In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 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. 4 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.”
5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD; 6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles. 7 But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9 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.”
10 Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, and broke it.
11 And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the LORD: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way.
12 Sometime after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: 13 Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the LORD: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! 14 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals. 15 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. 16 Therefore thus says the LORD: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the LORD.”
17 In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.
Like the previous chapter this occurs in the time of King Zedekiah, the king appointed by King Nebuchadnezzar after the initial exile of the nobles and elites in 596 BCE. It is a time where the Kingdom of Judah has already suffered one defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and Jeremiah’s words have been shown to be a more accurate reading of the times than the many other prophets around him, yet even in a time of defeat the withdrawing of Babylonian forces and the rise of a new Egyptian dynasty leads to a political and religious resurgence of the ideology that the Kingdom of Judah, the temple and Jerusalem are the chosen people because of the Davidic king, the temple and the city of David not because of the covenant they are called to live out of. It is a time where there remain powerful competing visions of what it means to be the people of God, and where prophets have very different messages.
Hananiah son of Azzur proclaims a message that people want to hear, that their time of punishment is over, that the vessels of the temple taken away from Jerusalem will soon be returned along with the King Jeconiah and the other leaders taken into exile. It is a message of hope in a time of confusion and chaos and it is a message that even Jeremiah would rather hear, but Jeremiah also knows it runs counter to his experience of God’s message. The prophet Hananiah acts in visual ways similar to Jeremiah. Jeremiah wears the yoke symbolizing the domination of King Nebuchadnezzar being a divinely allowed reign. Hananiah shatters that yoke as a symbol of the ending of that reign.
For the people how do they tell a false from a true prophet? Ultimately it is only once their words become reality, especially for the prophet of hope and peace. For the prophets who prophesy destruction that never comes there is the reality expressed by the prophet Joel:
Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who know whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind. Joel 2: 13b-14a
We have seen throughout Jeremiah that God’s desire is to turn, but at this point the people have crossed a threshold where there is no immediate return. Jeremiah’s words, although unheard, are meant to bring about repentance in the hope of averting an even greater disaster. Hananiah’s words bring a comfortable lie which allows people to trust in a false promise and ideology which leads them once more into conflict with Babylon and into the greater exile of 586 BCE.
Jeremiah’s words and prophecy would have been unsettling and unpopular and treasonous, but that doesn’t mean they were untrue. In many times, including our own, it is often easier to speak the easy lie that doesn’t challenge anyone’s preconceptions than the hard truth. We have seen in previous chapters that speaking as a prophet has a high price for those prophets who come in conflict with the royal and priestly authorities of Jeremiah’s time. Yet for Jeremiah his calling places him between the God who will not be taken for granted and the shepherds who have led the flock astray. Yet Jeremiah continues his impassioned plea to attempt to prevent the destruction of the city, temple and people he loves. Yet, the people to use the poetic language of the gospel of John’s prologue:
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him John 1:11
Yet the easy truth covered the harsh reality, the promised return to independence combined with political allegiances to Egypt and other regional kingdoms would only exchange the wooden yoke for an iron yoke, allegiance to Babylon while remaining in the land to the harsh reality of exile in a foreign land.