On the face of it, Johanan’s request to God’s servant Jeremiah is simply beautiful to read.
“…pray to the LORD your God for us—for all this remnant. For there are only a few of us left out of many, as your eyes can see. Let the LORD your God show us where we should go and what we should do…May the LORD be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to everything that the LORD your God sends us through you. Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the LORD our God to whom we are sending you, in order that it may go well with us when we obey the voice of the LORD our God.” (42.2-6)
What a great confession of faith! Johanan is declaring, “We want God to tell us where we should go and what we should do. And whether we want to or not, whether we agree with God or not, we will obey God. We know that is the best response, the best course of action because we believe our God knows what is best for us!”
You want to shout, “Amen, brother!”
But we need to read a few chapters before and a few chapters after to really understand these verses.
It’s after 586 BC when the Babylonians finally entered Jerusalem and completed the conquest of Judah. King Nebuchadrezzar (or Nebuchadnezzar) of the Babylonians killed most of the royal family, gouged out King Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him in bronze shackles and took him to Babylon along with many of the leading people of Judah (Jer 39.1-10).
For the rest of the Jews that are left behind, Nebuchadrezzar sets up a puppet Governor Gedeliah to rule over the land. It is during this troubling times that two people, Ishmael and Johanan, came alongside Gedeliah with ulterior motives. Ishmael was being supported by the Ammonites to the west and Johanan worked closely with the Egyptians to the south. In a rapid succession of events, Ishmael assassinates Governor Gedeliah, and he is then killed by Johanan. The people turn to Johanan, the last man standing, for leadership. Afraid that the news of Gedeliah’s death will bring back the Babylonian forces, Johanan has in mind to take all of the people with him to Egypt where he believes he will be welcomed.
With his plan firmly in place, he comes to Jeremiah to receive confirmation that this is also what God wants. We need to understand that Johanan’s mind is made up. But he offers the flowery lip service in front of all the people.
“Please ask God where we should go and what should we do. We want to obey God no matter what!”
For those who do not know the background story, Johanan’s request is a noble and spiritual one. Some of the people may have even shed a tear at the faith confession – “What a great leader we have! He is so godly!”
But God himself saw through all that. Jeremiah went into 10 days of prayer and at the end of it, he came back with God’s Word (42.7-22) – “First of all, don’t be afraid of the Babylonian king for I am with you, to save you. Secondly, remain in the land and I will bless you in all ways; don’t go to Egypt because if you do, there you will die.”
But during that 10 days of waiting, Johanan and his men had pushed hard for going down to Egypt. It was almost a done deal and God’s OK was going to seal it. But when Johanan hears God’s words, he and his men declare that Jeremiah is a false prophet and all his words are not God’s (43.1-3). They go ahead with their plans and go down to Egypt and they force Jeremiah to go with them.
There are several truths to learn from this story, but the main one is this: We like to put our plans forward and claim it’s God’s will. We are all guilty of this at one time or another.
For the most part, we want to seek God’s will for our lives. And we really mean it when we say, “for your glory alone!” and agree with Jesus at Gethsemane, “not my will, but yours be done.” But in times when we find ourselves at the crossroads of life, when we have to make huge decisions for ourselves or our families, or even our churches, we become selfish and protective, we seek comfort and our well-being, we seek our glories and our benefit. We end up doing things that make us feel good, look good, highly successful and the envy of others. And during and after the process, we may give spiritual lip service – “God directed us” “God’s will was done in us” “God is pleased by what we have done” “God’s glory is all we seek” and many other spiritual phrases to decorate our efforts. It may have been God’s will, and ultimately, we may have taken the path that God has directed, but we must be careful to give spiritual lip service.