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The Lesson Of The Patient Potter (Jeremiah 18:1-10 ).
In one of the most beautiful illustrations in the Old Testament YHWH illustrates His readiness ever to show mercy in the lesson of the patient potter. It is a real life parable which has a lesson for us all. In it the potter is at work on his wheel manipulating the clay in order to turn it into a fine vessel, and when the clay fails fully to respond ‘and is marred in the hand of the potter’, he does not throw it away but patiently ‘makes it again’ until it becomes what he wants it to be.
The potter represents God as the One Who act in sovereign power, and the clay represents God’s people, a clay which so often resists the work of the Potter. And the final lesson is that if men repent and seek to do good, then any evil He has purposed against them will not come about, whilst if those on Whom He intends to show favour turn back to disobedience and evil ways He will change His mind about any good that He intended to do towards them. It was a warning to ‘the house of Israel’ (Israel/Judah) of the opportunity open to them to repent, and of what would follow if they did not repent.
‘The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH, saying,’
Once again it is emphasised that the word which Jeremiah speaks is the word of YHWH.
“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear my words.”
One day YHWH came to him and told him to go down to the potter’s house where He had a lesson to teach him, and a new word to speak to him. Jeremiah must have been somewhat intrigued as to what YHWH could say to him at the Potter’s house which he could not say elsewhere, but being obedient he did as he was told. It is a reminder to us that while we may well not always understand why God tells us to do certain things, it is wise to do as He requests.
The idea of YHWH as the Potter was not a new one. The germ of the idea is found in Genesis 2:7 where YHWH God shaped man from the dust of the ground. This idea was then expanded on in Job 10:8-9; Job 33:6 and came to full fruit in Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 45:9; Isaiah 64:8, where it stresses God’s right to do what He would with His own..
‘Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he was fashioning a work on the wheels (literally ‘the two stones’).’
So Jeremiah went down to the potter’s house and watched him at work on his ‘wheels’ as he fashioned the clay. The potter’s wheels consisted of one wheel near the ground which could be turned with the potter’s feet, which had an attached shaft going upwards to another wheel, which resulted in the upper wheel also turning in unison with the lower wheel. The clay was then put on the spinning upper wheel and shaped by the potter’s hands as it went round and round.
‘And when the vessel that he made of the clay was marred in the hand of the potter, he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.’
And as Jeremiah watched the potter at work he saw how he took the wet clay in his hands and sought to shape it on the spinning wheel. But it was soon clear to him that all was not well, for the clay was not responding to the potter’s expert hands, with the result that the vessel ended up something of a messy mass. What then did the potter do? Did he toss the clay away in disgust? No, he patiently brought the clay together again, and then refashioned it into another vessel, producing from the clay a vessel which was in accordance with his wishes.
‘Then the word of YHWH came to me, saying,’
And it was through what Jeremiah had seen in the house of the potter that the word of YHWH came to him.
“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says YHWH. “Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
The lesson was that the Potter was YHWH, and that ‘the house of Israel’ were like the clay in the Potter’s hands. And the point was that He wanted to shape them into something that could be usable in His service. But He then goes on to stress that this will only be possible if they respond to His will.
“At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom,
To pluck up and to break down and to destroy it,
If that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turn from their evil,
I will relent of the evil that I thought to do to them.”
The first example is of a kingdom which YHWH has determined in His sovereignty (it is the result of His sovereign word) to ‘pluck up, break down and destroy’ because of its sinfulness. Note how this connects with His words in the first part of Jeremiah 1:10 where Jeremiah was to be the prophetic instrument through whom He would do this. He is now therefore fulfilling His word. And the promise is that if that kingdom will begin to respond to His hands and will turn from its evil path then He will relent of the evil that He had intended to do to its people. He will ‘make them again’.
“And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom,
To build and to plant it,
If they do what is evil in my sight, so that they obey not my voice,
Then I will repent of the good, by which I said I would benefit them.”
The second example is of a nation which He has determined to build up and plant (tying in with the last part of Jeremiah 1:10). And the warning is that if this nation does not respond to His nurturing, but instead does evil in His sight and is disobedient, then He will change His mind about the good that He had intended to do to them.
Both examples had a lesson for ‘the house of Israel’. Initially they had been the nation that He had intended to build up and to plant. But almost the whole nation had turned to evil ways and had been disobedient. Thus YHWH had changed His mind about the good that He had intended to do to them, and had now determined to pluck them up, break them down and destroy them, apart of course from the believing few. But He was giving the majority one last chance. If they now turned from their evil ways and once more became obedient then He would ‘make them again’ into what He wanted them to be. It was an offer of full mercy and forgiveness on the condition of repentance.
It will be noted that although God ‘changes His mind’ in both examples, it is not as a result of feeling that He has made the wrong decision, nor an indication that He is not on overall control, but is as a gracious response to man’s change of mind. By repenting (or otherwise) man can determine what action God will take towards him, because God is consistent and in His sovereignty takes note of it and shapes His plan accordingly. God thus acts consistently and sovereignly in all cases, showing mercy to the repentant and bringing judgment on the unrepentant while at the same time bringing about His will.
We see a later fulfilment of this in the words of Jesus in Matthew 21:43, ‘Truly I tell you, the Kingly Rule of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth its fruits.’ The Kingly Rule of God would be given to the believing remnant, who would eventually become a great multitude forming God’s new people, while the remainder would be cast off.
Subsection 6). Lessons From The Potter and The Subsequent Persecution Of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 18:1 to Jeremiah 20:18 ).
This subsection commences with the usual kind of formula, ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH --’ (Jeremiah 18:1). Chapters 18-19 then contain two oracles from God illustrated in terms of the Potter and his handiwork, which bring out on the one hand God’s willingness to offer mercy, and on the other the judgment that is about to come on Judah because of their continuance in sin and their refusal to respond to that offer. The consequence of this for Jeremiah, in chapter 20, is severe persecution, including physical blows and harsh imprisonment. This results in him complaining to YHWH in his distress, and cursing the day of his birth.
Because Of Their Refusal To Respond To His ‘Shaping’ He Will Now ‘Shape’ Evil Against Them Unless They Now Repent. His Offer Being Turned Down God Calls On The Nations To Be Astonished Witnesses Of Their Perfidy, Something Which Will Result In Their Destruction (Jeremiah 18:11-17 ).
The lesson of the Potter’s house was that YHWH had given His people every hope for the future if only they would but repent. But in view of the fact that they refuse to do so He now declares that He will apply His Pottery skills to shaping evil against them. As a consequence He calls on the nations to be a witness to their perfidy, drawing out the fact that the seemingly impossible has happened in that His people, contrary to what is to be seen as true in nature, have rejected YHWH’s spiritual provision and have turned to what is false, thus making themselves a spectacle to the nations and a target for God’s judgments.
“Now therefore, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying,
The word that Jeremiah was to speak was the word of YHWH to both the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to both countryside and city.
Thus says YHWH,
Behold, I frame evil against you,
And devise a scheme against you,
Return you now every one from his evil way,
And amend your ways and your doings.”
His warning was that He would use His Pottery skills to ‘shape’ evil against them. (the root of the verb is the same as that for ‘the Potter’), and to ‘think a thought’ (devise a scheme) against them, unless each of them now returned from his evil way, resulting in them amending their ways and their doings. Note the individual plea within the general demand. As always there would be a true remnant who would respond. They represented the true Israel.
“But they say, ‘It is a waste of time (‘it is hopeless’), for we will walk after our own devices, and we will do every one after the stubbornness of his evil heart’ ”
The words put in the mouths of the people is expressing the truth of their situation in God’s eyes rather than what they actually say. They almost certainly did not see themselves as ‘stubborn in consequence of the evil of their hearts’. They probably thought rather that Jeremiah was being unreasonable.
But YHWH declares that their actual response indicates what they are really thinking, and that is that God and Jeremiah are wasting their time in trying to get them to repent. The wording is expressive, ‘it is noash’ (‘it’s no use, it is hopeless’ - see its use in Jeremiah 2:25; Isaiah 57:10). And it was hopeless because of the stubbornness of their evil hearts, which meant that they were not prepared to listen to God but would choose rather to walk according to their own devices. Their heels were dug in against obeying God because they were sinful and obstinate, something equally reflected in our own day.
“Therefore thus says YHWH,
Ask you now among the nations. Who has heard such things?
The virgin of Israel has done a very dreadful thing.”
YHWH then calls on all observers to ask among the nations whether they have ever heard of such things as the behaviour of Israel/Judah. Let them recognise that ‘the virgin of Israel’ has done a very dreadful thing. The contrast between ‘virgin’ and ‘dreadful thing’ is deliberate in order to bring out the greatness of her sin. For a virgin to lose her virginity outside of marriage in those days was a terrible thing (even though the menfolk did not feel the same about themselves). The description ‘virgin of Israel’ looks back to the period when Israel/Judah were pure in the wilderness immediately after leaving Egypt. At that stage their ways had been pure and they had not been involved in idolatry. It may well also be that in their better times, when they had at times refrained from idolatry they had actually gained a jeering reputation among their neighbours as ‘the virgin of Israel’ because of their seeming fastidiousness.
But now the virgin of Israel has done a dreadful thing, she has turned away from the true source of her spiritual life (Jeremiah 2:12-13 - note the same shocked tone there) and has consorted with idols and their sexually depraved worship. She has lost her spiritual virginity. For a similar idea to that of Judah as ‘the virgin of Israel’ compare Jeremiah 2:2-3; Jeremiah 6:2; Jeremiah 14:17; Isaiah 1:8. She is being pictured in her initial purity when her whole heart was set on YHWH (Exodus 19:5-6).
“Will the snow of Lebanon fail from the rocky surface of the mountainside (‘field’)?
Will the cold waters that flow down from afar be dried up?
Her falling away from the source of her spiritual life, her well-spring of living water, and the seeming impossibility of it actually occurring is put in vivid terms. It is to be seen as being rationally impossible, in the same way as it would be rationally impossible for the snows of the mountains of Lebanon not to provide refreshing streams down their rolling slopes. It is as unlikely as the cold waters from Mount Hermon (from afar, outside the land) failing to feed the Jordan (within the land) because (impossibly) they have dried up, or the Sudanese mountains failing to feed the Nile for the same reason.
“For my people have forgotten me,
They have burned incense to what is false,
And they have been made to stumble in their ways,
In the ancient paths,
To walk in bypaths,
In a way not built (cast) up.”
But the shocking and dreadful thing is that that is precisely what the virgin of Israel has done. They have forgotten YHWH, the source of their spiritual life, and have gone after other supposed sources of life. They have burned incense to what is false, they have been made to stumble in their ways by the attractions of idolatry, they have left the security of the built up high road and have chosen the ancient paths, the rough by-paths which have not been upraised and are not safe. (The King’s Highway, the main trade route east of Jordan, and other similar roads, were built up so as to be a raised causeway above their surrounds).
“To make their land an astonishment,
And a perpetual hissing,
Every one who passes by it will be astonished,
And they will shake his head.”
And as a result Judah have made their land something to be astonished at because of their folly, something to be permanently hissed at (like the villain in a fairy tale), so that everyone who passes by will shake their heads in astonishment, and ask, how could they have done such a thing?
“I will scatter them as with an east wind before the enemy,
I will show them the back, and not the face, in the day of their calamity.”
And as a consequence YHWH will bring their enemy against them like an east wind, a wind that sears and burns like the parching east wind from the desert (compare Jonah 4:8; Psalms 48:7; Isaiah 27:8). And when He does this, and they cry to Him for help as the calamity comes on them, He will turn His back on them, showing His back and not His face, in the same way as they had previously done to Him (Jeremiah 2:27). (To have His face turned towards them would have indicated that He was there to assist them).
The People Respond In Vindictiveness To Jeremiah’s Message (Jeremiah 18:18 ).
The people were not best pleased with Jeremiah’s prophecies and asked themselves whether in fact they really needed him when they were surrounded with those who could give them the good advice that they needed.
‘Then they said, “Come, and let us scheme schemes against Jeremiah, for the law will not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words.”
Comparison with Jeremiah 18:11 demonstrates that they are indulging in tit for tat. So according to Jeremiah YHWH would ‘devise devices’ against them would He? Very well then. They will devise devices (plan strategies) against Jeremiah. For why did they need him? Did they not have the priests to expound to them the Law, the wise men to give them counsel and advice, and the prophets to bring them the word of YHWH? (An interesting depiction of the various talents seen as available in Judah, compare Ezekiel 7:26). And was it likely that their talents and knowledge would all suddenly disappear? (Compare Jeremiah 2:8; Jeremiah 8:9 for YHWH’s assessment of such people).
Their plan was to destroy Jeremiah with their words (‘with the tongue’), while at the same time refusing to listen to him (although easier said than done). They would accuse him of being a false prophet whose prophecies never came about (they asked themselves in a superior tone, had they not waited long enough?), they would spread slanders about him (compare Jeremiah 9:2; Jeremiah 9:4; Jeremiah 9:7), they would seek to demean him as a fanatic, and if he was not careful they would shut his mouth for good. Furthermore they would cover up their ears when he spoke. Once they had finished with him he would not know where to put himself.
Jeremiah’s Distress At Their Treatment Of Him And His Violent Reaction To It (Jeremiah 18:19-23 ).
Jeremiah was naturally disturbed by this suggestion. But while recognising that Jeremiah’s subsequent response does not match up to the teaching of Jesus Christ we do have to remember that he had not had the benefit of hearing Him. We must not judge Old Testament saints by New Testament standards. Even they could not have conceived of the sacrificial love that Jesus Christ had come to bring. Indeed it is this that demonstrates the supreme moral status of Jesus Christ above all others. No one else ever dared to teach that we should love our enemies, bless those who persecute us, do good to those who hate us and pray for those who use us badly. He was unique. It went against all that seemingly seemed rational.
Jeremiah had, after all, good reason for his distress and anger. He had fought for his people with YHWH, seeking to turn His wrath away from them, and he had loved them and had prayed for them even in the face of opposition and derision, yet all that they had done in return was to recompense him evil for good and dig a pit for him to fall into. In other words they had ‘fought’ with him (compare Psalms 35:1) and then they had sought by every means to bring him down, to entrap him, and then to bury him (compare Psalms 57:6).
Furthermore we must recognise that what he was asking for was what he knew that YHWH had actually already declared that He would do to them. He was not trying to persuade YHWH to go against His otherwise merciful inclinations, but was simply showing that he had become so exasperated and upset that he had finally been persuaded to agree with Him. In other words he was demonstrating that he had finally been brought to the position of admitting that YHWH had been right after all. Can we criticise a man who takes up such a position when all that he is doing is agree that YHWH should carry out what He had already declared was His will in respect of them? He is simply agreeing that he now realises just how sinful and reprobate this people are, and that there is no hope for them (as they had themselves said) and confirming that he is resigned to YHWH doing what He had already purposed because he has nothing further to say in their defence. Every sentence of his cry to YHWH is in fact paralleled by previous declarations of YHWH indicating what He intended to do. We might even say, how could Jeremiah then have asked otherwise? And yet, with the example of Jesus Christ before us, we do ask that question, because we are called on to see things differently (compare Luke 9:54-55).
‘Listen to me, O YHWH,
And hear the voice of those who contend with me.
Will evil be recompensed for good?
For they have dug a pit for my soul.
Remember how I stood before you to speak good for them,
To turn away your wrath from them.’
He asks YHWH to take note of the way that the people were arguing with him and disputing his words (the word of YHWH), contending with him about every little thing; how they were recompensing him evil for good; how they had constantly sought to entrap and smother him; and how they had ignored the fact that he had stood before YHWH on their behalf and had tried to turn away His wrath from them. He had good cause to be aggrieved.
‘Therefore deliver up their children to the famine,
And give them over to the power of the sword,
And let their wives become childless,
And let their men be slain of death,
Their young men smitten of the sword in battle.’
He therefore now basically admits that he has been wrong and calls on YHWH to carry out His stated purpose on the people. Let Him do His will. For the deliverance of their children to famine and the sword see, for example, Jeremiah 14:16; Jeremiah 14:18; Jeremiah 15:2. For their wives being childless see Jeremiah 15:8-9; Jeremiah 16:3-4; Jeremiah 16:6. For their wives becoming widows see Jeremiah 15:8. For them and their young men being slain see Jeremiah 11:22-23; Jeremiah 14:16; Jeremiah 14:18; Jeremiah 15:2; Jeremiah 16:3-4; Jeremiah 16:16. This was what YHWH had already commanded him to proclaim, while warning him not to pray for them because it was too late and the people had gone beyond the mark of what was acceptable. In view of the constant antagonism that he faced he can hardly therefore be castigated for echoing what YHWH had drummed into him as being His will, an antagonism which did after all reveal that YHWH was right.
‘Let a cry be heard from their houses,
When you bring a troop suddenly upon them,
For they have dug a pit to take me,
And hid snares for my feet.’
Then he prays (no doubt without thinking through fully what the actual consequence would be in terms of the cruelty involved) that the people might be taken by surprise in their houses as YHWH brought a military unit upon them, in the same way as by their traps they had sought to take him by surprise.
Here his prayer is more related to his own direct experience. These people had constantly sought to trap and ensnare him in all manner of ways, and to take him by surprise, and so he prays that they might, as YHWH has said, also find themselves similarly trapped as the enemy came upon them, so that they had to cry out in anguish and despair, and experience for themselves something of what they had made Jeremiah experience. He was asking that they reap what they had sown.
‘Yet you, YHWH, know all their counsel against me,
To slay me,
Do not forgive their iniquity,
Nor blot out their sin from your sight,
But let them be overthrown before you,
Deal you with them in the time of your anger.’
Finally he draws YHWH’s attention to the way in which they had constantly plotted against him to kill him. We see in this a mirror image of what our Lord Jesus Christ also experienced in His life on earth, as He too faced constant plots against His life (Matthew 12:14; Matthew 27:1; Mark 3:6; Luke 6:11; etc.). And we recognise that Jesus’ response was of a different kind to Jeremiah’s as He prayed, ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’ But that is precisely the point. A greater and more compassionate than Jeremiah was now here, the submissive Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12), the ‘Lamb as it had been slain’, in contrast with the hurt and bewildered ‘pet lamb led to the slaughter’ (Jeremiah 11:19).
So Jeremiah prays (as YHWH has already made clear will be the situation) that He will not pardon their sins nor forgive their iniquity, but will rather allow them to be overthrown as they are dealt with by YHWH in His anger, an anger of which he himself has constantly been made aware (Jeremiah 4:8; Jeremiah 4:26; Jeremiah 7:18; Jeremiah 7:20; Jeremiah 7:29; Jeremiah 8:19; Jeremiah 11:17; Jeremiah 12:13; Jeremiah 15:14; Jeremiah 17:4), and which earlier he had tried to avert on their behalf (Jeremiah 18:20). This was not, however, a prayer for their eternal condemnation, which was not an idea in Jeremiah’s mind at the time, but was a prayer that they might not be spared what was their due at that time (their overthrowing) by a sudden act of mercy. He had had enough of their behaviour towards him and towards YHWH. Let them reap what they had sown. He was thinking in the short term not the long term. So yes, we may say that he fell short of the ideal, but there are very few even today, with Jesus’ teaching echoing in their ears, who would have responded in any better way. He was essentially a prophet who was admitting that he himself had been wrong to want mercy for the people because they had gone too far, and was therefore asking YHWH to fulfil what He had made him prophesy. But we cannot, even as we say this, deny a certain level of understandable vindictiveness which he would have done better to have avoided (and would have had he been Jesus Christ)
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 18". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13