Last Sunday I attempted to preach on Jeremiah 18:11. I remain unsettled and unsatisfied with the result.
In my preparation I did not find a lot of help from scholarly commentators. I could not solve the problem of Jeremiah 18:11 with my almost nonexistent Hebrew. So, I am posting the gist of what I said, here in the hope that the Hebrew scholars out there might lend a hand, even if it is too late to rescue last Sunday’s sermon.
1The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:
2‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’
3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.
4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
No problem here. It is a beautiful picture God is like a potter working at the potter’s wheel. When the pot spoils God “reworks” (vb. ä·sä’ = work, make, produce combined with vb. shüv = turn back, return, restore, refresh). God is in the business of returning human beings to their original purpose and beauty. The circumstances of our lives aim to “restore” and “refresh” us. We are to be like malleable clay in the hands of a benevolent artist who intends only good for all creation.
But, God’s word to Jeremiah does not stop with this encouraging image. God goes on to instruct the prophet:
11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord:
Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.
Now that is a problem. God is “shaping rah against you.” “Rah” is not a good thing.
In my attempt to get around a God who shapes “evil” against people, I appealed to the words Terrence Malick put in the mouth of a priest, in his film “Knight of Cups.” Presumably speaking to Rick the main character in the film, although no one but the priest appears on screen, Father Zeitlinger (Armin Mueller-Stahl) says,
Seems you’re alone.
Even now, he’s taking your hand and guiding you by a way you cannot see.
If you are unhappy, you shouldn’t take it as a mark of God’s disfavor.
Just to the contrary. Might be the very sign he loves you.
He shows his love, not by helping you avoid suffering, by sending you suffering. By keeping you there.
To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself. Higher than your own will.
Takes you from the world to find what lies beyond it.
We are not only to endure patiently the troubles he sends. We are to regard them as gifts.
As gifts more precious than the happiness we wish for ourselves.
Suffering/ “evil” happens. We all experience pain. Tragedy and brokenness are inevitable. They are an unavoidable part of the human condition in this timebound material realm. But, just as the potter reshapes and reforms his clay to make it into the beautiful work of art it is intended to be, so God uses the suffering we experience to enable our true beauty to emerge. Thus we are to see “suffering”/ “evil” / “rah” as a gift “more precious than the happiness we wish for ourselves.” Suffering is not something be resisted but to be embraced as an instrument of God’s grace.
I pointed out that the intention of this “rah” is clearly to bring about reform:
Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.(Jeremiah 18:11)
I concluded my sermon by suggesting that this is the same thing the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews intended when he said,
My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
6 for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.’ (Hebrews 12:5,6)
I believe everything I said in my sermon is true and important. But I am not convinced that what I said is in fact what Jeremiah intended.
My problem is that “rah” is not in fact a synonym for suffering, difficulty, or struggle. It does not simply mean bad things or sad things.
As far as I can tell “rah” means “evil”. It carries the sense of “distress, misery, injury, calamity, wrong.” “Rah” is malignant. It is “cruel, nasty, hateful, and mean.” “Rah” is not merely, as I suggested on Sunday, the natural pressure of life that has the capacity to produce a beautiful diamond. It is a force that seeks to injure and destroy. It is hard to separate “rah” from harm.
So, I seem to be stuck with an image of a God who intends to cause harm. I am not sure I am helped by the possibility that good may come from that harm.
One of my foundational hermeneutical principles is that, in order for a biblical interpretation to be even remotely accurate, it must conform to Romans 13:10 in which Paul declares,
Love does no harm. (NIV)
So, how can I reconcile a God who is “shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you” with a God who “does no harm”.
It is possible (I am hoping) that the problem lies in my understanding of “rah“. When I see the word “evil” I tend immediately to attach a moral connotation. “Evil” to me suggests an action, thought, word, or deed, that actively seeks to bring harm. “Evil” feels to me like something I should resist. It does not feel like the gentle hands of the kindly potter shaping the material of my life to create greater beauty.
So, Hebrew scholars help me out here. Is it possible to rehabilitate “rah“?
nb: “The Knight of Cups” is not the first time Terrence Malick has ventured into the terrain of “evil”. In the magesterial sermon based on the Book of Job preached in Malick’s “The Tree of Life”, the preacher says,
No one knows when sorrow might visit his house, any more than Job did.
The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal.
Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turns His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?
The entire powerful sermon can be read here: https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/the-tree-of-life-17-terrence-malicks-job-sermon/