At the potter's house. 18:1-17
Chapters 11-20 record Jeremiah's personal experiences and serve to reveal the doom that is about to fall upon God's covenant people. There is no real structure to this section, just a collection of prophetic observations. The episode of the Potter's House, 18:1-12, describes what Jeremiah learned while watching a potter at work.
v1-2. Under the Lord's leading, Jeremiah goes to watch the local potter at work and to learn from the experience.
v3-4. The potter is the master of the clay, but the clay resists his designing hand, and so he sets out to shape a new and different pot.
v5-6. The lesson is simple enough, Israel is resisting the Lord's sovereign will and therefore, like the potter, the Lord will shape a new people to himself. Throughout the book of Jeremiah, numerous prophesies detail what this may entail - to be "uprooted, torn down and destroyed", v7. Judah will be judged through invasion and this will include the destruction of Jerusalem. The people will go into exile, but in the days to come there will be a new exodus, a new wilderness journey and the building of a new city of God. The return of the people from Babylon and the restoration of the state of Israel, serves as a partial fulfillment of this prophecy, yet in truth, the dawning of the kingdom of God (the new pot) is fulfilled only in Christ.
v7-10. The prophetic word makes clear God's intentions. A people who resist God's gracious will must inevitably face destruction, but if they turn from their rebellion, then the Lord will relent. As for a people who continue to ignore the Lord's mercy, condemnation will replace His good intentions. Interestingly, the word "repent" is used of the Lord, while the word "return" is used of the people (although the NIV does not translate the two words this way. See RV). In Hebrew, the word "repent" tends to carry the idea of grief or sorrow, indicating that God's sovereign will is shaped by his mercy. God forgives those who turn (return) to Him. In the New Testament the word "repent", when used of people, tends the carry the meaning turn/return, rather than grief/sorrow.
v11. The meaning of the "marred" pot is now clearly revealed. "Judah and those living in Jerusalem", face "disaster" - destruction and exile. Therefore, through the prophet the Lord calls on the people to repent, to "turn", to return to the Lord.
v12. Jeremiah's prophecy is ignored and therefore God's good intentions for his people come to nothing. The people simply reaffirm their determination not to change.
v13-17. This oracle is most likely part of the potter episode. The absurdity of Israel's rebellion, their forgetting God and worshipping other gods, is beyond explanation. Thus "their land will be laid waste", and "I will scatter them before their enemies."
Jeremiah's prophecy speaks of "a nation or kingdom", either cursed or blessed by the Lord, depending on whether it does "evil" or not. Yet, the prophecy has no direct application to the nations and kingdoms of this world. Jeremiah's words are for God's covenant people Israel; they are not words for secular governments. The prophecy is a word of God for God's people, and as such applies to God's people today.
In the first instance, the prophecy reminds us that we are that "other pot, shaped as seemed best to him." More correctly, Jesus is that other pot, and in him we share the blessings of the Master Potter's new creation. Faithless Israel was destroyed ("marred in his hands"), and from the exiled remnant, the godly line, there arose a new faithful Israel. Jesus is this "righteous" one, and in the hands of the Master Potter became that "other pot". As a gift of God's grace appropriated through faith, we are incorporated into Christ's new covenant community. Our response is but to rejoice at God's wondrous kindness.
Of course, the church, as a visible expression of God's covenant community, must still consider the warnings given to Israel. The gathered community of God's people, within the framework of institutional Christianity, is bound to recognize the transitory nature of religious association. This age is passing away, and when the day dawns, the accumulated debris of denominational organization will be consumed in fire. Only the eternal elements, such as love, will survive. So, as we await the day, we, like Israel, need to heed the warning "turn from your evil ways" otherwise we will find ourselves "uprooted, torn down and destroyed."
Where lies the danger for us of "evil ways"? The "ancient path" for the church is the way of faith. As Israel forgot God and burned "incense to worthless idols", v15, so we too can rest on the gods of our own ingenuity. As the potter shapes the bowl, so Christ shapes his kingdom; he builds a people to himself as a sovereign act of grace. We may share in his creative work through faith, or we may forget the power of his shaping hands and look to our own ingenuity, our own capacity to market and manage our Christian fellowship. Let us remember that the security of God's people lies only in the Potter's hand.
1. How can God's people grow and remain secure?
2. Discuss the "horrible thing" done by Israel and apply it to the church today, cf. v13.
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