30:29), Jonadab had exhorted his family to remain faithful to their simple, nomadic way of life. Although we are not given the reason for this, presumably he perceived a threat in urban civilisation, not just to their cultural identity but even to their spiritual integrity. It’s improbable that these nomadic shepherds, whose pasturelands stretched from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba, would have been unfamiliar with the notorious history of Sodom and Gomorrah and the cataclysmic destruction which befell them. Perhaps their flocks even grazed the sites of those ancient cities! In any case, Jonadab did not want to forfeit his family to a sinful civilisation as Lot had done so many years before.
The threat did not come merely from an urban location but from the licentious idolatry which accompanied it. After his escape from Sodom, wine was the undoing of Lot’s family when, in a drunken stupor, he had incestuous relations with his two daughters, thereby becoming the father of the Ammonites and Moabites. These nations proved inveterate enemies of God’s people, and their abominable worship was a constant snare. The vile practice of child sacrifice was expressly forbidden in the Mosaic Law (Lev 20:2-5), but King Solomon “built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem” (1Ki 11:7) Later, King Ahaz “walked in the way of the kings of Israel, yea, and made his son to pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen, whom the LORD cast out from before the children of Israel” (2Ki 16:3 KJV). Recognising the same threat to Christians today, the NT contains no fewer than 10 commands to think and behave soberly.
Jonadab was farsighted enough to anticipate the problems his posterity could face in an urban environment and concerned enough to do what was necessary to protect them. In return, succeeding generations of Rechabites were humble enough to respect his wisdom and observe the command laid upon them. We ought not to think that this was mere slavish adherence to tradition. They were sensible enough to recognise that the greater existential threat was to remain outside the city and face subjugation by the Babylonians rather than seek temporary refuge inside it and risk some integration with the people there. However, their resolute refusal to drink the offered wine showed they had not relinquished their determination to maintain their distinct identity.
The Legacy of the Rechabites
The significance of the Rechabites’ action could hardly have been lost on the people of Jerusalem. However, the Lord spelled it out: “Will you not receive instruction and listen to my words? declares the LORD. The command that Jonadab the son of Rechab gave to his sons, to drink no wine, has been kept, and they drink none to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. I have spoken to you persistently, but you have not listened to me. I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently …. But you did not incline your ear or listen to me. The sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have kept the command that their father gave them, but this people has not obeyed me” (Jer 35:13-16).
We may be inclined to think that the faithfulness of the Rechabites was rather futile and backward-looking. What did it achieve? Perhaps it did much more than we think. It was around this time (Dan 1:1) that numerous young Hebrews were carried away to Babylon where, in an attempt to assimilate them into the culture there, “the king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king” (Dan 1:5). “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank” (1:8). Along with his three friends they were bold to defy the king’s decree and maintain their integrity before God. Knowing how Daniel was influenced by Jeremiah’s ministry, albeit some years later (9:2), it’s not difficult to imagine that the four young Hebrew captives were emboldened by the exemplary, steadfast resolve of this simple, faithful family. Reflect again on the importance of Daniel’s ministry and consider how far-reaching the Rechabites’ example likely was.
Each of us is an example-follower. Yet each of us is also an example-setter. When it comes to caring for succeeding generations, receiving instruction and listening to the Lord’s Word, may we also be resolute in following the example of believers of simple, obedient faith who preceded us, mindful of our example to those who follow.
 Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.