Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE SYMBOL. This was a "potter's earthen bottle [or 'vessel]," and thus had to be carefully distinguished from the "clay" spoken of in Jeremiah 18. The latter is soft and unshaped, and may be molded as the potter wishes; but the vessel is already formed and hardened into a certain definite shape, which it is impossible materially to alter. As that represented the stuff or material of which nations and institutions could be made, this must stand for the Jewish nation, with its character historically matured and fixed. Jehovah had already given it the form he intended it to assume, and placed it in certain relations with himself as a theocracy. The historic institutions and nations of the world are the creation of God. He has raised them up and controlled the forces that molded and determined their specific character and work. "The powers that be are ordained of God." The position, character, and life of individual men are also his work. No man is "self-made" in any fundamental sense of the word. A gracious providence has nurtured and cared for him; and, it may be, saving grace has redeemed and sanctified him. He "is the noblest work of God."
II. THE ACTION. This was threefold, viz:
1. The vessel was bought. "Get;" literally, "buy." Jehovah had redeemed Israel to be a people for himself. The outlays of Divine love and mercy are suggested. The providence and grace of God are now being expended. The blood of Christ was shed for all nations, "the Jew first, and afterwards the Gentile;" and for every man born into the world. "Ye are not your own: ye are bought with a price. A deeper, obligation is thereby incurred to him, and a grander authority on his part justified. We are all made and saved, or, as it may be expressed, made and remade by him.
2. It was probably poured out. Ver. 7, "I will make void [literally, 'pour out']." This action would be natural under the circumstances, and highly impressive. And if it be objected that the vessel was empty, that very fact might still render the action the more emphatically significant. Their counsels were also vain and empty. God suffers wicked nations and men to devise evil, but only as it works out his own ends is it allowed to be executed. He will bring to naught the counsel of the ungodly. That which is devised without his blessing will come to no successful issue.
3. It was broken. (Ver. 10.). This was intended to depict the extreme and final character of the impending, judgment - "As one breaketh a potter's vessel, that cannot be made whole again" (ver. 11). The nationality of the Jews was to be destroyed. The Babylonion captivity, although only obscurely predicted, is apparently alluded to; but some hold that, as this was but an incomplete fulfillment, the Roman conquest must have been meant. All nations and individuals are on their trial, and may be subjected to this extreme penalty. God holds the sovereign power in his own hand. There is no remedy; the past is irrevocable. And there is no appeal from his sentence, when the limit of his forbearance has been Fussed.
4. It was disgraced by being cast into Tophet. A double purpose was thereby expressed. The scene of idolatrous rites was to be disgraced by being made the burial-place of the slaughtered thousands of Jerusalem, as, on the other hand, such a burial and the necessity for it would be humiliating to the metropolis of the faith.
III. THE ATTENDANT CIRCUMSTANCES.
1. It was done in presence of the representatives of the nation. "Take of the ancients [eiders] of the people, and of the ancients of the priests." They were probably responsible for the national guilt, and by their personal and artificial influence might be able to avert the catastrophe. Those who influence a nation's life - kings, princes, statesmen, ministers of religion, authors, etc. - should be specially appealed to in cases of national sin. So the parent for the child. It is both respectful and just that such persons should be addressed in the first instance. But every man is responsible for his own sin. His intelligence and moral nature must, therefore, be addressed.
2. The language used was such as to recall the general penalties to be incurred by breaking the Law. (Deuteronomy 28.) The fact was thus suggested that the judgment was willfully and knowingly incurred. There is nothing new about the evils that come upon transgressing nations and individuals, or about their history. It is not for man to judge. God knows the reasons for his procedure, and the sinner himself is not ignorant.
3. The meaning of the breaking of the vessel is fully explained beforehand. This is ever the Divine order. There is "space for repentance given even to the worst sinners. No man will go wholly unwarned into perdition. Nay, even the historic and so-called secular character of nations, institutions, and individuals is precious in God's eyes, and effort is constantly made to convert it into an influence of blessing. The sinner is offered the means of grace" that he may become a saint and a servant of the Most High. And it is only as he obstinately continues in his sin that the irrevocable judgment falls. - M.
1. The earnest purpose of God to save man from his sin. Hence these warnings.
2. The awfully hardening power of the sin which could despise them.
3. What wise methods are to be employed in the endeavor to arouse and alarm the ungodly. On this we will dwell awhile. This chapter shows -
I. THAT THOSE MOST LIKELY TO INFLUENCE THEM SHOULD BE SPECIALLY APPEALED TO. Cf. ver. 1, "Take of the ancients," etc. No doubt this was because of their influence over the people generally. If they could be won the rest would follow.
II. WE SHOULD AVAIL OURSELVES OF ANY LOCALITIES LIKELY TO LEND FORCE TO WHAT IS SAID. The prophet led forth his audience to "the valley of the son of Hinnom." It was the Tophet, the Gehenna, the place haunted with memories of Divine wrath against idolatry, and whose ever-burning fire and gnawing worm symbolized the quenchless anger of God against it. With what added power, then, would the prophet's message come when spoken in such a place!
III. SUCH MODES OF ADDRESS SHOULD BE ADOPTED AS WOULD BE MOST LIKELY TO IMPRESS. The prophet was bidden take an earthen bottle, and, after he had solemnly denounced the doom of God against the idolatrous city, he was to dash the bottle on the ground and shatter it utterly, past all possibility of mending. By this dramatic action he was to declare the coming destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. Thus vividly and powerfully to the minds of such as witnessed him would the awful truth he had to tell be impressed on their minds. But also in clear words and in full copious detail he set forth what was to come. Now, such symbolic action as that of the prophet might be of very little service to such as we speak to, however impressive to the Oriental mind, but it teaches us that whatever is likely to deepen the effect of our words upon men's minds we are to use, and fearlessly, as did the prophet, set forth the coming judgments of God. And most of all -
IV. OUR MESSAGE MUST BE GOD'S MESSAGE. God put into the prophet's mouth the words he was to speak and taught him how to speak them, and he obeyed. Here is the great essential. If denunciations of judgment be spoken simply as part of an orthodox sermon, or for any other reason than that God has borne in upon our souls the conviction that we must speak such words, we are likely to do but little good - indeed, harm rather than good. And let such servant of God who speaks as God bids him remember that, even when speaking thus, his words may fail in the effect designed and desired. "Lord, who hath believed our report," etc.? They did so here. But they will never entirely fail. God's promise is against that. Some will receive them. Some did even in Jeremiah's day. There was a faithful remnant. And the preacher will have delivered his own soul, and God's righteousness in the doom of the impenitent will be vindicated before all. May we be delivered from the necessity of declaring such doom as that which Jeremiah had to speak of; but if we have to, may we be taught of God, as he was, and have better success. - C.
I. THE PRELIMINARIES OF THE BREAKING. Spectators of the proper sort needed to be deliberately gathered together in the proper place. We may suppose that the elders of the people and of the priests were peculiarly responsible for all that concerned the safety of the city. This symbolic action was best performed before the select responsible few. As they went forth with the prophet they had time to ask themselves what the meaning of this unusual summons might be. It is, perhaps, a little to be wondered at that they should have gone with the prophet at all. And yet, although none might have quite the right motive for going, each would have his own motive, and so an acquiescent assembly be formed. God knows how to subdue and blend the motives of men for his own purposes. In some minds there would be a superstitions regard for the prophetic office; in others, curiosity would operate; and in a few there might be somewhat of the hearing ear and understanding mind. We are, then, to imagine this company going forth; and they do not go forth at random. It is not for mere seclusion they go out of the city. They are led to the very place which, because of the abominations practiced in it, is to be one of the principal causes of future woe. Thus we see how carefully God arranges the circumstances in which his truth is to be proclaimed.
II. THIS BREAKING HAD A REASON. The thing was not clone in mere wantonness and thoughtlessness, nor in passion, nor in carelessness. The prophet did not draw his lesson from a jar which some one else had happened to break. He got the vessel with the deliberate purpose, divinely put into his mind, of breaking it. This was far enough away from the purpose with which it was made, and the vessel, once shattered, could be of no further use for this first purpose; but in its destruction it served a far nobler end than if it had been carefully kept to carry water for many long years. Rightly considered, indeed, the vessel was not destroyed, but only its service divinely and wisely changed. So, looking from the symbol to the reality behind it, we must bear in mind that the capture of Jerusalem and the conquest of the land of Israel served certain purposes of God. He did not separate this people and give them this laud that at last they might be scattered, even beyond the usual scattering of a conquered people. But when the scattering did come, he sought to make it evident that it was from his hand. It was not a mere chance of war, but something prepared for and prophesied - something to teach and warn the thoughtful among all nations.
III. THE REASONS WHY THIS VESSEL WAS THUS SHATTERED BEFORE THESE SPECTATORS.
1. To show the ease with which God can shatter any construction of man. One lesson had already been drawn from the potter's vessel (Jeremiah 18:1-10). That lesson was drawn from the plasticity of the raw material. Now another lesson has to be drawn from the fragility of the finished article. This fragility was part of the nature of the article. The potter could not be blamed because the result of his work was so fragile. Fragility, indeed, is a relative quality. An insect could no more have broken this vessel than men by a single blow could level a forest tree. Men talk of their power to do and their power to resist; but this is only in ignorance of the immense, exhaustless power which God in mercy hides from the eyes of man. A potter's vessel may be preserved for millenniums if it is sufficiently guarded; but it has no strength in itself. These people of Jerusalem were reckoning on the natural position and artificial securities of their city. Yet these very things would only heighten their calamities and miseries. For they would persist in defense, ever hoping against hope, until, in their extremity, they were forced to devour their very children. We need to bear in mind that, however great our natural advantages, our prudence and foresight, we, as far as our natural life is concerned, are but as this fragile vessel in the prophet's hand.
2. To show the impossibility of man retrieving the disaster. "That cannot be made whole again" (ver. 11). This vessel was not merely cracked. It was more than simply broken. It not only fell, but was dashed to the ground with special force and determination. These people of Israel, once scattered, could not gather themselves together again. God could do it, but only God. And God would not do it; because that would only have been to reconstitute, the fragile. The breaking' of this vessel is only one of many lessons by which God would teach man his natural weakness. He destroys the old and the fragile, that he may put in its place the new and the indestructible. Our wisdom is not to waste time in trying to strengthen what is inherently weak; but to accept with glad thankfulness that real mercy of God which, in destroying the old Jerusalem, makes way for the new and heavenly Jerusalem, that city of God based on the truly everlasting hills. - Y.
Jeremiah 21:1. The Pashur mentioned here was a priest, and one holding high office in the temple. After Jeremiah had delivered his discourse at Tophet, he seems to have returned to the city and temple, and then to have spoken in substance the same predictions of woe. Whereupon Pashur, with less patience than these who heard the prophet and had seen his symbolic declaration of the coming ruin when he broke the earthen bottle at Tophet, falls upon him and smites him, and tortured him by putting him in what is called the stocks (see Exposition). Thus -
I. HE CRUELLY PERSECUTED THE PROPHET OF GOD. It was sad that any one should do this. But yet more that it should be the act of a priest of God, and holding high position amongst the priests. What hope can there be of the people when their appointed leaders and those to whom they are wont to look up for instruction and example in what is good thus prostitute their office? Thus the "wicked husbandmen beat" the servants who were sent to them (Matthew 20:35). And it was the same order that ever opposed, and yet more fiercely, our Lord himself. The sanctity and authority attaching to the priest's office have ever been fatal to the integrity of unworthy holders of the office, and have caused that amongst the most infamous of mankind not a few priests should be found. But -
II. HE FAILED TO SECURE THE END HE HAD IN VIEW. Jeremiah was not silenced, but goaded, as it were, to declare yet more terrible judgments in which Pashur himself should be awfully involved (cf. Paul, "God shall smite thee," etc., Acts 23:3). The stout heart of a true servant of God is an anvil on which many hammers may fiercely smite, but it will wear them out long before they wear it out. Saul of Tarsus found that the persecution he had done so much to further in connection with Stephen only made matters worse. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. And the reason is that a faith for which men are willing to die convinces all beholders that it must be exceedingly precious and well founded, and inspires them with an irresistible desire to know and possess it for themselves, or at least to know what it is.
III. HE BROUGHT DOWN ON HIMSELF SORE JUDGMENT. Jeremiah declares to him that the Lord has changed his name to Magor-Missabib, for he will be given up a prey to the torments of mortal anguish, his friends shall be slain before his eyes, Judah carried away to Babylon, all its treasures plundered; he himself shall witness all this and die and be buried in Babylon, "There thou, and all thy friends, to whom thou hast prophesied lies." Thus, look where he would, he should see nothing but terror. Above - the anger of God; beneath - a dishonored grave; around - calamity and woe on all near and dear to him, and of which he had been largely the procuring cause; within - a conscience tormenting him day and night. It was an awful doom. "Let persecutors read it and tremble; tremble to repentance before they be made to tremble to their ruin." - C.