The prophet Jeremiah lived in the dark, tumultuous period that led to the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. He lived a painful journey from hopeful youth who dreamed of the reunification of the kingdoms to rejected prophet who tried desperately to eradicate the corruption and social injustice rampant in society.
In “Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet,” a new release from Maggid Books, Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau gives us a narrative account of national struggle, social degeneration and political strife that is both accessible to and thrilling for the contemporary reader. The following is an excerpt for reflection as we begin the Three Weeks.
Throughout biblical history, prophets have repeatedly failed to penetrate the collective consciousness. Moses, the greatest of the prophets; Elijah and Elisha, the oratory prophets; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other twelve literary prophets – none was successful in getting his message across and inspiring the people to repentance. Jonah is perhaps the only prophet who may be said to have fulfilled his mission, making the people of Nineveh see the error of their ways.
The words of the prophets have been preserved for us, their distant descendants, so that we may learn what is right in the eyes of God and man. But in their own days, in real time, there is hardly a prophet who has redressed the social, religious, or political wrongs of Israel; the prophets barked, but the caravan kept moving. Moreover, when a prophet dared to deviate from his usual message of morality and challenged the existing order, he was declared an enemy of the people. Thus, the prophet Amos was banished by the priest of Bethel, Amaziah, in the name of King Jeroboam: “Get thee out, seer!” (Amos 7:12).
The comparison of the prophet to a public intellectual is intended not to diminish the importance of the former, but to emphasize the responsibility of the latter. While the significance of the prophetic overture “Thus said the Lord” may be disputed, and it is difficult to distinguish a true prophet from a false one, certain hallmarks of true prophecy may be found. First among these is the prophet’s readiness to pay a personal price for his vision; thus the “prophet” who is eager to reinforce the dominant zeitgeist and the prevailing mores – who tells the people exactly what they want to hear – is immediately suspect.
One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon is the story of King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah, who joined forces to free their territories from the Arameans. Before making the final decision to wage war, Jehoshaphat asked Ahab to seek the word of God. Ahab acceded to his ally’s request: “Then the King of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, ‘Shall I go to Ramoth-Gilead to battle, or shall I withhold?’ And they said, ‘Go up; for the Lord shall deliver into the king’s hand’ ” (I Kings 22:6).
When the press all sing the same tune, something rings false; the king of Judah indeed suspected that the four hundred “prophets” were merely pandering to the king of Israel. He could see that their unanimous declaration had more to do with choreography than with actual prophecy.
When Jehoshaphat asked if any others claimed to be a “prophet of the Lord” (22:7), Ahab admitted that there was indeed another prophet who had not been summoned, “for I hate him, for he foretells for me not good but evil” (22:8). Ahab preferred the cheerleading of false prophets to the foreboding word of God, and hated the bearers of such warnings.
The story goes on to describe how the hated prophet, Micaiah son of Imla, is summoned to prophesy before the king. The four hundred reiterate their prophecy, calling, “Go up to Ramoth-Gilead and be victorious, for the Lord shall deliver into the king’s hand!” (22:12), and one of their number, Zedekiah son of Kenaana, triumphantly brandishes a pair of iron horns, declaring, “With these shall you gore Aram!” (22:11).
When the king asks for Micaiah’s prophecy, he weakly repeats the words of his false peers: “Go up and be victorious, for the Lord shall deliver into the king’s hand” (22:16). Sensing that Micaiah’s words are disingenuous, the king urges him to deliver the true message of God. Micaiah then pours forth a terrible vision of Israel scattered over the hills like sheep without a shepherd.