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The potter's hands: a picture of grace in the Old and New Testaments
I love to watch potters at work. They take a lump of clay, put it on a wheel, and make a vase or a bowl or whatever they want right before your eyes. Of course, when they're finished and set their work aside, it's not pottery yet. It's just shaped clay. The magic of turning it into a beautiful and useful object takes place unseen, in a kiln. In Jeremiah 18:1-12, God sent the prophet to watch a potter and promised to give him a message there.
The potter Jeremiah watched operated his wheel with a foot treadle. Modern potters operate theirs with electricity—if, indeed, they use one at all. A friend of mine who is a very dedicated potter hasn't used a wheel for years. I haven't watched him at work, but the technology and techniques of pottery making don't matter much. All potters shape the clay with their bare hands. They become intimately involved with each piece of clay that they handle.
Potters constantly make choices, too. To anyone watching, those choices may seem arbitrary. Whether they are or not, no one else critiques them, and certainly not the clay! The lesson came from watching the potter make a choice.
Jeremiah's lesson from the potter
As Jeremiah watched, the potter became dissatisfied with whatever he started to make. He crushed the clay back into a ball and started over. This time, however, he chose to make something entirely different. Apparently he decided that he could not make what he wanted at first with that piece of clay, but that it would work just fine for something else.
God spoke to Jeremiah in that moment. If the potter had the right to destroy his work and make something else, couldn't God do the same thing? The people in God's hand had no more say in the matter than the clay had. Jeremiah's entire ministry was devoted to telling an obstinately sinful people that God had run out of patience and intended to destroy their entire society.
At the potter's shop, God specifically said that if he intended to destroy a nation and it turned from its wicked ways, he would not destroy it. On the other hand, if he intended to build up a nation and it chose to do evil instead, he would not build it up, but tear it down.
Does that sound like grace? Is God a bully saying in effect, "Do what I say or I'll make you wish you had?" "You'd better please me or I'll beat you up?" Look again. If evil people turn away from wickedness, they're repentant evil people, not good people. Yet God promises to treat them as if they were good people. That's grace, and by continued grace God can make repentant evil people into good people.
According to the curse of the law (Leviticus 26, especially verses 40-42), nothing in the Mosaic covenant gives people any hope once they've broken the law, but God promises to remember the earlier covenant with Abraham. God made tremendous promises to Abraham and required nothing in return. He made those promises only to Abraham's offspring through Isaac and Jacob. Redemption from the curse of the law comes also to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:14).
Paul's lesson from the potter
Paul had a fair amount to say about the choices a potter makes in Romans 9:21-24. Like Jeremiah, he asserts that God has as much right to decide what to do with people as a potter has to decide what to do with clay. Just as the clay has no right to protest the potter's choice, people have no right to question God's choice. If we don't read carefully, the whole chapter can feel like a negation of the entire concept of justification by faith, which Paul had taken eight chapters to introduce and explain.
Although all of Romans 9 is problematical, the section on potter causes particular problems. Paul could assume that his immediate readers understood exactly what he meant, because they shared the common experience of Roman society. We no longer do. For most modern Americans, pottery is decorative. Nearly everything a potter makes can be used, of course, but no one has to.
It wasn't so in Roman times. Without running water, people depended on pottery as a daily necessity. They needed at least one large pot to carry water from the nearest well to their home. They drank that water and used it for washing and bathing. They needed another large pot or so for used wash water or bathwater, or for yesterday's leftover and stale drinking water.
Just as these two kinds of pots did not have the same function, they didn't have the same structure. In fact, to this day in less developed societies that depend on pottery instead of plumbing, I understand that potters make two kinds of pots and tourists who buy them can't tell the difference. They parade around the village with their "private" pots as if they were suitable for public display.
But in any case, the potter makes both kinds of water pots, plus table service and, shall we say, chamber pots. And he makes them from the same supply of clay. THe may indeed pick up a particular lump of clay and decide what kind of project it's best suited to, but to anyone else, the whole process looks entirely arbitrary.
Paul mentions several different kinds of vessels:
- Vessels of honor: the large water jars that carry fresh water from the well to the house and give out fresh water to both family and guests.
- Vessels of dishonor: the large jars full of used, dirty, and perhaps stinky water fit only for watering garden plants, if they used it even for that.
- Vessels of mercy: smaller vessels used to give clean water to passing strangers, either for drinking, or in the case of Jews, for various times of required ritual hand washing.
- Vessels of wrath: I can hardly explain that one in a brief phrase, can I?
Vessels of wrath
Paul talks about "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (Romans 9:22)." Would a potter make a vessel with the intention of destroying it? That makes no sense. Neither does it make sense to suppose that God exercises great patience with some people so that he can show his power by destroying them.
When the potter takes his finished creation off the pottery wheel, it is not yet a useful piece of pottery. He has kept it wet as he worked it, and when he sets it aside, it will dry, but it will not yet hold water. At the end of the day, the potter puts everything he has made into a kiln, where it bakes at high heat.
The next morning, when he takes them out, he expects to have good products to sell to customers, but he must inspect every piece. Sometimes some of them come out cracked. Ancient potters used to make cement from ground up pottery and a certain insect and use it to repair the cracks. These repaired pots had to go back into the kiln with the day's fresh work. The next morning, they were probably just fine, but maybe some of them cracked again. Once again the potter would apply the cement and return them to the kiln.
I don't know how many times a potter would be willing to fix the same crack in the same pot, but after a while, if he couldn't make it right, he angrily threw it across the room, where it broke into pieces. Did he prepare it in order to destroy it? Of course not, but ultimately he prepared it for destruction, despite his patience, because that's all it turned out to be good for.
No potter simply collected the pieces of a vessel of wrath and threw them in the trash. Broken shards still have many uses. In fact, remember the ingredients for the cement? The ground pottery used to fix a cracked pot today was probably a piece of a vessel of wrath broken some time earlier. In other words, a vessel unfit to be used whole finds redemption as it is used for some other purpose, including fixing other vessels, after it is broken.
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.
--Adelaide A. Pollard
Not too long ago, parts of the church taught—possibly on the basis of the verse about vessels of wrath—that God decided before the beginning of time that some particular people would be saved and others would be damned. And no one had any choice in the matter. They miscalled that doctrine "predestination."
Properly understood, both Jeremiah's and Paul's teaching on the potter illustrate grace. Does God need some people to do things that will give them an excellent reputation in the world (vessels of honor)? He makes them. Does he need people whose work brings them no reputation (vessels of dishonor)? He makes them, too, along with vessels of mercy and whatever else he needs and chooses to make. And if a "sinful" lump of humanity refuses to be made into anything God can use (vessels of wrath), God will not simply toss him on the trash heap. (By the way, the name of Jerusalem's trash heap was Gehenna, which eventually gave its name to hell.) No. He will break that person and find some way to put him to redemptive use.
What of hell, then? If anyone despises God so much that he wants nothing to do with him--if he hardens his heart to make himself impervious to the wooing of the Holy Spirit--hell is the only place he can go where God is not. It's that person's choice, not God's.