Bible Reading From Isaiah 29:15-17, 45:8-12
The potter was an important business in antiquity, and a popular metaphor for teaching truth in and beyond the books of the Bible. Hear a blended paraphrase of just two of the prophet Isaiah’s potter passages.
- “I, the Lord, have created and called the heavens to rain down justice, the clouds to pour out my goodness. Let the earth be open to receive it, so that salvation springs up and right living flourishes.” Woe to those who attempt to hide their plans from the Lord, thinking no one will see or know what they do. Woe to anyone who argues with his Maker, like broken pottery lying among broken pottery on the ground, yet daring to be like clay that challenges the potter, “What are you doing?” or, “What’s this you’re making of me?” Woe to him who asks a father, “Of what are you the father?” or of a woman, “To what are you giving birth?” The Holy Lord of Israel who created you says, “Do you think you can demand what I am to do with my children? Do you dare attempt to control what I create with my hands? You turn things upside down, as if the potter were the clay and the clay the potter! Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me!”? Can the pot say to the potter, “You don’t know what you are doing!”? Do you dare defy Me, the one who stretched out the heavens and directs the starry hosts, the one who made the earth and created humanity to live on it?
Who Shapes Who?
Outside of perhaps some Disney movies, we generally expect our dinnerware to stay where we put it. On a clumsy day we may think like it is not cooperating, but in truth, it only does what we want it to. Back then, pottery was in common everyday use in the home, and was fragile, so clumsy uncooperative days kept the potter’s skills in high demand.
Hear the text from Jeremiah…
- This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. 5 Then the word of the Lord came to me. 6 He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. 11 “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing [lit. shaping] a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’ 12 But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.’” (Jeremiah 18:1-12 (NIV))
Then comes the key verse of the passage. Jeremiah observed that
- Whenever a vessel he was making from the clay was spoiled in the potter’s hands, he would turn around and fashion it into another vessel, [shaping it as seemed best to him]. (Jeremiah 18:4)
Like in Isaiah, like in Romans which you can read on your own later, the key truth is this -- the professional potter has complete control over the clay and can do just as he pleases and the clay has no say in the matter. Clay serves the potter, the potter doesn’t serve the clay.
The Potter is persistent
But this potter is patient, not wanting any of the clay to go to waste. The verbs in this verse are understood as “iterative” meaning a process that is repeated over and over as a means of getting closer and closer to the solution, closer to what the answer is supposed to be. So in this case, the potter keeps reshaping the vessel until it completely fulfills the purpose for which it is created. The potter doesn’t easily give up on the clay, he works with it again and again, bringing it back to the wheels, shaping it and recreating it until it fits his purpose.
The quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it
This verse also speaks to the defective nature of some clay. It didn’t have the right consistency or it dried out, or it just couldn’t bend to the right shape without ripping apart. The description by various translations is that in the potter’s hands, the clay wouldn’t take the desired shape, is spoiled, marred, imperfect, flawed, something went wrong, turned out badly, ruined, broken, destroyed, it did not turn out as [the potter] hoped. The quality of the clay determined how well the potter could work with it and what kind of a product and purpose he could create out of it. The quality of the clay is based on its pliability, that is, how repeating-ly bendable and shapeable it is without breaking; that is, how willing it is to cooperate with potter’s creative hands. Rigid, inflexible clay had to be used for something else.
Having Jeremiah observe all the expertise of this professional potter over his material, God now reveals to him the message.
- Like clay in the potter’s hands, so are his people in his hand… (paraphr. of Jeremiah 18:6b)
But others see it as a warning, especially in light of the next verses in which God uses a play on words to say,
- “If I warn that a nation will be destroyed for its evil practices, and it turns from those evil ways. then I will turn it away from the evil [con-sequences] it would have experienced.” (paraphr. of Jeremiah 18:7-8)
- if I create and call out and build a nation, blessing them with good things until they meet my expectations -- that through them, I will fulfill my mission -- that is, that through them, all the nations of the world will be blessed. But if they turn from me and do not listen and cooperate with me, then I will turn from the plans I have for them. (paraphr. of Jeremiah 18:9-10)
The good news is that unlike experiencing the results of the fickle mood swings of many self-proclaimed world sculptors -- earthly kings and generals, and other powerful movers and shakers, not to mention (in their day) the daily unpredictable personalities of the alleged gods they worshiped. At least our Creator is consistent in character and values and care and love for his creation. And he expects his people to be consistent too. What’d Isaiah say?: he poured out justice and goodness with the expectation of salvation and right living. But it doesn’t happen that often that often.
Does this tune remind you of anything? Do do do do, do do do do, do do do do. (theme of Twilight Zone). In one episode two explorers made an emergency landing in a canyon of a planet far from here. They had to make repairs before they could continue their journey. The planet, or at least the canyon seemed to be barren of nourishment, so while the commander worked on the ship, Craig the navigator stewed. He was not a happy camper. He was a not only upset about the situation, but sick of life and taking orders from the Commander and everyone else in his life and he wanted to be the one giving orders for a change. He went exploring, wandering around in the heat while the commander worked on their ship. Eventually the commander noticed that Craig looked pretty refreshed even though his water canteen remained full, so how was he staying refreshed? Craig finally admitted he had found something -- and showed it to the Commander. When looking through a what looked like a handheld telescope, but was really more of a microscope, what to the naked eye looked like a small patch of moss were actually trees, and then Craig showed the commander a small sliver in the palm of his hand. But through the magnifier, he saw it was a big dump truck, and went on to discover a little trickle of water was a lake, complete with a marina, and an entire industrialized town, the people so small they couldn’t even be seen, but barely heard, if they made enough noise. Craig, because he was our size and these people were like baby ants, decided that this was his chance to play god. He told them what to do -- and led them by fear -- randomly stepped on houses and created disasters to show off his power – see what I can do to you – and stomp and then you hear the little fire engines rushing to the rescue of this man-made disaster – trying to create calm out of the chaos.
He even forced them to build a towering statue of him to worship -- well life size to him, but a humongous feat for these little people. The Commander arrives and tries to tell Craig that this was wrong, that they are living people and that this was wrong, and after a fight, the Commander apologizes to the little people for his navigator and his stupidness.
Eventually, the ship is repaired, but Craig doesn’t want to leave, he wants to keep playing God. He forces at gunpoint the commander to leave without him, even saying this little town was a monotheistic society and there was only room for one god, so he better get out of here. He has all kinds of projects in mind for his little people to perform for him, and he threatens them not to anger him, and he throws a helmet at them (actually it was the top of the statue that got shot off during the fight with the Commander), he throws this head/helmet into the town creating yet another large tragedy in their tiny town. Craig laughs so hard in hilarity over his control over these little ant sized people. Laughs so hard that he has to lay down – (for texters: this is the original and actual ROTFL).
Then there is a loud sonic noise, and he warns them to be quiet. The noise fades and eventually there is some Jurassic Park like shaking of the ground.
Two astronauts walk along the edge of the canyon. Their size makes our normal sized astronaut look like a little beetle. He screams at them to go away, that he is the god. They don’t seem to exactly hear him, but one reaches down and scoops up some dirt, and in the scooping, scoops him up. The other giant astronaut says, “What’ve you got, there?” He opens his hand to show Craig the navigator now curled up in the palm of this giant astronaut’s hand. “A little man.” he answers. “Well, you squished him.” “I didn’t mean to.” “I wonder if there are more people down there.” “It doesn’t matter, we aren’t here to explore, just to make repairs.” And he tosses our dead friend back into the canyon. And then the camera cuts to the statue, and we see it draped with ropes, like in Gulliver’s Travels, and the invisible people begin pulling the statue down.
(The Twilight Zone Season 3 Ep 28, The Little People)
It is a wonderful metaphor for what happens when people think they are more important than others -- they start treating others like unimportant ants, existing only to serve them. But then what happens when someone bigger and more powerful comes along -- and treats us as nothing? What a terrible world it becomes when everyone begins to think of everyone else as their own personal little ants, minions to serve them…
Such is much of the history we read in the Bible -- a nation, or king, or otherwise powerful person feels privileged under whatever status, wealth, or popularity, or other measuring stick they wanted to use -- and begin to treat others, just because they are different, and eventually even those who are like themselves – treat them terribly, on the basis of the fickle whims and swings of mood and subjecting others to their own greedy and selfish ways. They “play god” instead of recognizing the true God.
But our true God is not fickle, and he makes it clear that there is a consistency to life and he cares for his creation no matter how small it is compared to him. And he announces that consistency to life that goes beyond immediate circumstances that says – no matter how “big we think we are compared to others” That consistency is this: that if we live corruptly, we will eventually reap its consequences, and if we live rightly, we will be rewarded – may not feel like it right away, but we will be rewarded.
And through Jesus, God has shown what right living is. The covenant principle of obedience leading to blessing and disobedience leading to consequences is now reshaped into a plea – The Message, paraphrased a bit more, puts it this way:
Danger! [Huh, what show did that come from?, Yes, some of you know 😊 (Lost in Space)] Doom is taking shape in your life. Reform your ways, improve your conduct and actions and straighten out your lives. (Jeremiah 18:12)
For, as one commentator described the people: They have spoken so glibly and confidently about God, and seem so certain that God will act in a way to confirm them and their own ideas of religion just because they are his people, and they need to be reminded that they are clay and not the Potter. There was only one hope -- to return to God and change their ways.
Then our final verse. For the people of Jeremiah’s day, the last verse of today’s text informs us that they saw no hope for change, as we heard in Children’s Time, the older you get the harder it is (to change) and they had been in a pattern for so long that there was hardly even a point to talking about it. They had determined their course against the Potter. They were like dried out play-dough -- you can’t do anything with it. They were so set in their own plans and ways that doom or no doom, they will continue to live the way they’ve always lived, following their own evil desires. It would take the painful remolding of exile to hopefully bring them around to where they could again begin to cooperate with the Potter’s touch.
Later in his book, Jeremiah saw that hope could only come in a new covenant. (See Jeremiah 31:31-33) A covenant where God would graciously forgive. A covenant that we now know comes through believing in his Son Jesus Christ, and following the path that he has set for us. The original listeners, as a nation, had decided their systems were too engrained, that they could no longer cooperate with the potter even if they wanted to. What about us? Can God still work with us, and shape us, as Paul asked in the Romans text:
- Do we too talk back to God -- wondering why he made us like we are, and Paul answers by saying that this is why he does it -- to make his power known (not in the cruel way we saw in The Twilight Zone), but he endures our rebellion with great patience, to make the riches of his glory known to us who have received his mercy…
and then adds in Corinthians that because we cooperate with God
- we can all draw close to [the Lord] … we all become like mirrors who brightly reflect the glory of the Lord Jesus. We are being transfigured into his very image as we move from one brighter level of glory to another. And this glorious transfiguration comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (TPT) or as it is stated in the (MSG) We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. [as he shapes us day by day]. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Lord, we are malleable dust and water, earth elements, pliable clay, spun on a wheel, wet and formed by the hands of you, our Creator who has thrown all of who you are into our creation. You have placed your thumbprint inside our heart. We are drawn, spinning, open and upward, shaped to the desired size, the desired design. Make us, shape us, we are your valuable, useful, empty vessels, prepared to be filled by your presence -- not only now, today, but to be re-created and filled each day so that we can be useful in transforming and recreating your world after your image. We offer ourselves as the ongoing work of your hands. In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Closing Hymn # 382 (vv 1,2,4) Have Thine Own Way, Lord
Let’s pause and close our eyes and bow our heads again. For this is one of those sermons that lends itself to pausing a moment to reflect for a moment, this afternoon, and in the days ahead – to allow God to look at our life and direct us to what in our life may be marred and needing to removed, or reshaped as God directs… (Moment of silence)…
Closing Blessing Now practice diligence towards purposeful outcomes and good service to others, and go in the confidence that the God who molded you cares enough to keep you in his loving hands and gently continues to shape you into the beautiful vessels he had designed you to be for his eternal purposes. Amen.