In these chapters we find ourselves in the middle of a story full of intrigue, conspiracy, devilry and heroism. The conspirator, Ishmael, killed Gedaliah, the godly governor, and now Johanan, a military captain, has heard of the deed and pursues Ishmael. Johanan catches up with the conspirator and runs him off while freeing all the people he had taken captive. It seems that hope might be restored to the remnant still left in Judah, but, in what feels like a passing comment, we read that Johanan “intend[ed] to go to Egypt” (vs. 17).
In Egypt he sees everything he and the remnant need, especially after their government has been so brutally overturned. Johanan is rightfully worried that Nebuchadnezzar will hear about the uprising and return in anger. Egypt is the nearest major nation that has not fallen to the Babylonians and so, Johanan believes, it can provide the protection they need, the economy they need, and the order and stability the remnant needs to restart their lives (see God’s description of Johanan’s reasoning in 42:14). But before they go, there is one person they need to consult.
Johanan and the rest of the leaders approach Jeremiah to get God’s input on the matter. Their exchange with Jeremiah is telling in how they address God and how Jeremiah responds:
Let our plea for mercy come before you, and pray to the LORD your God for us....Jeremiah the prophet said to them, “I have heard you. Behold, I will pray to the LORD your God” (vs. 2, 4)
Notice that the Judeans call God “your God,” and in reply, Jeremiah reminds them that he is also “your God.” This brief exchange is significant. Johanan betrays a lack of relationship with God that would put God at the center of his thoughts and decisions. Jeremiah reminds him that God is no abstract entity that belongs to the super-spiritual, but is the God who is intimately involved with Johanan’s life as well. God’s activity should not be relegated to the lives of a few saints, but should be seen in the context of my daily life.
We learn later that though God warns them not to flee to Egypt, that is exactly what Johanan and the people do. So if their intent is to go to Egypt, why stop along the way to talk to Jeremiah and ask God what they should do? Is this religious flummery to them? Are they just going through the motions of talking to God’s prophet because that is what good Judeans do? Are they simply deceiving Jeremiah? Are they just insincere? I believe the situation is a little more complex that that.
I believe Johanan sincerely wants to hear God’s opinion on the matter; the catch is that he is already sure what that opinion will be. He approaches Jeremiah, I believe, with all sincerity of heart and all religious fervor, but has already settled the matter in his own heart and mind. Egypt is all that makes sense to him, and clearly, that will be God’s view as well.
It strikes me that I often approach God in this fashion. There is nothing wrong with my sincerity of heart and mind, but where things have gone wrong is at the crucial point of who is making the decision. Even in his dire situation, God is still Johanan’s God, and needs to be the primary factor in his decision making. It may be that God’s will aligns with what Johanan thinks makes sense, but to follow God faithfully requires that Johanan is ready to align his will with God’s.
Simple sincerity in my religiosity will not guarantee that I am living a faithful life—obedience does that. Jesus speaks to this very thing when he says:
“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matt. 7:22-24)