Before the Sermon: Jeremiah 18, The Potter's House
I’m starting a series of blogs called Before the Sermon, in which I lay out in writing the sort of preparation I do in order to preach without notes, without a manuscript, but confident in what I know and confident that the Holy Spirit will meet me in the pulpit on Sunday.
The prophet Jeremiah would not have been an easy man to know, much less love. All prophets, to be fair, had their quirks. Amos wanted to remain with his trees and flock; Hosea was tortured by a marriage that produced children with names like Not Pitied. Isaiah had wild visions. But Jeremiah? He was ripped apart by what God required of him; there is blood on the page throughout the Book of Jeremiah. The prophet felt tortured by the injustices that befell the good while fortune’s plenty was bestowed upon the evil. He was plagued with doubt. God made Jeremiah deliver a message of forgiveness and redemption to people who openly mocked him and plotted to take his life. Whenever we come across a passage from the Book of Jeremiah, we should pause and remember the pain of the man.
Determining the course of Jeremiah’s life is controversial among scholars. To be sure, the Book of Jeremiah is endlessly complicated and fascinating, comprised of separate scrolls edited and shaped by myriad forces. The Book of Jeremiah influenced other texts, as well, most notably the Book of Deuteronomy. The text is not the man, so there remains heated discussion regarding how much we can know about the historical figure. For our purposes—that is, preparing for the sermon— it will suffice to follow a major biographical theory that is supported enough by scholarship to warrant presentation within a sermon, but we will not elucidate the nuances we would if lecturing; in sermons, we aim for biblically true but not necessarily factual. We go with the strongest evidence and then turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance.[i]
Jeremiah was born in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, approximately 627/626 BCE. This is important because Josiah was well-known for his religious reforms, started in 622 BCE, after “discovering” a new scroll—part of the aforementioned Book of Deuteronomy—in the Temple. This was a terrifying time; zealots began enforcing religious law and tore down altars to foreign gods. The people were filled with a fervor, many because they believed they could forestall the coming judgement of God, something to which, as we’ll see below, Jeremiah has things to add. For more biblical witness to Josiah’s reforms, see 2 Kings 22-23.
Regardless of problems that arise with dating with complete certainty Jeremiah’s ministry, we can safely determine a few things. First, Jeremiah was influenced by Josiah’s work and saw the king’s death, at the battle of Meggido by the again-ascendant Egyptians, as epochal. Something big was about to happen and things would never be the same; he was right. Second, in 609 BCE, the year of Josiah’s death, one of his sons, Jehoahaz, was on the throne for a few months before being carried off in exile and another son, Jehoiakim, was set up as a vassal king by the Egyptians. Jeremiah was witness to three superpowers, in various stages of ascendancy and decline, with their swords at the necks of the people. No prophet, not even Moses, had experienced anything like this chaos. Third, Jeremiah, at the age of twenty-six, became celibate after Jehoiakim burned a scroll of the law. The celibacy (Jer 16:1-4) was a sign that Judah had no future after rejecting God, at least, not a future in their current form. And, finally, we know that Jeremiah’s life was tortured and painful.
Addressing the Theology of the Text
This week’s passage is one of the most famous, commonly called The Potter’s House. Undoubtably, if you are reading this, chances are that, even if you didn’t know the passage came from Jeremiah, you have heard of books, organizations, synagogues, or churches named the Potter’s House. It provides a potent image—that of God the potter, shaping the clay, which has been interpreted in a number of ways, but historically would have been greater Israel, meant as the covenant people, or, alternately, the people of Judah, specifically, who were experiencing the start of the most devastating event in Jewish history, perhaps even more than the Shoah, the beginning of the Diapsora, the “scattering.” In 605 BCE, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar led his armies into Judah, which began the tripartite deportations and culminated in 587 BCE, when the First Jerusalem Temple, Solomon’s Temple, was destroyed.
The destruction of the Temple could have ended Judaism forever. This was not just a religious center, this was an economic center, a place of education, a market, a place where the needy could eat, and the spirit world felt just as potent and real as the physical one. So much of Jewish life was centered on the Temple, which was not only gone but also the land that had been given to the people by God was in the hands of a brutal regime. Psalm 137 reflects the devastation and degradation of the people.
The theology offered in Jeremiah 18 is difficult if we hold to the idea that God never changes God’s own mind. Generally, this position only arises with biblical literalism, the notion that every jot and tittle of scripture must be understood literally. I have written enough in the past about why that is problematic to pass over the issue generally to focus on the specifics in this week’s text. Jeremiah is issuing words to a people who are caught between competing, violent influences. The political situation is almost impossibly complicated. The rise of the Egyptians and the fall of the Assyrians, who had defeated and occupied the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and exerted various degrees of control over Judah, was soon overshadowed by the dominance of the Babylonians, a superpower whose might was beyond what had ever been seen before. The political machinations of Judah—backing one power over another—only resulted in greater destruction.
It is in this atmosphere that God leads Jeremiah to a potter’s house, where he sees a potter working and shaping clay at the wheel. The “vessel of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hands, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him” (v. 4). God speaks to Jeremiah in vv.6-7, “‘Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoke, turns from it evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.’”
As stated above, the theology here is tricky. Human actions and behaviors have an impact on God, something that Jews are much more comfortable with than are Christians, in the main. The apparent fickleness of God is apparent to anyone who reads the Torah and the Prophets. Loosely speaking, what we see in Jeremiah 18 is a further step toward true monotheism. The God who presents Godself in Exodus 19 is henotheistic; that is, a God who demands to be the only one worshipped but does not necessarily claim to be the only one that exists: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” With the reforms of Josiah and the ministry of Jeremiah (along with a good deal of other influences not considered here), we are presented with a God who is in control of all things, including the enemies that rise up against the Chosen People.
“Thus says the Lord, ‘Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and doings’” (v. 11). In the ancient world, destruction at the hands of an enemy was largely understood to be a divine failing; one deity (or group of deities) was stronger than the others. Their earthly representatives, therefore, were vanquished just as the deity itself was vanquished. Not so here. Instead, it is God who shapes the enemies, laying out a plan of destruction for the people as a result of their own doings. This becomes known as the theology of retribution. It is a profound theological insight that paves the way for the truly monotheistic Judaism that follows.
The theology of retributions comes with some incipient problems. The notion that we are personally responsible for disasters, natural or otherwise, is used to justify the persecution and destruction of persons identified as sinful. We need only look at many Christian responses to massive storms or terrorist attacks. God has raised up the natural world or enemies, they say, because of homosexuality, feminism, intellectualism, or a whole host of other issues. When we preach, we are aiming for people to see themselves as created and loved by God. The violations that God speaks about to Jeremiah involve ignoring the widow, the orphan, the hungry, and the sick. Turning away from these commandments to take care of one another has consequences. That is the retribution that God issues.
Jeremiah feels acutely the pain of a God who can change God’s mind, for he goes to the people and explains to them in clear language that there are solutions that don’t involve becoming involved with other corrupted peoples. Jeremiah’s advice does not make sense to a general or a head of state; it does not seem to address the reality of despots looking to pillage and plunder the people and their land. However, it does offer something that is true and timeless: very few of us escape calamity.
Destruction is part of life, and often we are culpable for it, to one extent or another. Not always, but most often. We should not point to perceived sins when storms arise, but rather should ask ourselves if we are good stewards of the environment. Do we build homes where said homes will be safe? Have we prepared to take care of all the people who are in the path of the storm? Do our actions born of greed, violence, selfishness, arrogance, and anger so impact the lives of others that they are driven to acts of violence themselves? “Turn now, all of you away from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings,” God says.
What Jeremiah offers is hope that God, even amidst disaster and devastation, will still work with the people. An unsatisfactory vessel can be shaped into something else, but it must allow itself to be shaped. It must accept the water, the pressure, the molding, the various speeds of the wheel in order to he formed. God is in control of all, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But we have the ability to change the future by heeding God’s word in the present. Let the people of the Church say, Amen.
[i] I highly recommend the two-volume commentary by William Lee Holladay, Jeremiah, ed. Paul D. Hanson, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. There are more current commentaries, but for an outstanding exposition of major Jeremiah studies over the past two-hundred years, this is an eminently useful and readable offering, as far as commentaries go.