Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Jeremiah 19

Verses 1-15

The Lesson Of The Potter’s Vessel (Jeremiah 19:1-15).

Jeremiah was now called on to perform a prophetic ritual through which he would vividly depict what was to happen to Judah and Jerusalem. This too was in terms of a potter. He was to buy a potter’s earthenware vessel (the word baqbuq indicates a jar with a long narrow neck and the Hebrew word is intended to sound like the gurgling of liquid as it leaves such a jar. In order to bring this out we could translate a ‘gurgle jar’) and in the presence of the elders of Judah, both priestly and lay, he was then to hurl it into the Valley of Hinnom where it would smash to pieces. The vessel represented Israel/Judah, bought by YHWH for a price when He redeemed them from Egypt, and the smashing indicated what YHWH was about to do to them, partly because of their antics in the Valley of Hinnom. He was about to hurl them away from Him and smash them in pieces.

Jeremiah 19:1-2

‘Thus said YHWH, “Go, and buy a potter’s earthen bottle, and take of the elders of the people, and of the elders of the priests, and go forth to the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the gate Harsith, and proclaim there the words that I shall tell you.”

We have already seen in Jeremiah 18:1-4 that the potter’s workmanship represented ‘the house of Israel’, and so the purchase of the long necked, earthen ‘gurgle-jar’ (baqbuq) represented YHWH’s ‘purchase’ of Israel/Judah out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 20:2). But unlike the other, this jar was hardened in its shape and could no longer be ‘made again’. It was what it was. Thus if judged as unsatisfactory all that remained was to smash it. It was beyond reforming. The particular reason for it being termed a ‘gurgle-jar’ is brought out in Jeremiah 19:7 where YHWH was to ‘gurgle out’ (baqaq) the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem into the Valley of Hinnom.

Jeremiah was then to call on the elders of the people (their authoritative tribal leaders) and the elders of the priests (elsewhere called ‘the chiefs of the priests’ (2 Chronicles 36:14) or the ‘heads of the priests’ (Nehemiah 12:7)) and take them with him to the gate that led out of the city into the Valley of Hinnom. The fact that they were willing to go with him, even though they despised him, was an indication of the awe in which he was held, and the effectiveness of his presence. They were presumably aware of his previous enactments (e.g. Jeremiah 13:1-7) and no doubt wanted to know what he intended to do next, especially if it related to the Valley of Hinnom which had a certain reputation. The verb ‘take’ is not in the Hebrew and we are probably intended to carry forward the ‘go’ so as to embrace these elders (i.e. ‘go with --’). But the idea is right.

The Valley of the sons of Hinnom was well known both as a rubbish dump and as a centre of Molech worship in which human sacrifices were offered (Jeremiah 7:31). The Gate Harsith may well mean ‘the Sherd Gate’ This may have been either the Fountain Gate or the Dung Gate (see Nehemiah 3:13-15), or it may have been a small postern gate through which broken pottery (sherds) was cast into the Valley. And once Jeremiah had gathered the elders at the Sherd Gate he was to proclaim to them YHWH’s words prior to his visual display with the ‘gurgle-jar’.

Jeremiah 19:3

“And say, Hear you the word of YHWH, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem, thus says YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, Behold, I will bring evil on this place, which whoever hears, his ears will tingle.”

He was to call on the elders (who were seen as representatives of the kings of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem) in YHWH’s Name as YHWH of Hosts, the God of Israel, and inform them that He was bringing on ‘this place’ such evil that it would make the ears of men ‘tingle’ just to hear of it. A similar expression was used in 1 Samuel 3:11 connected with a prophecy related to the destruction of the earlier Sanctuary at Shiloh, thus it contained within it a veiled warning of what was to happen to the Temple. (Compare also 2 Kings 21:12 for another use of the phrase). ‘This place’ strictly means the Valley of Hinnom/Topheth (see Jeremiah 19:6) but was intended also to include all Jerusalem (Jeremiah 19:7; Jeremiah 19:12-13).

Jeremiah 19:4-5

“Because they have forsaken me, and have estranged this place, and have burned incense in it to other gods, that they knew not, they and their fathers and the kings of Judah, and have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons in the fire for burnt-offerings to Baal, which I did not command, nor spoke it, neither came it into my mind,”

The reason for YHWH’s judgment is now given. It was because they had forsaken Him, and had ‘made foreign’ the place in which they were now standing, by burning incense in it to other gods, foreign gods which they had not known previously. And He adds that they had also filled the whole of Jerusalem with the blood of innocent people, and especially that they had built ‘the high places of Baal’ in order to ‘burn their sons in the fire’ for burnt offerings to Baal, something which YHWH had not only not commanded but was also something which He would not take on His lips or even think about it because it was so horrible.

Alternately the ‘estrangement’ may signify estrangement from YHWH, but the consequence is the same for to hand it over to false gods both estranged it from YHWH and treated it as foreign.

Note the threefold progression from one increasing horror to another:

1. They had burned incense to strange gods, thus multiplying their previous idolatry.

2. They had shed innocent blood. This is revealed elsewhere as referring to the shedding of innocent blood throughout Jerusalem, compare Jeremiah 7:6; Jeremiah 2:34; Jeremiah 22:13; Jeremiah 22:17; and see 2 Kings 21:16. The idea was of judicial murder, wholesale violence and severe persecution of the righteous.

· 3) They had built high places to Baal and had sacrificed their sons to him. This was a combination of 1). and 2). taken to even further excess. Note how ‘the high places of Topheth’ (Jeremiah 7:31) have now become ‘the high places of Baal’. Baal (which means ‘lord’) was so central in their thinking that they involved his worship with that of other gods such as Moloch, intermingling the ideas.

The last part of this verse together with Jeremiah 19:6-7 are very similar in wording to Jeremiah 7:31-32 a. It was clearly something at the very heart of Jeremiah’s and YHWH’s condemnation of Israel/Judah.

‘Topheth’ may mean ‘the hearth’ (tephath with the vowels altered to the vowels of bosheth = shame) indicating that it was a place of burning. The high places were erected there by the people for the purpose of offering their children as human sacrifices ‘in the fire’. This is stated to be against all that YHWH had taught. It was ‘beyond His imagination’. He had of course once called Abraham to sacrifice his son, but only so that He could teach the lesson that such sacrifice was not required (Genesis 22). Topheth was in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, an ancient valley known by that name as early as the time of Joshua (Joshua 15:8; Joshua 18:16), probably after its owner. This valley was also used for the burning of refuse, something which eventually made it a symbol of God’s fiery judgment (Gehenna = ge hinnom = the valley of Hinnom). To look over the walls of Jerusalem at night at the refuse fires continually burning far below in the valley must have been an awesome sight and readily recalled God’s fiery judgment.

Here Jeremiah linked these human sacrifices with the worship of Baal (‘lord’), although in most of the Old Testament they are connected with the fierce Ammonite god named Molech (melech = king, altered to take the vowels of bosheth = shame) who was worshipped throughout the area (e.g. 2 Kings 23:10). This suggests a certain syncretism between the two gods, which may well have taken place because Molech was called ‘Lord Melech’ = Baal Melech = ‘Lord King’.

Jeremiah 19:6

“Therefore, behold, the days come, says YHWH, that this place will no more be called Topheth, nor The Valley of the son of Hinnom, but The Valley of Slaughter.”

YHWH now warns that the day was coming when that particular valley would no longer be called Topheth, nor the valley of ben-Hinnom, but would be called the Valley of Slaughter, the idea being that it would subsequently become a graveyard for the huge number who would be slaughtered when the invasion came, and would also be the repository for many unburied corpses (see Jeremiah 7:32, ‘they will bury in Topheth until there is no place left for burying.’). It had been rendered unclean by the activities conducted there. It would therefore be made even more unclean as a result of the dead that it would contain.

Jeremiah 19:7

“And I will make void (literally ‘I will pour out’ or ‘gurgle out’) the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life, and their dead bodies will I give to be food for the birds of the heavens, and for the beasts of the earth.”

Having in mind the symbolism of the narrow-necked gurgling jar (baqbuq) YHWH declares that He will ‘pour out’ (baqaq) the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, that is, He would reveal their counsel for what it was by pouring it out on Jerusalem’s rubbish heap, and on its place of slaughter and potential graveyard. And the consequence will be that YHWH will cause the badly guided people of Judah to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life, and this will be followed by their dead bodies being given as food to the vultures and the beastly scavengers (compare Jeremiah 7:33), always considered the most hideous of fates.

Jeremiah 19:8

“And I will make this city an astonishment, and a hissing. Every one who passes by it will be astonished and hiss because of all its plagues,”

So great will be the plagues that come on Jerusalem that the city will be ‘an astonishment’ and a total spectacle to be ‘hissed at’, so that all who pass by it will be astonished and hiss because of them (compare Lamentations 2:15-16). And this will be the result of the activity of YHWH, especially as described in the next verse.

Jeremiah 19:9

“And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they will eat every one the flesh of his friend, in the siege and in the distress, by which their enemies, and those who seek their life, will distress them.”

For in words based on YHWH’s curse as pronounced in Deuteronomy 28:53 on those who would be disobedient to His covenant, YHWH declares that He will cause His disobedient people to eat the flesh both of their sons and their daughters, and of their friends, because of the distress that will be caused to them by their enemies in the coming siege. Those who had sacrificed their sons and daughters to idols under the influence of idolatry would in a grotesque way now find themselves reaping the consequences of that behaviour, their morality having been shaped and distorted by their earlier behaviour.

The language is very bold, but it is not to be taken as really saying that YHWH will be directly responsible for the details of what will happen. The basis behind the words is rather that YHWH is taking responsibility for not stopping the approaching Babylonian siege, a siege in which conditions will become so bad, and hunger so dreadful, that the people themselves will indulge in cannibalism. But the actual working out of the invasion and the decisions and reaction of the defenders are to be seen as their own responsibility and resulting from their own choice. YHWH is by no means justifying or encouraging cannibalism.

It is often asked why God brings about such terrible things, and it is important in this regard to bring out the difference between YHWH’s direct actions where He is directly responsible for everything that happens, and His ‘causing of events’ whereby He is the mainspring while the actual detailed outworking is the result of the activity of sinful man. There is a combination of sovereignty on God’s part and free will on man’s part. God encourages men to act, He does not encourage them to sin.

Jeremiah 19:10

“Then will you break the bottle in the sight of the men who go with you,”

Having declared YHWH’s words concerning what is to happen to Judah Jeremiah is now called on to illustrate it by breaking the bottle which represents Judah in the Valley of Slaughter in front of the eyes of the elders of the people and of the priests. With our mind’s eye we can see him dramatically standing on the slope of the valley and then, in full view of the watchers, hurling the earthenware jar on to the ground, shattering it into many fragments. Many of them would have seen this as a prophetic action which was in their eyes a deliberate attempt to guarantee the occurrence of what he had prophesied. But this would not have been Jeremiah’s view. He already knew that it was going to happen. Breaking the vessel was simply to be seen from his viewpoint as an outward enactment of it so as to bring home the impact of what was going to happen.

Jeremiah 19:11

“And you will say to them, Thus says YHWH of hosts. Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot be made whole again, and they will bury in Topheth, until there is no place to bury.”

And having broken the bottle Jeremiah was to declare in the Name of YHWH, that YHWH would do the same thing to ‘this people and this city’. He would break them as one breaks a potter’s earthenware vessel which cannot be made whole again, in other words the disaster would be permanent and not just temporary, at least for the near future. (And while the remnant might arise from the chaos, the bottle would never again be fully restored). The result of the disaster that was coming would be that burials would take place in Topheth of such magnitude that they would be unable to find places where they could bury all who had died. The number of the dead were probably intended to be seen in terms of the number of tiny pieces into which the vessel had shattered.

Jeremiah 19:12-13

“Thus will I do to this place, the word of YHWH, and to its inhabitants, even making this city as Topheth, and the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah, which are defiled, will be as the place of Topheth, even all the houses on whose roofs they have burned incense to all the host of heaven, and have poured out drink-offerings to other gods.”

Jeremiah then confirms in ‘the prophetic word of YHWH’ (neum YHWH) that what He had been saying about Topheth also applied Jerusalem itself, and to the houses in Jerusalem and to the kings’ houses. For they too were defiled as a result of the fact that on their flat roofs incense had been burned to all the host of Heaven (compare Zephaniah 1:5; 2 Kings 21:3; 2 Kings 23:12), and because there they had poured out drink-offerings to other gods (compare Jeremiah 7:18). Thus they would share in the judgment coming on Topheth.

Cuneiform texts discovered at Ugarit contained instructions for offering sacrifices to astral gods on flat rooftops, and this erection of private altars on flat roof tops was apparently quite common. Strabo describes similar worship of the sun by the Nabataeans.

Jeremiah 19:14

‘Then came Jeremiah from Topheth, where YHWH had sent him to prophesy, and he stood in the court of YHWH’s house, and said to all the people,’

Having spoken YHWH’s words to the elders in the Valley of Hinnom Jeremiah majestically returned to the court of YHWH’s house (the Temple), and there he took his stand and spoke to all the people. His actions had probably taken place during a regular feast and there would therefore be large crowds gathered.

Jeremiah 19:15

“Thus says YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, Behold, I will bring on this city and on all its towns all the evil that I have pronounced against it, because they have made their neck stiff, that they may not hear my words.”

Speaking ‘in the Name of YHWH of Hosts, the God of Israel’ he declared to all the people who were there what YHWH’s intentions were, and that was that He would bring on Jerusalem and on all its towns all the evil that He had pronounced against them. And this was because they had so obstinately refused to hear what He had to say. A ‘stiff neck’ indicated deliberate obstinacy and unresponsiveness.

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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 19". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.