And it came to pass the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, in the fifth month, that Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet, who was of Gibeon, spake unto me in the house of YHWH, in the presence of the priests and of all the people, saying,
“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 28:1-4).
When reading the history of Israel it can be very easy to wonder why the Israelites would not listen to the prophets. They warned about upcoming dangers, and those dangers came to pass. Why were they so foolish?
While such a response is understandable we have to be very careful. The history of Israel in the Old Testament is true and told the way God wants it to be told. Yet, and for good reason, much of what was said and done in Israel was not preserved, especially the words of the false prophets. One exception to this is found with Hananiah son of Azzur in Jeremiah 28:1-17, and his example is quite instructive for us.
The context is set in Jeremiah 27:1-22: near the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah and son of Josiah YHWH told Jeremiah to make iron yokes to send to the kings of the neighboring nations with the decree that YHWH was giving all those nations, along with Judah, into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (ca. 596-592 BCE; Jeremiah 27:1-6). All those nations were to serve Nebuchadnezzar and his sons or suffer destruction; they should not listen to all the prophets, soothsayers, diviners, or anyone else who would presume to say that they will not have to serve the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 27:7-10). Those who served Nebuchadnezzar would stay in their land (Jeremiah 27:10). Jeremiah brought the same message to Zedekiah king of Judah: serve Nebuchadnezzar, stay in the land, and live, and do not listen to those who prophesy lies and speak falsely (Jeremiah 27:11-15). Jeremiah took the same message to the priests and the people, declaring that all things left in the Temple would also be taken to Babylon, but they would be restored on a later day of YHWH’s visitation (Jeremiah 27:16-22).
Within the same year we hear of Hananiah son of Azzur, called a prophet of Gibeon: he spoke to Jeremiah in the Temple in the presence of all the people (Jeremiah 28:1). His message was exactly what Jeremiah had warned against in Jeremiah 27:11-22: a claim that YHWH has broken the yoke of the king of Babylon, and within two years all those vessels which had been taken out of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in the days of Jehoiachin would be brought back to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 28:2-3; cf. 2 Kings 24:1-16, Daniel 1:1-2). Jeconiah (another name for Jehoiachin) king of Judah would return along with the other captives (Jeremiah 28:3; cf. Daniel 1:1-2). After Jeremiah challenged Hananiah’s legitimacy Hananiah broke the yoke bar Jeremiah was still wearing; YHWH through Jeremiah sharply condemned Hananiah to death for having spoken rebellion (Jeremiah 28:4-16). Within three months Hananiah was dead (Jeremiah 28:17). Two years later nothing much had changed in the geopolitical situation. Within six years Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, Zedekiah had been blinded and carted off to exile, and all that YHWH had spoken through Jeremiah had come to pass (Jeremiah 52:1-27). No doubt remained: YHWH spoke through Jeremiah but did not speak through Hananiah.
We can understand why most of the authors of Scripture do not take up space directly quoting false prophets; their messages proved false and it is better for us to hear the true words spoken by the faithful prophets (2 Peter 1:21). But it is good for us to see Hananiah’s words here as representative of what false prophets would say, why they would be motivated to say it, and why people believed them.
Hindsight, it is said, is 20/20; after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile it is easy to commend Jeremiah and condemn Hananiah. But the people of Judah in 592 BCE did not have that advantage. From their point of view Hananiah’s message was preferable not only politically but theologically as well. They believed YHWH was God of Israel; they believed He dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem. He would not give His glory to another. Had not the mighty Assyrians invaded about a century before and yet YHWH preserved Jerusalem from their grasp (701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:1-19:37)? If YHWH was their God, and He is greater than Marduk and the gods of Babylon, then surely He would preserve Jerusalem yet again. Judah would outlast Babylon as he had Assyria. Yes, the king, Temple furnishings, and the nobility had been exiled, but YHWH would bring them back. That made sense to the people. It was consistent with their expectations. Jeremiah’s message, on the other hand, was precisely not what anyone wanted to hear. Serve a foreign king? Submit to bondage? YHWH would see the rest of the vessels transported in exile to Babylon? The Babylonians would overrun the holy place? Such ideas were deeply offensive to the people of Judah, contrary to everything they believed about themselves, their God, and their land. No wonder they persecuted him and wanted him dead (Jeremiah 26:11-24)!
In the end Jeremiah was vindicated. He would have considered it cold comfort; he was not exactly excited about the prospect of watching the devastation of his people, his land, and the triumph of the pagan enemy. But he understood it was the judgment of YHWH on account of the transgressions and rebellion of the people. Few proved willing to listen to him beforehand; even afterward people questioned his sincerity (Jeremiah 43:1-4). The event was a tragedy all around, the greatest moment of crisis in Israelite history to that day.
Hananiah was not alone. Not a few prophets warn about the influence of false prophets and the suppression of the true message of prophets (Isaiah 29:10, Ezekiel 13:9, Micah 3:5, Zephaniah 3:4). Jesus warned His disciples to be concerned when all men spoke well of them, for thus they did to the false prophets who had come before them (Luke 6:26)! The false prophet’s message sounded better, made more sense, flattered people’s sensibilities, did not demand as much, and instilled complacency among the people. Viewed in that light it is not surprising the people listened to the false prophets. Their message was always easier.
The spirit of prophecy has passed on (1 Corinthians 13:8-10), yet there remain to this day those who speak falsely in the name of God. Their words sound good; they seem to make sense; they flatter people’s political and religious sensibilities; they often instill a sense of complacency. They are just as wrong and just as dangerous as was Hananiah (1 Timothy 4:1-4). Our trust must be in YHWH and in the truth He has revealed in Scripture, and we must test all spirits against that standard (2 Peter 1:20, 1 John 4:1-2). Let us put our trust in God in Christ, test all things, and proclaim His truth, no matter how unpopular!
Ethan R. Longhenry