From Failure to Fruitfulness 1: Jeremiah at the Potter’s House

Jeremiah 18:1-6 (ESV)
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:
“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”
So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.
And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.
Then the word of the Lord came to me:
“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

THIS was for Jeremiah an everyday scene – pottery was one of the most ancient and common trades – and so he describes what he sees: the potter working a dual wheel where the bottom half was like a flywheel propelled by the potter’s feet, and the top wheel spun the clay. He had seen this a hundred times before, but this time God spoke to him about His holy Nation of Israel and Judah’s precarious situation in particular. (Within a few years, proud Judah would be besieged and Jerusalem would fall, and its population deported into captivity – Jeremiah among them).

The potter has a supply of kneaded clay of the right consistency, and takes a lump to throw on the wheel and then, using both hands, works it up into the desired shape as a pottery vessel. Most times that is straightforward enough but anyone who has done pottery at school or in an art class, or has talked to an artisan potter, will know that sometimes the clay fractures or collapses as it is being worked.

Jeremiah observes this and the Holy Spirit relates this ordinary scene to an insight about a life situation for Jeremiah and his people. But it is not just about a political problem in the early part of Jehoiakim’s reign; it speaks to an everyday human problem. Are we willing to be shaped by the Creator? Like most prophetic words, there is an immediate there-and-then application, but it is a word for us, too. God uses this as His enduring word to remind us today about His character and sovereignty in our lives.

Although the headline has the word ‘failure’ in it, God doesn’t see failure the way we often see it. Here are three encouragements that come from the picture of the potter working.

Clay fractures as it is being worked. The working sometimes reveals a flaw in the consistency. As God works us and moulds us, He may allow us to come under some pressure in our lives; that’s where character weaknesses often become evident. God doesn’t cause this, nor does he play games; He allows it so that we become more self-aware, and then with His help we can grow in that p[art of our character. God is much more interested in our character than our achievements. He knows who were are and how we are – but do we?

Clay sometimes becomes marred as it is worked because there is a hard spot in the clay – it hasn’t been kneaded fully, or there is a dry patch. Where in us are there ‘hard parts’? Immediately we think about stubbornness, pride, or just an attitude of inflexibility (remember the fate of Jerusalem shortly after Jeremiah received this picture). God always wants to work us, to shape us and He does this with the care of a skilled potter. If we are like the clay in His hands, we need to be malleable.

Sometimes the shape just goes a bit wrong. The shape that is being worked up just doesn’t come out quite right. It doesn’t break. It may be a perfectly acceptable shape. But it isn’t exactly what the potter was looking for. There is more development in this design to come. Better to start over again, and bring it out.

In all three instances, it is not God’s judgment but God’s grace being shown. Flaws camouflaged by our humanity are being revealed, and used as opportunities for re-working and renewing.One commentator has written: “Far too many have misunderstood this parable because they have seen God in the light of an arbitrary sovereign, whereas the deeper level of meaning speaks of God’s grace that underlay the coming disaster on Judah.”

God is not an arbitrary or harsh sovereign; however He is sovereign i.e. Lord over every part of our destiny. When we factor in His kindness and grace as a loving Father – something more in our experience than Jeremiah’s – the fact that He is sovereign, and can rework in us whatever has not come out quite right, is hugely reassuring.

We will go on to see that God does not see failure the way we see it, but as an opportunity to coach us and to grow us. We react to what we perceive as failure, but if that reaction turns us towards the Father, He has us where He wants us – listening to Him and teachable. That’s where the growth happens.

TO THINK ABOUT

  1. Think of a time recently when you ‘came down with a bump’ and it felt like failure. What did you learn?
  2. There’s an experience of God on the mountaintop and an experience of God in the valley. Why is the valley experience different? What is special about it?
  3. Have you a story about how God ‘reworked’ you and brought you into a new place or season?
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