The 18th and 19th chapters of Jeremiah concern making (and breaking) pottery! In chapter 18 the pot is formed and in chapter 19 a finished pot is in view. Both are pictures of the people of Israel and their interaction with God: the Lord is the potter and Israel is the pot.
1. Making pots
Jeremiah was instructed to pay a visit to the potter’s house. Once there, God would have a specific message for him. This was another of the symbolic acts that Jeremiah was invited to do. In Jeremiah’s day pottery was formed in a manner with which we are quite familiar. The potter spun the clay on a wheel and the wheel was turned via a lower wheel which the potter would turn with his feet. We once visited a pottery in Turkey and our younger daughter was invited to sit at the wheel and create a pot – which she did with some success (and help!). As Jeremiah watched the potter at work he noticed that the pot was not forming as the potter had intended; it was ‘marred in his hands.’ We are not told how this came about, perhaps there was some grit in the clay or perhaps the clay was not as wet as it ought to have been. What was notable to Jeremiah was that the potter changed his plan in response to the way clay behaved on the wheel: he made a different pot and made the best out of the circumstances.
In verse 5, the Lord gives the meaning of this object lesson. Israel is the clay and the Lord can do with Israel as the potter has done with the clay. Israel as we know had turned from the Lord to worship idols: they had made a dreadful mess of things. They had stooped so low that the king of the nation had sacrificed his son to an idol. What the Lord says to Jeremiah is quite surprising: verse 7 – ‘If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.’ The Lord was saying that since Israel was under judgment for its sin, it could still change the course of events that the Lord had laid out before it. Conversely if ‘a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.’ Jeremiah is being taught a principle of huge significance. Some Christians believe that our lives and the events of this world are like a play or story that the Lord has authored, we are simply actors playing out a part – the outcome of all of our interactions have been pre-written. This is not only absurd but is exactly the opposite of what Jeremiah has been told. God’s plan for the nations in general and Israel in particular could change on the basis of their response to his word. The potter can amend his plans based on the response of the clay!
Was this good news for Israel? Yes and no! It was good news because it seems there remained a chance for reform: ‘11 ‘Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, “This is what the Lord says: look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.”’ If the people changed and turned from their evil ways there seemed to be an opportunity for escape. The tragedy was that they would not: ‘12 But they will reply, “It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.”’ It seems almost unbelievable that a group of people would turn their backs on the truth and the opportunity to return to the Lord, but this is indeed what they did.
Does this principle (of the potter altering his plans in response to the clay) extend to us as individuals? It seems likely that it does. The apostle Paul described the Christians at Ephesus as ‘children of wrath.’ Their destiny was God’s judgment: the potter as it were was making a pot destined to judgment. What changed? The people put their faith in God! The result of their faith was that God fashioned them for good works! This is the good news of the gospel. We cannot change ourselves – we are just like that lump of clay, but in the potter’s hands we can be changed – but this is only made possible by faith.
Israel’s refusal to obey would have devastating results. It seems that their punishment would be all the more severe given their special history as God’s people: they knew far more about God and what was right than any other nation on earth. The Lord expresses the surprise and shock created by their disobedience: ‘13 Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘Enquire among the nations: who has ever heard anything like this? A most horrible thing has been done by Virgin Israel. 14 Does the snow of Lebanon ever vanish from its rocky slopes? Do its cool waters from distant sources ever stop flowing? 15 Yet my people have forgotten me; they burn incense to worthless idols, which made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient paths.’ They ought to have known better! As a result they would suffer, the land would be ‘an object of horror.’ The Scirocco wind which would come to Israel’s region from the Sahara or Arabian deserts, could blow with hurricane force and since it was dry and hot it would shrivel and destroy crops. So it would be with Israel, they would be destroyed by the Babylonian army from the East.
2. Losing the plot
It seems that those who are entrapped in erroneous thinking very quickly become intolerant of any other views. We see this with the atheistic materialists who demand (in the name of tolerance) that our society adopts their ‘inclusive’ programme for ‘diversity.’ Anyone who disagrees soon discovers just how thin the veneer of tolerance actually is! So it was in the days of Jeremiah. Those who heard his message and found it unpalatable, simply wanted to silence the messenger: verse 18, ‘They said, “Come, let’s make plans against Jeremiah; for the teaching of the law by the priest will not be lost, nor will counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophets. So come, let’s attack him with our tongues and pay no attention to anything he says.” In fact, the persecution of Jeremiah was not restricted to verbal abuse, Jeremiah would beaten up and imprisoned (see chapter 37).
How should we respond to such attitudes? Sadly, it seems to me that Jeremiah did not offer us a wonderfully good example to follow! We have in the latter verses of chapter 18 another of Jeremiah’s complaints: he was in a rage! How dare they treat him like this. He first of all complains to the Lord by saying that it is not fair that his good work should be repaid with evil (which it certainly was). Jeremiah had pleaded on behalf of the people, he had invested himself in preventing them coming under God’s wrath and this is how they repay him!
Jeremiah proceeds to demand that Judah suffers for this! Their children? Let them suffer famine and sword. Their wives? Let them be childless and widows. Their men? Let them be put to death. Their young men? Let them be killed in battle. Jeremiah asks that the Lord does not forgive them or forget their crimes. ‘Deal with them in the time of your anger,’ he demands.
Is Jeremiah’s response to his mistreatment OK? I think not. For sure, Jeremiah (and we too) should detest the sort of sin that Judah had engaged in, but we should not demand severe punishment on those who persecute us. There is no doubt that Jeremiah has been, and is being, and will be treated badly, but his call for vengeance seems out of place – he leaves no room to love his enemies or forgive them. We can certainly feel like Jeremiah from time to time. Why indeed should these people get away with it! In Jeremiah’s case, it seems that he wanted vengeance for how he was being treated personally rather than taking in the bigger picture of the relationship of the people to the Lord. Interestingly, chapter 18 ends with Jeremiah’s rant, there is no response from God. Perhaps this was God’s way of dealing with the situation, once Jeremiah had had time to calm down and re-assess the situation he would be in a better position to form a more balanced view. We can learn from this!
3. Breaking the pot
Having visited the potter, Jeremiah is now asked to buy a pot. He is instructed to invite some of the leaders of the people and some of the religious leaders to a demonstration. Jeremiah was about to perform another of his symbolic acts and it was important that people in positions of leadership should see it. The location was to be ‘the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate.’ This was the very place where children were sacrificed to the god Molech (see 2 Kings 23:10). This same place later became the dumping ground for the city, and its association with burning rubbish made it synonymous with hell. Having assembled the people here, Jeremiah proceeds to address them: ‘Hear the word of the Lord , O kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.’ One can imagine the dignitaries listening with a degree of scepticism and disdain – here again is the prophet of doom! But Jeremiah had not finished: because of the sin of the people in turning away from the Lord to worship false gods and because they had killed children in this very spot, judgment was on its way. We tend to dismiss this talk of child sacrifices as something so barbaric that it could never and would never happen in our day. If only this were the case! In the 10 year period from 2007 to 2017 more than 2 million unborn babies have been killed in the UK, and since 1967 the figure is a staggering 7,562, 141 (UK government figures) – largely sacrificed on the alter of convenience and selfishness. Currently more than 97% of abortions are funded by the NHS – and we thought that they had no money!
In view of the people’s sin, the very place in which they stood would no longer be known as ‘the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.’ The plans of the people would be ruined and worse still, the conditions of a siege would force the people to eat one another: rather than sacrificing their children they would eat them. This is unimaginable suffering.
Having made this sober and distasteful statement, Jeremiah was then to smash the clay jar to the ground. One cannot help but think back to the potter. There was a time when the clay was still soft and could be re-fashioned, but now it is set hard and cannot be altered! Once the clay jar is smashed it cannot be recovered. But as we learn later, this judgment would not last forever, the nation would be re-formed and return to the land because God is faithful to his word.
We all have the opportunity to respond to the potter’s skill – will we yield ourselves to him to make a pot fit for God’s glory or are we resisting and becoming vessels of wrath?