Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Spoiled Vessels

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare 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.

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Jeremiah 18:1-11 is fraught with theological conundrums. Or at least it is to me. Some of you may be well settled on these matters.

  • God changes God’s mind?
  • God would actually shape evil against Israel?
  • In the analogy of the potter and the clay, the vessel is spoiled not by anything the vessel did. It’s the potter’s fault!

Aside from these difficulties for me, I can’t help but notice the hopefulness in the potter analogy. The vessel had yet to be glazed and fired. It was not yet necessary to bust the vessel apart and make a new one altogether. The vessel, though spoiled, was still being shaped and could be reshaped if necessary.

There are obvious takeaways from this observation. On personal, relational, and community levels, it is good for me to remember that as long as the vessels are understood to be ever in the shaping process, there is always hope for remolding.

But I also see connections to my work as an editor. And I think there are some ideas available here to authors as well. A submitted manuscript has not yet been fired and glazed. Ideally, however, what I receive from an author would be at least to the drying stage, having been shaped to almost completion. Potters call this the “leather hard” stage. The vessel can still be shaped if necessary (and it is almost always necessary to reshape a lip here and a handle there), but for the most part it is ready to go into the bisque kiln. The more difficult projects are those that come to me on either side of the leather hard stage: unshaped, on the one hand; and unshapeable on the other.


  1. These are interesting issues indeed! On God’s “repenting,” we in fact find a few cases in the Hebrew Bible of using shuv in relation to God. For example, see Exod 32:14.
    The “alternative” perspective is also represented: Num 23:19 says: “God is not a human that he would lie or a son of man that he would change/relent/be sorry.”
    In terms of God “shaping evil,” the Hebrew term ra’ is often better translated as “disaster” or “havoc,” usually in the sense of punishment. So in this passage, the same term is used for the house of Israel “turning from its evil” (meaning moral evil) and God’s invoking havoc (referring to divine retribution).
    And my take on the metaphor of the pot/clay is that this analogy relates solely to being within the control of the potter, not who is at fault.

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