Jeremiah 18 – Lessons at the Potter’s House
A. The lesson at the potter’s house and the response to it.
1. (1-4) Jeremiah visits the potter’s house.
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying: “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.
a. Arise and go down to the potter’s house: As God sometimes did with His prophets, He instructed Jeremiah to learn a lesson through a living lesson, something from daily life.
b. The vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter, so he made it again into another vessel: Watching the potter at work, Jeremiah noticed a lump of clay that seemed uncooperative. The potter decided to start again, making something that seemed good to the potter to make.
i. “Power was manifested in his manipulation of the clay, and pity in his remaking of the marred vessel… The clay was suddenly marred, twisted; it failed to express the potter’s thought… He saw that the potter did not abandon it.” (Morgan)
2. (5-10) God’s right to deal with His people as He pleases.
Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the LORD. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.
a. O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter: Through the visit to the potter’s house, God spoke to Jeremiah and to all of Israel, reminding them of His sovereign right to do what He pleased with a marred or seemingly uncooperative vessel.
i. Like any analogy, this figure cannot be applied at every point. In this illustration the clay has no moral choice or dimension, whereas Israel’s disobedience was chosen again and again. The vessel at the potter’s house was marred (Jeremiah 18:4); Israel marred themselves morally and spiritually before God.
ii. O house of Israel: Notably, God called the southern kingdom – which technically was not the kingdom of all 12 tribes – the house of Israel. One reason was because there were truly representatives from all 12 tribes among the people of Judah from the migration of the godly from the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel to Judah in the days of Jeroboam (2 Chronicles 11:13-16).
b. If that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent: The illustration at the potter’s did not only demonstrate God’s right to display judgment, but also His right to display mercy. He was free to work with a previously marred vessel if He chose to do so. Yet He was also free to take back good He had done to a nation if they did evil in His sight.
i. Some translations render relent as repent. That is fine, if properly understood. “With God repentance is not a change of mind but is his consistent response according to his changeless nature to the change in the nation’s conduct.” (Feinberg)
ii. The lesson of the potter’s house was not primarily, “God can do whatever He wants.” The main lesson is that God is free to respond to His people according to their own moral conduct and choices, and previous promises do not restrict the exercise of His correction or justice. “Man is never at the mercy of an unfeeling deity; it is in his power to repent and align himself with God’s beneficent purposes.” (Cundall)
iii. “The lesson is all about remaking, for better or worse.” (Kidner)
iv. The potter’s house showed Jeremiah that “there was a mind, capable of adapting method to meet failure, and in such wise to realize purpose in spite of failure.” (Morgan)
v. “He does not cast us utterly away; but puts us afresh upon the wheel, and ‘makes us again’…Yield yourself afresh to God. Confess that you have marred his work. Humbly ask that He should make you again.” (Meyer)
3. (11) Devising a plan of judgment.
“Now therefore, speak to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.”’”
a. Speak to the men of Judah: The lesson of the potter’s house was meant to rebuke the false confidence of the men of Judah and Jerusalem. They believed that since they were God’s covenant people that no harm could come to them. It made it easy for them to believe the positive words of the false prophets.
b. Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you: God wanted the potter’s house lesson to awaken them to the danger of impending judgment. Just as a potter fashions the clay, God fashioned disaster against His unrepentant people.
i. Fashioning a disaster: “In verse 11 the Hebrew verb yoser (RSV shaping) has the same root as ‘potter’. The choice is so deliberate as to reinforce the connection. The nation is to be moulded by means of the Exile.” (Harrison)
c. Return now every one from his way, and make your ways and your doings good: The lesson of the potter’s house could also be taken as an encouragement, reminding them that repentance and surrender to God was not meaningless. God was free to relent from judgment if they did in fact repent in a meaningful way.
i. “Note carefully the cardinal rule of prophecy which is enunciated here, that both the promises and threats of God are not absolute but conditional.” (Cundall)
ii. Note the urgency: return now every one. “Men are quite willing to promise to return when they have gone a little further; when, perhaps, they will have gone past all possibility of returning; but ‘now,’ is always an ugly word to them. ‘To-morrow,’ they like much better. ‘Now,’ is a monosyllable which seems to Burn into their bosom like a hot coal, and therefore they pluck it out, and throw it from them.” (Spurgeon)
4. (12-17) The response of the people, and God’s answer to them.
And they said, “That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one obey the dictates of his evil heart.”
Therefore thus says the LORD:
“Ask now among the Gentiles,
Who has heard such things?
The virgin of Israel has done a very horrible thing.
Will a man leave the snow water of Lebanon,
Which comes from the rock of the field?
Will the cold flowing waters be forsaken for strange waters?
“Because My people have forgotten Me,
They have burned incense to worthless idols.
And they have caused themselves to stumble in their ways,
From the ancient paths,
To walk in pathways and not on a highway,
To make their land desolate and a perpetual hissing;
Everyone who passes by it will be astonished
And shake his head.
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.”
a. That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans: Judah was in the tragic place of feeling it was hopeless to repent. It did not feel hopeless because they feared God would not respond as He promised. It seemed hopeless because they simply did not feel it was worth it to change the dictates of their evil heart simply because one prophet told them so.
i. “Thou mayest save a labour of further exhorting us; for we are as good as we man to be, and shall not stir from our resolution. Keep thy breath to cool thy broth.” (Trapp)
b. Ask now among the Gentiles, who has heard such things: God responded to their answer with astonishment. Not even among the Gentiles was there such foolishness and hardness of heart. It was like leaving pure waters (snow water of Lebanon) for strange waters, a muddy pool of filth. It was like leaving a safe and paved highway for unsafe pathways where men trip and fall.
i. A perpetual hissing; everyone who passes by it will be astonished and shake his head: “The hissing will be more in amazement than in ridicule. Men will shake their heads at the nation’s uncommon stupidity.” (Feinberg)
ii. “The term seriqot, ‘hissing’ or ‘whistling,’ denotes that the land would become a spectacle so shocking as to cause passers-by to whistle in awe. The verse is remarkable for its striking assonance, with its s-sounds conveying the impression of hissing.” (Thompson)
iii. I will scatter them as with an east wind before the enemy: “The east wind is the sirocco, a hot dry wind coming from the eastern deserts.” (Harrison)
c. I will show them the back and not the face in the day of calamity: God commanded the priests of Israel to bless God’s people, and part of that blessing was that the LORD would make His face shine upon you (Numbers 6:24-26). Soon Israel would sense the complete withdrawing of God’s shining, favorable face upon them. They felt it was not worth it to repent; it would be far worse for them in failing to repent.
i. “When the Lord says he will show them his back and not his face, he means that his face will be hidden from them.” (Feinberg)
B. Jeremiah’s prayer against his enemies.
1. (18) The plot against Jeremiah.
Then they said, “Come and let us devise plans against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come and let us attack him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words.”
a. Come and let us devise plans against Jeremiah: We often think of Jeremiah as a lonely figure, a prophet standing alone for the cause of God. It’s easy to forget that there were many who competed with Jeremiah for the ear of Judah and Jerusalem, hoping to give them comfort and encourage when God’s message – the message through Jeremiah – was that of warning and judgment.
b. The law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet: This was (in part) the message of the false prophets. If a man held the title of priest, he must have the law. If he were considered wise, he must have good counsel. If he were called a prophet, he must have a word from God. This was a mentality that pretty much denied the existence of corrupt priests, foolish elders, and unfaithful prophets.
i. “Jeremiah had been relentless in his condemnation of the three classes of officials referred to here, priests, wise men, and prophets. It is probably a fair inference that it was these men of the establishment who instigated the plot.” (Thompson)
ii. A later prophet would state this in the reverse: Then they will seek a vision from a prophet; but the law will perish from the priest, and counsel from the elders. (Ezekiel 7:26)
c. Come and let us attack him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words: Jeremiah’s enemies used the strategy of deliberate attack and denial against him. The strategy did not die with Jeremiah’s enemies.
i. Attack him with the tongue: “ON the tongue; so it should be rendered. Lying and false testimony are punished in the eastern countries, to the present day, by smiting the person on the mouth with a strong piece of leather like the sole of a shoe.” (Clarke)
2. (19-20) Jeremiah pleads for himself.
Give heed to me, O LORD,
And listen to the voice of those who contend with me!
Shall evil be repaid for good?
For they have dug a pit for my life.
Remember that I stood before You
To speak good for them,
To turn away Your wrath from them.
a. Give heed to me, O LORD, and listen to the voice of those who contend with me! Jeremiah first asked God to listen to him; then he asked God to listen to his enemies. Jeremiah believed that the fair God, the righteous God, would see that they were wrong and he was in the right.
b. Remember that I stood before You to speak good for them: Jeremiah asked God to remember that he had prayed for these enemies, and prayed good for them – that God would turn away His wrath from them. This was the good he did for them; they repaid that good when they dug a pit for His life.
i. “His wound would have hurt less had he cared less and, paradoxically, prayed less for his people.” (Kidner)
3. (21-23) Jeremiah pleads against his enemies.
Therefore deliver up their children to the famine,
And pour out their blood
By the force of the sword;
Let their wives become widows
And bereaved of their children.
Let their men be put to death,
Their young men be slain
By the sword in battle.
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 hidden snares for my feet.
Yet, LORD, You know all their counsel
Which is against me, to slay me.
Provide no atonement for their iniquity,
Nor blot out their sin from Your sight;
But let them be overthrown before You.
Deal thus with them
In the time of Your anger.
a. Therefore deliver up their children to the famine, and pour out their blood: Jeremiah prayed a violent prayer against his enemies, asking for all kinds of crises and calamity to be poured out upon them, both in this life (let their wives become widows) and in the next (provide no atonement for their iniquity).
i. “Their relentless opposition and willful misunderstanding of his motives drew from him these demands for harsh vengeance.” (Cundall)
ii. This is in the classic pattern of the imprecatory psalms, such as Psalms 10, 35, 58, and 59 where a strong and violent prayer is offered against an enemy.
iii. “While such utterances may constitute a rather shocking revelation of Jeremiah’s humanity, they are consistent with other maledictions uttered in the Lord’s name (cf. Psalm 137:9).” (Harrison)
b. Deal thus with them in the time of Your anger: The common link between Jeremiah 18 and these imprecatory psalms is that they bring the longing for vengeance to God and surrender it to Him – instead of taking it upon themselves. This is a good and godly impulse when one has been so severely wronged.
i. “Clearly there was no obligation resting on Yahweh to respond to every utterance of his servant. When he did respond, it was sometimes with a word of encouragement (11:21-23) and sometimes with a word of rebuke (12:5-6; 15:19).” (Thompson)