COLUMN: War, famine and pestilence

Published 6:00 am Sunday, July 9, 2023

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We had a particular gentleman in a previous congregation. People looked up to him, literally and figuratively, as a great leader. He stood 6’8” and was a commanding physical presence.

What we learned about him, though, was that he had few convictions. He was wishy-washy, and could be swayed by virtually anyone. It was said of him, “What does he think?! He thinks whatever the last person said to him.” 

Who will get your ear? How will you decide who you listen to? How do you recognize God’s voice above all the others in your life? That is a lifelong question all of us have to answer, basically stated three different ways. For we will always be listening to someone. 

Some of us allow fewer voices than others to take true authority in our lives. But, we are all under someone’s influence. This Sunday was the closest to July Fourth. Independence Day, we call it. We should celebrate. God has brought us through a range of things including war, famine and pestilence.

But, on the Lord’s day, the voice that speaks loudest to us is God. God is our focus. God’s greatest hopes and truths matter most! God has been very clear that peace is a highly valued element of a healthy life.

One writer says that our biblical story today from Jeremiah 28: 5-9 describes a prophetic showdown. A preach-off of sorts. A verbal shootout between two of God’s deputized spokespeople. 

We don’t know if we’re comfortable with the whole notion of having to choose who we might should trust with God’s greatest hopes. God’s words of truth. I’ve spent my career listening to well-intentioned lay people say of conflicting or differing messages, “Well, it’s all Christian. So if it helps people.” 

No, that’s precisely Jeremiah’s point. Two sermons or books couched in the language and credentials of God’s messengers still does not guarantee both are right. 

Here we have Hananiah and Jeremiah. Most of us might instinctively pull for Jeremiah here, if you force us to choose a side. His name we at least recognize. With our marginal name brand loyalty, we instinctively start to pull for him because he has a book of the Bible named for him. Even if we can’t find it.

One commentary writer says that they stand at the edge of a figurative cliff, the people of Judah. King Zedekiah is thinking about going to battle in revolt against the mighty Babylonians who are in charge of the Hebrew territory at the moment. 

He has called in his prophets to help guide his decision—battle or no battle. Jeremiah prophecies that they should not attack, but that they should instead wait and not enter into rebellion. 

Hananiah has a firm grasp of what God has done for them in past battles, some of Gideon’s and King David’s mightiest conquests up against far stronger foes. God has led faithfully and delivered the outmanned children of Israel. Because Hananiah knows what he wants so badly, what he hopes for his own interests and those of his people, his prophecy is clouded.

Jeremiah points out that just because God has gone to one place in history, maybe even repeatedly, doesn’t mean that God is headed there this time. With God, in our humility we should never presume.

I know what you want. You want Hananiah to be a false-prophet, a pretender. That would make this story easier. But, it won’t be that easy for us. Confusing, isn’t it, because we read that Hananiah was a legitimate prophet. Except this time, he was speaking for himself.

So, let me ask again. How does one know what to believe? How do we best decide who we’re going to listen to? How do we know if what we’re hearing carries any more substance than a fortune cookie?

Here is what you or I should not do in a similar situation. We shouldn’t go thumbing through the Bible and pluck little quotes out of context just to prove our point. Because we won’t. You and I could differ on something and both extract what we might try to call biblical proof. Instead, we’d merely be using the Bible for our own confirmation bias. 

No, instead we test any message against the rest of the Bible. We weigh whether a message is contradictory to the larger picture of what we know about God. Perhaps most important, we test whether a plan or a message squares up with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.