Waiting and listening

Published on Sunday 13 August 2017

So much of Jeremiah’s life was opposing false prophets, who were speaking their own mind and not the words of God.  Hananiah (in Jeremiah 28) was one of these.

The people of Israel are hard-pressed. Zedekiah was ‘king’ in name only.  The Babylonians were sweeping all before them.  Jeremiah was encouraging the people to co-operate because this was from God.  But many prophets were speaking words of peace, for example:

[Hananiah said,] ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.  Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place, and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the LORD, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’

Jeremiah 28.2-4 (NRSV)

To back up his ‘prophecy’, and rub it in Jeremiah’s face, Hananiah even takes the yoke that was round Jeremiah’s neck (Jeremiah’s own sign, of the judgement of God on his people, from chapter 27) and breaks it.

I imagine there was cheering in the ‘royal’ court when Hananiah spoke these words, completely (and visibly) contradicting Jeremiah’s prophecies.  Jeremiah’s response is the perfect example of how to respond to something you know is wrong in a gracious and godly manner – and with a humility that accepts you might be wrong yourself.

First, Jeremiah says, ‘Amen! May the LORD do so’ (6).  Then he reminds the people present that many prophets (including himself of course) have, ‘from ancient times prophesied war, famine and pestilence’ (8) – i.e. not peace. Finally he says,

‘As for 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.’

Jeremiah 28.9 (NRSV)

There was no angry, petulant, foot-stamping disagreement from Jeremiah, but an honest, ‘Well I hope you’re right.’ He didn’t even restate his case – he simply left.  Why?  Because Jeremiah could only speak the words God had given him (1.9, 20.9 etc.) – and in that moment, God did not give him anything to say.  That came later.

Some time after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah...

Jeremiah 28.12 (NRSV)

Only now does Jeremiah speak.  He speaks the words that he was probably itching to say after Hananiah publicly ridiculed and contradicted him, but didn’t because the word of the Lord had not yet come to him.  Until that moment, Jeremiah was silent because the words would have been his, not God’s.

Now, through Jeremiah, God prophesies over the false prophet his words of righteous judgement:

‘Listen, Hananiah, the LORD has not sent you, and you made this people trust a lie.  Therefore thus says the LORD: I am going to send you off the face the earth.  Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the LORD.’

Jeremiah 28.16 (NRSV)

Within weeks, Hananiah was dead.

It is so easy (for me) to react hastily to people we (I) believe are wrong, especially when they directly contradict us, or when something they say embarrasses us.  The put-down is easy, quoting Scripture back in their face, responding quickly.  But that is not what Jeremiah did.  After all, perhaps Hananiah was hearing correctly from God, who had relented from the coming disaster?  Either way, Jeremiah knew that he was on solid ground only when he spoke God’s words, when the word of the LORD came to him. So he waited until then, and then spoke obediently.

This is a lesson I need to learn again and again.  As a church leader, the words I speak publicly have power – whether or not those words come from me, or from God.  I pray often for wisdom, to know when to speak and when not to speak.  I pray often for the humility to listen, to God and to other people.  I pray often for the courage to speak faithful words, even when it is difficult.

The key word here is listen.  Listen first, and then speak – or stay silent, if you hear nothing.