The Next Faithful Step
Jeremiah and Hananiah
The account in Jeremiah 28 of the exchange between Jeremiah and Hananiah is probably the sharpest confrontation we find in the OT over what it means for the people of the Lord to hear the word of the Lord in a particular situation.
This is an issue that plays itself out in church settings probably more than we realize, in issues of “mere” administrative or committee deliberation about programmatic or logistical plans. The “worship wars” have swept many churches, and still have impact in many congregations. My family were members of a large denominational church that had to make decisions about the place of older hymns and newer choruses (not to mention hymnbooks vs. overhead screens) in Sunday morning worship. When folk start talking about what is proper worship and what it isn’t, people who would never dream of presenting themselves as prophets in other circumstances, can quickly start proclaiming what is, and what isn’t, the Word and Will of the Lord. The confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah allows us some perspective on such community clashes.
The literary unit that frames the clash includes at least the previous chapter, and could profitably be extended to chapters 26-29.1 Chapter 26 tells of Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon:” Jeremiah announces the destruction of the temple and the nation, if repentance is not forthcoming. The shock that he provokes, preaching against the welfare of Judea at a time when Babylon was poised to carry out its destruction, is heard by “the priests and the prophets” as impossibly false prophecy, or treason, or both;2 they call for his execution. He is saved by cooler heads, who remember that some hundred years earlier Micah had spoken similarly, and that Hezekiah’s repentance had caused the Lord to “repent of the misfortune He had spoken” (26:19). The effect is that we begin to read chapter 27 with a sense of the dangers Jeremiah risks as he continues to speak against nation and king.3
Jeremiah’s message “at the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah” (27:1) is astonishingly bold and meddlesome. Emissaries from several surrounding nations are convened in Jerusalem plotting revolt from Babylon. Jeremiah addresses these foreign dignitaries directly, fashioning and sending to each a yoke to be carried back home and strapped onto their sovereigns. He instructs these nations to admit that Nebuchadnezzar’s “yoke” is Yahweh’s will for each of them, and that to submit to it is the only way forward for safety and survival. Only subsequently does he send the message his own king. The wooden yoke he himself puts on makes the point for Israel in dramatic symbolism. He then addresses “the priests and all the people” (27:16-22) warning them not to believe certain prophets who predict that the temple accoutrements carried off by Nebuchadnezzar will soon be returned.
Surprisingly it is the second message that raises more of a fuss in Jerusalem; the prophets seem to have more backbone at this juncture than the king. One of them, Hananiah, steps forward and contradicts Jeremiah flatly, declaring as God’s word that “I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon” (28:2); all royal exiles and temple vessels will soon be returned to Jerusalem. Jeremiah responds to this abrupt challenge with a measure of realism: “When the word of a prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet” (28:9). Hananiah’s rejoinder is to pull the yoke off Jeremiah’s neck and break it, dramatizing the imminent breaking of the power of Babylon. Jeremiah then withdraws, until he receives a fresh word from the Lord. Hananiah’s “rebellion against the Lord” has spawned two consequences: the “wooden yoke” of Babylon’s domination has become a harsher “iron yoke;” and Hananiah will die within the year. Hananiah’s death as prophesied must have made many Jerusalemites consider Jeremiah’s prophecies more carefully, but it did not produce a general repentance in the city.
Finally, chapter 29 unfolds more of the positive aspects of what Jeremiah envisions, namely, that God can and will use Babylon to benefit and even to bless. In a letter to the exiles in Babylon, he urges them to consider their time there as long-term sojourn: they should build houses, plant gardens, foster generational families. “Seek the welfare of the city where I [the Lord] have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7). For it will be 70 years before they are brought back (29:14).
Either Babylon is God’s instrument to bring Israel blessing, or it is Israel’s mortal enemy. Therefore Israel must submit to Babylon’s incursions as unto the Lord, or it is God’s will that Israel resist. The alternatives could not be starker. The problem of determining the true from the false is not more radically presented in Scripture, except in the case of Jesus’ condemnation and execution.
What help do we find in these chapters for discerning between competing claims for the truth of God? The first touches the prophet’s own experience. The prerequisite articulated in Jer. 23:16-18—that the prophet “stand in the council of the Lord that he should see and hear the Lord’s word”—finds an echo in Jeremiah’s patient waiting for a fresh revelation before reacting to Hananiah (28:11-12), and in the language of the Lord’s rebuke to Hananiah: “The Lord did not send you,… so I will now send you from the face of the earth” (28:15-16). There is probably a correlation between the prophet’s knowing that he or she has “stood on the council of the Lord,” and the NT awareness of the sanctified “conscience” as an important basis of confidence in ministry (e.g., “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit,” Rom. 9:1). But this is still a subjective matter, that itself needs discernment.
The passage puts forth two criteria that seem more objective. First, there is the intervention of the group of elders who blocked Jeremiah’s death sentence, reminding others that Micah had legitimately raised the same issues a hundred years before (26:16-19). Tradition, in this case the tradition of prophecies announced and fulfilled, aids in unpacking the meaning of the present moment. As Patrick Miller puts it, “One of the tests of whether the community is acting faithfully is whether it pays attention to the prophetic words inscribed in Scripture and to their echoes in contemporary life.”4 The other criterion that is very clearly enunciated is Jeremiah’s warning to Hananiah: the true word of the Lord is the word that will come to pass (28:9). This is not as easy to translate into community practice, but it is true that a leader whose guidance has shown success in the past, or a vision which has begun to evince a pattern of fruitfulness, carries more weight in decisions about the future, though not an infallible authority.
The need to discern the truth of God in the chaos of competing claims is an ever-fresh issue for the Church. The Reformation era crystallized the Catholic confidence in “Scripture and tradition” over-against the Reformers’ sola Scriptura principle (“Scripture alone”). Methodists of our day have provided a remarkably flexible model for theological discernment, in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.1 Drawn from the evident practice of John Wesley, the four elements of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are cultivated to inform the Church’s hearing of God’s truth. Perhaps we can find most of these in Miller’s observation quoted above: the community faithful to its tradition listens to Scripture in rational reflection upon the experiences of the present day. Though the four can clearly function together smoothly, it also is worth seeing these as four different disciplines of listening, which may check each other and sometimes clash. These four are very amenable to community practices: corporate study of the Bible; of history and tradition; of theology and apologetics; and of personal and relational dynamics. (And there are the academic counterparts, in individual courses and in entire degree programs.) Such community practices are very natural, so natural in fact that we may need the reminder that they ought to be in place not just to inculcate community values, but to provide seedbeds for the proper critique of community as well, in light of what God’s word to the community may be.
One element of the success of this particular decision is not really discernable from Jeremiah 28. No lone prophet took the stage for or against. It was genuinely a community process—as is only appropriate, since the NT understands the Church as a community of believers who are all and each Spirit-gifted (1 Cor. 12: 1-11), that functions at its best only “as each part working properly promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).