The Potter and the clay

Scripture Readings

  • Romans 9:14-21
  • Jeremiah 18:1-10


There is a famous story of the days when Sir Christopher Wren was building St. Paul’s Cathedral. On one occasion he was making a tour of the work in progress. He came upon a man at work and asked him: “What are you doing?” The man said: “I am cutting this stone to a certain size and shape.” He came to a second man and asked him what he was doing. The man said: “I am earning so much money at my work.” He came to a third man at work and asked him what he was doing. The man paused for a moment, straightened himself and answered: “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build St. Paul’s Cathedral.”

God and his people

One can only suppose that an onlooker could Jeremiah that day when he went to the potter’s house what interested him most. Was he a tourist who happened to pass by? Did he have an interest in taking up pottery himself? Was he interested in the clay? Was it the mechanism of the wheel that caught his attention? He answer would be a surprise, “I am here on the Lord’s business.”

What have the clay and the potter to do with God? God’s people are like the clay in the hands of the potter. God is the Potter, and we are the clay. The Potter is shaping the clay, but there is something thoroughly wrong with the clay. 

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 18:4, ESV)

Not all clay is immediately suitable for pottery. Potters know it: it has to have the right consistency, it sometimes took a lot of kneading, pounding and manipulating. Sometimes it is too wet, and other times its too dry. Trying to shape a vessel from clay which is not ready causes the pot to crack, or it might just collapse into an unformed mass.

Jeremiah observed that the clay in the potter’s hand was spoiled. The potter had to rework it and make another vessel. The potter determines the shape and size of the pot, as it seemed good to him. The clay has no input in what sort of article it would be. This truth was the object lesson for Jeremiah that day at the potter’s house.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “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. (Jeremiah 18:5–6, ESV)

Unsuitable clay

In the object lesson with the potter and the clay, it was clear to Jeremiah who the Potter was, and what the clay represented. The spoiled clay symbolised God’s people. 

Read through the book of Jeremiah, and you will come to one inescapable conclusion: God’s people deserved punishment. If we only read chapter 18 and 19, the charges again them just keep stacking up. 

But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways… (Jeremiah 18:15, ESV)

…the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents,(Jeremiah 19:4, ESV)

… have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind— (Jeremiah 19:5, ESV)

These verses are only a patchy selection of charges against God’s people; you have to read the whole book to understand the desperate state of sinfulness in which God’s covenant people found themselves. 

When God called them out of Egypt to be his people, there at the foot of the mountains of the Lord, He spoke to them:  

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:4–6, ESV)

They were to be God’s holy nation, set apart for his glory and to be a witness of God’s greatness, mercy, love and righteousness to the nations. Every aspect of their lives had to reflect God’s holiness: their worship had to be different, their speech had to be different, so their diet, their clothes, the way they traded, the way they brought up their children, the way they lived as husband and wife. Every aspect of their lives had to indicate that they belonged to God.

Nothing has changed for the people of God. God’s holiness demands Christians to live the same way. Paul writes: 

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1–3, ESV)

When he goes into chapter 4, he commands:  

… put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22–24, ESV)

This new life includes not lying, anger, stealing, unwholesome talk, bitterness, rage, brawling, slander and any other form of malice.

We need to admit, like clay on the Potter’s wheel, there is nothing good in us. Should we desire that God use us to his glory, He would need to scrape us off his potter’s wheel and start from scratch. To be more exact: unfit as we are, we have no right even to ask the Potter to use us at all, let alone to shape us to what we want to be. 

The Potter

For many Bible readers, Romans 9 is a big problem. There are verses and expressions which seems hard to understand. In essence, this chapter deals with the issue of predestination. Who did God predestine to salvation? The Israelites? Paul answers: “…not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel …” (Romans 9:6, ESV) He then uses some examples to make his point. “Not the natural children [of Israel] are God’s children…” (9:7), but “those of the promise are regarded as children of Abraham.” (9:8). When it comes to Jacob and Esau, the Bible says, 

… though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:11–13, ESV)

The conclusion:  

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:16, ESV)

Our fallen human nature resents this motion and we are quick with a response.  

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (Romans 9:19, ESV)

And right away we get a logic answer:  

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is clay say to its Potter, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:20)

And we have to agree, 

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? (Romans 9:21, ESV)

But this is not the end of the chapter. Now listen carefully:  

What if he [the Potter = God] did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:23–24, NIV)

What is this “call“?

Let’s go back to Jeremiah for a moment.

The call to mercy

We already know that the clay in the hand of the Potter was spoiled and unfit to service. This parable represents the sin and rebellion of God chose people.  

We already know that Potter could not work with the clay. He had to form another vessel best to Him. He is after all the Potter. He people is the clay in his hands.  

So what does the Potter do? 

“Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. 

Then comes the sovereign and autonomous decision of the Potter,

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. (Jeremiah 18:7–8, NIV)

It is within the sovereign will of God to either punish and assign to eternal damnation all who rebelled against Him. Who is excluded? None. Paul says, 

Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. (Ephesians 2:3)

But! This “but” changes everything, 

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4–5, NIV)

How does Jeremiah put it? If we hear the warning and repent from our evil ways, then, God says, “I will relent and not afflict on it the disaster I had planned.” On the other hand, 

And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 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. (Jeremiah 18:9–10, NIV)

This is the reason why God told the prophet to go to the unfit, spoiled clay, to proclaim them what the Potter says: 

‘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.’ (Jeremiah 18:11, NIV)

Let’s go back to Romans 9—that chapter about predestination. Why do sinners receive mercy, and why do others who seem to be the rightful receivers of grace do not get it? Repentant sinners receive that righteousness they do not deserve, and those who rely on their own good works mis out. Why? Read Romans 9: 32-33 with me,

Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” (Romans 9:32–33, NIV)


There is only one conclusion. God, the Potter, took the unfit and spoiled clay off the wheel and replaced it with clay which seemed best to Him. Out of his own sovereign will, God took his Son, Jesus Christ and gave Him to become the Saviour of sinners. His life answered all God righteous demands. Therefore, “…the one who trust in Him, will never put to shame.” (Romans 9:33)

The clay in the hands of the Potter helps us to understand the doctrine of predestination. But predestination is not determinism, as if some are determined to go to hell just because a wrathful God never shows mercy. To understand predestination is to know the grace of God offered in Jesus Christ. It is only when this grace is rejected and trampled upon, that predestination becomes something to fear.

God’s call of grace still stands in Jesus Christ:

“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” (Romans 9:33, NIV)

Hear his call of grace; do not harden your heart. Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on 6 Octorber 2019


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