Jeremiah’s Action Sermons: In the Potter’s House

Although Jeremiah’s third and fourth action sermons are distinct, there is considerable overlap between them. We will consider them together in this study.

In the third sermon, Jeremiah was instructed to go to the potter’s house and watch him at work (ch18). As the skilled craftsman busied himself at his wheel, occasionally a blemish in the clay would cause him to repurpose that particular lump, making another vessel as seemed best to him. When the lesson of this sermon was met with resistance, the Lord told Jeremiah to buy a clay jar and take it and some of the leaders to an area of the Hinnom Valley near the Potsherd (“east” KJV) Gate (19:1,2). The Hinnom Valley was Jerusalem’s garbage dump, and the Potsherd Gate was likely where broken and useless pottery was discarded. Jeremiah was to pronounce judgement against the kings of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and symbolically break the jar, presumably casting the broken pieces into the valley below.

The Potter’s Clay

These two sermons both invoke the imagery of a potter and/or clay. This is a common biblical motif, particularly in the OT. The allusion is invariably to the relationship of Jehovah as Creator to His Creation: the earth (Isa 45:18), the mountains (Amo 4:13), the beasts (Gen 2:19), mankind (Gen 2:7), and even the nation, Jacob/Israel (Isa 43:1).

It should help to note that the metaphor of God forming as a potter presents at least three different emphases.

First, the Potter’s majesty is revealed in His work. This is twofold. In Psalm 19 David declares that His handiwork in the heavens eloquently attests to His flawless wisdom. Then, answering latter-day scoffers, Peter says, “They deliberately overlook this fact … the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these … was deluged with water and perished” (2Pe 3:5-6).[1] Only God’s matchless power could use the self-same elements (the water and the Word) first to such creative and then to such destructive effect.

Second, it implies the Potter’s affinity for His work. There is a special relationship between the potter and the clay. His craft is uniquely personal and intimate. His hands are His tools. The Lord Jesus beautifully demonstrated this in healing the blind man of John 9. Stooping in the dirt, the same hands that formed Adam’s lifeless eyes reworked the dust of the ground to heal his sightless eyes. The blind man testified, “The man called Jesus made mud and anointed my eyes …. So I went and washed and received my sight” (v11).

Third, it affirms the Potter’s sovereignty over His work. This is certainly the emphasis in Jeremiah 18, as in Romans 9, where the Apostle Paul evidently develops this and Isaiah’s numerous references to the Potter and the clay. As it was the Potter’s prerogative to determine how best to use the clay, so the Lord taught Jeremiah that He had inalienable, sovereign rights over Israel and their neighbours. “Can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (Jer 18:6). God’s sovereignty is not arbitrary and is exercised entirely consistent with His attributes of holiness and grace. Thus, in this context, any nation against whom He has pronounced judgement can be sure of His mercy if they repent (v8). Similarly, any nation concerning which the Lord has determined blessing can be sure of His judgement if it turns to do evil in His sight (v10). That is God’s sovereign right.

The Plotters’ Conspiracy

The Lord told Jeremiah to go and exhort the people to repent. Sadly, notwithstanding the warning, their evil hearts were set like unworkable clay. As they listened to Jeremiah’s message, they said, “That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart” (v12).

Not only did they refuse to repent, but they conspired to destroy Jeremiah and choose their own instructors. “Let us consider how to deal with Jeremiah! There will still be priests to instruct us, wise men to give us advice, and prophets to declare God’s word. Come on! Let’s bring charges against him and get rid of him! Then we will not need to pay attention to anything he says” (v18 NET). The Apostle Paul warned of the same attitude as he exhorted Timothy to preach the Word. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2Ti 4:3). This is a timely exhortation. While we must guard against the insidious encroachment of error, we must also be careful not to allow cancel culture to creep in among us. Sometimes the people of God need to hear uncomfortable truths and answer difficult questions.

The Pot’s Calamity

The fourth action sermon, the symbolic destruction of the clay jar, was in response to Jeremiah’s bitter cry for vengeance. It signified that God was finally going to bring an end to the conspiracy and the people’s sinful, idolatrous ways. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended. Men shall bury in Topheth because there will be no place else to bury” (Jer 19:11). Matthew attributed the purchase (with the Lord’s blood money) of the Potter’s Field to be used as a burying place for foreigners (thereafter known as the Field of Blood) as a dual fulfilment of this and Zechariah’s prophecy (Mat 27:9; Zec 11:13).

While Jeremiah’s imprecatory prayer (Jer 18:19-23) is not a model for believers of our dispensation, it is a measure of the extreme provocation he experienced. The Lord Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat 5:44). Nevertheless, such prayers can give comfort to believers in personal distress, inasmuch as their inclusion in Scripture assures us that the Lord takes note of personal hurts and has the power to intervene should He choose to do so.

These two sermons remind us that in our apparently chaotic world, the Potter is still in sovereign control. His hands are patiently moulding and shaping the affairs of men, personally or globally, to fulfil His own unalterable purposes. Notwithstanding the schemes of the ungodly, His might is irresistible, resistance is futile, and their destruction sure. His Word will prevail.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.