16th Sunday After Pentecost
September 4, 2016
Commentary on the Texts
Jeremiah 18:1-11 (1-12)
This reading is one of the more familiar passages in Jeremiah, which suggests care in analysis lest prior assumptions about what the passage might mean override what the passage itself communicates. We should probably be especially careful in allowing or forcing this passage to address larger systematic theological formulations directly, although certainly there is some "raw material" here for doing so on some level.
Jeremiah's trip to the potter's workshop has been variously labeled an allegory, an acted parable, prophetic parable, or symbolic action. While the precise term is probably not important in order to understand the passage, the incident here is more typical of prophetic symbolic actions used to illustrate the prophet's message (cf. 19:1-2, 10-11) than it is of allegory, which is usually a purely literary convention.
While needing to be seen in the overall context of Jeremiah's ministry and the historical context of the rising threat from Babylon, this reading is a relatively self-contained unit (at least if including vv. 12-17 in the larger context). It clearly reflects themes that are consistent with much of the preceding material in the book. For example, five of the six paired catch phrases that comprised Jeremiah's commission are incorporated here (vv. 7-9; 1:10). Some scholars even see a tightly coherent literary structure for chapters 18-20 (Drinkard, WBC), although the connection is more likely a loose association of topics (for example,, the broken pottery vessel of ch. 19).
Still, the passage has an inner coherence that allows it to stand alone as a theological reflection on the nature of God and the people in light of the larger unfolding historical events. Yet, there is little question that the judgment oracle that follows in 18:13-17 should be seen in relation to the perspective of this passage. Not only does verse 13 begin with a strong "therefore," assuming what has preceded as the basis of the following statements, the referent for the question ("Who has heard the like of this?") is the people's statement of verse 12 ("We will follow our own plans. . . .").
This raises the question of the role of verse 12 in this reading. While there is no way to know if these verses were originally connected in Jeremiah's preaching, the canonical shape of the text has connected them. The Lectionary has chosen to end the reading at verse 11, seeing verse 12 as the introduction to the following judgment passage. This leaves the Lectionary reading as a simple call to repentance, with the outcome open. There may be a general sense in which this is valid. However, this does injustice to what the passage itself actually communicates, either on a literary or theological level. This seems to be an example of selective reading altering the message of the text itself. While ending this reading with a call to repentance may be a valid application in some contexts, it can only be done with full knowledge of what the text itself actually says and communicates.
There is evidence to read verse 12 as the conclusion of the preceding section, which would give the reading a decidedly different slant. The affix with which verse 12 begins should be read disjunctively ("but"), and the subject for the plural verb that introduces verse 12 is "the people" of verse 11: "say to the people . . .but they say." This clearly ties verse 12 to the preceding verse. Verse 11 begins with a clear temporal word that marks present circumstance in contrast to the generalized statements of the preceding verses ("at one time . . .at another time . . .but now"). This "but now" of verse 11 introduces the conclusion to the potter parable as well as its application. This leaves verse 12 as part of that conclusion. Its inclusion is a crucial part of the message of these verses and will be included in this commentary.
Yet, it also allows verse 12 to be a transition verse, providing the conclusion to the preceding section while also providing the connecting statement that is the basis for the judgment oracle that follows. This simply suggests that any reading of this passage that does not take seriously the connection between the reflections about God in verses 1-11 with the actual result in the choices of the people (v. 12) and the subsequent result of those choices in terms of consequences (vv. 13-17), runs a high risk of not being faithful to the prophet's message in these verses. In this context, the reading is not an open ended call to repentance, but a call to repentance that is rejected with serious consequences. This gives the passage a negative tone that should not be ignored, as much as we might want to ignore it.
The reading rather naturally falls into three parts. The first verses (1-6) report the observations relating to the potter and draw the analogy of God's dealings with Israel, climaxing with the direct metaphor at the end of verse 6: "just like the clay . . .so are you . . .". The focus in this first part is on God and his role as the potter who shapes and forms as he will. The second part (7-10) shifts to a series of statements about God's intention toward humanity followed by conditional clauses that outline possible courses of action by God in response to human action. The focus in these verses is clearly on humanity and human decisions that affect how God works in the world. The final verses (11-12) reach the deduced conclusion where an intended action by God is stated, the possibility of human decision that could change that action raised, and the final statement of failure to make that decision. This three-part structure provides the rhetorical framework and movement for this passage.
The actions of the prophet are not extraordinary at all. While it is not clear from the text whether this was a vision or was occasioned by an actual trip to a potter's workshop, there is little reason to see something other than an ordinary life experience as the basis for a theological application. Since most household vessels for ordinary people were made of fired clay, a potter was a common profession in the ancient world. In Hebron and Bethlehem today, there are open shops where potters can be observed making pottery in much the same way that it was made in Jeremiah's time (see A Potter at His Wheel in Hebron). It was not an extraordinary experience that marked this message, but the message itself cast in ordinary experience that proved extraordinary.
It should be noted that the prophet received this message as a word from the Lord (v. 5) because he followed God's instructions (v. 2). The intent here is to present this as a message from God, not just the musings of someone who happened to be thinking about God one day while visiting a potter's shop. While the message is not disconnected from the vehicle of the experience, and in fact the parabolic nature of the message requires that vehicle, it is clear that the message did not originate with the experience but with God.
Observing the clay provided a metaphor for Jeremiah to talk about God and his work in the world. He noted that a potter has complete control over the clay, so that he can work it according to his purposes. If it did not fit that purpose, or if the potter thought that the vessel was not taking shape as planned, he would simply start over again and reshape the clay to his liking.
The interpretation of the experience into an applied metaphor follows in verse 6. As clay in the potter's hands yields to the will of the potter, so God shapes Israel to his liking. This is a rather strong and straightforward assertion of the sovereignty of God. Often readers stop here with this image, and conclude by analogy that humanity is only passive clay in the potter's hands, powerless to affect the design of the potter and helpless to alter the outcome. This tends to emphasize divine sovereignty as a theological category without considering the remainder of the passage. Since God is the focus in these verses, there is clearly some sense here in which the purposes of God for the "clay" are in view. But it is not a necessary conclusion at this point that control on God's part or powerlessness on the human side are the central features. This simply suggests that the traditional theological struggle between sovereignty of God versus human free will may have excessively polarized the subtlety of the message here.
There is a shift from a specific focus on the people of Israel (v. 6) to general statements about God's work in the world with "a nation or a kingdom" (vv. 7, 9). This signals a move to general reflection about God's work in the world. This is not abstract speculation for the sake of speculation, since it is related directly to this particular circumstance. But it does serve to establish a general understanding about God's actions in the world that would be confirmed by the particular events that were unfolding in the life of Israel at that time in history.
As direct as the concluding statement of verse 6 appears to be, the second part of the passage (vv. 7-10) introduces an ambiguity that stands in some tension with the first verses. Most English translations tend to emphasize by tenses and modal verbs this ambiguity more than the Hebrew text does ("I might declare that I would . . ."). But it is still present in the Hebrew syntax and idiom. Instead of the expected statement of God's fixed purposes to which he is committed as the potter, the prophet breaks the metaphor by moving to a contingency in which the "clay" has a role in the end product. Contrary to the metaphor of the potter and passive clay, the prophet here moves to a formulation (trying to follow the metaphor) in which the clay may itself have an active role in what is created.
In language that recalls Old Testament legal formulations (for example, Ex 21:35), this is laid out in conditional "if . . .then" clauses. The structure of these two conditional statements are important to note.
I may declare that I will . . . [negative],
Two features of these conditional statements need to be observed. First, both of them begin with God declaring his purposes for the people, using the same term for speaking (dabar) used to establish God's word through the prophet (vv. 1, 2, etc). This recalls the first part of this passage and the ability of the potter to decide what he will make of the clay ("as seemed good to him," v. 4). A consistent feature of biblical thought is that God has a purpose for his people, even for other people, indeed for his whole creation. This is frequently expressed in terms of "plans" or the "will" of God for people or the world (note Jer. 29:11-13, Isa 25:1; cf. Rom 8:27-30).
Here is where some of our historical theological debates do not serve us well in hearing this text. Some traditional theologies working from assumptions about the nature of God drawn from Greek philosophy tended to see "plan" or "will" in terms of God's absolute and unchangeable decree. That is, if God had "planned" something then it was a necessary and inevitable fact, and would unfold according to that plan. However, this is not what is in view in biblical thought, especially here.
Perhaps the English term "purpose" or "intention" might better communicate the meaning in these cases. It is God's intention that a certain sequence of events or a certain response unfold to fulfill the purpose he intended for the people, just as the potter intended to fashion a certain vessel from the clay. God desired a certain response from the people in order to achieve a certain purpose. But there are other factors to consider besides God's intentions. This understanding that events may not go as God intended, or that people may respond contrary to his purpose is a basic perspective of much of Old Testament prophecy (cf. Isa 5:1-4). Indeed, this way of thinking is evident in New Testament statements such as Matt 18:14: "So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost." That is, while God's intention is that none would be lost and the actions of God would work toward that goal or purpose, there is implicit in the statement of intention itself the possibility of a different outcome.
Yet, even from this larger perspective, the purposes or will of God should not be easily discarded simply for the sake of arguing human free will. This text clearly says that God has declared a certain purpose, and intends to carry through that purpose. We should be careful not to move this too far into individualistic thinking and so apply it too specifically into our lives or history. The purposes of God in this text are a far larger scale than this ("nations and kingdoms;" note passages such as Jer. 29:11-13 or 1 Thess 4:3 that are clearly communal in context or relate to general relationship with God, but are often read with individual application in specific contexts). But then neither should we eliminate any idea of God's purpose or will operating in the world or on his people.
That is the importance of seeing the declaration of God's purposes as introductory in both sequences of conditional statements here. It is this understanding of the purposes of God, both positively and negatively, that actually provides the possibility of change. In fact, the whole dimension of change is an aspect of this text that needs to be considered more carefully in a moment.
It is not that the clay, human beings, are left alone to chart their own course in the world, or to decide on their own what they should be or become. The purposes of God are already declared. Following the metaphor, the clay needs the purposes and plan of the potter in order to become. The question that remains, then, is not what the people should become, but how will they respond to the purposes of God who already has intended what they should become. The issue, then, is whether they will become what God intends, or whether they will choose to reject God's intentions.
A second feature of these conditional statements has deeper theological implications. Each concludes with the statement that God may change his mind in response to human decision. The Hebrew phrase used here is idiomatic, much as it is in English. The English phrase "change one's mind" is a single word in Hebrew (root nacham). The root verb means to feel compassion for someone or to be moved to pity (for example, Jud 21:6). This meaning also includes grief, sorrow, or regret for one's own actions, even to the point of changing an intended course of action. It is in this sense that the word means "to change one's mind." There are many examples of this idiom in the Old Testament (about 33 times).
The most interesting examples for this passage, however, are those where God is the subject. To be sure, there are a few passages that declare rather boldly that God does not change his mind (for example, Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, Jer 4:28). However, in those cases the emphasis is on the dependability of God and his faithfulness to do what he had said he would do, rather than an analysis of God's working in the world in relation to human decision. In this reading, as in others, the focus is on the fact that God is free to respond to human decision, that he has the capability of changing his mind in relationship to human actions and decisions..
The most powerful example of this in the Old Testament is the story of Nineveh and the preaching of Jonah. His original message was that the city would be destroyed in 40 days. Yet, the king and all the people repented, and as a result (Jon 3:10), "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it." This is a practical outworking of the principle enunciated here in Jeremiah.
This same issue is addressed in various other ways in biblical traditions. For example, there are numerous instances in the Old Testament where God specifically stated that He would do something, but then changed His mind in response to human decision. 1) the city of Jerusalem, which He said through Micah and Isaiah that He would allow to be destroyed by the Assyrians, but then delivered because of the reforms of Hezekiah; 2) the city of Tyre, which Ezekiel said God would allow to be destroyed by Nebuchadnezzer because of their wickedness, but it was not; 3) the reign of the Davidic dynasty, promised as eternal in 2 Samuel 7, but which ended with Jehoichin, which 2 Chronicles interprets as resulting from the people's sin; 4) the Israelite possession of the land of Canaan, which Jeremiah and Isaiah said God had promised forever, but which they lost twice, once to the Babylonians and later to the Romans.
There is also a sense of the ambiguity of God's activity in the Old Testament, a sense that God is free to respond in ways that are not totally predictable by human reckoning. This often occurs with the use of a single word in Hebrew: "perhaps." It occurs twice in the Jonah narrative, first as the captain of the ship calls on Jonah to pray to his God to help them (1:6): "So the captain came and said to him, 'What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish.'" The same idea occurs again later in the story where the king of Nineveh and the entire nation repented at Jonah's preaching. The ambiguity of God's course of action is graphic (3:9): "Who knows? God may yet change his mind and turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish." The idea is that calling on God may or may not cause certain results.
As Amos called the people to repent and change their lifestyle, he introduced the idea that even repentance and changing their ways would not necessarily cause God to take a certain course of action (5:15): "Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; perhaps the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph." In this case, they did not repent, and the nation was destroyed. But the implication is clearly that even if the people had repented, there was no guarantee that they would survive.
Another example is the story in Daniel of the three young Hebrew men as they are facing ordeal by fire for failing to worship the king of Babylon. The perspective here is still more striking, because the wording raises the issue of whether God really is "in control" of this situation ("if he is able"). The ambiguity of God's actions is again prominent (Dan 3:17-18): "If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; then he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up." The syntax implies that the phrase "if not" of v. 18 goes with "if he is able." In other words "if he is able. . . but if he is not able. . . ". The emphasis falls on the faithfulness of the young men in spite of what God can or cannot do or does or does not do in the world.
There are many other examples, but the point here is that God does respond and interact with human beings. But there is a profound biblical confession that even though God can and does change his mind in response to human action, he retains the freedom to act in ways that accomplish his purposes. That suggests that we cannot always know exactly how He will work or on what basis, and that we cannot control how he will work. This ambiguity should not be taken as a fatalistic perspective, but as a profound understanding that God is free to accomplish his purposes in the world.
And yet this text asserts just as strongly that human decision is part of the equation, part of the "if" that has great bearing on the outcome of God's work. This implies that we cannot reduce this to a formula to make God act in certain ways. But it also clearly says that human beings are not robots caught up in some grand cosmic scheme that takes no notice of human decision for good or evil. Human decisions matter, especially as they relate to allowing God's purposes to work out in the world through his people. The seriousness of that fact is what most concerns this passage.
The final part of this reading (vv. 11-12) is the specific application to Israel of the general observations about God and his actions. As noted, it begins with "therefore," indicating that what follows is the result of what has preceded or grounded in the facts just stated. It consists of three parts. First, there is the declaration of God's intentions, in this instance relating to the specific historical situation that was unfolding. God's intention toward Israel is evil. Here "evil" is not a moral category, but is reflective of the earlier terms that described Jeremiah's ministry: "pluck up, break down, and destroy" (v. 7). That is, the unfolding of history in the Babylonian threat at this point conformed to the "plan" of God for the people of Judah. Said another way, God was at work in those unfolding events to accomplish his purposes for the people, just as the potter was at work with the clay.
Still, this does not imply that God was the direct "cause" of those events; that involves categories of thought that are more reflective of certain classical philosophical categories than they are of Scripture (see Comparison of World Views: The Perception of the Physical World). It is largely from our modern categories that we try to separate events into "cause" and "effect," which means that debates about God being the author of evil here or discussions about determinism miss the point. Yet this text affirms that the world of Jeremiah is not a deistic world in which God may once have acted but no longer did so. Here is a world in which God is active in all aspects of human history, not controlling or manipulating to make sure the plan comes out right, but working dynamically to accomplish his purposes for his creation, even in fashioning new plans.
Second, there is the call to change, to repent. Given what has been said in the conditional clauses of verses 7-10, this is an open invitation to allow God to change his plans in response to human decision in turning from evil and choosing God. The general principle was: "If that nation turns from its evil . . .I will change my mind." And now its application to Judah is: "Turn, now . . . from your evil." The clear implication of this sequence is that God is not at all anxious to carry out his plan of "evil" against the people. In fact, there is strong indication here that the very purpose of the present "evil" plan of God is precisely to get the people to "amend your ways" so that God can change his course of action as they change their actions. The purpose of God is precisely aimed at getting the people to change, and by so doing is itself intended to be changed. The larger purpose of God, then, is not the "plan" itself but anticipated change that the plan would evoke!
This suggests that change is a fundamental ingredient of the relationship between God and Israel. It is not that Israel had to come to believe fixed and static truths about God, but that Israel had to respond in a dynamic way to the shaping and molding purposes of God. And God is portrayed here, not as the "unmoved mover" of some philosophies, but as the shaping potter who is dynamic and interactive in the world with humanity to bring his purposes to fruition. This concept, if qualified from other perspectives in Scripture, can properly be termed a co-working with God. This certainly does not place human beings on an equal footing with God, nor subsume God's work in the world to human effort. But it does leave the relationship between God and humanity in very dynamic terms, with God interested in human change and having the capability himself to change in order to effect it.
Here is the significance of the ambiguity in this relationship mentioned above. In this sense, God cannot be reduced to a neat formula or definition, because he is too dynamic to be reduced to human boxes and categories. That is why Jeremiah needed "the word of the Lord" to proclaim to the people. It also is likely the reason he came into conflict with those like Hananiah who advocated a religious orthodoxy based on what they thought God would always do or be (ch. 28). And yet "the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord" (v. 1) shattered those expectations as God shaped new plans for his people, with the possibility of still other plans yet to unfold. This does not imply that God is whimsical and undependable (thus the "I do not change" statements, for example, Mal 3:6), only that he is free to be God.
Finally however, the people resist change and refuse to turn from their evil. The cry of verse 12 ("it is no use" or as some translate, "it is hopeless") can be read as arrogant defiance from a stubborn people bent on going their own way. But it can just as easily be heard as the cry of despair from a people who "are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good" (4:22). Jeremiah asks: "Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil." (13:23). The conclusion is that evil has become so much a part of these people's character that they cannot change. Again, this is not a determinism, because this inability has come about because the people have for so long exercised their freedom to reject God that they have finally lost that freedom to their own prison of their own sinfulness (note Rom. 1:28). They have created their own circumstance.
To add to the metaphor of the potter here, the clay is workable until it is fired. After it is fired it can no longer be shaped as the potter desires. This may be the connection to the broken pot metaphor that Jeremiah uses in the following chapter (19:1-13). By its stubbornness and continued rebellion, Israel had reached the stage of a fired pot that would be destroyed if it did not serve the purposes for which it was created.
There is a final irony in this passage that is subtle, but which confirms the larger point of the passage. In refusing to change and accept the possibility that God would change his mind of the evil that he intended to do to the nation, the people have by default accepted the purpose of God that involved plucking up, tearing down, and destroying. As Deuteronomy makes clear in the covenant curses and blessings (30:15-18), the issue for human beings is never to choose or not to choose. It is only whether they will choose one set of "if . . . then" options or another, whether they will choose life or death. And this passages in the larger context of Jeremiah suggests that the choice for death may be made many times before it has unalterable consequences. Such is the nature of grace.
But the sobering aspect of this passage is that, for whatever reason, the people have set their own will God's will. And as the potter metaphor has made clear, it will be the potter that has the last word in such a circumstance.
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