“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 his work on the wheels:” (Jeremiah 18: 1-3, R.V.).
THE POTTER AND THE CLAY
There is nothing human that is older than the potter’s art; and pottery, shaped on the potter’s wheel, has been, in all literature and all ages, a chosen symbol of the Creator’s shaping of the plastic clay of which we are actually made. The modern process is equally suggestive. In one factory alone in North Staffordshire eight mills are employed for merely reducing hard flint stones to the finest powder, afterwards churned with water into a fluid mass; and out of this moist, plastic clay - apt symbol of our hard heart when first it is in the Potter’s hand for moulding - an immense variety of vessels is fashioned of every beauty and for every use. First dried by steam - for if subjected to the furnace heat at once, the earthenware would crack and break - the vessel is afterwards put into the fierce heat of the oven, after which, and only after which, it is able to take the ornamental patterns of the original design. A single dinner plate, with colours inlaid by adversity - for the scorching heat of a kiln has to supplement the oven, in order to “fix” the colours - will pass through ten or twelve hands; until at last, the process complete, in the showroom are ranged all the triumphs of the potter’s art. “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and learn,” says Jehovah (Jer. 18: 1): it is a chosen symbol of God.
First we behold the Potter, with the clay in his hand, and the hidden design in his heart - even as Palissy used to dream: “the potter wrought his work on the wheels” (Jer. 18: 3). Our life is no blind whirring of wheels: it is no random shaping by accident, or by chance: the turn of the wheel lifts us up in joy, or it dashes us down in sorrow - but “as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are ye in Mine hand” (Jer. 18: 6). There is a Divine ideal for every man, an archetype, an unwrought design, in the mind of the Potter - like the unhewn angel Michael Angelo ever saw in the marble: every human life is created to be a vessel filled with sanctity and beauty, meet for the Master’s use: and, above all, no mother, leaning over the cradle of her little child, ever had more tender or lovely dreams than God has over the soul newly born at the foot of the Cross from the first moment of conversion, the lovely curves begin to form. As a medieval sculptor exclaimed, as he surveyed the unhewn marble,-“What a god-like beauty thou hidest!
But what did Jeremiah see? “Behold, the potter wrought his work on the wheels, and the vessel that he made of the clay was marred” - the Septuagint Version has “fell”: it is a spiritual fall – “in hand of the potter.”
The figure is a profound revelation of God and the human soul: it is a startling disclosure both of the omnipotence, and of the self-imposed limitations, of Deity. “Hath not the potter a right over the clay?” (Rom. 9: 21) authority, not brute force; authority to shape its destiny according to the contents of the vessel: “as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are ye in Mine.” Here lies the clay - a dead, heavy, amorphous mass, with no life, no secret of evolution in it, no power to shape itself: our cradle, our sex, our capacities, our class, our physique, our death-hour - the Potter is absolute with the clay. But, lo, the clay is MARRED in the hand of the Potter; not out of the hand: the Angel refuses to spring from the marble. It never falls out of the hand of the Potter: it is marred in it. All creation is Divine self-limitation: the Potter can only work within the limits of clay: a flaw, a rebellious and intractable mingling of impurities, a hard resistance to the moulding wheel, and lo, the vessel is marred! God has left it to each of us to decide whether we shall be a vessel unto honour, or a vessel unto dishonour. So Paul says:- “If a man purge himself from these” - these what? cowardice; want of faith; a controversial spirit; wrong handling of Scripture; ungodliness; error on resurrection; retention of old sins – “he shall be a vessel UNTO HONOUR” (2 Tim. 2: 21). “If I am not becoming better,” Oliver Cromwell wrote in his Bible, “I shall soon cease being good” - a marred vessel. Were we mere clay, fatalism would be our right theology - God, we could say, will shape us to perfection whatever we do, and whatever we are, exactly as stars revolve, or trees grow: but no; we can break down in the hands of the Potter. If the lump of clay gets at all out of plumb, if it deviates to the right or left, it flies off at a tangent, and smashes: at all costs we must keep central - in the will of God, in the truth of God, in the obedience of God; or else our “eccentricity” - the loss of touch with the central Christ - will fly off into a shattered discipleship.
But now once again there bursts on our ears the music no human organ ever made. “And when the vessel was marred in the hand of the potter, he made it again another vessel.” Behold our patient God! He need never have moulded the ugly, shapeless mass at all; much more might He now discard the spoiled, twisted jar to the rubbish heap; but that is not God. Our life may be a marred and broken thing, but God can re-make it into a fresh form of Divine beauty: the whole Bible is alive with the truth that men, all men, can escape from evil, from all evil; and that God is eager and longing to co-operate in the escape. He can reshape the most un-shapely into the very image of Jehovah; He can twist the stubborn clay by toil, by agony, by tears until it is conformed to the image of His Son. But the re-making is a painful process. The clay has to be crushed back into mud again; and the Potter has to knead it on his bench, until it is plastic enough to take a fresh shape. In the English Potteries they enamel a vessel with black; then put it into an oven; and the scorching heat turns the black to gold: it is the only way they can make the gold. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be”; but by touch of hand and push of foot and splash of colour, the dizzy whirl of the flying wheels will have one day shaped the solid base, and cut the dainty rim, and moulded the exquisite curves, and “fixed” the glowing colours - like unto the Son of God.
But God uses this picture for a word of tremendous, warning to the unsaved. There are limits both to the will and to the power of the Potter. Some clays are very pure, and rich, and pliable; almost white, so that they can be made into the finest porcelain: others are too soft – “fat” is the technical term - to be used as they are; others have such an excess of iron in them, that they can be used only for coloured earthenware; other clay, again, will form, but will twist or crack in the firing. “Cannot I do with you as this potter?” saith the Lord. Yes, is the answer, but only as the potter can: “as in the potter’s hand, so in Mine.” So long as the clay is plastic, it will take any shape: let it once be “fired,” and it is plastic, shapeable clay no more: its mould can now never be altered. It is possible for a heart and a life to grow so hard that it can only be destroyed: “and he shall break it as a potter’s vessel is broken, breaking it in pieces without sparing: so that there shall not be found among the pieces thereof a sherd to take fire from the hearth, or to take water withal out of the cistern” (Isa. 30: 14) - We must be moulded into the holy will, of the Potter, or else all that can be done, for the world’s sake, is an irremediable smashing - shattered fragments that can never be gathered again – “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” How wisely the greatest sculptor of all time - the highest kind of the potter’s art - Michael Angelo, wrote in his diary:- “I die in the faith of Jesus Christ, and in the firm hope of a better life.”
A world of pathos, an unfathomable mystery, lies in one word. “ANOTHER vessel.” What is this second vessel? Is the twisted clay to be made into a more beautiful vase, brighter, purer, holier, more wonderful because of the crushing and the shaping, moulded to a lovelier form, and a finer use; or is it God’s vessel still, but never again to be what it once might have been? Must the bird with the broken pinion never fly as high again? If God alters our circumstances, or re-shapes our life, is it because we have failed Him in the old sphere; or is it because he wants a heavenlier mould for a rarer use? Only God knows. Yet grace still lasts, and common clay can yet be changed into Sevres china. When God cannot make of us what He would, He patiently makes of us what He can: it is part of the Potter’s craft to re-make with loving fingers the broken and the marred. God turns the oyster’s wound into a pearl. So this is our prayer:- “We are the clay, and Thou our potter” (Isa. 64: 8). Miss Winifred A. Cook voices the cry of the clay.
Here in Thy Hands I lay
My worthless, broken clay;
Re-mould to Thy design,
And in Thy way.
Alas, such clay as mine
Can even Thy fires refine,
Thy furnace re-create,
And render Thine?
Yet place upon Thy wheel
My yielded clay,
and steel My will to bear Thy stroke,
Receive Thy seal.
Then breathe therein and fill
My vessel frail, until
Only Thy life appear,
Thy mind, Thy will.
O Loveliness inwrought,
O Wonder past all thought,
That Thou should’st glorify
A thing of naught.
Shapely and set in gold,
Fashion’d by Love untold,
Nothing shall henceforth mar
This heavenly mould!
For so is expressed the glory of God. “We have this treasure” - the light of the knowledge of the glory of God – “in EARTHEN VESSELS, that the exceeding greatness of the power” - the shaping of the amorphous clay – “may be of God, and not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4: 7). A frail, body, a fallible judgment, an imperfect testimony, a sin-soiled character, a harassed life: nevertheless “a dying hand may sign a deed of incalculable value” (Cecil).
D. M. PANTON.
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THE POTTER AND THE CLAY
By P. G. THURSTON
Heb. 10: 14. “Perfected for ever” - The Vessel in Christ -
Heb. 13: 21. “Make you perfect” - Christ in the Vessel -
Heb. 12: 23. “Made perfect” - The Vessel like Christ -
* * *
A SHAPELESS lump of clay lay on the Potter’s Wheel. It rejoiced that it had been taken in hand by one so skilful and so mighty, to be fashioned into a vessel of honour. As the wheel began to whirl the clay was dazed, and as it felt the pressure of the hand it cried out in despair. It forgot that even the cleverest potter needs a wheel, and that the hand touched only the mould. At length the wheel stopped, and the great artist was heard saying, “It is perfect.” The clay was now a vase, graceful and beautiful in form; and it sighed in satisfied gladness and said,- “The Master says that I am perfect.”
Having stood it on the shelf for a while, the potter took it in hand again and gave it to a servant saying,- “take great care of it, for it is perfect.” The servant took it and covered it with a rough jar and placed it in an oven. As the heat of the furnace became intense the vase cried out in agony, “The Master said that I was perfect, and commanded that I should be taken care of; and yet I am plunged into this fearful heat.” At last the fire had done its work, and the vase stood again before the Master. There was no fear now that the touch of a finger would leave its impress, spoiling his work. He looked at it critically, and then set it down saying,- “It is perfect.”
The vase was not, however, yet complete, but now it was covered with enamel, and put again in the kiln, and it despairingly wondered when the painful processes were to cease. When it was withdrawn from the oven it shone with the brilliancy of absolute whiteness. The Master looked and said – “It is perfect!” Then he took it and began to colour it, and the vase mourned that its whiteness should be sullied. Again it was subjected to the fire till the Master’s handiwork was burned into it so that it could not be erased; and again the potter said,- “It is perfect!” Again the vase rejoiced though with trembling from many disappointments, hoping that at last its trials were over.
The potter now traced lines and patterns upon it in a dull dark shade, that seemed to spoil everything that he had done before, and once more the vase was placed in the kiln, and this time the heat was greater and the process was continued longer than before. At length it was taken from the fire and placed before the Master and the dull lines were seen to be gold. The Lord inspected it with a gracious smile. He was satisfied and He said, “It is finished; it is perfect!”
Then he set it on high in his own palace, and many looked upon it and as they did so they gave honour and glory to the Master himself, who had wrought so good a work.
And is it so? I shall be like Thy Son!
Is this the grace which He for me has won?
Father of glory! Thought beyond all thought,
In glory, to His own blest likeness brought.
Nor I alone; Thy loved ones all complete
In glory round Thee with such joy shall meet!
All like Thee: for Thy glory like Thee, Lord!
Object supreme of all, by all adored!*
* The writer of this article was in his ninetieth year. So we can never pass beyond doing something for God.
“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.
Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you
THE CROWN OF LIFE:” (Rev. 2: 10, N.I.V.).