Utopia and Dystopia literature express the nature of the human anxieties and fears that we struggle with in our society. One of the more well-known writers in this literary genre is Orson Wells. In his book entitled 1984 we get the term ‘Big Brother’, which is the name given to the totalitarianism ruling by that year. Orson wrote this book in 1948 during the ‘Cold War’ and was describing the sense of powerlessness that individuals feel in that kind of a world. In Dr. Pamela Bedore’s course: ‘Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature,’ she writes in her course guidebook:
Nineteen Eighty-Four embodies the power of language to shape thought for good or for ill and explores the devastating potential of language to destroy both personal and cultural identity when used to preserve a totalitarian system of government.[i]
Many today are deeply concerned, and rightfully so, in the suppression of speech. We can easily develop anxieties over what our future holds. Yet, the greater question that should be raised is simply, ‘Who really is behind all of this?’. We know from Scripture that our battle is not with ‘flesh and blood,’ which we often forget. We have a spiritual adversary who is trying to destroy humanity, but what we discover in Jeremiah is that God is ultimately in control. He is the One shaping the destinies of human lives. Here in Jeremiah 18, we will discover that God is the one who raises up and brings down nations, kingdoms, and governments. They are simply instruments in God’s hands to fulfill His purposes. Even though God allows freedom of choice, choice is framed between what is best, His will, and the opposite position of rejecting God’s path and then experiencing the ensuing consequences. God gives us opportunities to discover His ways which ultimately bring hope, life, and peace. Or we choose to live autonomous lives and strike out on our own, discovering that the path we have chosen is strewn with more significant challenges and diminished resources. In Jeremiah 18, God leads the prophet Jeremiah to a potter’s house where a visual presentation is about to occur. This becomes a dramatization of the message the prophet is to deliver to the nation. There are three things we discover in this chapter regarding Divine sovereignty: who really is in control, our response to it, and how that affects our response to life’s uncertainties.
THE FIRST THING WE DISCOVER REGARDING DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY IS THE REALITY OF IT
God is in control of all that is happening in our world; but having said that, we need to understand that we are also impacting our world negatively by the wrong and sinful decisions we make. God works within a framework of human sin and still works things out to accomplish His purposes. That is why people struggle with the question that if God is in control, and God is good, then why is there so much evil in our world? It is a question that many have wrestled with. For some, their answer is that all evil is instigated by Satan. It is true, that Satan is a tempter, destroyer, and is seeking to create chaos, but he is still under God’s authority and control. Life is not a contest then between God and Satan with humanity in the middle. This dualism is a false understanding of the Scriptures and life. Satan can only do what God allows. Only God is infinite and all powerful. Many then point out that Satan can only do what we allow as believers. However, what we see is that our rebellion against God is the vehicle that Satan uses. God, however, actually incorporates the wicked to accomplish His ultimate purposes. God is ultimately in control without violating our will. We see this picture of God’s Sovereignty dramatized in Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.’
So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel.
But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.[ii]
Quite frequently in the process of throwing the clay, some defect in design, size or structure would arise. The potter then squeezed the developing pot into an amorphous mass and recommenced his task of shaping the raw material into some other suitable container. Jeremiah was impressed by the control which the potter exercised over the clay. Whatever the reasons for dissatisfaction, he took the material and worked on it until it met his specifications. In the same way God has absolute control over His people, and will dispose their destiny according to His purposes (cf. Rom. 9:19ff).[iii]
God can reshape our lives when our poor and sinful decisions mar our lives. God can simply discipline our lives and then recast it in order to ultimately fulfill His design for us. God is the God of the second chance where repentance is exercised by us.
Then the word of the LORD came to me.
He said,’ Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?’ declares the LORD. ‘Like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.[iv]
Here we see that God ultimately determines our destiny, but we are also involved in the process as we shall see Roland Harrison explain again:
Jeremiah asserts the sovereignty of God over all humanity though without the capriciousness [which means the impulsive and unpredictable nature] associated with may earthly rulers, since God is governed by certain principles consistent with His self-revelation at Sinai.[v]
In other words, God is consistent with His own character as revealed in the Law. God determines the framework of our lives. The idea of freedom then needs to be understood within the context that we were designed by God for a specific purpose and the freedom we have is either to fulfil God’s will or not. The tension in theology is whether a person who rejects God’s purpose even has the freedom to do that. We do know that believers certainly have that option. Yet, as we are about to discover, nations can respond to God even though they are not in covenant with Him.
B. We discover God’s gift in choosing a course of action.
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.[vi]
Jeremiah saw that God’s sovereignty is tempered by his mercy and patience. As the potter carefully reworks the clay to achieve the desired result, so God does not give up when we fail him. Especially in view here is God’s right to change his will concerning a people in response to their behavior. If they should repent of evil, he has the right to forgive (vv. 7–8). If they should do wickedness and refuse to repent, he has the right to withdraw blessings.[vii]
One example of this is found in the O.T. story of Jonah, who was commissioned by God to preach to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. God was about to uproot and destroy the city because of their wickedness. Jonah reluctantly went and preached to the Ninevites and the result was a powerful response in repentance to the message and God relented at that time from destroying them. What we see is that it is God that sets the standard of what is right and wrong; what is considered holy or evil. God determines the moral boundaries of our lives. God then sends messengers to communicate that. If those who are violating God’s standards repent, God will relent from judgment. In other words, God is making us responsible for our actions and their consequences. However, if people persist in their evil then they are responsible for the judgment that God will bring upon them. What we are seeing here is that God then is not just the God of Israel, but of all peoples. He is creator and redeemer of all humanity. Though people cannot save themselves, they are still responsible for their actions and the ensuing consequences of their actions.
THE SECOND THING WE DISCOVER REGARDING GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY IS THE CONSEQUENCES UPON THOSE WHO REBEL AGAINST IT
After instructing and warning, when people refuse to respond, all that is left is to be disciplined. The people of Judah were guilty of the sin of presumption. They knew better but sinned regardless because of the hardened condition of their hearts.
‘Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’[viii]
Jeremiah is telling them that God will forgive them if they turn or repent. God is saying: ‘If you repent, I’ll relent! Here we see the response, not necessarily in words, but by their attitudes and actions. They refused because they thought had no need to repent.
But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.[ix]
Walter Brueggemann states a powerful application from Judah’s lack of repentance and its consequence.
There is no more time for turning. Judah has waited too long. Judah of course had had freedom of choice. But that freedom has now been forfeited through sustained resistance and stubbornness. The text is not interested in a theoretical question of free will. Rather, it addresses the pastoral reality that resistance to God practiced so long eventually nullifies the capacity to choose life.[x]
Perpetuating a sinful lifestyle hardens our hearts and impairs our judgments. God’s judgment on the sin of Judah is designed not only to correct Judah, but also be a deterrent for other peoples to avoid disobedience to God’s message to them. What is tragic is that nations who served idols were more loyal to their idols than Judah had been to the true and living God.
has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols.[xi]
This is what Jeremiah is again reemphasizing. It’s shocking to consider what the nation had done in abandoning Yahweh.
Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘Inquire among the nations: Who has ever heard anything like this? A most horrible thing has been done by Virgin Israel.[xii]
So what is the horrible thing that virgin Israel (the name used to represent the southern tribe of Judah) has done? By using the term Virgin, it speaks to the covenant metaphor of husband and wife, in which the wife (Israel) had been unfaithful to her husband, in this case, God. Tremper Longman explains the horrible things.
Virgin Israel, a term of continuing endearment, has done the unexpected by worshiping false deities and refusing to repent.”[xiii]
God’s people have done the unthinkable, they have disregarded God, which is even contrary to what is natural and normal as reflected in Jeremiah’s remarks.
Does the snow of Lebanon ever vanish from its rocky slopes? Do its cool waters from distant sources ever stop flowing?[xiv]
These are rhetorical questions and the answer is no. But Israel had chosen to disregard God.
The sense seems to be that the nation’s sin is completely irrational in character, as contrasted with the course of nature, which is steadfast and consistent.[xv]
We can summarize and say that all sin is irrational, because ultimately sin is never in anyone’s best interest. Here we see from this example from nature, the high mountains of Lebanon are the source of Israel’s primary water supply, the Jordan river. Water is a source which sustains life. It is unthinkable that God’s people would abandon their only source of life.
Yet my people have forgotten me; they burn incense to worthless idols, which made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient paths. They made them walk in byways, on roads not built up.[xvi]
To forget God meant that they no longer worshiped and obey the Lord, but rather had embraced false substitutes. The result of this decision is that they simply left the ancient path and were now walking in ‘roads not built up.’ The expression of ‘the ancient paths, in the byways and the roads not built up, as Tremper Longman points out is a metaphor.
The metaphor of the path reminds the reader of the two-path theology of Proverbs. The path is the journey of life. Walking on the ancient paths would signify living according to Yahwistic tradition [God’s ways] …[xvii]
The result of this terrible choice of no longer walking in God’s ways would be the cause of future devastation.
Their land will be an object of horror and of lasting scorn, all who pass by will be appalled and will shake their heads.
Like a wind from the east, I will scatter them before their enemies; I will show them my back and not my face in the day of disaster.[xviii]
Here we see two things that will happen.
1. They will become an object lesson of what happens when people sin knowing better. Onlookers will become witnesses to this terrible decision and will shake their heads in a dismissive manner of the foolishness in departing from God.
2. Secondly, God will turn His back on them and allow them to suffer because they had forsaken Him. God will use the exile, the consequence of their idolatry, as a tool to reshape and remold them; just as the potter begins again to reshape the damaged work on the pottery wheel to redesign a new vessel.
THE FINAL THING WE DISCOVER REGARDING GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY IS THE CONSPIRACY TO DISCREDIT HIS MESSENGER.
There is a saying, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger. What is fascinating is the unwillingness to listen to the message because it was not what they wanted to hear. Others in religious life were speaking messages that were more pleasing to them. Here in this fifth confession of Jeremiah, he relates the response he has received from the message he has delivered to the nation.
They said, ‘Come, let’s make plans against Jeremiah; for the teaching of the law by the priest will not cease, nor will counsel from the wise, or the word from the prophets. So come, let’s attack him with our tongues and pay no attention to anything he says.’[xix]
Tremper Longman explains what is being communicated here.
Their reasoning is fascinating and often commented on because it seems to list three functionaries who are pivotal in teaching people the will of Yahweh. These three groups include the priest, the wise teacher, and the prophet. …The priest is associated with the law, charged to teach the people the law from the moment of its and their inception (Deut. 33:10). The wisdom teacher is associated with counsel. …Finally, the prophet has the word, short for the word of God. …. As the people reject Jeremiah and his message, they encourage each other by saying that they still have these vehicles of divine revelation. Get rid of Jeremiah and there will still be a conduit to the divine. However, the broader context of Jeremiah leads us to believe that these priests, sages, and prophets are not legitimate; rather, they say only what the people themselves want to hear.[xx]
This is a real challenge to each generation, as people often turn to religious leaders who are saying what they want to hear, rather than declaring what God is actually saying.
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what they itching ears want to hear.
They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.[xxi]
Jeremiah continues to point out that he has been faithful in declaring God’s message which is a goodness to the people, as well as his intercessory prayer on their behalf.
Listen to me, LORD; hear what my accusers are saying!
Should good be repaid with evil? Yet they have dug a pit for me. Remember that I stood before you and spoke in their behalf to turn your wrath away from them.[xxii]
Jeremiah realizes unfortunately that they are not just rejecting the message, but they are directly opposing and trying to discredit him. What is tragic about this is that Jeremiah had been interceding on behalf of the people, that God would not bring judgment upon them for their sins, but would show mercy to them. Now having been betrayed by their vicious response and attack, Jeremiah moves toward an imprecatory prayer, which is a call for God’s judgment to fall upon them. In other words, Jeremiah is asking God to finally address the broken covenant by the people with the curses God warned about.
So give their children over to famine; hand them over to the power of the sword. Let their wives be made childless and widows; let their men be put to death, their young men slain by the sword in battle.
Let a cry be heard from their houses when you suddenly bring invaders against them, for they have dug a pit to capture me and have hidden snares for my feet.
But you, LORD, know all their plots to kill me. Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger.[xxiii]
These verses seem shocking in light of what we know about Jesus’ response to the rejection He experienced, and his own crucifixion when he uttered those amazing words, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (cf. Luke 23:34).’
Robert Davidson gives insight into this cry of the prophet for God’s judgment to come upon his adversaries, the unrepentant.
…let us admit that here Jeremiah is flawed, not merely in light of the cross, but even in the light of the deepest insights of the Old Testament. The servant of the Lord, in the book of Isaiah, accepts suffering, insults and opposition as part of his redemptive mission in the world. This was how God was bringing health and wholeness to others: He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth (Isa. 53:7). Jeremiah was oppressed and afflicted; but he opened his mouth and screamed down curses upon his oppressors. Flawed, yes, but for that very reason more truly one of us.[xxiv]
Here we see that even godly people are flawed and at times respond inappropriately. One thing we misunderstand is how God can be loving and also hate and be angry over sin.
The problem is with our understanding and experience with anger. Most see and understand anger as Aristotle described it ‘as a brief madness’ or ‘an uneasiness or discomposure of the mind, upon receipt of an injury, with the purpose of revenge.’ A better understanding of God’s approach is defined by a third-century church father, Lactantius in which he explained God’s righteous anger as ‘a motion of the soul rousing itself to curb sin.’…God’s anger toward sin is never explosive, unreasonable or unexplainable. It is never a force that controls him or a ruling passion; rather, it always remains an instrument of his will. His anger has not, therefore, shut off his compassion.[xxv]
In a world terrified by conspiracies, we need to understand that God is behind everything, and we need not live in suspicion and fear. One thing we can be assured of is God’s justice in addressing sin, though for a season He is longsuffering and willing that we should come to our senses and repent. So what can we learn and how should we respond to this amazing, dramatized message from the potter’s house?
1. That God is behind all that is occurring in our world. Even though at times evil seems to be prevailing, we know that God is in control and we need not live in fear. God shapes us for His purposes.
2. Like the prophet Jeremiah, all who live godly lives will experience times of persecution and rejection. At times our good rendered to others will be responded to with evil. We should remember that the only way to overcome evil is with good.
3. We are responsible for our actions. God’s anger is designed to curb sin. He is longsuffering and does not respond without warning and impatience.
4. We must be willing to be corrected by God’s word, and not seek the soothing words of those who handle God’s word to suit and justify us in our sin. To remain in sin is alienation from God. Self-justification will not serve us well.
5. The choice before us is far simpler. To walk God’s path is life and deviation from His path brings hardship and pain as a consequence. As believers we have a choice to pursue God and His path or walk in rebellion. One way leads to life, the other to death. Which way will we choose?
[i] Pamela Bedore, Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature Course Guidebook, (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2017), 92.
[ii] Jeremiah 18:1-4, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 108.
[iv] Jeremiah 18:5-6.
[v] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, 108-109.
[vi] Jeremiah 18:7-10.
[vii] F. B. Huey, F. B. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 180.
[viii] Jeremiah 18:11.
[ix] Jeremiah 18:12.
[x] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 169.
[xi] Jeremiah 2:11.
[xii] Jeremiah 18:13.
[xiii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 140.
[xiv] Jeremiah 18:14.
[xv] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, 109.
[xvi] Jeremiah 18:15.
[xvii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 140-41.
[xviii] Jeremiah 18:16-17.
[xix] Jeremiah 18:18.
[xx] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 141-42.
[xxi] 2 Timothy 4:3-5.
[xxii] Jeremiah 18:19-20.
[xxiii] Jeremiah 18:21-23.
[xxiv] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 154-55.
[xxv] Walter C. Kaiser Jr, Hard Sayings of the Bible, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 263.