Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,XVIII.
(1) The word which came to Jeremiah.—The message that follows comes in close sequence upon that of the preceding chapter, i.e., probably before the fourth year of the reign of Jehoiakim. It has the character of a last warning to king and people, and its rejection is followed in its turn by the more decisive use of the same symbol in Jeremiah 19
Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words.(2) The potter’s house.—The place was probably identical with the “potter’s field” of Zechariah 11:13, the well-known spot where the workers in that art carried on their business. The traditional Aceldama, the “potter’s field” of Matthew 27:7, is on the southern face of the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. The soil is still a kind of clay suitable and employed for the same purpose (Ritter, Palestine, iv. 165, Eng. Trans.). The purchase of the field to “bury strangers in” (Matthew 27:7) implies, however, that it was looked upon as a piece of waste ground, and that its use had been exhausted.
Then I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels.(3) He wrought a work on the wheels.—Literally, the two wheels. The nature of the work is described more graphically in Ecclus. xxxviii. 29, 30. The potter sat moving one horizontal wheel with his feet, while a smaller one was used, as it revolved, to fashion the shape of the vessel he was making with his hands. The image had been already used of God’s creative work in Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 45:9; Isaiah 64:8.
And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.(4) Of clay.—The reading in the margin, which gives “as clay,” must be regarded as a clerical error, originating, probably, in the desire to bring the text into conformity with Jeremiah 18:6, that in the text of the Authorised Version being confirmed by many MSS. and Versions.
He made it again.—Literally, and more vividly, he returned and made. As we read, we have to remember that what is narrated in a few words implied a long train of thoughts. The prophet went by the impulse which he knew to be from God to the “field” in the valley of Hinnom; he stood and gazed, and then as he watched he was led to see in the potter’s work a parable of the world’s history: God as the great artificer, men and nations as the vessels which He makes for honourable or dishonourable uses (2Timothy 2:20; Romans 9:21).
O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.(6) Cannot I do with you as this potter?—The question implies a theory of the universe, which is neither (as some have thought) one of absolute fatalism, crushing man’s freedom, nor, on the other hand, one which merges God’s sovereignty in man’s power of choice. The clay can resist the potter, or can yield itself willingly to his hands to be shaped as he wills. Its being “marred” is through no fault of the potter, but—in the framework of the parable—through the defect of the material, and, in its application, through the resistance of the human agents whom God is fashioning. And when it is so marred one of two courses is open to the potter. He can again re-mould and fashion it to his purpose, to a new work which may be less honourable than that for which it was originally designed; or, if it be hopelessly marred, can break it and cast it away, and with fresh clay mould a fresh vessel. The history of nations and churches and individual men offers many examples of both processes. They frustrate God’s gracious purpose by their self-will, but His long-suffering leads them to repentance, and gives them, to speak after the manner of men, yet another chance of being moulded by His hands. Here the prophet invites the people, as the clay, to accept the former alternative. St. Paul, taking the same analogy, looks forward to the time when the marred vessel of Israel shall be restored to the Master’s house and be honoured in His service (Romans 9:21; Romans 11:26). The closing verses of Browning’s poem, “Rabbi Ben-Ezra,” in Men and Women, may be referred to as embodying the same thought :—
“But I need Thee, as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I—to the wheel of life,
With shapes and colours rife,
Bound dizzily—mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst,
“So take and use Thy work!
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand;
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same.”
At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;(7-10) At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation . . .—The words carry the thoughts of the prophet back to those which had been stamped indelibly on his memory when he was first called to his work (Jeremiah 1:10). He is now taught that that work was throughout conditional. In bold anthropomorphic speech Jehovah represents himself as changing His purpose, even suddenly, “in an instant,” if the nation that is affected by it passes from evil to good or from good to evil. The seeming change is but the expression of an unchanged eternal Law of Righteousness, dealing with men according to their works. This, and not the assertion of an arbitrary, irresistibly predestinating will, was the lesson the prophet had been taught by the parable of the potter’s wheel.
Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.(11) I frame evil.—The verb chosen is that which specially describes the potter’s work, and from which the Hebrew word for potter is itself derived. This, so to speak, is the shape of the vessel actually in hand, determining its use, but its form is not unalterably fixed. It is shown in terrorem, and the people are invited to accept the warning by repentance.
And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart.(12) And they said.—Better, But they say, as of continued action. This was the ever-recurring answer (see Note on Jeremiah 2:25) which they made to the prophet’s pleas. It was the answer of defiance rather than of despair. “There is no hope, you need not hope, that we will do as you bid us. We will go on our way, and walk after our own devices.”
Imagination.—Better, as elsewhere, stubbornness.
Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ask ye now among the heathen, who hath heard such things: the virgin of Israel hath done a very horrible thing.(13) Ask ye now among the heathen.—The appeal of Jeremiah 2:10-11 is renewed. Judah had not been true, even as heathen nations were true, to its inherited faith and worship. The virgin daughter of Israel (Isaiah 1:8; Jeremiah 14:17)—the epithet is emphasised, as contrasted with the shame that follows—had fallen from a greater height to a profounder depth of debasement.
Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon which cometh from the rock of the field? or shall the cold flowing waters that come from another place be forsaken?(14) Will a man leave . . .?—The interpolated words “a man” pervert the meaning of the verse, which should run thus: Will the snow of Lebanon fail from the rock of the field? or shall the cold (or, with some commentators, “rushing “) flowing waters from afar (literally, strange, or, as some take it, that dash down) be dried up? The questions imply an answer in the negative, and assert in a more vivid form what had been expressed more distinctly, though less poetically, in Jeremiah 2:13. The strength of Jehovah was like the unfailing snow of Lebanon (the “white” or snow mountain, like Mont Blanc or Snowdon), like the dashing stream that flows from heights so distant that they belong to a strange country, and which along its whole course was never dried up, and yet men forsook that strength for their own devices. The “streams of Lebanon” appear as the type of cool refreshing waters in Song of Solomon 4:15. The term “rock of the field” is applied in Jeremiah 17:3; Jeremiah 21:13 to Jerusalem, but there is no reason why it should not be used of Lebanon or any other mountain soaring above the plain. The notion that the prophet spoke of the brook Gihon on Mount Zion, as fed, by an underground channel, from the snows of Lebanon, has not sufficient evidence to commend it, but the “dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion” (Psalm 133:3) presents, to say the least, a suggestive parallel. Possibly the prophet has the Jordan in his mind. Tacitus (Hist. v. 6) describes it as fed by the snows of Lebanon, the summit of which is, in his expressive language, faithful to its snows through the heat of summer.
Because my people hath forgotten me, they have burned incense to vanity, and they have caused them to stumble in their ways from the ancient paths, to walk in paths, in a way not cast up;(15) Vanity.—The word is not that commonly so translated (as in Jeremiah 2:5; Jeremiah 10:8; Ecclesiastes 1:2, et al., q. 5), but that which had been used of idols in Jeremiah 2:30; Jeremiah 4:30; Jeremiah 6:29, rendered “in vain.” See also Ezekiel 13:6; Ezekiel 13:8-9.
They have caused.—No persons have been named, but the prophet clearly has in view the prophets and teachers who had led the people astray.
To stumble in their ways from the ancient paths.—The preposition “from” is not in the Hebrew, and does not improve the sense. The words “the ancient paths,” literally, the paths of the age, or of eternity, are in apposition with “their ways,” and point to the old immemorial faith of the patriarchs, a faith not of to-day or yesterday. The second “paths” is a different word from the first, and implies rather the “by-ways,” as contrasted with the “way cast up,” the raised causeway, the “king’s highway,” on which a man could not well lose his way.
To make their land desolate, and a perpetual hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished, and wag his head.(16) Desolate . . . astonished.—Better, desolate in both clauses. The Hebrew verb is the same, and there is a manifest emphasis in the repetition which it is better to reproduce in English.
A perpetual hissing.—The Hebrew word is onomatopoetic, and expresses the inarticulate sounds which we utter on seeing anything that makes us shudder, rather than “hissing in its modern use as an expression of contempt or disapproval.
Wag his head.—Better, shake his head. The verb is not the same as that which describes the gesture of scorn in Psalm 22:7; Psalm 109:25; Lamentations 2:15; Zephaniah 2:15, and describes pity or bemoaning rather than contempt. Men would not mock the desolation of Israel, but would gaze on it astounded and pitying, themselves also desolate.
I will scatter them as with an east wind before the enemy; I will shew them the back, and not the face, in the day of their calamity.(17) With an east wind.—MSS. vary, some giving “with” and some “as an east wind.” The difference does not much affect the meaning. The east wind blowing from the desert was the wind of storms, tempests, and parching heat (Jonah 4:8; Psalm 48:7; Isaiah 27:8). I will shew them the back, and not the face.—The figure is boldly anthropomorphic. The light of God’s countenance is the fulness of joy (Numbers 6:25). To turn away that light was to leave the people to the darkness of their misery. What was thus done by Jehovah was but a righteous retribution on the people who had “turned their back” and “not their face” to Him (Jeremiah 2:27).
Then said they, Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words.(18) Come, and let us devise devices.—The priests and people thus far appear to have listened to the prophet, but at the threatening words of the preceding verse their anger becomes hatred, and their hatred seeks to kill (Jeremiah 18:23). We are reminded of the oft-recurring statement in the Gospels that priests and elders “took counsel” against our Lord to “put Him to death” (Matthew 12:14; Matthew 27:1; Mark 3:6; Luke 6:11; et al.).
For the law shall not perish . . .—The words meant apparently (1) that they had enough guidance in the Law, in the priests, and in the prophets who met their wishes, and (2) that they might trust in the continuance of that guidance in spite of the threatenings of destruction that the prophet had just spoken. The words are suggestive as showing the precise nature of the guidance expected from each. The priests interpret the Law, the wise give the counsel of experience, the prophet speaks what claims to be the word, or message, of the Lord. A striking parallel is found in Ezekiel 7:26.
Come, and let us smite him with the tongue.—We probably find the result of the conspiracy in the measures taken by Pashur in Jeremiah 20:1-3. He had “heard that Jeremiah prophesied these things,” and we may well believe that his informants were some of those who thus announced their intentions. There is no sufficient reason for the marginal reading, “for the tongue.”
Give heed to me, O LORD, and hearken to the voice of them that contend with me.(19) Give heed to me . . .—This is the prophet’s answer to the resolve of the people, “Let us not give heed.” He appeals in the accents of a passionate complaint to One who will heed his words. The opening words are almost as an echo of Psalm 35:1.
Shall evil be recompensed for good? for they have digged a pit for my soul. Remember that I stood before thee to speak good for them, and to turn away thy wrath from them.(20) They have digged a pit for my soul.—The image has become so familiar that we have all but lost its vividness. What it meant here (as in Psalm 57:6) was that the man was treated as a beast, the prophet who sought their good as the wolf or the jackal whom they entrapped and slew.
Remember that I stood before thee.—The phrase is used frequently, though not uniformly, of the act of worship, of the communion of the soul with God (comp. Jeremiah 7:10; Deuteronomy 10:8; Deuteronomy 19:17; Deuteronomy 29:10; 1Kings 19:11), and is clearly used in this sense here. The prophet refers to his repeated though fruitless entreaties for the people in Jeremiah 14, 15. It is interesting to note the description of Jeremiah, in 2 Maccabees 15:14, as “a lover of the brethren who prayeth much for the people and the holy city.” Men had come to recognise that the spirit of intercession had been the prophet’s dominant characteristic.
Therefore deliver up their children to the famine, and pour out their blood by the force of the sword; and let their wives be bereaved of their children, and be widows; and let their men be put to death; let their young men be slain by the sword in battle.(21) Therefore deliver up their children . . .—The bitter words that follow startle and pain us, like the imprecations of Psalms 35, 69, 109. To what extent they were the utterances of a righteous indignation, a true zeal for God, which had not yet learnt the higher lesson of patience and forgiveness, or embodied an element of personal vindictiveness, we are not called on to inquire, and could not, in any case, decide. It is not ours to judge another man’s servant. In all like cases we have to remember that the very truthfulness with which the prayer is recorded is at least a proof that the prophet felt, like Jonah, that he did well to be angry (Jonah 4:9), that a righteous anger is at least one step towards a righteous love, and that we, as disciples of Christ, have passed, or ought to have passed, beyond that earlier stage.
Pour out their blood by the force of the sword.—Literally, with a bolder metaphor, pour them out into the hands of the sword.
Let a cry be heard from their houses, when thou shalt bring a troop suddenly upon them: for they have digged a pit to take me, and hid snares for my feet.(22) Let a cry be heard from their houses.—i.e., let their city be taken by the enemy and the people suffer all the outrage and cruelty which their heathen invaders can inflict. What these were, the history of all wars, above all of Eastern wars, tells us but too plainly (2Kings 8:12; Hosea 13:16). Some of them, prisoners impaled or flayed alive, are brought vividly before our eyes by the Assyrian sculptures.
Yet, LORD, thou knowest all their counsel against me to slay me: forgive not their iniquity, neither blot out their sin from thy sight, but let them be overthrown before thee; deal thus with them in the time of thine anger.(23) Yet, Lord, thou knowest all their counsel . . .—Secret as their plots had been, they were not hidden from Jehovah, nor, indeed, as the words show, from the prophet himself. The words might seem, at first, to refer specially to the conspiracy of the men of Anathoth (Jeremiah 11:21), but by this time, as Jeremiah 18:18 shows, the hatred provoked by the warnings of the prophet had spread further, and united the priests and false prophets of Jerusalem in a common hostility against him. So afterwards, in the Gospel history, the conspiracies that began at Capernaum (Mark 3:6) were developed in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:1).
Deal thus with them.—The interpolated word “thus,” intended to emphasise the prayer, really weakens it: in the. time of Thine anger deal with them, as implying that the day of grace was past, that nothing now remained but retribution. The prayer was the utterance of an indignation, not unrighteous in itself, yet showing all too plainly, as has been said above, like the language of the so-called imprecatory Psalms, the contrast between the Jewish and the Christian and Christ-like way of meeting wrong and hatred. For us such prayers are among the things that have passed away, and we have learnt to admire and imitate the nobler temper of the proto-martyr, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). The New Testament utterances of St. Peter against Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:20), of St. Paul against Ananias (Acts 23:3), the Judaisers of Galatia (Galatians 1:9), and Alexander the coppersmith (2Timothy 4:14), present an apparent parallelism; but the words spoken in these cases have more the character of an authoritative judicial sentence.