Jeremiah 18:1-12.

Conforming to God's Will

         April 3, 2005  6(5)                       © 2005, J.W. Carter            Scripture quotes from KJV

It is always amazing how among the billions of people on this planet, every one is precious and unique.  God values each individual highly and equally, claiming no higher regard for any other object of His creation, in heaven or earth, other than the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  Because of our sin, we do not usually share God's evaluation of people as we value one another based upon our own self-imposed criteria.  Almost all of the strife, persecution, hunger, crime, and pain experienced on this planet at some point stands upon a foundation of man's disregard and disrespect for one another.  Because mankind does not embrace God's plan for their lives, this is a world of chaos, sin, and death.   Mankind deliberately chooses sin.

What is God's perfect plan for man?  God's Word presents His plan for mankind and illustrates the sin and chaos that ensues when that plan is rejected.  If there is a single theme in the Old Testament it is that man simply cannot attain goodness without the grace of God, and that such salvation comes only through faith in Him, a faith that is characterized by repentance and forgiveness, a forgiveness that comes at the cost of the shedding of blood.  God presented that plan to Abraham and his descendants who, like all who choose sin (Rom. 3:23) chose to reject God and follow the paths of their own choosing, engaging in the godless and sinful pagan practices of this world culture.

The prophet Jeremiah lived during the last years of the kingdom of Judah and witnessed the fall of the nation into a godless and faithless state as its people, the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, turned from God to follow the pagan world culture.  God called upon Jeremiah to serve as his voice among the people, a voice that would proclaim a message of judgment against those who had turned against God, and a message of restoration for those who would turn back to him.

Jeremiah 18:1-2.

The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, 2Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. 

How does God communicate His will to mankind?  Nearly all who seek to follow God in obedience would probably first state that God communicates His will through the text of the Bible.  Also, as the Holy Spirit indwells the heart of those who love God, He can communicate through that "still, small voice" that illuminates what is heard and seen in circumstances and in the testimony of Christians.  God spoke to Jeremiah through the Holy Spirit, as He does with the faithful today.   Jeremiah sought to hear and understand God's word as he was specifically called as a prophet.  Jeremiah may have been in prayer when he understood God's call upon him to go down to the house of a potter, for it would be there that God would illustrate His message in a way Jeremiah could understand.

The production of pottery is so much a part of human experience that there is literally no culture that is not familiar with it.  In ancient Judah, pottery was the main form of storage containers.  Pottery was used for plates, dishes, jars, basins, and all manner of storage purposes from small boxes to large shipping containers.  One can easily envision the potter at his wheel as he spins a clump of most clay and shapes it with his hands into the object of his choosing.

Jeremiah 18:3.

Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. 

A potter's wheel actually has a pair of wheels.  The ancient device had two flat stone wheels that were connected by a vertical wooden axle.  The lower wheel was large enough that the potter could spin it with his feet.  The upper wheel was smaller, but large enough to hold the object of his creation.  The wheel was heavy, so its spin was firm and consistent.

God is going to use the image of the potter and his clay as a metaphor for God and mankind, respectively.  Jeremiah witnesses the common image of the potter as he forms an object upon the wheel.  The clay is being shaped by the potter's hands.  God opened Jeremiah's heart to see how this image is analogous to God's interaction with His own creation.  The clay is the object of the potter's creation and is fully submitted to his will.  If the clay is of a good quality, and not full of impurities, the potter is able to shape the clay into an object of usefulness.  The potter can convert the useless clod of dirt into an object of beauty and utility.  Once shaped and fired, the object of the potter's creation can be used for purposes far beyond anything the clod of dirt could have been previously used for.  The unshaped clod serves no such purpose.

Jeremiah 18:4.

And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. 

We see in the work of the potter an image of his sovereignty over the clay.  As he was beginning to form the object of his intent, the clay object became marred.  As he shapes his clay, the potter will encounter the stones and impurities in the clay.  Upon finding them, he will remove them and restart the shaping process.  This cycle continues until all of the impurities that affect the forming of the object are removed, and the object is shaped into the form of the potter's choosing.  The words "made it again" denote that as the potter was shaping his object, there came a point where he simply felt it necessary to take what he had formed, press it back into a ball of clay, and start over again.  However, as he restarts the shaping process, much of the impurity has been removed and he now has a lump of clay that can be more easily conformed to the potter's will.

Jeremiah 18:5-6.

Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 6O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. 

As Jeremiah observed the "throwing of the clay" by the potter God illuminated the message that Jeremiah would see in this image.  It is God's will that He would be able to do with His children what the potter is able to do with the clay.  Just as the potter molds and shapes the clay into the form of his choosing, God desires to shape and form his children into the form of His choosing.  Just like the worthless lump of clay can be transformed into a useful and purposeful object, God desires to shape his children into a form that is useful and purposeful to His kingdom.

"Cannot I do with you as this potter?"  The metaphor of the potter's sovereignty over the clay breaks down at this one point:  the clay does not have the power to refuse the potter's hand.  However, God has given each person a free choice.  We can choose to follow God or to reject Him.  This choice is the foundation of the decision for faith in God.  God has given to mankind the opportunity to resist the shaping hand of God.  What God is asking is literally, "why will you not let me shape you?"  

This lesson started with a commentary on the uniqueness of every human.  This privilege of choice is largely the reason behind this variety.  Each person is shaped by many different influences on their lives.  We are all products of the teachings of the culture within which we live, and those cultures vary tremendously throughout the world.  We each have a unique "paradigm," or model, that shapes our perception of what is right or wrong, what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior, and who or what will be recognized as having authority over us.  When this world-view paradigm does not recognize God as the one in authority, and is not responsive to His word, it is like clay in the potter's hand who refuses to be shaped.

The potter has two choices when it comes to dealing with a difficult piece of clay.  As he works with it, if he can remove impurities and continue to shape, he will often apply the patience necessary to continue the cleaning and shaping process.  In the end, this additional work produces a piece of unusual purity and utility.  However, when the piece of clay simply has no potential, usually because it has been overtaken by impurities (such as sand, stone, and dirt), it can only be thrown out.

The illustration that Jeremiah sees is of the first of these two clumps of clay.  The potter is the one who is patiently removing the impurities and reshaping the object, often having to press down the clay and start all over again.  Like the impure clay, Israel is impure.  The only choice left to the potter is to start over again.

We might see a parallel with the biblical narrative of the flood of Noah, when God performed a similar process of starting over again when the nature of the people had become so impure.  It is the potter who decides when it is appropriate to start over again, and God is informing Jeremiah, through the hands of the potter, that it is time to start over again.

Jeremiah 18:7-8.

At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; 8If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. 

God declared to Jeremiah that there is a time for judgment.  There is a single point of no return when God has determined that repentance is no longer a possibility.  It is at this point that God is poised to put in motion the sequence of events that will bring down the nation and its people.  However, just as a potter who does not want to throw away a piece of clay that still has some potential to be formed, God's hand of grace is still extended to any who would repent and turn back to Him.  God is a patient, just, and unchanging God.  His plan of grace never fades.  Consequently, even though the nation may be doomed by God's judgment, that judgment will be restrained if the nation repents.

We should understand that the word, "repent" simply means to turn in a different direction.  There is no intent in the word to imply which direction is the "good" one.  We tend to think of repentance as the turning away from sin.  However, one can also repent of what is good and turn to that which is not.  Understanding this, and the unchanging nature of God, we can understand that God does not "repent" in the way that we would often apply the word.  Because of this, newer translations tend to use words other than "repent" to describe God's action in verse 8.  

We see another example of God's "repentance" in His proclamation to Nineveh by Jonah.  Jonah brought to the city of Nineveh God's words of judgment, words that described its impending doom.  However, the king of the city and its people repented and turned to God.  The result was a change in the judgment upon the city.  This change did not come because of a change in God's plan.  The change came because of the response of the people to God.

The salvation from God's purpose to "pluck up, pull down, and destroy" is predicated by the repentance of the people.  If the people will not change and turn back to God, the destruction will be sure and final.

Jeremiah 18:9-10.

And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; 10If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.

Likewise, no people is secure in their goodness.  God's purpose is to prosper and bless an obedient people, and His promises to do so are sure.  However, the people cannot think that it is this blessing that secures them.  This is a large part of the error made by the ancient Jews.  They thought that they were secure in their salvation because they could trace their ancestry back to Abraham, and depended upon the abrahamic covenant to assure their security.  This assurance left them free to reject God and let sin abound.

A modern parallel might be applied to one who hears the gospel and only partially responds to it.  This would be a person who recognizes the benefits of salvation but is unwilling to surrender completely to God's will.  Instead of turning completely to him, they keep a foot in this pagan world.  Such a person may look and appear righteous when he puts on his righteous face in front of those who he perceives as righteous.  However, that foot that is left in the world is like a cancerous infection that can spread and infect the whole body.  The individual never fully turns to God, never receives the Holy Spirit, and is then separated from God at the final judgment.  This is the one that was poised for God to build and plant, but their choice of evil will still result in the appointment of God's judgment.

Many who call themselves Christians might need to take a good look at the message of verses 9 and 10.  If we, as Christians, are not like the clay in the potter's hand, and we resist the changes that God would make in our lives, we may be like this nation that will ultimately suffer the demise that comes from God's judgment.

Jeremiah 18:11.

Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.  

The metaphor of the potter is not to be dismissed.  God illumined Jeremiah's understanding of the parallel between the potter's task and God's purpose.  Judah is at a critical and seminal point in its history.  Judah is at the point where they will be making a final choice to completely reject God, or to repent and turn back to Him.  This will be their last opportunity for repentance simply because the culture had become so far removed from obedience that there were none left to turn it around.  Still, at this point where there is nobody left to turn the nation around, God still extends his grace towards this wicked and apostate people.  We find this theme consistently presented throughout scripture and even through John's Revelation.  God never withdraws from mankind the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness.

Jeremiah 18:12.

And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart.

Still, the final decision rests upon the heart of those who would reject or choose God. There is no hope for the people of Judah, and they know it.  They would rather choose to walk in the way of the world and to follow the desires of their own flesh.  As we look at our culture today, we see the same adamant rejection of God.  The rejection of God's sovereignty seems to be the prevalent position of the world culture.  However, such rejection of God's will not not visited on the lost world alone.  Many of our churches are in conflict and strife because of power struggles within their body.  Strong-willed individuals want to be the potter.  People want to exercise authority over others, an authority that is appropriately given only to God.  Some pastors think that they have some form of spiritual authority over their congregations, and by so doing usurp the power of the Holy Spirit and seize the responsibilities of the potter.

As individuals, each of us is like clay in the potter's hand.  Just as the clay contains impurities, we all bring our sin to the potter's wheel.  We have the choice to submit fully to the potter's hand and allow Him to remove that sin and shape us as He would will.  Or, we can come to the potter's wheel without a spirit of submission.  We may think that we are already righteous, already formed, and by so doing become unshapeable by God.  We may bring to the potter's wheel a personality full of pride and arrogance, thinking that we are the one or ones who God has chosen while we point our fingers at all of those around us who need God's shaping hand.  We may be telling others to repent and become pliable to God's will while we ourselves are like a stone on the wheel.

Though Jeremiah proclaimed to the nation of Judah a message that, if followed, would have spared them, they rejected the message and soon suffered their doom.  Nebuchadnezzar finally lost patience with this rebellious nation and attacked Judah bringing death, destruction and the deportation of its leadership.  Nebuchadnezzar left only desolation behind.  The loss of infrastructure brought death, sickness, and famine to those who remained. 

It would be instructive for all of us to look at the potter and his clay and ask ourselves if we are, indeed, shapeable by God's hand.  Or, do we need to repent of sins that are like stones in the clay, stones that prevent the potter from being able to full his purpose for our lives.  For Jeremiah, the image of the potter was a call to the nation.  For us, the image of the potter can be far more personal.  Let us, like Jeremiah, find our understanding of the potter and clay illumined by God's Holy Spirit, and unlike Judah may we see this image as one of hope as we repent of our prideful and selfish ways and turn to God.