The Hands of the Potter


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Our Text – Jeremiah 18
Our key verse – Jeremiah 18:6, “O 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”


God’s Word deals with every aspect of human life wherein we find words of wisdom, songs of joy, and visions of future glory. However, the Scriptures also describe the lowly feelings of pain, grief, and failure common to us all. Jeremiah and Lamentations, two of the less familiar books of the Bible, deal with such human emotions. Set in very hard times, these books describe the final years of Judah before her destruction by Babylon. After years of arrogant wickedness, God’s inevitable judgment finally fell on his people. Like a desert storm from the north, the Babylonian army swept down and invaded Judah, destroying her cities, plundering her treasures and taking her people captive, leaving a ravaged countryside in its wake.

Under these appalling circumstances the Lord raised up Jeremiah to relate His truth to a sinful nation. Jeremiah’s ministry was both strenuous and unrewarding, for the people of Judah rejected not only the prophet’s message, but the man himself. Many times, Jeremiah cried out to the Lord in frustration and failure. However, the Lord reassured Jeremiah that it was the Judaean people, not the prophet, who had failed. Thus, Jeremiah drew strength from the Lord and remained faithful to his task despite overwhelming odds and indescribable feelings of self-doubt.

Throughout the Bible God teaches many important lessons and principles by using the familiar, common, and ordinary teaching tools; things that are around us that we see and handle. He uses things like seeds, weeds, soil, trees, leavening, weddings and grape vines to teach us valuable and important spiritual lessons. To Elijah, he revealed himself by a small still voice. To Jacob, by a dream. To Moses, he spoke face to face. Sometimes he was pleased to send a favorite prophet on some special errand to give him a particular message, which he was ordered to deliver without reserve to all the inhabitants of the land. Today’s study illustrates how God, like a potter, works with human beings. His aim is to create a work of beauty; but, unfortunately, sin can easily mar the clay of human lives. The nation Judah resisted all of the Lord’s efforts to shape it in His way. God threatened to judge the people for their sin, but instead of repenting, Judah turned on Jeremiah, the messenger sent by God.

A. Picture of the Potter

While here on earth, Jesus often used common, everyday objects and illustrations to teach deeper spiritual truths. In this passage, God used the illustration of a simple potter to describe to Jeremiah the complex idea of His sovereign control of humanity and I will add, our God and Creator, is still very much in control of the affairs of today!

(1) At the Potter’s House (18:1-2, “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”

The first verse of today’s study informs us that it was a word, or message, which came immediately from the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah. It doesn’t say when the message was given to Jeremiah, but perhaps it was while he was praying for those who would not pray for themselves. Perhaps, it was near the morning, when he was slumbering or meditating on his bed. For the word came to him, saying, “Arise.” And what must he do when risen? He must “go down to the potter’s house” (the prophet knew where to find it) “and there (says the great Jehovah) I will cause thee to hear my words.” Jeremiah does not confer with flesh and blood; he does not object that it was dark or cold, or desired that he might have his message given him there, but without the least hesitation is immediately obedient to the heavenly vision.

Pottery making was a major industry in Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day; it was something that everybody used, everybody had pottery. They knew where it was made and who made it and how it was made, and even though the Pottery Industry is not so commonplace in our society today as a prominent part, it’s something we can still understand and relate to. Being a potter was as common and humble occupation as existed in ancient Judah. In every village at least one potter was kept busy making vessels for both every day and special purposes. God used a visual illustration from everyday life in teaching how He works with people. So, there’s a direct relationship and parallel of how a potter works with clay and how God works with people.

(2) The Lesson 18:3, “So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel”

A potter’s wheel, if you’ve ever seen one, or certainly a picture of it, you understand basically there are two wheels involved: one on top, an axel in between, one on the bottom — the bottom one was turned by the foot, and as the bottom one was turned the top one rotated as well, so this was spinning. And the clay was placed on the top one and was molded and shaped. Jeremiah watched the potter at work for a period of time; he was trying to learn “What is it that God is trying to teach me?” Watch this potter making a jar or a pot of some kind.

Jeremiah 18:4, “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”

Jeremiah watched as the potter took a lump of clay and placed it on his wheel. As the wheel turned, the potter carefully molded the clay with his hands. But before the pot was completed, it collapsed in the potter’s hands. So, the potter took the clay, reshaped it and began the process over again. Please note that the potter was actively controlling the entire process. He placed the lump of clay on the wheel, he provided the power to turn the wheel, he determined the contours of the pot, and he kept molding it until he produced what he desired.

At the same time, the potter had to work knowledgeably and skillfully with his resources. The clay needed the right amount of moisture, the wheel had to be turning at a certain speed, and his hands had to press hard enough to shape the clay, but not so hard as to destroy the form. This was a picture that Jeremiah and all of the people of Judah could immediately comprehend. After showing Jeremiah the picture of the potter, the Lord now proceeds to teach him some principle of the potter

B. Principles from the Potter – (Jeremiah 18:5-12)

(1) God, the Sovereign – Jeremiah 18:5-8, “Then the word of the Eternal came to me saying: (Here’s what God wanted Jeremiah to understand and to tell the people); “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the Eternal.” Look, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel”

Just as the potter directed the clay, so the Lord’s hands control His creatures (18:6). The Lord created Adam from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7), fashioning the dust into a human being made in His own image. As the Creator, the Lord has mastery over all human beings. The Lord has called Israel to be his covenant nation, not because of any special worth of the Israelites, but as an act of divine grace. Therefore, both by creation and by election, the Lord had sovereign control over the house of Israel. He had the perfect right to do as He pleased with the people.

God is sovereign not only over Israel, but over every other nation as well. In the ancient world, people thought in terms of local deities, but the God of the Bible allowed for no such claims. There is only one true God, the Lord, and He alone rules over the entire world. Just as He controls Israel, so He has the whole world in His hands and under His control. As the sovereign, the Lord may determine to destroy a sinful nation. However, His rule is not arbitrary, for it always conforms to His unchanging character. If a nation repents and turns from its evil, then the Lord is willing to relent from His punishment (18:8). The Lord’s ultimate purpose is to fashion individuals into conformity with His will. Both His punishments and His mercy work toward that end. He is just like a potter, at one time molding the clay and at another time starting over with the marred vessel.

(2) Israel’s disobedience – Jeremiah 18:9-10, “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”

In these two verses the Lord gave the other side of the story. In calling Israel to be His covenant nation, He had described His intentions to bless her so that through Israel He might bring blessing to all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:3). Nevertheless, Israel had done evil in God’s sight. Instead of keeping His law, they had disobeyed His Word. They took for granted their special status and failed to live up to their responsibilities as God’s people. They shut their ears to the Lord’s repeated warnings through His prophets. When a nation, like the United States, turns from obedience to disobedience, it moves from God’s blessing to His judgment.

(3) Judah’s disobedience – Jeremiah 18:11-12, “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.’ 12 But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart’”

In verse 11 the general principle of verses 7-10 are applied directly to Judah. What is remarkable is that even at this final hour, the Lord still held out an opportunity for mercy. He pleaded with each individual to turn from his evil ways. No potter would hastily discard a piece of clay he had worked on for a long time. In the same way, the Lord keeps seeking to save those who are lost; Luke 19:10, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” However, despite the Lord’s plea, Judah refused to consider repentance as stated in verse 12. They were firmly committed to their rebellion and were stubborn in their evil hearts. What an amazing thing, the clay resisted the Potter’s molding! The Lord’s desire for Judah, as for all people, was blessing. However, disobedience can bring only His discipline.

C. Punishment from the Potter – (Jeremiah 18:13-17)

(1) Spiritual adultery – Jeremiah 18:13-15, “Therefore this is what the Lord says: “Inquire among the nations: Who has ever heard anything like this? A most horrible thing has been done by Virgin Israel. 14 Does the snow of Lebanon ever vanish from its rocky slopes? Do its cool waters from distant sources ever cease to flow? 15 Yet my people have forgotten me; they burn incense to worthless idols, which made them stumble in their ways and in the ancient paths. They made them walk in bypaths and on roads not built up”

Israel’s sin was appalling, even when compared with the other nations’ sin (v. 13). The Lord had called Israel to be pure and devoted to Him. In many passages, He referred to Israel as His wife. He expected Israel to stay true and faithful to Him, as He was to her. However, the people did what no other nation had done: they rejected their God and ran off with false gods and had chosen to become spiritual adulteresses.

In verse 14, Jeremiah asked two rhetorical questions: “Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon? And “Shall the cold flowing waters that come from another place be forsaken?” In other words, even those two natural phenomena were more reliable than sinful Judah, who chose weakness instead of God’s power, ignorance instead of God’s wisdom, and impurity instead of God’s holiness. In turning away from the Lord, Israel took the road that would lead straight to destruction (v. 15).

(2) Public disgrace – Jeremiah 18:16-17, “Their land will be laid waste, an object of lasting corn; all who pass by will be appalled and will shake their heads. 17 Like a wind from the east, I will scatter them before their enemies; I will show them my back and not my face in the day of their disaster”

People often choose to leave God’s path because they want to impress or please their peers. God’s people chose to worship the idols of the surrounding nations in the hope of gaining her neighbors’ acceptance. However, the Lord’s judgment would bring public disgrace to Israel (18:16). Rather than impressing the nations with her sophistication, Israel caused others to shake their heads in astonishment (v. 16).

Their shameless behavior and humiliation would cause others to abhor them, not applaud them. This humiliation would be the work of the Lord Himself (18:17). Instead of protecting His people, He would scatter them “as with an east wind before the enemy.” The Lord would not look upon them in favor, but turn His back toward His rebellious people. They might cry out for help, but the Lord would be resolute in His punishment.

D. Pain of the Prophet – (Jeremiah 18:18-23)

The people didn’t welcome the word the Lord had spoken through His messenger Jeremiah. Instead of accepting the message, they decided to attack the messenger, evoking a prayer for revenge from Jeremiah.

(1) Plot against the prophet – Jeremiah 18:18, “They said, “Come, let’s make plans against Jeremiah; for the teaching of the law by the priest will not be lost, nor will counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophets. So come, let’s attack him with our tongues and pay no attention to anything he says”

The people of Judah were perfectly satisfied with their own experts, priests, wise men and prophets, who said what the people wanted to hear. Those false leaders spoke their own words for their own gain, but they enjoyed popularity and prestige. On the other hand, Jeremiah spoke the truth, which was unpopular because it told of sin and judgment. Rather than change their ways, they plotted against God’s spokesman. The attack on Jeremiah came on two fronts. In an active assault, the people cast criticisms against him. In a passive resistance they steadfastly ignored what Jeremiah had to say. This combination must have worn the prophet down. He was the object of their scorn and hostility, and he was not even taken seriously. This was yet another burden Jeremiah had to bear as he served the Lord in extremely difficult times.

(2) Prayer by the prophet – Jeremiah 18:19-23, “Listen to me, O Lord; hear what my accusers are saying! 20 Should good be repaid with evil? Yet they have dug a pit for me. Remember that I stood before you and spoke in their behalf to turn your wrath away from them. 21 So give their children over to famine; hand them over to the power of the sword. Let their wives be made childless and widows; let their men be put to death, their young men slain by the sword in battle. 22 Let a cry be heard from their houses when you suddenly bring invaders against them, for they have dug a pit to capture me and have hidden snares for my feet. 23 But you know, O Lord, all their plots to kill me. Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger”

Once again Jeremiah poured out his pain to the Lord. He turned to the Lord and pleaded with Him to heed his cries (v. 19). Jeremiah wanted the Lord to understand him, respond to him and reassure him. The people had scorned him and his messages, so he begged the Lord to listen to what they were saying. He had offered them good, and in return they had “digged a pit” for his soul. In verse 20, Jeremiah reminded the Lord (although He didn’t need reminding) that previously he had asked God to be lenient with the people. Now he was asking for God’s wrath. The intense pain Jeremiah felt boiled over into strong imprecations, or curses, on his enemies (18:21-23). These three verses, which use some unpleasant language, reveal the torment that churned within Jeremiah.

The wicked had laid hidden traps for Jeremiah (v. 22), so Jeremiah prayed that the Lord would bring total destruction upon them. He wanted the wicked ones to receive what they had intended for him. He placed his desire for justice in God’s hands (Romans 12:19). Jeremiah was experiencing on a human level the same rejection God received from Judah. He took his raw feelings to the Lord, for he knew that the Lord knew best how to take care of the injustice. In this passage, Jeremiah reveals the painful side of serving the Lord. He did not ask to be rejected. He certainly did not like it when it hit him full force. Nevertheless, even as the storms battered his life, Jeremiah stayed faithful to his call, and he took his problems to the Lord. He knew that the Potter could continue to work in his life and in the lives of his enemies.

Closing thoughts:

Although written thousands of years ago, the words of Jeremiah and Zechariah and other prophets still ring so true in today’s sinful world. Today, the people of all nations need to exercise the first word of salvation, which is repentance. Evangelist J. Edwin Orr said that “the first word of the gospel” is repentance. It’s a turning away from sin and toward the Lord. The prophet Zechariah and Jeremiah cried out to the people of Israel to repent and return to the Lord, “Turn now from your evil ways and your evil deeds” (Zechariah 1:4). My friend, salvation begins with repentance, and involves a change of mind about sin, that leads to belief in Jesus Christ and brings us the forgiveness of God.

However, repentance is more than a once-for-all act that initiates salvation. It is an ongoing choice … a change of mind that sees sin as wrong, confesses it, and rejects it. Martin Luther put it this way in the first of the 95 Theses he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ He willed that the entire life of a believer be one of repentance.” Thus, it’s an ongoing mindset toward sin and a rebellion before God our Creator. Here’s the point. The change of mind that is the heart of repentance should become a pattern of thinking … a lifestyle.

Even though we as believers are secure in Christ, we must continue to see sin through the eyes of God and acknowledge it as evil. And when we sin, let’s repent, confess our wrongdoing, and receive the forgiveness of God. My friend, that is what He wanted Israel to do and that is what He wants us to do today as a Nation and as individuals.

Jesus is calling, “Today you must choose!”
If you delay, you surely will lose;
Listening now, you can hear the Lord’s voice,
Take His salvation – make heaven your choice! – Hess

Faith in Jesus Christ is the only bridge across the gulf of death.