Shelby G. Floyd
One of the earliest inventions and crafts, known in the history of man, is that of the potter’s wheel:
“Another important invention was the potter’s wheel. Earlier, men had fashioned pots by molding or coiling clay by hand, but with the potter’s wheel, men could turn out a symmetrical product in a much shorter time…Although none of these ancient wooden potter’s wheels have survived, examples made of clay and stone have been excavated. The oldest, found at Ur in the lower Euphrates Valley, has been dated around 3250 B.C. Potters wheels were used in Syria and Palestine around 3000 B.C., in Egypt some 250 years later, in India before 2500 B.C. and in Greece about 1800 B.C. On the other hand, they did not appear in England until approximately 50 B.C. and in the Americas until 1550 A. D.” –Civilization Past and Present, Volume 1, Wallbank-Taylor, page 35.
In a hymn book we have a song titled, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” which includes these beautiful words,
Have Thine Own Way Lord!
Have Thine own way!
Thou art the potter; I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.
By a figure of speech, the words of this song, compares God to the potter, and his people to the clay. If we yield to his will, like a potter he can mold us and make us a vessel of honor; but if we refuse his word, we can mar like clay in his hands, and fit ourselves as vessels of destruction and wrath.
The figure of speech of the potter and clay as applied to God and his people is found several times in both the Old and New Testaments. But the application of this figure of speech is nowhere made plainer than in the book Jeremiah, where we read of Jeremiah being sent by divine direction, down to the potter’s house to observe an object lesson.
Jeremiah and the Potter’s House
By divine instruction God sent his prophet Jeremiah down to the potter’s house to watch a man at work with the potter’s wheel and his clay:
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,
Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words.
Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels.
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.
Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
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.
When Jeremiah came to the potter’s house, he saw the potter working a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel. While he was watching the man work, the clay marred in his hand, and so he had to make it another vessel as seemed good to the potter. The potter was a skilled craftsman, and the clay did not mar because of some mistake or fault on his part, but the clay marred because of the condition of the clay. Therefore, the potter had to make it another vessel according to the condition of the clay.
The application was obvious to Jeremiah. Israel was as clay in the hand of God. God sought to make of Israel vessels of honor and glory, but because of sin they had marred in his hand; and therefore, he had to make them vessels as seemed good to his will. If they repented of their sins, God could still make them vessels of service and usefulness. If they continued to mar in his hand, ultimately they would harden and be fit only as vessels of destruction and wrath. God impressed upon Jeremiah and the people his sovereign right to make Israel either vessels of honor or vessels of wrath. However, this would not be an arbitrary decision on God’s part, but would be wholly dependent upon Israel’s conduct. If they obeyed God, they would not mar in his hand, and he could fit them as vessels of honor; but if they continued in rebellion and sin, God could only make them into vessels of wrath and destruction.
This very principal is further explained to Jeremiah by God:
At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; 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. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; 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.
Judah and Jerusalem Are Like a Broken Bottle
Because Judah and Jerusalem refused to repent and to turn to God and his word, Jeremiah one chapter later compared Judah to a broken bottle. He said,
Jeremiah 19:1, 10-11
Thus saith the LORD, Go and get a potter’s earthen bottle, and take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests; Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee, And shalt say unto them, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again: and they shall bury them in Tophet, till there be no place to bury.
It is sad to think that Judah and Jerusalem did not learn the lesson which God gave them through their prophet Jeremiah, and that they were to be broken as a potter’s vessel, broken into so many pieces that they could not be made whole again. But it was not the fault of the potter, but the fault of the clay. It was not the fault of God, but it was a condition and conduct of God’s people. Later when Jeremiah wept and lamented over the lost and undone condition of his people, he compared the sons of Zion as the work of the hands of the potter.
How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed! the stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street. The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter!
The prophet Isaiah joined Jeremiah in comparing God to the potter and the children of Israel to the clay. He said, “But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.” (Isaiah 64: 8.)
God’s Will and Man’s Will
God either makes his people vessels of wrath, or vessels of honor, according to his will; but he does not do this in violation of the nature of man. Man also has a choice in the matter; if man yields his will to God’s will, God will make him a vessel of honor. If man resists God’s will, he will make him a vessel of wrath and destruction. If God fits us as vessels of wrath and destruction, we have no right to reply against God, for he only molds and makes us according to the way we yield ourselves to him. Therefore, God’s treatment of both men and nations is perfectly just.
The Justice of God
In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul uses the same figure speech of the potter and the clay to describe God’s just treatment of both the Jews and the Gentiles:
Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?
Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Paul here is reasoning from specific examples in the history of God’s dealings with men and nations. A man or a nation can either make themselves vessels of wrath or vessels of honor and glory. For instance, Pharaoh refused to make himself a vessel of honor, and even though God was long-suffering with him, he prepared himself to be a vessel of wrath. Since he chose to be a vessel of that character, God used him to display his wrath against such characters. Therefore, Pharaoh could not find fault with God for punishing him, since he alone was responsible for the consequences of his acts. In the same way, for hundreds of years God had been long-suffering with the nation of Israel, and yet, they refused to repent and to turn to him and his will. They had prepared themselves to be vessels of wrath fitted to destruction. Israel could not find fault with God, since they alone were responsible for their actions, and God was just in manifesting his wrath against them because of their disobedience.
On the other hand, those of both the Jews and Gentiles who accepted Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God, and obeyed his gospel, prepared themselves to be vessels of honor and glory that God had prepared for them. Whether we are vessels of wrath or vessels of honor depends upon our choice of human character. If the clay mars in the hand of the potter, it is not the potter’s fault, but rather the character and quality of the clay. If God proposes to make us vessels of honor, and we refuse to be vessels of honor, and therefore mar in his hands, then he can do with us as he sees fit, because we are in his hand as the clay is in the hand of the Potter.
We Are the Potter and Our Children Are the Clay
Just as we are clay in the hand of God and he molds and makes us according to his will and according to our will, so our children are as clay in our hands, and we must mold them and make them vessels of honor according to the will of God. Paul said,
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.
Thus, in molding the character of a child, both the will of the child and the will of the parent are involved.
The Potter’s Wheel
The following verse by an unknown author illustrates very well our subject at hand.
I took a piece of potter’s clay
And gently fashioned it one day,
And as my fingers pressed it still,
It moved and yielded to my will.
I came again when days were past;
The bit of clay was hard at last;
The form I gave it still it bore,
But I could change that form no more.
I took a piece of living clay
And gently formed day by day;
And molded with my power and art,
A young child’s soft and yielding heart.
I came again when days were gone;
It was a man I looked upon.
He still that first impression wore,
And I could change it never more.
May each of us consider ourselves as clay in the hand of God, and so live and conduct ourselves that God might mold us and make us a vessel of honor and glory instead of a vessel of wrath and destruction.
One of the favorite figures of speech, of both the Old and New Testaments, is that of the potter and the clay. In this metaphor, God is compared to the potter, and his people to the clay. God can mold us and make us either into vessels of honor and glory, or unto vessels of wrath and destruction. God does not do this arbitrarily in violation of the nature of man, but in conjunction with man’s freewill and choice. Therefore, our purpose is to illustrate that a person, by the choice of his willpower, can either be a vessel of honor or a vessel of wrath.
In writing to the young preacher Timothy Paul said,
2 Timothy 2:19-22
Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.
Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.
In this same statement, the apostle Paul compares all the members of the church to a large house in which there are many vessels, some of gold and silver, vessels unto honor, some of wood and earth, vessels to dishonor. But, Paul affirms that a man does not need to be a vessel of dishonor: for he says, a man may purge himself from vessels of dishonor and make himself a vessel unto honor, sanctified and proper for the master’s use, and prepared for every good work.
How does a man purge himself, and make himself a vessel of honor? He does this by refusing to compromise with evil, and by conforming to the Master’s will. A man may purge himself from the vessels of dishonor also by fleeing youthful lust, and following after righteousness, faith, charity, etc. Whether a man turns out to be a vessel of honor, or of wrath, depends upon whether he purges himself from the corrupting influences of sin and evil. Paul emphasizes the importance of good influence: “be not deceived: evil communications corrupts good manners.” (1 Corinthians 15:33.) A man then may become a vessel of honor and glory by purging himself from the corrupting influences of sin. He does this by being, “not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:2.) A person may keep himself from becoming a vessel of dishonor by purging himself from the works of the flesh, and by bearing the fruit of the spirit. (Cf. Galatians 5: 19-23.)
Persons who have given themselves over to be the servants of God are often compared to an earthen vessel. For instance, the apostle Paul compared the preachers of the gospel to earthen vessels, and he likened the gospel to a treasure hidden in earthen vessels, that “the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7.) A man then who gives himself over to the preaching of the glorious gospel of Christ can become a vessel of honor, because he has within his heart and soul the treasure of the gospel. God himself stated to the gospel preacher, Ananias, that he had selected Paul to be the chosen vessel, “but the Lord said unto him, go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and Kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my namesake.” (Acts 9: 15-16.)
God chose Paul to be his vessel, but Paul became that chosen vessel when he gave himself over and submitted to God’s purpose and will. Therefore, Paul purged himself from the vessels of dishonor and made himself a vessel of honor and glory. Paul did this like the clay that is molded in the hands of the potter. Paul became a vessel of honor and glory because he allowed God to mold and shape his life according to his will. He did not rebel and resist, he did not mar in the hands of the potter.
Every member of the church of Christ has the power to purge himself from worldliness, impurity and everything that is against the will of Christ. To the Thessalonians Paul stated this principle of freewill relative to being a chosen vessel of honor:
1 Thessalonians 4:3-7
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.
Vessels of Wrath Will Be Broken In the Day of Judgment
A broken vessel, in the hand of God, always signifies destruction and desolation. For instance, Jeremiah compared Judah to a broken bottle,
“Thus say of the Lord, go and get a potter’s earthen bottle, and take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests;… then shalt thou break the bottle in the site of the men that go with thee, and shalt say unto them, thus say of the Lord of hosts; even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potters vessel, that cannot be made whole again: and they shall bury them and toasted, till there being no place to bury.” (Jeremiah 19: 1, 10-11.)
In the Day of Judgment then, will we be a broken vessel in the hand of God, signifying our destruction and desolation, or will we be a vessel sanctified and meet for the master’s use and prepared for eternal honor and glory? It all depends on how well we use our life upon the earth.*
*Shelby G. Floyd wrote this essay May 25, June 1, and 15, 1975 in The Informer, Garfield Heights Church of Christ, 2842 Shelby Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. Copyright © 2007 2014 Shelby Floyd All Rights Reserved
Shelby G. Floyd