The Potter's Hand
THE POTTER’S HAND
The first thing I want to do is take just a moment to dispel two myths many people have about the Old Testament. After that we’ll take just a moment to briefly say a word about Jeremiah, and about the political and spiritual context of the passage before us. Then finally, I want to delve into our text and examine some things I believe God has for us.
Typical churchgoers in this country seem to be becoming more and more biblically illiterate. The first generally held myth is that the Old Testament is only good for entertaining Bible stories and for character lessons about its heroes. We need to understand that the only Scripture used by the early church was the Old Testament; none of the gospels or epistles were put into an agreed upon canon until somewhere around the 4th century. For example, When Paul preached he declared, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1Cor.15:3,4).
The second myth is that the Old Testament is about law; the New Testament is about grace and about Christ. Jesus is the central theme of both the Old and New Testaments. According to rabbinical calculations, there are some 456 Old Testament texts that refer directly to the Messiah or to the messianic times. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus was very clear that the reason for the disciples’ failure to recognize who Jesus is, was their failure to see how the Law, the Prophets, and Writings all point to Christ (Luke 24:25-27).
We are fortunate that of the two primary preachers for this church, one is currently preaching through the early part of the book of Genesis, and the other is preaching through the book of Hebrews, which makes the case for Christ based on O.T. passages.
Jeremiah came from a priestly family and was called while a teenager to be God’s prophet to Judah. A hundred and fifty years before Jeremiah, the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated and carried off into exile by Assyria. God delivered his promised judgment on Israel for their idolatry, injustice, and disobedience. Now God was preparing to send the southern kingdom of Judah into exile in Babylon, for the same reasons. Jeremiah’s mission was to warn the people and leaders of Judah to repent and turn back to God in obedience while there is still time. (Wall poster: movie Tombstone – “Justice is Coming”) When Judah reached the point of no return and the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem to the ground, Jeremiah was called to comfort the remnant and give hope of future restoration. Jeremiah’s prophetic contemporaries were Zephaniah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Daniel, and Ezekiel.
The difference between “good” kings and “bad” kings, are “good” kings listened to the prophets. The northern kingdom Israel had no good kings. Judah, however, was a mixed bag. Hezekiah was a good king who initiated a number of promising reforms, and many years later king Josiah also made reforms, although superficial. Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry during Josiah’s reign, and after Josiah was killed in battle, his two sons and one grandson, all bad, ruled Judah up until the fall of Jerusalem.
After the power of Assyria waned under weaker kings, Babylon began to rise in power until only Babylon and Egypt fought for dominance of the ANE with Palestine becoming a political and military football between the two. Consequently, the royal courts in Jerusalem were filled with political intrigue as the hawks and doves and moderates struggled for power and influence; some favoring Egypt, some Babylon, all for independence.
Jeremiah endured incredible hostility from Judah’s royal court. Only a providential edict from Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar saved his life and allowed him to remain living in what was left of Jerusalem.
I think some comparisons might be made between the royal court at the time of Jeremiah, and the political situation in our nation’s capitol today. We are facing an important election; some say the most important in our history. Like Jerusalem facing enemies from within and without, we also are threatened by forces that could destroy us. Our nation is politically divided on what course of action we should take and who should lead us. I believe that like Jeremiah, the Christian Church stands in the role of the prophets before us, calling people of every nation to repentance and obedience to God. Our job is not first and foremost to make America great; our job is to proclaim the Gospel so this nation and its people may be blessed through obedience to Christ.
We sometimes think if elections don’t turn our “our way”, then we are doomed, and our nation will suffer. However, that is not our decision to make. We need to re-learn what the prophets learned before us: God is sovereign, and nothing is too hard for him. Everyone on this planet is not the arbiters of our own fate. God will do with nations and individuals exactly what he chooses.
I would like to suggest three things we should keep uppermost in our minds during these tumultuous times:
1. Keep our attention focused on our objective: God’s eternal kingdom. What are we here for? Read 2Cor.5:17-20. What does “reconcile” mean? Grk.: reestablish an interrupted or broken relationship. We are all separated from God because of sin. Our privilege as citizens of God’s kingdom is to bring people to Christ. Our goal and objective should be as Paul when he said “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Then he said, “let those of us who are mature be of the same mind.” (Phil.3:14,15)
2. Consider the disappointments and tragedies of our nation as opportunities to witness to Christ and to meet needs.
3. Be encouraged….God wins! Read Rev.21:22-27.
In v.1 we read, “the word of the Lord came”. That phrase is used in 109 verses in the O.T., 24x in Jeremiah. We don’t know how the “word of the Lord” came to Jeremiah…..whether it was in a vision or an audible voice.
“The word of the Lord” ought to trigger particular significance in light of our reading of the New Testament, i.e. John 1: “In the beginning was the Word…” Jesus is the divine Logos…He is God’s Word incarnate speaking to all of humanity. We stand in the place of the prophets today, as we witness to the reality of Christ. While the written word may be subject to interpretation, Jesus is not. That he came into human history, fulfilled all the prophecies spoken of him, died for the sins of the world, and rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven….is all historical fact. Everything Jesus said and did was in front of witnesses, who testified to what they had seen and heard. Jesus is not subject to our “interpretation”. He is God’s authoritative, divine word interceding in human history and calling everyone to repentance.
Jeremiah was sent to the “potter’s house”. Every town had a potter, who made the earthen jars, bowls, containers used in every household. God had something to say to the people of Judah and he made sure the meaning would be understood by using something very common to everyone; no hidden meaning, here.
Now the potter’s wheel was not one wheel, but two. There is a lower wooden wheel joined to an upper wooden wheel by a spindle. The potter would turn the lower wheel with his feet, which in turn would rotate the upper wheel as he placed a lump of clay on it, wet his fingers, and begin to form whatever he decided to make. Occasionally a small stone would surface in the clay, and the potter would then have to either remove the stone and start over or if there were too many stones he might discard the clay entirely and get a new batch.
This is where God hits a home run with his point. The many sins of idolatry and disobedience committed by the people of Judah had severely distorted the image God had planned for them as a nation. Even small stones in the clay made the vessel useless, and the potter had to start over. There is a similar analogy in the New Testament, in Luke 9:41 Jesus referred to the crowd as a “faithless and perverse” generation. The word for “perverse” lit. means an object on a potter’s wheel that becomes corrupt or misshapen. This is a stirring illustration of what our lives become, as well, when we fall away from obedience to the Gospel. How many of us have allowed small sins to creep into our lives and disqualify us from the life of service God has planned for us; to the point where God says, “I can’t use you any more, at least not the way I intended?” And similarly we as a church need to be wary of allowing sin to take hold in our fellowship. There are those today with the gift of “prophecy” who immediately recognize and react to sin and warn the church and its leaders to confess and repent from it.
It would be a tragic mistake to think of this passage simply as an example of how God judges sin. In this illustration from Jeremiah, we also learn that God is merciful, longsuffering, and he desires a relationship with us. Remember, Jeremiah is just one of a number of prophets God sent to warn Judah of coming judgment. It was God’s grace that gave them repeated warnings, waited until the last possible moment for judgment, and it was God’s grace and mercy that kept Jeremiah with the remnant to comfort them and reassure them that God will reshape them into a nation again. Even in judgment, we learn about the gracious and merciful attributes of God.
At this point in our passage, God closes the deal. He pointedly asks, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Says the Lord. Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” Now that’s a rhetorical question, where the expected answer can only be “yes”.
But what’s wrong with this picture? Although the answer is obvious, that God has absolute power over not only Israel but other nations, as well, the people of Judah are living like God has no influence at all. Judah is living proof of a 150-year old object lesson: their brothers to the north don’t live there any longer; there is no “northern kingdom” anymore! How do you ignore that? It should be obvious to everyone that neither individuals nor nations control their own destiny.
By using an analogy of potter and clay, God graciously reminds them that as Creator of this planet and the universe, he retains divine rights over all his creation. A person could logically ask what choices and what rights does Israel have to contest God’s promised judgment? The answer is: none. Paul makes a similar argument in Romans 9:20,21: “But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” Again, a rhetorical question.
This whole subject strikes at the very heart of the nature of God. We live in a fallen world, and bad things happen in nature and they happen to people. As Christians, how often do we think we need to make excuses for God? Why do the innocent suffer; why is there killing and tragedy in the world; why do some of the best of us get sick and some die? I suppose it gives us some measure of comfort to remind ourselves that maybe God has a plan, or someone’s untimely death may serve as a witness, or God can make a good thing come out of great tragedy. All of these may be true, but it also misses a very important but neglected aspect of God: he has the absolute right to do with us whatever he chooses and he doesn’t need a reason, especially one he has to share with us. I think it is very, very important that if we are going to have a relationship with the Lord God Almighty, we must understand who He is. This may sound cold, but it is exactly the point that is made in the Book of Job. Job was a righteous man who suffered more than any person who ever lived, save Christ. All Job wanted was an audience with God to plead his case, believing God would acquit him and restore his good life. Everybody including Job wanted to discover an excuse of why God would put Job through this misery. Instead, God delivered to Job a theophany none of us should ever forget. God never gave Job the slightest hint of a reason for his suffering; only a glimpse of God that caused Job to confess his love and service for God solely because of who God is. God wants us to love and obey him simply because he is God, not for any benefits we derive from him; God alone deserves that kind of allegiance.
Now we come to some of the saddest words in Scripture. Even after all the idolatry and evil the leaders and people of Judah have done, God now in verse 11 is still pleading with them to repent and turn away from their sin. But God knows their hearts and seems resigned to accept that they will “act according the stubbornness of their own will” (v.12). Similarly Jesus also grieves for Israel in Matthew 23:37 when he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This clearly shows the heart of God, our omnipotent and loving Creator. But humans through the ages seem never to learn this most important lesson: don’t mess with God’s holiness! Do not take God for a pushover and tempt him to act on his integrity and bring judgment upon us.
So what do we learn from this passage from Jeremiah 18? I think several things:
· First, that like clay, people are God’s special creation; each of us matters.
· Second, any of the small “stones” in our life also matter, because sin distorts the image and purpose that God has planned for us.
· Third, we learn that God’s sovereignty is absolute; he maintains divine right to do what he will with his own creation. Our duty is to love God and obey him regardless of circumstances.
· Fourth, God is loving, merciful, and longsuffering; and he is also holy and just. While longing to have a relationship with us, he will nevertheless discipline us and punish sin.
· Finally, God’s plan for his creation will come to pass. The Kingdom of Heaven is the only reality that should guide our hopes.
At a recent seminar on Jeremiah, Emmaus Bible College Chancellor Dan Smith remarked, “In a fallen world faithfulness to God always has a price.” Jeremiah faithfully obeyed God, saw his country destroyed and his own people killed or carried off into captivity. Jeremiah’s own life ended as a kidnapped prisoner in a foreign country. Do we think when Jeremiah sits down at the table prepared for “the marriage supper of the Lamb”, that any of these things will matter? Let us all live our lives for that which does matter!