Little is known about the prophet Hananiah except what is told about him in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 28:1-17). Hananiah appears to have been one of the nationalistic prophets who proclaimed a message of salvation and deliverance. Hananiah apparently was well known in Judah and respected by the people and the religious and political authorities. Hananiah was the son of Azzur and a prophet from Gibeon (Jeremiah 28:1). Gibeon is the modern el-Jib, a village five miles northwest of Jerusalem.
Hananiah was an optimistic prophet who proclaimed a message of hope for Judah. Optimistic prophets promoted the welfare of their communities by proclaiming Yahweh’s legitimation for the existing social order and by providing divine sanctions for long-held religious, political, and social views. Hananiah declared that in two years Yahweh would bring back to the temple all the vessels of the LORD’s house which Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had taken away and carried to Babylon (Jeremiah 28:3).
Optimistic prophets also supported the ruling dynasty and defended royal theology. However, while Hananiah likely was welcomed in the royal court because of his favorable message, he probably was not a court prophet in the same way the prophets employed by Ahab were (1 Kings 22:1-28). These court prophets were generally categorized in the Old Testament as false prophets because they proclaimed a message of prosperity and guaranteed military success unconditionally and without repentance.
Hananiah probably was not a court prophet nor a cultic prophet. Rather, he appeared to have a legitimacy as a prophet that was not derived from the court nor from the temple. Thus, it is in his role as a prophet of Yahweh that he challenged Jeremiah. Jeremiah and Hananiah appear in the temple as two legitimate but opposing prophets, confronting each others over what Yahweh was doing with the deportation of Judah and with the future of the nation.
The encounter between Jeremiah and Hananiah occurred in the fifth month of the fourth year of the reign of Zedekiah, King of Judah (Jeremiah 28:1), after the first deportation of Judah, which had occurred in 597 B.C. Jeremiah had been preaching disaster for Judah for some time before his meetings with Hananiah. According to Jeremiah, this disaster had come because Judah had tried to live a life independently of God, had engaged in unnatural sexual practices common in the worship of Baal, had ignored the covenant relationship, and did not heed the warnings of the prophets sent by Yahweh.
The first meeting between Jeremiah and Hananiah took place in the temple in the presence of the priests and all of the people (28:1). Jeremiah was well known as a prophet of Yahweh. Because he often was accused of stirring up trouble in the city, Jeremiah was disliked by many because of the message of doom he proclaimed.
On the other hand, Hananiah, seems to have been well liked by the people and the religious officials because of his optimistic message. His message was said to have come from Yahweh and he claimed to have the same authority Jeremiah had.
The issue confronting Judah and which was the focus of the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah was whether Yahweh was going to deliver the nation from the oppressive yoke imposed on Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, thereby allowing the royal family and the deported people to return to Judah with the vessels of the temple or whether the people of Judah should submit to Babylon as Jeremiah had been preaching. If Hananiah was right, Babylon would be defeated within two years, King Jehoiachin would be restored to the throne in Jerusalem, and the vessels of the temple would be brought back with him. If Jeremiah was right, Judah would continue as a vassal of Nebuchadnezzar and face seventy years of vassalage under Babylon (Jeremiah 25:11-12).
In 594 B. C., ambassadors from Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon gathered in Jerusalem to establish a treaty with Judah and plan a coordinated effort against Nebuchadnezzar. Yahweh told Jeremiah to make a yoke and put it on his neck and declare that he had given all the lands the ambassadors represented into the hands of his servant Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 27:6).
Jeremiah pleaded with Zedekiah not to revolt against Babylon. Rather, he urged submission to Nebuchadnezzar whom he insisted Yahweh had chosen to subjugate the land. Hananiah, on the other hand, probably was among those optimistic prophets who urged Zedekiah not to submit to the king of Babylon. These prophets were recommending the ratification of the treaty and open rebellion against Babylon because they believed Yahweh would favor Judah against Babylon (Jeremiah 27:14).
When Jeremiah confronted Hananiah in the temple, Jeremiah came wearing the wooden yoke on his neck. The yoke symbolized the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar which the king of Babylon would impose upon Judah and the other lands in the Ancient Near East (Jeremiah 27:8).
In that encounter, Hananiah was confident that he was bringing a message from Yahweh, a message that reflected his views that Babylon would soon be defeated. He predicted that within two years Jehoiachin would return from exile bringing with him the temple vessels taken by the Babylonians. So sure was Hananiah that he was speaking for Yahweh that he removed the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and broke it as a symbol that Yahweh would soon break the yoke Nebuchadnezzar had imposed on Judah. He said: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 28:2).
In the past Jeremiah had been very critical of other prophets because of their false message. However, Jeremiah does not criticize Hananiah for his optimistic oracle. It is possible that Jeremiah recognized God’s freedom to change his mind or that God had a different purpose which he now was revealing through Hananiah.
Jeremiah’s reticence may be due to the fact that he probably believed Hananiah to be a true prophet, one capable of speaking a genuine message from Yahweh or maybe because he genuinely wished that Hananiah’s message was correct, for he disliked his own. In response to Hananiah’s oracle, 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” (Jeremiah 28:6).
Jeremiah did not challenge Hananiah and his optimistic message. Rather, he left the temple quietly, without saying a word. The reason for Jeremiah’s silence was because he had no word from Yahweh at that juncture. For Jeremiah, to speak when Yahweh had not spoken, was to place himself among those who had been identified as false prophets.
Shortly after Jeremiah left the temple, Yahweh spoke to him and reaffirmed that his message was the true interpretation of what he was doing to Judah through the king of Babylon. Yahweh ordered Jeremiah to make an iron yoke, put it on his neck, and then confront Hananiah again. The LORD told Jeremiah: “Go, tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the LORD: You have broken wooden bars, but I will make in their place bars of iron. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put upon the neck of all these nations an iron yoke of servitude to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they shall serve him’” (Jeremiah 28:13-14).
After receiving this fresh revelation from Yahweh, Jeremiah returned to confront Hananiah again, confident that his message was the right message from Yahweh. Jeremiah rebuked Hananiah for prophesying falsely in Yahweh’s name. Jeremiah told Hananiah he would die that same year. Hananiah’s death would show that he was a false prophet, that his punishment was just punishment because to prophesy falsely was a capital offense punishable by death. (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20).
The severe sentence was meant to protect the people from the problem of false predictions of impending disaster or false hope of deliverance. As Jeremiah had predicted, in the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died (Jeremiah 28:17). The death of Hananiah vindicated Jeremiah and his prophetic ministry.
Studies on Jeremiah and Hananiah
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary