Four Lessons From the Potter’s House

Ancient Metaphor Rich with Meaning for Today

Nature of Humanity August 4, 2015

All through Scripture prophets and preachers paint portraits of God. David, Ezekiel, John and Paul all write of our shepherding Lord, while Jesus pictures God sowing seeds and tending vines. As a nation of shepherds and farmers, Israel understood these images, which show God working in, for and through His people.

But the Bible also describes the Lord as a potter, an image we rarely explore.

Said Isaiah, “O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand” (Isa. 64:8, KJV).* And in Jeremiah, God reminds His straying children, “You are in my hands just like clay in the potter’s hands” (Jer. 18:6). This image, which once spoke most clearly to the ancients, can also speak to us today, no matter where we live.

Most of the Bible’s potter metaphors fall into two categories: (a) judgment on the wicked, and (b) restoration of the righteous. When God thunders His judgment, He destroys a clay pot, sometimes by smashing it on the ground: “You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2:9). However, when God displays His restoration, it comes by way of creating a pot of clay. In Jeremiah 18 God the Potter is constructive and purposeful. He’s at His potter’s wheel, making a vessel.

God told Jeremiah, “Go down to the potter’s house, where I will give you my message” (Jer. 18:2). Visiting the potter’s house with Jeremiah, we too may learn lessons God wants to teach us.

Lesson 1: The need for the Holy Spirit

One Bible dictionary explains that clay becomes “increasingly miry and workable as water is added, and more fixed as the mixture dries.” Its nature changes when it has been touched by water.((Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, sv. “Clay,” p214.))  Clay particles won’t cohere without water, and if they won’t stick together, the potter can’t shape them. Water—that softening, binding agent—represents the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus declares in John 7:37-39 that “whoever is thirsty should come to me and drink,” John tells us that He “said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were going to receive.” That Spirit, as Paul says, brings oneness to God’s people: “Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together” (Eph. 4:3). As the Spirit comes to believers, “He causes them to transcend human prejudices of culture, race, sex, color, nationality and status.”((F. D. Nichol, ed., SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1021; cf. Seventh-day Adventists Believe, p. 175.)) The Spirit unifies us.

Our first lesson from the potter’s house is that we need the water of the Spirit so we can be malleable—so we can be used by God.

Lesson 2: We’re not yet pots.

Scripture calls us clay. And though there was a chemical similarity between clay and a pot, the Bible made a clear (theological) distinction between them. We may look at a pot as fixed clay, while clay itself is a pot in progress.

Pottery itself is neither hardy nor recyclable. If you mishandle a vessel and it shatters, the worthless fragments won’t disintegrate. Ancient potters would collect and dump them at special waste grounds—like the heap near which Job sat while scraping his itching skin (Job 2:8). The Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem was one such site, a place where the city disposed of its waste, including its broken pottery. That’s where God takes Jeremiah.

As a lesson to Judah (and to us), God relegates a clay pot to this rubbish heap—not just dumping it, but destroying it. As on God’s command Jeremiah breaks the clay jar, God explains: “I will break this people and this city, and it will be like this broken clay jar that cannot be put together again” (Jer. 19:11). God decrees there will be no restoration for the vessel. It “cannot be made whole again”—not with adhesive tape or superglue or by any other human agency. The pot shatters. Its “probation” is over.

Like Jeremiah’s clay pot, each of us will face one of two futures. Either we’ll be shattered in the antitypical Valley of Hinnom, or we will be perfect vessels, gathered for use in God’s House—either eternal destruction or eternal service (Mal. 4:1; John 14:2, 3). God, our Potter, will soon complete His constructive work in us, and probation’s door will close.

So our second lesson is that we are not yet pots: we are still clay in God’s hands. While our probation remains open, God our Potter still works with us, on us, and in us, molding and forming “as seems good to Him” (Jer. 18:4).

Lesson 3: We must pass through the fire.

To create his vessel, the ancient potter would tear the clay from the earth, throw it on the ground, and trample on it (Isa. 41:25). Next he would soften the clay with water and knead it into a paste. He would then slap the kneaded clay firmly onto the center of his potter’s wheel, a flat disk mounted horizontally on a vertical rod (Jer. 18:3). By holding the turning clay and manipulating it with his fingers, thumbs, and palms, the potter would form his vessel.

Thus formed, the new vessel could harden in the sunlight. But if so, it would buckle and fall apart when filled with liquid. That is why all ancient potters baked their product in a kiln, a special furnace that might easily reach 2700°F. After being trampled and kneaded and poked and prodded and spun around at dizzying speeds, the clay was finally baked in a fiery furnace.

Not a calming, delightful experience, but that’s what faces us as clay. Life’s “fiery trials”—debt and divorce, decay and disorder, pain and death—assault us all. But we have the consolation that there’s an eternal purpose behind it all. Said Ellen White: “The fact that we are called upon to endure trial shows that the Lord Jesus sees in us something precious which He desires to develop…. He does not cast worthless stones into His furnace. It is valuable ore that He refines.”((The Ministry of Healing, p. 471.)) Through our “fiery trials” we share Christ’s pain “so that [we] may be full of joy when His glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12, 13).

Lesson 4: The hotter the furnace, the finer the vessel.

Earthenware, though brightly colored and glazed, chips easily if it is baked at lower temperatures. Such vessels have none of the inner strength needed to withstand pressure or vigorous service. Stoneware, much harder and stronger, bakes in a furnace nearly twice as hot as that for earthenware. But porcelain, baked between 2400 and 2700 degrees Fahrenheit, is the finest and most expensive type of pottery.

Yet a potter doesn’t arbitrarily require monstrous degrees of endurance from any of his vessels. Indeed, different kinds of pots require different doses of heat, and in the Master Potter’s house no vessel receives more heat than it needs. Still, it takes “fiery trial” to produce fine pottery, and the product of the greatest “pain” is porcelain, one of whose characteristics is that it “sings” when hit. Like John Huss and Jerome, who sang at the stake, or Paul and Silas, who sang in a Philippi jail, Christians are human porcelain. Day by day through the Spirit, believers develop this Christlike resonance, this total rejection of revenge, this ability to love under pressure.

And porcelain has a second characteristic: when near a light source, it channels that light. In the same way, having come through the fire, we channel Christ’s light to the world’s darkness (Matt. 5:16).

At His wheel, through His Spirit, the Master Potter can shape you. He sees you not as “marred clay,” but as fine porcelain. He promises to restore you. And because “[He] is faithful … he will do it” (1 Thess. 5:24, NIV).

At His House, God your Potter is waiting for you. Will you meet Him there?

*All scriptural references, unless otherwise indicated, are from Today’s English Version.

Keisha McKenzie, who describes herself as “clay on the Potter’s wheel,” writes from Mandeville, Jamaica.

This article originally appeared on on November 2008.