Leaving the scroll in the chamber of Elishama the secretary, they went to the court of the king; and they reported all the words to the king. Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier. Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments. Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king’s son and Seraiah son of Azriel and Shelemiah son of Abdeel to arrest the secretary Baruch and the prophet Jeremiah. But the Lord hid them.
(Jeremiah 36:20-26, NRSV)
Every other autumn in the Episcopal Church’s two-year survey of the Holy Scriptures, we make our way through the history of Israel, beginning with the story of Samuel and ending with Judas Maccabaeus. Along the way we encounter Saul's abortive monarchy, David’s extraordinary up-close story of triumph and tragedy, Solomon’s glory and failure, the division of Israel into two kingdoms, the Elijah/Elisha cycle, good kings (a few) and bad kings (many more), and the eventual collapse of first the northern and then the southern kingdoms. It is a fascinating, moving, and often horrifying story.
Currently, we are reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah about the last days of the Kingdom of Judah, headed by the feckless Jehoiakim (son of the great-but-too-late King Josiah). After God gave his people’s leaders so many opportunities to repent and return to justice, holiness, and obedience to his revealed will, the sands in the hourglass are about to run out. The promise to David that his line would never lack for an heir (made way back in 2 Samuel 7) is now about to be tested to its limit.
God’s just anger is expressed in Jeremiah’s dictation of a prophesy to his scribe Baruch, who then goes to the Temple and reads it aloud. This prophesy is a “final warning.” Rather like telling a late-stage diabetic to stop drinking sugary sodas, Baruch announces the consequence of the current path taken by the Kingdom of Judah: dismemberment and destruction. The news of this travelled to the palace fast.
On a cold, raw day, the scroll is read to the king and his close advisers. The heating system is an open fire in a brazier before Jehoiakim. As the prophesy is read, one can imagine the various hearers being filled with many emotions…shock, fear, disgust, anger, doubt. But not Jehoiakim: no, he seems oddly calm. After every few of God’s warnings are read out, the king takes his knife out and cuts a new chunk of parchment for the fire.
Few actions in the annals of history have been more symbolically loaded than this grim BBQ of God’s word. Jehoiakim did what so many leaders (sacred and secular) have done—and continue to do—in the face of God’s judgment: ignore and destroy the evidence, preferring to live in denial of reality, or to believe in the delusion of their own power.
When Jehoiakim starts to burn the scroll, some of those around him know it is a mistake; however much they may resent what it says, they know it has truth in it. Yet, the culture of corruption and dishonesty is rooted too far down for them to act. They keep their cool, they cooperate. The fire consumed each slice of written truth until there was no more.
But, of course, there is always indeed more with God. Jeremiah, now hidden, dictates once more to Baruch the prophesy (and then some!). God’s word is more than words written down; it is truth and indestructibly eternal.
And this is the curious thing about reading this account: we can feel terribly sad as we see, step by step, arrogant, corrupt, and foolish leaders (then and now) make their way to the abyss; yet, we know that even after Babylon takes the city, destroys it, and carts most of the population away, God’s committed promise of love was not broken. Even human folly and cruelty on this scale is not enough to break it.
Eventually, King Cyrus of Persia (called “my anointed” by God!) will release those in Babylon desiring it so they can return to Jerusalem. They will find it a largely empty wreck, but they will begin the process of rebuilding, all the same. Nehemiah and Ezra will urge the people on (in their very different ways), renewing the community in purpose and faithfulness as they overcome one obstacle after another.
Destruction by a new enemy—the Greeks—will be miraculously overcome by a group of zealots who figure out how to beat the enemy at his own game. And, eventually, a country preacher who just happened to be of the lineage of David would come to town and be hailed as king, killed as an outlaw, and then rise again to achieve in humility what was lost by arrogance. Interestingly, a fire burning to keep people warm is mentioned along the way in both stories.
When we read history, we are taking a journey requiring enormous humility on our part—humility in reading, interpreting, and making conclusions. Anyone at Jehoiakim’s “Bonfire of the Prophesies” might have thought the coming end was going to be complete and final, that God had turned his back on his people for good.
This was not the case; rather, the consequences of sin and evil were allowed to be visited upon an unrepentant people…but God’s love and purpose would be waiting for the remnant on the other side of these trials, as it always is.
And it is this knowledge we must bring to our reading of the story of Israel, America, the institutional Church, and our own lives if we are not to join in the old, old story of people trying to master God’s truth by brazier, ballot, or bullet.