Signs and Symbols of Jeremiah // Part 10

The Potter & the Clay

(Jeremiah 18:1-6)

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.

As we consider this sign of the potter working with his clay, we would like to examine the various steps of the process – all that is involved in making a clay vessel – to see what lessons can be derived and how those lessons apply to us as spiritual members of the house of Israel.

1. Selecting the Right Clay

First of all, the potter has to select the right clay for the vessel or object that he desires to make. There are many different kinds of clay: different colors, consistencies, and textures. Some types of clay work better for certain types of pottery. Clay in and of itself has very little value, but once it’s been molded, shaped, and finished by a master potter, it can be something beautiful and enduring: a work of art. The potter carefully choosing the right kind of clay brings to mind John 15:16, Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. God carefully and individually chooses/calls each of us, selecting individuals that will become “the firstfruits of the Spirit” – the first ones to be a part of His family at Christ’s return. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:23).

2. Throwing the Clay on the Wheel

Next the potter takes the clay and works it over and over again against the stone wheel, or, he may beat it with a mallet. The prophet Isaiah refers to a potter “treading” on the clay (Isaiah 41:25). It might seem like a strange thing to do, but there is a purpose in mind, and that is to work out the lumps and air bubbles in the clay. Any air bubbles left in the clay can expand when a piece of pottery is being fired in the kiln, causing it to burst and/or expose a large hole, rendering it worthless. Perhaps this is what Jeremiah had in mind when he said, And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter.

Removing the lumps and air bubbles is then a critical step in the potter’s initial working of the clay. We know that God works this way in our lives. It may feel as though we are being “thrown up against the stone” at times, or being tread upon or beaten with a mallet. But there’s a purpose: there’s a goal. God is working out the imperfections in us and preparing us to become something very, very special. 

As Yahweh begins to work with us, we can get the feeling that it’s not an easy thing being clay in the hands of the Potter, but we can be certain that our Creator knows what He is doing. It is to mold and strengthen us so we can withstand the refining fire as it gets hotter and hotter as in the final stages of the process. 

3. Softening the Clay

Once the potter has the lumps and air pockets out of the clay, he’s ready to start molding and shaping it into the particular object he has in his mind. But, there may still be a problem at this point if the clay is not soft enough. Beating it with a mallet or walking on it helps to make it more pliable, but even then it may not be the right consistency to easily work into thin layers or shape into curves. It may need something added to it. Most of the time the potter will add water to the clay so the texture is a little smoother and softer; sometimes oil is added. We can see the symbolism here, for in the Scriptures oil and water typify the Spirit Word that is added to us so that we can become “workable,” “moldable,” and “shapeable.”

4. Molding and Shaping

When the clay is finally prepared, the potter puts this softened lump of clay on the wheel. He then begins to spin it slowly, lifting the clay, pulling and pushing it. A symmetrical form begins to take shape. It is something that’s virtually impossible for an amateur to do. It looks so easy but it is very difficult: requiring a lot of training and practice. It’s not uncommon for a novice to start trying to form the clay and all of a sudden it flies off the wheel. He doesn’t yet have the touch. But our Maker is a master at this. He knows exactly how to mold and shape us, and He doesn’t make  mistakes.

A master potter skillfully applies pressure here and there. He pulls, pushes, tugs, and stretches: doing everything necessary for this object to finally take its shape. And we know that in our lives as well, it takes a certain amount of pressure: a certain amount of prodding, of encouragement, of direction,  of work – Yahweh working with us to finally get us to the place that we begin to conduct ourselves in the manner of children of God.

Someone once described this process as “creative tension”: enough pressure to push us in the right direction, to help us grow, but not too much to overpower or overwhelm us. Sometimes, it takes correction for our lives to take its proper shape. In fact, there are times when the potter will even resort to smashing the clay vessel and starting over again: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. He will work with it and work with it until it’s finally right, just the way he wants it to be. There may be times when we feel like we’re making progress and things are going really well, and all of a sudden things drastically change. It is as though God is starting over with us because our foundation is not firm enough, or something is seriously defective. Again, God knows what He’s doing. He knows exactly how to work with each individual to bring about the best result, in terms of beauty and character. Our Creator has in His mind exactly what He wants the vessel to look like when it’s completed – a picture of God working in our lives. 

5. Drying the Molded Clay

Next, this perfectly formed piece of pottery is put on the shelf. It’s put there to dry for a period of time, and time is a factor in character development. Time has to pass. This wet piece of pottery has to sit there until it dries, and even though it looks like a finished product, it isn’t. Even when dry, it’s not complete. If you were to take that piece of pottery and pour water into it, it would turn back into soft clay again, because it’s not a finished product.

6. Firing the Dried Pottery

The final step is firing the pottery in the furnace or kiln. Before it is put into the kiln, the potter coats the vessel with glaze or silica. This glaze looks dull as it goes on (it looks like muddy or cloudy water). After firing, it is anything but dull – giving the pottery a beautiful and brilliant sheen. Once the pottery is in the kiln, it has to be fired to a temperature of nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is roughly the same temperature of heating metal to the point that impurities are separated from the metal. If this temperature is too high, the pottery will begin to warp, lose its shape, or crack. If the heat is too low, the pottery will not be properly cured, and it will not have the desired appearance as a finished work. The temperature has to be just right.

After the pottery has been fired it has the exact shape that it had when it went in, but the chemical properties of the clay have changed; something dramatic has happened. It’s no longer porous: it will hold water indefinitely. The fired clay is actually more like stone than it is like clay. A transformation has taken place. Properly fired pottery will never break down nor disintegrate after even thousands of years of being buried in the ground. And God, as our Potter, is forming something more permanent and more important than pottery; He’s forming a character in us that will be pleasing to Him.

In the intense heat of the kiln, something else takes place. Where there was no color before, now there’s beautiful color from the glaze coating. It often takes on a glass-like satin finish. Being in that fiery oven for a period of time does something dramatic to that clay. The same is true with us. When we go through severe trials they change us. We’re never quite the same – we’ve learned, we’ve grown, we’ve experienced something that is life changing. 

Finally, knowing that God is the Potter and we are His handiwork, we should always treat one another with respect. Each of us is as a lump of clay in God’s hands, and this should inspire us to treat each other respectfully as we are all works in progress – being shaped and molded by our Heavenly Father.  You may have seen the bumper sticker – “God isn’t finished with me yet.” That’s so true of all who believe and draw nigh to God (James 4:8). Each of us is in the stage of still being worked, still being molded and shaped that we may become “vessels of honor” and “vessels of mercy”:

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?... And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory (Romans 9:19-21, 23).

W. Lynn Harrell, North Little Rock, AR