Commentary on Jeremiah 18:1-11
Prophets use these familial metaphors to speak about the relationship between God and God’s people.
Jeremiah 18 presents another relational one: God as Potter, Israel as Clay. God as the craftsman with a design plan, Israel as the malleable substance under review.
An unequal power relationship forms between potter and clay has the formless lump takes shape in the hands of the designer. The potter provides guidance and insight; the potter creates the plan; the potter applies pressure to the mold. The clay is rather passive and subject to the will of the potter.
What does Jeremiah intend to communicate through the use of this particular metaphor?
The potter at the wheel
In verses 1-4, God commands Jeremiah to visit the potter’s house and listen for the word of God. Jeremiah notices this craftsman working at the wheel to shape the clay. However, the emerging vessel does not take the correct form, so the potter reshapes in order to create another vessel.
Destruction is part of the creative process.
Usually a prophetic figure such a Jeremiah or Ezekiel performs this type of symbolic action himself. We can recall Jeremiah wearing a yoke or buying “worthless” land in Judah. These actions often involve a type of street theatres for all to see; then, interpretations of the unusual behavior are provided. In this passage, the prophet witnesses a symbolic action, which adds to the emphasis on Israel’s passivity.
The final phrase in verse 4 — “as seems good to him” — holds a key to the metaphor and the message of Jeremiah 18. The potter reshapes and reworks according to the potter’s plan and not what the clay perceives as good. The clay does not have a voice in the design process.
I may declare … but if … then I will change my mind
In verses 5-10, God’s word indeed comes to the prophet in the form of an interpretation of the potter’s actions. God invites the people to reflect on their place in God’s hand. The metaphor imagery gives way to a direct divine address to the house of Israel.
In order to demonstrate the two possibilities open to Israel, Jeremiah 18 uses formulaic language:
- verses 7-8: “I may declare … that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation … turns from its evil, (then) I will change my mind about the disaster.”
- verses.9-10: “I may declare … that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight … then I will change my mind about the good.”
The if-then formulation makes clear the contingent nature of God’s announcement of judgment and promise. The language of plucking up and planting harkens back to Jeremiah’s commission in Jeremiah 1. God is ready to destroy but if the people turn from their evil, God will change God’s mind about the destruction. God is also ready to build but if the people do evil, God will change God’s mind about the building. God’s actions are ultimately affected by the people’s willing to turn from evil.
An extraordinary characterization of God: God waits to see how Israel will decide to behave. God is open to changing directions, to rethinking possibilities, to relenting from devastation.
God, who has been working with clay since creation in Genesis 2, wishes to work Israel into a beautiful vessel. But God cannot also bring judgment if Israel does not change its ways.
Verse 11 brings the passage to a conclusion with a declaration and command to the people of Judah. God is shaping evil so Israel must turn. The potter is shaping the clay toward destruction. The master craftsman is planning to create an evil design. The people must turn and amend. They are warned that immediate attention to their behaviors is needed.
How does this story end?
Our passage (verses 1-11) leaves open the sure possibility for change on the part of the people. They are commanded to repent of their evil behaviors in order to avoid destruction. However, the very next verse in Jeremiah 18 makes clear that the people will not turn and obey. They unambiguously say, “we will follow our plans.” The people are determined to continue to disobey. They are unwilling to change. Their plans are too precious to them to forsake them.
Theologically it matters a great deal whether we end our reading after verse 11 or after verse 12. The selection as it was created by the lectionary wishes to leave open the possibility of repentance. All sorts of options are open as we conclude verse 11. Verse 12 demonstrates that one option is to close down the possibilities for the future by failing to change behavior.
What might we forsake in order to create a better future for ourselves?