The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,…
Does God rule the nations of the earth? When men set themselves in opposition to what are believed to be the laws of righteousness, will the nation prosper as it would have done if righteousness had been its aim? That was the question which perplexed the prophet. God's work, he believed, was not frustrated by man's sin, only the nation which set itself against God was broken. Somehow the human mind came to suspect that each man was in direct and intimate relationship with God, that He was dealing with him as truly as if there were no other being in the universe. Every word of Jesus tended to deepen that impression. "The very hairs of your head are all numbered...Not one sparrow falleth to the ground without your Heavenly Father. Are ye not of more value than they?"
I. The first thing which attracts our notice is the CLAY. It is of different qualities. Some of it is very pure and pliable, other is too soft — "fat" the potter calls it — to be used in its present state; some is almost white, and will make the finest porcelain, other has such an excess of iron that it will make only coloured ware; some is doubtful, — it will form, but it will twist or crack in the firing. The clay of the potter is human nature, good, bad, and indifferent. Is there any of it so bad that it cannot be used? Not if it be clay. There is no clay that the potter cannot employ. He cannot use stone, and he cannot make a vase of water. There are men so hard that they seem to be stone; there are others so flabby that it seems as if they never could hold together on the revolving wheel; still, if they be men, something can be done. It may not be possible to make poets and statesmen of them, any more than it is possible to make Sevres china of Jersey clay; but they can be moulded and fixed into some form of usefulness as long as they are men. The difficulty, however, which arises in some men's minds, even when that is settled, is this: Is not the best what we want? Can we rest satisfied with any dealing with human nature which leaves the large majority of the race on a low plane, and exalts only a chosen few? Now, if we cannot, how can the Creator? Must we not suppose that He too is disappointed in His work, and that He is limited in His operations? How, then, can we believe in One who is omnipotent? Is not He too limited by necessity, and are we not right in saying that that which determines character is the previous condition of the material with which God works? And does not this lead finally to disbelief, in God? It certainly does lead to a disbelief in such a God as we have fancied. But it may lead to a belief in a nobler God than that. The potter puts his hand on a lump of clay. He can never make pure porcelain out of it. Well, who said that he intended to? Who told us that he tried to and failed? Did not the potter bring the clay into the house? Did he not know what he would find there? Not so. The fineness of the pottery is determined by the quality of the clay, and so is its colour, but not its form. That is the work of the potter alone. It is in that that we see the power of his genius. And the coarser the material and the cruder its colour, the more are we led to marvel at the genius and the goodness which was content to embody itself in such material. The more we study human nature, the more we become convinced that God never intended all men to be alike. The more we study sociology, the more we feel convinced that it would be a fatal thing to have a town with but a single industry, a nation with no variety of employments, a world perfectly homogeneous. We all admit that it is not possible for every man to have all the moral qualities in an equal degree. The important thing in life is that each man should be faithful in the employment of those which he has. It is with individuals as with nations. We say that we cannot, and God ought not to be content with anything less than the best. But what is best? Is it best that all the clay in the world should be turned into Dresden china? By no means. What is best is that there should be a great variety fitted for different purposes. There are certain virtues which would be out of place in certain conditions of civilisation — that is, in certain individuals. Refined sensibility would be as embarrassing to a frontiersman as a carriage hung on delicate springs. What is needed is that he should be brave and just. We say that it is not as high a type as the courteous gentleman who would shrink from profanity as from physical pollution. But the test is to be found not in the quality of the virtue, but in the faithfulness with which it is used. Two things, then, ought to be learned from a consideration of the clay in the potter's house. The first is, that God is dealing with men as individuals indeed, yet not as isolated beings, but as members of a great family. It is to the advantage of the family that they should differ, and it is to their own advantage too. This difference in the clay, of which we have many theories, such as the law of heredity, or the influence of environment, are the conditions which God Himself has ordained. All creation is self-limitation. God is working in clay. He must make what the clay is capable of expressing; only, there is no clay which is not capable, on a higher or lower plane, of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
2. The second thing which we see in the potter's house is the WHEEL. On it the lump is placed, and the unseen foot presses the treadle, and the wheel revolves. About the wheel, too, men have formed a theory. First they began with the clay — the substance of human nature. And there was evolved many a philosophy. It has produced the spirit of agnosticism. Men, weary with speculations which lead to nothing, have said there is nothing to be known of the constitution of the clay nor the mind of the worker. And they are right: there is nothing to be known by the exclusive study of the human mind. And so they have turned to the study of the revolutions of the wheel. The clay is on the wheel, and it turns and turns, and slackens not its speed, still less stops in answer to curses or groans. If you ask whence came the clay, the answer is, the wheel made it. If men asked how it took forms of beauty, the answer was given by pointing out that, if the wheel went slower by one revolution in a thousand years, the thing of beauty would be marred; that if it increased its speed but the fraction of a second, the clay would be destroyed. The wheel never changes. Well, how does the ease stand today? Men have roused themselves, and asked at length, What moves the wheel? Such a simple, natural question! But no one can answer it. "We do not know," say the wisest students of nature. "Every increase of knowledge only serves to widen the surrounding abyss of nescience. And what is more, nothing can ever be known of that secret, for we have learned enough of nature to know that no study of it will tell us any of those things which we would like to know." The study of the clay was formulated in metaphysics, and led to agnosticism. The study of the wheel has done the same. There are, however, certain impressions which the mind has received from the study of nature which nothing will ever shake. The first is the universality of law — that nothing happens anywhere except in accordance with invariable rules, which are never changed. That is the one thing we have learned from the study of nature, and almost the only thing we have learned which throws any light on the great problem which perplexes us. Is this all that can be learned from the potter's house? So many tell us, but as we turn away there comes, we cannot tell how, & feeling that we have not seen all. And to me that is, after all, the greatest mystery of life. How did it ever come to pass that man should dream that there is more to be known than can be seen? That is the mystery. From what does it arise? How is it that I, a creature of a moment, without power, an infinitesimal particle in the universe, should come to believe that this is not the whole story of my life, but that there is a hand upon me fashioning me and moulding me, making me walk in the paths which I would not, and comforting me, and filling me with hope? It is because of something else which is in the potter's house. That which the prophet saw first of all: "I saw the potter work a work on the wheels." It is on that that our eyes must be fixed if we would gain comfort and hope. It is on that that the eyes of thoughtful men must be fixed before we can have a philosophy of life. The study of the clay will show us only the limitations of the clay. The study of the wheel will teach us nothing but the conditions under which the clay is moulded. The contemplation of the hand alone will yield nothing but unsubstantial dreams. The result of the first has been formulated in philosophy; of the second in science; of the third in theology. Should there ever be a complete philosophy of life, it must be from the combination of what each thing in the potter's house has to teach us. The clay we can analyse. The wheel we can watch. How can we learn from the hand? Only by taking the testimony which the clay itself bears to its own experience, only by noting the effects produced on the human soul by the awful, mysterious experiences of life. The limitations of your life and mine were fixed long before we saw the light. We have learned that to begin with. The experiences which come to you and me are not made to break in upon the course of this world, violating the law which governs life. They come by rule. There is an undeviating law which governs life. That, too, we have learned. Where, then, is Providence? That is to be seen in the moulding of our life. God's hand is on us, and in the turn of the wheel which brings joy He lifts us up, and in the turn which brings calamity He moulds us for some use. That is what men forget. The race. has always believed, that there was. overruling, but supposed that the proof of it was to be found in the events of life, and then was dumfounded when these events proved different from what had been expected. It is not in the events, but in the result of them, that we shall find the proof of the hand of God. That thought frees us at once from the deadness of spirit which comes with the knowledge of inexorable law. If there be a hand fashioning, we may be sure that it chose the clay to make that which it knew the clay could become. If there is a hand moulding our souls, it must be that these laws were prepared by it because He knew that no condition which those laws produce is unfavourable to the development of the life which He loves. And more than that, if there be laws for the clay and laws for the wheel, there are likewise, we may be sure, laws for the moulding hand as well. What are these laws? That we do not know, and that is why there is so much confusion and fear. There is one thing more to be said, and that is, that the parable is incomplete in one respect. There are times when we can speak of humanity as clay in the hands of the potter, but we all know that this human clay has the power of resistance. It can tear itself from the moulding hand; it can fatten itself in sin, so as to frustrate the work on the wheels. So the house of the potter has an exhortation for us, as well as an object lesson. What it is saying to every man is, Do not resist, but cooperate. Look at the clay — it is yourself, it has its limitations. Two things are before you when that truth has entered into your soul. You may despair; you may throw away your life because it is physically, mentally, or morally incomplete or marred. Or you may submit. You may learn to be content; you may rise to thank God that you are what you are. You may be made useful, and in the eyes of the Master beautiful, because expressing the love of God. Look on the wheel. It is the revolving life, with all its manifold experiences. They may be so joyous that we forget that we are here for a purpose, and pass the time in the enjoyment of things which unfit us for beauty or power. They may be hard and bitter, and you may upbraid God. You may say, I have been a religious man, and look at me, old and poor and sad! Are not these laws, which He established, and which now bear heavy on me, for a purpose? We may go further, and say, "The consolations of God are not small with us." We may hear the voice of the apostle saying, "My brethren, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial" as if some strange thing happened to you; there hath no trial taken you but such as is common to man. He wrought a work on the wheels. Let nothing shake that faith. Submit your souls to God. Do not ask Him to make you great, only to make you useful. The hand of the Potter is on your life, moulding it in the midst of manifold experiences. It is the hand of your Father — the same hand which was on Jesus, and moulded that sweet Jewish boy into the perfect manifestation of His own glory. Remember that, and He will make you a thing of beauty, fit for the Master's use.
Parallel VersesKJV: The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,