Early in Israel’s history, at the beginning of the monarchy, a group of prophets arose in Israel whose primary function was to challenge the policies of the king. The emergence of the state in Israel brought great changes to the social and religious life of the nation that greatly affected the tribal structures of Israelite society.
Within the development of the prophetic movement in Israel, there arose two types of prophets. The first type was a group of independent prophets who claimed to speak on behalf of Yahweh and who warned the people to return to the old traditions of the covenant. The second type were those prophets who were paid by the temple or the court and who proclaimed the kind of message their patrons desired to hear. The Greek Bible, the Septuagint, called them pseudo prophetes (Jeremiah 14:14 LXX), “false prophets.” These professional prophets came to be known as false prophets not because of their desire to mislead the people, but rather, because they misinterpreted Yahweh’s intentions at times when the nation was facing great dangers.
C. E. Schenk, writing in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia wrote: “In times of moral darkness the false prophets, predicting smooth things for the nation, independent of repentance, consecration and the pursuit of spiritual ideals, were honored above the true prophets who emphasized the moral greatness of Yahweh and the necessity of righteousness for the nation.”
True prophets proclaimed a message of God’s judgment against the rulers and the people because of their violation of the religious and legal traditions of the nation. On the other hand, false prophets preached a message of peace and salvation and predicted the nation’s deliverance from the hands of their enemies. In the end, true prophets were distinguished from false prophets by the outcome of their respective prophesies: “A prophet who predicts peace must carry the burden of proof. Only when his predictions come true can it be known that he is really from the Lord” (Jeremiah 28:9 NLT).
Two prophets who represent these styles of prophetic ministries were Jeremiah and Hananiah (Jeremiah 28). Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, was a peripheral prophet who proclaimed God’s judgment against Judah and the exile in Babylon. Hananiah, on the other hand, proclaimed an optimistic message in which he declared that Jehoiachin, the exiled king of Judah, would be restored and that the vessels of the temple which were taken to Babylon, would be returned to Jerusalem within two years.
The ministries of Jeremiah and Hananiah occurred at a time of great crisis in the life of Judah. In 597 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar had come to Jerusalem, deported Jehoiachin, the royal family, political and religious leaders, and had taken many of the vessels of the temple as trophies of war to Babylon.
The confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah, the son of Azzur and a prophet from Gibeon, took place in the temple (Jeremiah 28:1). The confrontation was a dispute between two prophets who were guided by different understanding of what God was doing in Judah’s conflict with the Babylonians. On one side was Jeremiah, a prophet whose ministry was based on the old covenant traditions which the Lord had established with Israel at Sinai. Jeremiah was profoundly touched by what he perceived to be Judah’s lack of obedience to the demands of the covenant. Jeremiah, who had been called to preach a message of judgment (Jeremiah 1:10), urged the people to return to Yahweh and avoid the total destruction of the nation. Jeremiah saw the coming of the Babylonians and the deportation of Jehoiachin as the beginning of a long exile that would last seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11).
Jeremiah’s message to Judah was that the nation should submit to Babylonia and not oppose it, for submission to Babylon was ordained by Yahweh and that out of the humiliation of defeat and servitude, a new covenant would be established with Israel and the nation would be renewed for service in the world.
On the other side of the confrontation was Hananiah, a well-known and popular prophet in Judah. Like Jeremiah, Hananiah probably knew the history of Yahweh’s mighty acts of salvation on behalf of Israel. Hananiah was probably a firm believer in the so-called Zion theology, a view that proclaimed the inviolability of Jerusalem. On the basis of this belief, Hananiah proclaimed that God would not allow the Babylonians to destroy the people of Judah.
These conflicting theological traditions became the reason for the confrontation between the two prophets. The narrative of their encounter in the temple is the story of two men striving to hear God’s voice and interpret contemporary events in terms of divine will.
The encounter between Jeremiah and Hananiah is a classic example of a dispute between a true and a false prophet and how they interpreted God’s will for the people and for the nation. Further, the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah provides a window into the problem of discerning a true prophet.
In their effort to interpret what God was doing through the coming of the Babylonians, Jeremiah used a legitimate hermeneutic in the right situation and Hananiah used a legitimate hermeneutic in the wrong context. When the people were confronted with two different understandings of what God was doing, how was the audience in the temple to recognize what God was doing in the midst of the anguish caused by the Babylonian invasion? Faced with two contradictory views of God’s work, which one should the people accept as the legitimate interpretation of God’s will? Which prophet was applying prophetic tradition properly to determine what God was doing in the current situation?
In future posts I will study the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah and will introduce the historical background of the confrontation between the two prophets, the theological perspectives each brought to the confrontation, some biblical characteristics of true prophets, and the outcome of the confrontation.
Studies on Jeremiah and Hananiah
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary