“Thus speaketh YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two full years will I bring again into this place all the vessels of YHWH’s house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried to Babylon: and I will bring again to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah, that went to Babylon, saith YHWH; for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 28:2-4).
Judah’s situation in August 593 BCE was precarious to say the least.
In 597 or 596 Nebuchadnezzar had sent his armies against Judah; he besieged Jerusalem, and Jeconiah king of Judah capitulated (2 Kings 24:8-12). At that time Nebuchadnezzar took Jeconiah, his family, and all the nobility and the craftsmen out of Judah and into Babylonian exile along with all the gold treasures and instruments in the Temple (2 Kings 24:13-16; Ezekiel 3:1-3). Nebuchadnezzar intended to humiliate Judah, attempting to deny them any reason to continue to rebel against him and his rule. Judah felt that humiliation; who was this pagan king to deprive the house of YHWH of its implements, and to take away their divinely ordained ruler?
Between 596 and 588 Judah remained in this precarious situation: their previous king remained in exile in Babylon; the Temple’s implements and vessels were in Babylon; a son of Josiah appointed by Nebuchadnezzar sat on the throne, yet was intended to be a Babylonian lackey. The king of Egypt was all too willing to foment rebellion in Judah; such kept Nebuchadezzar out of Egypt. And, above all, most people in Judah had fervent confidence in YHWH their God to deliver them from any trouble; after all, had He not preserved Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah (2 Kings 19:35-37)? Was He not the God of Israel, and was not the Temple in Jerusalem where He had made His name to dwell (Jeremiah 7:4)? Did YHWH not promise that a descendant of David would reign over Judah forever (2 Samuel 7:12-13)? Thus, YHWH was great; Judah is great; Judah would surely overcome Babylon as he did Assyria.
During this time Jeremiah prophesied a very uncomfortable message (Jeremiah 27:1-22): YHWH had given authority over the whole world to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon! Those who would willingly serve Nebuchadnezzar would remain in their land and things would go well with them; those who rebel against Nebuchadnezzar would be devastated and removed from their land (Jeremiah 7:1-8, 11-13). Jeremiah confirmed YHWH’s decree: the implements of His house would go to Babylon, and remain in Babylon, until the day YHWH would again visit His people (Jeremiah 27:19-22). Meanwhile Jeremiah, in the name and word of YHWH, warned Zedekiah and the people against trusting in those false prophets who would tell them that they did not have to serve the king of Babylon; they prophesy falsely and did not actually hear a word of YHWH (Jeremiah 27:9-10, 14-18).
In most Biblical accounts regarding false prophets that would be the end of it; this time, however, we are granted a glimpse of what took place. After Jeremiah prophesied such things Hananiah came forward and declared the “word of YHWH” that the yoke of Babylon had been broken, and within two years both Jeconiah and the Temple implements would be returned to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 28:1-3). Hananiah would break the symbolic yoke Jeremiah bore, and again declared that within two years the yoke of the king of Babylon would be broken (Jeremiah 28:10-11).
It is difficult to fully appreciate the contrast between Jeremiah and Hananiah when we encounter this story well after the fact. We have the benefit of knowing just how accurate Jeremiah is and how delusional Hananiah is; we are interpreting all of these events in light of the apocalypse which would come upon Judah six years later. Furthermore, we also look at these events in light of how they were understood during and after the exile: YHWH was absolutely judging the nation for their idolatry and iniquity. Nevertheless, at the time, none of this was immediately obvious or evident. The average “Judahite on the street” would have known of Jeremiah and Hananiah and probably harbored some skepticism and doubt about Jeremiah. It would be difficult for him to imagine how things could get as awful as Jeremiah portended. YHWH might get miffed about idolatry and iniquity, but to have His house destroyed by pagans? For Judah to be exiled entirely? That seemed to go against everything they believed about and understood regarding YHWH as their God.
Hananiah, on the other hand, was telling them something which made complete sense. YHWH would get the victory over Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. YHWH would make Judah great again. Everything would be as it “should” be, with the descendant of David on the throne of Judah ruling over the land with the Temple full of its implements in their midst, the place where YHWH made His name to dwell.
The Judahites would perhaps have liked to live in the fantasy land suggested by Hananiah, but as it is often the case, reality would intervene. As a result of Hananiah’s message of rebellion YHWH condemned him to death through Jeremiah; in October 593, Hananiah died (Jeremiah 28:15-17). Both 591 and 590 would come and go; Nebuchadnezzar remained on the throne of Babylon, his power unbroken, and Jeconiah and the Temple implements remained in Babylon. In January 588 Nebuchadnezzar began another siege of Jerusalem; by July 9, 586, a breach had been made in the wall, and the Babylonians fully conquered Jerusalem, tore down the Temple, and exiled most of the rest of the inhabitants, just as Jeremiah had warned (2 Kings 25:1-21).
We do well to heed the warning and lesson of Hananiah and Jeremiah. There will never be a lack of people who are willing to want to make some land or idea “great again.” There will always be those who wish to reinforce the status quo, to tell people the message they want to hear, the one that suits their cultural and even theological sensibilities. We will want to believe them; their perspective makes us feel better about ourselves, that we are actually great or can be great again. Then there are those who are considered cranks, “Debbie Downers,” those who warn against complacency and who might say things that deeply offend our sensibilities, our comfort, and perhaps even our theology. We do not want to believe them; we may feel that they are actually disloyal or seditious against the purposes of the state, and perhaps even against the purposes of God.
In our own day we do not have the benefit of hindsight just yet. Things may get better; or, perhaps, today is better than tomorrow, and we wish to remain blind to that fact. Somehow or another reality will intervene; someone’s view will prove to be the delusion it always had been. Will we have accepted the delusion and the lie in the search for comfort, or will we be justified by how events transpire, no matter how awful those events prove to be? We do well to heed the message of the prophets, to follow Jesus the Christ, and to recognize that the message of His life will always prove to be cantankerous and offensive to those in society!
“Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy: for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same manner did their fathers unto the prophets…Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke 6:22-23, 26).
Ethan R. Longhenry