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Chapter 17 tells of the sins of the people of Judah (17:1-4) and promises that those who trust in human powers will be like dry shrubs in the desert, but those who trust in Yahweh will be “as a tree planted by the waters” (17:8)—for those who have turned away from Yahweh have, in fact, “forsaken Yahweh, the spring of living waters” (17:13).
The last part of chapter 17 (verses 19-27) are an especially fitting prelude to our text. In those verses, Yahweh commands the people of Judah to keep the sabbath holy, and promises prosperity to those who do and a devouring fire to those who don’t. This same promise of prosperity to the faithful and punishment to the evil is reflected in our text.
Jeremiah was an active prophet for the four decades leading up to the sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. Scholars believe that editors continued to add to the book after Jeremiah’s death. We are not sure whether chapter 18 was written prior to the Exile (Thompson, 432) or during the Exile (Stulman, 182).
Our text constitutes a warning and a plea from Yahweh to Judah. The warning is that continued faithlessness will bring disaster, but the plea holds out the hope of prosperity to those who are faithful.
In the background are the covenant promises of old. The initial covenant was established between God and Abram. God required of Abram that he leave his father’s house and go to the land that God would show him. In return, God promised to make of Abram a great nation and to bless him and to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). While the word covenant was not used in that transaction, it bears the marks of a covenant, because God outlined what Abram would have to do and what God would do for Abram. Later, God covenanted to give the land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates to Abram (Genesis 15:18). Later still, God covenanted with Abram to make him the father of many nations, even though Abram was old and had no children other than Ishmael, his son by a slave woman. As part of the covenant, God promised to give Abram the land of Canaan. God required Abram to observe circumcision for himself and for all his male progeny and members of his household, including slaves (Genesis 17:1-14).
God renewed the covenant with Moses (Exodus 24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17).
The people of Israel/Judah had come to believe that these covenant promises granted them a privileged relationship with Yahweh that assured their prosperity—but our text reminds them that the covenant is a two-way proposition. God has chosen them, but they have a responsibility under the covenant to obey God. If they are not faithful, God is under no obligation to take care of them. Our text makes it clear that the behavior of the people of Judah is crucial to their future. Just as in 17:19-27, IF they are faithful, THEN they will prosper—but IF they are unfaithful, THEN they will suffer. While Yahweh is all-powerful, Yahweh has chosen to give these people power to choose their destiny. Everything depends on their decision.
JEREMIAH 18:1-4. ARISE, AND GO DOWN TO THE POTTER’S HOUSE
1The word which came to Jeremiah from Yahweh, saying, 2Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear my words. 3Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he was making a work on the wheels. 4When 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.to him.
“The word which came to Jeremiah from Yahweh” (v. 1). God’s word is powerful. In the creation, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). “God said, ‘Let there be a expanse…’ …and it was so” (Genesis 1:6-7). God’s word gathered the waters together in one place (Genesis 1:9). God’s word brought forth vegetation (Genesis 1:11-13). God’s word put lights in the sky (Genesis 1:14-19). God’s word created animals (Genesis 1:20-25) and humans (Genesis 1:26-27).
God spoke directly to humans from the very beginning, asking the man in the garden, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9)—and to Abram, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2)—and to Moses, “Don’t come close. Take your sandals off of your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
But God more often revealed his word to his prophets, who then had the responsibility to proclaim God’s word to the people. Jeremiah has been on the receiving end of the word of Yahweh since the beginning of this book (1:2, 4, 11; 2:1; 7:1; 11:1; 13:8; 14:1; 16:1)—and has been proclaiming the word of Yahweh since the beginning of this book (2:4, 31; 9:20; 10:1)—but the people have been rejecting the word of Yahweh for quite a long time (8:9).
“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear my words” (v. 2). Yahweh has been revealing God’s word to Jeremiah through ordinary things—the branch of an almond tree (1:11) and a boiling caldron (1:13). Now God chooses to reveal God’s word through one of the most ordinary aspects of life in those times—pottery.
In the ancient world, pottery was everywhere. People used clay jars for storage and cooking. They used clay tiles for roofs. They used clay bricks to line their ovens. They used clay figurines for decorations—and even for toys. The potter was one of the most important craftspeople in the community. God is preparing Jeremiah for an object lesson—revealing God’s word using pottery as an example—and people will be reminded of this lesson every time they see a clay jar.
“Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he was making a work on the wheels” (v. 3). There were two kinds of potter’s wheels—one known as a slow wheel and the other known as a fast wheel. The fast wheel has a large circular stone parallel to the ground near the potter’s feet and a small circular stone, rather like a circular tabletop, near the potter’s hands. The two stones would be connected by a vertical shaft. The potter would push the large bottom stone with his feet, causing it to rotate, and the top stone, connected by a shaft to the large stone, would rotate at the same speed.
The genius of such a system is that the heavy bottom stone serves as a flywheel, smoothing the motion of both stones. If the potter were working with two lightweight stones, the spinning motion would be jerky. However, the heavy bottom stone adds momentum, causing the wheel to spin in a smooth motion. It would be much more difficult to make attractive pottery without that smooth motion.
“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” (v. 4). This is the first part of Yahweh’s object lesson—the object, so to speak. Yahweh will reveal the second part of the object lesson—the lesson or application—in verse 6.
As Jeremiah watches, the potter determines that the clay piece on the potter’s wheel is unsatisfactory, so he reworks the clay into another vessel.
We don’t know what the defect in the original piece was. It could have been that the clay was too wet or dry. It could have been that there was a small stone or other foreign object embedded in the clay.
Whatever the problem, the potter must destroy the imperfect piece before forging the clay into a new piece. He must take the imperfect piece in both hands and crumple it so that it becomes a lump of clay again. He must work the lump in both hands until it has a smooth consistency. He might need to add water to make it more pliable—or add clay to give it more structural integrity. Only after this careful preparation can he begin again to create a new, more perfect, vessel.
It is important to note that the potter does not pitch the imperfect piece into a pile of rejects, never to be seen again. The clay is still usable, so the potter begins what appears to be a destructive process but is really a creative process.
It the clay were animate (alive), it might protest this rough treatment. When the potter takes the imperfect object in his hands and began the process of turning it back into a lump of clay, the clay might protest that the potter is hurting it—or that the clay is more useful as an imperfect vessel than as a lump of clay. It might fight the potter’s efforts to return it to its earlier lump state.
Of course, the clay is inanimate, and does not have a voice—cannot resist the potter’s efforts. But this little object lesson isn’t really about clay but about people—see verse 6 below.
The image of God as potter appears at several points in the Bible: Genesis 2:7; Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Romans 9:20-24.
JEREMIAH 18:5-6. SO ARE YOU IN MY HAND, HOUSE OF ISRAEL
5Then the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, 6House of Israel, can’t I do with you as this potter? says Yahweh. Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, house of Israel.
These verses constitute the second part of the object lesson—the lesson or application. Just as the potter turned the imperfect vessel back into a lump of clay and began again to fashion a usable vessel, so Yahweh will do with Israel—at this point in time the Southern Kingdom, Judah.
This is one of those Good News/Bad News messages. The Bad News is that Judah is about to go through what will appear to be a destructive process. However, the Good News is that, in Yahweh’s hands, the process will be creative rather than destructive. Yahweh will create a new and faithful people out of the remnant of the old and sinful people. This is, in the end, a message of hope to a people in difficult circumstances.
JEREMIAH 18:7-10. THEN I WILL REPENT
7At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy it; 8 if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turn from their evil (Hebrew:ra·ah), I will repent of the evil (Hebrew: ra·ah) that I thought to do to them. 9 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; 10 if they do that which is evil in my sight, that they not obey my voice, then I will repent of the good, with which I said I would benefit them.
In verses 5-6, Yahweh was speaking specifically about Israel. However, verses 7-10 broaden that to any nation. Yahweh is sovereign over all nations, whether they acknowledge his Lordship or not. Yahweh has power to lift up and tear down without respect to national borders.
These verses offer both hope (vv. 7-8) and warning (vv. 9-10). The destiny of nations is not set in stone. Yahweh might plan to destroy a nation, but will change that decision if that nation will “turn from their evil” (v. 8). On the other hand, Yahweh might plan to bless a nation, but will change that decision if the nation begins doing evil (v. 10).
This means that Yahweh is giving Israel (and all of us) a great deal of power to determine our destiny. “The clay cannot challenge the potter, but Israel can act so that Yahweh will change” (Huey, 180). Israel, facing disaster from the Babylonians, can change its ways and enjoy Yahweh’s protection.
JEREMIAH 18:11. RETURN NOW EVERYONE FROM HIS EVIL WAY
11 Now therefore, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus says Yahweh: Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return you now everyone from his evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
In verses 7-10, Yahweh made it clear that our actions influence his decisions. Now he tells Jeremiah to warn the people of Judah that he is framing evil—preparing judgment—against them. He further tells Jeremiah to tell them to change their ways before it is too late so that Yahweh might turn away from the punishment that he has planned for them. Their only hope is to turn away from evil and toward Yahweh.
“People today have become adept at finding some way to evade taking responsibility for the effects of their moral choices…. There is always someone or something else to blame…. The task of the preacher is to lead people to accept their moral responsibility for creating the world we live in” (Hoppe, 424-425). I would add that it is also the preacher’s task to hold out the hope of redemption.
JEREMIAH 18:12. WE WILL WALK AFTER OUR OWN DEVICES
12 But they say, It is in vain; for we will walk after our own devices, and we will do everyone after the stubbornness of his evil heart.
The lectionary omits this verse from this reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of it. The people of Judah refuse to heed the prophet’s warning, so they can expect to suffer the consequences.
That, in fact, is what happened. Babylonia sacked Jerusalem, tore down the temple, and took the people into exile. This text tells us that this was not just the result of international intrigue, but was instead the judgment of Yahweh on Judah.
JEREMIAH 18:13-17. A POEM
These verses are not included in the lectionary, but are a poem that summarizes what has been said to this point. “My people have forgotten me,” Yahweh says (v. 15), and so “I will scatter them as with an east wind before the enemy” (v. 17). The people have abandoned Yahweh, so Yahweh “will show them the back, and not the face, in the day of their calamity” (v. 17).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Craigie, Peter C.; Kelley, Page H.; and Drinkard, Joel F. Jr., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 1–25(Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Hoppe, Leslie J., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Isaiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2010, , Richard Niell Donovan