In Jeremiah 18, God explains to Israel how He operates. Israel, at this time, was very wicked in the eyes of Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s purpose was twofold: to warn Israel of a coming destruction (which would prove God’s anger) and to potentially intimidate them into repentance. In Jeremiah 18, Jeremiah wants to give this sense of hope and sense doom, contingent on Israel’s actions:
Jer 18:1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying:
Jer 18:2 “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.”
Jer 18:3 Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel.
Jer 18:4 And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.
Jeremiah is called to the potter’s house. Before him is an live action illustration. The potter is building something great, but then something unexpected happens. The potter is then forced to rework the same clay into a new design, one worse than his original idea. The potter is reacting to new developments. Jeremiah makes this clear that this is the message:
Jer 18:5 Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Jer 18:6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the LORD. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!
Jer 18:7 The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it,
Jer 18:8 if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.
Jer 18:9 And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it,
Jer 18:10 if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.
Yahweh, Himself, interprets this illustration. God is forming Israel. Israel can go two ways. Either Israel can rebel (enticing God to destroy them), or Israel can repent (sparing themselves from God’s wrath). Although God at one time promises destruction or blessings, God is not bound to these promises if the people change their ways.
In verse 8, God is said not to do what He “thought to do” (KJV). In verse 10, God is said not to do what He said He was going to do. Israel was under the impression that because God gave promises to Abraham, then God would not destroy them. This seems to be a reoccurring concept throughout the history of the Bible. Jeremiah is fighting this idea. Just because God promised Abraham, this does not make that promise assured. Promises are conditional.
Because Israel is currently evil, the text suggests that God is attempting to get them to repent. God has and does declare evil against them. God is shown to be currently devising destruction against them. This is to be mirrored by the potter starting to build his original creation. The idea is that this plan is not assured, and people can ward against these plans based on their own actions:
Jer 18:11 “Now therefore, speak to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.” ‘ ”
God warns Israel to repent. God wants the scenario in verse 8 to occur: although God is planning to destroy Israel, God wants them to repent and avert destruction. But the people remain steadfast:
Jer 18:12 And they said, “That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one obey the dictates of his evil heart.”
The people ignore Jeremiah’s warnings. The people ignore Jeremiah’s illustration of God responding. They declare faith in God as hopeless. They believe that in this life there is no reward for following God. They believe that there will be no consequences to their actions. They are denying that God can and will act against Israel.
Jer 18:13 Therefore thus says the LORD: “Ask now among the Gentiles, Who has heard such things? The virgin of Israel has done a very horrible thing.
Jer 18:14 Will a man leave the snow water of Lebanon, Which comes from the rock of the field? Will the cold flowing waters be forsaken for strange waters?
Jer 18:15 “Because My people have forgotten Me, They have burned incense to worthless idols. And they have caused themselves to stumble in their ways, From the ancient paths, To walk in pathways and not on a highway,
Jer 18:16 To make their land desolate and a perpetual hissing; Everyone who passes by it will be astonished And shake his head.
Yahweh is the God of Israel. The other nations are depicted as knowing this. As the other nations look towards Israel, they will see that Israel has denied their own God in favor of foreign gods (idols). In this text, Yahweh laments. There is shock and disbelief that Israel would deny their own God. It does not make sense. Just as abandoning fertile land in search of unknown land is inconceivable, Israel abandoning God is likewise inconceivable. God depicts a coming destruction that will destroy the land. If Israel is known for abandoning their God, God wants to ensure this is coupled with Israel being known for being utterly destroyed.
God then vows to destroy Israel in spite of their pleas.
Jer 18:17 I will scatter them as with an east wind before the enemy; I will show them the back and not the face In the day of their calamity.”
In this text, God shows abandonment of Israel. This is also a reoccurring theme in the Bible. As God punishes, God ignores the prayers of those being punished. God is depicted as hardening His heart, building up tolerance towards suffering. This is metaphorically illustrated by God hiding His face and showing them His back.
Jeremiah’s audience, far from accepting Jeremiah’s words, then turn against Jeremiah to do him harm. God’s warning for repentance has failed. The people ignored God and God’s invitation for blessings.
Jer 18:18 Then they said, “Come and let us devise plans 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 attack him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words.”
Jer 18:19 Give heed to me, O LORD, And listen to the voice of those who contend with me!
Jer 18:20 Shall evil be repaid for good? For they have dug a pit for my life. Remember that I stood before You To speak good for them, To turn away Your wrath from them.
Jeremiah feels betrayed by God. God has risked Jeremiah’s life to preach God’s word, yet Jeremiah feels that God has not reciprocated in protection. Jeremiah often feels abandoned by God. In chapter 20, Jeremiah again laments that God has betrayed and deceived him (Jer 20:7). Jeremiah prays for God to intercede against his accusers. Jeremiah has preached destruction and repentance, now he wants God to follow through with God’s threats. Jeremiah prays for the death of his enemy:
Jer 18:21 Therefore deliver up their children to the famine, And pour out their blood By the force of the sword; Let their wives become widows And bereaved of their children. Let their men be put to death, Their young men be slain By the sword in battle.
Jer 18:22 Let a cry be heard from their houses, When You bring a troop suddenly upon them; For they have dug a pit to take me, And hidden snares for my feet.
Jer 18:23 Yet, LORD, You know all their counsel Which is against me, to slay me. Provide no atonement for their iniquity, Nor blot out their sin from Your sight; But let them be overthrown before You. Deal thus with them In the time of Your anger.
Jeremiah prays that God kill the children of his enemies. Jeremiah prays that his enemies are killed by the sword. Jeremiah’s idea of this judgment is a foreign army destroying Israel. Jeremiah attempts to convince God to act soon.
Jeremiah appeals to God’s knowledge of his enemies’ intentions, the intentions that Jeremiah already can discern. Jeremiah knows his enemies intend to kill him and points God to this critical fact. Jeremiah asks that God not show mercy and kill them (“blot out their sin from Your sight”). Jeremiah tries to get God to act as God is angry. The implication is that God is more prone to righteous vengeance when angry; God is harder to temper when mad.
The whole of Jeremiah 18 shows a basic unfamiliarity with negative theology. God is not depicted as aloof. God is not depicted as always acting, but preparing to act in a decisive and real way. God is not depicted as knowing the future in detail. Instead, God is depicted as changing based on the actions of the people. The people act, and then God sees this and responds. But in the text, the people reject God despite God’s efforts to convert them. Jeremiah then even goes so far as to request that God does not spare the wicked, even if they repent. Jeremiah believed he could influence God. Jeremiah believed God was active, passionate, and relational.