The Relation of the Will to Character and Destiny
Jeremiah 18:1-10
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,…

The figure of the potter is of frequent occurrence in Scripture; and its meaning is the more easily understood, because there is scarcely any craft of which the principal tools have been less altered in the lapse of the centuries. The purposes for which the figure is used in the Bible may be arranged under two chief heads. In every case the power of the potter over the clay is emphasised. But while some passages stop with that fact, — that the potter's power is absolute, without measure or limit, that he can do what he likes with the clay, — others teach distinctly that the potter is not ruled by his fancy or caprice, or by any momentary or arbitrary impulse, but the exercise of his power is itself determined by something, some quality or fitness, within the clay. Of these two lessons, the former is most frequent in Isaiah and in Paul, although other writers adopt or enforce it. That is the most obvious meaning of the figure, to be found in almost every literature, never to be forgotten by the reverent — the potter has complete command over the clay. He, at his wheel, is the symbol of power: the clay, of helplessness and necessary submission. There has probably never been a man who believed that more thoroughly than did Jeremiah. In this very chapter he represents God as saying to the house of Israel, "Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in Mine hand." In his account of his own call, the prophet describes a Divine voice as speaking to him: "Before thou earnest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." He never hesitates in his ascription to God of the right and power of complete control over man, or to man of the necessity of submission and the obligation of obedience. But according to Jeremiah that is not a complete account of the relation, either of God to man, or of man to God. And in this chapter he uses the figure of the potter to show, on the one hand, that the potter's power is not exercised arbitrarily, and on the other, that its exercise is determined, and even in some sense conditioned, by the clay itself.

1. With regard to the figure, it is in the particulars of the fourth verse that Jeremiah's use of it differs from that of most other scriptural writers. As soon as the potter saw that the clay he was dealing with would not answer the purpose he had in view, with a slight touch of his hand he crushed it down into a shapeless heap of mud, began anew, and made it into "another vessel." In other words, the potter's treatment of the clay depends upon his knowledge or discovery of its qualities, its capability, or its faultiness. Or, dropping the figure, God does not always act upon and complete His first apparent design with a man; and any change of design on His part is determined by some adequate cause, which is always to be found in the man himself — in the way in which he exercises his freedom of will, or in the attitude in which he puts himself towards conscience, and duty, and truth. There has sometimes been a disposition, amongst nations and amongst individuals, to imagine that some moral character had been stamped indelibly upon them by God, and was permanent and unalterable, whatever they did. So far was Jeremiah from believing that, and so far is the Bible from teaching it, that it represents man's will as in a sense entrusted with the supreme control over his spirit and over his destiny. The plastic skill and power of the Great Potter, in themselves immeasurable and without limit, are yet not applied arbitrarily, under the impulse of fancy or caprice, but depend at least for their direction upon the clay itself.

2. That truth is sometimes overlooked, or qualified, or even rejected. Some of the current philosophies deny it in theory, but, when pressed, will reluctantly acknowledge that consciousness can be quoted in its favour, or, as the greatest English psychologist of the day puts it, "The assumption of the freedom of the will is in a certain sense inevitable to anyone exercising rational choice." In the Old Testament it is an especial favourite of Jeremiah's, though not confined to him; and in this single paragraph he is not contented with the dubious form it assumes in the figure, but recurs to it once and again afterwards. When verse 14 is compared with the preceding verse, it becomes evident that the prophet wanted to point a contrast between the steadfastness of the phenomena and laws of nature, and the apparent fickleness of those of morals. To the one the eternal will of God which knows no change is central; to the other, the uncertain will of man. The forces that seem to play in the cloud forms and the winds, to move with slow rhythm in the solid structures of the ages, or with quick inapparent catastrophe and explosion, the life that modifies the cell and pulsates in a myriad forms through the universe — all simply fulfil their Sovereign's will; and the only power, not in the same way subject to His rule, but permitted to rebel against Him, and to check and alter His purposes, is that of the personality or will of man. To that extent the Potter renounces His power over the clay, and the clay is allowed to determine the design of the Potter.

3. The same truth is put in a third way in verses 7-10. The inference evidently is, that neither God's threats nor His promises are absolute, in the sense that they are incapable of diversion or of change. Every word that goes forth from His lips is of necessity law; but the nations, the individuals, are left at liberty to choose which of the words shall govern them, and the occasions of choice are more than one. It appears accordingly that men can actually, by their choice of evil or carelessness concerning right, frustrate God's purposes or grace, just as by penitence and self-reform they can avert a doom that is impending. That is the word of the Lord by others than Jeremiah (Ezekiel 18:20-24). Nor does the New Testament reject such a lesson, which is in accordance further with the teaching of reason and with the fundamental conception of justice. There is no finality in God's design for a man, until the man's will has either frittered itself away, or hardened itself into invincibility. But by the attitude towards God into which men put themselves, they determine the pattern according to which His methods mould them, and every change of attitude on their part is quickly followed by its appropriate and necessary change of design. Nor is this modification of God's design represented as confined to nations or communities. Jonah himself was called of God to be a prophet, but the action of his own will made him a sacrifice to appease the sea, until, when he willed better things, God's plan for him changed back again. There is thus cumulative evidence, in Scripture, in history, in human experience, that God does not always act to the end upon His original design for a man, but that His designs are sometimes changed on account of something in the men themselves. What is that something? This chapter alone, to say nothing of teaching that abounds elsewhere, leaves no room for doubt. "If that nation turn from their evil," is laid down with all emphasis in the eighth verse as the one condition upon which the modification of God's purpose depends; and the most powerful and essential human factor in every act of moral turning is of necessity the will. The responsibility for a man's character rests substantially, it would be hardly too much to say entirely, upon himself. It is a terrible responsibility, of which men have tried to rid themselves in many ways; but so long as human nature remains what it is, free to choose the right or the wrong, it is a responsibility which every man must face and every man must bear. God gives, in the conscience and by His Spirit, a clear revelation of what is right, and in His Son a source of strength that is sufficient for every duty. He gives opportunities, allurements, warnings without number; and having given those, ceaselessly present with us, His part in the formation of character may be said to be done. The man has then to determine, by the action of his own will, whether the law of perfecting or the law of perdition shall work in him.

(R. W. Moss.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,

WEB: The word which came to Jeremiah from Yahweh, saying,

The Potter's Wheel
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