The Yoke of Babylon (Jeremiah 27-28) July 21-22
Jeremiah 27:1 says, "In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah..." Most commentators take "Jehoiakim" to be an ancient copyist error in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, believing it should actually say "Zedekiah," as in some other early manuscripts. It is true that chapter 27 is clearly set in the early part of Zedekiah's reign, his fourth year to be exact, and not Jehoiakim's (compare verses 3, 12; 28:1).
However, another explanation could be that the chapter break between Jeremiah 26 and 27 occurs in the wrong place. Jeremiah 26 is set "in the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah" (26:1). Perhaps the last verse of chapter 26 should read, "Nevertheless the hand of Ahikam the son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah, so that they should not give him into the hand of the people to put him to death in the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah." The first verse of chapter 27 would then read, "This word came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying..." While this may seem unlikely to some, we cannot rule it out as a possibility.
Moving into the substance of the chapter, we encounter a hotbed of political plotting during this fourth year of Zedekiah (594-593 B.C.). "Emissaries from Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon met in Jerusalem to plan revolution [against Babylon]. In the Jewish court, pro-Egyptian conspirators probably looked to Egypt for help, especially with the accession of the new king, Psammetichus II (594-589 b.c.e.). Jeremiah [according to God's direction] opposed rebellion, arguing that Judah's only hope was to remain a vassal to the Babylonians" (HarperCollins Study Bible, note on 27:1-28:17).
God here again gives Jeremiah a seemingly strange, but dramatic, task to perform. The prophet is to make and then don "bonds and yokes"—and to give these to the gathered envoys for delivery to their national leaders as part of God's message to them that they were all to submit to Babylon. "The yoke is that used by two oxen to pull a heavy load. Normally, yokes consisted of a crossbar with leather or rope nooses or rods of wood that would be placed around the animals' necks. Attached to the crossbar was a wooden shaft for pulling the load (see Deut 21.3; 1 Sam 6.7; 11.5; 1 Kings 19.19). For the yoke as a symbol of servitude [Jeremiah 27:8, 12], see also 1 Kings 12.1-11" (note on Jeremiah 27:2).
"The task assigned to Jeremiah required great faith, as it was sure to provoke alike his own countrymen and the foreign ambassadors and their kings, by a seeming insult, at the very time that all were full of confident hopes grounded on the confederacy" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on verse 3).
God's message through His prophet is intended to make it plain to the leaders of the surrounding nations that they wield power only so long as He allows it. He would promote Nebuchadnezzar and subjugate these leaders and their peoples under him. Yet in this exaltation of the Babylonian emperor, it is clear that God remains ultimately supreme. He even calls Nebuchadnezzar "My Servant" (verse 6). "With all of his military might and conquests, the king of Babylon was still a servant of the God of Israel, carrying out the Lord's purposes—namely the judgment of Judah [and these other nations]" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 6-7).
In verse 8, the yoke symbol is explained to the emissaries: submit to Babylon or else, the alternative being punishment through the dreadful three-fold cycle of sword, famine and pestilence. Jeremiah then delivers to them a serious warning not to listen to prophets or various occult practitioners who were saying the opposite (verses 9-11). He then proclaims the same message to King Zedekiah, the priests and all the people he encounters as he wanders about wearing the yoke (verses 12-16).
Jeremiah then issues a challenge to the false prophets. Nebuchadnezzar had taken much of the temple furnishings in his prior invasions of Jerusalem (see Daniel 1:1-2; 2 Kings 24:11-13). The false prophets were claiming these would soon be brought back. But Jeremiah says "the vessels which are left" in the temple would also be taken to Babylon in the coming destruction of the city (Jeremiah 27:16-22). Jeremiah challenges the false prophets to intercede with God to try to stop his words from coming to pass and to bring to pass the things they have announced. This would prove who spoke for God.
It may not be quickly noticed but Jeremiah does offer words of hope and encouragement in the midst of this challenge and pronouncement of calamity. In verse 22, he says that Babylon would ultimately be punished and that the temple furnishings would then be brought back as part of Judah's restoration. Surprisingly, these items were apparently well accounted for in Babylon, being returned in specific numbers when the Persians later took over (see Ezra 1:7-11). It is likely that Daniel played a part in the care and cataloging of them.
Hananiah's Lies (Jeremiah 27-28)
Jeremiah 28 introduces the prophet Hananiah, who contradicts Jeremiah, falsely claiming that he speaks for God. "Hananiah had the temerity to use the same introductory formula as Jeremiah, implying a claim for inspiration similar to his. The form of the Hebrew verb sabarti ('I will break') in v[erse] 2 is the prophetic perfect, which emphasizes the certainty of a future event or promise. The yoke refers to the one Jeremiah had just made. Flatly contradicting Jeremiah's God-given counsel of submission, Hananiah predicted a return of the captives and the temple vessels within two years, emphasizing the time element by putting it first (v. 3)" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Jeremiah 28:3) This was unbelievably bold—and utterly foolish.
Jeremiah responds to Hananiah's message of Judah's imminent national restoration by essentially saying, "Would that it were true!" (compare verses 5-6). But, he continues, this theme of immediate peace and prosperity runs contrary to the long tradition of the messages of God's prophets (compare verses 7-8). If a purported prophet of God comes along saying everything's just fine and predicting "smooth sailing," the reaction should be as Jeremiah's: "We'll have to see it to believe it" (compare verse 9; Deuteronomy 18:21-22).
(We experience a similar situation today, with false ministers speaking a different message from that of God's true servants. Only those close to God can determine who His ministers are. Thankfully, most people today have access to His Word and can check what religious teachers say against the Bible—see Acts 17:11.)
Hananiah, angry at the rebuke, breaks Jeremiah's yoke and blasphemously makes his own "sign" out of it, issuing another false prophecy in God's name. His announcement "reversed every statement by Jeremiah and advanced the cause of rebellion against Babylon by Judah and the surrounding nations, something King Zedekiah had desired all along" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 10-11). But Hananiah and those who trust in him soon learn an important lesson about pretending to represent the great Creator God. Hananiah might have broken the wooden yoke on Jeremiah's neck, but those who embraced his message would soon suffer under a figurative yoke of "iron," which is unbreakable (verses 13-15). Hananiah, in fact, learns that he won't even be around long enough to have a yoke on his own neck—except the yoke of death (verse 16).
Remarkably, though Jeremiah said Hananiah would die "this year" (same verse), God doesn't wait the whole year to fulfill the decree. Instead, the false prophet dies just two months later (compare verses 1, 17). "There was no way the people and priests of Judah, who witnessed the confrontation that took place (28:1), could avoid linking Jeremiah's prediction with Hananiah's demise. God shouts out His warnings" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verse 17). Yet the stubborn leaders and wayward populace refused to face reality—that all of Jeremiah's other prophecies were true—and humbly repent.
The false prophets of Jeremiah's day were powerful and influential, as we can see. Again, even today we need to be wary of false prophets—false preachers—who appear to be true servants of God (Matthew 7:15; 2 Corinthians 11:13; 1 John 4:1). The apostle Peter warns the Church of God: "But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies...and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways.... By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction will not slumber" (2 Peter 2:1-3). The Bible even foretells the rise of a great false prophet who will deceive the world at the end of the present age (see Revelation 19:20; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12).