"This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message." So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him." Jeremiah 18:1-4
This is a passage which has presented difficulty to not a few—or probably it would be more correct to say that (in most cases at least) it has been made to present difficulty. Enemies of the Truth have grievously "wrested" these verses and even the interpretations of its friends have not always succeeded in removing the mists which have beclouded the minds of those influenced by error. Because of this, and also as we hope to write upon some later portions in this chapter—a comment or two on its opening verses may prove helpful.
Arminians have appealed to this passage in support of their horrible and God-dishonoring tenet, that the Creator may be thwarted by the creature, that puny man is able to thwart the designs of the Most High God. If such a dreadful calamity were possible, then, to be consistent, they should carry such a premise to its logical conclusion, and avow,
The universe He fain would save,
Such a blasphemous caricature of Deity is repugnant and repellent to the last degree, unto every renewed heart—yet is it one which finds more or less acceptance today in professedly "Christian" quarters. The natives of dark Africa manufacture idols with their hands—but the heathen in Christendom fashion a "God" out of their Satan-blinded minds!
A disappointed and defeated God! What a concept! What a contradiction in terms! How can He be the great Supreme—if man is capable of check-mating Him? How can He be the Almighty—if lacking in ability to carry out His will? Who would render homage unto One who is thwarted by His creatures? How vastly different is the God of Holy Writ, who has but to speak and it is done—who commands and it stands fast (Psalm 33:9)!
Jehovah is no pasteboard Monarch. No, "our God is in the heavens: He has done whatever He has pleased" (Psalm 115:3). "Whatever the Lord pleased—that did He in Heaven and in the earth, in the seas and all deep places" (Psalm 135:6). "This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?" (Isaiah 14:26, 27). "I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand and I will do all My pleasure" (Isaiah 46:9, 10).
But are there not other passages which speak of God in quite another strain? Suppose such be the case, then what? Why, would these not oblige us to modify our conception of the absoluteness of God's supremacy as predicated in the verses cited above? Certainly not. The Holy Scriptures are not a "nose of wax" (as Papists have wickedly affirmed) which man may twist as he pleases. They are the inspired Word of God, without flaw or contradiction; yet we need wisdom from the Holy Spirit if we are to interpret them aright.
"God is Spirit" (John 4:24), incorporeal, and therefore "invisible" (Colossians 1:15), "whom no man has seen nor can see" (1 Timothy 6:16). Must we, forsooth, modify this representation of His ineffable Being because we read of His "eyes" (2 Chron. 16:9), His "hands" (Psalm 95:5) and "feet" (Exo. 24:10)? "He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalm 121:4): is that negated by the statement, "Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep" (Psalm 78:65)—or because He represents Himself as "rising up early" (Jer. 7:13)?
When Scripture affirms that "His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him—What have you done?" (Dan. 4:34,35), are we obliged to place limitations upon such supremacy when we hear Him saying elsewhere, "I have called, and you refused; I have stretched out My hand, and no man regarded; but you have set at nothing all My counsel, and would none of My reproof" (Proverbs 1:24, 25)? Of course not.
Then how are we to avoid such an expediency? By distinguishing between things that differ: by discriminating between God's secret will and His revealed will, between His eternal decree and the rule which He has given us to walk by. The latter passage speaks of men scorning the Word of God, which it is their responsibility to obey. The former passage affirms the sovereign supremacy of God over all, whose eternal purpose is accomplished in and by men, not because of their willing compliance, but in spite of their enmity and rebellion—as was the case with Pharaoh.
Settle it in your mind once and for all, my reader, that the true and living God is King of kings and Lord of lords, the Almighty, whom neither man nor devil can defeat or successfully resist—for such is the plain and positive teaching of His word. The churches may no longer proclaim such a God. The vast majority of those who still pose as His people may no longer believe in such a one—but that alters not the fact that He is so: "Let God be true and every man a liar" (Romans 3:4). Settle it in your mind likewise that Holy Writ cannot contradict itself, and therefore if the meaning of some passages are not clear to you, humbly look to their Author to enlighten you—for the obscurity is in your mind and not in His Word.
When Christ affirmed, "I and My Father are one" (John 10:30), He spoke according to His absolute Deity. But when He declared, "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28), He spoke as the God-man Mediator. The perfect accord of the two passages is evident when we perceive the dual relationship of Christ to the Father: as the Son and as God-man. In like manner we must learn to distinguish between God speaking as absolute sovereign and as the Enforcer of human responsibility—as the One who deals with men according to their condition.
Now in the verses at the beginning of this article there is not even an apparent difficulty: men must read into it what is not there before they encounter a stumbling stone. The Lord does not affirm therein that He is represented by "the potter" (vv. 5-10 are considered in our next), and if we suppose He is, then we shall be rightly confounded. Jeremiah was sent to a "potter's house" that he might receive instruction from what he saw. While there he witnessed a vessel of clay "marred" in the hand of the potter. Most assuredly that cannot picture man's fall, for his Creator pronounced him "very good" when he left His hands. Nor can it picture the experience of any since the Fall, for the hand of God is the place of safety and not of injury. Further, we are told this potter "made it (the marred vessel) again another vessel." But God never mends what man has marred—but displaces with something altogether new: the old covenant was set aside for the New (Hebrews 8:8), the old creation for a New (2 Corinthians 5:17), the present Heaven and earth by a New (Isaiah 65:17). Rather is the "as seemed good to the potter to make it" the particular similitude fastened upon (v. 6).
"Then the word of the Lord came to me: "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the Lord. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it." (Jeremiah 18:5-10)
A superficial reading of those verses may suggest they contain that which supports the Arminian's conception of God—yet a more careful pondering should show there is nothing whatever in them which militates against the "immutability of His counsel" (Hebrews 6:17). The Lord does not here say to Israel "you have become marred in My hand"—you have defeated My purpose concerning you," nor does He declare, "I will repair and make another vessel of you"—revise My intention and try again. Rather does He affirm His sovereignty and supremacy over them: "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand."
Again, it is to be carefully noted that God is not here speaking of the spiritual and eternal destiny of individuals—but of the earthly and temporal fortunes and misfortunes of kingdoms (Jer. 18:7) In this passage, the Most High is viewed as the Governor of the nations, as the Dispenser or Withholder of eternal blessings, and not as the Predestinator of His Church to everlasting glory. God deals with kingdoms on a very different footing from what He does His dear children, and unless that is clearly recognized, we shall be without the master-key which opens scores of passages.
The favor which the Lord shows unto a nation—is an altogether different thing from the love which He bears unto His elect, and he who is blind to such a distinction is utterly unqualified to expound Holy Writ. God's favor unto a nation is merely the outward dispensing of good things, which favor is forfeited when they turn their backs upon Him. But His love for the elect is an eternal and unchanging purpose of grace which effectually works in them, ceasing not to do them good and securing their everlasting felicity with regard to the former. He may pluck up and pull down what His providence has planted and set up—but to the elect, His assurance is, "He who has begun a good work in you—will finish it" (Phil. 1:6). From the former He may withdraw what He has bestowed—but to the latter, "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Romans 11:29). Nor do the variations of the Divine dispensations with a kingdom argue any fickleness in His character, rather do they demonstrate His stability—as long as a nation's ways please Him—He gives proof of His approbation. When displeasing Him—He evidences His disapprobation.
God may act in mercy with a nation today and in wrath tomorrow, without the least "shadow of turning" or change of character, and so far from that being any alteration of His eternal decree—it is through these multifarious dispensations, that His decree is accomplished, for He foreordained all that comes to pass. There is therefore no proportion whatever between the fluctuations of His temporal bestowments on a kingdom—and the peculiar love and special grace of the Everlasting Covenant wherein God assures His saints of their eternal security on the ground of His immutability. The decrees of God, as to their execution—are suspended on no condition in man. If they were, it would destroy alike His wisdom, independence and fidelity. On the other hand, when He declares, "those who honor Me, I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed" (1 Samuel 2:30), God is enunciating a moral law according to which He governs the race. His decrees are His irresistible determinations. His laws reveal the duty of men and the issues thereof according to their response.
The Lord approves of obedience and righteousness wherever it is found, and rewards the same with temporal blessings, without the least saving grace. Conversely, He disapproves of sin and unrighteousness and sooner or later visits His anger upon them in this world. But even when the dark clouds of His judgments hang over a kingdom, calamity may be averted by national humiliation before God and reformation of conduct. But that no more implies fickleness in the Divine character, than it denies His foreknowledge. The history of God's judgments on Egypt is a case in point: each time her monarch humbled himself in any measure, the Divine rod was lifted. Nevertheless, God had foreordained the destruction of Pharaoh and suited His dispensations in great variety and with many changes to bring it about. He plagued and freed him, freed and plagued him again—yet there was not the least alteration in God, all being so many effects of His power suited to the accomplishment of His unalterable purpose.
God's governmental dealings make more or less evident to men, the proportion there is between their conduct and His attitude toward them—the correspondence is such as to convey impressions of His goodness, justice and mercy. The character of God's dominion is seen to be such that where righteousness and morality prevail—He blesses "in basket and store," but where wickedness is obstinately indulged in—it inevitably entails a doom of evil. Yet if sin is forsaken, that doom is avoided and a heritage of prosperity is entered into. But such alterations as these in the Divine administration, so far from making God to be capricious in His ways or unstable in the principles of His government, rather demonstrates that He is unalterably the same. It is because His procedure is marked by undeviating righteousness, that He must change His dealings with men when their relation or attitude to Him involves a change. Consequently when God is said to "repent", it connotes no change in His purpose or mind—but only in the matter of His treating with men.
Jeremiah 18:7, 8 simply means that many of the judgments which God pronounces against kingdoms are not absolute declarations or infallible predictions of what is about to surely take place—but rather ethical intimations of His sore displeasure on account of sin, and solemn threats of what must inevitably follow—if there is no change for the better in those denounced. Whether or not the impending judgments become historical events, is contingent upon their refusal to heed the warning. In like manner, Jeremiah 18:9 has reference to no absolute promise of God: it is no unqualified declaration of what He would certainly do—but rather an intimation of His readiness to bless and prosper, accompanied by a warning that such blessing will be forfeited if obedience gives place to disobedience. God never signified in any promise of national blessing, that the promise held good under all circumstances. See Deuteronomy 28:2 and 15! God ever presses upon men the fundamental distinction between sin and holiness. It was the fatal mistake of the nation of Israel to regard God's promises to them as absolute, supposing the fulfillment was certain, regardless of their degeneracy.
We must, then, distinguish sharply between God's decrees and His denunciations, between His absolute purpose and His conditional promises, between His bestowment of spiritual gifts and temporal mercies, between the administration of the Covenant of Grace and the dispensations of His providence. We must distinguish between the ground on which Jehovah deals with His Church and with a nation, for the former is in Christ—and the latter out of Christ. There was a radical and vital difference between Christ shedding tears over Jerusalem because the Jews stubbornly refused to enter into the benefits of a temporal covenant (Matthew 23:37) and His shedding His blood for His brethren that they might receive the blessings of the Everlasting Covenant (Hebrews 13:20, 21). Changes in God's material favors unto a nation, do not imply that the eternal purpose of spiritual grace is liable to alteration, any more than the removal of a local "candlestick" (Revelation 2:5) argues that He may take away His Spirit from any regenerate soul. The "wills" and "shalls" of Divine immutability and fidelity—are never jeopardized by the "ifs" of human responsibility.