“Jeremiah: As Potter’s Clay,” Liahona, Oct. 2002, 18
His name means “Jehovah will exalt,” and he was fearless in his service of the Lord; yet the prophet Jeremiah experienced much anguish of spirit.
Sometime during the first part of Jeremiah’s more than 40-year ministry at Jerusalem, the Lord instructed him to visit a potter’s house (see Jer. 18:1–2). Jeremiah observed the potter at work, spinning a lower wheel with his foot while working with his hands a pile of wet clay on an upper wheel. Pottery making is one of the oldest crafts of civilized people. Jeremiah watched as the potter discovered a flaw in the vessel he was making. It interested Jeremiah that the potter collapsed the clay formation in his hands and began again to shape a whole new pot (see Jer. 18:3–4). The Lord then asked a rhetorical question: “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter?” (Jer. 18:6). This question also might well have been addressed to Jeremiah.
He was a prophet who saw some of the darkest days of Israel’s wickedness, yet through it all he recognized the skilled hands of the Master potter, molding his character into a beautiful work of art. The events of his life remind us of the necessity to submit our whole lives, no matter how difficult it may be, into the Lord’s loving hands.
Jeremiah was born in the town of Anathoth, about three miles (five kilometers) northeast of Jerusalem. His father, Hilkiah, was “of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin” (Jer. 1:1). While Jeremiah was still young, the Lord called him to be His prophet: “Thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak” (Jer. 1:7). Jeremiah at first resisted the Lord’s confidence in him: “I cannot speak: for I am a child” (Jer. 1:6). But the Lord was aware of Jeremiah’s potential: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; … and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jer. 1:5).
Similarly, the Lord knows each of us and has chosen us to come forth into mortality in a time and place that is best for us. He can mold us through our callings to serve in the home or Church. My wife and I gained a greater appreciation for this principle when we were called to preside over the Fiji Suva Mission. We did not speak fluent English, and my wife was particularly overwhelmed. She received a special blessing for this gift when she was set apart. She studied hard and practiced English at home and with the missionaries. Soon she was able to speak in English to the missionaries in zone conferences in Fiji, Vanuatu, and Kiribati; then in turn, she taught the missionaries working in New Caledonia in French. She felt that the Lord had called her to serve people of both languages; therefore, she needed to be able to speak both languages. This experience has molded and blessed her, our family, and the people she has had the opportunity to teach, even if her English has a slight French accent.
A major factor in the molding of Jeremiah’s life was his pliability, meaning his readiness to yield to the commands of God, to be flexible in freely and repeatedly bending to the will of God. Humility, obedience, faith, and freedom from pride are qualities of character that enhance pliability. The Master potter frequently tested Jeremiah’s willingness to be obedient.
One time the Lord directed Jeremiah to buy a clay jar, smash it before the leaders of the people, and then boldly prophesy, “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again” (Jer. 19:11; see Jer. 19:1–15). Jeremiah’s fulfillment of this assignment to make such a dramatic denunciation of his political overlords required courageous obedience, casting aside any regard for his own safety.
The word of the Lord then came to Jeremiah to make himself into an impressive object lesson. Jeremiah was instructed to make out of a crossbar and straps a yoke that animals wear, put it around his own neck, and wear it in the presence of King Zedekiah and Jerusalem’s ambassadorial corps. What a strange spectacle Jeremiah must have been before these men of great influence and power! Jeremiah told them that if they did not voluntarily bow down to and serve the king of Babylon, as oxen in a yoke, the Lord would destroy them (see Jer. 27:1–11).
In these and many other instances, Jeremiah was pliable enough to do what the Lord commanded, no matter how peculiar, unpopular, or foolish it may have made him appear to others.
During my service as mission president, I met many young people who also demonstrated this kind of pliability. I first met Olivier Pecqueux on a visit to New Caledonia. He was 24 years old and in the military service. He was not active in the Church, pursuing instead a life of worldliness. But the Lord had other plans for him. At his request we met and discussed his patriarchal blessing. He decided to humble himself, repent, and let the Lord mold his life. Soon he was called on a full-time mission, and he became one of my most capable elders. He is now attending college and was recently married in the Tahiti temple.
Our decisions should likewise exemplify pliability and a hope in Christ as expressed by Elder Hugh W. Pinnock (1934–2001) of the Seventy: “When we make mistakes, as ancient Israel was making, we can take what we have marred and begin again. The potter did not give up and throw the clay away, … and we are not to feel hopeless and reject ourselves. Yes, our task is to overcome our problems, take what we have and are, and start again.”1
Jeremiah was a man who saw many afflictions (see Lam. 3:1). In fact, the Lord warned him at the time of his call that kings, princes, priests, and the people would fight against him. “But they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee … to deliver thee” (Jer. 1:19), the Lord promised. The following are just two of the many difficult circumstances Jeremiah was required to endure.
When Pashur, the priest in charge of keeping order in the temple courts, heard of Jeremiah’s impressive breaking of the clay jar and prophesying before the people, he had Jeremiah arrested, beaten, and confined in the stocks. The next day Pashur had Jeremiah brought to him, but Jeremiah fearlessly repeated the Lord’s words of impending destruction, adding, “And thou, Pashur, and all that dwell in thine house shall go into captivity” (Jer. 20:6).
As the Babylonian army laid siege to Jerusalem, Jeremiah relayed the word of the Lord to King Zedekiah and his people that they must surrender. This upset certain officials, who then used Jeremiah’s attempt to leave the city as a pretext to arrest and imprison him for treason (see Jer. 37:6–15).
Jeremiah was cast into a terrible cistern-dungeon to die of starvation. Cisterns are pear-shaped cavities cut out of rock to catch and store water. Sediment had settled in the bowl of this cistern over the years until it was so deep that Jeremiah “sunk in the mire” (Jer. 38:6). If not for the courage and Christlike service of Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian servant to the king, Jeremiah would have surely died (see Jer. 38:7–13; 1 Ne. 7:14).
When the Babylonian king overran Jerusalem, Jeremiah chose to remain with his people at Jerusalem, continuing to deliver the word of the Lord to them despite their constant refusal to follow his advice. Jeremiah is believed to have died in Egypt not long after making one more appeal to his people to return to the Lord (see Jer. 44).
The things which Jeremiah suffered were some of the Lord’s most powerful tools for shaping and purifying his life. Likewise, that which we suffer and endure in patience gives us experience and can be for our good (see D&C 122:7–8). Elder John B. Dickson of the Seventy has said, “Life is not intended to be easy, but I promise those that labor faithfully … and with determination handle every challenge properly … that they will be blessed with feelings of happiness … that [will] mold and build us and that can never be taken away.”2
On 19 December 1841 the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met in the home of the Prophet Joseph Smith. According to the minutes of the meeting kept by Wilford Woodruff, “Elder Heber C. Kimball preached … of the clay in the hands of the potter, that when it [was] marred in the hands of the potter it was cut off the wheel and then thrown back again into the mill, to go into the next batch, and was a vessel of dishonor; but all clay that formed well in the hands of the potter … was a vessel of honor.”3
Jeremiah was a prophet who truly testified of Christ (see Hel. 8:20). The Savior Himself used Jeremiah’s words to teach and prophesy during His mortal ministry. His life was a vessel of honor, a guiding light of service, pliability, and long-suffering for Saints today.
Our lives may also be vessels of honor, works of beauty in the hands of the Master potter, if we will respond to His call, be pliable in His hands, and learn from the things which we suffer.