God the potter
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
God takes the dust of the ground and he uses it to make something – in this case Adam, just as a potter takes the dust of the ground and uses it to make something. It is appropriate then that the Bible describes God as a metaphorical potter, shaping people and nations with his hands.
There are three main passages I want to look at today: Jeremiah 18, Isaiah 45, and Romans 9. Superficially, these passages will make God seem stern and unforgiving, but only superficially, because the underlying message is really one of God’s forgiveness and compassion, and we will conclude with a look at the story of Jonah and his visit to Nineveh.
We will start with Jeremiah 18 verses 1 to 11:
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord : “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 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. Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord . “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 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. “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing 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.’
“Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
God was shaping and moulding the house of Israel, making it something beautiful, but it was not doing as it should. No potter would continue to shape `disobedient’ clay, nobody would expect him to. There is no shortage of clay and no shortage of people. If the clay didn’t do what it should then it would be rejected, just as if a people were disobedient they could be rejected.
Some people would think that was brutal and unforgiving. Actually the opposite is true. Ultimately the fate of the clay was down to how the clay itself behaved, and the fate of the people was down to how they behaved. The potter would work with the clay while the clay was willing, just as God would work with people while they were willing.
“Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 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.”
That isn’t in the slightest bit brutal, is it? If God announces that a nation is to be destroyed, and that nation repents, He will not destroy it. There is an announcement, a warning, that the nation can listen to.
Jeremiah 18 talks of God as a potter of nations, but He is also a potter of people, as the next passage, Isaiah 45, verses 9 to 13, shows.
Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth? Thus saith the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me. I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded. I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the LORD of hosts.
“Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou?” Doesn’t that show us how high God is? The distance between the potter and the clay is like the distance between God and humankind. One of us second guessing God would be exactly like clay saying to the potter “what are you making?”
It’s a tremendous metaphor. It was literally true in the case of Adam, literally formed out of dust by God, but it is also metaphorically true of us. God shapes us in many ways, sometimes not as obviously as a potter shaping clay, but he does it none the less.
Now, you could look at that and say that God is twisted and manipulative. Most of us wouldn’t appreciate being treated that way by other people. It is different when God does it though. First of all, he is God, the ultimate potter, and he is allowed to treat us however he wants. But also, he is a loving potter, wanting the best for his clay creations.
For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else.
He formed the earth to be inhabited. He didn’t form it out of idleness, or vanity. He formed it as a place for us to live. Striving with your Maker is ridiculous in these circumstances, not because he is so powerful, but because he wants the best for us.
This point is expanded in our next reference, Romans 9 verses 19 to 24:
Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
“And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”
Just as God shapes the nations as a potter shapes clay, so he also shapes us. But he is a compassionate loving potter. He doesn’t discard the clay at the slightest sign of imperfection. He warns the clay, and if the clay responds, he continues to work with it. “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.”
And so onto Jonah.
Originally, when planning this exhortation I was only going to make a brief reference to Jonah. However, I found that although the book is short, there is a lot to be said about it. God willing I will look at Jonah in more detail in a future exhortation. I still want to talk about him briefly today.
Jonah was sent to preach in Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian empire. When I thought about it at all I kind of assumed that Jonah’s ministry was sometime after the Assyrians conquered Israel. Jonah was actually much earlier than that. He preached in the time of Jeroboam the second, making him one of the earlier prophets. Isn’t it interesting that God sent a prophet to another nation at that time? That’s a subject for a later exhortation, but there is a connection there with Romans 9.
We know that Jonah was sent to Nineveh to give a very definite message:
Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
Why send that message?
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
Jonah was sent to warn the people of Nineveh, not to promise them destruction. It makes sense – there would be little sense in promising them destruction if there was nothing they could do about it.
What happened? The people of Nineveh repented.
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
The potter warned, and the clay responded.
God is the potter, and we are the clay. He is a loving potter, not just some powerful being who shapes us for his amusement. God loves the clay, and we are the clay. God loves us.
Isn’t that why we are all here this morning? Like the people of Nineveh, we were warned that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. Like the people of Nineveh, we responded and we repented. Should Christ remain away, yes we will all die and we will all return to dust. But the potter who loves us will recreate us, and make the faithful immortal, and we know this as surely as we know he spared Nineveh in the time of Jonah.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.