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JEREMIAH 23:9-11: THE CONTEXT
Our text is part of a lengthy discourse on prophecy that extends from 23:9 to 23:40. It is composed of five sections (some scholars say six) as follows:
• Verses 9-12: Faithful Jeremiah’s despair at the false prophets in his midst.
• Verses 13-15: Compares the adulterous prophets of Jerusalem with the idolatrous prophets of Samaria—and pronounces judgment on them.
• Verses 16-22 (or 16-17 and 18-22): A call to reject false prophets.
• Verses 23-32: The Lord sees all and will hold false prophets accountable. Our text includes the first seven verses of this section.
• Verses 33-40: A word of judgment on unfaithful people, prophets, and priests.
JEREMIAH 23:23-24. DON’T I FILL HEAVEN AND EARTH?
23 Am I a God at hand, says Yahweh, and not a God afar off? 24 Can any hide himself in secret places so that I shall not see him? says Yahweh. Don’t I fill heaven and earth? says Yahweh.
Yahweh is the one who speaks here. He asks three rhetorical questions, each of which anticipates a negative response. First, Yahweh is not simply a local god who is concerned only with Judah. God is also far off—transcendent—concerned with all of creation. Second, there is no place where we can hide that is beyond Yahweh’s seeing. Third, Yahweh does fill heaven and earth.
The God who is revealed here is both immanent (present with us) and transcendent (completely beyond us—unknowable except as he chooses to reveal himself).
The people of Judah take great comfort in the covenant that Yahweh established with them, and think of Yahweh as their God and nobody else’s. Yahweh dwells in their temple in their city of Jerusalem. These verses call them to a broader vision of a transcendent God who is present everywhere, not just in the temple—and one who cares for all people and not just the people of Judah.
JEREMIAH 23:25-27. I HAVE HEARD WHAT THE PROPHETS HAVE SAID
25 I have heard what the prophets have said, who prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. 26 How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, even the prophets of the deceit of their own heart? 27 who think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbor, as their fathers forgot my name for Baal.
Dreams and visions were means by which God revealed himself. Jacob dreamed of a ladder extending from earth to heaven (Genesis 28:12). Joseph interpreted the dreams of the butler and baker, which ultimately led him to a leadership role in Egypt (Genesis 40:8-23). Daniel both interpreted dreams (Daniel 2:16-23, 28-30; 4:1-37) and dreamed dreams (Daniel 7:1-28). The Lord said, “Hear now my words. If there is a prophet among you, I Yahweh will make myself known to him in a vision. I will speak with him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6). Even Jeremiah had visions (1:11-13).
In the New Testament, Peter’s vision of unclean beasts led to the opening of the church to Gentiles (Acts 10:10-16). Paul saw visions (Acts 16:9; 23:11; 27:23-24).
In each of these instances, the Lord chose to reveal himself or a significant truth through a dream or vision.
So the question is not whether dreams and visions can be legitimate means of revelation, but how to discern Godly dreams and visions from figments of one’s imagination—and how to discern Godly dreamers from false prophets. That is always a difficult task.
But Yahweh needs no one to help him discern true and false prophets. Yahweh hears the false prophets who claim, “I have dreamed!” and laments the persistence of their lies. He asks if they will ever turn back—which would involve repentance and a new direction for their lives.
But Yahweh can see that these false prophets have no plans for repentance. Quite the contrary! Instead of planning to repent and change their ways, they plan to make people forget Yahweh’s name—to forget Yahweh’s essential character—to forget the relationship that exists between Yahweh and Judah. That happened in the past, when the people of Israel forsook Yahweh for Baal—and now it is happening again.
JEREMIAH 23:28-29. ISN’T MY WORD LIKE FIRE, SAYS YAHWEH
28 The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he who has my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the straw to the wheat? says Yahweh. 29 Isn’t my word like fire? says Yahweh; and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?
Yahweh will allow the false prophets to tell their dreams, because he has true prophets who will speak his word faithfully. When both sides have had their say, the contrast between the words of the false prophets and the words of the true prophets will be evident. People (at least the more discerning people) will see that the words of the false prophets are like straw (which offers no nourishment) and the words of the true prophets are like wheat (which nourishes and sustains life).
Yahweh’s word is like a refiner’s fire, which burns away chaff and impurities, leaving only that which is pure and valuable. It is like a hammer, which breaks rocks—”shatters all pretension and self-confidence” (Huey, 217).
JEREMIAH 23:30-32. I AM AGAINST THOSE WHO PROPHESY LYING DREAMS
These verses are not part of the lectionary reading, but constitute the conclusion of this section (verses 23-32). Yahweh says, “Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams… and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their vain boasting: yet I didn’t send them, nor commanded them” (vv. 31-32).
A NOTE ON FALSE PROPHETS:
The phrase, “false prophet,” is not present in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, but the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) uses the Greek word pseudoprophetes (false prophets) to translate the Hebrew word navi (prophets) on several occasions. Jesus warned of false prophets (Matthew 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Luke 6:26)—as did the apostles (2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1) and the book of Revelation (16:13; 19-20; 20:10).
The problem of false prophets existed before Jeremiah and is with us yet today. These false prophets included:
• Prophets who spoke treason against the Lord and caused the people to turn from the way in which the Lord commanded them to walk (Deuteronomy 13:5).
• Prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord, but their prophecy did not prove true (Deuteronomy 18:22).
• Prophets who said, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace (Jeremiah 6:14) or who said, “No evil shall come on you” when the people were, in fact, in grave danger of judgment (Jeremiah 23:17).
• Prophets who served Baal or other local gods (1 Kings 18:19; Jeremiah 23:13).
• Prophets who practiced immorality, including adultery and lying (Jeremiah 23:14).
• Priests who “teach for a price” and prophets who “tell fortunes for money” (Micah 3:11).
• Prophets who, because they had not stood in Yahweh’s council, failed to proclaim Yahweh’s words to the people and failed to turn the people from their evil ways (Jeremiah 23:22).
False prophets are a problem for every age. The problem is discerning false prophets from true prophets. We need to be open to new ways of expressing the old truths and people who disagree with us. However, it is also important to discern false prophets in our midst, lest we (and others) be led astray.
We can profit (so to speak) by examining the list above. Four items seem especially significant today:
• Clergy who say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14) or who say, “No evil shall come on you” when the people are, in fact, in grave danger of judgment (Jeremiah 23:17). We live in a culture today when tolerance rather than faithfulness has become the preeminent virtue. Our culture calls us to tolerate every kind of behavior and every kind of belief. As a result, we are often hesitant to help our congregations discern the line between good and evil—or even to understand that there is a line between good and evil. Often, the problem is that we no longer believe that there is a line between good and evil, so we find ourselves unable to guide our people faithfully.
• Prophets who served Baal or other local gods (1 Kings 18:19; Jeremiah 23:13). Some Christian clergy today have also adopted another religion. Thus far, most denominations have pulled their denominational credentials, but I would not be surprised to see exceptions soon.
• Prophets who practiced immorality, including adultery and lying (Jeremiah 23:14). Sex scandals among clergy surface periodically, whether adultery or pedophilia. So do scandals regarding money embezzled from church coffers. So do issues of personal integrity, such as false witness or plagiarism. These are significant issues. Clergy who become involved in immorality bring dishonor upon the church and Christ.
• Priests who “teach for a price” and prophets who “tell fortunes for money” (Micah 3:11). One of my professors gave us a list of criteria for discerning false prophets—one of which was whether to describe their ministry as “Prophets or profits?” Are they enriching themselves? We can’t make affluence an absolute criterion, because some honest clergy enjoy significant incomes (usually by virtue of a television ministry or by writing books—but some pastors of large churches are also quite well paid). We need to consider the extent to which they emphasize money and how they use money—both their personal incomes and their ministry’s money.
This list just scratches the surface, but it reminds us that we have a God-given mandate to proclaim the truth and to proclaim judgment on that which is not true. Our temptation is to affirm everything and to say nothing that would offend anyone. As nearly as I can determine, that constitutes false prophecy and leaves us in danger of the judgment that Yahweh pronounced on false prophets in Jeremiah 23.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Bright, John, The Anchor Bible: Jeremiah (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1965)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Craigie, Peter C.; Kelley, Page H.; and Drinkard, Joel F. Jr., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 1–25(Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Keown, Gerald L.; Scalise, Pamela J.; and Smothers, Thomas G., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 26-52 (Dallas: Word Books, 1995)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan