Jeremiah’s Action Sermons: Jeremiah’s Yoke

Jeremiah’s fifth and sixth action sermons span chapters 27-29 of his prophecy. These events occurred during the final years of the kings of Judah, shortly prior to Zedekiah’s ignominious removal by the Babylonians.

This was an era of spiritual decline in Judah and a time of great political upheaval. Major powers (Assyria, Egypt and Babylon) were vying for dominance, while lesser kingdoms (including Judah) were frantically trying to protect themselves, forming defensive alliances.

We may infer that the five emissaries in Jeremiah 27:3 came to Jerusalem to discuss such a pact. Zedekiah was installed as a vassal king by Nebuchadnezzar when Jeconiah was deposed and deported to Babylon, but after several years, he rebelled. Evidently, he was looking for support against King Nebuchadnezzar from the neighbouring kingdoms.

Leaders’ summits are often met with large-scale protests today. Jeremiah’s demonstration was solitary, but not without significance. On the Lord’s instruction he made a contraption of yoke bars and straps for himself, and possibly one each for the five envoys and Zedekiah.

The yoke was used to harness animals or to lead away captive slaves. The imagery was unmistakeable; however, Jeremiah left no room for doubt, sending an unequivocal message to the kings represented (Jer 27:5-11). The Lord had raised up Nebuchadnezzar as His servant, and they must serve him. Submit to Nebuchadnezzar and you will prosper. Resist and you will perish. For the avoidance of doubt, a similar message was delivered to Zedekiah (vv12-15) and then to the priests and all the people (vv16-22).

Some months later Jeremiah was confronted by Hananiah, son of Azzur, a prophet from Gibeon. Likely emboldened by news of a domestic uprising against Nebuchadnezzar, Hananiah publicly repudiated Jeremiah’s prophecy, predicting instead the imminent end of Babylon’s dominion and the return of King Jeconiah and the vessels removed from the temple at the time of his deportation. Hananiah asserted that the Lord would break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar.

“Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words that you have prophesied come true” (28:6),[1] Jeremiah replied. Although I’m inclined to hear scornful ire in those words, that probably says more about me than it does about Jeremiah. We have already observed in this series that he was a tender-hearted man who cared more for the people he was sent to than for his own reputation. What I might have said with cutting sarcasm Jeremiah likely sighed with caring sympathy.

Whatever the tone, Hananiah waxed bolder still. Removing and then breaking the yoke which Jeremiah was wearing, he reiterated his false prophecy that God had promised to break the Babylonish yoke. This constitutes the second action sermon of our present study. It was to cost Hananiah his life. Some time later the Lord instructed Jeremiah to send word that He had replaced the wooden yoke with one of iron, and that Hananiah must die for inciting rebellion against the Lord. Within two months, Hananiah was gone. Shortly thereafter, the kingdom was gone too.

Although these incidents have very particular historical relevance, as with each of our studies, they are full of practical instruction for us today.

Recognition of the Sovereignty of God

There are three references in Jeremiah to Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” (25:9; 27:6; 43:10). Elsewhere, a Gentile king (Cyrus II of Persia) was mentioned by name before his birth and called “my shepherd” (Isa 44:28). Just as the Lord raised up Pharaoh (Rom 9:17) to accomplish His purpose in forming the nation of Israel, so a millennium later He raised up Nebuchadnezzar to realise His plan as this era ended.

Interestingly, not only was God working through these despots but was also working in them. Pharaoh progressively hardened his heart and ultimately perished. But, with contrasting contrition, Nebuchadnezzar ultimately confessed the greatness of “the Most High God.” “How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation” (Dan 4:3).

Recounting how for his arrogance he had been reduced to eat grass like an ox, he continued, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (v37).

As Christians, we ought to be concerned about the moral and spiritual decline around us; however, we must not despair. Though religious and political leaders may be unworthy, we remember that God is in absolute, sovereign control. Rather than protest against them we ought to pray for them, “… for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Ti 2:2-4).

Submission to the Government of God

We also need to learn to submit to God’s government in our lives. Jeremiah’s compatriots were too stubborn to accept that their persistent disobedience had exhausted God’s great patience, and that what Jeremiah foretold was the just consequence.

Apart from necessary training in faith, which seldom comes without adversity, there are times when sin in our lives brings chastisement. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives …. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?” (Heb 12:6-9).

God is good and gracious. But one of the consequences of His love for us is that He will not forever permit His loved children to persist in self-destructive ways that dishonour Him. Has God’s chastening hand been upon you? Submit to Him.

Opposition to the Word of God

Jeremiah’s response to Hananiah’s opposition is instructive. Ultimately his confidence was in God and His unalterable Word. Without resorting to unbecoming argument or other ungracious behaviour, he rather walked away (Jer 28:11) and was the epitome of Paul’s exhortation, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2Ti 2:24-25).

May we learn the lesson of Jeremiah’s yoke.

[1] Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.