Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

How do we hear a prophetic word anew for our moment?

Detail from Richard Norris Brooke's A Pastoral Visit, 1881

July 2, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 28:5-9

Few stories begin with the word “then.” With verse five, we are entering the scene mid-conversation. We need the whole chapter to understand the selected verses for today’s reading. So, when we read in worship this Sunday Jeremiah’s response without the introductory verses, it may feel like a random prophetic oracle with little relation to realityancient or contemporary. Why is Jeremiah shouting “Amen”?

The proclaimer will need to provide some context to Jeremiah’s speech; we may even need to read Jeremiah 28:1-4 also. 

Prophetic conflict during Babylonian control

The prophet Hananiah prophesies peace in the summer of 594 BCEafter the first deportation of Israel’s leadership to exile in 597 BCE, but before the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. This moment in the nation’s life is one of intense loss and worry as they look into an uncertain future. What will happen to their country in the face of this overpowering empire? What might God be trying to communicate to them through these atrocities? 

Jeremiah 28 mentions that these prophecies were spoken at the Temple in the presence of the priests and people. One can imagine that, in their anxious state, they wish to hear a word of God. The prophetic voice is a trusted oneeven if a harsh oneduring times of trouble. Instead of one word, however, the people receive two conflicting words from God. Dueling prophetic voices. Clashing understandings of their reality. 

Hananiah foretells that the exiles in Babylon would be back home within two years. His optimism is likely due to the plans for a rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. He reassures the people and priests that all the looted temple vessels will be returned. Worship will return to normal. Babylon is only a temporary nuisance, not an enduring threat. 

Jeremiah responds first by noting that he wishes Hananiah’s prophecy would come true: may it be so! Jeremiah does not, of course, want to see Babylon’s continued devastation of the land and people. Prophets may frequently deliver bad news, but they do not delight in the suffering of their people. But Jeremiah states that prophets often in the past have prophesied about upsetting topics such as war, not comforting ones such as peace. He further suggests that a prophecy of peace will need to be tested over time to see if it comes true. 

(The cordial conversation escalates in Jeremiah 28:10-17 into dueling sign-acts and confrontation. Then, abruptly, Hananiah dies that same year, a commentary on his prophecy.)

The preacher might profitably pursue several issues with Jeremiah 28.

Prophecy is contextual

First, Hananiah sounds like Isaiah from a century before. Isaiah speaks of the yoke and rod being shattered (Isaiah 9:4, 10:27; 14:25). Prophecy is deeply contextual. The content of a particular prophecy is not eternal truth for all situations. What is an authentic, appropriate, and helpful prophecy in one moment and place can be false, inappropriate, and obstructive in another setting. 

The preacher might then inquire about the prophetic call and message for us today. 

How do we hear a prophetic word anew for our moment? 

What was prophetic for one community or one time that needs refreshment?

Prophecy includes judgment and promise

Second, Jeremiah’s response to Hananiah mentions that prophets in the past (“from ancient times”) talked about war, famine, and pestilence. Jeremiah is likely thinking of Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. These prophets delivered oracles of judgment against the people, calling them back to God during times of national crisis. As you can imagine, these were disturbing messages to pass on to the people. Yet, this is not the only prophetic message. And Jeremiah acknowledges that truth in this chapter. Prophets can also deliver oracles of hope and promise to the people. In fact, the same prophet can deliver judgment messages at one point in their ministry and hope messages at another. 

To be prophetic is not merely to speak of doom and gloom. 

Prophets do not only predict dire futures. 

Prophecy is speaking on behalf of God. 

To be prophetic is to be connected to God to bring God’s message to the people. 

False prophets

Third, interpreters sense that the real issue behind this story of two prophets concerns false and true prophecy. How do we know the difference? What’s the test to determine whether a prophet is foretelling the truth or not? 

How do we discern the voices of truth today? Both prophetsHananiah and Jeremiahuse typical prophetic language such as “Thus says the LORD.” But one is not speaking the truth. Both claim the name of God. Hananiah is probably known to the crowd; no one seems to question his authority. So, he is not an outsider to the community.

A brave proclaimer may want to ask this Sunday about the Hananiahs of our day, those leaders who deliver an accessible message of hope and positivity amid trouble and despair.