Jeremiah Week 8
Prophet Versus Prophet
Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland
Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 26:1–29:32
When is good news not good news? When the good news turns out to be false. In this section, we will read about Hananiah, a prophet who claims to speak from the LORD. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity. On top of that, his message is a lot happier than Jeremiah’s. He predicts a quick end to the exile. The only problem is that his prophecy is not true. In responding to Hananiah’s fairly upbeat message, Jeremiah points out that the LORD does want good things for the people of God. However, these good things will only come after God’s judgment has run its course. The best thing for the exiles to do is to pursue the welfare of Babylon while they are there in exile.
Jeremiah in the Temple
Chapter 25 is often taken to be the ending of the first part of Jeremiah. Chapter 30 begins the second part. In between lie four chapters relating specific episodes in the life of Jeremiah. The first episode begins with a declaration which Jeremiah delivers in the Temple. This is in the first year of Jehoiakim’s reign and, thus, three to four years before the prophecy delivered in chapter 25. It will not come as a surprise to those who have been following the book of Jeremiah from the beginning that this text is not a chronological narrative. Nevertheless, the text does situate this event in a particular time. It may be worth keeping this in mind as the story progresses.
In Jeremiah 26, we do not learn much about what Jeremiah says. That is recorded earlier in Jeremiah 7. The claims in Jeremiah 26 are not particularly remarkable. He warns the people to amend their ways or God will bring destruction. The element that makes this declaration especially provocative is that Jeremiah offers this prophecy that warns of the Temple’s destruction while he is standing in that very space. It is the context, rather than the content of the sermon, that drives the action in Jeremiah 26. In the light of Jeremiah’s message, he is quickly arrested and warned that he will be executed for speaking treasonous words against the Temple (26:1−9). Readers will remember that Jesus is also charged with making claims against the Temple (Mark 14:58).
Jeremiah Before the Judges
A group of judges is quickly assembled. The priests and Temple prophets accuse Jeremiah of prophesying against the city (Amos 7:12−13), claiming he should be put to death (Jeremiah 26:10−11). In his defense, Jeremiah says that he has only spoken what the LORD has commanded him to speak. If they do not approve of his words, their problem is really with God and not Jeremiah. At the same time, Jeremiah notes that he is in their power. They can kill him, and he can do nothing about it. Nevertheless, he notes that should they kill him, they will be bringing innocent blood upon them. His innocence lies in the fact that he is simply doing the LORD’s work in the LORD’s house. For Christians, this scene conjures up the discussion between Pilate and the citizens of Jerusalem in Matthew 27:24−26. While Pilate does not want innocent blood on his hands, the citizens of Jerusalem are quite willing to have Jesus’ blood on their hands, convinced he is guilty.
As the officials ponder Jeremiah’s fate, they claim that he has done nothing worthy of death (Jeremiah 26:16). He has spoken in the name of the LORD. The unstated, but implied, judgment is that speaking publicly in the name of the LORD brings the danger of imminent judgment from God. If one is willing to take that danger on, such a person should not be judged by humans before the LORD has had a chance to validate Jeremiah’s claims.
At this point, some of the elders intervene, noting that during the reign of Hezekiah, Micah offered similar warnings about Jerusalem and the Temple (Micah 3:12). Micah was not put to death. Indeed, his words led the king to repent, which led God to spare the city. The elders wonder if they should do likewise now in Jeremiah’s case (Jeremiah 26:19).
Uriah and Jeremiah
In contrast to the story of Micah, the text turns to take up the story of Uriah, a contemporary prophet who prophesied against Jerusalem and the Temple just as Jeremiah had. Jehoiakim was angered and sought to kill him. Uriah fled to Egypt and Jehoiakim pursued him, brought him back to Judah, and had him executed. As the chapter ends, we learn that only the intervention of Ahikam, a righteous member of a righteous family (2 Kings 22; Jeremiah 40) saves Jeremiah (26:24).
The story of Uriah concretely exemplifies the conflict that rages throughout these four chapters. This is the conflict between the authority and ideology of the king and his “prophets,” on the one hand, and Jeremiah, the servant of the LORD, on the other hand. The words Jeremiah speaks directly undermine the policies and ideology of the royal household. As is often the case with rulers, there seems to be an assumption that if the dissenting voices can be silenced, the policies advocated by those dissenters can be eliminated.
Commanded to Capitulate
Chapter 27 presents the next episode in this conflict. Jeremiah is instructed to make a yoke of metal and straps. While wearing that yoke, Jeremiah is to address Zedekiah, the king of Judah (circa 598 BCE), and the emissaries of the surrounding nations who were also under Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s proclamation makes clear that the LORD is the sovereign one who controls all the earth. Babylon is the LORD’s instrument for now. Resistance to Babylon during this time is futile. It will simply invite further destruction (Jeremiah 27:1−7). Any prophets who counsel resistance to Babylon are lying and not conveying the word of the LORD. Three times Jeremiah tells his audience not to listen to those who recommend any other course than capitulation (Jeremiah 27:9, 14, 17).
Without question, this would have been a bitter pill to swallow. Our political mythology today celebrates the small and weak force that stands up to the mighty empire. No movies get made about a people who accept the judgment of God and capitulate to the mighty empire. Resistance is heroic. Jeremiah is absolutely clear, however, that resistance to Babylon is resistance to the LORD, and it will only make matters worse.
Jeremiah Versus Hananiah
The attitude that Jeremiah combats in chapter 27 is manifested in a personal interaction between Jeremiah and Hananiah in chapter 28. Hananiah claims to be a prophet with a very distinct word from the LORD which he addresses to Jeremiah in the Temple in the presence of priests and prophets. Hananiah invokes the image of the yoke of the king of Babylon to put his prophecy in direct conflict with Jeremiah’s use of the yoke in chapter 27. Hananiah’s word contains a very precise timetable for the return of the exiles, along with the things which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple. He claims that all this will happen within two years (Jeremiah 28:1−4). Such precision provides a clear barometer for determining if he is speaking for the LORD or not.
Since Hananiah has offered his prophecy of peace against Jeremiah’s prophecy publicly in the Temple, Jeremiah responds in kind (Jeremiah 28:5−9). It is unclear whether Jeremiah’s assertion of “Amen!” is sarcastic or sincere. Either is possible. Why shouldn’t Jeremiah at least hope that Hananiah is right? But Jeremiah goes on to make it clear that he does not think Hananiah is right. Moreover, Jeremiah notes that Hananiah’s prophecy of peace puts him at odds with the larger prophetic tradition advocating both covenant faithfulness and judgment for failure to keep the covenant (Jeremiah 28:5−9). In any case, as Jeremiah notes, time will soon tell whether Hananiah is a true or false prophet.
Hananiah’s reaction to Jeremiah indicates that he takes Jeremiah’s words as largely sarcastic critique or simply as an expression of doubt. He breaks the yoke that Jeremiah had been wearing and reaffirms his prophetic claim that the exile will end within two years. At this, Jeremiah walks away (Jeremiah 28:10−11). Hananiah’s prophecy is a message of good news. His reaction to Jeremiah shows that he offers it in the sincere conviction that he is speaking for God. Of course, good news is only good news if it is also true. At this point in the story, there are two conflicting viewpoints. Jeremiah urges acceptance of the yoke of Babylon for as long as God places it there. In contrast, Hananiah believes God will end the exile fairly quickly.
Some time passes and Jeremiah receives a word from the LORD in response to Hananiah (Jeremiah 28:12−16). The response is twofold. First, God has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to discipline the nations, including Judah. God has even given Nebuchadnezzar authority over the animals of the land. The broken yoke of wood will be replaced by a yoke of iron. Second, because Hananiah has spoken falsely, he will die within a year. This mirrors the precision of Hananiah’s prediction. Chapter 28 ends by recording Hananiah’s death two months later. This confirms Jeremiah’s truthfulness and reinforces the severe judgment of the LORD on the people of Judah.
Jeremiah 29 covers a letter that Jeremiah sent to those in exile in Babylon. This letter urges the exiles to settle in for the long haul. Verse 7 summarizes the advice in the letter: the exiles are to “Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you,” and they are to pray for the city. The LORD claims that whatever shalom the exiles will experience is tied to the shalom of the city of Babylon. The exiles are not simply to bide their time. They are to engage in civic and social life in Babylon.
When the time is right, the LORD will bring them back to the Promised Land. All through chapters 26 to 29, Jeremiah has asserted the importance of recognizing and conforming to the LORD’s sovereign plan for Judah. This plan is primarily about discipline and judgment in the light of Judah’s sin. Here in Jeremiah 29:11, we read that God’s plan is intentional, not haphazard, and that it is ultimately a plan for shalom. An essential part of this shalom involves the restoration and return of the exiles to the Promised Land (Jeremiah 29:12−14).
In contrast to the message of hope that is offered to the exiles, the fate of those who remain in the land during this time is not so rosy. Because the covenant with Abraham and his heirs is so intimately tied to the land, one might think that those remaining in the land had been favored by God. Not so. Those in the land can look forward to sword, famine, and pestilence (Jeremiah 29:15−19). The lying prophets who suggest otherwise will become a byword among the exiles for God’s judgment (Jeremiah 29:21−23).
Verses 24−32 contain a brief account of one consequence of Jeremiah’s letter. After hearing of Jeremiah’s letter, Shemaiah, one of the prophets in exile, sends a counter letter back to Jerusalem. This letter is addressed to Zephaniah, a priest in Jerusalem. Shemaiah urges Zephaniah to curtail the ravings of the mad prophet Jeremiah. Zephaniah does not do that. Instead, he shares that letter with Jeremiah, who sends one more letter to the exiles pronouncing the LORD’s judgment on all such lying prophets as Shemaiah.
One can see here the latent tensions between those in exile and those remaining in the land. There are conflicting perceptions of where each party stands with God, what God is ultimately going to do, and what the proper policies should be. Into the midst of this, Jeremiah inserts God’s authoritative message that the LORD is in control, has a plan, and that God’s plan is ultimately a plan for shalom.
Questions for Further Discussion
- What contrasts do you notice between Jeremiah and Hananiah? Whose message do you find more appealing? What “prophets” do you see in your own culture? How might you discern which prophet is telling the truth and which is telling lies?
- How do you think the exiles would have felt when they read Jeremiah’s letter (chapter 29)? What might the command in 29:7 look like in your context? How does 29:11 give hope within the context of judgment and exile?
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