Have you ever had someone tell someone else that you said something you never actually said? If so, you’ve probably found that your level of appropriate frustration was greater or smaller depending on how serious the misrepresentation was. But regardless, most of us (if not all of us) do not like the idea of somebody putting words in our mouth that were never actually there. And if you find that irritating you are catching a tiny glimpse of how God feels when fallen man does that very thing to Him. It’s one of the reasons why not many ought to be teachers (Jas. 3:1). It is a high and hefty responsibility to divide God’s word accurately (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15) and refrain from giving a message that God never gave (cf. Jer. 23:21b). But the latter was just the kind of thing that Hananiah was doing.
In the previous chapter, we saw that God told Jeremiah to prepare yokes and bonds (Jer. 27:1-11) as a fitting illustration for the accompanying instruction given to both Judah and the ‘league of nations’ – surrender to the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar. But false prophets tend to have an allergy to anything they consider under the heading of negativity. And to Hananiah, Jeremiah was too much ‘gloom and doom.’ So he had a message of his own – and that was the problem; it was his own message. And if that wasn’t bad enough, and that was very bad, it contradicted God’s message through Jeremiah.
But before we consider his message, let’s take notice of the context provided in verse one. This occasion happened in the same year – the same year as the events of the previous chapter, which was at the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah (vs.1b), specifically, in the fourth year and in the fifth month. This is not ‘once upon a time’ stuff. This is what we have come to expect from the Bible – reality recorded in history. This man, Hananiah, who was the son of Azur the prophet, who was from Gibeon, a priestly town (Josh. 21:17) with a history of deception (Josh. 9), confronted Jeremiah (note: Jeremiah said Hananiah “spoke to [him]”) in the house of the Lord in the presence of the priests and of all the people. It apparently was a crowded day at the temple, which made for a very public confrontation. And there, in the midst of the assembly, the false prophet began to deliver his false hopes:
“Thus speaks the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saying: ‘I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon'” (vs.2).
I may not be a goldsmith, but I know many people have been fooled by fool’s gold throughout the years. The reason being – while its substance is different than real gold, its appearance has numerous similarities to true gold. Likewise false prophets can sometimes bear a resemblance to true prophets. Take Hananiah’s prophetic preface as an example: “Thus speaks the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel…” (vs.2a). He didn’t say, ‘The following message is brought to you by Baal.’ Nor did he say, ‘Ashtoreth has sent me to tell you…’ He came in the covenant name of the one true God with a prophetic preface that well parallels the kind we see Jeremiah instructed to use in the next chapter (cf. Jer. 29:25)! It’s a good reminder that the only name under heaven given to men whereby they must be saved (Acts 4:12) can also be found on the lips of modern day Hananiahs. And just as Hananiah gave false hope in Yahweh’s name that contradicted Yahweh’s previously given revelation (cf. Jer. 27:8-18), so modern day false prophets dole out false hope in Jesus’ name that contradict the Spirit-inspired Scriptures.
And whereas some false prophets are vague with the details, Hananiah wasn’t. He said that God said, “Within two full years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon” (Jer. 28:3). That’s scary. This man was able to speak with such exactitude without having received revelation from God. Did he look at Nebuchadnezzar’s military issues and think to himself that it was only a matter of time till it all came crumbling down? Did he have a feeling deep down his heart? Did he claim the LORD spoke to him and gave him that number? Whatever the impetus, the result was a lie. God had never spoken that word to him. But he spoke his message with the definitude of a man who knew he was given divine revelation… even though he was never given such revelation. Scary.
But the news kept coming. In addition to that, he said that God said, “And I will bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah who went to Babylon” (vs.4a). Undoubtedly this would’ve sounded like good news to those who heard it. The people might have thought, ‘So you mean there isn’t going to be 70 years of exile; but rather, only two years until everything goes back to normal? Wow. That’s great!’ It was positive. It was uplifting. It likely stirred the flames of hope and excitement. And it was all a lie. Yes, Hananiah likely believed his message, but that didn’t change the fact that his message truly was a false gospel – it was false “good news.”
Like Hananiah, false prophets today don’t always look like wolves without sheeps’ clothing. Like Hananiah, they will often speak in the name of the LORD with prophecies and proclamations that can sound so positive. They may justify justification-by-faith-plus-works under the guise of being tolerant and inclusive; they may say that a person who has never heard the Gospel can be saved by their own attempt to follow ‘the light they have’ the best they can because ‘God knows their heart’; they may denounce talk of eternal judgment, or never mention the word “hell”, because they have chosen that people need encouragement as they define it and not the full counsel of God’s word as He prescribes it. Similar to Hananiah, they will pronounce promises of blessing, prosperity, success, achievement, purpose, and fulfillment without mentioning the word repentance. They essentially not only put words in God’s mouth, but they are careful to hide the words that came out of God’s mouth – at least the ones they don’t find useful. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah, the priests, and all the people that this very thing would happen (Jer. 27:12-22) and so Jesus and the writers of the New Testament have warned you (Mt. 24:24-25; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Pet. 2:1; Jd. 18-19). Be careful, then, not only to avoid putting words in God’s mouth but to avoid listening to those who do.