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The Potter and the Clay

18

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: 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 your doings.


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The sum of what is here taught is, that as the Jews gloried in God’s singular favor, which yet had been conferred on them for a different purpose, even that they might be his sacred heritage, it was necessary to take from them a confidence of this kind; for they at the same time heedlessly despised God and the whole of his law. We indeed know that in God’s covenant there was a mutual stipulation — that the race of Abraham were faithfully to serve God, as God was prepared to perform whatever he had promised; for it was the perpetual law of the covenant,

“Walk before me and be perfect,”

which was once for all imposed on Abraham, and extended to all his posterity. (Genesis 17:1.) As then the Jews thought that God was by an inviolable compact bound to them, while they yet proudly rejected all his prophets, and polluted, and even as far as they could, abolished, his true favorship, it was necessary to deprive them of that foolish boasting by which they deluded themselves. Hence the Prophet was commanded to go down to the potter’s house, that he might relate to the people what he saw there, even that the potter, according to his own will and pleasure, made and re-made vessels.

It seems indeed at the first view a homely mode of speaking; but if we examine ourselves we shall all find, that pride, which is innate in us, cannot be corrected except the Lord draws us as it were by force to see clearly what it is, and except he shews us plainly what we are. The Prophet might have attended to God speaking to him at his own house, but he was commanded to go down to the house of the potter — not indeed for his own sake, for he was willing to be taught — but that he might teach the people, by adding this sign as a confirmation to his doctrine.

He then relates what had been enjoined him, that he descended into the potter’s house; and then he relates what he saw there — that when the potter formed a vessel it was marred, and that he then made another vessel from the same clay, and, as it seems, one of a different form; for there is a peculiar emphasis in these words, as it seemed right in his eyes. The application is afterwards added — cannot I, as the potter, change you, O house of Israel? Doubtless, ye are in my hand as the clay in the hand of the potter; that is, I have no less power over you than the potter over his work and his earthen vessels. 192192     The proper rendering of the former part of this verse, according to Gataker and Venema, is as follows, —
   “And marred was the vessel which he made,
at the clay was in the hand of the potter.”

   Though there be readings, and many, which have ב instead of כ before “clay,” yet the received text is the most suitable. The word “clay” is omitted in the Septuagint. The meaning is, that the vessel was marred, while it was yet as a soft clay in the hand of the potter, after he had formed it on the stones. As to “potter,” the noun here is used instead of the pronoun, “in his hand,” which is often the case in Hebrew. The pronoun “his” is what is given by the Septuagint and the Vulgate. Ed

We now see what this doctrine contains — that men are very foolish when they are proud of their present prosperous condition, and think that they are as it were fixed in a state of safety; for in a single moment God can cast down those whom he has raised up, and also raise up on high those whom he has before brought down to the ground. This is even well known by heathens, for moderation is commended by them, which they describe thus — “That no one ought to be inflated in prosperity, nor succumb in adversity.” But no one is really influenced by this thought, except he who acknowledges that we are ruled by the hand of God: for they who dream that fortune rules in the world set up their own wisdom, their own wealth, and their own strongholds. It must then necessarily be, that they always delude themselves with some vain hope or another. Until then men are brought to know that they are so subject to God’s power that their condition can in a single moment be changed, according to his will, they will never be humble as they ought to be. This doctrine therefore was entitled to special notice, especially when we consider how foolishly the Jews had abused the privilege with which God had favored Abraham and all his posterity; it was therefore an admonition altogether necessary. Besides, if we come to ourselves, we shall find that it requires a great effort to learn to humble ourselves, as Peter reminds us, under the mighty hand of God. (1 Peter 5:6.)

With regard to the words we must observe that האבנים eabenim, is a word in the dual number. The Prophet no doubt meant the moulds, des moules; for they who render it “wheel” seem not to understand the subject. 193193     “On the stones,” is the Septuagint; “on the wheel,” the Vulgate and the Targum; “on the anvil,” the Syriac.
   “There can be no doubt,” says Blayney, “that the machine is intended on which the potters formed their earthen vessels; and the appellation οἱ λίθοι, ‘the stones,’ will appear very proper if we consider this machine as consisting of a pair of circular stones, placed upon one another like millstones, of which the lower was immovable, but the upper one turned upon the foot of a spindle or axis, and had motion communicated to it by the feet of the potter sitting at his work, as may be learned from Ecclesiastes 38:29 [sic]. Upon the top of this upper stone, which was flat, the clay was placed, which the potter, having given the stone the due velocity, formed into shape with his hands.”
The Prophet evidently refers to the moulds, made either of stone, or of wood, or of white clay; and this the number sufficiently proves. He then saw the potter with his moulds, avec ses moules, so that when he had formed one vessel it was marred; then he took the same clay and formed another vessel, and that according to his own will. I have already stated why it was necessary for the Prophet to go down to the potter’s house: he did so that he might afterwards lead the Jews to see their own case in a more vivid manner; for we know what a powerful effect a representation of this kind produces, when a scene like this is set before our eyes. Naked doctrine would have been frigid to slothful and careless men; but when a symbol was added, it had much greater effect. This then was the reason why God ordered the Prophet to see what the potter was doing.

Now, in the application, we must notice how things correspond: As the clay is at the will and under the power of the potter, so men are at the will of God: God then is compared to the potter. There is indeed no comparison between things which are equal, but the Prophet argues from the less to the greater. Then God, with respect to men, is said to be the potter, for we are the clay before him. We must also notice the variety in what was formed: from the same clay one vessel is made, then another different from the first. These three things that are compared ought to be specially observed. It is then said, cannot I, as the potter, do with you, O house of Israel? God includes here two of these comparisons, he compares himself to the potter, and he compares the people to clay. We know that God has much greater power over men than a mortal man over the clay; for however he may form it into vessels he is yet not the creator of the clay. Then much greater authority has God over men than the potter over the clay. But the comparison, as I have said, is of the greater with the less, as though he had said, “The potter can form the clay at his will; am I inferior to him? or, is not my power at least, equal to the power of the artificer, who is a mortal and of an abject condition?” Then he adds, with you, or to you, O house of Israel? as though he had said, “Trust ye in your own excellency as you please, yet ye are not better than the clay, when ye consider what I am and what I can do to you.”

We have now seen two of the comparisons; the third follows--that God can turn us here and there, and change us at his will. Then how foolishly do men trust in their present good fortune; for in a single moment their condition can be altered, as there is nothing certain on the earth.

But we must bear in mind what I have already stated — that vain was the confidence by which the Jews deluded themselves; for they thought that God was bound to them, and so they promised themselves a state of perpetuity, and, as though they could with impunity despise the whole law, they ever boasted that the covenant, by which God had adopted the seed of Abraham, was hereditary. Now the Prophet shews that the covenant was in such a way hereditary, that yet the Jews ought to have regarded it as it were an adventitious benefit, as though he had said, “What God gave you he can take away at any time; there is then nothing certain to you, except so far as God will be propitious to you.” In short, he reminds them that the whole of their safety depended on God’s gratuitous layout, as though he had said, “Ye have nothing as your own, but what God has conferred on you is at his will and pleasure; he can to-day take away even what he had yesterday given you. What meaneth then this foolish boasting, when ye say that ye are exempted from the common lot of men?”

The Jews might indeed have rightly disregarded all the dangers of the world, for God had gathered them under his own protection; they would indeed have been safe under his guardianship, had they observed mutual faithfulness, so as to be really his people as he had promised to be their God; but as they esteemed as nothing his whole law, and made void the covenant in which they foolishly gloried, the Prophet, as we see, did not without reason shake off that confidence by which they deceived themselves.

We may hence gather a useful doctrine: With regard to the whole race of man there is nothing certain or permanent in this life; for God can change our condition at any time, so as to cast down the rich and the eminent from their elevation, and also to raise up the most despised of men, according to what is said in Psalm 113:7. And we know this to be true, not only as to individuals, but also as to nations and kingdoms. Many kings have so increased their power as to think themselves beyond the reach of harm; and yet we have seen that God laid them prostrate as by a sudden whirlwind: so also it has happened to powerful nations. With regard then to the condition of mankind, God shews here as in a mirror, or by a vivid spectacle, that sudden changes are often in the world: which ought to awaken us from our torpor, so that no one of us may dare to promise himself another day, or even another hour, or another moment. This is one thing; but this doctrine has a peculiar application to us; for as God has by a peculiar favor separated us from the rest of the world, so he would have us to depend wholly on his mere good will. Faith indeed ought to be tranquil, nay, it ought to disregard whatever may bring on us any terror or anxiety; but faith, where has it its seat? In heaven. Then courage is required in all the children of God, so that they may with a quiet mind disregard all the changes of the world. But we must see that the tranquillity of faith be well founded, that is, in humility. For as we cast our anchor in heaven, so also, with regard to ourselves, we ought always to he low and be humble. Whosoever then flies in vain confidence boasts in vain of faith, and falsely pretends that he trusts in God. Let it then ever come to our minds, and constantly recur to us, that our condition is not through ourselves safe and secure, but through the gratuitous goodness of God. We now see the application of this doctrine. The Prophet proceeds, —

This is a fuller application of the Prophet’s doctrine; for he had said generally before, that the people were in God’s hand as the clay is in the hand of the potter; but he adds here what is more popular or comprehensive, — that all men are in the hand of God, so that he now favors one nation with his blessing, and then deprives them of it, and that he raises up those whom he had previously brought low.

I have said that this part of the doctrine is more popular or comprehensive, for he refers to repentance. When Paul adduced this similitude, — that we are in the power of God as the clay is in the hand of the potter, he spoke not in so popular a manner: for he did not speak of repentance, but ascended higher and said, that before the world was created, it was in God’s power to determine what he pleased respecting every individual, and that we are now formed according to his will, so that he chooses one and rejects the other. Paul then did not refer to faithfulness nor to repentance, but spoke of the hidden purpose of God, by which he has predestinated some to salvation and some to destruction. (Romans 9:21.) Isaiah also seems to have had the same thing in view; for he says only,

“Woe to them who rise up against their Maker.”
(Isaiah 45:9.)

Cannot I determine, saith God, with regard to men, as the potter, who forms the clay as he pleases? We must then maintain this principle, — that men are thus formed according to God’s will, so that all must become mute;. for uselessly do the reprobate make a clamor, object and say, “Why hast thou formed us thus?” Has not the potter, says Paul, power, etc.? This is what must be said of God’s hidden predestination.

But Jeremiah here accommodates his doctrine to the people, that he might shew, that God had by a gratuitous covenant cliosen and adopted the seed of Abraham in such a way, that he could still repudiate the unworthy, even all those who despised so great a favor.

We now see the various applications of this doctrine; God determined, before the creation of the world, what he pleased respecting each individual; but his counsel is hid, and to us incomprehensible. There is here a more familiar application made, — that, God at one time takes away his blessings, and that at another he raises men as it were from death, that he might set them on high, according as he pities those who truly and from the heart turn to him, or is offended with the ingratitude of such as reject his offered favors.

Hence he says, Suddenly will I speak against a nation and against a kingdom, to pull down, to root up, or to extirpate, and to destroy. By saying suddenly, he reminds the Jews of their origin; for what was their condition when the Lord stretched out his hand to them, and brought them from that wretched bondage in which they lived? as though he had said, “Consider from whence God raised you, and then acknowledge that he raised you in a wonderful manner and beyond human expectation; for in the same day ye were of all the most miserable, and of all the most happy; one night not only brought you from death into life, but carried you from the deepest abyss above all earthly happiness, as though ye rode on the clouds.” God then suddenly spoke. 194194     “At length,” or finally — πέρας, is the Septuagint; “suddenly,” theVulgate; but the Targum renders the word here, “At one time,” and in ver. 9, “At another time;” and this seems to be the meaning of רגע, when repeated, as it is here. Let it be so rendered, and let the future verb which comes after it be viewed as present, which is often the case in Hebrew, and the whole passage may be literally rendered, without giving an unusual meaning to the copulative, ו, —
   7. At one time I speak of a nation and of a kingdom, In order to pluck up and to pull down and to destroy

   8. And that nation returns from its evil, Against which I had spoken, And I repent of the evil Which I had thought of doing to it:

   9. And at another time I speak of a nation and of a kingdom, In order to build and to plant; And it doeth evil in mine eyes, So as not to hear my voice; And I repent of the good Which I had spoken of doing to it, or of making good to it.

   The whole is a striking narrative of God’s dealings with nations and kingdoms. — Ed.

But he refers also to punishment; God speaks of a nation and of a kingdom, to do it good; and he speaks again, in order to pull down, to destroy a nation and a kingdom. How then comes it, that they who seem for a time to flourish and to be most happy, suddenly perish? Because God punishes men for their ingratitude. And how comes it, that they, who were trodden under foot by all, suddenly rise? Because the Lord pities them.

But the Prophet speaks first of punishment; Suddenly, he says, will I speak of a nation and of a kingdom, to pull down, to extirpate and to destroy; that is, even they who seem far from all danger shall find that they are exposed to my judgment. But if a nation, he says, turns from its wickedness, against whom I have spoken, then I will repent of the evil, etc. The Prophet no doubt intended to shut up the mouths of the Jews, who, as we have before seen, continually contended with God; for he could not convince them that the punishments were just which God inflicted on them for their sins. As then they were thus perverse in their wickedness, and hypocrisy also had hardened them the more, the Prophet says here in God’s name, “When I speak against a nation and threaten final ruin, if it repents, I shall be immediately reconciled to it; there is therefore no ground for the Jews to expostulate with me, as though I dealt with them too severely; for they shall find me reconcilable if they repent from the heart.” It follows then, that their obstinacy was the cause why God proceeded in his judgments, for the repentance of God means no other thing than what Scripture says elsewhere, that he is merciful, slow to wrath, and ready to forgive. (Numbers 14:18; Psalm 103:8.) He then here testifies, that nothing hindered the Jews from being in a better state but their own perverseness.

On the other hand, he affirms, that the lost are restored, when the Lord speaks suddenly, of a nation and of a kingdom, to build and to plant; as though it was said, — “I will not only forgive, but I am ready to bestow blessings on those whom I had previously rejected as mine enemies.” Then God amplifies his goodness when he says, that he will not only forgive the sins of men, so as freely to pardon them, but that he is ready to bestow on them all kinds of blessings, if they seek to be reconciled to him.

Now follows the opposite clause, But if it will do evil before mine eyes, so as not to hear my voice; that is, when a nation has been planted through my kindness, (for this is required by the context,) then I will repent, etc. By this denunciation is meant, that God would tread in the dust those whom he had favored with singular benefits, on account of the abuse made of them; although he had said, “When I promise bountifully and freely to a nation or a kingdom everything that can be wished, except my favor and goodness be rightly received, then I repent of the good done to it.” The meaning is, that the way of pardon is always open, when a sinner turns to God, and that it is in vain for men to boast of God’s promises, except, they in fear and obedience submit themselves to him.

Both these things were necessary; that is, that the Jews should know that God would be entreated if they repented, and that his promises could not be extended to those who were guilty of such gross abuse as a total disregard of his law and his prophets. Then the Prophet mentions here the ordinary course, — that as soon as men repented, they might safely and fully expect good things from God, for he is inclined to mercy; and then, that no nation, however it may excel in gifts, ought to indulge a foolish confidence and to use its present glory as means to despise its giver, for God can take away what he has given. The real import of the whole then is, that we cannot expect to enjoy the benefits which God bestows on us, except we persevere in faithfulness and in the fear of him. It is indeed cmtain that God’s blessings do not depend on worthiness in man; but still he will not have his bounty to be despised, as was the case with the Jews, and at this day it is a common thing in the world. It now follows,--

The Prophet is now bidden to turn his discourse to the Jews, that he might apply the doctrine of repentance, to which he had referred; for a doctrine generally stated, as it is well known, is less efflcient. He then contends here, as it were, in full force with his own nation: Say then to the Jews and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who indeed ought to have shewn the way to others, but were themselves the worst of all, return ye, he says, every one from his evil way. Here God shews, that what he had before stated generally, applied peculiarly to the Jews, — that he is reconcilable when a sinner returns to him, and that they who disregard and despise his goodness cannot possibly escape unpunished.

Return ye, he says, every one from his evil way, and make right your ways; why so? For behold I frame for you an evil, and I think for you a thought; that is, “Vengeance is now prepared and is suspended over your heads, except ye turn in due time; but if ye truly and from the heart repent, I am ready to receive you.” We see how God includes the two things before referred to: He had previously said, “If I speak against a nation, and it turns from its sins, I immediately repent; but when I promise to be a father to a nation or a kingdom, I do not allow myself and my bounty to be despised, which men do when they reject what I offer.” But he now says, Behold, I think, 195195     More is meant by this word than expressed, which is often the case in all languages. “I contrive with respect to you a contrivance.” is perhaps the most literal rendering. “Device” is taken commonly in a bad sense. — Ed. etc.; this refers to the former clause, the threatenings; and then when he adds, Return ye, he promises pardon; for as it has been said elsewhere and often, there can be no exhortation to repentance without a hope of favor, as God cannot be feared, except there be propitiation with him, according to what is said in Psalm 130:4

God then shews in this verse, that he was ready to receive the Jews if they repented; but that if they continued perverse as they were wont to be, he would not suffer them to go unpunished, for he thought of evil for them. But this thought included the effect, the execution, as he was the potter, in whose hand and power they were.

Then the Prophet adds what shews how hopeless was the impiety of the people, for all his labor was in vain. It was indeed a monstrous stupidity, when they could not be terrified by God’s threatenings not allured by his kind promises. But the Prophet meant also to shew, that God tried all means to restore the people from ruin to life and salvation, but that all means were tried in vain, owing to the irreclaimable character of the people. I cannot finish the subject to-day; I must therefore defer it till to-morrow.




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