OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 9 – Jeremiah 23:23-29 (Related)

This is a great passage to go with today’s Gospel, about Jesus bringing division rather than peace (Lk 12:49-56). Jeremiah is well known as a bit of a misery among the already dour OT prophets. The calling of God on him was a heavy one, and we know quite a bit more about his personal life that we do about those of other prophets. Since chapter 11 he has been in conflict with the ‘leaders of Judah’ or, as they are described, her ‘shepherds’. He has one message, and they don’t want to hear it. Things begin to hot up in chapter 21, where Jeremiah turns his attention onto his opponents. Today’s passage is part of this condemnation of those who claim that God is saying something different to them from what Jeremiah is hearing.

So what is this great divide all about? What controversy can possibly be causing all this trouble. What is it which causes the dramatic pronouncement of ‘Woe’ to these leaders in 23:1? This word signals a solemn curse, and has real power to it. Jesus pronounces woes on the towns around the Sea of Galilee in Luke 10, and if you visit the Holy Land today you simply won’t find those places. Woes matter! So what is such a serious issue all about? In a nutshell, the leaders wanted peace when in fact there was no peace. Jeremiah had been consistently warning the people that their abandonment of true worship and the consequent lack of moral standards would be met by God’s punishment as they were carried off into exile. But the leaders obviously had a vested interest in keeping that message off the public radar. They resented the idea that a new, true leader would come and dethrone them, and no doubt, as with all corrupt leaders through all time, they were profiting financially from unchallenged greed. So this upstart prophet was a threat to the status quo, and had to be stopped.

One strategy, of course, was to fight fire with fire. If they could produce their own prophets to say what they wanted, it was simply Jeremiah’s word against theirs. Produce enough of them and the majority, surely, would win. So the real question here is about how one discerns the authentic voice of God from the voices of self-interest and the status quo. Jeremiah’s defence is simply to claim that the false prophets were just that, and had not heard God, but were making things up to suit their own ends. He begins by reminding his hearers that God knows the false from the true, even if humans find it difficult at times. In our brief passage he makes three points about true versus false prophecy.

The first is that just because we claim, or even believe that a word has come from God, it might not have done. There is an interesting juxtaposition in v.25-26. The prophets are lying prophets, speaking from the delusions of their own minds, yet they claim to be speaking in God’s name. Just putting ‘Thus says the Lord …’ in front of a prophecy is no guarantee of its genuineness. Whether they really believed that they had the mind of God, or whether they were deliberately setting out to deceive is not clear, but it amounts to the same thing.

Secondly, false prophecy will tear God’s people apart. This is an OT equivalent of ‘by their fruits will you know them’. If so-called words from God lead people away from him, rather than back to him in repentance, they cannot possibly be the genuine article. And of course a real prophet would know that.

And thirdly Jeremiah asserts, with Jesus, that genuine prophecy is often tough to hear. In three clear pictures Jeremiah distinguishes true words from God as being like a consuming fire, a threshing machine to separate truth from lies, and a sledgehammer which cracks rocks open. None of these images is cosy or comfortable, any more than God is comfortable for those deliberately opposing or ignoring him.

So does that mean that God’s word to us will always be harsh and rebuking? Is it in the very nature of the prophetic that it is only there to tell us off? The answer, I believe, is ‘only if that’s what we need’. Like the Holy Spirit himself, prophecy is there to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. We can trust our God to say to us what we need to hear, when we need to hear it. True prophecy just feels right to those whose heart’s desire is to please God at any cost.

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