False Prophets in Jeremiah
The Message and Ministry of the False Prophets in Jeremiah
Pastor Matt Jones
Lies can be lethal. This was something the ancient prophet Jeremiah understood. Jeremiah was a 7th century B.C.E. prophet in Judah. He lived in a time when his people and land were under great spiritual and political turmoil. In fact, the very existence of his people and land were coming to an end. Jeremiah was a prophetic sort of ‘Chicken-Little’ who warned the people that the sky was truly falling. God was using enemy nations to discipline Jeremiah’s people for their waywardness. While Jeremiah informed the people of this reality, there were so-called prophets who spread lies giving the people a false sense of security, rather than truthfully alerting them to the situation at hand. These “prophets” were liars or false prophets who created opposition for God’s true prophets like Jeremiah. There lies were lethal because they convinced the people that they were safe when in reality they were in danger and should be preparing for what was to come. Jeremiah repeatedly denounces these false prophets (2:8; 4:9; 5:31; 6:13-15; 14:13-16; 23:9-40; 27-29). In this essay, I will describe the message and ministry of these false prophets who opposed Jeremiah. In order to fully do so, I will start by tracing the chronological setting and physical location of Jeremiah. Then, I will discuss two key texts in Jeremiah (23:9-40 and 27-29), highlighting the message and ministry of these false prophets.
The Chronological sand Physical Setting of Jeremiah
The chronological setting of Jeremiah’s addresses concerning the false prophets is rooted in a historical backdrop of moral compromise. The historical context of Jeremiah’s day was characterized by political and religious upheaval among his people. Added to the internal crisis they faced, the Hebrews were surrounded by enemies that threatened their existence. This period of time was marked by military struggle. Nations were constantly battling, and armies were at odds with each other waiting for opportunities to strike their unsuspecting foes. In Jeremiah’s life he witnessed the crumbling of the Assyrian super-power to the Babylonians. Having hope for any sort of national stability among such great super-powers would be difficult for the Hebrews, having already lost their northern kingdom. Briefly, I will sketch the historical landscape as Babylon conquered Assyria to become a world-power. After this, I will explain how Babylon progressed to wipe out the Hebrews in the southern kingdom, or what was left of it, mainly Jerusalem.
During the years around Jeremiah’s birth, 639 B.C.E., the people were beginning to gain hope for a national renewal. There was a new king Josiah, who – although youthful (8 yrs. old when he became king) – brought great religious and political reform (2 Kings 22:1-23:20; 2 Chron. 34:1-35:27). Josiah was an unlikely candidate for such reform given that his father Amon and his grandfather Manasseh were idol worshipping polytheists. Josiah’s spiritual fervor was also aided by good timing (or perhaps God’s sovereign hand) in the international political scene. Their great enemy, Assyria, experienced the loss of their last celebrated ruler, Ashurbanipal (c. 621 B.C.E.), which created such internal hardships for their empire that Josiah was able to break free as a vassal from the Assyrian suzerainty. Meanwhile other eastern armies weakened the Assyrian domination (i.e. Scythians, Cimmerians, Medes), including a battle with Egypt (under Psammetichus c.664-610 B.C.E.) and then Babylon declared their independence under the reign of Nabopolassar (626-605 B.C.E.). Back in Jerusalem, the temple was being restored under Josiah and a scroll of the law was discovered inside which fueled the spiritual revival to continue (2 Kings 22:8-23:3; 2 Chron 34:14-32). By this time Jeremiah was grown and he was an active prophet in Jerusalem.
While spiritual revival in Jerusalem flourished, the mighty Babylonian empire grew and soon the Hebrews would be obliterated. The Babylonians formed allies with other armies like the Medes and brought the fall of the Assyrian regime. Around this time Josiah died in a battle trying to block Egyptian forces from invading their borders (2 Kings 23:29). According to Tate:
The death of Josiah is an unexpected one for a king praised so highly, and a theological shock. According to the theology of the book of Deuteronomy, such a king should have been blessed with a long reign and a peaceful death in his old age.
Upon his death, Judah appointed Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz II, to the throne in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:30). Unlike his father, Jehoahaz is described as an evildoer (v. 32) and an oppressor (cf. Ezek 19:3). His reign lasted a few months until he was removed by Pharaoh Neco and replaced by Jehoiakim (609 B.C.E) who was also an idolater (Jer 19) and a downright evil king. Jehoiakim heavily taxed the people (2 Kings 23:33-35; 2 Chron 36:3-4). The prophet Jeremiah opposed his reign, describing him as arrogant and immoral (Jer 1:3; 24:1; 27:1,20; 37:1; 52:2), in fact, he was called "evil in the sight of the Lord" (2 Kings 23:37). Jehoiakim had the audacity to burn the prophecies of Jeremiah (Jer 36:22-23). And while he could burn the scroll, Jehoiackim could not destroy the power behind it. Jeremiah prophesied of his downfall and death. When Babylon invaded and took over Jerusalem as a vassal, Jehoiakim was kidnapped, although later brought back as a puppet king (2 Kings 24:1; Jer 25:1). In time he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and was soon wiped out by invading Chaldeans, Arameans, Moabites, and Ammonites (2 Kings 24:1-2). Jehoiakim was violently killed and his dead corpse was given a dishonorable burial (Jer 22:18-19; 36:30; 2 Kings 24:3-4).
The next king in Jerusalem was Jehoiachin, who came to the throne in 598 B.C.E. and reigned less than 4 months before he was deposed and carried off to Babylon (Jer 13:18; cf. 2 Kings 24:12; Jer 22:24-30). Like his father, he was immoral and the prophet Jeremiah spoke against him. Next to rule was Zedekiah who became king around 597 B.C.E. (2 Kings 24:17-18; 2 Chron 36:11). His reign lasted 11 years and he was the last king of Judah. Unlike his father, Zedekiah was on much better terms with Jeremiah, having saved his life a couple of time (Jer. 37:15-21, 38:7-13) although the prophet did speak against his policies. But Zedekiah was not like Josiah in his quest for spiritual revival; he was a puppet king of Nebuchadnezzar sworn to remain loyal to Babylon (2 Chron 36:13; Ezek 17:13) but he was not. Babylon invaded Jerusalem and after about a year-and-a-half of its siege, Zedekiah fled under the cover of darkness leaving his citizens behind to die without the defenses of a military. His escape was unsuccessful, as he was captured by Babylonian soldiers, who forced him to watch the execution of his sons just before blinding him. In chains he was carried off into Babylon were he died as a blind, childless and defeated man. Like Zedekiah, Jerusalem was also defeated. After Babylon had conquered the land, the people were all carried off in chains, although the prophet Jeremiah managed to be set free. A Babylonian commander located Jeremiah in a series of chained Hebrews and he released him (Jer. 39:11-12). Apparently he had heard of the prophet’s message to Zedekiah trying to convince him to surrender to Babylon and thus Jeremiah found favor in his eyes. Jeremiah was permitted to stay in the land under the care of a Babylonian governor. Sometime later, some Hebrews assassinated this governor and fearing a backlash Jeremiah and a group of Hebrews escaped to Egypt.
The Message and Ministry of the False Prophets
Having now traced the chronological context of Jeremiah’s history, I will now move to discuss his theological message concerning the false prophets. From the above history we see that Jeremiah lived during the most tragic era of his nation’s history. He went from seeing revivals under Josiah to witnessing the destruction of his town. No doubt he watched the flames that licked the walls of the Temple and demolished his homeland. He must have seen people slaughtered and carried away violently in deportation. He had been prophesying that the sky would fall for 40 years (c. 626 – 586 B.C.E.) and no one believed him. You can imagine what he felt like saying, in the time of Jehoiakim, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, to this day, the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened” (Jer 25:3). Why did the people refuse to listen to this prophet? It seems their deafness was partly the result of these false prophets, which I mentioned in the introduction. The false prophets assured the people that they would be fine and contradicted the word of the Lord via Jeremiah that warned them of their destruction. In two key texts, Jeremiah 23:9-40 and 27-29, the prophet Jeremiah describes these false prophets. I will now discuss these texts and highlight the message and ministry of these false prophets. The texts in consideration are situated in the 11 year reign of Zedekiah (597 - 587/6 B.C.E.) that I discussed above. Jeremiah offered his prophesies while in the capital of Judah, Jerusalem. Given this context, we can understand the urgency from which he speaks.
The False Prophets According to Jeremiah 23:9-40
In Jeremiah 23:9-40, the prophet depicted the sin of the people as a national adultery while attacking the false prophets who enabled this immorality. The people had given themselves to Canaanite rituals, and thus adultery was a fitting picture for those considered to be the bride of God (e.g., 2:2; 3:20). The prophet Jeremiah identified the false prophets as the leaders of this national adultery. Jeremiah does not address the prophets directly, rather he speaks of them in the third person, condemning them in the presence of those victimized by their deceit. Literarily, Jeremiah 23:9-40 consists of five units that expose this deceit coming from the false prophets: (1) vv.9-12, (2) vv.13-15, (3) vv.16-22, (4) vv.23-32, and (5) vv.33-40. Perhaps these units were brought together by an editor and at one time separate sayings. They have the marks of oral sayings given there poetic form. In these poetic oracles, the prophet attacks the character of the false prophets. He describes them as morally tarnished “evildoers” (23:14) who “commit adultery and walk in lies” (v.14). They are not open to rebuke, rather these men have “stubborn hearts” (v.17). When Jeremiah speaks of looking at them, he says “I saw a disgusting thing” (23:13) or “I have seen a more shocking thing” (v.14). He describes them as “those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart” (v.26, cf.32). Unlike false prophets who lie, what the true prophet says comes true (Jer 28:16-17; 34:2-3, 37:7-8 and 52; cf. Deut 18:15-22) in addition to what he/she writes down (Jer 25:12; 27:6-7; 29:10; Zech 1:4-6; 7:1-7; cf. 2 Chron 36:15-23). But these prophets do not speak truth, because they are not from God, rather “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD” (23:16, cf.18), that is, they are self-induced oracles and not revelatory. In verse 23:18, Jeremiah rhetorically accuses them as having not “stood in the council of the LORD,” which is what true prophets who speak from God have done (cf. Ps.89:7). God declared, “I did not send [them]… I did not speak to them” (v.21).
As we consider the historical context, we see the tragedy caused by these liars. They were giving Israel a false sense of security (“They keep saying…"It shall be well with you"…"No calamity shall come upon you" v.17), when in fact doom was around the corner. The true message of God was not peace, rather it punishment: “Look, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind…” (vv.19-20). Sadly, these false prophets managed to persuade Israel and were leading them down “slippery paths in the darkness” (23:12) causing “ungodliness [to] spread throughout the land" (v.15). Jeremiah warned the people of Jerusalem, “they are deluding you” (v.16).
The False Prophets According to Jeremiah 27-29
In 27:8-11, Jeremiah described the false prophets as holding vain hopes of peace before the people. Jeremiah warned, “You, therefore, must not listen to your prophets… they are prophesying a lie to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land; I will drive you out, and you will perish...” (vv.9-10). In 27:12-15 he urged Zedekiah to, “not listen to the words of the prophets who are telling you not to serve the king of Babylon, for they are prophesying a lie to you” (v.24). Further, God declared that he did not endorse these prophets: “I have not sent them, says the LORD, but they are prophesying falsely in my name” (v.25a). Jeremiah warned that the punishment for this would be exile: “I will drive you out and you will perish, you and the prophets who are prophesying to you” (v.25b).
In chapter 28, Jeremiah described an encounter with a false prophet named Hananiah, who gave false prophecies in the fourth year of Zedekiah. Hananiah publicly prophesied in the Temple that captives and the vessels taken from the Temple by the Babylonians would be returned to Jerusalem within two years. The prophet Jeremiah wore a wooden yolk around his neck, by divine command, to illustrate the destruction that awaited Jerusalem (27:2). Hananiah had the gall to remove this yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and break it to illustrate his false prophesy. In chapter 28, God commissioned Jeremiah to confront this false prophet and tell him that the wooden yoke was now going to be an iron yoke. In front of everyone, Jeremiah confronted Hananiah and told him, "Listen, Hananiah, the LORD has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the LORD: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the LORD" (vv.15-16). The next verse then informs the reader: “In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died” (v.17).
In chapter 29, the false prophets were still active. This time we hear from the false prophets who were taken in the exile. These false prophets were saying that Babylon was going to fall and so Jeremiah confronts this message with the reality that Jerusalem was going to fall and Babylon was here to stay for the time being. In order to reach these false prophets, Jeremiah sent a letter “to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:1). This letter was addressed “to all the exiles” (v.4). The opening line of the letter had God claiming credit for the exile: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (vs.4). Jeremiah warned them, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you… for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD” (29:8-9). Jeremiah proceeded to tell them that a restoration was not around the corner, rather “Only when Babylon's seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (v.10). God chided them for not listening to the true prophets that he sent (v.19). Jeremiah even named two false prophets: “Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name” (29:21). He accused them of speaking “lying words that I did not command them” (v.23). In verses 24-32, Jeremiah references a letter from Shemaiah of Nehelam, who apparently protested Jeremiah’s letter and sought for him to be reprimanded. Jeremiah prophesies judgment upon him for his endorsement of these false prophets (v.32).
I began this essay by pointing out that lies can be lethal. As I surveyed Jeremiah’s handling of the false prophets this reality came to surface. The lies of these false prophets led the Hebrews to ignore the true words of the prophet. Gowan pointed out that, “Jerusalem might have been saved in 597 and 587 if Jehoiakim and Zedekiah had not rebelled.” This must have been incredibly difficult for Jeremiah as he watched the people turn a deaf ear to the word of the Lord. And even more difficult to watch them exchange the truth of God’s prophet for a group of lying and immoral false prophets. In this essay, I described the message and ministry of these false prophets who opposed Jeremiah in the historical context of the fall of Jerusalem. I showed in two key texts: 23:9-40 and 27-29 how these prophets opposed the work of God. It is interesting to note that while discussing these false prophets, the text is very explicit in emphasizing that Jeremiah is a true prophet. The title prophet is attached to Jeremiah’s name rather frequently in 28-29 (see 28:5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 15; 29:1, 29). The people in Jerusalem preferred the message of the false prophets, who promised that their subjugation to the Babylonians was near its end. Jeremiah’s message was just the opposite of this and he repeatedly denounced these false prophets (2:8; 4:9; 5:31; 6:13-15; 14:13-16; etc.). While Jeremiah’s message was harder to accept, because doing so would require Jerusalem to admit their immorality, yet it was the message that God intended to bring life.
In Gowan’s commentary of Jeremiah, he spoke of the hopelessness of the people, saying “Jeremiah… made a sign of hope when there was no reason to hope..” (Donald E. Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books, Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, p. 110).
Marvin E. Tate, From Promise to Exile, Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 1999, p. 91.
Tate speculates that this rebellion may have been “in the form of withholding tributes” (p.92).
The false prophets are repeatedly characterized as spreading a false message of peace (Jer. 6:13-14; 8:10-11; 14:13-16).
Jeremiah spoke of restoration, but it was not near (vv.11-14). He condemned them for listening to these false prophets and for thinking that, “The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon” (v.15), when in reality these were no prophets at all. Because of their failure to discern and heed the true prophet, God promised to “let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten” (v.17). He spoke of pursuing the false prophets “with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence” and making them “a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be an object of cursing, and horror, and hissing, and a derision among all the nations where I have driven them” (v.18).
Gowan, p. 111.