The Potter and the Clay
A Sermon Preached by Dr. Herbert Lockyer at The Moody Church in 1939
In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 18, we have the incomparable record of the potter and the 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.”
Let us lay hold of this verse and trust the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us into all truth. “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.” This classic passage from the writings of the prophet serves to show how the deepest spiritual truths were conveyed through the medium of common, ordinary things. We know how the Lord Jesus in the days of His flesh could lay hold of illustrations and use them to extol the Word of God.
The record of the potter and the clay can be used in many ways. First of all, the narrative is a very fitting type of Israel, and that is the direct application of it. Jeremiah was sent of the Lord into the house of the potter that he might come to know the divine will concerning the nation of which he formed a part. Originally, Israel was a vessel unto honor, a praise, and a glory in the earth, but because of sin and disobedience the nation was broken up and the people led into captivity, and ever since that time the Jews have been scattered among the nations of the earth and today these ancient people of God are as the pieces of a broken vessel. But God has never lost His interest in the Jews and although there are bad Jews, we must have the divine view-point concerning them. The day is coming when God will regather the Jews as a nation; they will be born again in a day and will yet stand out as a vessel of surpassing beauty and worth.
Then you can look upon the figure of the potter and the clay as a type of the world. This world has been called a topsy-turvy world. Caught in the economic blizzard, it would seem as if the nations of the earth have lost their equilibrium. They are struggling to reach the paradise of prosperity and through the past years chaos and collapse have characterized them. We look out upon the changing world and hear God saying, “I will overturn, overturn, overturn, it…until he comes whose right it is to reign” (Ezekiel 21:27), and it does seem as if God as the divine Potter is reshaping and remolding the world. We know what is happening: He is getting the world ready for the coming of His beloved Son. He is preparing the platform and ere long the Lord Jesus will return and be seen as the King of kings and as the Lord of lords.
Then in the figure of the potter and the clay you have a type of God’s dealings with the individual, and we are to use the record in Jeremiah 18 in that way. God is the potter; we are the clay. So you have the dual aspect set forth in different parts of the Word of God, namely, divine sovereignty for human weakness.
Let me fasten upon three outstanding phases of the theme confronting us this evening. There is the potter’s material, the clay; and then the potter’s plan, “He wrought a work on the wheels”; and then the potter’s disappointment, “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.”
The Potter’s Material
First of all then, we have the potter’s material, the clay. Again and again we are reminded that we are the clay. Said Job, “Thou hast made me as the clay” (Job 10:9). The prophet Isaiah reminds us that we are formed of the clay. Clay is a product of the earth. It is taken out of the ground and therefore is a fitting type of ourselves, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). In a human body you have the same constituent elements found in a lump of clay. It may be very humiliating to remember that the body is simply a lump of clay, but the Word of God declares that it is made of dust. I know a good many people who spend much time upon decorating a piece of clay; they are very much concerned about the artificial beauty of this piece of clay. Although it is a piece of clay, we know that the glory of the Lord can be found in the earthen vessel, but let us never forget that the body is simply clay and not give it too much attention.
Before the clay can take on the plan of the potter it must be subjected to various processes, and I want to indicate these processes and try to discover one or two spiritual suggestions. First of all, the clay must be softened. A potter can do nothing with hard clay. In the day of Jeremiah it was softened by means of the feet and we discover from Isaiah that the potter in that far off day would tread upon the clay and soften it in that way, “The potter treadeth clay” (Isaiah 41:25). Now the clay is taken and steeped in a pond of water for a certain period. Not so long ago I went through some of the English potteries, and there I found great heaps of clay that had been softened in this way. God, as the divine Potter, begins in that way as He strives to shape human life and character. One reason why we are not taking on the divine image is because we are too hard for God to use; we are not soft enough. We are guilty of pride and self-will and rebellion. There are too many hard substances within the life and consequently we are not plastic enough for the divine Potter to mold. Cried Job, “God maketh my heart soft” (Job 23:16). So, beloved, there must come the softening, mellowing influences of the Holy Spirit before we can be of any great service to the Lord. This may be one reason why your life is not telling for the Master. You have not experienced what it is to be broken. The Lord is ever nigh to those who are of a broken and a contrite spirit. There must come the crushing and the breaking, the softening, the mellowing influences of the Spirit of God before our lives can take on the plan of our Potter in heaven.
I think of a lady who came to me concerned about her husband. He was a doctor, a man who had great ability in the realm of surgery, but who was destitute of the grace of God. His wife was a professing Christian and she wanted me to pray for her husband, and when I had opportunity, speak to him about divine things. I lived in the home of this doctor for several days and living there I came to realize why the husband was not being won for the Lord. His wife had a very hard, unsympathetic nature, somewhat repugnant in her approach and her attitude repelled rather than attracted her husband to the feet of the Redeemer.
So the Potter beings there, He softens the clay. I feel sure that all of us will be of greater service to the Lord when we know what it is to have the fountains of the deep broken up, when we know what it is to be at His feet in deep contrition. Then when the clay is soft enough, the potter will take it from the water and throw it into a revolving drum and he will crush it in a mill. He must have that clay of his as soft and as pliable as silk; there must be no hard substances whatever in it. So he flings it into the mill and it is ground and reground. I suppose if the clay could speak, it would say something like this, “Why throw me into the mill’ why subject me to this excruciating experience? Surely the pond of water is enough. I was taken from the ground and thrown into the water; am I not ready?” Of course the clay has no will power, it cannot refuse the wish and purpose of the potter, but this is where we differ from the clay.
We have free will and we can refuse the plan of the Potter, but the secret of conformation is submission. As the clay submits, it is conformed into the plan the potter may have in his mind. We are very slow to learn that the great mission in life is submission, that as we willingly submit to all that the divine Potter may allow, we come to know what it is to take on His likeness and image. Make no mistake about it, God has His mill for human life. We may not agree with what God permits. At times we complain because of the hard and bitter experiences that come our way, but the secret of conformation is submission.
Then you will find the potter taking his clay from the mill, and sitting at his wheel he will throw that lump of shapeless clay upon the revolving wheel and with those deft fingers of his he will proceed to produce a vessel of beauty or worth out of that soft clay. Then when his vessel is finished, he may trace upon the outside of it some beautiful design. It is still soft, however. I stood and watched those workers in the potteries to which I have referred. They made all kinds of vessels and then decorated them, traced upon them different designs.
But all those vessels were soft and would crumble if left to themselves. What does the potter do? When the vessel has been created and when he has traced upon it some figure or design, he puts it into the furnace, into the kiln, and burns it. The clay was hard; he made it soft, and now he hardens it, gives to vessel permanence and the enduring qualities it must possess.
There is the furnace of afflition for all the people of God, and the divine Potter knows how to temper the fire. The beautiful thing, however, about the potter is that he never puts the vessel that he desires to preserve into the fire alone. He wants the heat to reach the vessel, not the flames, so he will enclose it in another vessel and then put it through the furnace. The flames beat upon the outer vessel and the heat reaches the inner vessel. I suggest that this is the process of the divine Potter. Listen to the word of the prophet, “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee” (Isaiah 43:2). The old divines used to say that every Christian is a Christ-enclosed man. That means that when we pass through the furnace of affliction of the flames never reach us, for Jesus ever bears the brunt of the flames. We are helped as the result of the fiery furnace, but never forget that the Lord Jesus is ever between, that nothing can harm you, that nothing can reach you apart from divine permission. “Your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). So sin and the devil cannot approach you apart from the permissive will of the divine Potter.
Think of the story of the three Hebrew youths who were thrown into the fiery furnace. They had to endure the heat of that furnace, but they came out of it without even the smell of the fire upon them. Do you know why? They were enclosed, they were preserved, for, says the record, there was a fourth person with them whose form was “like the Son of God” (Daniel 3:25). He was round about them bearing the brunt of the flames, so they emerged without even the smell of fire upon them. We bless His name because as we are thrown into the fiery furnace of tribulation and adversity, we have His presence and He sees to it that we are not hurt by the flames. So you have the potter’s material, and the process is suggested too.
The Potters Plan
In the next place there is the potter’s plan suggested by the phrase, “He wrought a work on the wheels.” Just as the architect has in his mind a vision of the building he desires to erect, so the potter sits down at his wheel with the shapeless clay before him and in his mind he carries a vision of the vessel he desires to create. Let me tell you of two things concerning the plan of the Potter. First of all, it is a personal plan. God has plan for every life. Have you discovered God’s plan for your life? Are you happy in the consciousness that you are fulfilling the will of God concerning your personal life? One is saddened as he looks out upon multitudes, especially young men and women, only to realize that they are drifting aimlessly down the stream of life with no idea of what they are in the world for. God has a plan for our character and He has a plan for our career. We are not here as the result of chance or fate, but because of divine choice. God had something definite in His mind when He allowed our creation and when He made possible our redemption. Yet it is sadly possible to be born into the world, live our lives, pass through life, it may be somewhat successfully, and come down to the grave, possibly having worldly honors, and yet never discovering the will of God. I am happy and serene in the consciousness that I am fulfilling God’s will, that I have discovered His plan for my life, and that in some measure, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I am striving to fulfill that plan. Have you discovered God’s plan for your life? You have been very active trying to formulate plans of your own. It may be that you are scheming to formulate plans for your children; you want them to have this career or the other and you are fashioning their future without any reference whatever to God. Before you choose their career and as parents seek to carve a nitch for them, bow low before the divine Potter and ask Him what His plan is and you may find that it will cut right across your plan. You may want your children round about you, selfishly you desire to have them ever near to your side. God may want them in the regions beyond. No matter how successful life may be from a worldly standpoint, in the sight of God life is a failure unless it fits in with His plan. So the plan of the Potter is a personal plan.
Then the plan of the potter is always a varied plan. No potter thinks of making all his vessels alike. When I was going through the potteries I have already spoken of, I was amazed at the variety of vessels those people were able to fashion. I went from warehouse to warehouse and saw all kinds of vessels. The potter reveals his skill in the variety of vessels he is able to create. Thus is it with God. We have a God who loves variety. Did you ever think of God’s love of variety even in the natural world? Did you ever see two blades of grass alike, two trees alike, two hills alike, two seas alike or even two faces alike? It is a good thing that we are not all alike; it would be a very monotonous world to live in, but life has interest because faces differ. That is how we remember one another. We are known because of our peculiar countenances, and when it comes to human life the same truth holds good. The divine Potter does not make all His vessels alike. Paul tells us when he comes to speak about the Potter having power over the lumps of clay that he maketh “one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor” (Romans 9:21). The Potter has power over the clay. This is why I have the sacred privilege of preaching the Gospel, while others of course, may serve the Lord in the Sunday School or in some other capacity. This is why, my dear sister, you have to live at home and there amid the cares and trials and responsibilities of your home life live out your life. Possibly you think that your home is a very narrow sphere and sometimes you long for what you call Christian work, forgetting that by serving God in your home you are fulfilling the plan of the divine Potter as much as I am as I stand to seek to preach the Gospel. And if you should step out of your home and try to do what you call outside Christian service, your life would be a tragedy if you were not led to go out by God. Yes, the divine Potter believes in variety.
The divine Potter has power over the clay. This is why some have bodies that are afflicted with pain and physical weakness. Very often we meet with those who wonder why God allows them to suffer. Their bodies are crippled with pain and they do not understand why God keeps them upon the bed of weakness and disability, forgetting that He often magnifies His grace on a bed of suffering. God can make us fruitful even in our affliction as well as through our activities. Said Joseph when he named his son, Ephraim, which means “double fruit,” “God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:52). And as we come into contact with those who suffer, let us tell them that that is a part of the Potter’s plan and that He can be glorified in that way if only the will of God is willingly submitted to. Yes, the Potter loves variety and that means that we must strive to serve God to the limit of our capacity and never concern ourselves about other people. So often we hear young people speaking in this way, “Oh, I wish I could preach like so and so,” or, “If I only had the ability to teach the Word or to sing and to engage in service like friends I know, then I would feel that I would be doing something for God. “ There is the tendency in a good many directions to ape other people, but God wants you to stand out with all your personality and temperament and capacity, and differ from other people as one star differs from another in glory. Never try to be some one else. Find out why God placed you in the world and what He has for you to do and then stick at your task until traveling days are done.
The Potter’s Disappointment
In the last place, there is the potter’s disappointment. What pathos there is in this word: “The vessel that he made of clay was marred in his hand: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” Try and visualize the scene. Jeremiah is there in the potter’s house, he is standing before the wheel, he watches the potter at his task. He was sent there by God to learn God’s mind and will concerning the nation, and as he looks at the potter he notices how with those clever fingers of his he is able to create a beautiful vessel out of a piece of ugly, shapeless clay. And all at once pleasure is turned to pain and the plan of the potter becomes a pang. “The vessel that he made of clay was marred.” Jeremiah learned the lesson, came to know that Israel as a nation had disappointed God.
Let me remind you of one or two things about the potter’s disappointment. The first is this: although the clay was marred in the potter’s hand, it was not the potter’s hand that marred it. The fault was not with the potter, it was in the clay. Some hard substance had found its way into the clay, remained there undetected, and at the crucial moment frustrated the plan of the potter. We are very slow to learn that lesson in life. How many there are who blame God for everything that is wrong in the world, but God is not responsible for wrong things. Everything crooked and twisted and evil is of the devil. God is the author of beauty and of order, and yet at times we meet those who blame God for this thing and the other. Naomi committed that sin. When she made up her mind to return to Bethlehem and ultimately entered the town, and the inhabitants crowded to welcome her and said, “Is this Naomi?” she said, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:19-20). She blamed God for the three graves she had left behind in Moab. But why blame God? God was not responsible. She had the divine revelation that the Jews should have no fellowship and communion with the Moabites. But with her husband she went down to Moab against the will of God and therefore suffered, and when the graves came as a result of her disobedience, she rolled the blame at the feet of God. Let us never be guilty of such an error. There are multitudes of people suffering tonight, and they attempt to blame God for what has happened. Why has God sent this and why has God sent that, when God has nothing whatever to do with it, for their trouble and adversity has come as a result of their sin and disobedience. The hand of the divine Potter is never responsible for the marring of a vessel.
The next thought is this: although the clay was marred in the potter’s hand, the potter’s hand did not discard it. He made it again. That disappointed potter might have laid hold of that disappointing clay and thrown it out upon the rubbish heap, and with anger said, “I will never use you again.” But we read that he retained his grip of the clay and he made it again. Although the clay had frustrated his plan he believed in trying again. Do you not see a glimpse of divine character there? I do. I thank God for His patience. What a disappointment I have been. I look back over the past and realize what I might have been and how God could have used me if only I had been fully surrendered to Him, how at times I have crossed His will and frustrated His plan, and yet He has not discarded me. Oh, we bless Him for His long-suffering, do we not, and for His eternal patience! We serve a God who believes in trying and trying again. “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?” (Hosea 11:8). It is His love that will not let us go. Jonah disappointed the Lord, but we read, “And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time” (Jonah 3:1), and I believe in the gospel of a second chance. Not a second chance beyond the grave, but, thank God, in life. Although we disappoint God, He still gives to us the opportunity of serving Him. “So he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.”
I sometimes wonder what kind of a vessel he made the second time. Do you think it was as good as the first or better? Possibly the second vessel was not as good as the original, for never forget that there is such a thing as God’s second best. I have seen young men and women leave home and go into training believing that God had called them for service in the regions beyond. They threw their lives on the altar and had the inner witness that their surrender had been accepted and they tried to equip themselves in every possible way for service among the multitudes in heathen darkness. Then they fell in love and ultimately married, and then somehow God changed His mind concerning their lives and they came to believe that it was not His will that they should go to the heathen field, but stay at home. Oh yes, they tried to serve God in some capacity in the homeland, but never made much progress, simply because they had turned aside from God’s original plan and were having His second best.
I think of a young fellow I had a good deal to do with several years ago. After his conversion, he commenced to preach and I could see that he knew nothing about the first process of the Potter. He was not soft enough; he was too headstrong and self-reliant. He had a unique testimony and a gifted personality and as he went on and on his fame spread and wherever he went multitudes would gather together. I was afraid of him as I saw him climb the dizzy heights of fame and tried in my humble way to warn him, but of course he knew better and was not willing to be taught. The day came when in the midst of a somewhat large campaign he was guilty, in an unguarded moment, I suppose, of an immoral action, and he had to quit immediately and go away and bury himself. I know that he turned to God and sought divine forgiveness and the Lord blessed him, but for years he had to live on with closed lips. He has God’s second best. No matter how he may try to stand out again, that stain will ever be his and he can never be the man God meant him to be. There is such a thing as God’s second best. May we be saved from it.
But I like to believe that that second vessel was as good if not better than the first. “He made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” In the old country we sing a song about a bird with a broken wing never soaring as high again. Well, I do not think that is the thought of the Word of God. A verse was added by another friend declaring that if the broken wing was healed, there could be flight and that one could soar and experience more than ever the power of God. Think of Peter. There he was like a broken vessel. He denied his Lord. He declared that he was willing to go to prison or to death for the Master, and yet was guilty of denying the Saviour in the hour of his Master’s need. What a disappointing piece of clay Peter was, but he was still in the hand of the Potter, and on the day of Pentecost the Holy Ghost came down upon Peter and what a remarkable change there was. He was a far greater vessel than he was before. Although he had disappointed the Lord, the Lord retained His hold upon him and reshaped him and made him that remarkable channel of blessing he was on the day of Pentecost. And I want to say to you that no matter how you have disappointed God, no matter how the locusts have destroyed the past years, if you realize your need and if you are willing for that complete surrender that the divine Potter must have, then as you yield yourself to Him, seeking the cleansing of the blood and His divine forgiveness, and allow Him to shape and mold you, He will fling you out into the world as a vessel of surpassing worth and beauty. “He made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.”
There is a very simple prayer all of us must pray if we would come to know the will of God for our individual lives. May each of us pray that prayer: “Lord, take me, break me, make me.” And He cannot make us unless He is given the permission to break us and as we allow Him to take us and break us, then day by day He fashions our lives, He makes possible His likeness and image. This is the only thing to live for, to know that we have the will of God.
Not so long ago a friend of mine in Scotland took me around his engineering works. We came into what was known as the model room. It was filled with wooden models and patterns of machines, and standing before one large model my friend said to me, “We are very proud of this pattern. They have made scores of machines from it and every one has been perfect, answering in detail to the model as you see it there.” I went away from that engineering works with a thought like this in my mind: “Before long I shall cross the great dividing river and find myself in the presence of the divine Potter, and He will say to me, ‘Lockyer, there is the original plan I had for your life.’ Then He will bring alongside of it the life that I lived there below, and I pray that my life may correspond in detail to the pattern of the Master.”
To the potter’s house I went down one day,
And watched him molding a vessel of clay,
And many a wonderful lesson I drew,
As I noted the process that clay passed through:
Trampled and broken, downtrodden and rolled,
To render it plastic and fit for the mold.
How like to the clay that is human, I thought
Which in Heavenly hands to God’s image is brought!
There self must be cast as the dust at His feet,
Ere man is renewed and for service made meet.
His pride must be broken, his self-will be lost,
His self-esteem humbled, whatever the cost;
And all that he boasted of human display
Must yield to God’s hand and be taken away.
Then lo! there appeared a most delicate vase
Of wonderful beauty and exquisite grace.
Was this the crude clay to the potter once brought,
And long by His hands in such constancy wrought?
So fashioned and formed by His marvelous skill
To a vessel as planned by His wisdom and will;
No longer a trace of the earth or the clay,
The fires of the furnace had burned them away.
All praise to the Potter—to Him it is due,
In whose hands to perfection and beauty it grew:
By whose wonderful skill it was fashioned to be
A vessel of glory which all men may see.
Thus souls lying still and content in God’s hand,
Who do not His wisdom or working withstand,
Are molded and fitted, a treasure to hold;
Once clay, now transformed into purest of gold.
And thus God is working in grace day by day,
Renewing, transforming, and molding His clay.