A Potter’s Look at Jeremiah 18

I’m a fan of first-hand knowledge. If possible, I like to get advice or insight from people who have lived, done, or seen the thing in question. Sometimes I don’t have that luxury. Sometimes I have to take an observer’s word for it.

Currently, I’m spending time in the book of Jeremiah. Eugene Peterson’s book, Running With The Horses has been my companion on this journey. Jeremiah was a prophet who began his ministry around 627 BC. He had the poor fortune of being a prophet to the Jews during a troubled time in their history. He was constantly the bearer of news they didn’t want to hear…and people did not like him.

(Some scholars say that he complained more than any other prophet. Which I find oddly endearing.)

I came across a Jeremiah 18 and realized that I have firsthand knowledge on this part of the account. Looking at it through my own eyes, as a potter, made it new and rich.

At this point in Jeremiah’s ministry, the Israelites have only made surface level attempts to change. Jeremiah is frustrated. This time around, God tells Jeremiah to go to the Potter’s house and he’ll give him his word there. (In this time, every village had a potter. The birth of Pottery thousands of years before, allowed people groups to settle down, farm and store food…not roam around in pursuit of their food sources. Communities were born.) Jeremiah sees the potter throwing a pot, but it’s not quite right. I imagine that maybe it was off-center, or perhaps he raised the wall too fast and it had thin sections…or maybe he didn’t trim his fingernails and he gouged his pot with them. At any rate it wasn’t an acceptable pot, so the potter formed it into another pot. (Jeremiah 18:3-4 paraphrased)

Jeremiah’s takeaway from this is what God says to him next. “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?…Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6). God is telling him -I can bring down your people and I can remake them…but I can’t tolerate the disobedience…I’m not going to throw a bad pot and put my name on it.

This potter’s takeaway is slightly different than Jeremiah’s. I certainly have had many a ruined pot on the wheel. And I am aware of how long clay that has been fired will rattle around this earth. I don’t want to make things and put my name on them if they are not an accurate reflection of me as the maker. So, I understand why the potter in Jeremiah took the marred pot and collapsed it in on itself to make another one. What the story doesn’t say is that most skilled potters don’t do that. Usually the clay is too wet to re-throw it right away. It most likely would have to be taken off the wheel, dried a bit, re-wedged (like kneading dough, but to get the air out) and then it could be thrown again. It’s basically recycling the clay and it’s a time-consuming process. It is a common practice among beginner potters or in studios with systems in place to aid in the process. However, master potters usually look at the value of their time compared to the cost of the clay (which is not much). And most choose to use their time in ways that will yield more of a profit. In other words, their time is worth more throwing, trimming, or glazing than it is recycling. Some say that recycled clay is the most expensive clay a potter will use.

Arguably, it would have been easier for God to ditch the Israelites and start over with a new group of people. I am certain it would be easier for God to ditch me, any one of the many times I have strayed, and start over with a new person who is trying to follow him. But he doesn’t do that. We cost him his son and we are expensive to God.

“The life of faith is very physical. Being a Christian is very much a matter of flesh—of space and time and things. It means being thrown down on the potter’s wheel and shaped, our entire selves, into something useful and beautiful. And when we are not useful or beautiful we are reshaped. Painful, but worth it.” Eugene Peterson

The Israelites, you, me…we are expensive clay that the master potter won’t give up on.

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Jennifer Chetelat

I am a potter, gallery curator, wife, and mother of two adultish people. I write about life and faith and learning.

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