Clay in the Potter's Hands
God here uses the example of a potter forming clay vessels. Almost a century earlier, Isaiah had written, "But now, O LORD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand" (Isaiah 64:8). Thus, the potter and clay was a familiar image of God's absolute authority over His creation. But "the message God intended to communicate through this illustration was not, as some have thought, one of divine sovereignty. It was a message of grace. Judah had resisted the divine potter. Yet even now God was willing to begin anew and reshape His people into that good vessel He had had in mind from the beginning" (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion, 1991, note on Jeremiah 18:6). God desires that all Israel be saved (Romans 11:26)—in fact, all mankind (1 Timothy 2:4).
In verses 7-8 of Jeremiah 18, we see what Jonah well knew when he "dragged his feet" in bringing God's warning message to Nineveh (see Jonah 3:10). If people will repent at God's warning of destruction, He will call off the destruction. But the opposite is also true. If God pronounces good on a nation and it turns to evil, He will bring punishment on it instead (Jeremiah 18:9-10). So there was a warning inherent in the potter-and-clay analogy as well. But the main focus here was on mercy. God was fashioning disaster but was willing to start over with the people if they would soften their hearts and allow Him to work with them.
"But when Jeremiah preached this good news the people continued to resist the heavenly potter! It was too late to surrender their passion for idolatry and sin. What a tragedy! In the coming invasion the people who were unwilling to change would be crushed by suffering. The few survivors would become workable clay in His hands" (note on verse 6).
In verse 12, it is interesting to consider that people here see obedience to God as hopeless—perhaps viewing it as impossible. It may be that the false prophets had corrupted them by a message of "cheap grace"—teaching that since they supposedly couldn't obey God, the only thing to do was mouth confessions and rely on their sacrifices and other acts of piety. This is not so different from what is often espoused in modern mainstream Christianity. Furthermore, the people's concept of God had been corrupted by pagan teachings so that they were essentially appealing to pagan gods while believing they were trusting in the true God. He is astonished that they would forsake Him and His ways for false religion. "Snow water of Lebanon" (verse 14) refers to the waters from high Mount Hermon, which looms over the northern part of the land of Israel (Lebanon actually means "White Mountain"). These waters sank into the ground and emerged in the form of many springs, providing most of the water for the Jordan River to water the Promised Land. God likewise provided their physical and spiritual needs. Why would they look elsewhere?
Since the people have forgotten God and forsaken His ways, the land will be desolate and the people taken captive and scattered (verses 15-17). God will turn His back on His people (verse 17), just as they had turned their backs on Him (Jeremiah 2:27). While this was, no doubt, difficult for God, being a loving Father (compare Hosea 11:8), the evil of the people had to stop. Today some might call this needed approach "tough love." Indeed, the need for intervention was made even more pressing by the people's mistreatment of each other and of God's servants.
In Jeremiah 18:18, we find the people again plotting against the prophet, whereupon he cries out to God (verses 19-23). Jeremiah has done all he could to intercede for them, and yet they are trying to bring him down (verse 20). So he now cries out for God to act in terms that seem to violate Christ's instruction that we love our enemies and pray for them (Matthew 4:43-48). But we should suspend such judgment, not really knowing all the facts. It is likely that Jeremiah understood the truth of the second resurrection—that these people would be given an opportunity for salvation at a later time—and that he was here asking that God not provide a present atonement so as to relent from present destruction (as God had said earlier in Jeremiah 18 that He would upon repentance), for the sake not only of himself but of God's message. "Some have questioned the bitter prayer for vengeance. But those Jeremiah inveighs against have not only slandered him, but distorted the truth and so brought judgment upon the entire nation" (note on verses 19-23).
Moreover, God Himself may have inspired His prophet with this call for judgment. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary states: "In this prayer he does not indulge in personal revenge, as if it were his own cause that was at stake; but he speaks under the dictation of the Spirit, ceasing to intercede, and speaking prophetically, knowing they were doomed to destruction as reprobates; for those not so, he doubtless ceased not to intercede. We are not to draw an example [of how to pray concerning our enemies in general] from this, which is a special case" (note on verse 21). In any case, as with other calls for vengeance in Scripture, what is expressed is that the perfect vengeance of God is awaited rather than any hint of personal acts of revenge being taken by God's servant (see Romans 12:17-21).
The Psalms of David contain several calls for God to exact vengeance. Regarding these, the Tyndale Commentary remarks, "We may summarize [these] as the plea that justice shall be done and the right vindicated" (note on Psalms 1-72, p. 26).