To Shemaiah of Nehelam you shall say: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: You have sent letters in your name to all the people who are in Jerusalem, and to Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah the priest, and to all the priests, saying, ‘The Lord has made you priest instead of Jehoiada the priest, to have charge in the house of the Lord over every madman who prophesies, to put him in the stocks and neck irons. Now why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth who is prophesying to you? For he has sent to us in Babylon, saying, “Your exile will be long; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce.”’”
Zephaniah the priest read this letter in the hearing of Jeremiah the prophet. Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Send to all the exiles, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord concerning Shemaiah of Nehelam: Because Shemaiah had prophesied to you when I did not send him, and has made you trust in a lie, therefore thus says the Lord: Behold, I will punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants. He shall not have anyone living among this people, and he shall not see the good that I will do to my people, declares the Lord, for he has spoken rebellion against the Lord.’” – Jeremiah 29:24-32 ESV
There were three individuals in Babylon who were making life difficult for Jeremiah back in Judah. They were all three part of the group of Judahites who were exiled to Babylon in the first wave of captives taken by Nebuchadnezzar. Two of them, Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, were false prophets who were telling the exiles in Babylon that their stay there would be short. And this news was getting back to the people in Judah who, when they heard it, refused to listen to the words of Jeremiah. So, God called out Ahab and Zedekiah, letting them know that they would end up in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar himself.
“Their terrible fate will become proverbial, so that the Judean exiles will curse someone by saying, ‘May the Lord make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon burned alive!’” – Jeremiah 29:22 NLT
Their made-up, make-believe good news would turn out poorly for them. Not only would the people exiled in Judah remain in Babylon 70 years, Ahab and Zedekiah would lose their lives for lying in the Lord’s name. But their sins against God also included adultery. They were claiming to speak for God while breaking the law of God. And their words were in direct opposition to Jeremiah, the prophet appointed by God. And when they contradicted his words, they were guilty of calling God a liar and causing the people to turn against Him.
But they were not alone. There was yet another stooge in Babylon who was misleading the people in exile, but also attempting to disrupt things back in Judah. His name was Shemaiah and he too was a self-appointed prophet. When he had heard the content of Jeremiah’s initial letter to the exiles, he had responded with a letter of his own, addressed “to all the people who are in Jerusalem, and to Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah the priest, and to all the priests” (Jeremiah 29:25 ESV). In his letter, Shemaiah had strong words regarding Jeremiah and what should be done to him. He also told Zephaniah the priest that he was to replace Jehoiada as the chief priest over the temple.
“The Lord has appointed you to replace Jehoiada as the priest in charge of the house of the Lord. You are responsible to put into stocks and neck irons any crazy man who claims to be a prophet. So why have you done nothing to stop Jeremiah from Anathoth, who pretends to be a prophet among you? Jeremiah sent a letter here to Babylon, predicting that our captivity will be a long one. He said, ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce.’” – Jeremiah 29:26-28 NLT
Essentially, he was attempting to disrupt Jeremiah’s ministry by launching a long-distance campaign against him. This self-appointed prophet was attempting to stage a coup all the way from Babylon. He wanted Jeremiah out of the way, locked up as a madman, and the only way he could see that happening was if he could put someone else in control of the temple where Jeremiah tended to deliver his messages. His hope was that Zephaniah would display a much stronger anti-Jeremiah sentiment and do something about removing him once and for all. What possessed him to believe that this strategy would be successful in thwarting the will of God is unclear. But he evidently was convinced that what Jeremiah was prophesying was not of God. He didn’t want to believe that Jeremiah’s message was true.
But things didn’t turn out quite as Shemaiah had planned. First of all, his letter to Zephaniah ended up in the hands of Jeremiah. It seems his hand-picked replacement for Jehoiada had reservations about Shemaiah’s grand plan and decided to inform Jeremiah. As a result, God gave Jeremiah a message to send to the people of Judah in Babylon concerning Shemaiah’s fate.
“Send an open letter to all the exiles in Babylon. Tell them, ‘This is what the Lord says concerning Shemaiah the Nehelamite: Since he has prophesied to you when I did not send him and has tricked you into believing his lies, I will punish him and his family. None of his descendants will see the good things I will do for my people, for he has incited you to rebel against me. I, the Lord, have spoken!’” – Jeremiah 29:21-32 NLT
Ahab, Zedekiah and Shemaiah. These three men would discover the hard way what happens to those who claim to speak for God, but who offer up lies and half-truths. They were actually encouraging rebellion against God while claiming to speak on behalf of God. Their words were not from God. In fact, they were contradicting the messenger of God. They were denying the truth of Jeremiah’s words and in doing so, calling God a liar. Their distaste for Jeremiah’s message was real, but their rejection of it did nothing to change its efficacy or outcome. We may not like what the Word of God says, but refusing to listen to and obey it does not change the truth contained in it. While the news of 70 years of captivity was not appealing, it was actually good news. It meant that God was going to spare a remnant of the people of Judah and return them to the land of promise. He was not going to abandon them completely. But for men like Ahab, Zedekiah and Shemaiah, it was easier to believe a lie and hope that they would all return in less than two years. They preferred their man-made message to the word of God. They would rather believe a lie that ended in death than the truth that would result in life.
And that is the problem with the vast majority of people living in the world today. They would prefer to believe the lies of the self-appointed prophets of hope, who claim that science, education, the sexual revolution, socialism, bigger government, small government, or no government are the answers to mankind’s problems. When God says that the hope of the world is found in His Son, the false prophets attempt to shout Him down, refusing to accept His word as truth. When God accuses mankind of sin and rebellion against Him, and encourages them to seek salvation through His Son, the false prophets simply deny the reality of sin and offer up pseudo-saviors for the ills facing mankind. Even pastors, claiming to speak on behalf of God, present a false view of God. They present Him as all-loving and refuse to accept the idea that He would condemn anyone to eternal punishment. They deny the reality of hell. They downplay the significance of sin. They preach tolerance and promote peace at all costs. They refuse to call people to repentance. They resist the divine decree that all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. They declare Jesus to be nothing more than a moral role model, not a sinless Savior who gave His life as payment for the sins of mankind. And in doing so they deceive the people and declare God to be a liar. But, like Ahab, Zedekiah and Shemaiah, they will be proven wrong. Science is not our savior. Social welfare programs, while needed, will not redeem anyone from slavery to sin and eternal judgment. Tolerating any and all lifestyles may make others feel better about themselves, but it will do nothing to change the fact that they are alienated from God. The truth can be painful. It can be difficult to accept. But replacing the truth with a lie does not change its ultimate outcome. As Jesus told His disciples, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 NLT). The truth of God is always preferable to the lies of men, because His truth is spoken in love. He always tells us what we need to hear, even when it is difficult for us to accept what He has to say.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.