The Example of the Rechabites
The events of this chapter transpired during the reign of Jehoiakim, following the initial invasion of Nebuchadnezzar in 605 B.C. (see verse 11). His Chaldean host was accompanied by Syrians, as the Babylonians had just taken Syria from the Egyptians (compare same verse). The invading army prompted the Rechabites to quickly relocate to Jerusalem.
The Rechabites were descended from the Kenites and hence were related to Jethro, Moses' father-in-law (see Judges 1:16; 1 Chronicles 2:55). Rechab was the father of Jehonadab (here called Jonadab), who supported Jehu in his purge of the Baal prophets from Israel (2 Kings 10:15-28).
Jeremiah brings the Rechabites—probably several of their representatives—into the temple for a test that others are to witness. "We know essentially nothing of the persons mentioned in vv. 3-4, except for Maaseiah, who was probably the father of Zephaniah the priest (cf. Jeremiah 21:1; Jeremiah 29:25; Jeremiah 37:3). He was in charge of the money given for the temple repair (cf. 2 Kings 12:10). Jaazaniah was probably the leader of the group. The name, not uncommon in Jeremiah's day, has been found on a seal (c. 600 B.C.) at Tell en-Nasbeh.... 'The sons of Hanan' (a prophet of God [or, as "man of God" could also signify, merely a faithful priest]) were probably his disciples. He appears to have been in sympathy with Jeremiah. The three leaders (cf. Jeremiah 52:24; 2 Kings 25:18) probably had charge of the inner and outer court of the temple and the entrance door. They ranked next to the high priest and his deputy" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1986, note on Jeremiah 35:3-4).
Jeremiah sets wine before the Rechabites and tells them to drink (verse 5). Jonadab had apparently given strict commands to his descendants regarding the lifestyle they were to live (verses 6-10). Instead of settling down in houses or cultivating fields, they were to dwell in tents as nomads. Perhaps he was concerned over the fact that God had prophesied that once the people of Israel settled into private homes and lands that they would become forgetful of God because of their abundance (compare Deuteronomy 8). Maybe he had even seen the truth of this in the society of his day. Jonadab also commanded his descendants to avoid wine. Perhaps this was motivated by the restriction against alcohol in the Nazirite vow or dangers of abuse he may have witnessed. Interestingly, the Rechabites saw that obedience to these commands from their forefather would allow them to "live many days in the land"—which was the blessing God promised for following the Fifth Commandment in obeying one's parents (see Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16).
In any case, Jeremiah 35 doesn't say that God approved of the restrictions Jonadab placed on his descendants. Indeed, the Bible nowhere condemns the use of alcohol—only its abuse and drunkenness. And housing and agriculture are certainly not forbidden. The lesson here is not one of refraining from settling down or abstinence from alcohol, but a lesson in obedience for Judah. The Rechabites were prepared to obey a human progenitor who had died many generations before. How much more should Judah have been willing to obey God Himself—their divine parent—who was still alive and still instructing them?
We should note that when Jeremiah put the wine before the Rechabites in verse 5, he did not say, "The Lord says, 'Drink wine.'" That would have overruled their past commitment. Instead, he simply placed the wine before them and told them to drink, which they refused. Indeed, God certainly knew they would refuse and had Jeremiah perform the example for just this reason.
In verses 18-19, a blessing is pronounced on the Rechabites for their faithfulness to their father's commands. Jonadab will never lack a descendant to stand before God. This may simply mean his family line would always continue, as everyone who exists is "before God." But it could also signify that a descendant of Jonadab would always be in God's service (compare Jeremiah 15:19). "The Mishnah [Jewish oral tradition later written down] indicates that in the Second Temple period a special day was set aside for the Rechabites to bring the wood offering (Ta'an 4.5)" (Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, editors, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993, "Rechabites," p. 643). Perhaps this is just one way the Rechabites were to serve before God if standing before Him implied such service.