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Jeremiah 26

April 3, 2017

This chapter describes Jeremiah being put on trial, facing a possible death penalty, for preaching the possible future destruction of the temple. His famous “temple speech” is recorded in more detail in chapter 7. Ultimately, Jeremiah escapes the death penalty, whereas another prophet who spoke exactly the same words was executed. How did that happen?

First, some context. Jeremiah prophesies against the temple at the beginning of the reign King Jehoiakim, which would be 609 B.C. The former king, Josiah, was killed in battle against the Egyptians. Egypt and Babylon are both trying to move into Palestine and control this territory. This makes the Kingdom of Judah’s position very precarious; the independence and survival of the kingdom is at stake. Whereas Josiah was a religious reformer who sought to strengthen the worship of Yahweh, his son Jehoiakim  seems to be more interested in political realism and survival. It is in this period of shallow religiosity and moral hypocrisy that Jeremiah prophesies the coming destruction of the temple.

There are four groups involved in Jeremiah’s trial: the priests and prophets (viewed as one group), the people, the officials, and the elders of the land. Each has a different perspective on Jeremiah.

The prophets and priests, along with the people who are in the temple at the time of Jeremiah’s temple speech, immediately declare, “You shall die!” The people probably feel they are being morally judged and attacked by Jeremiah; the priests and prophets probably feel that it is blasphemy to say that God would want the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Therefore, Jeremiah must be a false prophet, and as such he deserves the death penalty.

The “officials of Judah,” who actually conduct the trial and pass final judgment, are the political leaders in Jerusalem. These would be the princes and members of the king’s court. After hearing the accusations of the priests and prophets, they listen to Jeremiah’s defense. Jeremiah makes the claim that he is speaking for Yahweh, that the prophecies of destruction are conditional–that God will change his mind if the people repent, and that he is therefore completely innocent of the charge of being a false prophet.

Jeremiah’s defense seems to sway the officials as well as “the people.” They decide he has given every indication that he is speaking for Yahweh.

Perhaps they were swayed by the input of another group: the elders of the land. These are village elders who do not reside in Jerusalem. They are not part of Jerusalem’s power structure. Rather, they keep an oral memory of Israel’s religion: its laws, its history, and the words of its prophets. They recall the words of another prophet, Micah, who prophesied against the temple a hundred years before. The elders point out that the king at that time, Hezekiah, heeded the prophecy and led a national repentance that averted the prophesied destruction. If Micah was not considered a false prophet for prophesying the destruction of the temple, then neither should Jeremiah be considered a false prophet. Instead, the elders urge that everyone listen to Jeremiah and repent!

And so Jeremiah is found innocent and released. But is it really true that he was found innocent because the officials were convinced by the views of the village elders? Not likely. In fact, another prophet, Uriah, prophesied in the name of Yahweh against Jerusalem in exactly the same words as Jeremiah did; and yet, the king’s officials sought to put him to death. Uriah ran away to Egypt, but the long arm of the king and his royal court snatched him in Egypt, brought him back to Jerusalem, and had him executed.

Why the different outcome for Uriah? Because he didn’t have powerful friends in the royal court. Verse 24 informs us that an official named Ahikam was protecting Jeremiah.

So here’s what the dynamics look like: the religious authorities hate Jeremiah and want him dead for declaring that God is against the temple; the village elders want to give him the benefit of the doubt, pointing out that prophesying against the temple is not in itself a crime; the royal officials are political realists who just want stability and security; within the royal court are those who for personal reasons want to protect Jeremiah; and the people are swayed to agree with whatever the officials decide. The officials decide–for now–to let Jeremiah go. But Jeremiah is not safe. We haven’t yet heard from the king. Will Jehoiakim want Jeremiah dead? We shall see.

What do we learn from this chapter that may be helpful for us today? I think it is important to note that the only group that explicitly supports Jeremiah for theological reasons is the village elders. They are outside the political power structure. They can discern what is true more clearly because they are not influenced by self-interest or maintaining their power and influence. They are an independent repository for maintaining Israel’s memory and faith. We always need such a group.

We should not look to politicians to tell us what our faith should be. Though individual politicians sometimes give courageous and ethical guidance contrary to self-interest, as a whole politicians are mostly wanting to maintain their power and will tend to say what we want to hear. Religious leaders who rule over mega-churches or media empires are also not our best source for faith. They too want to protect what they have. So I think it is the local religious leaders and laypeople, the ones who prove themselves in day-to-day nourishing of the faith community, who are perhaps the wisest and most sensitive to what God is challenging us to do.

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