THE POTTER Jeremiah 16–20
“Therefore I will teach them—this time I will teach them My power and might. Then they will know that My name is the Lord” (Jer. 16:21).There is no more powerful image in Scripture of God’s sovereignty than that of the potter, shaping clay to form whatever vessel he decides. This passage reminds us that God is sovereign. Yet the exercise of His sovereign power is tempered by love—even in the case of complaining Jeremiah.
In view of the coming disaster, Jeremiah was forbidden to live a normal human life (16:1–21). Three causes of Judah’s failure were identified (17:1–13), leading Jeremiah to cry out for personal healing (vv. 14–18). Judah was then challenged to put God first by honoring the Sabbath (vv. 19–27). At the house of a potter God announced again the certain disaster He was preparing against Judah (18:1–23). Jeremiah smashed a clay jar to symbolize the devastation destined for Jerusalem (19:1–15). Pashhur had the prophet beaten (20:1–6), leading to another anguished complaint by a weary and bitter Jeremiah (vv. 7–18).
Understanding the Text
“You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place” Jer. 16:1–21. God restricted Jeremiah. His prophet was not to live a normal life in the city destined for destruction. He was not to marry (vv. 1–4). He was not to mourn with others at funerals (vv. 5–7). He was not to celebrate at such festivities as weddings (vv. 8–9). Jeremiah was destined to be a perpetual outsider: a specter, who walked silently among members of his society but whose grim isolation from them was to be a reminder of the judgment bearing down on the land. This strange behavior was intended to raise questions—and create opportunities for Jeremiah to announce God’s Word. We should see God’s refusal to let Jeremiah marry as a grace—gift to His prophet, though it surely must have seemed a painful burden. But when the city population starved, and its young men were cut down by the invading army and its young women raped by its soldiers, Jeremiah would be spared the anguish of watching his own children suffer this fate. The popular saying is, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” A more accurate expression is, “Every burden God asks us to bear carries a hidden blessing.” “Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you” Jer. 17:1–18. Again we’re reminded. When judgment comes, don’t blame God. The Lord identified three faults that assured disaster. One: Sin was engraved on the tablets of Judah’s hearts (vv. 1–4). The image of writing on the heart is a common one in Scripture (cf. 2 Cor. 3:2–3). It is a reference to innate character; to the very core of one’s personality. There is not the slightest scratch on Judah’s heart to indicate any response to God’s Word. What is there, scored deep by bold slashes with a diamond (not “flint”) point, is sin. Two: Judah had turned away from God to trust in mere man (Jer. 17:5–8). There is no remedy for sin but trust in God. Yet Judah would not put her confidence in the Lord. Three: The human heart is corrupt beyond any cure (vv. 9–13). Judah’s heart constantly turned toward evil. Surely God could not be blamed for dooming a people of sinful character and corrupt heart, who refused to put their trust in Him. Jeremiah wisely took this revelation personally, and cried out, “Heal me, O Lord” (vv. 14–18). Despite the fact that he had “not run away from being Your shepherd” to Judah, Jeremiah was fearful and uncertain. If only the people of Judah had responded as the prophet did now! If only they had cried out to God for healing. But instead they scoffed, and ridiculed Jeremiah saying, “Where is the word of the Lord?” Because disaster was not there, they could not see it ahead! What a blessing that we have seen the coming judgment, and with Jeremiah cried out to God for spiritual healing. And what a joy to know that, because of Jesus Christ, healing is ours. God has erased the sin engraved on our hearts, and replaced it with His own Living Word. He has healed us from within, and taught us to trust not in man but in Him alone. A day of “double destruction” was hurtling down on Judah. But we wait for the redoubled blessings to be ours when Jesus comes. “Keep the Sabbath Day holy” Jer. 17:19–27. Why, with all the many sins committed by the people of Judah, did God tell Jeremiah to focus his preaching on keeping the Sabbath Day holy? Surely the practice of idolatry in Judah was worse than the practice of carrying a load of firewood! Certainly the immorality Jeremiah had mentioned was more serious than doing a little work on God’s day of rest! It’s best to see this message, with its promise of blessing for obedience (vv. 24–26), as a test case. If the people of Judah would put God first on the Sabbath, they would put Him first in their daily lives. The failure of Judah to honor God on the day set aside for that purpose revealed a reversal of all their values. We too are to put God first on the day we worship Him, and in our private devotions as well. When we give the Lord priority in this, our other priorities will fall in line. “At the potter’s house” Jer. 18:1–19:15. The sermon on sovereignty that was stimulated at the house of a Jerusalem potter led to another outburst of fury against Jeremiah. Rather than respond to God’s invitation, an angry populace chose to “attack [Jeremiah] with our tongues” and “pay no attention to anything he says” (18:18). After years of such rejection, Jeremiah angrily cried out against his persecutors. Let their children be given “over to famine. . . . Their wives be made childless and widows . . . their men be put to death” (v. 21). It is not for us to judge this vitriolic outburst. The fact is that the people of Judah merited—and would soon receive—just this fate. What we should remember, however, is that despite the most terrible provocations the Lord urged the people of Judah to return to Him again and again. When we suffer unjustly as Jeremiah surely did, it’s hard not to remember “all their plots to kill me” and hope for just retribution. Still at the potter’s house, Jeremiah was told to purchase a clay jar and take it to the “sacred confines” (Topheth) where the rulers and people of Judah practiced pagan sacrifice. There Jeremiah smashed the jar, and announced in God’s name, “I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies.” Then Jeremiah returned to the city, and repeated his message of coming destruction. In a sense, God answered His prophet’s prayer. Jeremiah’s persecutors, who were God’s committed enemies too, would suffer just the fate the prophet desired. In Jeremiah’s time potters placed lumps of clay on a round platform, which they turned with their feet. Under their skilled hands, the clay took on whatever form they intended. As Jeremiah watched a potter at work, God told him to remind Judah that the nations are like clay in His hands! He can destroy, or restore. But the people of Judah rejected this explicit invitation to turn to the Lord. They said, “It is no use. We will continue with our own plans.” Yes, God is sovereign. But this truth is intended to bring hope! The heavenly Potter has sovereignly determined to bless all who turn wholeheartedly to Him. “The priest, Pashhur” Jer. 20:1–6. This high temple official heard Jeremiah’s preaching, and ordered him beaten and placed in stocks. When released, Jeremiah boldly predicted that Pashhur would see his friends die, the temple treasures he supervised taken away, and that he and his family would die in Exile. It’s no fun being persecuted for our faith. But it’s better to be the persecuted than the persecutor!
The Other Fellow’s Shoes(Jer. 19–20)
In some ways, Jeremiah strikes me as something of a pill. Always looking grim. Always condemning. And, worst of all, always complaining. We see each of these traits in chapters 19 and 20. Grim Jeremiah is undoubtedly a prophet of doom (chap. 19). Granted that the people of Judah fully deserved the disaster about to strike, Jeremiah seemed at times to be a little too enthusiastic. He almost licked his chops over their fate! (cf. 18:19–22) Granted too that Jeremiah faced hard times. It was no fun to be publicly beaten and placed in the stocks for speaking God’s word (20:1–6). But when we read Jeremiah’s words of complaint to the Lord after this incident, we can almost hear the whine in his voice. And it grates on us. “Lord, You tricked me into serving You. I didn’t expect ridicule! But that’s all I get” (vv. 7–8). “Lord, I’ve tried not speaking. But then You give me this pain, and the only way I can get relief is to speak out again” (v. 9). “Lord, everybody’s whispering and plotting against me” (v. 10). “Lord, at least let me see them get zapped” (vv. 11–12). “Lord, I try praising You, and You have rescued me (v. 13). But I still curse the day I was born. And I’m still angry that people rejoiced over my birth (vv. 14–16). I wish,” and here the whine becomes pronounced, “that someone had performed an abortion and murdered me in the womb (v. 17). Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (v. 18) Now, I’ve known some whiners. And they’re no fun to be around. In fact, before long we get so tired of their whining that we tune such people out, ignoring them and their feelings. Yet two things impress me about the complaints of Jeremiah. First, everything he complained about was rooted in reality. He really did have a painful and difficult life. Compared to Jeremiah, my life has been a bed of roses. So perhaps I should listen more patiently, with more compassion, and realize that if I had been forced to walk in his shoes, I might have felt just as Jeremiah did. Perhaps too I can learn from Jeremiah. Despite all his complaints, despite the depression and despair that often gripped him, Jeremiah was totally faithful to God. He spoke God’s word to others, even when he knew ahead of time that they would listen with hostility and make his life even more difficult. What are a few complaints compared to this! But second, when Jeremiah complained, God listened! God didn’t seem to become impatient, or angry, or even to ignore His prophet. And I can learn from this. People who hurt often will complain. And what they need most may very well be simply the sympathy and understanding of another person. A person willing to listen, and willing to admit, “Yes, it would be tough to walk in your shoes.” A person willing to express a little admiration of people like Jeremiah, who have chosen, despite their problems, to commit their cause to the Lord (v. 12).
When you hurt, seek God’s ear. When others hurt, be God’s ear for them.