The Potter and the Clay

Jeremiah18_6

A familiar, figurative phrase found in the Bible, as well as in some spiritual songs, likens God to a Potter and His people to the clay that He fashions according to His desire.

One of the particular hymns, which uses this metaphor, is entitled, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.”  The first stanza declares, “Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way! Thou art the Potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me After thy will, While I am waiting, Yielded and still.”

In this song, we are probably not thinking on the same as the Psalmist in Psalm 139:13,14, who acknowledges unto God, “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.”

So, though, we certainly can think of God as being the One who formed our physical bodies, yet that is probably not what is in our minds when singing this song.  Rather, we are more likely to be focusing on that spiritual part of us, our souls, and realizing the need for God’s help in developing more of the nature of Christ in our own lives. It, therefore, is a “molding” and “making” of our spiritual, inner man that we are reflecting on when blending our voices in this particular song. For we are to abide in the vine; bear the fruit of the Spirit and increase in that fruit; to grow spiritually; to become more like Jesus, our perfect example.  It is to His likeness we are to be “molded.”

Also in this figure of God being the Potter and His people being the clay, what else does it imply?  Do we not see the greatness of the Potter over the clay?  Isaiah rhetorically asks, “Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay, That what is made should say to its maker, ‘He did not make me’; Or what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?” (Isa. 29:16).  And elsewhere, “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker — An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands'” (Isa. 45:9).

In view of Isaiah’s confession that “…all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa. 64:6), he then looks to God and says, “…You are our Father, We are the clay, and You are the potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand” (v. 8).  Yes, it is to God whom Isaiah looks for help. But was it God who made them unclean?

Paul also likens God to a potter in Romans 9:20,21: “On the contrary, who are  you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?”

But, again, is it God who simply makes some people good and some people bad by merely His own discretion or arbitrary choice — and apart from anything pertaining to the individual?

In the comparative use of God being the Potter and His people the clay, we must be careful not to infer more than what the Lord intended.  For is it God who makes people to be liars, thieves, murderers, gossipers, drunkards, immoral persons, and any other specific kind of sinner that you can imagine?  How could God, who commands us not to sin and doesn’t even tempt anyone to transgress (1 Jn. 2:1, Jms. 1:13), be charged with causing every sinner to unchangeably do whatever wickedness that person will do?  And if man sins because God fashioned him to, then how could a sinner ever be accountable for his own actions?

The same can also be said about those whom God wants to live righteous lives.  Isn’t that what He really wants all to do?  Yet, similarly, that, too, requires the individual to make up his own mind to live that way.  For we are each responsible for determining the course of our lives, whether it be for good or for evil; and we do that with the free will that God has given to each one of us.

Though God’s greatness, if illustrated with the dimensions of space would be infinite, while ours would hardly be the size of a grain of sand, yet man has the ability to stubbornly, foolishly, or for whatever reason, keep the power of God out of his life.  And that is because the Lord will not intrude.  He does not force His will against another. Rather, His word is to be lovingly and willingly obeyed through humble submission.

But though God does not coerce His way into the heart of others, He sometimes will use events or circumstances in His divine providence to help the hardhearted and erring come to their senses and turn from their wicked ways and return to Him.  We saw recently that this was the case of the Psalmist who points out that “Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word” (Psa. 119:67).  He saw “good” in being afflicted, for it led him to the study of God’s word (v. 71).

For another example, Hosea’s wife Gomer had left him.  She had the spirit of harlotry and was going after her lovers and looked to them for her bread, water, wool, flax, oil, and drink  (Hos. 2:5).  But consider what God was going to do: “Therefore, behold, I will hedge up her way with thorns, And I will build a wall against her so that she cannot find her paths. She will pursue her lovers, but she will not overtake them; And she will seek them, but will not find them…” (vv. 6,7).  God was going to make her wrongful way more difficult for her.  As a result, “…she will say, ‘I will go back to my first husband, For it was better for me then than now'” (v. 7).

Gomer was just one person, but the Lord has also dealt with many in similar fashion.  For instance, God says, “I have surely heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have chastised me, and I was chastised, Like an untrained calf; Bring me back that I may be restored, For You are the LORD my God'” (Jer. 31:18).

Of course, the affliction that God would bring, whether directly during the Old Testament Period or providentially in our time, has not always caused the wayward to repent.  Various factors can hold one back; but it can all be summed up as putting ourselves above God, wanting to have our own way, rather than His.  In rebuking Judah for a time they went into idolatry and had as many false gods as their cities, God says, “‘Why do you contend with Me? You have all transgressed Me,’ declares the Lord. ‘In vain I have struck your sons; They accepted no chastening. Your sword has devoured your prophets like a destroying lion” (Jer. 2:29,30).  They cannot say that God did not reach out to help them.  They simply rejected His help.

While God’s word will sometimes cause folks to be “pierced to the heart” and want to respond to the gospel plan of salvation like those 3,000 on the day the church was established (Acts 2:36-38), in other cases, individuals were “cut to the heart” with that message and reacted by gnashing their teeth at the messenger and stoning him to death (Acts 7:54-60).  It wasn’t the message, it was the condition of the hearts of the people that made that difference in their reactions.  In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, for example, Paul figuratively speaks of the knowledge of God as being “a sweet aroma”; and, therefore, also says that “…we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life…”  So, again, what made the difference wasn’t the message; but, rather, the hearts of those who heard it.

As pointed out earlier, God doesn’t cause anyone to be evil. Many simply choose to be that way. For we are born into this world in an innocent state (cf. Matt. 18:3; 1 Cor. 14:20; Luke 12:16) and do not become sinners until we reach an age of accountability and violate God’s law.  For “…sin is the transgression of the law” (1 Jn. 3:4). As Solomon wisely declares in Ecclesiastes 7:29, “…God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.”  These “devices” have been referred to as “an immense number of inventions, in order to find happiness in the world, without God, which have only proved so many variations of impiety and iniquity” (Treasury of Scripture Knowledge).  For instance, in the days of Adam and Eve, it was the forbidden fruit.  In the time of Noah, “…the wickedness of man was great on the earth” and “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).  In our time, the world abounds with sin that keeps people in a lost condition.

Metaphors can illustrate a point, but we must be careful not to deduce more from them than is intended.  In God being the potter and His people being the clay, does this mean that they are just a mindless, will-less, irresponsible entity in the Potter’s hands, like an actual lump of clay?  Surely not.

For one thing, in order for clay to be molded, it must be malleable.  For if it hardens, it cannot be shaped.  So we can think of this malleability as representing man’s willingness and determination to yield to God, and faith and obedience to His word as what it takes to put ourselves in the Potter’s hands.  And when one does so, then the Lord can truly work in that individual. Compare, for instance, Philippians 2:12,13 that shows the need for man to cooperate with God.  Preceding the thought that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure,” is the instruction for the Christian to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”  So to have God working in us, we need to also be cooperating with Him.

The idea of God being like a potter is also seen in Jeremiah 18.  God told Jeremiah to “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you” (v. 2). Jeremiah obeyed. He saw the potter making something on the wheel. But Jeremiah also noticed that the object was spoiled, so the potter reworked it into another vessel to his liking.  God then said, “‘Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?’ declares the LORD. ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it'” (vv. 6-10).

So what do we see in this?  God’s course of action was based on the direction that His people had chosen to go. It would either lead to blessings or wrath, depending on whether they would choose the way of the Lord or not.

This same principle is also seen in the New Testament: “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20,21).

How does one become an honorable vessel? By cleansing himself from “these things,” which refers back to the “wickedness” in verse 19, which requires being “sanctified” in Christ, thus also becoming “useful to the Master” and “prepared for every good work” (v. 21).

So we are the work of God’s hands as we submit to His word to work in us — and we certainly can put the emphasis on God’s part in all of this.  For without Him, our own achievements would be nothing.  For as Jesus informs, “…he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (cf. Jn. 15:5).

May we each, therefore, always look to God through His word and yield to that message so that the Lord can fashion us into the people He wants us to be!

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