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God the Ultimate Potter -- a study of Jeremiah 18:1-12

Why would clay think to rebel against the potter?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 18:1-12

This week's passage comes in a series of illustrations God gives how otherwise good and useful things can be made worthless and unsalvageable. That's His people. If they were clay, they would have added so many impurities to themselves that even the most skilled potter would choose to discard them. They have no one to blame but themselves.

“House of Israel, can I not treat you as this potter treats his clay?” (18:6)

This Week's Passage (i.e., Why My Ideas Are All Over)

There are two big lessons in play in this week's passage:

  1. God's sovereign control of the earth is like a potter to clay.

  2. God's people are complaining about how this is turning out for them.

You could focus on either one and have a complete lesson. I'm going to talk about both in these notes, but I think I'll personally focus on God's sovereignty in my group discussion.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

I Thought I Had It Under Control

We have all seen (or been a part of) catastrophic failures. I would oversimplify the causes like this:

  • A terrible mistake was made but not caught in time.

  • Somebody in charge just wasn't qualified to be in charge.

  • Somebody in charge was full "fake it 'til you make it".

Of course, it's often a combination of things.

Here are two big headlines from the past week:

Most of the time, our failures aren't going to rise to that level of disaster. Most of the time, our failures are on this kind of a scale:

Embarrassing, maybe costly, but not the end of the world.

Ben Tarver mentioned a classic blunder from 2012: for the 4th of July fireworks show in San Diego, one of the technicians accidentally doubled a line of code in the program, confusing the controller and causing it to launch all of the fireworks in 15 seconds. A failure, but a spectacular failure!

Here's where I'm going with this: the discussion question is something like "what's a time when you really blew it, and what was the cause?" Obviously, this topic works best with groups who are comfortable with one another! You follow it up with "what were the consequences?" Usually when we fail to do what we were supposed to do (even if it weren't our fault), there are some sort of consequences.

The Jewish leaders living in Jerusalem had catastrophically failed in their attempts to:

  1. worship God rightly

  2. govern their region effectively

  3. treat people with base-level decency

And yet they were complaining to God about His declaration that He would remold them from a vessel of honor to a vessel of destruction. Even after all of the tangible evidence that they were utter failures in their responsibilities, they still thought they should be treated as vessels of honor and left alone to be about their business.


I'm going to use this as my "Big Idea", but you could also use it as an opening activity. Bring in some molding clay and ask group members to volunteer to make something. (Give everybody the same task.) A key outcome is that "it's not so easy after all". A secondary outcome is that "when you get to the end, you think it might be better served as something other than what you originally intended it to be".

The Streaming Wars!

I am utterly fascinated by "the streaming wars". Chasing after Netflix, other legacy and upstart media companies threw billions of dollars into content for the purpose of increasing their subscriber base and making their shareholders happy.

About three years into it, and the companies have learned that spending lots and lots of money only gets you so much of a return. Even Disney -- the media behemoth -- has recently laid off thousands of people in their studios to try to get their balance sheet in order.

There have been a lot of risings and fallings in this race toward media dominance.

I think this is an interesting topic: in your opinion, what drives a streaming company's financial rise and fall? (Of course, you could pick any industry that interested you -- auto makers (RIP Saturn), phone companies (RIP Blackberry), diet trends (South Beach!), I just saw a book about YouTube that describes how changes to the YouTube algorithm would create and destroy "content empires" overnight -- the idea is that industries are marked by rises and falls all the time.) To me, I think it begins and ends with quality programming. But I think there's so much more to it: the political leanings in the content, the social presence of the company, their trust level with their subscribers, and the whims of the people who have the money.

In this week's passage, God tells Jeremiah that He controls the rising and falling of kings and nations. Most of that is related to the nation's behavior, if it is righteous or wicked (and that's a bit of a parallel with the streaming wars illustration). But in any event, it is entirely in God's hands.


This Week's Big Idea: Pottery!

This week's passage focuses on the famous "Potter's House" parable. God reveals some very interesting things about the ancient practice of pottery, and I think it would be worth brushing up on your pottery awareness. If you have someone in your group who does pottery, please get in touch with them about sharing their knowledge with the group.

I'm not going to attempt to sound like I know anything about pottery. But Wikipedia sure does. Here are some addition focused webpages:

What I found really interesting what the massive number of webpages devoted to "Life Lessons from Doing Pottery". They can get pretty touchy-feely:

I've really latched on to this idea that the clay has a "say" in how it turns out. As in, an experienced potter can begin working with clay and realize that it is best suited for a particular purpose (based on any number of internal factors), and he/she won't waste any time trying to turn that clay into a vessel it's not suited to be.

If I understand that right, I think that's the lesson God is teaching Jeremiah at the potter's house. Yes, the illustration breaks down in that clay can't actively change itself like people can, but the point is that the Jews had "dried themselves out", limiting the nature of the vessel they could be turned into. And when the potter (God) turned them into something other than what they wanted to be, they complained. Well, that's the clay's fault, not the potter's. (Yes, we have to be imaginative with this illustration.)

Pottery in the Bible

You might be surprised how little the Bible talks about pottery proper. Let's start with the obvious. The Bible mentions several basic vessels:

  • Jars (Gen 24:14, 2 Ki 4:2, etc.)

  • Bowls (Num 7:85, Song 7:2, etc.)

  • Pitchers (Lam 4:2, Jer 35:5, etc.)

  • Pots (Ex 16:3, 1 Ki 17:14, etc.)

  • Cups (Isa 22:24, Jer 35:5, etc.)

This lets us know how ubiquitous pottery-making was in their culture.

But there are a couple of pottery-related observations that are profound, and that's where this week's passage leans.

First, pottery is fragile. Like people, pottery is everywhere. It can be used for all kinds of things. It can take all kinds of appearances. But at the end of the day, it's extremely fragile.

Multiple references to pottery in the Bible are to how the mightiest nations of the earth are like fragile bowls before God.

You will break them with an iron scepter; you will shatter them like pottery. (Ps 2:9)
Isa 30: 14 [Israel's] collapse will be like the shattering of a potter’s jar, crushed to pieces, so that not even a fragment of pottery will be found among its shattered remains— no fragment large enough to take fire from a hearth or scoop water from a cistern.

Second, pottery is molded by a craftsman. This, of course, is the image Jeremiah leans into. But it should not surprise you that God said the same thing to Isaiah about the northern kingdom right before it collapsed.

29:15 Woe to those who go to great lengths to hide their plans from the Lord. They do their works in the dark, and say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16 You have turned things around, as if the potter were the same as the clay. How can what is made say about its maker, “He didn’t make me”? How can what is formed say about the one who formed it, “He doesn’t understand what he’s doing”?
64:7 No one calls on your name, striving to take hold of you. For you have hidden your face from us and made us melt because of our iniquity. 8 Yet Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we all are the work of your hands. 9 Lord, do not be terribly angry or remember our iniquity forever. Please look—all of us are your people!

We are to have Isaiah in mind when we read Jeremiah.

Christians are probably more familiar with the New Testament use of this imagery -- Romans 9:

19 You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does he still find fault? For who resists his will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” 21 Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? 22 And what if God, wanting to display his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And what if he did this to make known the riches of his glory on objects of mercy that he prepared beforehand for glory— 24 on us, the ones he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

What do you think Paul's point is by comparing people with clay?

The idea of clay rebelling against the potter is patently absurd, right? However grand our opinion is of ourselves, we are all just clay in the hands of the Almighty Potter.


Where We Are in Jeremiah

I said that last week was the last of the "doom and gloom" lessons. But that doesn't mean the context isn't still doom and gloom!

The "Potter's House" isn't the only parable of its kind in this section of Jeremiah:

  • A Linen Belt (13:1-11) -- it sat out in the elements and was ruined, just like the Jewish people who had chased after other gods.

  • Wineskins (13:12-14) -- the people were like wineskins, and God was going to fill them with the most intoxicating stuff available (they would behave like drunks).

  • Jeremiah Himself (16:1-15) -- Jeremiah was not allowed to do anything in life he might enjoy (like get married or go to a feast) because destruction was coming.

  • An Iron Chisel (17:1-4) -- the marks the people had made on their idols were also engraved on their heart, and it would mirror their future enslavement.

And then the chapter that follows brings a close to the pottery parable:

  • Shattered Pottery (19:1-13) -- God had Jeremiah destroy a piece of pottery he bought from the Potter's House, showing what God would do to Jerusalem.

After that, Jeremiah shifts to focus on the opposition he faced personally from the priests and officials. But I'll talk more about this at the end of the post.


Part 1: The Potter's Discretion (Jeremiah 18:1-4)

1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Go down at once to the potter’s house; there I will reveal my words to you.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, working away at the wheel. 4 But the jar that he was making from the clay became flawed in the potter’s hand, so he made it into another jar, as it seemed right for him to do.

I guess I need to clarify something -- the kind of pottery-making we're talking about here is related to the spinning potter's wheel, not the molding clay like I used in the activity above. Cut me some slack; molding clay is a lot easier to obtain than a potter's wheel. The word "wheel" here is literally "two stones", which refers to a classic potter's wheel in which the potter spins a lower stone with his feet, and that causes an upper stone to spin, which is where pottery vessels would be spun.

[Aside on Ancient Pottery: Shards of broken pottery (potsherds) are found at almost every major archeological site. This tells us two things: (1) there were potters everywhere; (2) pottery is incredibly durable (if fragile). If you want to do a historical deep-dive, focus on the "Later Iron Age", which is the time period we're talking about. By this point, a notable improvement in craftsmanship has been observed; it seems that the Jews had picked up on some beautiful Assyrian techniques. I believe that all three of the pictures below are of Iron Age II Jerusalem discoveries.]

But there's nothing like a video. Here's a video called "Ceramics for Beginners". That's me!

Anyway, God tells Jeremiah to watch the potter at work. [Nothing to do with anything, but it's a fun question: who would you most NOT want to see show up and observe you at your work? If Jeremiah were around today, he'd probably be on that list.] Jeremiah watches as the potter changes his plan for the vessel based on how the vessel responds to his shaping.

But we need to dive into the grammar just a little deeper. The verb tense is actually perfect, implying a continuous action. A more literal translation would be this:

Whenever the vessel he was molding was ruined, he would remake it.

This was something the potter dealt with regularly. Clay in Israel was filled with imperfections (but more on this below). He didn't fuss or get upset with the clay; he simply switched to "plan B". As an experienced potter, he could tell quickly if his idea for the piece of clay was viable or not.

[About the Clay

We really need to pause here. Not all mud can be used to make pottery 🙂 (or pies). (Of course, some of you have "red clay" in your backyard.) "Pottery clay" is a natural soil type rich in aluminum silicate, which exists in some level of purity all over the world. It's known for two qualities:

  1. it's "plastic" when it's wet,

  2. it hardens when it dries (moreso when fired).

Clay in ancient Israel was found with all kinds of impurities. Potters would have to sift dry clay and then carefully moisten it to separate the pieces based on their plasticity. If there was, say, a tiny rock mixed in with the clay, it would almost certainly ruin that section of the finished vessel.]

It's heavily implied that a problem with the clay forced the potter to make some changes. To the potter, this was not a big deal. One translation even uses the phrase "as clay sometimes will" to capture idiom Jeremiah seems to be using.

That's what makes the transition so jarring. God people didn't just have some imperfections -- they weren't good for anything except to be thrown out completely.

Your discussion might be something like this: have your plans for your own life changed with time? Were those changes related to your growing awareness of your strengths and weaknesses? Looking back now, do you see God's hand at work in those changes?


Part 2: The Potter's Decision (Jeremiah 18:5-10)

5 The word of the Lord came to me: 6 “House of Israel, can I not treat you as this potter treats his clay?”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, house of Israel. 7 At one moment I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will uproot, tear down, and destroy it. 8 However, if that nation about which I have made the announcement turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the disaster I had planned to do to it. 9 At another time I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it. 10 However, if it does what is evil in my sight by not listening to me, I will relent concerning the good I had said I would do to it.

Truly, the illustration breaks down here. How could a potter get so angry with his clay that he chooses to destroy it? Well, if the clay was actively rebelling against the potter ... Or if the clay was evil clay ... And that begs the question, what is evil clay?

I kinda think that's God's point here. "The idea of "evil clay" is preposterous! And yet, that's exactly what My people have become. They are rebelling against Me (cf. our lesson last week)." And that drives God's ultimate question: is a potter somehow obligated to work with every piece of clay he picks up? If his clay is just "bad clay", doesn't he have the right to throw it out? Of course he does!

In this, the people of Jerusalem are wrong on two levels:

  • they are wrong about the Potter: that He has an obligation to His clay;

  • they are wrong about themselves: that they are the finest clay available.

Houston, we have a problem.

Your leader guide brings up the classic hymn, "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" as an example of how Christians should look at ourselves as clay in the hands of God, the Almighty Potter. That leads to a tremendous discussion opportunity:

  • Do you want to be "clay" in the hands of God? Do you want your life to be shaped by God as by a potter?

The people of Jerusalem clearly did not. They wanted to retain control of their own lives -- so much so that they were willing to complain to God about what He was doing with them.

How absurd! Modern illustration: I think we can all agree that the turf on the field at Truist Park and on the fairways of the Augusta National is extremely high quality. It's some of the finest turf in the world. Now, let's say that all of the blades of grass on hole 13 (a par 5 -- "azalea") got together and decided that they should be allowed to grow and really show off how beautiful they are. They signed a petition and presented it to the head groundskeeper -- "we don't want you to mow us anymore".

How's that gonna go?

Now let's zoom out. A groundskeeper on a mower compared to a blade of grass doesn't come close to God Almighty compared with all of the nations of the earth.

But these verses establish something very important about God: He's not capricious. He's not unpredictable. He's not corruptible. He's not foolable. He sees all and knows all and always judges rightly and fairly. When a kingdom turns from its wicked ways, He will have mercy on it. When a kingdom embraces its wicked ways, He will punish it.

This little 2:00 video of the rise and fall of world powers puts this in perspective:

These are the greatest empires in human history! And they're 3 seconds on a video.

That should be sobering to us. We are a blip. A vapor, if you will (James 4). Did any human say this better than MacBeth?

Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

(Shakespeare -- still the best.)

We rise and fall according to God's grand design for human history -- to reveal our need for a Savior and to make that message known across the earth. And yet Almighty God still cares about and is respectful of human agency along the way! He doesn't build up and wipe out on a whim. He works with and through people to bring about His end for the human race, all without stepping on their free will.

That's utterly astounding.

And the Jews had completely missed this point: God respects all human agency. This includes the Gentile's choice to be righteous. And the Jew's choice to be wicked.

As Christians, we should take great comfort in this. We serve the One True God, not a false god, weak and powerless. We serve a God who will always give people what they deserve according to their actions -- and there is one action that supersedes all other actions: whether or not we trust Jesus Christ to secure our salvation for us.

But let's get very serious with a question: is it possible for Christians to fall into the same faulty way of thinking as the Jews in Jerusalem in Jeremiah's day?

You bet we can. We see it playing out in churches all across America as they rewrite God's Word to justify their sinful actions. [Too simplified answer to a question I'm sure you'll get: if a person is a Christian, Jesus will see them into heaven, regardless of their sin; but some of their wildly unchristian behavior should really make us concerned if that person is truly a Christian.]


Part 3: People Aren't Pottery (Jeremiah 18:11-12)

11 So now, say to the men of Judah and to the residents of Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look, I am about to bring harm to you and make plans against you. Turn now, each from your evil way, and correct your ways and your deeds.’ 12 But they will say, ‘It’s hopeless. We will continue to follow our plans, and each of us will continue to act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”

Finally, God breaks His own illustration. People are not pottery! People have choices that pieces of clay do not. God's people have chosen to be "evil clay". (Forgive me for getting such a kick out of the words "evil clay". I tried getting Dall-e 2 to give me a picture of clay rebelling against the potter, but it had no idea what I was talking about.) But they could choose to be "good clay". They have the agency.

Some people might take this to say that God changes His mind. We've talked about that before -- see particularly,

No, God doesn't change His mind. But this sort of language is what we (people) need to realize that He takes our choices seriously. Yes, He knows what they're going to be, and yes, He has superintended history such that no one makes a choice outside of His sovereign will, but He still takes them seriously. The people who choose to repent (say, Nineveh in Jonah's day) will receive mercy; the people who choose not to repent (say, Samaria in Isaiah's day) will receive punishment.

The people of Jerusalem could choose to repent! They could choose to change their ways and receive mercy from God. But they won't. They're going to say that "it's too late", but that's just a cloak for their own sinful stubbornness. They have decided that their wicked hearts will simply produce wickedness.

What's the solution to that? A new heart. And guess what -- God is going to tell Jeremiah about His plan for salvation. But that's later. We'll get there in a few weeks.

I like the leader guide's question: why do some people refuse to repent? You've probably been there at one point with at least one sin: why were you unwilling to let go of a certain sin?

Jeremiah's later contemporary was Ezekiel, who was prophet to the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon. God asks the same questions of the Jews from afar:

33:10 “Now as for you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘You have said this: “Our transgressions and our sins are heavy on us, and we are wasting away because of them! How then can we survive?”’ 11 Tell them, ‘As I live—this is the declaration of the Lord God—I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live. Repent, repent of your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel?’

Like a parent who is heartbroken over a child's terrible choice, so God is heartbroken over His children's sin. Let's come away from this lesson with a desire to take our sin more seriously.


Closing Thoughts: Jeremiah 20

Our lesson plan skips over Jeremiah 20, but I wanted to make sure you slowed down on this incredibly moving chapter. In verse 1, we learn that a temple official was so tired of Jeremiah's prophecies that he had Jeremiah beaten and thrown in the stocks! Talk about shooting the messenger! God tells Jeremiah that the official will suffer for this outrage.

But Jeremiah has a breakdown over this. We don't know for certain if 20:7-18 immediately followed 20:1-6, but it was clearly in response to one of the terrible things that happened to Jeremiah.

7 You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived. You seized me and prevailed. I am a laughingstock all the time; everyone ridicules me. 8 For whenever I speak, I cry out, I proclaim, “Violence and destruction!” so the word of the Lord has become my constant disgrace and derision. 9 I say, “I won’t mention him or speak any longer in his name.” But his message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones. I become tired of holding it in, and I cannot prevail.

He's created a classic "damned if I do, damned if I don't" dilemma for himself. From the outside, it's easy for us to make this easy for him -- "quit complaining and do what God tells you!" But isn't his situation based on the fact that everybody around him is complaining and not doing what God told them?

Jeremiah is a powerful reminder that prophets aren't superheroes. They were ordinary people with fears and flaws.

20:18 Why did I come out of the womb to see only struggle and sorrow, to end my life in shame?

If there's an application to this, it would be to make sure that we are propping up our pastors and Bible study leaders who are faithfully teaching the whole counsel of God -- popular or unpopular. This is timely enough that the recent 2023 Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution on it:

I think we can push this even further to any of our Christian brethren who are facing opposition in their family or workplace for sharing God's truth with people who don't want to hear it. Encourage and pray for one another this week!


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