Isaiah Study: The Potter and the Clay

As we continue our study of Isaiah 40-66, I want to look at an analogy that’s also used earlier in this book and by the prophet Jeremiah. If you go back and read the first post in this Isaiah study, you’ll see one of the key themes that I wanted to study more was “God as a potter, with us as His clay.” To dig into this analogy deeply, it’s helpful to look at the other messages God gave His prophets using the same word picture.

God’s description of Himself as the Potter and us as His clay also links to some other themes we’ve looked at in this series. Because God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable, He has the power to do what He likes with His creation. Part of what He’s doing relates to The Contrast Between Righteousness and Wickedness and The Lord’s Desire for Justice. He’s working with us to shape us the way that a potter works with clay to turn it into something beautiful and useful.

Danger in Disrespecting the Potter

The first time God describes Himself as a potter in Isaiah is in chapter 29. This passage comes before the section we’ve been studying, but it’s a message to the same people and gives us important background for the theme we’re looking at today.

The Lord says,
“These people say they are loyal to me;
they say wonderful things about me,
but they are not really loyal to me.
Their worship consists of
nothing but man-made ritual.
Therefore I will again do an amazing thing for these people—
an absolutely extraordinary deed.
Wise men will have nothing to say,
the sages will have no explanations.”
Those who try to hide their plans from the Lord are as good as dead,
who do their work in secret and boast,
“Who sees us? Who knows what we’re doing?”
Your thinking is perverse!
Should the potter be regarded as clay?
Should the thing made say about its maker, “He didn’t make me”?
Or should the pottery say about the potter, “He doesn’t understand”?

Isaiah 29:13-16, NET

This passage is an indictment against people who think they know better than God. They’re arrogant. They substitute their own rituals for the type of worship God commanded and they think their plans are so clever God won’t figure them out or try to stop them. This is the same attitude that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and experts in religious law for having when He came to earth the first time (Mark 7:2-13).

It’s a trap we can fall into as well. If God tells us to do something and we decide that something else would be better, then we’ve become disloyal to God. We’ve become like pottery telling the potter He didn’t make us and He doesn’t understand what’s best for us. It’s insane, and yet we try this all the time. We think, “Well, maybe God didn’t really mean it like that.” Or we say, “Yeah, but if He knew what my life’s like He’d make an exception.” Or maybe, “Sure He said that then, but this will work better now.” It’s is a very dangerous attitude.

One who argues with his Creator is in grave danger,
one who is like a mere shard among the other shards on the ground!
The clay should not say to the potter,
“What in the world are you doing?
Your work lacks skill!”
Danger awaits one who says to his father,
“What in the world are you fathering?”
and to his mother,
“What in the world are you bringing forth?”
This is what the Lord says,
the Holy One of Israel, the one who formed him,
concerning things to come:
“How dare you question me about my children!
How dare you tell me what to do with the work of my own hands!
I made the earth;
I created the people who live on it.
It was me—my hands stretched out the sky.
I give orders to all the heavenly lights.

Isaiah 45:9-12, NET

I quoted this chapter early on my Isiah study as well, in the post titled “God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable.” Here, God says, “I am Yahweh, and there is no one else. Besides me, there is no God” (Is. 45:5, WEB). He’s the Creator who made human beings, invited us into covenant relationship with Him, and makes plans that will surely come to fruition. He’s not a human who makes mistakes, or tells lies, or says they’ll do something then can’t follow through. And even though He loves us deeply, there is danger in disrespecting and underestimating Him. As His creation, we need to respect the Creator and remember how we fit into the universe.

God’s Right to Shape the World

Isaiah isn’t the only Bible writer to use a pottery analogy. During Jeremiah’s ministry, God sent him to watch a potter working. Jeremiah went to the potter’s house as instructed and watched as the clay the potter worked with became misshaped, so the potter reworked it into a different type of vessel. As Jeremiah looked on, God spoke to him.

Then Yahweh’s word came to me, saying, “House of Israel, can’t I do with you as this potter?” says Yahweh. “Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, house of Israel. At the instant I speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy it; if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to them. At the instant I speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if they do that which is evil in my sight, that they not obey my voice, then I will repent of the good with which I said I would benefit them.”

Jeremiah 18:5-10, WEB

God has the absolute right to dispense His justice according to His righteousness. If you remember the article from a couple weeks ago, “Isaiah Study: The Lord’s Desire for Justice,” then you’ll recall that God’s justice involves His governing authority, His desire to make things right in the world, His law, and His offer of salvation. Like a potter has the authority to turn clay into a simple bowl, a practical cup, or an elaborate vase, so does God have the authority to shape the future. We have free will, yes, but the choices we make are contextualized by God’s decisions about how the world works.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” But who indeed are you—a mere human being—to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this? Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use?

Romans 9:19-21, NET (bold italics a quotation from Isa 29:1645:9)

The context for this statement is Paul explaining how Israel and the Gentiles fit into the New Covenant (Rom. 9-11). Though we’re not getting into that topic today, the statement is one we’d do well to ponder. God’s authority does not negate our own free will nor excuse us from our responsibility to live in accordance with His law. If we ever feel like He’s not being fair or He did something wrong, the problem lies in our limited perception.

When you think about it, it’s the height of arrogance to think that just because we don’t understand what God’s doing that He’s wrong to do it. While it’s often challenging to trust God with the future, it’s something we need to do for our own sanity if nothing else. “One who quarrels with his Maker, like a pot among the pots of the earth” is not going to have peace (Is. 45:9, TLV).

Walking in the Potter’s Ways

God doesn’t ask anything unreasonable or mysterious from us. It’s just that our human reasoning and arrogance get in the way of us accepting His sovereignty and trusting Him with our futures. Even as I write this, a small part of me bristles at the idea of someone else telling me, “Here’s how the world works, so here’s how you should live your life.” Mostly, though, knowing that God’s expectations are clear is a relief.

He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord really wants from you:
He wants you to carry out justice, to love faithfulness,
and to live obediently before your God.

Micah 6:8, NET

It’s kind of weird–usually I find it comforting to know God’s in control and that He shows me how to live a good life, yet there are still times part of me wants to go my own way. Paul talked about a similar struggle in Romans; our “fleshy” human desires conflict with the spirit-filled life we’re called to live (Rom. 7:1-8:4). That pull between flesh and spirit–between our “old man” and the new work God’s doing in us –is something every Christian battles. We can win this fight with God’s help, though, and “the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4, NET). Then, we’ll be working with the Potter instead of resisting His work.

You meet him who rejoices and does righteousness,
    those who remember you in your ways.
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned.
    We have been in sin for a long time.
    Shall we be saved?
For we have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteousness is like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf;
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    who stirs himself up to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have consumed us by means of our iniquities.

But now, Yahweh, you are our Father.
    We are the clay and you our potter.
    We all are the work of your hand.
Don’t be furious, Yahweh.
    Don’t remember iniquity forever.
Look and see, we beg you,
    we are all your people.

Isaiah 64:5-9, WEB

This is the final section of Isaiah that talks about God as a Potter. Here, Isaiah shows the right way for us to respond to God as He works with, molds, and shapes us. We need to remember, as God does, that we’re made of clay and dust (Job 10:9; Ps. 103:14). No matter how much we might think of ourselves, we’re still little compared to God. We don’t know the future and our ideas about what should happen aren’t always right. We need to trust our Creator to work things out for the best and to work with us to make us our best. If we’ve done something that “misshapes” us in God’s hands, we can still choose to come back to Him for loving correction. He’ll meet those who seek righteousness where they are and then keep working with us to shape us into something beautiful.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

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