The nation is fighting for survival; enemies from without and unrest from within threaten the peace and security of the country. Leaders seem more concerned with special interests than with the well-being of the wider population, particularly the most vulnerable in society. Religious leaders are speaking in direct contradiction to one another, each insisting that they have a word from the Lord. Some proclaim peace and prosperity; a few call for repentance and warn of judgment. As current as this may sound, such was the situation of early sixth century Judah (ca. 594 bce), the setting for our text.
The passage is awkwardly restrictive for it comprises a small segment within a cohesive narrative. Therefore, it can only be understood and interpreted within the context of chapters 27-28 and, to a lesser extent, chapter 29. Within these chapters, the prophet Jeremiah challenges false prophets and their misleading messages of peace. He does this in person in Jerusalem (ch. 27-28) and then via a letter sent to the exiles in Babylon (ch. 29). Thus, Jeremiah 28:5-9 makes sense only against the backdrop of the historical context and narrative flow of these chapters.
In 597 bce, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took into exile Judah’s King Jehoichin and other leading figures; he also carried off treasures from the temple and the palace (see 2 Kings 24:10-17). Nebuchadnezzar then placed Zedekiah, Jehoichin’s uncle, on Judah’s throne. However, in the fourth year of Zedekiah’s reign (see 27:1 and 28:1), Babylon experienced internal unrest and several of the vassal states in the region began plotting rebellion. With Babylon apparently in a weakened state, many sensed an opportunity to overthrow the yoke of foreign oppression. And if such rebellion had the opportunity to succeed, then it ought to be seized!
Enter Jeremiah, wearing a yoke on his neck with a message from Yahweh for the nations plotting rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 27:2ff). Jeremiah unequivocally informs the envoys from other countries (27:4), his own king, Zedekiah (27:12), and the priests and people of Judah (27:16) that Nebuchadnezzar is God’s instrument. Therefore, they must submit to Nebuchadnezzar’s yoke in order that they might live, rather than rebel and “die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence” (27:13, NRSV throughout).
Unfortunately, “prophets, … diviners, … dreamers, … soothsayers, … [and] sorcerers” throughout the region (27:9) were encouraging rebellion and promising freedom from service to Nebuchadnezzar. Such persons had arisen even among the exiles in Babylon, proclaiming to the people that they would soon be free to return to their homeland (see 29:8-9, 15, 21). Jeremiah warned against listening to such lies. To the priests and people of Judah in particular, he warned against believing prophets who claimed that the treasures from the temple would soon be returned to Judah (27:16-17). Rather than raising false hope with their lies, these prophets ought to be interceding on behalf of the people that no further calamity would befall them (27:18ff).
With the stage thus set, we are introduced to an otherwise unknown prophet, Hananiah from Gibeon (28:1). Hananiah’s name means “Yahweh has been gracious,” and his message mirrors his hope that God’s graciousness soon would be evident once again. Hananiah confronts Jeremiah “in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people” (28:1). With a standard prophetic utterance, “Thus says the Lord…” (v. 2), and a forceful sign-act, the breaking of the yoke off of Jeremiah’s neck (v. 10), Hananiah prophesies a message which directly contradicts Jeremiah’s: the articles taken from the temple will be returned and King Jehoichin and the other exiles will return to Jerusalem – all within two years (vv. 2-4)!
Jeremiah’s response to Hananiah, vv. 5-9, is the passage for our first reading. But what does Jeremiah’s initial response mean? What was his tone of voice? What might his body language or facial expressions have revealed? Was he taken aback at such a bold confrontation by one flatly contradicting his own word from God? Was he being sarcastic?
… the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles.” (28:6)
Although we cannot know for certain, given his admonition that true prophets should intercede for the well-being of the people (27:18-22), it seems reasonable to assume that Jeremiah genuinely wishes for Hananiah’s prophecy to come to pass, that the exiles – including King Jehoichin – would return and life would return to normalcy! He is, after all, a “son of the soil”; Judah is his homeland and these are his people. He loves the land and the people. He is a priest who holds in high regard the place and purpose of the temple and its treasures. He is not anti-Judean. To state this in current terms, he is not a traitor to his country; rather, he is a patriot who desires the well-being of his people and the land. However, he recognizes that the word of the Lord for the present time is not the word which people desire to hear, nor one that accords with some nationalistic ideology. Although he may long for, and eagerly desire the peace and prosperity of the nation, Jeremiah recognizes that this is not the prophetic word from God which the people need to hear. Rather, the message from God is for Judah and the surrounding nations to submit to foreign rule (27:11); in fact, to the exiles, his counsel is to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (29:7).
Hananiah’s prophecy suits national interest; it suits King Zedekiah’s desire to be rid of the yoke of Babylon; it suits the longing of the priests that the treasures of the temple would be restored; it suits the hopes of the people that family, friends, neighbors, and leaders would return home; it suits all who long for personal and national peace and security.
According to Hananiah, Jeremiah’s prophecy is false. According to Jeremiah, Hananiah’s prophecy is false. So is Hannaiah or Jeremiah the false prophet? Both claim to speak on behalf of the Lord. Both perform impressive sign-acts. But clearly both cannot truly be speaking the word of the Lord for their messages are flatly contradictory. It is one prophet’s word against the other’s. To whom should the people listen? How should they discern which is the true spokesman for the Lord? These are the specific questions which the short text (28:5-9) addresses.
Essentially, Jeremiah asks the people to consider which message is more in line with the message of the prophets, who “from ancient times have prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms” (28:8). By this Jeremiah does not imply that the prophets of Israel and Judah have never spoken words of peace or comfort. Rather, within the prophetic tradition, warnings of pending judgment due to rebellion and calls for repentance are far more common than promises of peace and comfort. Thus, for the prophets of peace, only when peace actually came to pass would they be recognized as sent by God (28:9)!
But what were the people to do in the meantime? If neither the manner in which the prophecy was delivered nor the particular prophecies themselves provided solid evidence in and of themselves which was truly from God, who should be believed? Only when it came to pass would the people truly know which had been the word of the Lord. Thus this passage surely served as a vindication of Jeremiah’s life and prophecy for the earliest readers. But it may also help explain the poor choices of King Zedekiah and the leaders of Judah: they listened to the wrong prophet(s) and the consequences were severe!
But what has the text to do with us? Hopefully you have already seen parallels to our current setting. Let me offer a few observations and principles derived by both the larger context of Jeremiah 27-29 as well as the actual text, Jer. 28:5-9.
Recognize the temptation to proclaim a message which aligns with nationalistic or personal desires for comfort and security.
Intercede on behalf of God’s people and the world in which we live, rather than presuming that God will act in ways that accord with self-interest or nationalistic interests.
Be reminded of the immense responsibility which comes with the call to proclaim a word from the Lord. Proclaiming a false or misguided message may lead to misplaced hope. On the other hand, realize that rightly proclaiming God’s word for our day may be met with resistance.
Remember that the hope we proclaim must be consistent with the nature and character of God who is holy love. Furthermore, God calls out a community of people who are shaped and sent in God’s own image. As the people of God, we must care more about fulfilling our divine calling to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called … [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9b), than about personal or national security and comfort.
Your ministry may only be vindicated after you are long gone! Perhaps a more pleasant way to state this is to say that the fruits of your ministry may be reaped by those who come after you.
Resist the urge – and the pressure – to pander to special interests. Rather, in teaching and preaching maintain alignment with God’s great salvation history and continue to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3b). As Paul exhorts in 1 Corinthians 3: 11ff, build only upon the foundation which has been laid in Christ Jesus.