One prophet tells the people the truth. The other prophet tells the people what they want to hear. One sounds like a brave preacher who endures scorn for speaking the word the Lord gave him. The other sounds like a smooth-talker whom everybody fawns over because his words are more to their liking and keeps them comfortable.
Both prophets interpret the events going on around them very differently. The event was the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem between the initial attack in 597 BCE but before the devastating destruction of 587 BCE. The people don’t know what to think or what to do.
Hananiah offers a word that sounds like hope. He advises resistance, trusting that Judah can shake off the attack of the Babylonians. The sense of defeat will last only two short years but Judah will rise up triumphant. All the discomfort and loss will be worth it.
Jeremiah offers a word that sounds like defeatist. He tells the people to accept what has happened and to prepare for a long time of exile. He doesn’t really want this outcome (Jer. 28:6), in fact time and again Jeremiah cries out to God saying he hates always being the bearer of bad news. But in his mind and heart, Jeremiah knows he is called to name the reality of the situation / speak the truth, as disheartening as it may be.
In chapter 29:5 Jeremiah says, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Out of context, these words sound encouraging and hopeful. It sounds like Jeremiah wants them to plan for a prosperous future; to embrace what life has to offer and run with it. Yet, in the context of the Babylonian siege, these words must have sounded like resignation. One commentator wrote, “…we should add to the words “build houses” the phrase “in the last place you want to live.” Jeremiah carried out the prophetic sign-act of wearing a yoke to symbolize the relationship between Judah and Babylon. Jeremiah believed that God would act again, just not anytime soon. So he encouraged the people to make the best of a bad situation and not try to get out of resist it because that would only make things worse.
Jeremiah also sets out in this passage the criteria for true prophecy: How do you know when a prophet’s words are truth? You only know after the outcome of events. The problem is that the people couldn’t just wait to see what would happen in two years. They needed to decide whose advice to follow. Jeremiah: practice acceptance, and wait for God to act later? Hananiah: plan for resistance, for God is on our side and will bring this conflict to a swift end? They had to make a choice based on what they saw, what they understood and what they were willing to believe.
We don’t always know which prophet speaks the truth in our own time. In some circumstances, simply accepting and adjusting to the status quo comes at too high a price. It is those times that the most faithful, Christian response is not acceptance of the status quo or not allowing things to remain as they stand. Yet, in other circumstances, the most faithful, Christian response may be learning to build a house in the last place you want to live.
Jeremiah’s prophetic words in this passage teach us that there are times when acceptance is the faithful response. When do we settle in and accept what life has given us? While Hananiah’s words advices us that there are times when resistance is the more faithful response. When do we resist and throw off the shackles of the life we don’t want or deserve?
Jeremiah and Hananiah set those choices before us. Recognizing those circumstances and choices requires wisdom, discernment, and ignoring the voice in our head that tells us what we want to hear. May we seek wisdom, understanding and discernment in our own lives and for our own times.
Grace & Peace,