Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Thus saith the LORD, Go and get a potter's earthen bottle, and take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests;XIX.
(1) And get a potter’s earthen bottle.—The word for “get” involves buying as the process. The similitude—one might better call it, the parable dramatised—represents the darker side of the imagery of Jeremiah 18:3-4. There the vessel was still on the potter’s wheel, capable of being re-shaped. Now we have the vessel which has been baked and hardened. No change is possible. If it is unfit for the uses for which it was designed, there is nothing left but to break it. As such it became now the fit symbol of the obdurate people of Israel. Their polity, their nationality, their religious system, had to be broken up. The word for “vessel” indicates a large earthen jar with a narrow neck, the “cruse” used for honey in 1Kings 14:3. Its form, bakbuk, clearly intended to represent the gurgling sound of the water as it was poured out, is interesting as an example of onomatopœia in the history of language.
Take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests.—The elders. and therefore the representatives of the civil and ecclesiastical rulers, were to be the witnesses of this acted prophecy of the destruction of all that they held most precious. The word “take” is not in the Hebrew, but either some such verb has to be supplied. or the verb “go” has to be carried on, “Let the ancients . . . go with thee.”
And go forth unto the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the east gate, and proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee,(2) Unto the valley of the son of Hinnom.—The site was chosen as having been the scene of the most hateful form of idolatry to which the people had addicted themselves, perhaps also as connected locally with the potter’s field. (See Note on Jeremiah 7:31; and Matthew 27:7.)
By the entry of the east gate.—The Hebrew word is obscure. The Authorised Version adopts a doubtful etymology, connecting the word with the sun (so “sun gate” in the margin) and therefore with the East. Luther, with the Vulgate and most modern scholars, renders it as “the potter’s gate,” or more literally, the gate of pottery. The LXX. treats it as a proper name, and gives “the gate Kharsith.” No such fate appears in the topographical descriptions of Nehemiah 2, 3; and the two gates which led into the valley of Hinnom were the Fountain and the Dung gate (Nehemiah 3:13-15). Hence it has been inferred that this was a small postern gate leading into the valley just at the point where it was filled with rubbish, possibly with broken fragments like those which were now to be added to it. On this supposition the connection both of the name of the gate and its use with the symbolism of the prophet’s act may have determined the command which was thus given him.
And say, Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle.(3) O kings of Judah.—The plural seems used to include both the reigning king, Jehoiakim, and his heir-apparent or presumptive.
His ears shall tingle.—The phrase, occurring as it does in 1Samuel 3:11, in the prophecy of the doom of the earlier sanctuary, seems intentionally used to remind those who heard it of the fate that had fallen on Shiloh. The destruction of the first sanctuary of Israel was to be the type of that of the second (Psalm 78:60; Jeremiah 7:14). The phrase had, however, been used more recently (2Kings 21:12).
Because they have forsaken me, and have estranged this place, and have burned incense in it unto other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers have known, nor the kings of Judah, and have filled this place with the blood of innocents;(4) Have estranged this place.—i.e., have alienated it from Jehovah its true Lord, and given it to a strange god. The words refer specially to the guilt of Manasseh (2Chronicles 33:4).
The blood of innocents.—The words seem at first to refer to the Molech sacrifices, which had made the valley of Hinnom infamous. These, however, are mentioned separately in the next verse, and the prophet probably spoke rather here, as in Jeremiah 2:34; Jeremiah 7:6, of the “innocent blood” with which Manasseh had filled Jerusalem (2Kings 21:16; 2Kings 24:4, where the same word is used).
They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind:(5) The high places of Baal.—Baal, as in Jeremiah 2:23, is identified with Molech, and the terms in which the guilt of the people and its punishment are described are all but identical with those of Jeremiah 7:31-32. The fact that such sacrifices were offered is indicated in Psalm 106:37-38.
Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that this place shall no more be called Tophet, nor The valley of the son of Hinnom, but The valley of slaughter.(6) Tophet.—See Notes on Jeremiah 7:31-32.
And I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place; and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hands of them that seek their lives: and their carcases will I give to be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beasts of the earth.(7) I will make void.—The Hebrew verb (bakak) is onomatopoetic, as representing the gurgling sound of water flowing from the mouth of a jar, and contains, as stated in the note on Jeremiah 19:1, the root of the word rendered “bottle,” and was obviously chosen with an allusive reference to it. Such a play upon the sound and sense of words is quite in accordance with the genius of Hebrew prophecy, but it is obviously in most cases impossible to reproduce it in another language. The primary meaning is “to pour out, to spill,” and so “to waste, or bring to nought.” (Comp. Isaiah 19:3.) Some interpreters have supposed that the words were accompanied by corresponding acts, and that the earthen bottle, which the prophet had brought filled with water, was now emptied in the sight of the people, with a symbolism like that of 1Samuel 7:6; 2Samuel 14:14.
And I will make this city desolate, and an hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished and hiss because of all the plagues thereof.(8) Desolate, and an hissing.—See Jeremiah 18:16.
Because of all the plagues thereof.—The word is used in its wider, and yet stricter, sense as including all the blows or smitings (as in Isaiah 14:6) that are thought of as coming from the hand of God.
And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them.(9) I will cause them to eat . . .—Once again an echo, almost a quotation, from Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 28:53). The woes of that memorable chapter had obviously furnished the prophet both with imagery and language. In Lamentations 2:20; Lamentations 4:10 we find proof of the fulfilment of the prediction. Thus, by the dread law of retribution, were the people to pay the penalty of their sin in the Melech sacrifices, in which they, sinning at once against natural affection and against the faith of their fathers, had slain their sons and daughters.
Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee,(10) Then shalt thou break the bottle . . .—Those who heard the prophet and saw his act were not unfamiliar with the imagery. The words of Psalm 2:9 had portrayed the Messianic king as ruling over the nations, even as “breaking them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” But it was a new and strange thing to hear these words applied to themselves, to see their own nation treated, not as the potter’s clay that could be remodelled, as in Jeremiah 18:1-6, either for a nobler, or, at least, for some serviceable use, but as the vessel which once broken could never be restored. Happily for Israel, there was a depth of Divine compassion which the parable failed to represent. The after-history showed that though, as far as that generation went, the punishment was final, and their existing polity could never be made whole again, there was yet hope for the nation. The things that were “impossible with man” were “possible with God.” The fragments of the broken vessel might be gathered from the heap of rubbish on which the prophet had flung them, and brought into a new shape, for uses less glorious indeed than that for which it had been originally designed, but far other than those of a mere vessel of dishonour.
Thus will I do unto this place, saith the LORD, and to the inhabitants thereof, and even make this city as Tophet:(12) And even make this city as Tophet.—This is an allusive reference partly to the state of the valley of Hinnom as a heap of ruins and rubbish, partly to the meaning of the name Tophet, as a place spat upon and scorned. (See Note on Jeremiah 7:31.)
And the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah, shall be defiled as the place of Tophet, because of all the houses upon whose roofs they have burned incense unto all the host of heaven, and have poured out drink offerings unto other gods.(13) Defiled as the place of Tophet.—A difficulty affecting the construction, but not the sense, of the passage, makes the rendering as the place of Tophet the defiled preferable.
Upon whose roofs they have burned incense.—The flat roofs of Eastern houses were used, as for exercise (2Samuel 11:2) so also, as in Peter’s vision at Joppa (Acts 10:9), for prayer and meditation, and seem from Zephaniah 1:5 to have been specially chosen, as was natural, for worship addressed to the host of heaven. The two altars “on the top of the upper chamber of Ahaz” (2Kings 23:12) were probably so situated. Where men had been wont to keep the holy days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:16) they had celebrated their idolatrous rites. (See Jeremiah 32:29.) So Strabo (xvi. p. 1, 131) describes the Nabathœans as worshipping the sun, and offering incense on an altar on the roof of their houses.
Then came Jeremiah from Tophet, whither the LORD had sent him to prophesy; and he stood in the court of the LORD'S house; and said to all the people,(14) He stood in the court of the Lord’s house.—The acted sermon had been preached in Tophet, in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, in the presence of a few chosen representatives of priests and people. It is followed by one addressed to the whole assembled congregation, announcing the same doom.
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring upon this city and upon all her towns all the evil that I have pronounced against it, because they have hardened their necks, that they might not hear my words.(15) Thus saith the Lord of hosts.—The address to the people could hardly have been confined to the limits of a single verse, and it is probable, therefore, that we have here but the summary of a discourse, so like in substance to what had been given before that the prophet did not think it necessary to report it at length.