Exploring the Scripture
Several hymns, both modern and traditional, celebrate the imagery of God as the Potter. With lyrical yearning and pliant submission, the songs ask God to turn us into useful vessels of God’s will. “Mold me, fill me, use me…” (“Spirit of the Living God,” Daniel Iverson, Community of Christ Sings 567).
Today’s text about the potter, however, is more than a gentle reminder to subordinate our will to God’s will. It stands, instead, as a powerful warning of judgment when the clay rebels against the Potter. No songs are written of this passage.
Jeremiah begins the passage with a personal anecdote. He went down to the house of the potter. There, he saw a clay vessel that was spoiled on the wheel. The potter took the clay and reshaped it into a different vessel that was “good to him” (v. 4). The ominous word of prophecy was built on this image of a ruined vessel that no longer served the purposes of the potter.
God opens with a rhetorical question: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as the potter has done?” (v. 6). The heart of the prophecy was about repentance. Surprisingly, the focus was not on Judah’s repentance, but on God!
In clear and strict terms, God confirmed the behavior of any nation can influence the Divine will in such a way that “I will change my mind” (vv. 8, 10). A nation that does evil, and repents, can cause God to change from punishment to grace. A nation that is favored of God, but begins to do evil, can result in God changing from a design of good for that nation to a design of evil.
So far, God has been speaking in generalities about all nations. God responds to the good and evil that is done throughout the nations of the world. That, alone, would amaze the Israelites and make them sit up and take notice. But the final word of prophecy has yet to be spoken.
God applied the general argument to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Therefore, God said, “I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you” (v. 11). Can the God of the ancient covenant turn away from Judah and choose another nation to be God’s chosen people?
The words of the prophet are plain. God can. The people are fully warned. God responds to human actions and continues to hold people accountable.
How did the people respond? “‘It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will’” (v.12). Perhaps the hearers thought the parable meant God would take the ruined vessel of Judah and remake it new and more powerful. If so, the second prophecy in Jeremiah 19:1–13 dashed their hopes and reinforced the warning.
Jeremiah took a potter’s jug and smashed it so it could not be remade. Then he called the people to bear witness that they were the smashed jug of the potter. A word of grace and forgiveness was given in prophecies much later.
- A potter can take clay from a ruined vessel and reshape one that is new and useful.
- Similarly, God can repent and change the Divine purpose toward any nation, based on the willingness of the nation to do good or to do evil.
- Disobedient Israel breaks the covenant with God. God can choose a new people with which to covenant.
- God responds to human actions and holds people accountable for their choices.
Questions to Consider
- What do you think about the idea of God repenting and changing God’s mind? How does human repentance influence God’s repentance?
- How do you understand the balance between God’s grace and God’s yearning to hold humans accountable for their actions?
- What acts and crises in the current world signal that we are not living out God’s purposes for our creation?
- Is God’s covenant with you conditional or unconditional? What evidence do you have to support your answer?
- How might the Enduring Principle, Make Responsible Choices, be reflected in this scripture?