Jeremiah 28:1-17.
Discerning the Truth

Copyright © 2008, American Journal of Biblical Theology   Scripture quotes from KJV

What is truth?  Secular cultures have employed philosophical debate for centuries in an attempt to come to some form of truth.  Scientists have little difficulty with the concept of truth.  The difference between the two is the result of a simple difference between science and philosophy.  A truth is proved only by placing it against an inviolable standard.  An engineer can easily prove that the circumference of a circle is longer than its radius because of the standards of measurement.  Such standards are difficult to find in the abstract world of thought and behavior.  Different cultures and beliefs employ different standards of thought and behavior.  Consequently, secular philosophy has little regard for, or interest in, any absolute truth, usually denying its existence.  Philosophy argues that what is true for you is fine, and what is true for me is fine, but they do not necessarily need to agree.  The secularist can argue that truth is relative, conditioned and filtered by cultural beliefs. 

Left without any absolute truth, society is left to wander into any and all forms of behaviors, buffeted "to-and-fro" by every wind of doctrine (James 1).  The rejection of absolute truth is to surrender any reliable and dependable foundation upon which to build any system of belief or behavior.  This baseless existence was not God's purpose for man.  God has provided a standard that forms reliable truth.  Instead of looking to secular philosophy, the wise man looks to a different source:

Psalm 86:11a.  Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth.

Meeting us at our point of need, God has provided us with the foundational truth that serves as that inviolable standard against which all thought and behavior can be tested.  Furthermore, God's truth has the power to set people free from the consequences of a secular philosophy. 

John 8:32.  You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

Consequently, an important part of the Christian life is the discernment of the truth of God's Word, found in the Holy Scriptures and taught by sincere and godly teachers and preachers.  How can I decide whether a person who claims to have a message from God is speaking the truth?  What is my responsibility to the Lord when I am speaking to others about God?  Since not everyone who claims to speak for God is a true messenger, God's people must use discernment in deciding whom to believe.

While once traveling to Wake Forest, I made a poor navigational choice and found myself stuck in stalled, congested traffic on Interstate Route 40. I was trying to find a shortcut from the proven route I already knew would get me to my destination.  Usually I navigate by following my nose, making judgments based upon common sense and my general perception of compass direction. However, this time my nose didn't work.  I now needed to get off of the highway and use back roads to find State Route 1 that would take me to the seminary.  I had never been in this community before.  However, realizing the folly of my original plan, I changed my navigational methodology.  Instead of "following my nose", I pulled over, fired up my laptop computer, and used a street-level map program that actually gave me the full set of driving directions.  However, instead of taking the usual two hours to get to Southeastern Seminary, the delay caused the trip to take almost four hours. By the time I arrived in Wake Forest the seminary library had closed, and I could not get the books I needed for my research.

We often find ourselves unsure of our direction, and we are somewhat clueless as to how to navigate through our problems.  We draw on a variety of resources as we make decisions that affect the direction we take.  Sometimes we rely on wrong sources such as ignorant but well-meaning people, dishonest people, uninspired writings, or our own ignorance.

Our entire secular world is listening to the wrong sources, and much of the sin of this world finds its way into the church.  The church today has become much like the ancient Israelites of Judea.  There was a faithful remnant who sought the LORD, but they were greatly outnumbered by faithless Jews who preferred to immerse themselves in the pagan and secular culture that surrounded them.  Like much of the church today, ancient Judeans preferred to listen to those who told them what they wanted to hear.  Early in its formation, the nation turned away from God as their source of authority and truth as they followed the pagan culture of the secular society in which they were immersed.  They did so by putting their trust in godless, prideful and self-indulgent leadership.  This is also not unlike the situation in the Christian church today.  The modern church is immersed in a pagan and secular world that rejects the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Yet, the church is so integrated into this secular culture it is almost indistinguishable from it.  Church members are also very willing to follow the teaching of their priests, pastors, and teachers, particularly those who have great oratory or leadership skills.  Just as the nation of Judah followed after the sensual gratification of their godless culture, those who count themselves among the body of Christ are in danger of making the same mistakes as we find acceptable many of the godless philosophies of our day.  We tend to establish our set of beliefs based upon the myriad of messages that bombard us from so many directions.  How can we know if what we are hearing is true?  How do we choose from among these sources, and how can we discern the truth of their messages?

Jeremiah 28:1.

And it came to pass the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, and in the fifth month, that Hananiah the son of Azur the prophet, which was of Gibeon, spake unto me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and of all the people, saying,

This chapter contains most of the Biblical description of the prophet, Hananiah son of Azzur. This is the only reference in scripture to Azzur, and the book of Jeremiah contains the only references to Hananiah.  Hananiah claimed to be a prophet of God, and through that claim became very influential in the Jerusalem temple.  He looked like a prophet, talked like a prophet, claimed to be a prophet, and was fully accepted by the people as a prophet.  The people of ancient Israel and Judah came to rely on prophets in the Old Testament to reveal God's word to them.  Was this God's original plan for them? Was it God's purpose that people would be led by prophets?

Exodus 19:5-6a.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  

God intended for all of his children  to have full access to Himself.  It is not God's plan that prophets or priests stand between Him and His children.  It is not God's plan that His children rely on prophets, priests, or any others to serve as intermediary.  God's plan is that all of his children are together a "kingdom of priests" with each individual owning the privilege of direct access to Him.  However, the Israelites refused the privilege, and many Christians continue to do the same today.

Exodus 20:18-19.  When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die"

Though they were taught differently, the people demanded that Moses speak to them in God's place.  Consequently, the people came to rely on Moses, Joshua, and later the judges and prophets. What makes a person acceptable to the people as a prophet? (1) He first declares himself so, and (2) the people learn to trust him by the proof of his testimony.  Prophets were effective as a voice for God only if the people chose to listen.

Likewise, we tend to rely on other individuals to speak God's word for us.  We are very willing to give our ear to trusted priests, pastors and teachers. By what authority do we do this?  Like the ordination of the Old-Testament prophets we ordain our Christian ministers as (1) they proclaim their call to ministry, and (2) their testimony proves true.  Hananiah was such a prophet. Consider his statement in Verse 2.

Jeremiah 28:2-4.

Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3Within two full years will I bring again into this place all the vessels of the LORDíS house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried them to Babylon: 4And I will bring again to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah, that went into Babylon, saith the LORD: for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.

How did Hananiah declare himself to be a prophet? He used the prophetic formula, "Thus speaketh the Lord...."  I suggest that we should be very discerning whenever anyone says, "God told me." Though it may be true, it usually is not. Very few of us have such a discernment of God's will and word that we can make such statements. Twice in my life I have heard the clear voice of God when He told me very specific words.   Yet I often hear people proclaim their hearing of God's voice every time an idea pops into their head.  What do we rely on when we cannot hear the clear voice of God on issues of concern?  We can find indications of God's will when we spend quality time in the scriptures and in prayer and as we listen with discernment to counsel of trusted Christian friends.

When Hananiah gave this Prophecy, Nebuchadnezzar had placed Judah under a loose siege, taking everything of value (including many of their political and business leaders) off to Babylon. However, the common people were free to stay in Judah and worship as long as they did not rebel against Babylon. To illustrate this yoke of bondage, God told Jeremiah to wear a yoke around his neck.

This is what the LORD said to me: "Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck.  Then send word to the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon through the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to Zedekiah king of Judah.  Give them a message for their masters and say, 'This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: "Tell this to your masters:  With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please.  Now I will hand all your countries over to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him.  All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him. (Jer 27:2-7.)

According to Jeremiah, how long is the bondage to continue? At least two generations, or about 40 years, similar to the period of the wandering of the Children of Israel in the wilderness immediately following their exodus from Egypt, the idiomatic "time of this land."  It was actually a total of 70 years before Babylon would be overthrown and the people would return to Judah.  According to Hananiah, how long is the bondage to continue?  Two years.  Hananiah also promised that their king, their leaders, and all of the temple possessions would be returned.  This never took place.

Of the two prophets, which do you suppose the people of Jerusalem would to listen to?  Certainly the Prophecy of Hananiah would be more popular.  However, the testimony of the two conflicted; so only one of these could be true. The people wanted to rebel against Babylon, and Jeremiah had been teaching them to be obedient to Nebuchadnezzar and tolerant of Babylon so that they would not be annihilated by this far-superior military power. (Jer. 27:1-15).  This was a very unpopular position. Jeremiah warned the people against following those who would lead them into direct conflict with Babylon, a battle that they cannot win militarily, and a battle that God had promised they would lose.   Certainly, Hananiah's Prophecy was the good news the people wanted to hear. His testimony would be more popular, but was it true? Consider Hananiah's credentials as a prophet:

(1) Hananiah means, "The Lord is Gracious."
(2) He was the son of "Azzur [the prophet]."
(3) He was from Gibeon, a famous worship center.
(4) He delivered his Prophecy in the temple, in the presence of the priests.
(5) He spoke in confident, prophetic language.
(6) He professed to quote God directly.
(7) He was called a prophet by the people.
(8) His message was one the people wanted to hear.

We may recall that Jeremiah was from Anathoth; from a line of prophets who had been rejected since the reign of King Solomon.  Furthermore, unlike the aged prophets, Jeremiah was a young man, one who would not appear prophetic to the people.  However, it is not the people who speak God's word to the prophet, it is God.  It is God who chooses who will speak for Him.  Hananiah had all of the credentials of a prophet as far as the people were concerned.  Why would they listen to Jeremiah?  It is clear that they did not.

Jeremiah, in answering Hananiah, first outlines true credentials for a prophet.

Jeremiah 28:5-9.

Then the prophet Jeremiah said unto the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests, and in the presence of all the people that stood in the house of the LORD, 6Even the prophet Jeremiah said, Amen: the LORD do so: the LORD perform thy words which thou hast prophesied, to bring again the vessels of the LORDíS house, and all that is carried away captive, from Babylon into this place. 7Nevertheless hear thou now this word that I speak in thine ears, and in the ears of all the people; 8The prophets that have been before me and before thee of old prophesied both against many countries, and against great kingdoms, of war, and of evil, and of pestilence. 9The prophet which prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the LORD hath truly sent him.

In verses 5 and 6, Jeremiah agrees in his own spirit with Hananiah's testimony. He agrees that it would be wonderful if his Prophecy of a short siege was true. However, Jeremiah knows the prideful folly of Hananiah's words.  Jeremiah's criticism comes in verse 7.

(1) A true prophet will demonstrate love for the people. This inspired Jeremiah's "Amen" in verse 6.
(2) A true prophet's testimony will give people hope, consistent with God's revealed word. In verse 8 Jeremiah describes false prophets who have prophesied only a message of judgment and gave people no hope.
(3) A true prophet's predictions will come true.
(4) A true prophet will always lead people to serve God, as Jeremiah always did. They will not lead people away from devotion to God. Such false prophets often lead people to come under their own authority instead of that of God.
(5) True servants of God can discern whether a prophet is true or false. Jeremiah had no problem discerning Hananiah's spirit. Consequently he did not have to hesitate in his response. Note in verse 6 he even says, "listen to what I have to say." He was that confident of Hananiah's error.

A message may not be true just because it pleases us, or that it makes a lot of logical sense. Actually, a teaching that pleases us often is false because,

Isaiah 55:8 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD.

Hananiah's message was one that the people wanted to hear.  However, it was quite false.  Hananiah's message served only to serve Hananiah's own desire for attention.  Jeremiah had laid down a challenge to Hananiah by his criticism. What was Hananiah's response?

Jeremiah 28:10-11.

Then Hananiah the prophet took the yoke from off the prophet Jeremiahís neck, and broke it. 11And Hananiah spake in the presence of all the people, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all nations within the space of two full years. And the prophet Jeremiah went his way.

Have you ever tried to have a rational discussion with an irrational person? It is quite frustrating, and for the most part, impossible. Hananiah took the yoke from the shoulder of Jeremiah, a violation both of Jeremiah's prophecy and person, and destroyed it.  Hananiah then repeated his position. It was a violent refutation of Jeremiah, leaving Jeremiah without the yoke that God Himself had commanded that he wear, the anointed illustration of the truth of Jeremiah's prophecy.

Certainly Jeremiah knew that Hananiah was a lunatic, but what was he to do? Did he doubt the truth of his own prophecy? Did he doubt his calling as a prophet?   Jeremiah was a human, and like all people he dealt with doubts and fears.   Consequently, it is possible that this event could have challenged Jeremiah's faith. Rather than attack Hananiah, Jeremiah simply left, providing God an opportunity to reveal a correct response.  God is gracious and came to meet Jeremiah at his point of need.

Jeremiah 28:12-13.

Then the word of the LORD came unto Jeremiah the prophet, after that Hananiah the prophet had broken the yoke from off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, saying, 13Go and tell Hananiah, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Thou hast broken the yokes of wood; but thou shalt make for them yokes of iron.

What did God reveal to Jeremiah?  Hananiah's prophecy of rebellion would replace the light yoke of wood: Babylon's loose control of Judah, with an iron yoke of bondage making their servitude far more odious and burdensome.  Jeremiah was to go to Hananiah and rebuke his false prophecy. Hananiah's Prophecy may have been presented with confidence, but it was nonetheless, false, and would lead the people away from God's intended will.   Hananiah would be responsible for the people's choice to rebel, and he would suffer for his error.

Jeremiah 28:14-17.

For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; I have put a yoke of iron upon the neck of all these nations, that they may serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and they shall serve him: and I have given him the beasts of the field also. 15Then said the prophet Jeremiah unto Hananiah the prophet, Hear now, Hananiah; The LORD hath not sent thee; but thou makest this people to trust in a lie. 16Therefore thus saith the LORD; Behold, I will cast thee from off the face of the earth: this year thou shalt die, because thou hast taught rebellion against the LORD. 17So Hananiah the prophet died the same year in the seventh month.

Hananiah committed three sins for which he would die.

(1) He had spoken in God's name when God had not sent him to be his messenger. (vs 15) Consider:

James 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

It is a serious and dangerous act to presume to know God's will and Word, and to relate it to others. Those who do so have the power to mislead the people, and the consequences of such misleading acts are serious.  Consider the damage that has been done by cult leaders who inspired violence in the name of God.  Consider the damage to the gospel that has been done by some of the more powerful, yet fallen, evangelists over the years. However, far more damage is done to the kingdom of God on earth by pastors and teachers who teach their own doctrine, driven by their own pride and desire for position and control.  I recently heard a pastor declare to me his unchallengeable "spiritual authority" over the members of his congregation, a dangerous and inappropriate position.  By this statement he views himself superior to his congregation rather than a servant of it, and usurps the Holy Spirit's position as the authority in the church.  There are many such errors in our church today that vary little from that of Hananiah.

(2) By leading the people into his own view, he had caused the people to trust in a lie. (Vs 15)  People will trust the teaching of their respected pastors and teachers.  Each time we find ourselves preaching or teaching God's word, we must be certain that it is His word and not our own.  If we teach our own ideas with the confidence and eloquence we use to present the truth, people will listen and often believe, and by so doing, be misled.  There is no evidence that Hananiah was insincere.  It is simply evident that he was sincerely wrong because the source of his testimony was not the Word of God.

(3) Hananiah led the people away from God, teaching them rebellion against the Lord (Vs 17).

Hananiah died only two months after Jeremiah proclaimed God's judgment.  Jeremiah's prophecy was soon vindicated. The only other reference to Hananiah in scripture comes later when Hananiah's grandson, Irijah, a captain of the guard, accused Jeremiah of defecting to the Babylonians and had him beaten and imprisoned.  Like father, like son.

There are some characteristics that true messengers of God's Word should demonstrate in their life and message:

(1) True messengers speak God's Word. Their word will be consistent with God's gospel, leading people to repentance, salvation and to discipleship.  Their teaching will never knowingly be in conflict with the scriptural context of their message.
(2) True messengers live like Jesus. Their attitudes and actions will reflect God's word in their lives.
(3) True messengers speak in love. Their words will be consistent with God's unconditional love for all people.
(4) True messengers demonstrate the truth. Their lives will demonstrate how people are to respond to God's Word.

If we apply these guidelines to those from whom we receive spiritual guidance, we may be able to discern their ability to speak the truth. 

I was once playing tennis with a respected pastor of a church of about 400 members.  I had always felt uneasy about this pastor.  There was something about him that I knew was wrong, but could not quite define it.  Then one day he told me a very vulgar joke.  I was amazed that (1) he would think that I would find it funny, and (2) it was a pastor who was telling me this.  I knew that day that this pastor was a Hananiah.  It was not long after this he was exposed for years of adultery and was soon gone from the ministry. 

If we listen to the Holy Spirit and stay engaged in our study of scripture, we will be more able to discern false teaching.  God did not call upon us to rely on other people as His voice, but would rather have us come to Him directly through prayer and through the study of His word.  However, we do learn from each other's study and experience.  Those of us who teach must endeavor to teach the truth, and those of us who submit ourselves to others teaching must listen with a discerning ear.   If we do, we will recognize the difference between a Jeremiah and a Hananiah, and will not be led astray.

Let our testimony always be that of the wisdom of David who wrote, 

Psalm 86:11a.  Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth.

What is truth?  Truth is that one inviolable standard against which we can measure all thought and behavior.  That truth is God's Word, given by the Father, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and incarnated in Jesus Christ.  God's word is infallible, and is without any mixture of contradiction or error.  God's Word is reliable, and will stand when all others have fallen.   Let us turn away from those worldly voices of falsehood that would lead us away from God's plan and purpose for our lives and place our trust fully in Him.  Turning from the sins of this world let us admit that we have sinned and come short of His glory,  let us place our belief fully in the truth of God's Word, and let us confess our faith and trust in Him as our Savior and Lord.  Only when we have done this will we really come to the point where we can discern that which is really truth.