Potters and Their Clay in Scripture (Jeremiah 18.1-12)

potters-wheel-clay

This coming Sunday (January 13, 2013), I will be preaching on Jeremiah 18 where the prophet made a visit to the potter’s house as instructed by the word of the Lord. I began my study of Jeremiah 18 by noting the various ways that the imagery of potters and their clay appear in Scripture.

A loosely connected origins of thought on potter and clay are found in the creation account of mankind. Humans were created from the dust of the ground and return to the dust upon their death.

Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2.7)

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3.19)

While this is not directly related to potters nor their clay, it does lay the groundwork, so to say, about the image of God as the potter and humans as the clay in His hand.

Another section of Scriptures that speaks of potters are the verses that relate to the potters’ field purchased with the blood money given to Judas.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, 4saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. 6But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. 8Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, 10and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (Matthew 27.3-10)

In this category, we could include Zechariah 11.12-13 where the actual quote attributed to Jeremiah is located. (The attribution to Jeremiah is missing from many manuscripts leading many scholars to think that the insertion of Jeremiah was the result of a good intentioned by ill informed copyist, but that is the subject of another article.)

In addition, several New Testament verses speak of humans as vessels of God in various ways.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4.7-10)

Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. (2 Timothy 2.20-21)

These verses speak to the reality that we are “jars of clay,” filled with God’s Spirit, and are to be set apart for the Master, ready for every good work.

But by far, the majority use of potters and their clay in Scripture (other than literal pottery) has to do with the relationship between the potter and the clay. Consider the following.

When the messiah returns, He will rule the nations with an iron rod.

I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2.8-12)

Twice, the prophet Isaiah used this relationship to call the people to repentance. Once he described the folly of the clay turning upside down the potter/clay relationship.

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, 14therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” 15Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29.13-16)

Another time, the prophet used the image to express the submission of a repentant heart.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. 8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people. (Isaiah 64.6-9)

In the book of Romans, Paul used the same imagery to speak of the sovereignty of God in His purpose of election.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9.19-24)

Which is a curious lead up to the use of the image of potters and their clay in Jeremiah 18. In the following days, I will be posting more about this incredible passage, but as you read the text itself, pay attention to the interplay between the divine right of the potter over the clay and the free will response of the clay.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. 5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’ 12“But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ (Jeremiah 18.1-12)

(Dr. Todd Pylant is the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Benbrook in Fort Worth, Texas, and the author of Word of God Speak and If: the Conditionality of the Gospel and the Danger of Apostasy.)


Jeremiah