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Jeremiah 18:1-12 – The Potter and the Pots

Summary

God is imaged as a potter who works with clay (people). God wants the best possible vessel to emerge, but the quality of the clay will give shape to the results of God's work.

Analysis

The image of a potter who works with clay is used to depict God's work with Israel and Israel's response to that work. Though God always wants the best possible product, the story does not assume a situation in which the potter's work always turns out well (18:4). The quality of the clay has some effect on the ability of the potter to do what he wishes, and that in turn would affect the quality of the product. The issue for the potter, then, is to make the best pottery possible with the ingredients with which he has to work. The focus is not on God's control over the people (as some interpreters think), but on God's initiative, creativity, and responsiveness in relation to the possibilities inherent in the situation. God will work with what is available, yet with God's good purposes always in mind.

This understanding coheres well with the openness of the future that follows in Jeremiah 18:7-10, which has all nations in view, and the call to Israel to repent in Jeremiah 18:11. Israel's particular history is placed in the context of the wider creation. God's way of working with Israel has significant continuities with God's ways with the world at large. In all cases, the future of the people is shaped at least in part by the human response to God's word. The nations and Israel can repent of their evil and turn to God, or they can turn away from God and suffer the consequences.

Jeremiah 18:1-12

The Potter and the Clay

18The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Israel’s Stubborn Idolatry

12 But they say, ‘It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.’

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10 February 2011

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