The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 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.
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 “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. 7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 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. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 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. 11 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.’
12 “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.’
13 “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.
14 Does the snow of Lebanon leave
the crags of Sirion?
Do the mountain waters run dry,
the cold flowing streams?
15 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,
16 making their land a horror,
a thing to be hissed at forever.
Everyone who passes by it is horrified
and shakes his head.
17 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.”
This is a typically enigmatic passage from Jeremiah. At first reading it may seem to make out that God is a changeable, impulsive being who may say one thing and do the opposite. So if God speaks mercy to a nation, how can we trust He will be merciful? Or if He speaks judgement, do we really need to fear?
To understand what the Lord is teaching, we need to look at the context. Jeremiah is at the potter’s house, getting a tutorial in how to make a clay pot. Maybe his blundering questioning of the technicalities distract the potter, because the first attempt has to be remade into something that can be remade into a workable pot.
That was the illustration of God’s message to His people: mercy in remaking something useless, and judgement in making a pot that is only eventually going to break. For Judah in Jeremiah’s day, promises of mercy and warnings of judgement were to no avail, and they were exiled in Babylon for seventy years.
In the New Testament, Paul tells us that Christians have the gospel in them, like treasure in jars of clay. When we share the gospel, we are revealing that even in broken vessels like us, there can be great spiritual riches. “Let God’s Word be true, and all the world a liar” seems a fitting summary of Jeremiah’s ministry: to believe in God’s Word is to go against the world, but even if it means being a Jeremiad, we must always go to a lost world with the truth in love, regardless of whether they listen.