I have just finished reading an interesting biographical sketch on the life of Winston Church of his first 58 years before the Second World War. The book is entitled: ‘The Last Lion,’ by William Manchester. Churchill was never fooled by Hitler and his intentions prior to the War. Britain was disarming following the First World War, focusing on the economic cost of that conflict upon the nation’s economy. Churchill was instrumental in this policy, but he eventually realized his mistake and pointed out that two great threats were rising, Communism and Nazism. Prior to Hitler’s ascent into German leadership, Hitler had insisted that,
he would never wage aggressive war, but Winston didn’t believe him. By his own admission, the man was untrustworthy; Churchill quoted Mein Kampf: ‘The great masses of people…will more easily fall victims to a great lie than to a small one.[i]
In hindsight, this is exactly what Hitler communicated both to the German people and to the world. It is a stark reminder of the damage caused by spreading and embracing lies. It leads people into bondage and ultimately to death.
In Jeremiah 28 we have a confrontation of a temple prophet by the name of Hananiah toward Jeremiah’s message. What was at stake was the truth of God’s warning being negated, and the ensuing consequences for disobedience to the nation that led to destruction. What happens when lies are being propagated? Why does God allow liars to operate? This may shock us, but God actually uses them to reveal what is in the hearts of the hearers. Moses explains this very thing in the book of Deuteronomy.
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, ‘Let us follow other gods (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.
It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.
That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. That prophet or dreamer tried to turn you from the way of the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.[ii]
Moses is explaining that God is testing people regarding their commitment to God. It is not that God is unaware of what is in our hearts, but we discover from our response to the false message where we are. There is a part of each of us that we are blind to, that others see, but there is even within our souls a part of us, that no one but God is aware of, until it is exposed. If we think that this testing is just an Old Testament concept, notice Paul’s instruction and warning in 2 Thessalonians.
The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sort of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.[iii]
One of the problems with sin is that at its very nature is deceptiveness, and this is generally facilitated in the human heart because of our desire to suppress the truth (cf. Heb. 3:13, Rom. 1:18). There always have been people who distort God’s message. The bible calls them false prophets. Jesus speaks of them in the Sermon on the Mount. How can we identify them? How can we identify that their message is false?
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.[iv]
So, what is the real cost of lies and what happens when we embrace the lie or lies and suppress truth? What happens to those who deceive and those who are deceived? There are a number of things from Jeremiah 28 that we can learn about identifying lies, their mode of operation and their outcomes and how it impacts the liars and those who are deceived by the lie. There are three things that lies do.
THE FIRST THING THAT LIES DO IS CHALLENGE AND PERSECUTE THE TRUTH
Lies challenge and distort the truth. Lies generally give people false assurances and cause them to put their trust in the wrong information and outcomes. The great tragedy is that often those who are telling the lies actually believe that they are telling the truth. That is because they are self-deceived and will ultimately, in their sincerity, deceive others. Jeremiah 28 is a response to Jeremiah’s message found in chapter 27 in which he has warned the people that their disobedience to God’s covenant will lead them into exile. It is a call to repentance. So, what is the response in the religious community to Jeremiah’s ministry and message?
In the fifth month of that same year, the fourth year, early in the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, who was from Gibeon, said to me in the house of the LORD in the presence of the priests and all the people:
‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon,
Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the LORD’S house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon.
I will also bring back to this place Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and all the other exiles from Judah who went to Babylon,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’[v]
Hananiah was from a small community about six miles northwest of Jerusalem and his voice and message represented the viewpoint of the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Here we see the attack against Jeremiah’s message from God. What, in essence, is Hananiah saying? He is saying that Jeremiah is lying to the people. Hananiah is preaching an opposing message that God would restore what had been taken without any change or repentance occurring.
We have people that proclaim that message today. God loves you and nothing is required of you. You can continue to live in rebellion against God. This is the message of ‘easy believism,’ a gospel without repentance. But that is not a biblical message. It is true that God loves us, but He loves us so much that He is calling us to Himself. He is calling us from our sin and idolatry, which is often expressed in self-worship. If we remain in our sin, our sin will destroy us. The gospel message is that Christ died for our sins in order to set us apart from sin’s penalty, power, and ultimately sin’s presence in our lives.
Jeremiah and Hananiah use the prophetic formula that God is speaking through them. They both utilize symbolic acts. Jeremiah who had placed a yoke around his neck was speaking of the bondage that the nation was about to experience; while Hananiah, takes the yoke off Jeremiah and brakes it. This confrontation would obviously create a measure of confusion. Who is right? What is the truth in this moment of time? Robert Davidson relates: His [Hananiah’s] message is designed to encourage the envoys, who are in Jerusalem plotting rebellion, and to reassure the people.”[vi]
Jeremiah now responds to this message, in which it could be argued that he used sarcasm, but he was probably admitting that the message would certainly be nice, but it is not what God is communicating to these people which is the renewal of their covenant with God through repentance.
Then the prophet Jeremiah replied to the prophet Hananiah before the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD.
He said, ‘Amen! May the LORD do so! May the LORD fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the LORD’S house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon.
Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people.
From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms.
But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the LORD only if his prediction comes true.[vii]
John Thompson affirms what most Old Testament biblical scholars affirm.
Jeremiah’s response was not necessarily a sarcastic retort to Hananiah’s oracle. As a lover of Judah and a patriot he could wish that Hananiah’s prophecy would be realized and could say sincerely: Amen! May Yahweh do so! May Yahweh confirm the words that you have prophesied. But he well knew that the truth was otherwise.[viii]
Jeremiah is reminding the people that prophets generally were called by God to remind the people of their covenant responsibilities. It was certainly evident that the people had abandoned their responsibilities toward God. They were living in a state of rebellion. Though it is true that prophets did at times bring words of encouragement and peace like the prophet Isaiah did to the nation under the Assyria threat, and God delivered them, but this had occurred after the people had turned to God for help. Generally, prophets were challenging people to return to God because of their sinful failures. The real test of prophecy is actually its fulfilment, and there are severe consequences to those who prophesy or preach a message that is not from God as Moses warned.
But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.
You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?’
If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.[ix]
Future events would prove who was right, and Jeremiah knew that peace and security for Judah could only come from sincere repentance and obedience to the covenant. Truth or falsity would not be demonstrated either by enthusiasm or sincerity, but only by obedience to the covenant.[x]
What was Hananiah’s response to Jeremiah’s challenge?
Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it, and he said before all the people, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘In the same way I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.’ At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way.[xi]
What was there left to say? Time would tell. Jeremiah knew that people needed to choose to follow God’s way. He had faithfully delivered God’s message and there was nothing more to be said. So, he went on his way. Nothing more could be gained by argumentation. We know that there is a time for all things. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak (cf. Eccl. 3:7b). This was a moment to walk away.
THE SECOND THING THAT LIES DO IS DESTROY THOSE WHO EMBRACE THE LIES
The outcome of truth is freedom, but when we embrace lies they entangle our lives, and lead us into bondage. The irony of Hananiah’s prophetic action of breaking the yoke is the exact opposite of what is about to occur.
Unfortunately, it is far easier to break a symbolic yoke than it is to override Yahweh’s tough verdict or to break the reality of Babylon’s power. Hananiah’s symbolic act of breaking is a symbol without corresponding reality.[xii]
After the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah:
‘Go and tell Hananiah, ‘this is what the LORD says: You have broken a wooden yoke, but in its place you will get a yoke of iron.
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I will put an iron yoke on the necks of all these nations to make them serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they will serve him. I will even give him control over the wild animals.[xiii]
Tremper Longman explains the statement that Nebuchadnezzar’s subjugation would be so complete that even the ‘wild animals’ would be under his control.
The reference to wild animals is best understood as prophetic hyperbole. Wild animals, after all, are wild and thus virtually impossible to subjugate. If he can control the wild animals, he will easily control the inhabitants of these nations, including Judah.[xiv]
Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, ‘Listen, Hananiah! The LORD has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.[xv]
Why is it that the people wanted to listen to Hananiah’s false message? All of us want to be told that God will be gracious to us, regardless of what we do and say. We want God’s blessings on our terms. We want a crown without a cross. We want a gospel without repentance, but the problem is that this is a violation of the nature of God’s covenant. To remain in our state of sin and rebellion will only destroy us. Religion without a genuine relationship with God will actually cause us to ‘crucify’ Jesus, even as our predecessors did. God loves us so much that he wants to bring about a transformation in our heart and desires. We see the power of that transforming work of God’s Spirit in the lives of the people who were listening to Peter on the day of Pentecost. These were religious people. Notice Peter’s challenging words to them that day.
Therefore let Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’[xvi]
Notice the response of the people listening.
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart [convicted] and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?
Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.[xvii]
They responded and God changed their lives. However, we also see times when people resist and persist in their ways, and God’s judgment comes upon them. This was certainly the case with the nation of Judah here under the preaching of Jeremiah. They chose to listen to the message of Hananiah, and the result was that they were taken into exile to Babylon. We pick this up in chapter 52 as the book of Jeremiah sums up what happened.
Now Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.
So in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. They encamped outside the city and built siege works all around it.
The city was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.
By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat.
Then the city wall was broken through, and the whole army fled…
But the Babylonians army pursed King Zedekiah and overtook him…and he was captured….
There at Riblah the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah.
Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon, where he put him in prison till the day of his death.[xviii]
If you want to read the darker version of how this played out, read the book of Lamentations. It is a story of great suffering because of sin.
THE FINAL THING THAT LIES DO IS DESTROY THOSE WHO PERPETRATE LIES
Those who spread lies will not only influence others to be destroyed by them, but they themselves will suffer destruction as a result.
Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the LORD.’
In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died.[xix]
Notice that the first verse stated that this confrontation occurred in the fifth month, and two months later, Hananiah is dead. You would think people would think twice about disregarding Jeremiah’s message, but we know they did not listen. The false message of Hananiah lived on because that is what many people wanted to believe. Paul warns us that in these days the same attitude toward God’s message still exists.
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what they itching ears want to hear.
They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.[xx]
Myths in this context is another word for lies. Philip Ryken relates how important it is to be wary of false teaching in our hour.
However sincere it is, false teaching is always deadly, both for the teacher and for his students. False teachers usually mean well. Often they are nice people. They call themselves Christians. They seem genuine. They claim to speak in the name of the Lord. But Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). There are many Hananiahs in the contemporary church, false teachers who discount God’s justice and deny the judgment to come.[xxi]
Lesslie Newbigin accurately states,
It is one of the weaknesses of a great deal of contemporary Christianity that we do not speak of the last judgment and of the possibility of being finally lost.[xxii]
The lies about which Newbigin warns will be repeated right up until the very moment Jesus Christ returns to judge the earth: “While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). “Peace and safety,” the Hananiahs will say. “Everything is going to be OK. Everyone will be saved. God will not punish us for our sins.” “Peace and safety,” they will say, but there will be neither peace nor safety. The truth is that God is a righteous judge. Anyone who does not repent of his or her sins will be fitted for a yoke of iron. The only way to throw off that iron yoke is to come to Jesus for salvation. He is always waiting with open arms. His welcome is so inviting that it bears repeating: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).[xxiii]
The context of Jesus’ appeal is the repudiation of the cities of Galilee where most of His miracles had occurred, but they still rejected His call to repentance. How will we respond to lies? Will we embrace the truth that leads us to the person of truth? Jesus stated that He was the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him.
[i] William Manchester, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1983), 874-75.
[ii] Deuteronomy 13:1-5, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12.
[iv] Matthew 7:15-20.
[v] Jeremiah 28:1-4.
[vi] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 58.
[vii] Jeremiah 28:5-9.
[viii] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 539.
[ix] Deuteronomy 18:20-22.
[x] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 130.
[xi] Jeremiah 28:10-11.
[xii] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 253.
[xiii] Jeremiah 28:12-14.
[xiv] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 190.
[xv] Jeremiah 28:15.
[xvi] Acts 2:36.
[xvii] Acts 2:37-38.
[xviii] Jeremiah 52:3b-9, 11.
[xix] Jeremiah 28:16-17.
[xx] 2 Timothy 4:3-4.
[xxi] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2016), 405.
[xxii] Lesslie Newbigin, “Confessing Christ in a Multi-Religion Society,”
Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology,12 (1994), 130–131 as quoted by Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, 405.
[xxiii] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, 405.