Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. Jeremiah 18:1-23. The potter and the clay
The words and events of chs. 18–20 may all be considered as having Jeremiah 18:1-2 for their heading. Ch. 18 gives and explains the figure of the potter’s clay, and adds the effect upon the people. Ch. 19 gives and applies the figure of the potter’s broken vessel, while ch. 20 describes the sufferings of Jeremiah in consequence, and his complaints. But, while ch. 20 arises naturally out of the situation in ch. 19, the connexion between the latter and ch. 18 is purely that which arises from the mention of a potter’s vessel in both, and the consequent juxtaposition of the two by an editor of the Book. We should further notice that while 18 and 19 are pretty certainly, to a large extent, genuine, a considerable amount of later insertion is to be found in both. Such an insertion is the passage Jeremiah 18:7-12 (Co. says 5–12, but this extension is unnecessary), inasmuch as those vv. miss the point of the symbol, which is that Jehovah, like the human potter, even when one failure has occurred, cannot be ultimately thwarted, but converts the same material to the shape that He desires. But Jeremiah 18:7-10 speak of a change in the original intention of the potter, which may involve the permanent rejection of his material. It is quite possible, however, that Jeremiah 18:7-12 are of Jeremiah’s authorship, though not originally belonging to this context. See further in introd. note on ch. 19.
Du. needlessly rejects the whole story, as trivial in its character and moral. Gi. retains all but Jeremiah 18:11-12, which he holds to be an insertion by way of linking Jeremiah 18:10 to Jeremiah 18:13 ff. The hopeful tone of the earlier part of the ch. permits it to be placed in Josiah’s time. Jeremiah 18:7-17 will belong to a later date.
The section may be subdivided as follows.
(i) Jeremiah 18:1-17. The Lord bade me go and watch how the potter, when his work was marred, converted the same clay into a perfect vessel. So can Jehovah do for Israel. His decrees, whether for the destruction or the prosperity of a people, are conditional upon their conduct. He now remonstrates with Israel, but they refuse to hearken. Their conduct is not according to nature. Snow fails not on the lofty hills, nor the streams that descend from them. But Israel has gone utterly astray, and shall in its consequent desolation be made a warning to all for ever. Jehovah will put them to flight before their enemies. (ii) Jeremiah 18:18-23. Jeremiah’s enemies conspire to circulate slanders to his ruin. He appeals to the Lord to protect him, even as he had once interceded on their behalf. But now let death and sudden destruction come upon them; forgive them not.
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,
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.3. the potter’s house] The likening (as in Jeremiah 18:6) of man to the clay and God to the potter was familiar. See on Jeremiah 18:4. The trade was a very early one. Thomson (The Land and the Book, p. 520) thus describes what he saw at Jaffa (Joppa): “There was the potter sitting at his ‘frame,’ and turning the ‘wheel’ with his foot. He had a heap of the prepared clay near him, and a pan of water by his side. Taking a lump in his hand, 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 centre, 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.”
the wheels] Two discs, the upper smaller than the lower, were placed on the same vertical axle, and the lower one turned by the foot. Cp. description in Sir 38:29 f.
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. in the hand of the potter] rather, as LXX, in his hands, thus avoiding harshness. “The potter” has doubtless crept into MT. from being a marginal gloss. Its admission to the MT. drew with it, through the influence of the wording of Jeremiah 18:6, the addition of the Hebrew for “of the clay,” which accordingly is also absent from LXX. For illustrations drawn from the potter’s art cp. Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 45:9; Isaiah 64:8; Wis 15:7; Sir 33:13. Pe. also compares Browning’s Rabbi Ben-Ezra (25 to end). St Paul’s employment of the figure (Romans 9-11) is quite different from Jeremiah’s, as the former uses it in application to God’s absolute right to dispose the fortunes of his creatures for good or evil.
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.6. “First of the prophets, Jeremiah proclaims distinctly what had been more or less implied throughout, that predictions were subject to no overruling necessity, but depended for their fulfilment on the moral state of those to whom they were addressed; that the most confident assurance of blessing could be frustrated by sin; that the most awful warnings of calamity could be averted by repentance.” Stanley’s J. Ch. II. 445. Cp. the story of Jonah, and in Ezekiel (Jeremiah 18:21 ff., Jeremiah 33:12 ff.) the application of the same thought to individuals.
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. At what instant] lit. Suddenly. The same word occurs at the beginning of Jeremiah 18:9. The rendering in the two cases probably is At one moment—at another. (So Oxf. Heb. Lex.)
7–10. See introd. note.
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.8. I will repent] speaking after the manner of men. The sense is, I will alter my treatment, for among men change of conduct implies change of purpose.
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.11. The direct application of the figure to the people here begins.
frame] The Hebrew root is the same as that for potter.
amend your ways and your doings] See on ch. Jeremiah 7:3.
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. no hope] It is too late to turn back now. See on Jeremiah 2:25.
stubbornness] Cp. ch. Jeremiah 3:17.
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 nations] Cp. ch. Jeremiah 2:10 f., Jeremiah 5:30.
the virgin of Israel] The people collectively (see on Jeremiah 4:11), tended with the utmost care by the Almighty, have in spite of it all broken through the sanctity which hedged them around. Cp. Jeremiah 14:17 for the collective use of the expression.
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. The unnatural conduct of Israel (cp. Jeremiah 8:7) is illustrated.
rock of the field] The strangeness of the expression has led to the conjectural substitution for “field” (sâdeh) of either (a) Shaddai, a title of Jehovah (e.g. Genesis 17:1), or (b) Sirion (Psalm 29:6), the Phoenician name (see Deuteronomy 3:9) for Hermon (so Co. and Du.), which has a summit crowned with perpetual snow. In the latter case, as Lebanon and Hermon were quite distinct, and as the former seems connected with the Hebrew root meaning whiteness, we may render with Co. “Does the white snow forsooth melt from the rock of Sirion?”
shall the cold waters … be dried up] mg. plucked up, but the emendation in the text is doubtless right, and is obtained by the transposition of two Hebrew consonants. The earlier part of the clause is more difficult to emend. Du., by simply dividing two adjacent words differently, gets for “waters that flow down from afar” “waters of the scatterers,” viz. the northern stars, as bringing rain at the time of their rising. He connects the word he renders “scatterers” with the north by reference to Job 37:9, where for the latter there is given in mg. scattering winds. But we cannot speak with any certainty. The Hebrew for “strange” may have come in through the accidental repetition of “cold,” which stands next in the Hebrew, and differs only in the initial letter. The mg. (the cold waters) “of strange lands that flow down be, etc.” is improbable as a rendering. The general sense at any rate is clear. Nature is constant in her operations, but God, the Rock of Israel, is forsaken by those who used to follow Him.
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. For] This continues the thought of the 13th v., Jeremiah 18:14 being parenthetic.
vanity] lit. unreality, meaning idols, but a different word from that used in Jeremiah 2:5, where see notes. Here the sense is materially or morally unsubstantial or groundless. See Dr. Parallel Psalter, p. 464.
they have caused] The pronoun must refer to the idols (2 Chronicles 28:23); but it is better, as the LXX’s rendering suggests, to translate have stumbled, thus retaining “the people” as the subject.
in the ancient paths] Cp. ch. Jeremiah 6:16.
not cast up] not raised above the inequalities and obstructions of the adjoining fields.
To make their land desolate, and a perpetual hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished, and wag his head.
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. as with an east wind] better, perhaps, as an east wind.
look upon … their face] mg. shew them the back, and not the face, in answer to the people’s own behaviour towards Him. See ch. Jeremiah 2:27. They shall flee for shelter from the enemy as from the sirocco, the scorching wind in Palestine which springs suddenly from the desert in the E. or S.E. Cp. Genesis 41:6 (“blasted”) and see on Amos 4:9 in C.B.
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. they] the prophet’s enemies, who are plotting against his life. Cp. Jeremiah 11:18 ff., Jeremiah 12:1 ff., Jeremiah 15:10 f., 15 ff.
the law shall not perish …] See on ch. Jeremiah 8:8. Cp. Ezekiel 7:26 (last part of v.). “The wise” were those who composed such sayings as we find in Proverbs. The sense is that the people refuse to believe Jeremiah’s warnings that the established state of things shall cease.
smite him with the tongue] utter destructive slanders about him. Cp. Amos 7:10 f.
let us not give heed] LXX omit the negative. The sense would then be, Let us watch him, so as to fasten on him a charge of treason. Cp. Jeremiah 20:10.
18–23. See introd. note to section.
Give heed to me, O LORD, and hearken to the voice of them that contend with me.
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. Shall evil be recompensed for good?] Jeremiah had interceded for the people in times past, e.g. ch. Jeremiah 14:7; Jeremiah 14:21.
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.21–23. See on Jeremiah 17:18. Here also we may be permitted to consider the passage to be an editorial addition. Erbt retains 22 b and 23 as genuine, Gi. all but “and their … battle” (Jeremiah 18:21), while Du. and Co. reject the passage, which in its bitter imprecations indeed forms a harsh contrast to the prophet’s expressions elsewhere of affectionate mourning for the attitude taken up by his countrymen, as well as to the teaching of the N.T. (Matthew 5:44).
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. The havoc wrought in battle outside the walls is followed by the sacking of the houses of the city.
they have digged a pit … and hid snares] Cp. Psalm 57:6.
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. overthrown] lit. as mg. made to stumble. Cp. Jeremiah 6:15; Jeremiah 6:21.