2 August 2010

Jeremiah 28:1-17

"And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, 'Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie.'" (v.15)


This confrontation between the prophets Hananiah and Jeremiah takes place in 593 BC. Both are referred to as prophets, although Hananiah emerges as a false prophet. Hananiah comes from Gibeon, which is a few miles north-west of Jerusalem, and Jeremiah comes from Anathoth, about four miles from Gibeon. So both are local to Jerusalem.

Babylon was a city state of Mesopotamia (now in Iraq) just over 50 miles south of Baghdad, and in 597 BC began the first deportation of large numbers of Jews from the southern kingdom of Judah to Babylon under the Babylonian leader Nebuchadnezzar. This deportation included the royal court of Judah, the prominent citizens and the craftsmen, as well as a significant proportion of the population. Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah king of Judah in the place of King Jehoiakin.

Hananiah, in contradiction to the prophecy of Jeremiah, said that Nebuchadnezzar's hold will be broken, and that the religious vessels from the Temple, King Jehoiakin and all the exiles will be brought back within two years.

Jeremiah's response is initially quite gentle, almost saying "I hope you are right", but he goes on to challenge Hananiah's prophecy. Hananiah then, as is common among prophets (see previous chapter where Jeremiah actually puts on a yoke - Jeremiah 27), engages in an action to illustrate his prophecy and takes the yoke from around Jeremiah's neck and breaks it to demonstrate that the hold of Nebuchadnezzar will likewise be broken. Jeremiah leaves the scene only to return to bring a word from God that challenges Hananiah. He calls him a liar and speaks of his death.

Hananiah had prophesied that within two years the exiles would return, yet within two months he was dead. The forced exile lasted until 538 BC when Babylon fell to the Persians, but even then most of the Jews did not return.

This passage presents us with a difficulty. How do we tell true from false prophets? There appears no easy way other than time itself, but that is no answer to the dilemma because the challenge is to live in the light of the true prophet. The true prophet is not necessarily the one with the most palatable message to the hearers, but the one whose message calls for the characteristics of a proper relationship with God.

To Ponder

Who are the prophets of our age? What makes you think they are true rather than false prophets?

What prophetic action might you be called to take to identify with a truth and challenge the prevailing wisdom?

When is it right to walk away, as Jeremiah initially did, and when is it right to confront and challenge?

Bible notes author

The Revd Peter Barber

Peter Barber is an ordained Methodist presbyter currently serving as the chair of district for the Chester and Stoke-on-Trent District of the Methodist Church in Britain. Previously he has served in circuits in Cornwall, Aberystwyth, and Harpenden.