Commentary on Jeremiah 18:1-11
What is the purpose of prophets and prophecy? This question is at the forefront of Jeremiah 18:1-11 and is explained using a metaphor of the potter’s wheel.
Chapter 18 of Jeremiah begins with the prophetic pronouncement, “The word (ha-davar) which came to Jeremiah from YHWH, saying … ” Jeremiah receives instructions to enter the potter’s house where he sees the potter working at the wheel, shaping a clay vessel. Yet, the vessel that the potter was crafting became misshapen, and so the potter reworked the clay into another pot that was smooth and rightly-shaped (yashar).
In a prophetic oracle, YHWH then explains that what Jeremiah has just seen is a metaphor for God’s interaction with God’s own people. The wheel of the potter is a metaphor for YHWH’s divine sovereign will that shapes the experiences and future of the people. Yet, the metaphor also gives room for the will of the people to shape and decide their own future as the clay. In this metaphor, God works with the clay toward a desired outcome, yet the clay may resist that shaping and so become misshapen and, ultimately, rejected and re-shaped into another vessel.
The metaphor of the potter’s wheel comes in the midst of a series of prophetic pronouncements of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, and of coming disaster. Some of these oracles of judgment involve physical objects as metaphors. For example, in Jeremiah 13, the prophet is instructed by YHWH to hide a dirty loincloth in the cleft of a rock until it is ruined. The loincloth serves as a prophetic symbol of the pride of Judah and its refusal to listen to the voice of God which would lead to its ruin. The imagery of the potter’s wheel functions in the same way as a prophetic vision and the ruined clay as a symbol of the destruction that is to come against Judah. YHWH says that if the house of Israel “does evil in my sight” and does not obey, then it will be smashed and destroyed like the first vessel that the potter judged to be deficient and misshapen.
Yet, in the midst of these prophecies of coming destruction, there is a note of hope that is plainly stated in Jeremiah 18:8. YHWH declares that “if a nation turns away from evil which I have proclaimed over it, then I will change my mind (n-ḥ-m) about the disaster which I intended to bring on it.” This verb n-ḥ-m carries a wide semantic range of meaning, such as “relent,” “comfort,” “have compassion,” or “be grieved/sorry about something.” In this chapter from Jeremiah, the force of this verb is clear in its meaning that YHWH would change the course of action in response to a change in behavior from the people.
We might think of prophecy, generally speaking, as an oracle of doom or a fate already determined by God that is immovable and already-determined by God. There are passages in the Scripture that align with this understanding, such as the prophecy given by Huldah to king Josiah in 2 Kings 22:15-20. Yet, this chapter of Jeremiah presents the function of prophecy in an entirely different manner. Prophecy in Jeremiah 18, and indeed in most of the prophetic literature, has more of a rhetorical function of persuasion. The purpose of prophecy most frequently is to convince those receiving the prophecy to change their behavior and to follow the commands of God by enacting justice. Jeremiah 18:8 plainly states that, if the people will follow the law of God, then the disaster will not come and the course of their future will instead be a bright one.
In Jeremiah 17, just prior to the passage about the potter’s wheel, a list of curses and blessings are given, similar to those in Deuteronomy 28-30. While the curses are stipulated for those who violate the covenant oath, blessings are promised to those who trust in YHWH: “They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.”
The specific sins of Judah and Jerusalem that are mentioned in Jeremiah 17 are the worship of other gods, and gaining wealth through unjust or oppressive means. These two accusations of guilt are intertwined. For example, Jeremiah 5:26-28 accuses Judah of becoming rich by taking the goods of others, of failing to care for those who are economically and socially vulnerable in their society, such as orphans and the poor. Since covenant law makes specific provisions for care of these individuals (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18), abandoning the God of Israel to worship other gods likely also meant abandoning the laws of the covenant that were intended for community and individual flourishing. Living according to the law of God involves the economic well-being of those in the community as an issue of moral integrity.
Yet, Jeremiah 18 appeals to the people to change their ways and to return to YHWH. The purpose of the prophetic pronouncement is to bring about change, to restore justice, so that a bright future might arrive rather than the dark one that is looming on their horizon. The purpose of prophecy in Jeremiah 18 is to avert disaster, and the prophetic pronouncement is an invitation for the people to change God’s mind so that blessings might rain down on them.