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"Thus saith the Lord, Go and get a potter's earthen bottle" ( Jer 19:1 ). We do not like dramatised truth, and therefore there are large portions of the Bible which we do not admire. We admire those portions sentimentally, but not practically; we look upon them as upon pictures of long ago, never intended for reproduction or imitation. Were a man to dramatise the truth now, he would be reported as an eccentricity. Jesus Christ dramatised it in parables; Jeremiah and Ezekiel dramatised it in various ways: we like this dramatisation to be confined to the Bible, as we like the Commandments also to be confined to the same limit; we never like to see any of them loose, and doing active work in the Church. In this way we allow the Bible to become old, an archaic treasure, a very valuable curiosity. We have seen in the previous chapter what the potter could do with the vessel. Let us make no mistake about that vessel, for it was then in wet clay, and so long as a vessel is in wet clay the potter can do with it what he pleases; but once let it pass the oven, and there is no potter on earth can do anything with it. It is most desirable and essential that we should have right ideas about the potter and the clay, for that image, by being mistaken in its purpose and scope, has wrought infinite mischief in the Church. There is a point up to which the potter can do what he pleases with the clay: he can make the vessel high or low, broad or narrow, shapely or ungainly; he can play with the wet clay. There was a time when the Lord could do this with man; when he took the dust out of the ground and shaped it, and prepared it for the reception of inspiration, he could have broken it, or re-shaped it, or done what he liked with it, but not after he had breathed into man the breath of life, and man became a living soul. Reverently, then, God conditioned and limited himself. The Lord cannot convert the world without the world's consent. In Almightiness the Lord still reigneth in the fulness of his power. He can make the nations, and put them down; but what can he do with a little child's heart when that heart is set in deadly animosity against him? He could break the child upon the wheel, but breakage is not conversion, destruction is not reconciliation. How does he propose to proceed in this matter of bringing the world to himself? We find the answer in the music of the New Testament. What is there? Any hint of omnipotence? Not one. What is the tone of the New Testament? Reasoning, entreaty, persuasion. In it there is a Man who shall tell good news and ask men to believe it; and he must put upon all the eloquence this terrible climax, yet this climax full of gracious-ness "He that believeth shall be saved: he that believeth not shall be damned." Everything depends, then, upon the state in which the potter's vessel is found. Once let it be hardened by fire, and the potter can do nothing with it, but save it, use it, or break it; it has passed out of his hands. There is a sense in which we pass out of the hands of the mere power of God. He can always destroy us. Omnipotence is always available for crushing; but in the matter of salvation there must be pleading, standing at the door and knocking, patient waiting, loving and tender appeal. Omnipotence must soften itself by its infinite lovingkindness, that the two may work together in zealous co-operation. A potter can only work with the clay whilst it is in a certain condition. We are not clay. When a man asks us in theological anger or impatience, Cannot the potter do what he likes with the clay? we answer, Yes, before it has gone through the oven, not after; and we answer, No, we are not clay, we are men, souls, thinkers, and it hath pleased God, with whom alone rests the thunder of Almightiness, so to make us that we can disobey him; otherwise we could not be men. We must take the risks of manhood with its advantages. Our dejection is great only because our exaltation is unequalled by any creatures known to ourselves. It is because we can blaspheme God that we can pray.
Jeremiah is to take a potter's earthen bottle for dramatic uses. He is to go forth, not personally, but officially: "Take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests; and go forth." Cruelly have these prophets been used, as if they intended all the harsh expressions they used. They had nothing to do with them; they were errand-bearers; they were sent with messages of thunder, and all they had to do was to deliver them. They themselves trembled under the very burden they carried. This will remove a great deal of the difficulty felt in relation to what are known as imprecatory psalms, objurgatory prophecies, cruel denunciations, and the like. The men were not scolds, furies, people who delighted in the use of violent language as a kind of rhetorical exercise; they were men who were charged with the judgments of God, and were bound to deliver them under pain of" death. Men are sent on hard errands. The men do not like the business they have to do oftentimes. We could be so popular, say they, if we could but say just what we pleased out of our own imagination; and then we should offend no one, we should enjoy the hospitality of nations; we should prophesy smooth things, and make the lives of men comfortable; we should take the sting out of the law, and all darkness we should blow away from the heavens, that they might shine in beautiful blueness and radiance; then we should be sent for, and patronised, and compensated, and honoured, and mayhap might sit sometimes with the king on his throne that we might whisper into his ear more tenderly and intently sweet lies. A prophet's life was a hard one. What could it be to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, or to Ezekiel to talk this retributive thunder and lightning? Yet they could not be silent; the carriage was made for the gun, and the gun it must carry. The Lord has made men different. Some men could not read a prophecy aloud without taking out of it all that is distinctive of its intellectual energy and spiritual dignity. Such men would turn a denunciation into a kind of lying benediction. Others, again, could not read the Beatitudes as they ought to be read, with musical tremulousness, with tears, with infinite suggestiveness of tone, with sympathy that would not irritate a wound. Each man must operate according to his own gift and function. Here we come face to face with the sovereign election of God, and we accept it as a gracious truth. One man is made of iron, and another of finest porcelain, and another hardly made at all simply blown into a kind of trembling existence, more a figure, a wraith, a cloudy shape, than a solid personality. Each accepts his gift of God, and works accordingly, and thanks God for any measure of grace and power, and for any opportunity, how limited soever, of proclaiming the eternal kingdom of light and truth and grace.
We need some such introduction as this to the tremendous sentence which Jeremiah pronounced when he went unto the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the east gate. He was there to recite a lesson: "proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee," at the moment. How he must have writhed under the torture! How his lips must have been made again to speak this molten lava! How he must have lost consciousness in a certain way for a time, and have become a mere instrument or medium for the using of Almighty God! Man never conceived these supreme judgments; they bear an impress other than human. What an awful cataract of judgment what complaining of neglect and forsakenness what an exhibition of treachery, blasphemy, self-idolatry, and all shame! And what resources of retaliation what mockery what taunting! Thus: "And I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place," a word in the Hebrew which corresponds to the sound of gurgling. "I will make void:" I will pour out as men pour water out of a bottle, and it gurgles its way out into the ditch; so I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem. A kind of subtle laughter as of mockery, a ghostly taunting, runs through this declaration. "Their carcases will I give to be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beasts of the earth:" I will spread a banquet for birds and beasts of prey. "And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness." Jeremiah never invented these words; as a human invention they would be wholly out of proportion to the thing spoken about. Man can never take such a view of sin as can justify such judgments on a merely human scale. It is not in man's moral nature to see sin in its sinfulness, except in a very limited and suggestive degree. Only he who can see sin as it is black, infamous can fit the judgment to it. Therefore, in the judgment of God let us read the divine estimate of wrong being and wrong doing. Yet we feel that history without this spirit of judgment would be intolerable. Imagine human history rolling forth in ever-increasing volume without the spirit cf judgment having its days of criticism and audit and doom! The spirit of judgment has made the centuries what they are. But for the action of that spirit how the black river would have increased, and overflowed all the green fields and blooming gardens, and turned the whole earth into a black sea! But now and again the spirit of judgment has come down, set up a great white throne, sat upon it, and meted out penalty, and given fear its place in the ministry of Providence, and has thus held in limitation that which would have inundated and overwhelmed the whole green earth. Let us be thankful for death; let us bless God for plague and pestilence: they are the servants of the Almighty. Even when they come to avenge neglect of law, they do not divest themselves of religious suggestion. There have been men who have laughed almost atheistically because they have traced plague and pestilence to the neglect of sanitary law. But who made sanitary law? Whose law is it? Why was not nature so made that we could do just as we pleased? Is not man greater than any sanitary law? The answer is, No; sanitary law is a law of heaven as well as a law of earth, and plague and pestilence are the black wolves which God keeps to bite men who sin against sanitary law. We do not by merely using secular or scientific terms do away with the central and abiding principle of a religious judgment and a religious penalty.
What then happened? Jeremiah, having thus denounced the judgment of the Lord, took up the bottle and broke it in the sight of the men that went with him. Then he was to say: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter's vessel, that cannot be made whole again." Sometimes we need graphic displays of God's meaning. We cannot understand abstract reasoning, we are lost in spiritual metaphysics; sometimes, therefore, God has to employ means for writing the lesson in very graphic letters before our eyes, and he must say as bottle and vessel are broken in the sight of the people "Thus!" Why have we not ears to hear the noises which are made thus in penal providence? Why do we not exercise our eyes and behold how many bottles are broken upon the floor of history, that men may be taught how God will act in certain moral crises? We call such exhibitions dramatic, theatrical, eccentric; still the prophets go forth and declare God's truth in God's way: long, elaborate, minute, critical, eloquent appeals and denunciations would have been lost, but the shivered bottle taught the observing people what God meant to do with them; they would be as a little bottle in his hand, as a thing that could be broken to pieces at their very feet. The Lord resorts to all manner of exhibition and illustration and appeal, if haply he may save some. This is the reason why he dashed your fortune to pieces. You remember when the sum was large, and you said you would die in your nest, how he took you up the bottle and broke it at your feet, and you started, and wondered as to what was coming next. It was thus that God broke the bottle of your little child's life; he saw that this was the only way in which your attention could be excited, for you were becoming imbruted and carnalised; you were losing all spiritual life and dignity and value, and were rapidly amalgamating yourself with the dust; therefore, he had to send infinite trouble before your eyes could be opened in wakeful and profitable attention. Thus the Lord is defeating crafty politicians, and selfish statesmen, and ambitious kings, and families that are bent on their ruin through their dignity: and thus, and thus, by a thousand breakages, God is asking man to think, ere it be too late.
Throughout this condemnation there is a spirit of justice. We never have mere vengeance in the providence of God, any more than we have mere power in the miracles of Christ. The miracles of judgment and the miracles of providence are all explained by a moral impulse or purpose. The Lord condescends to use the explanatory word, "Because." Thus we read: "Because they have forsaken me." A wondrous word, of frequent occurrence in the sacred books, is this word "forsaken." God feels it when we do not keep near him; he misses us; he cannot bear to be forsaken. Has he a heart? Has he sensitiveness in regard to creatures short-lived upon the earth, as ephemera are short-lived in the sunbeam? Can he not make more men to keep him company? Are we of consequence to him? Why this divine wail because God has been left, neglected, forsaken? This is not the complaint of mere fastidiousness; this is the revelation of the divine nature. He condescends to cry that we may understand that he has a heart; he is willing to send upon the earth a shower of tears that we may know how capable he is of being grieved. There is, then, a spirit of justice in the whole condemnation. Verily, there is a reason or an explanation of all the judgment that falls upon our life. Why was the one; ewe lamb taken? Because we had forsaken God. Why was our house ruined by the storm? Because we had estranged the sanctuary. Why was the whole business turned back upon us in disappointment and confusion? Because we had burned incense unto other gods. Why this long continuance of cloud, and frown, and difficulty, and humiliation? Dost thou ask, thou masked pretender? Dost thou ask in the tone of injury? Put thine hand within thy breast, now draw it out, and it is white with leprosy; put it back, it is more leprous still: the answer is within thee the heart is set against God. It will be always difficult to make amiable persons understand this, because they have not strength enough to go many a mile in the devil's road; it is impossible, therefore, for them to believe that the devil's road is so long, and that other men can take a journey into a far country and there waste their substance with riotous living. You can account for your poisoned blood if you like. Do not make a mystery when you can solve the riddle. Do not ask men to pray with you until you have damned yourself. Why should we waste our prayers upon men who have covered up their iniquity, and then wanted us to plant the flowers of piety in the black soil? There is a reason behind all this; probably we cannot always understand that reason, because all judgment does not fall because there has been sin; sometimes judgment is sent to try men, that they may be baffled and disappointed and humbled; sometimes God says, I will inflict a loss upon Job in order that he may pray with tenderer pathos and larger scope of language and desire; I will teach the patriarch how to pray; at last I will make him pray for the very friends whom he has been contradicting all this time. Sometimes he makes us poor that he may make us rich. Every man, therefore, must judge the case for himself; the one anxiety of the teacher should be that no man should lay flattering unction to his soul when he has no right to it; and on the other hand, the true teacher should see that no man is cast down of sorrow overmuch when he cannot trace the sin which accounts for the judgment; in that instant it may be that God is trying and testing and training, and all the while is looking over the furnace and watching until he can catch sight of his own image, then he will deliver and glorify those who have been purged and tested. This is a double question. The face on each side must be studied, and no man must pronounce for another, but let each be faithful to himself, or he never can receive explanation, condolence, or true sustenance. What looks like severity is really profoundly beneficent. This we have tested in many an instance. Man cannot always pronounce upon his trouble on the day of its occurrence; he needs the help of distance. Let a man look upon the first grave he ever dug a quarter of a century after he made that pit in the black ground. How awful it was on that day of digging! How near despair the man was when he took his first journey into the cemetery! But time came and wrought its wizardry in explanation and soothing sympathy; the horizon enlarged; events occurred which without being ostentatious were expository; things fell into their places; out of chaos came order, out of tumult came music, out of darkness came light; and now the way to the cemetery is almost a flowery way; there are joys to be had there not to be found otherwhere not shouting, exulting joys, but those tender gladnesses which are charged with a deeper pathos because of the melancholy which throws upon them a hue as of heaven's own light. Experience alone can understand this. Such conclusions cannot be rushed to and violently forced; they must come as the result of a long educational process. We see here, however, the place of the prophet in society; he is a moral teacher, he speaks great spiritual truths; he is not an expositor of science and art, he is an expositor of the ways of God to men.
Jeremiah having delivered his message, what became of it all? "Pashur the son of Immer the priest, who was also chief governor in the house of the Lord, heard that Jeremiah prophesied these things. Then Pashur smote Jeremiah the prophet" ( Jer 20:1-2 ). The word "smote" is grammatically peculiar. Within the grammar of it is held the meaning that the blow was struck with the priest's own hand. It was not a stroke delivered by another. So excited did Pashur the son of Immer the priest become, that he lifted up his hand and smote the prophet who had thus denounced the sin of the nation. Did Jeremiah retire dismayed? We find the answer from Jer 20:3 to Jeremiah 20:6 . Jeremiah was not overborne by this blow from the priest's hand; he said, "The Lord hath not called thy name Pashur, but Magor-missabib:" there shall no longer be joy round about, but fear round about; and the worst kind of fear, "for thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will make thee a terror to thyself." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! Prophets must not accept a flesh wound as a period to their function, as an exhaustion of their prerogative; while the poor flesh smarts under the stinging blow the soul must rise to the occasion, and the smiter himself must be struck with. a deadlier hand than his own. Thus the prophet has a bad time: of it in the world. We pray that a prophet may arise. Yet who dare say Amen? He would have a hard time of it! We need him much. The Lord hath forsaken me utterly if at this moment the Church does not in all her departments and communions need a prophet, a terrible man, a man of iron lips, a man of throat of brass, a man too strong for patronage, yet weak in the presence of all tenderness, necessity, and helplessness. Let him come, O living God, with his potter's earthen vessel, and break it before us. Yet how dare we ask thee to send that man? We should ill-use him. Yet we need him very much.
Almighty God, who can answer all thy questions? Thou hast hedged us round about with mystery. Dost thou taunt us with thine inquiries that we may know how small we are? or dost thou seek to lure us to nobler subjects that we may cultivate the whole inheritance of our mind? Thou dost take us into faraway places and plunge us into immeasurable shades, and we hear thy questions and cannot answer them; when we think we know something, thou dost overwhelm and confound us with some new question; we are dazed and blinded and lost. We are glad of this, for things are larger than they look; every stone has a temple in it, every shadow veils its own little mystery; all things have voices, though we have not yet given them opportunity to pour upon our attention their sweet music. It is a great world, it is a wondrous life; sometimes we want the word Immortality to eke out our speech, for this is more than life, it is rapture, it is agony, it is joy supreme, it is a quivering weakness that indicates inexhaustible strength. We bless thee for all these contradictions and mysteries, these crosslights and vexing shadows; they humble us, and bring us to the right attitude, and call upon us to cry out unto the living God, What art thou, and where? and, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? Is it always to be this living under the shadow of a stone wall? are we to be hemmed in always by this granite? We want the horizon, radiant and yielding, going back as we go forward to charm us into more solemn solitudes. Heighten all our thoughts, deliver us from all littleness, from all envy, bitterness, uncharitableness, and monotony, and lift us up into those high exercises of contemplation and homage that shall bring us back to the world more industrious and more earnest after the things of God. We are now following the call of Jesus: Greater things than these shall ye do, said he, when he pointed to all his miracles. The Spirit of God was promised by the Saviour of the world to abide with us. What can we do on one short visit? what can we see by one transient glance? We want a teacher to abide with us, and thus destroy all time by giving us to feel that we are lost in God's eternity. Pity us one and all, save us from our distresses, and when thy waves and thy billows come over us, may we not call them billows and waves, but thy billows and thy waves; then they shall be like summer dreams. Be in the house that everybody else has forsaken: charm the solitude that no human friendship breaks: help those who are heavy-laden to carry their burdens, and upon eyes that are weary with watching send some refreshing slumber. O Man of the Cross, Christ of Calvary, turn our prayers into great answers! Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 19". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany