God told Jeremiah, “Go down to the potter’s house, and I will give you my message there” (Jeremiah 18:2, NCV). Today if you go to a potter, you will probably see him or her working on a potter’s wheel operated with an electric motor. Before the invention of electric motors, potters at a wheel operated a treadle with their feet.
The technology doesn’t matter. The wheel doesn’t matter. Then as now, the potter formed the clay with his hands. He started to make something and was not happy with how it turned out. He crushed the clay back into a ball, but instead of making the same thing, he decided to make something else.
That was God’s message to Jeremiah. He had long been at work building up the house of Israel, but the people rejected him and refused to be pliable in his hands. So Jeremiah was to proclaim that just has the potter had destroyed his first work to begin again on something else, God also had the right to do the same with his people. He reserved the right to save a nation he had marked for destruction if the people repented and to destroy a nation he had planned to build if they chose to do evil.
So far, that doesn’t sound much like grace. God is essentially saying, “Do what I want and I’ll build you up. Refuse to do what I want and I’ll destroy you.” Or in other words, he’s promising to deal with people according to what they deserve. That is not grace.
In Romans 9:21-24, Paul reasserted God’s right to make choices about his people the way a potter decides what to do with a lump of clay.
As I said earlier, that chapter causes modern people a lot of trouble. Perhaps they don’t know of Jeremiah’s trip to the potter’s house, or perhaps they just dismiss it as Old Testament. But when Paul goes on to speak of vessels of honor, dishonor, mercy, and wrath, it can seem at first as if he is negating everything he said in the first eight chapters about grace and justification by faith.
Part of the trouble people have is simply that they want to cling to their free will and have God ratify their choices. Modern society doesn’t much like to think of the sovereignty of God. Another part of the problem is that we have developed a different language to describe pottery. We can never understand any scripture without understanding its language and imagery.
For people in biblical times, pottery was a daily necessity, not a decorative item. They needed a large pot for bringing water from the well. They would take water from that pot for drinking and washing. Of course, if the water in that pot became stale before it was empty, or when they were finished with the wash water, they needed another large pot to hold it until it was time to discard it.
The first large pot was the vessel of honor. It was used for serving fresh water to family, guests, and visitors. The second large pot was the vessel of dishonor. It received all the wastewater.
Some commentators have pointed out that the vessel of honor gives. The vessel of dishonor receives all and gives nothing. I think Paul’s point is that the potter made both vessels, and that each had a design suitable for its purpose.
The clay had no right to a preference of which kind of vessel to be. What’s more, the potter made an arbitrary choice. If God’s choices seem arbitrary to us, well, we have no right to complain about them.
Ancient Jews had several times in every day–especially before meals and before prayer–that required ritual hand washing. Travelers were not necessarily prepared to fulfill that obligation.
I understand that the same custom have been passed down in the Middle East, and that at least the more rural Arabs deal with travelers in the same way. They provide small jugs of water that travelers can use to wash their hands.
That is an act of mercy, and so the little jugs are called vessels of mercy. Some modern translations imply that the vessel of mercy means someone who will receive God’s mercy, but as long as we’re talking about the various products a potter makes, I suspect that the vessels of mercy were made not to receive but to give mercy. Great will be their glory in heaven.
What, then, are the vessels of wrath? We can easily read that reference as God making vessels so that he can take out his anger on them.
But all the other vessels were made according to the potter’s choice. Does any potter make something simply so he can destroy it? I doubt it. So why would God do that? That interpretation makes no sense at all! But not everything turns out as the potter (or God) expects.
If you have ever watched a potter, you know that the clay must be kept wet in order to be pliable.
No matter what a pot looks like straight from the wheel, it is not ready to use. If you put water in it, it will soften and collapse.
Time in the oven at high heat bakes and hardens the clay. It becomes impervious to water and therefore fit to hold it.
Sometimes, however, the potter takes his work out of the oven when it cools and notices that some have cracked.
Ancient potters could mix a certain insect with ground up pottery to make a cement to repair the cracked pots. They would have to be baked again.
Most of the time, the pots would emerge from the oven whole and useful, but some would crack again. Imagine the patience of a potter making an object, finding it broken, carefully repairing it, and finding it broken again. After a while, he would become too angry to waste any more time and effort on that pot and throw it across the room.
That’s the vessel of wrath. The potter never intended to destroy it, but it proved useless for any other purpose.
Now, we’re still not done with the vessels of wrath. Shards, pieces of broken pottery, have many uses. In fact, remember the ground pottery used to make the cement to fix broken vessels? It probably came from a vessel of wrath. In other words, the vessel that could never be used whole becomes redeemed for some good purpose after it is broken.
Now there is grace. The vessel that proved so intractable in the potter’s hands that he finally gave up on it does not get taken to the town dump (which in Jerusalem was called Gehenna, which in turn gave its name to hell). Instead, it is redeemed for some different and very necessary function.