One of the fascinating things about the prophets is not just that they spoke Yahweh’s message to his people, but that they also were the message. Through various actions they performed, they symbolized and communicated the message Yahweh wanted his people to hear. One such occasion occurred during the ministry of Jeremiah and involved a potter and some clay. Let’s learn about the message Yahweh sent to his people through Jeremiah and the potter and the clay. We pulled these notes from the ESV Expository Commentary.

Overview of Jeremiah 18–19

Jeremiah 18–19 is a literary unity, as both chapters are sign-act narratives about clay vessels made by a potter. The sign-act is a symbolic story that involves the prophet as part of the message itself, in addition to being Yahweh’s messenger. Such sign-acts are common in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the two prophets who ministered around the time of Judah’s exile and were directed by Yahweh to use creative means to communicate with their insolent people.

The Potter (Re)Makes the Pot

Chapter 18 is a sign-act of the prophet Jeremiah traveling to a potter’s house and the various reactions by Judah, Yahweh, and Jeremiah to events there. In contrast to the next chapter’s portrayal of a shattering pot, this passage narrates Jeremiah’s direction from Yahweh to witness a potter choosing to remake his pot (18:1–4). This action serves to demonstrate that Yahweh has a similar choice to fashion Judah as he wishes (vv. 5–6). Nevertheless, this is not a statement of determinism. To the earlier image of the potter’s prerogative Yahweh adds that he is the gardener as well—Yahweh waits patiently to see how the nations respond to his summons before deciding whether to plant them or to uproot them from their land (vv. 7–10).

Jeremiah at the Potter’s House

18:1–4 Yahweh uses the prophet as both a witness and an illustration of his word. The narrative of the sign-act begins with Yahweh’s command for Jeremiah to proceed to a potter’s house (18:2), where he sees the craftsman at work (v. 3). This would be a rather common sight given the short lifespan of pottery in the ancient world. What Jeremiah witnesses next, the potter’s choosing to reshape clay as he desires (v. 4), is also a rather mundane event.

18:5–6 The everyday tasks of a potter illustrate a deeper principle. Yahweh asks his people a question that expects an affirmative answer: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done?” (v. 6). Yahweh’s use of the simile “Like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand” presents the incomparable power of his “hand” as a warning to Judah, not a comfort. As we will see below, Jeremiah 19 brings the image to a smashing conclusion, literally, when the sign-act continues with the prophet’s casting a clay flask on the ground as a symbol of judgment.

18:7–10 Yahweh says that he is also like a patient gardener who waits for the plant’s response. His decision regarding any nation or kingdom to “pluck up and break down and destroy it” (Jer. 18:7) is not irreversible but can be averted when that nation turns from its sins and Yahweh offers a reprieve from his wrath (v. 8). Conversely, Yahweh’s decree to “build and plant” a given people (v. 9) also becomes reversible, for harm will come if that people no longer responds to his word.

Yahweh’s will is neither deterministic nor indeterminate but rather seeks people who freely respond to his invitation to repentance.

The Potter Rejects the Pot

The imagery of clay vessels takes a dark turn in Jeremiah 19. Whereas the previous chapter used the potter’s work to illustrate that Yahweh is sovereign to remake his people as he wills, the prophetic sign-act employs a similar picture of a potter’s flask to point out that Judah is beyond remaking and must be shattered (vv. 3–13). The scene has shifted from the potter’s house (cf. 18:1) to Topheth (19:2), a place on Jerusalem’s southern edge where Judah defiled herself with sacrifices to foreign gods and even offered child sacrifices (vv. 4–5).

Jeremiah Breaks the Potter’s Flask

19:1–3 The prophet Jeremiah must acquire a potter’s vessel for a sign-act instead of merely observing how a potter handles it (cf. 18:1–4). Yahweh directs him to buy a clay flask and gather the people’s leaders (19:1) to an outdoor location (“the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate”; v. 2). This place is already mentioned in Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon as the site of child sacrifice (7:31–32). As perverse and widespread as idolatry has become since Josiah’s reforms, the valley of the Son of Hinnom represents the very worst kind of sins in Judah. It is thus no surprise that Yahweh directs Jeremiah to this place for an unforgettable sign-act of divine judgment that will sting the eyes and ears of his audience (Jer. 19:3).

19:4–5 These verses offer three examples of what it means to “forsake” Yahweh:

  1. Polluting what should be a holy land by making offerings to other gods (cf. 7:6, 9, 18).
  2. Committing social injustice by shedding innocent blood (cf. 7:6, 9).
  3. Building high places where child sacrifices are offered to Baal (cf. 7:30–31).

19:10–13 Jeremiah is finally commanded to shatter the potter’s flask (Jer. 19:10). The preview of the sign-act’s meaning (cf. vv. 4–9) is set in motion by Yahweh’s determination to “break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended” (v. 11). Gone is the previous chapter’s possibility that the vessel could be reworked while still on the potter’s wheel (cf. 18:4). Death will instead become so commonplace in Jerusalem that Topheth will need to become a cemetery, an ironic but appropriate fate for a place where child sacrifices are made (cf. 19:6).

Application and Response

But now, O LORD, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

Isa. 64:8

The pots in Jeremiah 18 remain quiet, however, as examples of the potter’s authority over the clay (vv. 1–6). Yet the chapter also records Yahweh’s asserting his right to change his mind depending on how people respond to him (vv. 7–11).

The pottery metaphor continues in Yahweh’s threat, “I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you” (18:11). The declaration that Yahweh is “shaping” (Hb. yatsar) uses the same Hebrew root that previously referred to him as the “potter” (yotser), but now it is future harm that Judah will face. This outcome is not predetermined from a human perspective, since Yahweh immediately adds that his people can still listen: “Return, every one [of you] from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds” (v. 11). The people respond to Yahweh’s declared “plan/will” (makhshev; v. 11) by expressing their desire to follow their own “plans” (makhshevot) to continue in sin (v. 12) despite the end such a course will bring (vv. 13–17).

Such a conclusion to the pottery metaphor indicates that the soft clay vessels Yahweh could remake in his “plan” have hardened their resolve to follow their own “plans.” It only remains for Jeremiah to complete the sign-act by casting down another earthenware flask in the sight of his people as a symbol of irrevocable judgment (19:1–15). The real possibility of averting judgment has closed, not because the people could not repent but because they would not do so.

The damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

C.S. Lewis

Learn More with the ESV Expository Commentary

The ESV Expository Commentary is a great commentary for understanding the meaning of each passage of the Bible. Each volume stays true to the expository focus of the commentary by providing theologically rich commentary and application. Visit our store to learn more!

Write A Comment