The prophet Jeremiah ministered in a time when the people of Israel had fallen deeply into sin. God’s holy anger was ignited by their flagrant rebellion against His holy standards. In spite of God’s clear instructions not to worship the idols of their neighbor nations, the Israelites had lunged headlong into idolatry. They openly worshiped the false god known as Baal, the most popular god of Canaan. He was often carved or cast in the form of a bull, symbolic of strength and fertility. Archeologists have uncovered many Baal idols in Israel.
It is difficult to imagine the Israelites trading worship of the one true God for worship of idols made of stone, wood, and iron — false gods who could not hear their prayers and could not meet their needs. But we do the same thing when we forsake worshiping God for other activities, possessions, or relationships. Our idols are not made of wood or stone, but they are every bit as sinful.
Since Baal was worshiped as the god of agriculture, it was believed that it was necessary to make sacrifices to him so that he would send rain and a bountiful harvest. The Israelites had adopted the practice of pouring out offerings of wine from the rooftops of their homes in order to impress Baal (v.13). In times of drought, it was assumed that Baal was angry — and the only way to appease him was by offering a human sacrifice. The people of Jerusalem were involved in the unthinkable practice of burning their innocent little children alive in “Baal fires”. No wonder God was enraged! Like the practice of abortion today, He saw it as cold-blooded murder.
God’s patience had come to an end and He would tolerate their sin and idolatry no longer. He dispatched Jeremiah to preach a message of judgment to the elders and priests of Jerusalem. The setting of the sermon was the scene of the sin: the Valley of Hinmom, which was the garbage dump of Jerusalem. Standing on the spot where the people had sacrificed their little sons and daughters in the fire, the prophet held up an earthenware jar he had just bought at the potter’s house (chapter 18). He announced the sin of idolatry and then threw the jar to the ground, shattering it to pieces at their feet. The meaning was clear: because the people had persisted in their stubborn refusal to repent of their sins and forsake their idols, God was going to shatter them in judgment (v.11, 15).
The symbol of the clay vessel links this chapter with the previous one. As the potter forms (and re-forms) the clay, God molds and shapes the lives of His people. When we are receptive to His hands and surrendered to His will, He works with us to form us into useful vessels. But if we “stiffen our necks” (v.15) and harden our hearts against Him, He may have to break us in order to bring us to a point of surrender again. So what will it be for you? God’s will or God’s wrath? Will you be surrendered or shattered? Blessed or broken? Humble or hardened?