Broken Pot, Night in the Stocks

Jeremiah’s most barbed and exacting statements are recorded in chapter 19. The episode is not dated, but it could have been soon after Temple Mob incident.[1]

Jeremiah was somehow able to persuade leaders of the people and leaders of the priests to follow him to the loathsome “garbage dump”, the place called Topheth in the valley of Ben-Hinnom.[2] What he said to get them there we do not know.[3] We do know he carried a brand new clay pot[4] and spoke harsh words of condemnation.

Listen to what the prophet said on the LORD’s behalf:

I will bring a terrible disaster on this place, and the ears of those who hear about it will ring! 19:3.

For Israel has forsaken me and turned this valley into a place of wickedness. The people burn incense to foreign gods – idols never before acknowledged by this generation, by their ancestors, or by the kings of Judah. And they have filled this place with the blood of innocent children. They have built pagan shrines to Baal, and there they burn their sons as sacrifices to Baal. I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing! 19:4-5.

The time is coming… when this garbage dump will no longer be called Topheth… but the Valley of Slaughter. 19:6.

I will upset the careful plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will allow the people to be slaughtered by invading armies, and I will leave their dead bodies as food for the vultures and wild animals. 19:7[5].

I will reduce Jerusalem to ruins, making it a monument to their stupidity.[6] All who pass by will be astonished and will gasp at the destruction they see there. 19:8.

I will see to it that your enemies lay siege to the city until all the food is gone. Then those trapped inside will eat their own sons and daughters and friends. They will be driven to utter despair. 19:9.

While the leaders watch, he raised the clay pot and forcefully smashed it to the ground, shattering it to pieces beyond all hope of repair. Then he continued to speak:

Then say to them, “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: As this jar lies shattered, so I will shatter the people of Judah and Jerusalem beyond all hope of repair. 19:11a.

They will bury the bodies here in Topheth, the garbage dump, until there is no more room for them. 19:11b.

This is what I will do to this place and its people, says the LORD. I will cause this city to become defiled like Topheth.” 19:12.

And in all of this prophetic message no escape clause is either stated or inferred. After he was done, he left them and returned to Jerusalem.[7]

The prophet was held in high enough regard that he was not lynched on the spot. But he returned to the city and repeated some of the words at the front of the temple for everyone to hear. Was he asking for trouble?[8] This is when a certain priest’s anger boiled over.[9] He lashed out and insulted and physically abused the prophet to the fullest measure allowable in his situation.

An Eyewitness Account[10]

Why did I stay and watch? The scene is now indelibly imprinted in my brain. Every time I close my eyes I see the pain, anguish, blood, and the flies. I hear shrieks of pain, and groans of the prophet and also the insults, jeers, and hatred of priests and temple officials. It was all so horrible.

Stripped of his clothes, his hands were tied tightly to a post. They whipped, and whipped, and whipped him without mercy. After 20 or 25 lashes he was so weakened that his legs could no longer support him; his weight hung by his wrists tied to the post. At some point, I can’t say when, the groans ceased. Later still, I can’t recall when, the involuntary jerks also stopped. Still, the lashes came and came, reaching the maximum allowed of 39.

Certainly other men have been whipped, but never had I seen it done with such vengeance, such malice as this.

His limp body was then dragged a short distance, raised up, and placed in stocks[11].

I feel absolutely awful; dirty, no, filthy on the inside.

How I wish I could have drummed up the courage to go forward and give him a sip of water. I should have given him a little soup for nourishment. I wish I could have been by his side, swatting away the flies, chasing the pesky dogs away through the night; do whatever I could to help him survive. But I, like everyone else, let fear of the priests rule my behavior. It was the Priest in charge of the Temple who charged him and punished him without a trial. And as far as I know, God’s prophet was alone the whole night in those stocks.

Horrible, cruel inhumanity; this great and noble man treated in such a way as to become a household joke.[12]

The stories and laughs continue around nightly fires in all directions.

We all failed this upright spokesman for God.

Who will defend this most noble man?

Things to Note

1. The Lord had his spokesperson round up some dignitaries and take to them to the heart of the worst cesspool of pagan practices. Located outside the wall, just below the holy Temple. He spoke the harshest, most damning words. He made the point by smashing the perfectly good clay pot into pieces (who cares if some pieces shatter into the faces of these dignitaries). There was no harsher confrontation Spokesperson could offer.

2. Demonic[13] idols called for the murder of beautiful innocent children; and the people and priests were answering that call.

3. As offensive as the words about cannibalism of children sounds (19:9), this was nothing new to the priests and leaders. It is the bottom rung on the ladder, the deepest, severest level of punishment prescribed in the Mosaic Covenant (Lev. 27:16, 18, 21, 24, 28-29). It was absolutely, unequivocally avoidable. And the prophet’s words should have shaken them into recognition of their precipitous condition. But their hearts were stone cold.

4. This telling of the events assumes that Jeremiah acted on his own volition and not under God’s command when he repeated the private words (from the valley) to the general public in front of the Temple. Commentators are divided on this.

For example, Michael Brown states, “We can assume that he does this at the Lord’s bidding, since on other occasions the Lord sent him to the temple to deliver messages (see, e.g., 7:1; 26:1 – 2); moreover, it is difficult to imagine that Jeremiah would take it on himself to do this on his own, as he would be asking for the very trouble he so wishes to avoid (see, e.g., 15:10; 20:9).”[14]

People in the Bible were flawed humans just like us, not bigger than life. It is very possible that anger overcame this fiery man, and he maybe went a step further than directed.

Reasons for this opinion are as follows:

A. The Lord gave specific instructions regarding what was to be said and done before a specific group of people. The instructions did not include the temple and the common people.

B. The speech at the Temple did not honor the Lord, it only berated the leaders.

C. The speech at the Temple did not serve a purpose. Rather, it prompted an “I feel sorry for myself” lament that any man or woman can easily succumb to.

D. Jeremiah went too far in his personal, self-centered lament. These words are not God-honoring:

O LORD, you misled me, and I allowed myself to be misled. You are stronger than I am, and you overpowered me. Now I am mocked every day; everyone laughs at me. When I speak, the words burst out. “Violence and destruction!” I shout. So these messages from the LORD have made me a household joke. Jer. 20:7-8.

Yet I curse the day I was born! May no one celebrate the day of my birth. I curse the messenger who told my father, “Good news – you have a son!” Let him be destroyed like the cities of old that the LORD overthrew without mercy. Terrify him all day long with battle shouts, because he did not kill me at birth. Oh, that I had died in my mother’s womb, that her body had been my grave! Why was I ever born? My entire life has been filled with trouble, sorrow, and shame. Jer. 20:14-18.

These words are a true and Biblical (therefore Divinely Inspired) record of what Jeremiah felt and prayed, but Spokesperson was caught up in himself and felt he was under a landslide, even though in the middle of these two quotes above he expressed the highest of praise (verses 11-13). He was complaining about problems he had brought upon himself and was blaming his Commander for it.

5. Commander saw it fitting to answer his spokesperson with complete silence.

[1] It was during Jehoiakim’s reign that the authorities most clearly opposed the purposes of God and would have elicited such strong rebuke (however, there may be other reasons to place this closer to the final destruction). Much of the first audience of the book would have recognized the time clue given in 20:1, but we don’t have the data to interpret it.

[2] People groups throughout history in all parts of the world value and protect their children. Children hold the future. The practice of child sacrifice was demonic insanity. That the Lord’s people did this, and did it just outside the temple walls, shows how hard those demons were working. King Manasseh took the lead in this, murdering even his own sons, the princes of the land, and only a son of his old age survived to succeed him (2 Chr. 33:5-6). Manasseh would have had many more sons before his 45th birthday, he was 45 when his successor, Amon, was born.

[3] The text leaves this question unanswered, “Why would these VIPs follow him to a despicable place like that?” Perhaps two things are involved: First, he was doing something unusual by carrying this brand-new clay pot and he must have expressed urgency. Secondly, they perhaps figured he was going there to denounce the foreign, idolatrous priests. Something they could support. They could let him be the spokesman (and suffer any reprisals) while they looked on from a distance. Fretheim believes they hoped to entrap the prophet, “No question is raised whether these leaders will accompany him; unbeknownst to them, they will function as witnesses, though they may think they can entrap him.” Fretheim, P. 282. But things went otherwise.

[4] It is curious to note that during the span of his ministry the Lord told Jeremiah to buy three things. A linen ephod (13:1), this clay pot (19:1), and a piece of land (32:8-12). The Lord instructed Jeremiah to abandon the ephod and it was completely ruined (13:3-7), to smash the pot (19:10), and even the land was seen by the prophet as a public insult (32:25).

[5] The leaders would not have felt comfortable from the start, but they could still have been trying to attribute the evil to others (i.e. foreign priests). However, by verses 6 and 7 there is no denying that all the harsh words are pointed against them and they are being blamed for the horrible plague of war that is soon coming.

[6] This is a superb translation of the Hebrew phrase.

[7] Another question is, “why were there no physical reprisals for such offensive statements against the leaders and the priests?” They must have been livid at his words, but Jeremiah actually trapped them in their own pride and heaped shame on them. They went to this horrible place feeling offended by the idolatry (including child sacrifice) and feeling prideful condemnation against the idolaters. Jeremiah, however, shifted the blame for the evil upon “the leaders of the people and the leaders of the priests” for allowing these horrific practices to continue right outside the holy city. They were truly guilty and had no way to deny it.

[8] Jeremiah was human, very much a man. Going to that horrible place, speaking such sharp words and smashing the pot as a visible demonstration of wrath, only elicited a “ho-hum” response. He was angry! Is it surprising if he failed to ask his God for permission, and he went on to give his scathing message for the general population to hear? This is the kind of response the human beings have to such frustrating situations.

[9] It was bad enough that Jeremiah criticized the group there in the ugly valley, but it was a greater offence (in the eyes of the priests) to publicly shame the priests in front of the “much inferior” common people. Pashhur was not carrying out a personal vendetta so much as acting on behalf of the whole class of priests.

[10] This again is creative nonfiction in action.

[11] Stocks are very intentionally a public punishment. “Individuals are to be placed in the stocks (a wooden framework with holes for head and hands), which would expose him to public ridicule and contempt.” Fretheim p. 408.

[12] Jer. 20:8. This was indeed the intent of the public shaming.

[13] Biblical writers unequivocally accept the existence and extensive activity of demons on earth, Due. 2:17, Psa. 106:37, 1 Tim. 4:1, Jam. 3:5.

[14] Brown, Kindle Location 9491.

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