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The Potter and the Clay


The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

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The Sovereign Prerogative of God; Divine Goodness and Equity. (b. c. 600.)

1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying,   2 Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words.   3 Then I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels.   4 And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.   5 Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying,   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.   7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;   8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.   9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;   10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.

The prophet is here sent to the potter's house (he knew where to find it), not to preach a sermon as before to the gates of Jerusalem, but to prepare a sermon, or rather to receive it ready prepared. Those needed not to study their sermons that had them, as he had this, by immediate inspiration. "Go to the potter's house, and observe how he manages his work, and there I will cause thee, by silent whispers, to hear my words. There thou shalt receive a message, to be delivered to the people." Note, Those that would know God's mind must observe his appointments, and attend where they may hear his words. The prophet was never disobedient to the heavenly vision, and therefore went to the potter's house (v. 3) and took notice how he wrought his work upon the wheels, just as he pleased, with a great deal of ease, and in a little time. And (v. 4) when a lump of clay that he designed to form into one shape either proved too stiff, or had a stone in it, or some way or other came to be marred in his hand, he presently turned it into another shape; if it will not serve for a vessel of honour, it will serve for a vessel of dishonour, just as seems good to the potter. It is probable that Jeremiah knew well enough how the potter wrought his work, and how easily he threw it into what form he pleased; but he must go and observe it now, that, having the idea of it fresh in his mind, he might the more readily and distinctly apprehend that truth which God designed thereby to represent to him, and might the more intelligently explain it to the people. God used similitudes by his servants the prophets (Hos. xii. 10), and it was requisite that they should themselves understand the similitudes they used. Ministers will make a good use of their converse with the business and affairs of this life if they learn thereby to speak more plainly and familiarly to people about the things of God, and to expound scripture comparisons. For they ought to make all their knowledge some way or other serviceable to their profession.

Now let us see what the message is which Jeremiah receives, and is entrusted with the delivery of, at the potter's house. While he looks carefully upon the potter's work, God darts into his mind these two great truths, which he must preach to the house of Israel:

I. That God has both an incontestable authority and an irresistible ability to form and fashion kingdoms and nations as he pleases, so as to serve his own purposes: "Cannot I do with you as this potter, saith the Lord? v. 6. Have not I as absolute a power over you in respect both of might and of right?" Nay, God has a clearer title to a dominion over us than the potter has over the clay; for the potter only gives it its form, whereas we have both matter and form from God. As the clay is in the potter's hand to be moulded and shaped as he pleases, so are you in my hand. This intimates, 1. That God has an incontestable sovereignty over us, is not debtor to us, may dispose of us as he thinks fit, and is not accountable to us, and that it would be as absurd for us to dispute this as for the clay to quarrel with the potter. 2. That it is a very easy thing with God to make what use he pleases of us and what changes he pleases with us, and that we cannot resist him. One turn of the hand, one turn of the wheel, quite alters the shape of the clay, makes it a vessel, unmakes it, new-makes it. Thus are our times in God's hand, and not in our own, and it is in vain for us to strive with him. It is spoken here of nations; the most politic, the most potent, are what God is pleased to make them, and no other. See this explained by Job (ch. xii. 23), He increaseth the nations and destroyeth them; he enlargeth the nations and straiteneth them again. See Ps. cvii. 33, &c., and compare Job xxxiv. 29. All nations before God are as the drop of the bucket, soon wiped away, or the small dust of the balance, soon blown away (Isa. xl. 15), and therefore, no doubt, as easily managed as the clay by the potter. 3. That God will not be a loser by any in his glory, at long run, but, if he be not glorified by them, he will be glorified upon them. If the potter's vessel be marred for one use, it shall serve for another; those that will not be monuments of mercy shall be monuments of justice. The Lord has made all things for himself, yea, even the wicked for the day of evil, Prov. xvi. 4. God formed us out of the clay (Job xxxiii. 6), nay, and we are still as clay in his hands (Isa. lxiv. 8); and has not he the same power over us that the potter has over the clay? (Rom. ix. 21), and are not we bound to submit, as the clay to the potter's wisdom and will? Isa. xxix. 15, 16; xlv. 9.

II. That, in the exercise of this authority and ability, he always goes by fixed rules of equity and goodness. He dispenses favours indeed in a way of sovereignty, but never punishes by arbitrary power. High is his right hand, yet he rules not with a high hand, but, as it follows there, Justice and judgment are the habitation of his throne, Ps. lxxxix. 13, 14. God asserts his despotic power, and tells us what he might do, but at the same time assures us that he will act as a righteous and merciful Judge. 1. When God is coming against us in ways of judgment we may be sure that it is for our sins, which shall appear by this, that national repentance will stop the progress of the judgments (v. 7, 8): If God speak concerning a nation to pluck up its fences that secure it, and so lay it open, its fruit-trees that adorn and enrich it, and so leave it desolate—to pull down its fortifications, that the enemy may have liberty to enter in, its habitations, that the inhabitants may be under a necessity of going out, and so destroy it as either a vineyard or a city is destroyed—in this case, if that nation take the alarm, repent of their sins and reform their lives, turn every one from his evil way and return to God, God will graciously accept them, will not proceed in his controversy, will return in mercy to them, and, though he cannot change his mind, he will change his way, so that it may be said, He repents him of the evil he said he would do to them. Thus often in the time of the Judges, when the oppressed people were penitent people, still God raised them up saviours; and, when they turned to God, their affairs immediately took a new turn. It was Nineveh's case, and we wish it had oftener been Jerusalem's; see 2 Chron. vii. 14. It is an undoubted truth that a sincere conversion from the evil of sin will be an effectual prevention of the evil of punishment; and God can as easily raise up a penitent people from their ruins as the potter can make anew the vessel of clay when it was marred in his hand. 2. When God is coming towards us in ways of mercy, if any stop be given to the progress of that mercy, it is nothing but sin that gives it (v. 9, 10): If God speak concerning a nation to build and to plant it, to advance and establish all the true interests of it, it is his husbandly and his building (1 Cor. iii. 9), and, if he speak in favour of it, it is done, it is increased, it is enriched, it is enlarged, its trade flourishes, its government is settled in good hands, and all its affairs prosper and its enterprises succeed. But if this nation, which God is thus loading with benefits, do evil in his sight and obey not his voice,—if it lose its virtue, and become debauched and profane,—if religion grow into contempt, and vice to get to be fashionable, and so be kept in countenance and reputation, and there be a general decay of serious godliness among them,—then God will turn his hand against them, will pluck up what he was planting, and pull down what he was building (ch. xlv. 4); the good work that was in the doing shall stand still and be let fall, and what favours were further designed shall be withheld; and this is called his repenting of the good wherewith he said he would benefit them, as he changed his purpose concerning Eli's house (1 Sam. ii. 30) and hurried Israel back into the wilderness when he had brought them within sight of Canaan. Note, Sin is the great mischief-maker between God and a people; it forfeits the benefit of his promises and spoils the success of their prayers. It defeats his kind intentions concerning them (Hos. vii. 1) and baffles their pleasing expectations from him. It ruins their comforts, prolongs their grievances, brings them into straits, and retards their deliverances, Isa. lix. 1, 2.