Saturday, March 14, 2015

Liars and Motivation

Positivity and truth are not interchangeable
What drives a person to say something he or she knows is false?

When the stakes are fairly insignificant, without some counterbalancing sense of right and wrong, almost any trivial motive will do: desire for attention or status, concern about the potential consequences of an action we’ve taken and now wish to disclaim, a wish for petty revenge on a rival or even a distaste for the conflict and complications that often arise when one is completely honest.

But what about when the issues at stake are significant, maybe eternal? Whatever would possess someone to lie about the testimony of God?

The Reluctant Prophet

Jeremiah was a true servant of God and his faithful if occasionally reluctant prophet. He is particularly humanized for us by an ongoing struggle with what today would almost surely be diagnosed as chronic depression. And it would be hard to blame him. He had the unenviable job of delivering the news on behalf of his Master to kings, priests, fellow prophets, a rebellious general population and even the monarchs of the surrounding nations for close to forty years during the reigns of five different kings of Judah.

And the news Jeremiah delivered was consistently bad.

While it included many unique communications to particular individuals, its overriding theme was the inevitable destruction of Judah, its coming captivity by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and the cheery prophetic triad of sword, famine and pestilence. His message was essentially this: Don’t resist. Nebuchadnezzar is not some trivial invader to be easily repelled by the brave citizens of Judah. He is the servant of God sent to punish years of national unfaithfulness and injustice. Those who submit to him will be treated well. Those who resist him will be mercilessly slaughtered.

You can imagine just how well that went down with patriotic Jews, some of whom were quite delusional about their own ability to deflect the onslaught of a massive foreign army.

In bringing a distressing message, Jeremiah followed in a long tradition of Israelite prophets. Though it’s true that prophets occasionally brought a word of encouragement, the ones whose proclamations are recorded in scripture speak with an awful frequency about impending judgment.

Being a prophet at that time in Judah’s history was not a fun job. On a good day you were largely ignored and went home without getting too badly hurt, assuming you had a home to go to. On a bad day you were seriously abused, resisted, taunted, beaten, put in stocks, thrown down a well or met an untimely end in some other unpleasant way. True prophets did the job because God had genuinely called them and the alternative — refusing to speak the words God had given — was even more distasteful than the job itself. Ask Jonah how well it worked out for him to try to evade the burden of the Lord.

So Jeremiah spoke the truth to his own people for 40 years and the judgment God had promised through Jeremiah came to pass just as he had said. When Jerusalem fell, Jeremiah was well treated by the invaders, given a food allowance and a present and allowed to go where he pleased, just as God had promised.

Jeremiah was the real deal. Hananiah was not.

The Not-So-Reluctant Prophet

Hananiah was a prophet from Gibeon. Though he spoke falsely against Jeremiah, he is referred to as a “prophet” several times in chapter 28, which may suggest that he had established a pattern of making predictions, God-given or otherwise, that were generally thought reliable.

Hananiah confronted Jeremiah one day in the temple in front of the priests and a crowd of people. We’re not told whether Jeremiah was on the job at the time. I rather suspect he may just have been at worship, as he seems to have no particular word from the Lord to deliver other than his response to Hananiah’s declaration. Sure, he was wearing his yoke, which symbolized God’s warning to submit, but he seems to have worn that yoke for months, probably everywhere he went. It was the sort of thing being a real prophet entailed.

Anyway, Hananiah was spoiling for fight. He made the following statement:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”
Wow. “Break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” That was some seriously good news in a climate in which no good news was to be heard. Unfortunately, it was also a lie. It was a complete fabrication. It was a claim to speak for God from a man with nothing but a mouthful of happy talk and fond wishes.

So Here’s My Question: Why?

Why does someone do something so spectacularly foolish?

The Religious Motive. I suppose it’s faintly possible that Hananiah was a real, albeit misguided, follower of Jehovah who simply refused to believe that the judgment of God was inevitable in this particular instance. He may have assumed Jeremiah was a liar and in the absence of rebuttal from God, thought that at least the story he had concocted would be in the service of the greater good, even if wasn’t true that God had said it. Or he was a deluded loony and genuinely bought into his own story.

The Political Motive. Or maybe Hananiah was a political animal. This was a situation in which Nebuchadnezzar’s power grew over a number of years, during which Jeremiah prophesied publicly of the eventual triumph of a foreign nation. You can well imagine that a number of Jews floated the possibility of negotiation or surrender as preferable to being besieged and massacred, and Jeremiah would have been seen as enabling and motivating this crowd. A true Jewish patriot would wish to defuse any political movement of that nature.

The Personal Motive. Maybe Hananiah was one of these people who always needs to be the centre of attention, and Jeremiah was drawing off his audience. The reasons may have been entirely personal, neither religious nor political, designed to turn the focus back to himself by delivering what was surely a popular message. You can see how he doubled down when rebutted by Jeremiah, breaking the yoke-bars that Jeremiah wore around his neck to symbolize the coming Babylonian servitude.

The Consequences of False Prophecy

Why would Hananiah court the judgment of God by lying? The truth is we can speculate all day. We don’t know why people do such spectacularly self-destructive things.

But whatever the motive, Hananiah defied God in the face of two very nasty potential consequences: the convicted false prophet was subject to the death penalty under the Law, and there was always the risk of God himself directly doling out judgment on those who dared to speak falsely on his behalf.

Hananiah set a timer ticking down on his own life by giving a very specific prophetic word that could be easily disproven in the short term. He said “within two years” the vessels Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple would be returned to Jerusalem. That prophecy was destined to be falsified two years down the road no matter what else happened. It was an incredibly risky and bizarre statement to make, and I can’t imagine we’ll ever know exactly what motivated it.

Hananiah never got to be judged under the Law. He died two months later exactly in accordance with God’s word about him through Jeremiah.

Where Are They Now?

Two things strike me:

One, we live in an age where there is neither a death penalty for false teaching nor any obvious evidence that God is currently disposed to step in and judge a false teacher in the rather abrupt way Hananiah’s life came to a close. If there were people who took insane risks with their own lives by defying God publicly in the Old Testament as Hananiah did, then surely in the day of grace — in which God has restrained his hand with thousands of the liars and charlatans that have presumed to speak on his behalf — the number of these folks must be multiplying exponentially. In fact, Paul specifically warns Timothy that a time is coming when people will actively seek out false teachers, not to pass judgment on them but to give them an audience. It would be hard to argue that that time is still future.

Two, the false prophet was caught whenever the words he had prophesied failed to come true. That was the evidence of his dishonesty. The sole metric by which we have to judge the pronouncements of false teachers is the word of God.

Like Hananiah, the false teacher grows his audience by telling people exactly what they want to hear. Sure enough, this is the message of a increasing number of modern teachers in Christendom: that all manner of previously unacceptable behaviors among those who call themselves by the name of Christ are actually perfectly fine.

Convenient and popular, to be sure, but very, very wrong.

Teaching and Motivation

We don’t have to speculate about the motives of such people. The New Testament tells us what drives them: they “follow their own sinful desires”; they follow their own “ungodly passions”; they “want to distort the gospel of Christ”; they are both “ravenous” and “diseased”.

The true servant of God, like David, Moses or Jeremiah, is characteristically reticent. He speaks not out ungodly passion but out of necessity. We ought to be cautious about those who seem a little too eager to step up with a message from God without the appropriate respectful caution

And beware the teacher who comes with a message as popular as Hananiah’s.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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