Following the visit to the Potter’s house, Jeremiah records a dramatic prophecy the Lord has him enact and declare—first in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to a group of elders and priests (1-13) and then in the temple to the people of Jerusalem (14-15). The prophecy is one of unmitigated doom and disaster. Jerusalem will be smashed, shattered like the clay pot Jeremiah throws to the ground. The dead will be thrown like potshards into the Valley of Ben Hinnom—which will be renamed the Valley of Slaughter (6). There is no hope given for averting the coming judgment and no hope stated about God’s restoration on the far side of judgment. It’s a jarring, shattering message from God.
Jeremiah is given specific instructions to “Go and buy a clay jar from the potter” and then take some “elders . . . priests out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate” (1-2). Scholars identify this valley with a ravine that lies to the south or east of the ancient city of Jerusalem, just outside the city walls. The etymology is of the word Topheth is disputed: some say it’s from the Hebrew word for drum (played during child sacrifices) or burn (garbage dump) or spitting. It was a place where some burned their “sons in the fire as offerings to Baal” (5). God’s denunciation of this horrific practice conveys bewilderment (“something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind”—5) and fury (“I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired”—11).
The furious wrath of God is directed at the “stiff-necked” people of Judah (15). Like a person with a stiff neck, the people of Judah won’t look to the left or right; instead, they keep going straight ahead down an evil path. God’s words imply that the wickedness of the nation is increasing. Not only do they worship the false gods introduced by their fathers; they add new false gods to the mix; they “burn sacrifices . . . to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew” (4). In addition, they not only follow the horrific practice of child sacrifice, they make it commonplace (“they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent”—4).
Evil doesn’t remain static. Idols multiply, as does violence to the innocent. Wickedness increases if it’s not confessed, forgiven and forsaken. As people and nations, we are traveling on one of the two roads–the ancient path or a bypath (18:15). We are moving towards the Lord or moving further from Him. In Judah’s case, the people stubbornly journey towards destruction. In Jeremiah 19, they hear, in stark and jarring words, the devastating destination of the road on which they are traveling. “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).
Jeremiah’s calling to “uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10) is tested in this message from God to the nation. He is given a message that contains only destruction (no mention of future rebuilding, which is a part of many of his pronouncements). The test is whether he will be faithful to the words God puts in his mind and mouth (1:9). Jeremiah passes the test, speaking words of destruction and shattering the clay pot as instructed (19:10).
His faithfulness as God’s spokesman proves costly. In the following chapter we read how Pashhur, the chief officer in the temple, hears Jeremiah’s prophecy of disaster and has Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks (20:1-2). While he has already endured spoken opposition and alienation, now comes painful physical punishment.
Jeremiah’s experience is a reminder of the cost of being faithful to deliver God’s word in all its fullness. When society has moved far enough away from God’s ways, speaking words of critique and warning can be grounds for officially-sanctioned punishment—arrest or beatings. Pastors in many lands already live with this reality. As Western society continues to distance itself from biblical standards, we too may face societal scorn, legal indictment and personal punishment. This will test our fidelity to giving out God’s word in its fullness, especially the parts of His word that seem traitorous to the ears of those around us. May the Lord strengthen His servants to be faithful like Jeremiah.
One interesting observation is that Jeremiah is explicitly instructed to speak this message of destruction to the elders and priests in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (2). The text does not say God told him to deliver the same message in the temple: “Jeremiah then returned from Topheth, where the Lord and sent him to prophesy, and stood in the court of the Lord’s temple and said to all the people . . . “ (14). Is there an implication that he put himself in a tougher situation than God had intended? Was God sparing him by having him give the message to a select, few leaders away from the crowds? Or was Jeremiah just fulfilling the Lord’s intention by bringing this same message to the temple? We cannot say for sure, as the Scripture doesn’t give commentary. However, if Jeremiah had stayed clear of the temple in this instance and avoided arrest and punishment, he would have only delayed the inevitable. Sooner or later, his message would bring down the wrath of powerful people. Faithful prophets (unlike false prophets) eventually fall out of favour because they do not flinch from communicating God’s word—even when that word is confrontive and wildly unpopular.
What was the response of those who heard this dire message of destruction? We don’t know. Nothing is said about the reaction of the elders, priests or people. However, Jeremiah’s final words hint at their collective response: “they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words” (15). Additionally, Pashhur has Jeremiah arrested and beaten (20:1-2), apparently without protest or protection. Tragically, God’s word is not heard in a life-changing way. Shattering judgment awaits.