Summary: The surprise here is that the intention of God can be resisted, and if (we) turn He speaks of changing His mind.
A VIEW FROM THE POTTER'S HOUSE
On one occasion I was taken to a pottery museum, where one could purchase wares and also see them being made. I had made one or two small pottery items while at school (one of which remained on my mother’s back doorstep long after I had left home, until it was finally accidentally smashed). By comparison, though, the skill demonstrated in this ‘potter’s house’ surpassed anything I had ever seen before.
Jeremiah did not go to the potter’s house on a whim, as if he had nothing else to do one Sunday afternoon, but at the command the LORD (Jeremiah 18:1-2). The prophet had to be in the place of God’s appointing in order to receive God’s word (Jeremiah 18:2). The message was not just the result of Jeremiah’s meditation on what he was seeing (Jeremiah 18:3-4), but the LORD’s own interpretation of the symbolism of the potter’s methods (Jeremiah 18:5-6).
What really strikes me is the malleability of the clay in the potter’s hand. It spoils, so he mashes it under his hand and reshapes it. It spoils again, so he starts again. It is only as a last resort that he tosses it aside and begins with a new piece. Even then he might return to that old piece at the end of the day, and try again.
What a picture of God’s dealings with His people! God’s dealings as the Potter with the clay began when He ‘formed’ man out of the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7). Later the picture would be adapted to represent the LORD’s relationship with Israel (Isaiah 64:8). In the passage before us, somewhat surprisingly, it opens out to all nations (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
God’s dealings with other nations is best illustrated in the case of Nineveh.
Nineveh was full of wickedness (Jonah 1:2).
God pronounced judgement: ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’ (Jonah 3:4). This sounds absolute, with no ‘if… then’ clause.
The people of Nineveh, from the greatest to the least, ‘believed God and proclaimed a fast’ (Jonah 3:5). They did not have the Torah to guide them, but they did the best that they could within the limits of their limited knowledge.
The king of Nineveh, under the threat of God's utter (and seemingly irrevocable) condemnation, got off his throne and humbled himself saying: ‘Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?’ (Jonah 3:9).
Nineveh repented, and God relented (Jonah 3:10).
Yet sometimes the clay will not work with Him (cf. Jeremiah 18:12). (I am put in mind of the opera singer who on some days would complain that ‘the Voice’ was not working with her.) The surprise here is that the intention of God can be resisted, and “if (we) turn” He speaks of ‘changing' His mind (Jeremiah 18:8; Jeremiah 18:10).
Jeremiah no doubt will have recognized the terms of his own calling (cf. Jeremiah 1:10) in the references to plucking up, pulling down, and destroying (Jeremiah 18:7); and building and planting (Jeremiah 18:9). The LORD is the one who fulfills the deeds represented in this mixed metaphor of gardening and building. The prophet’s part is merely to declare that it is so (Jeremiah 18:11).