In the Potter's Hands
Jeremiah 18:1-23 reminds us we are not the potter, but God is. He knows what’s best, and will always do what’s best.
If you’ve ever tried to make something out of clay you know it’s not as easy as it looks. Most people start out with a grand idea of creating a work of art only to end up with a simple bowl that ends up in the attic, or worse.
But while we are limited in our ability, God isn’t. He can make an exquisite vase that surpasses anything we are capable of—or he can make a simple bowl if he wants to. The point is, it’s up to the potter to make what he wants. And even halfway through the creative process if he wants to make something else that’s his right. That’s the lesson God wanted Jeremiah to learn.
In Jeremiah 18:1–4,
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down at once to the potter’s house; there I will reveal my words to you.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, working away at the wheel. But the jar that he was making from the clay became flawed in the potter’s hand, so he made it into another jar, as it seemed right for him to do.
See, the potter can change his mind and make something entirely different if he wants to. He can start out making an ornate vase and then end up with something completely different or with even nothing at all.
God is sovereign. That’s the point.
Jeremiah 18:6 continues the thought,
“House of Israel, can I not treat you as this potter treats his clay?”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, house of Israel.
God can do with Israel what he wants to do.
He Is the Potter, We Are the Clay
And God can do whatever he wants with us, too. By definition, God gets to do whatever he wants. If he can’t then God isn’t God. We may not like this truth, but it can’t be denied without denying God, himself. As created beings, we don’t get to tell God what to do; he tells us what to do. He’s the potter, we’re the clay.
In fact, we are literally made of clay. Genesis 2:7 says God formed man out of the dust from the ground. Genesis 3:19 says we are dust, and to dust we will return.
So, in sending Jeremiah to visit a potter’s house God was reminding him, and us, of our place in life. We are lowly dust and God is able to do whatever he wants with what he’s created. He can bless us, or curse us, or he can destroy us.
Sometimes it takes a secular perspective from a group like the rock band Kansas to help us understand. These lyrics come from their song written in 1977: “Dust in the wind; All they are is dust in the wind; Same old song; Just a drop of water in an endless sea; All we do crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see.”
We may refuse to see it, but that doesn’t change the truth. The sober reality for everyone is we are dust. God created the dust that he turns into clay which he turns into human beings and then molds into whatever he wills.
All we are is dust in the wind, completely at the mercy of the potter’s hand. And until we fully grasp this, we will never be as humble as we ought to be.
Now, the context of “The Potter’s Hands” is misunderstood when it’s assumed God is limited by the clay and can only make something good out of good clay. That’s true for a literal potter who can only do so much with the raw materials. But don’t forget, God’s not limited by the clay. He made the clay!
And Isaiah has this to say to those who get this mixed up in Isaiah 29:16,
You have turned things around, as if the potter were the same as the clay. How can what is made say about its maker, “He didn’t make me”? How can what is formed say about the one who formed it, “He doesn’t understand what he’s doing”?
God knows exactly what he’s doing. Our problem is that we make too much of ourselves and too little of God. God’s not limited by anything, including our weaknesses.
Another thing we often misunderstand is God’s righteous anger…
Clay in the Hands of an Angry Potter
We often think being in “The Potter’s Hands” is meant to be comforting. It’s the idea of “Be patient with me, God’s not finished yet.” And while it is true that God’s not finished and “he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it” (Phil. 1:6), that’s not the main point of this passage.
Jeremiah’s main point is about judgment. God can do whatever he wants, including eternally punish us for our sins. It’s like some parents like to say to their rebellious children: “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it.”
Now, that’s not a very loving thing for a human being to say to another human being. But we forget that God is far above us in wisdom and power. He can do what he wants and everything he does is good.
For example, Jeremiah 18:7–10 says,
At one moment I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will uproot, tear down, and destroy it. However, if that nation about which I have made the announcement turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the disaster I had planned to do to it. At another time I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it. However, if it does what is evil in my sight by not listening to me, I will relent concerning the good I had said I would do to it.
God does what he wants but he chooses to show mercy to those that turn from evil. A nation marked for destruction can receive mercy if they repent. And a nation marked for blessing can be destroyed if they refuse to repent.
God sits at the potter’s wheel molding and shaping entire nations. He blesses those he wants to bless and curses those he wants to curse. For example, if a nation, like Nineveh, repents God promises to save them. But if a blessed nation, like Israel, or any blessed nation, refuses to repent, God promises to curse them. Jeremiah 18:9 says even a nation that was once built up and planted by God is not immune to God’s wrath.
What About America?
Now, even though this passage is about Israel, I think it’s appropriate to think about all nations, including the United States.
America, like other nations, was built up and planted by God. I think we often exaggerate the Christian foundation of America. America’s founders were a mix of Christians and deists who often promoted a moralistic view of the Bible, instead of a distinctively Christian one. But there’s no denying God has blessed this nation.
We have been blessed with an amazing Constitution, some of it based upon biblical principles. Our land has been blessed with abundant resources and wealth. And there is still freedom in this land unlike any other. But that doesn’t mean there always will be.
Just like any other nation, we are headed for disaster unless we repent. When will that happen? I don’t know, but according to the word of God, a nation must either repent or perish.
To avoid God’s wrath, we must repent of our racism, injustice, greed, apathy, selfishness, love of money, sexual immorality, and all our other sins or this nation will perish just like all the other nations that refused to repent.
So, with that in mind, I ask myself who should we vote for in the next election? Scripturally speaking, the answer is obvious. We should vote for the person who will lead our nation toward humble repentance because that’s our only hope.
Sadly, though, I think even if a political leader did repent and encouraged the rest of us to do the same, most of the nation would reject him. In fact, that’s what happened to Jeremiah and they tried to silence him.
Let’s Get Jeremiah!
The Israelites didn’t want a leader to lead them in repentance. They wanted a leader to tell them how great they were. They thought Jeremiah was hopeless, when in fact they were the hopeless ones. Jeremiah 18:12 says,
But they will say, ‘It’s hopeless. We will continue to follow our plans, and each of us will continue to act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ ”
The message of Jeremiah sounded crazy to them. Repent? Humility? Love? Mercy? That’s not how to run a country. The nations around them would think they were weak. They would make fun of them and worse, they’d attack!
God’s people were hopeless because they had forgotten what matters most to God. God loves the weak and poor. Psalm 51:17 says it’s the humble He will not despise. They had forgotten that and also who is in charge. So now they were trying to do what was wise in their own eyes forgetting what God had told them to do.
Jeremiah 18:15 says,
Yet my people have forgotten me. They burn incense to worthless idols that make them stumble in their ways on the ancient roads, and make them walk on new paths, not the highway.
Israel once knew the way of reliance and dependence on God. They once knew that if they followed God’s laws and commands they would be blessed. But they left God’s highway for the roads of idol worship. What they thought were shortcuts to prosperity were actually paths to horror and indescribable suffering.
And now they wanted to kill the only person trying to lead them in the right direction toward the only real solution—repentance.
And what about our nation? Aren’t we just as arrogant with our self-interests and lack of leaders who will lead us toward Christ? Even if we did have true Christian leaders rise up to lead the nation not just towards prosperity, but toward humble repentance, wouldn’t we try to get rid of them just like the Jews tried to get rid of Jeremiah, and then Jesus?
While it may be too late for us as a nation, it is not too late for us individually. So, if we have strayed from following Christ and have instead been trying to navigate our own pathways, it’s not too late to turn back to God in repentance.
Don’t be like Israel who says who said in Jeremiah 18:18,
Come, let’s make plans against Jeremiah, for instruction will never be lost from the priest, or counsel from the wise, or a word from the prophet. Come, let’s denounce him and pay no attention to all his words.
Instead, pay attention. Don’t be like those, who according to verse 20, dug a pit for Jeremiah to shut him up. And don’t forget that we are only the clay, that God is the potter and can do whatever he wants including what it says in verse 17...
I will scatter them before the enemy like the east wind. I will show them my back and not my face on the day of their calamity.
Could there be anything worse than God turning his back on us? No, but that’s the frightening consequence when people turn their backs on him. We too will be scattered like dust in the wind if we don’t repent.
A Bad Example
Next, in verses 21-22 Jeremiah takes a self-righteous tone and goes on to pray for death by famine and sword for everyone who plotted against him, including men, women, and children. Even though this is what Jeremiah does, it is not a good example to follow. Before we chime in and also start to pray for our enemies to be defeated, remember how Jesus prayed for his enemies. Jesus prayed His Father would forgive them.
Instead, in verse 23 Jeremiah prayed for God not to forgive their crimes but to make them suffer. But that’s not right. Instead, Jesus prayed for mercy toward his enemies and we should follow Jesus, not Jeremiah.
Regardless of how Jeremiah prayed, God had the right to do what he wanted because he’s the potter and we’re the clay. The God who made us can raise us to life or he can destroy us in an instant at the first sign of any defect.
Are there any defects in our lives? Yes? Then God has just cause to turn his back on us for all eternity. Does that frighten us? Well, it should. That’s the point of this passage.
The fear of God should cause us to beg God to forgive our sins and show us mercy and compassion. That’s our only hope.
Psalm 103:13–14 says,
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust.
God will show compassion on those who fear him. So fear the Lord and trust in Christ.
A Work in Progress
Even though the main point of the potter’s hands is about judgment there is comfort in knowing we are in the hands of the potter. Since God is the master potter, he can take otherwise worthless lumps of clay and turn us into useful and beautiful masterpieces.
This is what God does with every Christian who comes to him in repentance and faith. We come to Christ with nothing but our sinful selves and he gives us new life. He remakes us into something useful and beautiful. It’s comforting to know that we are his work in progress.
We may not like the pain in our lives. We may not like it when we get sick or face other disappointments, but these are all a part of God’s redeeming purpose to turn us into something uniquely beautiful.
We are not the potter. God is. He knows what’s best, and he will always do what’s best. So remember if we are in Christ, it’s a good thing to be in the potter’s hands and thank him that he isn’t finished yet. He will finish. God always finishes what he starts, so let’s trust him!