As we have already seen, God’s prophets preached not only through words but also through object lessons. At times the prophets had to live out the messages; it was another way to get the point across.
Thus, Jeremiah again was called to “live out” the words he was to deliver. First, he had to wear a wooden yoke. “Thus saith the Lord to me; make thee bonds and yokes, and put them upon thy neck” (Jer. 27:2). That must have been a burdensome task, even under the best of circumstances; in this case, it became harder because a false prophet challenged what Jeremiah said. This week we will get a powerful look at truth and error contending for the hearts and minds of the people. We will see, too, how a message of grace can also be a false message.
Jeremiah also was forbidden to enter into mourning when others mourned and rejoicing when others rejoiced. In these cases, the point was to help the people realize what was coming because of their sins, and so to repent and obey, lessening the doleful consequence of their sinful actions.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, November 28.
No question, Jeremiah’s lot in life wasn’t an easy one (he would be the first to admit it too!). Things, though, were even harder than we might have imagined.
In contrast to Hosea, who was to marry a harlot in order to show just how corrupt the relationship had become between the Lord and Israel because of the nation’s spiritual harlotry, Jeremiah was to refrain from marriage and from having children altogether. This was something rather rare and extreme for that time and culture. In Israel, starting a family was very important for every young man. Besides the love and companionship between spouses, it was also important to carry on the family name. Why did God forbid Jeremiah from starting a family? It was so that his own life would be an object lesson on how terrible that time would be when families broke up and when the pain of separation became a heavy burden on the survivors. Jeremiah’s lack of family life was a constant warning and lesson for his contemporaries.
Jeremiah’s solitary lot extended into other areas as well. He was forbidden to enter a house where there was mourning; this would symbolize the people’s unwillingness to respond to God’s calls for repentance and revival.
Along with times of mourning, he was not to join their festivals of joy and celebration. This was to symbolize the coming time when the Babylonians would bring an end to all of their joy and rejoicing.
In these ways, the human bonds that are forged, whether in mourning or joy, would be denied Jeremiah. His life and the sorrows of his life were to be object lessons. If only the nation would learn from them!
The yoke Jeremiah had to put on his body was an unmistakable sign of the humiliation that the nation suffered; it’s what we call a military occupation. (In Deuteronomy 28:48 and 1 Kings 12:4, the idea of a yoke appears as an expression of oppression.) Jeremiah had to experience physically what the Babylonian invasion meant. The wooden yoke Jeremiah put on his arms and shoulders was one and a half meters long and eight centimeters thick. The essence of his message was that if a country revolted against Babylon, the Lord would take it as if the country had revolted against Him, and the rebellious would suffer as a result.
Though there is some ambiguity in the original texts, it seems that Jeremiah not only had to make a yoke for himself but also make yokes for the envoys of foreign countries who had come to Jerusalem and were plotting against Nebuchadnezzar—despite the Lord’s warnings not to. The natural response would be to fight against a foreign invader, which is what they wanted to do. No doubt, then, Jeremiah’s words were not at all welcome.
Here again, as we find all through both the Old and New Testaments, the Lord as Creator is Sovereign over all the earth. Even amid what appears to be chaos and catastrophe (invasion and dominion by a pagan nation), the power and authority of God are revealed, and this was, and is, to be a source of hope to all in the faithful remnant.
Bad news is bad news, and often we don’t want to hear it, or we want to rationalize it away. Such was the case here in Judah with Jeremiah and the yoke that he bore, an unmistakable message of warning to the people. “The amazement of the assembled council of nations knew no bounds when Jeremiah, carrying the yoke of subjection about his neck, made known to them the will of God.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 444.
Jeremiah raised his voice in the name of God, and Hananiah spoke in the name of God too. But who was speaking for God? They both couldn’t be! For us today, the answer is obvious. For someone at that time, it might have been more difficult, even though Jeremiah does make a powerful point in verses 8, 9: the prophets in the past have preached the same message that I am, that of judgment and doom.
“Jeremiah, in the presence of the priests and people, earnestly entreated them to submit to the king of Babylon for the time the Lord had specified. He cited the men of Judah to the prophecies of Hosea, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and others whose messages of reproof and warning had been similar to his own. He referred them to events which had taken place in fulfillment of prophecies of retribution for unrepented sin. In the past the judgments of God had been visited upon the impenitent in exact fulfillment of His purpose as revealed through His messengers.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 445.
In short, just as we today are to learn lessons from sacred history, Jeremiah was seeking to get the people in his time to do the same thing: learn from the past so you don’t make the same errors that your forefathers did. If it had been hard for them to listen to him before, now with the “ministry” of Hananiah there to counter him, Jeremiah’s task was going to be that much more difficult.
The battle between the prophets wasn’t just one of words, but of deeds as well. In obedience to the command of God, Jeremiah put the wooden yoke around his neck; this was an overt symbol of the message that he had carried to the people.
Imagine, for example, that after Jesus cursed the fig tree (Mark 11:13, 19–21), someone who had heard what Jesus said and knew what had happened had planted a new fig tree in the same spot, all in an attempt to refute the prophecy of Jesus there. This is what Hananiah did with Jeremiah and the prophecy that the yoke around his neck symbolized. It was an act of open defiance of what Jeremiah said.
Note, too, Jeremiah’s reaction. The texts record nothing of what he said right after the yoke was broken. He just turned around and walked away. If the story ended there, it would have seemed that the prophet had retreated in defeat.
Jeremiah’s response wasn’t a message of revenge: you did this to me, so I will do that to you. Instead, it was another clear message from the Lord but even stronger than what came before. Hananiah might have been able to break a wooden yoke, but who can break an iron one? In a sense, what the Lord said was that by the people’s obstinacy and refusal to obey they only were making matters worse. If you thought a wooden yoke was bad, try an iron one.
The answer about who was right, whether Jeremiah or Hananiah, came soon enough. Jeremiah 28:16, 17 tells the fate of the false prophet, which was just what the true prophet had said it would be.
Though Hananiah died, he still had done damage to the nation. His works, in a sense, followed him. He made the people “to trust in a lie.” The Hebrew verb is hiphil, a causative form of the verb “to trust.” He caused them to trust in a lie, not in the sense of physically forcing them, but through deception. Even though the Lord had not sent him, he spoke in the name of the Lord, which carried a lot of weight in Judah. Added to that, Hananiah’s message of “grace,” “deliverance,” and “redemption” was certainly something that the people wanted to hear, considering the great threat that Babylon posed to the nation. It was, though, a false “gospel,” a false message of salvation that the Lord had not given them. So, at a time when the people needed to hear the words of Jeremiah and the message of redemption that he brought, they listened to the words of Hananiah instead, and this made their woes only worse.
Things are no different today: we are in the great controversy, a battle for the hearts and minds of the world’s billions. Satan is working diligently to get as many as possible to “trust in a lie,” and that lie can come in many guises and forms, just as long as it is always a lie. After all, because Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), Satan’s lies can be about anything and everything, just as long as they don’t contain the truth as it is in Jesus.
Further Thought: As we have seen, people want to believe good news, not bad. They wanted to believe, for instance, in Hananiah’s message, not Jeremiah’s. Today the same thing happens as well. Many still insist, for instance, that our world will only improve over time. Yet, even an atheist such as Terry Eagleton sees just how farcical that idea is: “If ever there was a pious myth and piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world. This brittle triumphalism is a hangover from the heroic epoch of liberalism, when the middle classes’ star was in the ascendant. Today, it sits cheek by jowl with the cynicism, skepticism, or nihilism into which much of that honorable lineage has degenerated.” —Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2010), Kindle Edition, p. 70. Though some aspects of life have improved, our world, in and of itself, offers us little hope, little consolation, especially in the long run. If we are to have any real hope, it has to be in something divine, not earthly, in something supernatural, not natural. And of course, that’s what the gospel is all about: God’s divine and supernatural intervention in our world and our lives. Without that, what do we have other than just more Hananiahs and their lies?