Text: Jer 28
For over a century, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had been part of the mighty Assyrian empire, forced to pay homage and an annual tribute on pain of brutal punishment upon default. The northern kingdom of Israel had rebelled against this regime, and, by way of punishment her inhabitants were deported and her capital city vanquished. The southern kingdom of Judah herself teetered on the brink of ruin, its kings and people devoted to all kinds of immorality and idolatry, including the terrible practice of human sacrifice. It was a nation ripe for judgement.
It was into this situation that Jeremiah was born.
The call of the prophet – Jer 1:10
The charges that the Lord brought against the nation – Jer 6:6f
God’s verdict of the Lord upon the nation, Jer 19:3-5.
God’s verdict opposed, Jer 27-28.
We are now in the year 593 BC. Babylon has replaced Assyria as the dominant power. The people of Judah have already tried rebelling against Babylon in its infamous ruler, Nebuchadnezzar. What they got for their trouble was the deportation their king and other influential people, together with the removal of precious articles from the temple in Jerusalem.
Babylon has appointed a puppet king, Zedekiah. But he is hatching a plot with the envoys from the surrounding nations, 27:3. They are planning, it seems, another revolt against Babylon.
But what is Jeremiah up to? We find him, standing in the temple, wearing a yoke round his neck. In ch. 27:6-8, we see what the symbolism of the yoke means. The message is, “Accept God’s verdict. Submit to the yoke of Babylon. Resign yourselves to the fact that you will be under Babylonian rule for three generations. If you do, you will be able to live safely in your own land. If you do not, you will suffer tragic consequences (27:6-8).”
But now, ch. 28, comes a direct confrontation. A second prophet steps forward and, in front of the priests and all the people contradicts Jeremiah to his face. This man’s name is Hananiah. He goes up to Jeremiah, looks him straight in the eye, and says, “Jeremiah, you’re wrong. The Lord is going to smash the yoke of Babylon. Within two years the exiles and the precious articles from the temple will be returned.” He answers Jeremiah’s symbolism with a dramatic gesture of his own. He takes the yoke off Jeremiah’s neck, and smashes it on the ground. “So much for the yoke of Babylon.”
Here, then, are two prophets, Jeremiah asserting one thing, Hananiah flatly contradicting it. Which one is to be believed?
The question of truth versus falsehood has, of course, always been with us. Remember how the serpent said to the woman in the garden, “Did God really say…?” and then flatly contradicted what God had said: “You will not surely die.”
So it was be in the last days. 2 Pet 3:3-4 First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?”
We need, then, some tests that can be applied to anyone who claims to be speaking on behalf of God:-
1. Does he speak with compassion? Verse 6. Jeremiah wishes that Hananiah’s predictions were true. See 17:6 – “You know I have not desired the day of despair.” We refer to Jeremiah as ‘the weeping prophet’. Grief is the cost of commitment. So our Lord. Mt 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” ‘Consider,’ says Paul in Rom 11, ‘the goodness and the severity of God.’ It is good to speak much of the goodness of God. But sometimes we need to speak of his severity. But let us do so with compassion, what Paul calls, ‘speaking the truth in love.’
2. Is what he says in accordance with what God has already revealed? Verse 8. Isa 8:20 ‘To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.’ Dan 12:2 ‘Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.’ The Holy Spirit never contradicts himself. ‘Compare Scripture with Scripture. False doctrines, like false witnesses, agree not among themselves.’ (William Gurnall)
3. Is he prepared to speak unpopular truths? Verse 13. There was no warning in Hananiah’s message, only optimistic reassurance. One of the accusations against the false prophets was this: Jer 6:13f. ‘Prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.’ And perhaps in the end it will our willingness to speak unpopular truths that will gain for us a greater hearing in the world. ‘People are driven from the Church not so much by stern truth that makes them uneasy as by weak nothings that make them contemptuous.’ (George Buttrick)
4. Is he willing to stand alone? Verse 15. In the US, when a warrant for arrest is served, the wording is, “The people of such-and-such state against [your name].” Imagine what that feels like! That’s just what Jeremiah must have felt like. But it didn’t deter him. He was willing to stand alone. Kierkegaard: “For long the tactics have been: use every means to move as many as you can – to move everybody if possible – to enter Christianity. Do not be too curious whether what they enter really is Christianity. My tactics have been, with God’s help, to use every means to make it clear what the demand of Christianity really is – if not one entered it.”
We value democracy highly, and rightly so. But democracy is not infallible. The majority is not always right. Sometimes, we need to be willing to listen to the lone voice.
Of course, the ultimate test was which prophet’s word actually came true. Verse 2f. Cf. v9. But only time would tell. Hananiah didn’t have to wait very long, did he?
Jeremiah was one of the faithful ones, who would not trim his message to suit the tastes and fashions of his age. He pronounced God’s verdict on a sinful nation. He did so with compassion. In doing so, he took care that he was speaking in accordance with what God has already revealed. He did so even though it was an unpopular message. He did so even though he might be completely on his own.
God has pronounced his verdict on a guilty world: “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” The great question, now as then, is, ‘Are we willing to accept God’s verdict?’ For accepting God’s verdict on us is the beginning of the good news.
Jesus once told this story: two men went up to the temple to pray. One thanked God that he was better than other people. The other stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”