Clay in the Hands of an Angry Potter (Jeremiah 18:1–23)

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Stuart Chase - 9 Apr 2017

Clay in the Hands of an Angry Potter (Jeremiah 18:1–23)

Miscellaneous

God’s sovereignty means that he has every right to punish sin. God’s holiness means that he has every intention to punish sin. God’s grace means that he has every desire to forgive sin.

From Series: "Miscellaneous"

Sermons in this series are once-off sermons preached by various church members.

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There are times in which members of the human race behave in ways that do not accord with principles of sound logic. Have you ever known that to be the case? The problem is that our usual ways often train us to behave and react to certain circumstances in a way that, while predictable, is entirely illogical.

In 2014, 19-year-old cheerleader, Kendall Jones, sparked outrage for posing with an exotic animal she had killed on a hunting trip and sharing it on social media. Since Jones’s initial photo, the world of social media has been trained to respond with outrage whenever a hunter posts a photo of themselves kneeling beside their trophy.

A man names Jay Branscomb took advantage of this outrage culture to hilarious effect. Branscomb posted a photo of movie director Steven Spielberg posing alongside a movie prop from his 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park. Branscomb photoshopped a rifle into the picture and added this caption: “Disgraceful photo of recreational hunter happily posing next to a Triceratops he just slaughtered. Please share so the world can name and shame this despicable man.”

Within days, the photo was shared over 30,000 times. The comment thread on the original Facebook post displayed utter vitriol. One commenter tried to help with this post: “That’s Steven Spielberg, director of Jurassic Park!” The reply immediately following that was, “I don’t care who he is. He should not have shot that animal!” Another commenter expressed her outrage in this way:

He’s a disgusting inhumane pig. I’d love to see these hunters stopped. I think zoos are the best way to keep these innocent animals safe. Idiots like this are going into these beautiful animals’ homes and killing them. It’s no different than someone coming into your home and murdering you. That’s what’s so selfish about people that hunt. They’re uneducated and their way of thinking is, ‘Well, these animals are overpopulating and are going to die anyway!’ Well, human beings are overpopulating, and—guess what?—if we were to kill an innocent human being and used that as an excuse we’d be in prison. I think it’s time to say the same thing about animal rights. Steven Spielberg, I’m disappointed in you. I’m not watching any of your movies again, animal killer!

Of course, such a response is utterly illogical. In case you missed it, a triceratops was a dinosaur. Dinosaurs are—and were when the photo was taken—extinct. Spielberg was posing for publicity in front of a movie prop.

And yet, as illogical as it is, such outrage isn’t that surprising. People have been trained to think and behave a certain way in response to such photos and many just carry on with that default response regardless of how silly it actually is.

In the text before us, God rebuked his covenant people—the people of Judah—for precisely that approach to life. Though he had been so kind to them, and it made no sense for them to respond to him the way they did, their heart was hardened and they resisted his grace. God therefore warned them of the judgement to come, even as he continued to extend to them an offer of grace. We read about these events in Jeremiah 18.

God frequently spoke in the Old Testament to his prophets by means of illustration. In Jeremiah, God sometimes sent the prophet on “field trips” in order to get his message across. “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her” (5:1). “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel” (7:12).

God now sent Jeremiah on another field trip, this time to a place with which he would have been very familiar: the local pottery. More than thirty ancient Hebrew words relate in one way or another to pottery because pottery was such a huge part of that economy. But that day, God turned the mundane and familiar into a vital message about his sovereignty.

God’s Message Delivered

In the opening eleven verses, God delivers his message. The basic message of the text is very simple: God can do as he pleases with his own. Because he is God, he is free to do whatever he wants. In his hands rest all power, rule, control, authority, kingdom, government and dominion. God showed this truth to Jeremiah, and through Jeremiah to Judah, by means of a simple illustration.

The Illustration

First, let’s consider the illustration itself:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.

(Jeremiah 18:1–4)

As Jeremiah watched, the potter slapped a lump of unformed clay on his stone wheel. He began to spin the wheel with his feet and form the clay with his hands into some sort of vessel. As he was working the clay, however, he realised that there was some sort of flaw in it, and so, while he was still spinning, he started to work it into a different vessel.

The potter displayed complete control of the clay, both in intent and in execution: He saw what he wanted the clay to become and fashioned it accordingly.

The Interpretation

Jeremiah was not left by himself to figure out the interpretation of the lesson:

Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.

(Jeremiah 18:5–10)

As Jeremiah watched the potter work skilfully with the clay, the Lord interpreted the illustration for him. God is the divine potter—the creator of everything that is created. He therefore has the prerogative, the wisdom and the skill to craft things as he sees fit. Promises of blessing may turn into warnings of destruction if the clay resists the will of the potter. Similarly, warnings of destruction may turn into promises of blessing if the clay proves to be suitably malleable.

The Application

The interpretation needed to be applied: “Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds’” (v. 11).

The Lord applied the illustration directly to his people. As he worked with the clay of Judah, he was fashioning a vessel of destruction. There was always hope in the hands of the divine potter that the destruction might turn into blessing. As it stood, however, Judah was clay in the hands of an angry potter.

Note: As you read these words, there are three theological misunderstandings that you must avoid. First, do not think that the potter in this picture is somehow limited by the clay. One commentator, wrongly, suggests,

The quality of the clay determined what the potter could do with it. He could make something else from the same clay, but not the particular vessel he had hoped for. The clay could thus frustrate the potter’s original intention and cause him to change it. Yahweh the potter was dealing with a clay that was resistant to his purpose. The quality of the people in some way determined what God might do with them.

That interpretation is not consistent with what Scripture teaches about the sovereignty of God: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:34–35). Again, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:37–38). Again, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that [or, whatever, NKJV] he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). Yet again, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6). The clay cannot frustrate the potter.

Second, do not assume that the primary intent of the illustration was a message of comfort. The message was not, “Bad things are happening to you but God can turn it into something beautiful.” That may be true, but it is not what God was saying here. In fact, God was warning Judah of judgement to come if they did not repent. As Calvin asserts, “Until men are brought to know that they are so subject to God’s power that their condition can in a single moment be changed, according to his will, they will never be humble as they ought to be.” The illustration was one of judgement.

Third, do not assume that God is unwilling to forgive when he has pronounced judgment. God’s warnings of judgment must be taken very seriously; at the same time, his promises of forgiveness must be embraced wholeheartedly (vv. 7–8). So when God says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), take his warning very seriously! Your sin will lead to death—eternal death! But when he goes on to say that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23), embrace his promise wholeheartedly! If you call out to the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, you will be delivered from eternal death and given eternal life!

The same potter who executes eternal punishment on those who sin grants eternal life to those who repent. Our default fashioning, as with Judah, is as a vessel of wrath, because we all sin. None of us, by default, is fashioned as a vessel of mercy. The gift of eternal life and immortality is conditional: It is conditioned upon repentance and faith. This is the message that God sent to Judah—and it is the message that Judah defiantly rejected, as we see in vv. 12–17.

God’s Message Defied

God message was delivered by Jeremiah, and it was straightforward: Persist in sin and face judgment, or repent and receive grace. Sadly, the response of the Jews displayed what was in their heart (vv. 12–17).

The Defiant Rejection

God’s covenant people were completely hardened to God’s offer of grace: ““But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart’” (v. 12).

“That is in vain,” the people responded. In other words, “It is pointless (hopeless, NKJV), Jeremiah, to try and persuade us to repent! We have determined to follow our own wicked ways.” They were expressing the desire of their hearts to persist in sin. The New Century Version translates it this way: “It won’t do any good to try! We will continue to do what we want. Each of us will do what his stubborn, evil heart wants!” This is what it all boils down to.

Why do people not accept God’s offer of salvation? Because they don’t want eternal life? No—everyone wants eternal life. People reject God’s offer of salvation and forgiveness because they don’t want to meet the conditions laid down to receive it. And what are those conditions? Repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The human heart wants eternal life; it wants immortality. The author of Hebrews wrote of the fact that humanity lives in the “fear of death” (2:14–15). By nature, we fear death and want life. Sadly, for far too many, love of sin trumps fear of death. God, “who alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16) holds out the offer of immortality to those who are headed for death. But that offer of immortality is conditional. Immortality is “brought … to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). “Glory and honour and immortality” are given to those who embrace God in “repentance” (Romans 2:4–7). Paul elsewhere speaks of the “victory” of “imperishability” and “immortality” being given “through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:50–57). Immortality is conditional! It is conditioned on repentance and faith.

Here’s the point: As with those in Jeremiah’s day, God is fashioning “disaster” against those who have rebelled against him through sin. But it’s not hopeless (NKJV, v. 12), because if sinners turn from their evil, God will relent of the disaster that he intends to bring (v. 8).

God sets before us life and death and urges us to choose life. Don’t be like the Jews. Don’t hear that invitation today and cry, “That is in vain! I will follow my own plans and will act according to the stubbornness of my evil heart.” We have already seen that God does whatever he pleases. And what pleases him the most is to give life to those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Judgment is his “strange” and “alien” work (Isaiah 28:21). He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). That does not mean that he won’t judge—only that he takes no pleasure in doing so. But since Judah would not repent, they faced divine recompense.

The Divine Recompense

God is perfectly just, and those who will not repent will face a divine recompense. That is the theme of vv. 13–17.

“Therefore thus says the LORD: Ask among the nations, Who has heard the like of this? The virgin Israel has done a very horrible thing. Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crags of Sirion? Do the mountain waters run dry, the cold flowing streams? But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway, making their land a horror, a thing to be hissed at forever. Everyone who passes by it is horrified and shakes his head. Like the east wind I will scatter them before the enemy. I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity.”

(Jeremiah 18:13–17)

Judah’s response made no sense. Clear-thinking people operate in ways that make sense. But even the nations were left scratching their heads at the response of Judah to God (v. 13). Nature operates by laws that make sense. Water turns to snow at high altitudes (v. 14a), and where there is a spring, water flows (v. 14b). But God’s people were operating in an idolatrous way, which made no sense (vv. 15–16).

When you have the privilege of serving the living God, idolatry makes no sense! And yet how often do we—even as God’s people—operate in ways that make no sense? “I don’t have time to read my Bible, but I have time to wake up early and go to gym.” “I don’t have time to lead my family in worship, but I have time to go for a run/cycle after work.” “I don’t have the finances to invest meaningfully in the kingdom of God, but I have the means to buy new cars and go on overseas holidays.” It doesn’t make sense. It’s like climbing the highest mountain in the coldest weather to look for boiling springs. It’s like getting upset at Steven Spielberg for killing a triceratops. But that is exactly how Judah was behaving.

The only way that a perfectly just God could respond would be with punishment (v. 17). I will “show them my back,” he said. They had turned their back on him (see 2:27) and he would now do the same. When they cried out to him for deliverance, he responded, “But where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them arise, if they can save you, in your time of trouble” (2:28). Because these people had forgotten God and turned their back to him, he would turn his back on them and subject them to judgment.

Those who forget God have every reason to fear God. The Lord’s words here should serve as a strong warning for anyone who was a beneficiary of the gospel in church life but has wandered away. Consider the warning of the writer to the Hebrews:

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

(Hebrews 6:1–6)

Amnesia (v. 15) soon turns to enmity. Hughes is correct: “Those who begin to forget God end up hating him.” And how do you know that you have begun to forget God? One way, as we see in the verses that follow, is by your response to his messengers (v. 18).

God’s Messenger Disparaged

Verse 12 makes it clear that the people of Judah were not interested in obeying the word of the Lord. Their idolatrous intent was displayed here in the plots that they devised against God’s messenger (vv. 18–23).

The People’s Plot

The people were plotting against Jeremiah: “Then they said, “Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah, for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us strike him with the tongue, and let us not pay attention to any of his words’” (v. 18).

We know from other places in Jeremiah that the prophet often faced physical threat from the people to whom he ministered. Even here, he ultimately realised that the people were plotting to have him killed (v. 23). But their opposition began in another way.

First, they rationalised their opposition: “The law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet.” In other words, “Jeremiah is not the only messenger of God. We don’t need Jeremiah; we can find others who will teach us God’s word.” When you read the book of Jeremiah, however, you soon realise that the priests and the wise men and the prophets to whom the people turned were those who were willing to compromise the truth for the sake of popularity.

Second, they chose to verbally attack God’s messenger: “Come, let us strike him with the tongue.” While the Jews in Jeremiah’s day were not opposed to physically persecuting him, they realised that it was as effective, if not more so, to slander and insult him. Whether it was to his face or behind his back was irrelevant, so long as they got a few of their well-timed jabs in.

Third, they committed to ignoring the truth that he preached: “Let us not pay attention to any of his words.” They sought him out when it was convenient for them (chapter 42), but when his ministry did not directly benefit them, they simply ignored him.

This is the natural progression when people begin to forget God: They rationalise their disobedience. They ignore God’s messengers who tell them the truth and start looking instead for others who will tell them what they want to hear. Then they commit to slandering and ignoring God’s messengers. (And it is easier to ignore God’s messengers when you slander them.) And they will rationalise it by saying, “He’s also a priest / wise man / prophet. He’s also a man of God.” “I’m in a difficult marriage and I want a divorce, but my elders are saying no. I’m sure there’s a man of God somewhere who will advise me to get a divorce.” “I know this guy’s an unbeliever, but I love him and I want to marry him. My spiritual leaders are saying no, but I know I can find a man of God somewhere who will bless my intentions.”

What is your attitude toward the messengers whom God has sent into your life? Jeremiah was formally appointed as a prophet of God’s people, and so perhaps the immediate parallel is to those who are formally your spiritual overseers. How do you respond when your elders give you counsel? How do you respond when your elders call you to repentance? How do you respond when your elders call you to biblical responsibilities? Do you even seek the counsel of your elders?

Child, what is your response to the spiritual oversight of your parents? Wife, what is your response to the spiritual oversight of your husband?

But the truth is, anyone who comes to you with the truth of God’s word should be received as God’s messenger. What is your attitude when a fellow church member confronts you with God’s truth? “I’ve noticed you have a bit of a problem with your tongue.” “I’ve noticed that you don’t seem to be treating your spouse with love and honour.” “I’d like to speak to you about the way you talk to (or about) your parents.” “I’d like to speak to you about the way you talk about other races.” If your temptation is to ignore biblical oversight and to instead begin looking for others who will scratch your ears, you have begun to forget God and are on the path to enmity with God. If you have use for the church and the messengers of God only when they can benefit you, you have begun to forget God.

The Prophet’s Plea

Jeremiah responded to the people with a strong, impassioned prayer:

Hear me, O LORD, and listen to the voice of my adversaries. Should good be repaid with evil? Yet they have dug a pit for my life. Remember how I stood before you to speak good for them, to turn away your wrath from them. Therefore deliver up their children to famine; give them over to the power of the sword; let their wives become childless and widowed. May their men meet death by pestilence, their youths be struck down by the sword in battle. May a cry be heard from their houses, when you bring the plunderer suddenly upon them! For they have dug a pit to take me and laid snares for my feet. Yet you, O LORD, know all their plotting to kill me. Forgive not their iniquity, nor blot out their sin from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger.

(Jeremiah 18:19–23)

The prophet’s prayer is difficult to deal with. It is not exactly the type of prayer that we like to think of spiritual leaders praying for God’s people. Was Jeremiah justified in praying this way? Opinions vary.

Hughes suggests, “Jeremiah went beyond seeking vindication to being vindictive. At the least he did not display the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ, who prayed for his enemies and forgave his executioners.” Wiersbe opines, “If Jeremiah seems too angry to us, perhaps some of us today aren’t angry enough at the evil in this world. Thanks to the media, we’re exposed to so much violence and sin that we tend to accept it as a normal part of life and want to do nothing about it. Crusading has given way to compromising, and it isn’t ‘politically correct’ to be dogmatic or critical of ideas that are definitely unbiblical.”

But note: Jeremiah wasn’t angry about sin in the world but about sin in the church. His prayer was not aimed at a godless, pagan government, but at God’s covenant people. How should we make sense of Jeremiah’s seemingly harsh words against the people? A careful reading of his words here perhaps give some insight into his burden. Let’s make two observations.

First, prayer was not Jeremiah’s first resort for these people. He did not use words like “adversaries” lightly. Indeed, for the longest time, he had interceded for these very people—even when God had told him not to intercede for them anymore. He had prayed, time and again, for God to turn his wrath away from them, but the people had responded by attacking him. He had sought their good, while they had sought only his harm.

Second, Jeremiah’s prayer here was not plucked out of thin air. It was not a prayer that flowed spontaneously from his heart, but one that was rooted in God’s covenant with his people. If you read vv. 21–22, and compare it with texts like Leviticus 26:14–33 and Deuteronomy 28:14–43 (–68), you will realise that the judgements for which Jeremiah prayed were judgements that God had explicitly pronounced upon covenant-breakers.

Jeremiah prayed basically for five things: famine (see Leviticus 26:18–20; Deuteronomy 28:23–24); war (see Leviticus 26:16–17; Deuteronomy 28:25–26); loss of children (see Leviticus 26:21–22; Deuteronomy 28:32); pestilence (see Leviticus 26:25; Deuteronomy 28:21–22); loss in time of war (see Leviticus 26:25); and plundering of property (see Leviticus 26:16; Deuteronomy 28:33–34).

In the same way that Elijah’s earlier prayer for famine (see James 5:17) was a prayer rooted in God’s covenant, so Jeremiah’s prayer here is rooted in covenantal language. Really, Jeremiah was praying that God would vindicate himself by bringing already revealed covenantal curses upon a covenant-breaking people. He was praying God’s word back to him.

There comes a time when it is right to stop praying positively for those who continually resist God’s truth. The Lord had said to Jeremiah, “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you” (7:16). Again, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them” (14:11–12). The New Testament adds, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that” (1 John 5:16).

I conclude that Jeremiah was not wrong to pray as he did. But even if I am wrong and Jeremiah was being sinfully vindictive in his prayer, we must come back to the main theme of this chapter: God has every right to do everything for which the prophet prayed. “He has the right to repay evil with evil. He has the right to put his enemies to the sword. He has the right to let them fall into their own traps. He is not obligated to forgive those who plot against him. After all, he is the Potter” (Hughes).

Conclusion

This is a tough text, both to interpret and to internalise. God’s people at this time had completely broken their covenant with God, and covenant curses were soon to fall. And yet, in the midst of all the talk of judgment, we see God’s heart coming through: “Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds” (v. 11). What would be the result if they did that? “I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do” (v. 8).

Sadly, it is historically verifiable that the Jews did not heed the Lord’s invitation to repent, and the covenantal curses spoken of in the latter verses fell upon them. And yet even in the midst of such terrible judgment, hear the heart of the Lord: “Even if he causes suffering, he will show us compassion according to the abundance of his faithful love. For he does not enjoy bringing affliction or suffering on mankind.” (Lamentations 3:32–33, CSB)

God’s sovereignty means that he has every right to punish sin. God’s holiness means that he has every intention to punish sin. God’s grace means that he has every desire to forgive sin. In fact, God is so desirous to forgive sin that he sent his own sinless Son to die a sinner’s death in order that sinners can escape eternal death and receive eternal life.

Believer, will you beg forgiveness for breaking your covenant with God? God rebuked Israel for its breach of covenant (34:8–22) and thereby profaning the Lord’s name, a capital crime in the Old Testament. What about you? Will you keep the covenants you made at a parent dedication? Will you keep your marriage covenant? Will you keep your church covenant?

Unbeliever, will you cry out to the divine potter for mercy? Will you ask him to forgive your sins? Will you trust in Jesus Christ for the free gift of eternal life that he holds to all who will embrace him in repentance and faith?

If you will not repent, know that God is the potter who fashions vessels of wrath from lumps of clay. If you will repent, rejoice in the promise of the psalmist: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13–14).

AMEN