Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Jeremiah's Trial as a False Prophet (Chapter 26): A Window into the Complex Religious State of the People

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Jeremiah's Trial as a False Prophet (Chapter 26): A Window into the Complex Religious State of the People

Article excerpt


When reading the Book of Jeremiah, it is easy to assume that all of Jeremiah's adversaries must have been wicked for opposing God's prophet. However, there potentially was a wide range of motivations underlying the actions of Jeremiah's opponents. Some may have been wicked, but others were sincerely religious, even if they were mistaken.

Jeremiah chapter 26 provides a window into the complex religious state of the society that Jeremiah confronted at the beginning of Jehoiakim's reign. In this essay, we will explore three approaches of commentators--Abarbanel, Malbim, and Menahem Boleh (1)--who suggest comprehensive explanations of the narrative. Each interpretation presents a different understanding of the religious state of the people.


Jeremiah entered the Temple precincts at the beginning of Jehoiakim's reign (c. 609 BCE) (2) to prophesy the destruction of the Temple if the people failed to repent. Just as God allowed the holy city of Shiloh to be destroyed because of Israel's sins, (3) so too Jerusalem was vulnerable. The priests, prophets, and people were outraged by Jeremiah's message and wanted him executed immediately as a false prophet: And when Jeremiah finished speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people, the priests and the prophets and all the people seized him, shouting, 'You shall die! How dare you prophesy in the name of the Lord that this House shall become like Shiloh and this city be made desolate, without inhabitants?' (Jer. 26:8-9).

Superficially, one might conclude that they all were wicked people who hated Jeremiah for criticizing them and for threatening their religious authority. Although this explanation may account for some of their motivation, nobler factors also may have been involved.

In chapter 7--likely a parallel prophecy to the narrative in Jeremiah 26 (4)--Jeremiah censured the people for believing that the Temple would never be destroyed: Don't put your trust in illusions and say, 'The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these [buildings].' No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another ... (Jer. 7:4-5). The people also served God as pagans would serve their deities by offering sacrifices while persisting in their immoral and even idolatrous behavior (Jer. 7:9-11).

Although such individuals were both misguided in their service of God and immoral, even fully righteous individuals might have suspected that Jeremiah was a false prophet. Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of the Temple soon after the righteous King Josiah's abrupt death (609 BCE). Jeremiah's critique of Judean society, then, came in the wake of Josiah's reformation (622 BCE). Were the people already so wicked to warrant the destruction of the Temple? Addressing this concern early in his career, Jeremiah censured the insincerity of the ostensibly penitent Judeans: The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: Have you seen what Rebel Israel did, going to every high mountain and under every leafy tree, and whoring there? ... And after all that, her sister, Faithless Judah, did not return to Me wholeheartedly, but insincerely--declares the Lord (Jer. 3:6, 10). However, it is likely that many believed that the people were generally righteous at that time. (5)

Furthermore, Jeremiah stated this prophecy of destruction less than a century after the miraculous salvation of Jerusalem in Isaiah's time (701 BCE): 'I will protect and save this city for My sake and for the sake of My servant David.' [That night] an angel of the Lord went out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp, and the following morning they were all dead corpses (Isa. 37:35-36).

In principle, the religious establishment could have cited this prophecy of divine protection of Jerusalem as a further precedent against Jeremiah's prophecy. …

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