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30/11/14: Jeremiah and Hananiah, a case study in conflict resolution

My thanks to the Christian Fellowship for asking me to speak last week.  It's the preparation particularly I find valuable, in putting my own thoughts in order to be able to speak about them.  I trust the participants found the talk helpful in their Christian walks.  I give, more or less, a transcript of what I said below, you might find it helpful to read Jeremiah 28 before proceeding.

Jeremiah's ministry was approximately 600 years before Christ, and about 400 years after King David.  After a long period of, in the main, lack of faithfulness to God on the part of the kings of Israel and Judah and the people, Jeremiah and others preached a message of God's judgement through the Babylonian empire which was the main aggressor at this time.  So, the passage we are looking at is set immediately before the main exile to Babylon and before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  With the situation becoming more and more difficult, Jeremiah's message was uncompromising: exile was coming, God was using Babylon as an instrument of punishment, the exile would be for 70 years, so people would be well-advised to settle down when in exile - build houses, get married, and have children.  Before we proceed to look at Jeremiah 28, we need to note that, in Jeremiah 27:2, God told Jeremiah to put a yoke around his neck, the type that would be used by beasts of burden in ploughing fields.  This was a graphic image to illustrate the stranglehold that Babylon was to have over Israel.  Let us note in passing that there are many other examples of servants of God putting themselves in humiliating or otherwise extremely difficult positions, so Hosea married a prostitute, Isaiah preached naked (or at least stripped of his main robe) for 3 years, Ezekiel lay on his side for over a year, Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, Noah built an ark in the middle of land.  Let's be clear - there are no promises as Christians that life is going to be easy!

So, in the middle of all of this, Hananiah appears, preaching a very different message - that God was to break the yoke of the King of Babylon and that the exile would all be over within 2 years (Jeremiah 28:2-4).  Clearly, given the extent to which Jeremiah's message was putting him in a very vulnerable and dangerous position, Jeremiah must have believed with every fibre of his being that he was preaching God's message.  So, he would have been fully entitled to reply along the lines, "No, that is not what God is saying, you are a false prophet who is leading His people astray."

But this is not what Jeremiah says. He starts, "Amen!  May the Lord do so!"  (28:6)  So he is agreeing, as far as he can, with Hananiah - wouldn't it be fantastic if this is, indeed, a true message from God!  And it seems that Jeremiah is genuinely open to the idea that he, Jeremiah, may be wrong and Hananiah might be right.  Jeremiah then carries on to point out that most prophets are called to preach difficult messages of God's wrath and anger, if Hananiah, preaching a different message, is right, then that will become clear within two years as his prophecy comes to pass.

So, with every reason to believe that Hananiah is preaching a false message, Jeremiah goes as far as he can to agree with him, whilst retaining his own integrity as a servant of God.  I would mention at this point that, while there are other Biblical characters called Hananiah, everything we know about this Hananiah comes from this passage.  It is interesting to speculate that Jeremiah might have come across him before and have reason to believe that he, Hananiah, was previously a true prophet.  This would help to explain the approach Jeremiah is taking here.  However, this is extra-Biblical speculation, let's not spend too long going down this line of thought!

One might imagine that Hananiah would be pleased with this response, and respond in kind in a conciliatory manner.  But no, he now breaks the yoke off Jeremiah's neck.  I'm trying to visualise this happening, it must have hurt, mustn't it?  Whether or not Hananiah was aware of the reasons Jeremiah was wearing the yoke, Jeremiah must surely have felt a level of righteous anger - who on earth was Hananiah to break off the yoke which God had told him to wear?  And Hananiah then repeats his message that the yoke of the King of Babylon will be broken within two years.

So, under intense provocation, what does Jeremiah do?  Condemn Hananiah for the false prophet he undoubtedly was?  No, Jeremiah walks away (28:11).  Not necessarily the right thing to do in a conflict situation, but certainly a way of proceeding, again with a level of self-sacrifice on Jeremiah's part.

It is at this stage that God again speaks to Jeremiah, on the basis of which Jeremiah tells him what he might reasonably have said before - that Hananiah is a false prophet, and further, he will die within a year, that is, he will pay the ultimate price for his disobedience to God.  And, as we discover in verse 17 compared with verse 1, actually he is dead within 2 months.

So, in summary, Jeremiah gives us a fantastic example of how to deal with a conflict situation:
- he first of all agrees with Hananiah as far as he is able;
- he retains his integrity as a servant of God;
- he is open to the possibility that he might be wrong;
- he shows huge restraint and dignity against massive provocation;
- he is ultimately vindicated as he keeps true to his calling as a prophet of our Lord God.

So, let us thank God for the example Jeremiah shows here, and let us ask His help in following Jeremiah's example, that we would remain faithful to God's Word, we would seek to find common ground, we would be open to the possibility that we are wrong, and we would conduct ourselves in a manner which brings glory to our Lord God.

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