“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And 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” (Jeremiah 18:1–4).
Michael Horton has written, “We can talk about grace, sing about grace, preach about grace, just so long as we do not get too close to it. Election is too close.” A tributary, or rather the source of this river is this: We can talk about God’s sovereignty, sing about His sovereignty, and preach about His sovereignty, just as long as we don’t get too close. God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation or damnation is too close.
Here we have what is perhaps Scripture’s most potent metaphor for conveying God’s absolute sovereignty over man, that of the potter and the clay. I think the reason it unnerves us so is because while it assumes power, it emphasizes authority. When we talk of God’s sovereignty I believe we’re more comfortable with the opposite. We will glory in our God being all powerful; it’s what He has the authority to do with that power that terrifies us. God has sovereign power. That is assumed. The clay is in His hands. God has sovereign authority. This is emphasized. He may do with the clay as He wishes.
Another reason why this metaphor may cause us to squirm is because it’s one of the least metaphorical metaphors we encounter in the Scriptures. It’s like that piece of fiction that’s too true for enjoyment. We’re like the Pharisees listening to Jesus’ parables. In Genesis 2:7 we are told, “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.” The word we have for “potter” in our text is a derivative of the word “formed” in Genesis 2:7. Yes, Genesis 2:7 is anthropomorphic, but this doesn’t make it untrue. We are God fashioned dirt. As Horton put, we are the marvel of “ensouled dust.” After Adam fell, God told him, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). We are dust. We are God’s dust. He may form us. He may destroy us. He has not only the power to do so. He has the authority. He is sovereign.
Job, though he recognized this truth, appears to complain of it in his pain saying, “Your hands fashioned and made me, and now you have destroyed me altogether. Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust?” (Job 10:8–9). Even those who own the truth of the metaphor can express it with misgiving in their misery.
One mental game pots play trying to avoid this blunt force trauma is to believe God is only reacting to the clay. But this flips the roles. In this case, man is spinning God instead of God spinning man. This is completely contrary to the question God puts to Israel and the way this metaphor is used throughout Scripture.
“You 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 29:16)”
God not only spins the clay; He forms the clay He spins.
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor? (Isaiah 45:9–10)’ ”
Finally, the death knell of any such wishful thinking comes in Romans 9.
“So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But 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?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:18–24).
The point of this potter clay imagery isn’t simply that God is sovereign over what happens to the clay. He is sovereign over what the clay is. What the clay is, what it becomes, and what becomes of it—all this is His sovereign doing.
Notice the interrogatory nature of each of these passages. This is not an invitation to debate. These are a rhetorical questions that expose your heart. Should you answer, you tell us nothing about the Potter; rather, your arrogant protest or humble submission are the result of His Word spinning out what kind of clay you are.