Jeremiah 18
Pulpit Commentary
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,
Verses 1-6. - The simple and familiar craft of the potter becomes a parable of religious truth (comp. Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 45:9; Isaiah 64:8; Ecclus 33:13; Romans 9:20; and the account of man's creation in Genesis 2:7, which has doubtless given rise to the figure). God has the sovereign right to do as he wills with his own handiwork; thus much can be expressed by the figure. But the moral element in Jeremiah's teaching stands outside this, viz. that the Divine action is governed, not by mere caprice, but a regard for character. "The thought is not so much the arbitrariness as the patience of God, who will bring men to be what he would have them be in the end, as the potter eventually twists the clay to the shape he originally intended, stubborn as the clay may be." But whether Jeremiah meant the lesson which Mr. Maurice deduces from his words may be gravely doubted. It is not of individuals that the prophet is thinking, but of the nation, and not of the nation as destined to be all but certainly saved, but as placed before a serious and awful decision. (For different lessons derived from the same figure, see the ' Rabbi Ben Ezra' of Browning.) Egypt and Palestine were, as it seems, at one in the extreme simplicity of the potter's art. Dr. Birch has given us an account of the Egyptian potter at his work, as he appears in the pictorial representations at Beni Hassan ('Ancient Pottery,' pp. 33-35), and Dr. Thomson has described the procedure of a potter in modern Palestine ('The Land and the Book,' p. 520). The chief difference between them seems to be that in Egypt the wheel was turned with the left hand, and the vase shaped with the right, while in modern Palestine the wheel is turned with the fool "Taking a lump in his hand," says Dr. Thomson, "he placed it on the top of the wheel (which revolves horizontally), and smoothed it into a low cone, like the upper end of a sugar-loaf; then thrusting his thumb into the top of it, he opened a hole down through the center, and this he constantly widened by pressing the edges of the revolving cone between his hands. As it enlarged and became thinner, he gave it whatever shape he pleased with the utmost ease and expedition." It should be observed that in ver. 3 the "wheels," or rather "two wheels," spoken of are simply the two round plates which formed the horizontal lathe of the potter.
Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words.
Then I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels.
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.
Verse 4. - And the vessel that he made, etc.; rather, And whensoever the vessel... was marred in the hand of the potter, he made it again another vessel
Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
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.
At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
Verses 7, 8. - At what instant, etc.; rather, One instant I may speak... but if that nation, against which 1 have spoken, turn from their evil, I repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. A similar rendering for the next verse.
If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
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.
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.
Verse 12. - And they said; rather, But they go on saying (comp. Ezekiel 33:17, 20). There is no hope. The rendering may be easily misunderstood. The speakers are not, as we might suppose, despondent about their state and prospects, but they seek to check the troublesome preacher by the warning that he has no chance of success (so Jeremiah 2:25). Imagination; rather, stubbornness (as constantly).
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.
Verse 13. - Will a man leave the anew of Lebanon, etc.? This passage is unusually obscure. Literally we must, it would seem, render, Doth the snow of Lebanon fail from the rock of the field (or possibly, cease to flow from the rock unto the field)? This is explained as pointing a contrast to the infidelity of God's people. "The snow never leaves the summit of Lebanon; the waters which take their rise therein never dry up; but my people have forgotten the law of their being, the source of their prosperity." The rendering of the first clause is, however, grammatically dubious (there is no example of this construction of 'azabh), and all the old versions point to (or at least favor) a reading, Shaddai (the Almighty) instead of sadai (the field). If we keep the text, we must explain "the rock of the field" on the analogy of "my mountain in the field" (Jeremiah 17:3), as meaning "the rock which commands a wide prospect over the open lowland country," i.e. Mount Lebanon. The cold flowing waters; i.e. the numerous "streams from Lebanon," referred to in Song of Solomon 4:15. That come from another place; i.e. whoso sources are foreign. But as this does not suit the connection, it is better to take the Hebrew word (zarim), usually rendered "foreign," in the sense of "pressing or hurrying along," with Ewald, Graf, and virtually Henderson. It thus becomes descriptive of these streams "as contracted within narrow channels while descending through the gorges and defiles of the rocks." Camp. "like an oppressing stream," Isaiah 59:19 (a cognate verb). Be forsaken. The Hebrew text has "be plucked up' (i.e. destroyed?); but as this is unsuitable, we must transpose two letters (as in not a few other cases), and render, dry up. So Gesenius, Graf, Keil, Delitzsch, and Payne Smith.
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?
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;
Verse 15. - Because my people hath forgotten me; rather, Surely, etc.; or better still, Yet surely. It is not uncommon for a particle of asseveration to acquire a contrasting force from the context; see e.g. Jeremiah 3:20; Isaiah 53:4; and, still more completely parallel, Isaiah 2:6; Jeremiah 9:1, where Authorized Version, with substantial correctness, has "nevertheless." Israel "forgot" Jehovah (as Jeremiah 2:32); no doubt he was responsible for so doing, but still it was not "of malice preponse." To vanity; i.e. to the unreal idol-gods. And they have caused them to stumble; viz. the idol-gods; these are responsible (.for they have a real existence in the consciousness of their worshippers) for this interruption of Israel's spiritual progress (comp. 2 Chronicles 28:23). In their ways from the ancient paths. "From," however, is interpolated by the Authorized Version; the Hebrew places "the ancient paths" in apposition to "their ways," "Stand ye in the ways," Jeremiah cried at an earlier period, "and see, and ask for the old paths, which is the good way" (Jeremiah 6:16). These "old" or "ancient" paths were ideally "their ways," the ways appointed for the Jews to walk in. To walk in paths; rather, in tracks, footpaths leading up and down and often ending in nothing; or, in other terms, in a way not cast up (Isaiah 40:3, 4, gives a graphic picture of the operation of "casting up a way").
To make their land desolate, and a perpetual hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished, and wag his head.
Verse 16. - The effect of this is to make the land of the transgressors an object of horror and astonishment (so render rather than 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.
Verse 17. - As with an east wind. The east was a stormy wind (Psalm 48:7; Job 27:21). I wilt show them the back; as they have done to Jehovah (Jeremiah 2:27; Jeremiah 32:33).
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.
Verses 18-23. - A fresh conspiracy (comp. Jeremiah 11:18), called forth by the preceding discourse; Jeremiah's prayer. Verse 18. - The law - or rather, direction, instruction, which was a special function of the priests (Deuteronomy 33:10; Deuteronomy 17:9-11) - shall not perish from the priest. The Jews were but obeying the Deuteronomic Law (on which Jeremiah, as we have seen, laid so much stress) in alluding to the priests. Unhappily, the priests in Jeremiah's time (Jeremiah 2:26), as in Isaiah's (Isaiah 28:7), were forgetful of their high mission. Nor counsel from the wise. The wise men formed an important order in Jewish society, the importance of which in the Divine education of Israel has not been sufficiently recognized. It was their custom to sit in public places, generally in the chambered recess in the city gate, and give advice on questions of moral practice to those who applied for it. But there were wise men and wise men. Some appear, to have "mocked" at the earnest preaching of the prophets (hence the solemn rebukes in the Book of Proverbs), others to have as it were prepared the way for the latter by a more or less distinct recognition of the religious foundation of morality, and of these we have ample monuments in the canonical Proverbs. There may also have been other shades and varieties of wise men, for their characteristic was not a faculty of intuition, but rather of reflectively applying fundamental moral principles. One highly esteemed branch of "wisdom" would, of course, be political, and this would be the most liable to perversion. It is of such (Proverbs 29:14). Nor the word from the prophet. "The word" is a general term for prophesying. Of course, the speakers take no account of the advance in prophecy from the time, at any rate, of Amos. They are satisfied with the lower order of prophets ("false prophets," as the Septuagint calls them); but still they are afraid of Jeremiah, much as Balak was afraid of Balaam, when that soothsayer was blessing Israel (Numbers 23:25). Smite him with the tongue; i.e. by slanderous accusations. The same figure as in Jeremiah 9:3, 8.
Give heed to me, O LORD, and hearken to the voice of them that contend with me.
Verses 19, 20. - Them that contend with me. Shall evil, etc.? Compare the phraseology of Psalm 35:1-12 (either Jeremiah imitated this psalm or vice versa); and for another point of contact with this psalm, see on Jeremiah 23:12. They have digged a pit, etc. Comp. Psalm 57:6. To speak good for them. See Jeremiah's intercessions in Jeremiah 14:7-9, 19-22.
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.
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.
Verse 21. - Pour out their blood by the force, etc.; rather, spill them into the hands of, etc. (see Psalm 63:10); a phrase akin to that in Isaiah 53:12. The sword is personified. Let their men he put to death; another personification, for the Hebrew has "slain of Death" - pestilence is referred to, as Jeremiah 15:2.
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.
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.
Verse 23. - Let them be overthrown before thee; i.e. count them as those who have been brought to ruin. This explanation seems required by the parallelism, the companion clause meaning "do not regard their sin as cancelled." The ruin may be either spiritual or temporal; the parallelism favors the former (comp. ver. 14; Hosea 14:10, where "fall" should be "stumble"). Deal thus with them. "Thus" is interpolated by the Authorized Version; "deal" should rather be deal terribly ("deal" is constantly used in a pregnant sense; see on Jeremiah 14:7).

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