“Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully (Jeremiah 23:28a).”
Jeremiah 23 begins with a fierce critique of the religious leadership of Jeremiah’s day: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD (Jer. 23:1).” Religious leaders, like shepherds, are meant to provide protection, guidance, and safety to the people who have been entrusted to them. However, in Jeremiah’s day, the religious leadership are oppressive and exploitative. Isaiah 3:13-15 and Micah 3:1-3 contain equally harsh, if not harsher, rebukes of the leadership of Israel. The leaders grind and destroy the poor for their own benefit and prosperity. Because of this failure of spiritual leadership, God promises to act decisively; God will remove the leaders from their position and judge them according to their actions. In their place, God himself will shepherd the flock, and God will install new leaders who show compassion and kindness to the flock.
In the times of the prophets, when there was in general a great failure of genuine faithfulness and devotion to God, there was never a lack of religiosity. Even when the people turned away from God, they still cried out to God. Even when the people were hardened against God’s Spirit, they sang songs of praise and worship. Even when the people rebelled against God’s commands, they offered a multitude of sacrifices in the temple (see also Isaiah 1). In the case of Jeremiah 23, even when the prophets and leaders refused to hear God’s word, they claimed to receive regular divine insight and revelation. In the most rebellious of times, the prophets recounted dream after dream that they claimed to have received from God, yet God had not spoken.
In Jeremiah 23:28, God parodies these dreamers and visionaries. “Tell your dreams!” God says. They are nothing more than vanity and illusions. Shout your emptiness from the rooftops. Proclaim your false visions in the streets for all to hear. But, if there are any who know God’s word and teach it faithfully, let them speak as well.
See, the people in Jeremiah’s day must have put a great deal of emphasis on receiving divine revelation and inspiration. They longed for dreams and visions and considered them signs of deep spirituality. In this way, these people were not much different than the people in Corinth in Paul’s day who thought that prophecies and visions and tongues were signs of great spirituality (see I Cor. 12-14). Yet, both Jeremiah and Paul dismiss dreams and visions and revelations as vain emptiness when not accompanied by true knowledge of God, genuine love, and authentic practice.
In our striving for prophecies, visions, and revelations, we forget that God has already spoken in many times and in many places and through many persons. These revelations have been recorded and preserved for us in the Holy Scriptures. With the aid of modern technology, they are readily accessible for us to read, discern, and live out. Yet, many of us would prefer a sign from above, forgetting that the Scriptures themselves often chastise those who desire signs and visions.
Jeremiah’s words continue to echo through the ages then. Let the dreamers tell their dreams. Let the prophets proclaim their prophecies. Let the visionaries recount their visions. And, if anyone knows the Scriptures, let them speak the Word faithfully. Amen.