When my children were still at home, one of them would sometimes find me sitting at my desk apparently doing nothing. Inevitably, he or she would ask what I was up to; invariably I would answer,”Working.” I remember several such encounters very well because the child in question would also, without exception, express disbelief.
Our activity-oriented culture does not always appreciate the fact that creativity, problem-solving, analysis, and similar “thought-work” often require quiet contemplation. A scholar cannot schedule having a brilliant insight for 9:00 Tuesday morning (when I am writing this). A poem may be only a few lines of a few words each, but the poet must take the time to devlop the imagery and explore the possibilities of language – to craft the poem.
It is the beginning of a new semester. Therefore, I have not had the time for reflective contemplation lately. The situation reminds me, however, of an event in the life of the prophet Jeremiah that I find instructive. The Babylonians took Judeans as hostages on at least two occasions, a relatively small number in 597/6 BCE (the so-called “First Deportation”) and again, in response to Judean recalcitrance, ten years later (the so-called “Great Deportation”). The first time, the Babylonians also plundered valuable objects from the temple; the second time, they breached the city walls of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.
At some point in the interim, Jeremiah went to the temple to preach that Judah must repent of its infidelity to YHWH and submit to Babylonian overlordship for a time. To help make his point, he fashioned and wore a yoke to symbolize submission to the Babylonians. While in the temple, Jeremiah encountered Hananiah, who offered a competing message. To help make his point, Hananiah took Jeremiah’s yoke, broke it, and announced that Babylon’s dominance would have short duration and that both the exiles and the temple furnishings would soon return to Jerusalem.
Jeremiah’s reaction astonishes. He confessed that, since this message was new to him, he needed time to wait on insight from the Lord. He admitted that he hoped Hananiah was correct but that, although he also doubted it, ultimately he did not know. He did not, in that moment, have a word from the Lord. He needed the leisure of reflection. Consequently, Jeremiah simply went home!
The account of the episode goes on to relate that, after the passage of some time, Jeremiah did hear a forceful word from God: Hananiah was wrong; he had spoken falsely; and, therefore, not only would Babylonian dominance persist, but Hananiah, himself, would suffer divine punishment. And so it was: Hananiah died, Judah rebelled, and the Babylonians returned in vengeance.
Ironically, thinking about the fact that I have not had time to think lately has, after all, led me to a number of recognitions. The first, of course, involves the urgency of disciplining the use of time to create time in which thoughts can “happen.” German has a wonderful expression for this “happening” of thought. The phrase “Es ist mir eingefallen, dass…” (literally, “it fell into me that…”; in idiomatic English “it occurred to me that…”) acknowledges that insights cannot be manufacture. Instead, they mature with time; they arise from observation; they “dawn” on us.
The second lesson I take from Jeremiah and Hananiah concerns the danger of yielding to the expectation that one can produce wisdom on demand. I have compassion for pastors, in particular, whose congregations expect them to propound profound truth Sunday after Sunday, when the same congregation also expects a sixty-hour workweek. Churches would benefit from insisting that their ministers make room for ample time in scripture study, reflection, and prayer.
Finally, I take the exchange between Hananiah and Jeremiah as a cautionary tale for any who claim the authority of God’s word. Hananiah, it seems, confused what he sorely wanted or his opinion of the state of affairs with divine inspiration. Like the leaders in the early church whom Paul castigated because “their gods [were] their bellies” (Phil 3:19), preachers (especially on radio and television) can easily identify their desires and fears with the will of God. It is probably good that we no longer stone false prophets. Since God does not supply inspiration on demand, I recommend that, before speaking in God’s name, one should take some time.