The Potter and the Clay — Daniel Koen

There is a question my children ask that receives the answer, “No” more times than any other question,

“Daddy, can I play with playdough?”

I get it.  Playdough is fun. Seeing children use their imagination to craft a snake or a house is neat to see. However, the process of pulling and mixing different containers and smashing, twisting, and sometimes eating the “non-toxic” substance becomes a messy activity. It is smeared into the wood of the dining room table and becomes the vibrant accent colors on the living room’s rug. It is a messy process.

The text for this article comes from Jeremiah 18. The major prophet is instructed of the Lord to “go down to the potter’s house” (Jer. 18:2). It is here that the Lord will speak to his prophet.

In the opening chapter of Jeremiah, God told his prophet that he would put his words into his mouth (Jer. 1:9). Jeremiah would be God’s instrument of warning the nation. Israel (and the U.S.) need reminding that a nation could be rooted out and pulled down or planted and built up (Jer. 1:10). A prophet’s role was tough. God’s commission is often challenging. He did promise such (John 15:18-19; 1 John 3:13) but God encouraged Jeremiah by promising deliverance (Jer. 1:8, 19).

Note what Jeremiah sees when he arrives at the potter’s house (Jer. 18:3-4). The prophet sees a “wheel” (literally, two stones). The lower stone was turned with the feet. It was attached by an axle to the upper wheel. As the wheel turned, the potter skillfully shaped the clay into a vessel by the pressure of his fingers against the material. However, the clay in the potter’s hand was “marred” or “ruined.”

The Hebrew word for “marred” can be translated as “worthless.” It is the same word used to describe the land in Egypt after God sent the swarm of flies. The land was described as “corrupted” (Ex. 8:24). Earlier in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet was told to dig up the girdle from the place it was hidden. The girdle was described there as “marred” and “profitable for nothing” (Jer. 13:7). Simply stated, the clay was worthless. Keep in mind, the issue is with the clay and not with the potter.

The clay represents God’s chosen people, the Israelites. They were corrupt! Israel had reached the point where they were looking at trees and saying, “‘You are my father,’ and to a stone, ‘You gave birth to me’” (Jer. 2:27). Jeremiah says the people “…committed adultery with stones and trees” (Jer. 3:9). Earlier descriptions of Israel in Jeremiah were not good. The people were “wicked idolaters” (Jer. 1:16). The priests “did not know the Lord” (Jer. 2:8). The nation trusted in false teaching (Jer. 8:4-8). Their waywardness is summed up in Jeremiah 2:13: “They have forsaken Me, the foundation of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Yes, God’s children can become spiritually lost. Israel was in spiritual adultery (Jer. 3:1-3)!

Things that are damaged or defective are typically thrown away. God certainly has the right to do so. He is a God of judgment and punishment (Jer. 18:9-10).  Yet, instead of tossing it to the side, the potter “made it again into another vessel” (Jer. 18:4). This was done by the potter and done in the way he saw best. Only God can offer rescue.  He is also a God of patience and compassion (Jer. 18:7-8). Writing to the Philippians, Paul said he was confident that since God had “begun a good work” in them, he would also “complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). God is also a God of forgiveness.  Repentance can save a nation (Jonah 3:1-10).

The ball was in Israel’s court. How would she play it as a nation? As Brueggemann wrote, “The clay cannot challenge the potter, but Israel can act so that Yahweh will change.”1

Israel responded and it was not good (Jer. 18:12). The people said, “That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one obey the dictates of his evil heart” (Jer. 18:12).  We are allowed to “make our own bed,” but we must also be ready to sleep in it! The people admitted to having an evil heart…and still followed after it! We are foolish when we think we are equal or better equipped than our creator to dictate our path.

Isaiah asked, “…Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay; For shall the thing made say of him who made it, “He did not make me”? Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding?” (Is. 29:16) Imagine looking at your mother and saying, “You did not give birth to me.” How bizarre and delusional! It goes to a higher level when we say that to God the Father, our Creator. We fail 100% of the time when we follow anyone or anything other than God. “But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand” (Is. 64:8).

God asked Israel a question back in Jeremiah 2:17.  It’s a good question and one we need to ask whenever we are in sin.  “Have you not brought this on yourself, in that you have forsake the Lord your God…?”  Israel would eventually go into captivity.  She would be separated from her idols in an attempt to re-focus her love for God.

God pleads with us before judging us.  He petitions his children to repent.  “Return, you backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings” (Jer. 8:22).  If you are in sin, God is pleading with you.  What will your response be?

1F.B. Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations: Vol. 16, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), p. 181.

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