“Show us the way we should go and the thing that we should do” is Johanan’s prayer. What a great prayer—one I often pray. Like Johanan, I think I am praying with an open heart, sincerely seeking to discern God’s will.
Johanan’s story, told in Jeremiah 40-43, intertwines with Ishmael’s story. Both men are captains of the Judean forces who have escaped exile. Ishmael is in the black hat—cruel, unfaithful, feigning allegiance and friendship in order to kill, destroy, and gain power. Johanan is in the white hat—faithful and brave, trying his best to deal with the damage Ishmael has done. As Johanan brings to safety the people Ishmael had taken captive, there is a major decision to be made. What do we do now—stay in Judah or flee to Egypt?
Johanan leads the remnant to Jeremiah to ask him to pray for God’s guidance: “Show us the way we should go and the thing that we should do” (Jer. 42:3). Johanan underlines his earnestness, saying, “Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God” (Jer. 42:6). Against the backdrop of the disobedience that led to the Babylonian conquest, his commitment to obedience is refreshing.
At the end of ten days, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah. God is clear and consistent: “If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up.” Then God addresses their real problem: “Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. Do not fear him . . . for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand” (Jer. 42:10-11). The word from the Lord is equally clear about the consequences of disobedience: “My wrath will be poured out on you . . . You shall become an execration, a horror, a curse, and a taunt” (Jer. 42:18).
Without so much as a pause, Johanan responds to Jeremiah with a stunning, shocking, and sad accusation: “You are telling a lie” (Jer. 43:2). And he leads the people to Egypt. How can this man, this hero, who was so vocal about his trust in God, act like this? He does not even stop to consider before he points his finger and calls God’s word a lie. His certainty that he is right is breathtaking and baffling. How can Johanan be so deaf, so blind?
Johanan’s story helps me know my heart a little more fully and perhaps better understand his. I see in him my own confidence in my resolve to obey and my own lack of awareness (either willful or not) of the fear and inordinate desires that are at play in my heart. I can easily deny that my face and my feet are already set in a certain direction, telling myself that it is God’s plan when it is clearly mine. And, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I often do not see my disobedience as disobedience. The more I find myself in Johanan’s story, the more I see the magnitude of my own problem, and I start to sink.
But, there is another story that also intertwines with Johanan’s . . . and mine. For against the backdrop of all of mankind’s disobedience comes the Good News of a man who was obedient, obedient unto death. He is the one who bore the consequences of our disobedience and on the cross became the execration, horror, curse, and taunt of which God spoke. In him the wrath of God was satisfied. Ultimately, Johanan’s story turns our eyes in the direction of hope, to him who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. For, it is Christ Jesus, seated in his white and shining raiment, who is the true hero of this and every story.