Jeremiah 18:1-23

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Jeremiah received another “word” or message from YHWH. (18:1) He was told to “arise and go down [apparently to a location at a lower elevation in Jerusalem] to the potter’s house.” Upon arriving there, he would hear the “words” of YHWH which he would thereafter proclaim to the people. (18:2) Jeremiah acted on YHWH’s command to go down to the potter’s house and there saw him “working at his wheel” to fashion clay into a vessel. (18:3; see the Notes section.) It so happened that this vessel was spoiled in the potter’s hand. He then reworked the clay into another vessel that “seemed good” to him or that pleased him. (18:4)

At this point, the word of YHWH came to Jeremiah, with an explanation of the significance of what he had seen at the potter’s house. (18:5) YHWH’s word or message started with a rhetorical question, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, like this potter?” The initial “look” then focused on the lesson to be learned from the control the potter had over the clay that he formed into a vessel. “Look, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” YHWH could do whatever he willed regarding his people. (18:6)

The word of YHWH revealed that his control and authority was not just over his people Israel but included all the nations. Whenever his declaration against a nation or a kingdom meant that it would be uprooted, pulled down, and destroyed (18:7), and the people of that nation stopped their bad course for which his punitive judgment had been expressed, he would “repent,” or change his position toward them in view of their changed condition. He would withhold or revoke the punishment that he had threatened to inflict on them. (18:8)

“At any moment” YHWH might say about a nation or a kingdom that he would “build and plant” it, blessing it with prosperity and security (18:9), and the people of that nation or kingdom began to do evil in his eyes, “not listening to” or obeying his “voice,” he would “repent of the good” that he purposed to do for them. He would change his position toward them because they had ceased to be a people whose conduct he could approve. (18:10)

YHWH is represented as asking Jeremiah to tell the “men” or people of Judah and the residents of Jerusalem, “Thus says YHWH, Look, I am forming [or framing] evil [or calamity] against you and thinking a thought [choshev machashavah (a Hebrew wordplay)] against you.” Nevertheless YHWH extended an opportunity to the people to change in order to be spared from being severely punished. Through Jeremiah, he entreated them, “Turn back, each one of you, from his evil way, and make your ways and your dealings good.” They needed to abandon their wayward course and to conduct themselves in a manner that was good or pleasing to YHWH. (18:11)

The response of the people to the entreaty for them to change indicated that they had no desire to do so. They are quoted as referring to what would be required of them as “hopeless,” there being no hope that they would follow through. They were determined to “walk” or to conduct themselves according to their own thought or plan. Each one of them chose to act “according to the stubbornness of his evil heart,” or his defiant, corrupt inner self and thought. (18:12; see the Notes section.)

“Therefore,” in view of the defiant wrong course of his people, YHWH is quoted as saying, “Ask please among the nations, Who has heard things like these? The virgin Israel exceedingly has done a horrible thing.” In this context, the expression “virgin Israel” applies to the nation occupying the territory of the kingdom of Judah. It was then still a “virgin,” for the nation had not been violated to the point of having the land, towns, and cities totally devastated, much of the population slain, and the survivors of war, pestilence, or famine taken as captives into exile. Among the nations the things taking place in the kingdom of Judah were unheard of. The “horrible thing” of which the people of the kingdom of Judah had made themselves guilty was turning their backs on YHWH their God and avidly pursuing idolatrous practices. To an excess, they engaged in worshiping Baal and other foreign deities. The people of other nations did not abandon the worship of their own gods and goddesses. (18:13)

The rhetorical questions relate to circumstances that are constant in the natural world, with the implication being that the people in the kingdom of Judah conducted themselves in a highly irregular manner. These rhetorical questions could be translated, “Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crag of the field [possibly a crag in the bare area above the timberline]? Are foreign waters, cold flowing streams, dried up [literally, plucked up or uprooted]?” At the high peaks in the mountain ranges of Lebanon, snow remains for much or all of the year. “Foreign waters,” or cold mountain streams that had their source in regions outside the borders of ancient Israel, did not dry up. The Septuagint says that “breasts will not fail from a rock,” possibly meaning that breast-shaped peaks will not disappear from rocky mountainous terrain. “Water forcibly moved by wind will not turn aside” or change course. (18:14; see the Notes section.)

YHWH’s people had “forgotten” him, treating him as if he did not exist and avidly pursuing the veneration of foreign deities. They offered incense to the vain, worthless, or empty thing, possibly meaning the god Baal. The Septuagint says that they offered incense “in vain.” There is no plural antecedent for the plural Hebrew verb with the plural suffix that may be rendered “they made them stumble.” Based on the context, the things that caused the people to stumble may be understood to be the images of the worthless or nonexistent deity. The idols may then be regarded as the stumbling blocks that caused the people to experience a ruinous fall in “their ways, [on the] ancient roads.” In their conduct, they did not maintain uprightness in the ways that were divinely approved. These ways were the “ancient roads” they should have been following without letting stumbling blocks lead them into sinning against their God. Instead of keeping to the right road (one like a level highway), or the course that YWHWH approved, the people ended up walking on paths, or conducting themselves in a manner, that he disapproved. According to the Septuagint, the people “weakened in their ways, to tread endless distances on roads not having a [passable] way for traveling.” (18:15)

When the people turned their backs on YHWH, they ceased to have his protection, guidance, and blessing. They placed themselves in a position where their land would be devastated by invading enemy forces. In this way, the people became responsible for making the land an object of astonishment or horror (“destruction” or devastation [LXX]) to those who would see it. Observers would shudder at the sight of the desolated land, and resort to hissing. The land would become an object for derisive hissing for a long time to come. Any person passing by would be appalled or horrified and shake his head in derision. (18:16)

YHWH determined to “scatter” his disobedient people “before the enemy like the east wind,” like the hot wind that passes over the arid desert and disperses dust and lighter objects in its path. The people would flee before enemy forces, with many of them being slain and others being taken captive and exiled to distant regions. “In the day of their calamity,” YHWH would show them his “back,” not his “face.” He would give them no favorable attention. The Septuagint says that God would show them the “day of their destruction.” (18:17)

Prominent ones in the kingdom of Judah plotted against Jeremiah. The words they are quoted as saying suggest that these men were priests, sages, and false prophets. Jeremiah had declared YHWH’s message against them, and they became extremely hostile toward him, wanting him dead. In their view, they would continue to function in the capacity of priests, wise men, and prophets. A priest was responsible for teaching the law to the people. Therefore, the contention was that the law or instruction would not perish from the priest. The king had his own wise men to advise him. Believing that this would continue, the sages would contend that counsel from a wise man would not come to an end. False prophets would persist in claiming that a “word” or message from a prophet would continue to be made known to the people. The enemies of Jeremiah would band together, wanting to “strike him with the tongue,” or to use the tongue to harm or bring ruin to him through malicious misrepresentation. They were determined not to pay attention to any of his words. (18:18; see the Notes section.)

Nothing in Jeremiah’s personal conduct toward those who were hostile to him justified their murderous hatred. Therefore, he asked that YHWH would grant him his attention and listen to what his adversaries were saying (literally, the “voice of my adversaries”), apparently the expressions of their intent to harm him. The Septuagint concludes with the phrase, “and hear the voice of my justification,” rightful due, or right action. (18:19) Jeremiah did not want calamity to befall the people. With a clean conscience, he could raise the rhetorical question, “Is good to be repaid with evil?” The evil of his adversaries was to dig a “pit for his soul,” scheming to bring about his death. Yet Jeremiah had prayed to YHWH that his anger might be turned away from them. He requested that YHWH would “remember” that he had stood before him “to speak good for them,” this “good” being for them to be spared from his wrath. (18:20; see the Notes section.)

Hatred for Jeremiah resulted from his faithfulness in proclaiming the “word of YHWH” and was without any justifiable basis. His adversaries had defiantly rejected him as YHWH’s prophet and the message he was proclaiming. They deserved to be severely punished, and Jeremiah no longer petitioned for them to be spared from the execution of YHWH’s punitive judgment but prayed that it be carried out. “Therefore, deliver up their sons [or offspring] to famine [extreme food shortage resulting from military invasion and siege], hand them over to the hand [or power] of the sword, and let their wives become childless and widowed [by losing their children and husbands during the military invasion]. And may their men be killed with pestilence [infectious disease], their young men be slain by the sword in battle.” (18:21)

At the time YHWH would bring (or permit) a “marauder” (a company of raiding warriors) to come against his people, a cry of distress should be heard coming from their houses. The invaders would pillage possessions and maltreat or kill the occupants of the homes. This development would be retribution for what the adversaries of Jeremiah had done when digging a pit for him and concealing snares for his feet, wanting to trap him like an animal to be killed. (18:22)

Jeremiah had do doubt that YHWH knew all that his enemies had been plotting to slay him because of his faithfully discharging his commission as a prophet. Therefore, he made his appeal regarding these adversaries. “Do not forgive [literally, cover over] their guilt, and do not blot out their sin from your sight, and let them be ones stumbling before you.” They were not to remain free from punishment but come to be like persons experiencing a fall from which no recovery would possible. The full force of YHWH’s wrath should be directed against them. In the Septuagint, the thought is expressed somewhat differently. “Let their weakness come before you [the Lord]. In the time of your anger, deal with them.” (18:23)


In verse 3, the Hebrew word rendered “wheel” is the dual form of the word for “stone.” This suggests that the potter’s wheel was a flat stone disk, with a larger stone wheel on the same vertical shaft. The wheel was designed to be rotated horizontally by foot. This is described in the book of Sirach (38:29, 30 [NAB]). “So with the potter sitting at his labor, revolving the wheel with his feet, he is always concerned for his products, and turns them out in quantity. With his hands he molds the clay, and with his feet softens it. His care is for proper coloring, and he keeps watch on the fire of his kiln.”

In verse 12, the phrase containing the Hebrew verb for “to be hopeless” is variously rendered in modern translations “Things are past hope.” (REB) “It’s no use.” (NIV) “We don’t care what you say.” (CEV) The Septuagint rendering differs from the reading of the Hebrew text. “But they said, ‘We will act manly, for we will go after our turning [aside], and each one will do the things pleasing to his evil heart.’”

The Hebrew text of verse 14 is somewhat obscure. This accounts for various renderings in modern translations. “Does the snow of Lebanon desert the rocky heights? Do the gushing waters dry up that flow fresh down the mountains?” (NAB) “Does the snow of Lebanon ever vanish from its rocky slopes? Do its cool waters from distant sources ever cease to flow?” (NIV) “Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crags of Sirion? Do the mountain waters run dry, the cold flowing streams?” (NRSV) “The snow on Lebanon’s mountains never melts away, and the streams there never run dry.” (CEV) “Does one forsake Lebanon snow from the mountainous rocks? Does one abandon cool water flowing from afar?” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition])

In the Septuagint, the concluding phrase of verse 18 is, “and we will hear all his [Jeremiah’s] words.”

In verse 20, the Septuagint represents Jeremiah as saying about his adversaries, “Together they spoke expressions against my soul and concealed their punishment for me.”