with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
Getting Into Shape
Does the name “Scott Adams” ring a bell? Adams worked in the corporate world for a number of years, holding jobs ranging from teller to commercial lender to budget analyst and computer programmer. As cubicle culture veteran, Adams learned that some people can be difficult to work with.
To spice up work presentations, Adams began drawing comic characters, including a frustrated programmer named “Dilbert.” He developed the concept into a syndicated comic strip so successful that he was able to leave the cubicles behind.
Dilbert is portrayed as a socially inept but competent programmer who has to deal with lazy, incompetent, or borderline psychopathic co-workers. The strip often pokes fun at trendy management mantras or illogical work orders. Readers enjoy it because they know what it is like to work with unskilled, unmotivated, or passive aggressive people.
If there are funny pages in the Heavenly Star Tribune, I suspect that Dilbert is on top of the page. Surely God has a sense of humor (consider the giraffe), and God knows that people can be perversely difficult to work with.
The potter and the clay(vv. 1-4)
That’s the situation we find in Jeremiah’s familiar story of the potter and the clay in Jer. 18:1-12. God sent Jeremiah to watch someone at work, not with contrary people, but with inconsistent clay.
Have you ever watched a potter at the wheel? It is a beautiful thing to watch a skilled artisan position a wet lump of clay, then use fingers, thumbs, and palms to shape the spinning form. Once the potter is satisfied, the piece is cut loose with a string and set aside to dry before hardening in the blazing heat of a kiln.
Some modern potters still dig and prepare their own clay, but most use clay from commercial suppliers. The clay is treated in a variety of ways to remove impurities and make it of uniform consistency.
Ancient potters had a more difficult task. They used local clay, which has such a specific signature of abundant or trace elements that archaeologists can use scientific techniques to determine where a particular artifact originated — not just where it was found.
Without modern machinery to sift out grit and organic matter or to thoroughly mix the clay to work out dry or dense spots, early artisans had to be particularly careful. Sometimes one could be nearly finished with a pot only to have a small stone or bubble rise and mar the surface, or to encounter a hard lump that affected the shape. In some cases, a potter would have to remove the trouble spot, break the piece down, and start over.
That’s precisely what’s going on in today’s text, where crooked crockery becomes a vessel for truth. The account begins in typical prophetic fashion: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD” (v. 1). This formula, identical to 7:1 and 11:1, indicates that Jeremiah believed God had spoken directly to him. Whether it was audibly or in a vision, we cannot say.
God and people(vv. 5-10)
God directed Jeremiah to a potter’s workshop (v. 2), where he watched a man working clay on a wheel. Jeremiah didn’t say precisely what kind of pot, pitcher, or plate the potter was making: he used a generic term that can mean “thing” or “article” (v. 3). In other words, Jeremiah saw the potter making “something at the wheel.” It doesn’t really matter what he was shaping, but to provide a visual image translators have used terms such as “vessel” (NRSV, KJV, NAS95), “pot” (NIV11, NET), or “jar” (HCSB).
When the potter’s work became too marred to continue, he squashed it back into a lump and started over. Jeremiah may have stayed and watched for a while, and the potter’s problem was apparently a common occurrence. The sentence structure and verb tenses suggest continuing action, so it could be translated: “whenever the vessel he was making was ruined, he would reshape it.”
The story in the text does not explain why the pot was spoiled to the point of having to be flattened and reshaped. Were there rough spots in the clay, or inclusions of foreign matter? Was it too wet or too dry?
God is clearly portrayed as the potter, so we may presume that the fault does not lie with the artisan. Obviously, the clay represents Israel. The LORD, Yahweh, was committed to making something good out of Israel, but had to work with the materials at hand. While it is clear that God was doing the shaping, the clay had a mind of its own, and didn’t bend readily to the potter’s hand.
The acted parable does not name the troublesome flaw, but Israel’s greatest downfall over time was the incorporation of foreign gods into the nation’s culture and practice. Yahweh could hardly shape a useful and worthy vessel from clay pocked with pagan influences.
Such thoughts would be in keeping with Jeremiah’s understanding of the problem, as indicated in vv. 14-16, but he does not spell out what caused the vessel to become too messed up for the potter to continue. He simply notes that when that happened, the potter reworked it into a different vessel, “as seemed good to him” (v. 4).
With vv. 5-6, God explains the connection: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” As clay in the potter’s hand, Israel was within God’s power. God wanted to make something good of Israel, and had entered a covenant with the people. The covenant promised that God would bless the people with security and good things if they proved faithful and obedient. In contrast, though it was not God’s desire, dis- obedience would lead to cursing: the emerging pot would be broken down.
But that was not the end of the story. Even when judgment was called for, and God had rendered judgment to a nation “that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,” the future remained open for the penitent. “If that nation . . . turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster (the same word as “evil”) that I intended to bring on it” (vv. 7-8).
Conversely, if God had declared “concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but 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” (vv. 9-10).
The options were clear. Jeremiah was fully versed in Israel’s covenant theology, and believed that God had confirmed it to him personally. The northern kingdom of Israel had already gone into exile. Would Judah be next? The people could repent and become something good and beautiful, or they could persist in evil and be broken down.
A warning and a response(vv. 11-12)
Thus Jeremiah declared that God was shaping disaster (or “evil”) again, but there was still hope: “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings” (v. 11b). Jeremiah uses skillful wordplay by employing the same word that means “potter” to declare that Yahweh is shaping a disaster against Judah. The NRSV captures the double meaning with “I am a potter shaping evil against you …”
The most important word in the verse, however, is the verb addressed to the people of Judah and Jerusalem: “turn.” The Hebrew word shub basically means to “turn” or “return,” but in this and many other contexts it means “repent.” To truly repent is to turn away from sin and toward God and goodness. Or else.
The people’s response was not what Jeremiah — or Yahweh — would have hoped for. Their reply was fatalistic, and potentially fatal: “It’s no use. We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will” (v. 12).
It seems unlikely that anyone would have used such a blunt retort, vapidly accepting the “evil” tag with which the prophet had labeled them. But, Jeremiah perceived the people’s response as a categorical rejection of God’s offer to forgive and rebuild if they would only repent. When we read through to v. 12, the people’s decision makes this one of the saddest stories in the Bible.
Jeremiah’s vision of the potter and the clay has long been a favorite metaphor for preaching, Bible study, or devotional thoughts. Unfortunately, we have often given to it an interpretation not found in Jeremiah. Influenced more by hymnody than scripture, we often use the image of the potter and clay as a prayer of believers who seek to be obedient to God, like clay in the potter’s hands. Thus we sing the familiar words written by Adelaide A. Pollard (1907):
Have Thine own way, Lord! / Have Thine own way! / Thou art the Potter, I am the clay. / Mold me and make me after Thy will, / While I am waiting, yielded and still.
The hymn offers a beautiful devotional thought, but it doesn’t describe what is happening in Jeremiah 18, where the prophet’s purpose is to warn a headstrong people whose attitude is precisely the opposite of the hymn: they would be much more comfortable singing the self-absorbed anthem that Paul Anka wrote and Frank Sinatra made popular: “I did it my way.”
Which song are you singing? NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for September 4, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Jeremiah 18:1-11
Do you ever remember back to when you held your child for the first time? The wonder of life. The complete and exuberant joy. The fear of responsibility. As you held your child for the first time, there was so much potential that you held. The world lay ahead of them and it was your responsibility to help guide them through this world. You would be able to mold and shape the world in which they lived. Helping them live into the life that God has created and called them into. With your child growing from a newborn into teenage years and adulthood, the harder you try and control your child, the less and less influence you will have on them. This does not mean that you take your hands away, but they more move to the outside and help guide and shape what is being formed. Just as a potter molds their clay, be intentional about how and when you shape what is before you; don’t press too hard or it will go away and don’t let go or it will fly out of control.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“We Might Have to Tweak That” from Million Dollar Arm via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Jeremiah 18:1-11