The one who stiffens his neck after numerous rebukes will suddenly be destroyed without remedy. (Proverbs 29:1)
This proverb came to my thinking recently, maybe in the context of me not “stiffening my neck” so much, but I don’t know. The image is of a person insisting on going his way despite repeated evidence and corrections to turn back. The result is utter failure and destruction. Whatever he had hoped would protect him on his journey of folly will not work. Without remedy.
What brought this verse up for me was reading in the Book of Jeremiah. The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Arise, and 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. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jeremiah 18:1-10) Jeremiah was ordered by God to watch a potter at work. As probably happened many times a day, the potter was forming some clay into a vessel when something happened which caused the potter to form something else from the clay.
While the translation says that the vessel was “spoiled” the picture is not necessarily negative. What it means is that because of the nature or the make-up of the clay, it was not best to be used for the original vessel but was better suited for the second vessel. Certainly, God’s application of the visual parable contained positive as well as negative “spoilage”.
God’s application, which also stands as an explanation of the Book of Jonah (I assume Jonah predates Jeremiah. Some believe Jonah to have been written after and dependent on this passage), is that just as a potter is able to change his plans for clay based on the make-up of the clay, God can change his declared plans for a nation based on the actions of the nation. A nation which reacts with repentance to declared judgment will see God change his plan concerning that judgment. Their repentance “spoiled” their use as vessels of wrath. Jonah is one example of that. Other biblical examples include Ahab and Manasseh, two of the most wicked kings in Israel’s history, who both responded with repentance to God’s judgment and had their judgment eased (1 Kings 21:27-29 and 2 Chronicles 33:10-13).
The opposite is also true, and this is the specific point to Israel. A nation set up for God’s blessings and favor but responds with disobedience to God, will not receive the promised blessings. Earlier, Jeremiah had delivered a message from the Lord in the city gate. They had comforted themselves with the promises of God and felt safe because the Temple was there. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. (Jeremiah 7:4-7) God, I have said before, is not magic. Neither are the items associated with God talismans which somehow obligate God’s protection or action on the possessor’s behalf. God asks a pointed question Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’–only to go on doing all these abominations? (Jeremiah 7:9-10) The answer is obvious. God, to whom they felt no allegiance but instead were in open disobedience and rebellion, will not step in to deliver them so they can continue in their rebellion and in their wicked behavior.
A skeptic with whom I was talking described himself as “a sovereign moral agent”. I forget the context of that statement, but what often strikes me when I remember it is that so many – not just skeptics but also among the people of God – refuse to consider that God is a sovereign moral agent. Whether clutching relics, or mindlessly going through ritual; the pastor I knew who would pray “In Jesus’ name, I command you …”; the skeptic who says that since the Nazis had “God is with us” on their belt buckles, they were Christians. In all these things, God stands as a sovereign moral agent who chooses his actions in righteousness. The popular saying that God is no man’s debtor has it wrong; God is obligated to no man.
Having applied the message of the potter’s actions, God now brings it home. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’ (Jeremiah 18:11) God pronounces judgment on Israel – which the visual parable said was possible for the nation “planted in the land” but also said did not have to be the final word – and calls on Jeremiah’s hearers to repent. The response of the leaders is heartbreaking. “But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ (Jeremiah 18:12) Can the choice given these people have been plainer? We shake our heads when we see the guy dragging the oxygen tank stop to light up a cigarette, but we kinda understand as he explains that it’s his only pleasure left. But here was a plain warning and a genuine offer of grace that would end the threats and they said “never will I turn!”
God then sets up another visual parable. It’s found in the next chapter. The LORD told Jeremiah, “Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take with you some of the leaders of the people and some of the leaders of the priests. Go out to the part of the Hinnom Valley which is near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. Announce there what I tell you … “Now break the jar in front of those who have come here with you. (Jeremiah 19:1,2,10) Another trip to the potter. Another message to the people about the judgment which is coming. The clay, no longer pliable, gets shattered. The ones stiffening their necks against warning after warning find themselves destroyed without remedy.