Commentary on Jeremiah 18:1-11
The call of Jeremiah used six verbs to characterize his prophetic activity: “pluck up,” “pull down,” “destroy,” “overthrow,” “build” and “plant” (1:10, New Revised Standard Version).
More than Jeremiah’s activity, these verbs characterize God’s activity in Judah in the late 600s and early 500s BCE. Jeremiah is appointed to do God’s work through his prophetic proclamation. These horticultural and architectural verbs arch across the book, both for and against Judah. They are, of course, against Judah as it opposes God through oppression within the community and in the quest for security by worshipping other gods and pursuing political intrigue and alliances.
The plucking up, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing the judgment of God is embodied in the destruction of Jerusalem along with the temple and in the onset of the exile. The building and planting occurs in the exile as God reconstitutes the covenant people — and, more than reconstituting, actually creating anew (31:31-34). In exile, the plucking, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing are directed against the nations that stand against God’s reshaping and recreating of the people of Israel/Judah. For the people of God to be (re)built and (re)planted, the dominating nations must be plucked, pulled down, destroyed and overthrown. They do not voluntarily give Judah back to God. Judah’s context matters greatly, as does ours. The word to pre-exilic Judah is not the same as the word to exilic or devastated Judah.
The potter and pottery imaginary of chapter 18 adds another cultural activity into the metaphorical mix, but it is consistent with the thrust and interplay of the six verbs included in the call of Jeremiah. In fact, five out of the six are used in chapter 18. If Jeremiah 18:1-11 is read in isolation, the resulting interpretation may well be out of sync with the rest of the book. The point is not to harmonize everything into a single message; rather care must be taken not to distort the meaning by isolating this passage from its fuller context. Half-a-truth may be technically accurate, but divorced from the fuller story it distorts and may even create a falsehood. Here, to end with verse 11 creates a different message than continuing with the rest of the chapter.
Watching the potter work and rework the clay, the word of God through Jeremiah sets up alternatives:
1) if God determines to harm (pluck up, break down and destroy) an evildoer, but the evildoer turns away from doing evil, God will reverse God’s own punishing determination;
2) if God determines to do good (build and plant), but the recipient does evil and is disobedient, God will reverse God’s own beneficent determination.
Constructed in this manner, the metaphor does not support a high view of divine sovereignty. God doesn’t act whimsically as time unfolds. How each nation or kingdom responds can reshape the determination of God. The future is malleable as is the clay. In this explication of the metaphor of the potter and the clay, God doesn’t merely do as God “darn well pleases” and then stubbornly stick to it.
Observing from a distance, the double if-then rhetoric has a tone of reasonableness. The tone shifts a bit when one is the actual addressee, not a distant observer (i.e., not the biblical interpreter in the study, but the hearer in the pew). Verse 11 moves from sketching the alternatives based on the analogy of the potter and the clay to stating that the potter intends to shape evil against the clay (equals you, the addressee). At that point the metaphor starts to slip away, for how can actual clay purge itself? The hearers no longer can idly observe the potter (God) molding and remolding the clay (a nation or kingdom). The clay must act. It is no longer about a hypothetical nation or kingdom; it’s about them. “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doing.”
In the narrative flow of the text, Judah/Jerusalem and we the latter day hearers, work within the first option delineated above. God has determined to pluck up, break down and destroy. The potter (God) is shaping evil and devising a plan against the audience(s). We can try to find some wiggle room to avoid the severity. We could seek refuge in the word “reworking” used in verse 4: God is cleaning the dishes or removing foreign matter from the clay or a host of other angles on the metaphor — all in the hope of reducing the severity to a goodly discipline or an improvement project. But “turn” is a sharper word than that. Still, we might redouble our efforts at reform, minimize the ameliorations we concoct, and then start to speak of how amazing it is that our God gives us second chances and respects our agency.
Any such illusionary equilibrium is destroyed by verse 12: “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil ways.” The if-then of the first option (18:7-8) is refused. God’s/Jeremiah’s call for repentance failed. We must face that same reality in our own conduct. Laying out the alternatives in 18:1-11 is only half of the preaching task. The book of Jeremiah witnesses to the time when prophetic preaching moves beyond calls for repentance.
Here is one such instance. Verses 13-18 lay out the consequence by announcing a future that Judah/Jerusalem can no longer alter by a change of conduct. A day of calamity will occur (18:17). It will be self-made (“making their land a horror,” 18:16) and it will be God-made (“I will scatter them,” 18:17). Judah/Jerusalem’s conduct has no defense. It defies logic. No one has heard of such a thing (18:13-15). To preach faithfully the full truth of Jeremiah, contemporary preachers will have to explore and discern how their hearers (and they themselves) need to shift from “second chance” interpretations of calls for repentance to confronting their own persistent refusal of such calls. The starkness of judgment cannot be evaded.
Perhaps one way to do so is to carry the pottery metaphor to the next chapter. In 19:1 & 11 the pot is not remolded. It is shattered. There is a point in the metaphor when the clay shifts from pliable to hardened and remolding shifts to shattering. More of this aspect needs to be brought into our interpretation of chapter 18, certainly more than is the case if we stop reading with 18:11. The response in 18:13 depicts hardened clay as in the pot in chapter 19. Shattering the pot in chapter 19 underscores the judgment announced in 18:13-17.
A second way for contemporary hearers to confront the judgment to be faced is to see themselves in the conduct reported in 18:18. There is more to the refusal to repent than simply to say no to God (18:13); there is an active move against others, in this case, specifically Jeremiah. A “no” to God is accompanied by harm to other humans. Some preachers may understandably be inclined to read themselves as Jeremiah and their community/congregation as Judah. When a hard word is spoken, it is not uncommon to attack the messenger in an attempt to deflect the judgment. Most of us, however, would be evading the text in yet one more fashion if we sought to merely see ourselves as faithful Jeremiah beaten down by the community.
Any facile identification with Jeremiah is likely to evaporate if we actually start to speak Jeremiah’s part of the script (18:19-23). The people said that they would not heed any of Jeremiah’s words (18:18) and Jeremiah then asks God to heed him. Jeremiah had stood up for the people against the wrath of God (18:20); now Jeremiah’s resistance in their behalf has collapsed which makes the people’s predicament even worse. Now Jeremiah is actively praying against them: “Give their children over to famine…let their wives become childless and widowed…do not forgive their iniquity…deal with them while you are angry.”
The prayer by itself is questionable on several levels, but rather than judge the prayer and once again seek to evade the announced judgment, we might better explore who is praying such a prayer against us. Those who are praying against us with a prayer like this are the ones whom we have hurt. Their cry to God exposes us to our own evil doings. Our persistent and resistive “no” to God (18:12) is accompanied by plots against those expose our resistance to God. Our resistive plotting against the exposers is exposed by the cries of those who have been plotted against. Rather than scolding Jeremiah’s prayer, we need to hear it spoken against us. Refusal to pay attention to those who petition against us like Jeremiah can be more form of refusing to hear God’s word of judgment.
Now where is the gospel in Jeremiah 18? Perhaps we best admit there is little to none. The “good news” will have to come from outside this text, not in a fashion that ameliorates the stark hardness of the chapter, but is a complete surprise — so much so that it is a new creation. It comes from God, not from a move we make. It moves from the heart of God. In 18:17 we read: “I will show them my back, not my face.” Against that word, preachers need to hear God saying, “As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him” (31:20).
Then they need to return to Jeremiah’s former stance: “Remember how I stood before you to speak for them, to turn away your wrath from them” (18:20). In returning to that stance, the preacher moves from petitioning for the people against God’s judgment to announcing God’s promise against God’s own judgment. That is not an amelioration of the judgment; it is God’s own resolution. That is what it means to declare in the name of Christ the full forgiveness of sins.
That absolution is the God-given word spoken against God’s judgment.