Monday of Week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 28:1-17

We read today of the dispute with the false prophet, Hananiah. It is nice, of course, to hear encouraging words, but not if they are false and misleading, and that is what we see in today’s reading.

Internal evidence seems to indicate that chapters 27-28 were a distinct unit from the rest of the text. They may have formed a special collection for those in exile. The setting is the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah over Judah and the year is 593 BC. Zedekiah had been installed by the Babylonians as a puppet king; he would not last long.

The prophet Hananiah addresses Jeremiah, also a prophet, in the Temple. The name ‘Hananiah’ means “The Lord is gracious”. It was a fitting name for a prophet who brought soothing, but misleading, promises of the return of the exiles and the Temple vessels.

Speaking with the same words of authority that Jeremiah uses (“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…”), Hananiah predicts that in two years’ time, the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon over Judah will be broken. Everything that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away, especially the vessels from the Temple, will be brought back. Jeconiah, the exiled son of King Jehoiakim, and all the exiles will also return. Jehoiakim had been brought off to Babylon in 597 BC. Saying that all this would take place within two years directly contradicted what Jeremiah had predicted earlier, namely, that the Babylonian occupation would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12).

Jeremiah then makes a response to Hananiah’s prophecy. In a strongly sarcastic tone he says it would be wonderful if the words of Hananiah were indeed true and that the exiles and the Temple vessels could return. Then he gives a warning. In the past (“from ancient times”), prophets normally forecast war, famine and plague. Very often their prophecies came true because these things were likely to happen anyway. They were the results of the people’s sinfulness and idolatry.

But, Jeremiah says:

…the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

In other words, Hananiah’s genuineness as a prophet will only be proved if his prophecy about Nebuchadnezzar is fully realised and peace returns to Judah and Jerusalem. Which, of course, did not happen.

As if to prove his point by a symbolical gesture, Hananiah then removes a wooden yoke from the shoulder of Jeremiah and smashes it. This, he predicts, is how the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar will be broken within two years. By so acting, Hananiah was perhaps symbolically trying to break the power of Jeremiah’s earlier prophecies, which contradicted his own.

At that point, Jeremiah went off, but Yahweh soon had a message for him. Hananiah is to be told:

You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them!

Now, an iron yoke will be placed on the shoulders off all the peoples Nebuchadnezzar has conquered and they will be reduced to servitude, along with their animals. The yoke of the King of Babylon will not be broken until the Lord sees fit to do so. It will, of course, eventually be broken but the pie-in-the-sky promises of Hananiah will be proved illusory.

Jeremiah then confronts Hananiah. He is no true prophet; he has not been sent by God. Thanks to him the people have been given a false sense of security. Hananiah will be removed and he will be sent to his death within the year. And this indeed happened. Making false predictions was tantamount to rebellion and was punishable by death. He who had predicted restoration within two years himself died within two months.

The fulfilment of this short-term prophecy by Jeremiah gives credibility to his other more important prophecies. It was, in a way, an indication of who was the true and who was the false prophet and which of their predictions about the future should be believed.

Perhaps Hananiah meant well and he may even have believed what he told the people. On the other hand, he may have been simply seeking popularity and his own advantage. His words were in fact little more than propaganda with little basis in reality.

Jeremiah had earned a great deal of unpopularity in predicting suffering and defeat for his people and in telling them in the plainest words that their difficulties were entirely due to their own failure to follow God’s way. Very often the truth hurts, but we need to hear it. There are times and places for encouragement (the apocalyptic literature is full of it), but there are also times when people need to be brought face to face with reality.

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