The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,…
(with Romans 9:19-24): — The potter and the clay! Is not that parable the germ of all that is most oppressive in the "terrible decree" of Calvinism? Does it not justify the Moslem's acceptance of the will of Allah as a destiny which he cannot understand, but to which he must perforce submit? Is not this the last word of the apostle, even when he is most bent on vindicating the ways of God to men, in answer to the question which asks now, as Abraham asked of old, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" "Why doth He yet find fault, for who hath resisted His will?" I do not purpose entering into the thorny labyrinth into which these questions lead us. We shall do well to trace the history and to note the bearings of this parable. Does it really teach what men have imagined that it taught — the powerlessness of man and the arbitrary sovereignty of God? or does it lead us to acknowledge a wisdom and righteousness and mercy in the history of men and nations? Does it simply crush us to the ground with the sense of our own impotence? or does it rightly take its place in that noble argument which makes the Epistle to the Romans, more than any other art of Scripture, a true Theodicaea, a vindication of the ways of God to man?
I. IT WAS IN A DARK AND TROUBLOUS TIME THAT JEREMIAH WAS CALLED TO DO HIS WORK. The purpose and promises of Jehovah to His people Israel seemed to fail utterly. It was in this mood that there came to him an inner prompting in which, then or afterwards, he recognised "the Word of the Lord." Acting on that impulse he left the temple and the city, and went out alone into the valley of Hinnom, where he saw the potter at work moulding the clay of the valley into form and fashioning it according to his purpose. The prophet looked and saw that here too there was apparent failure. "The vessel that he wrought was marred in the hands of the potter." The clay did not take the shape; there was some hidden defect that seemed to resist the plastic guidance of wheel and hand. The prophet stood and gazed — was beginning, it may be, to blame the potter as wanting in his art, when he looked again and saw what followed. "So he returned, and made it another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it." Skill was seen there in its highest form — not baffled by seeming or even real failure — triumphing over difficulties. And then by one of those flashes of insight which the world calls genius, but which we recognise as inspiration, he was taught to read the meaning of the parable. "Then the Word of the Lord came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in Mine, O house of Israel." Did the thought which thus rushed in on his soul crush it as with the sense of a destiny arbitrary, supreme, not necessarily righteous, against which men struggled in vain, and in whose hands they had no freedom and therefore no responsibility? Far otherwise than that. To him that which he saw was a parable of wisdom and of love, working patiently and slowly; the groundwork of a call to repentance and conversion. When he passed from the potter and his wheel to the operations of the great Work-Master, as seen in the history of nations, he saw in the vessels that were being moulded, as on the wheel of providence, no masses of dead inert matter. Each was, as it were, instinct with a self-determining power, which either yielded to or resisted the plastic workings of the potter's hand. The urn or vase designed for kingly uses refused its high calling, and chose another and less seemly shape. The Supreme Artificer, who had determined in the history of mankind the times before appointed and the bounds of men's habitations, had, for example, called Israel to be the pattern of a righteous people, the witness of truth to the nations, a kingdom of priests, the first-fruits of humanity. That purpose had been frustrated. Israel had refused that calling. It had, therefore, to be brought under another discipline, fitted for another work: "He returned, and made it another vessel." The pressure of the potter's hand was to be harder, and the vessel was to be fashioned for less noble uses. Shame and suffering and exile — their land left desolate, and they themselves weeping by the waters of Babylon — this was the process to which they were now called on to submit. But at any moment in the process, repentance, acceptance, submission might modify its character and its issues. The fixed unity of the purpose of the skilled worker would show itself in what would seem at first the ever-varying changes of a shifting will. True it was that a little later on in the prophet's work he carried the teaching of the parable one step further, to a more terrible conclusion. The Word of the Lord came to him again, "Go and get a potter's earthen bottle, and take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests; and go forth unto the valley of the son of Hinnom" (Jeremiah 19:1), and there in their sight he was to break the bottle as a witness that, in one sense, the day of grace was over, that something had been forfeited which now could never be regained. But not for that was the purpose of God frustrated. The people still had a calling and election. They were still to be witnesses to the nations, stewards of the treasure of an eternal truth. In that thought the prophet's heart found hope and comfort. He could accept the doom of exile and shame for himself and for his people, because he looked beyond it to that remoulded life.
II. THE AGE IN WHICH ST. PAUL LIVED was like that of Jeremiah, a dark and troublous time for one whose heart was with his brethren, the children of Abraham according to the flesh. Once again the potter was fashioning the clay to high and noble uses. "To the Jew first, and also to the Gentile," was the law of all his work. But here also there was apparent failure. Blindness, hardness, unbelief, these marred the shape of the vessels made to honour. Did he for that cease to believe in the righteousness and faithfulness of God? Did he see no loving purpose behind the seeming severity? No, the vessel would be made for what men held dishonour — exile lasting through centuries, dispersion over all the world, lives that were worn down with bondage — but all this was in his eyes but the preparation and discipline for the far-off future, fitting them in the end for nobler uses.
III. THE HISTORY OF NATIONS AND CHURCHES HAS THROUGH ALL THE AGES BORNE WITNESS OF THE SAME TRUTH. Each has had its calling and election. Dimly as it has been given to us to trace the education of mankind, imperfect as is any attempt at the philosophy of history, we can yet see in that history that the maze is not without, a plan. Greece and Rome, Eastern or Latin or Teutonic Christendom — each nation or Church, as it becomes a power in the history of mankind, has been partly taking the shape and doing the work which answered to the design and purpose of God, partly thwarting and resisting that purpose. So far as it has been faithful to its calling, so far as the collective unity of its life has been true to the eternal law of righteousness, it has been a vessel made to honour. Those who see in history, not the chaos in which brute forces are blindly working from confusion to confusion, but the unfolding of a righteous order, can see in part how resistance, unfaithfulness, sensuality, have marred the work, — how Powers that were as the first of nations have had written on them, as it seemed, the sentence passed of old on Amalek, that their latter end should be that they should perish forever. Spain, in her decrepitude and decay; France, in her alternations of despotism and anarchy; Rome, in the insanity of her claims to dominate over the reason and conscience of mankind — these are instances, to which we cannot close our eyes, of vessels marred in the potter's hands. Each such example of the judgment of the heavens bids us not to be high-minded, but to fear. We need to remember, as of old, that the doom which seems so far from us may be close at hand, even at our doors, that that which seems ready to fall on this nation or on that, Turk or Christian, Asiatic or European, is not irreversible. "At what time soever," now as in the prophet's days, "a nation shall turn and repent," and struggle over the stepping stones of its dead self to higher things, there is the beginning of hope. The Potter may return and mould and fashion it, it may be to lowlier service, perhaps even to outward dishonour, but yet, if cleansed from its iniquity, it shall be meet for the Master's use.
IV. THE PARABLE BEARS UPON THE INDIVIDUAL LIFE OF EVERY CHILD OF MAN, and it is obviously that aspect of its teaching which has weighed most heavily upon the minds of men, and often, it would seem, made sad the hearts of the righteous whom God has not made sad. Does it leave room there also for individual freedom and responsibility? Did the inspired teachers think of it as leading men to repentance and faith and hope, or as stifling every energy under the burden of an inevitable doom? The words in which St. Paul speaks of it might be enough to suggest the true answer to that question. To him even that phase of the parable which seems the darkest and most terrible does but present to man's reverential wonder an instance of the forbearance of God enduring with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction. The Potter would fain return and mould and remould till the vessel is fit for some use, high or humble, in the great house of which He is the Supreme Head. By the discipline of life, by warnings and reproofs, by failures and disappointments, by prosperity and success, by sickness and by health, by varying work and ever-fresh opportunities, He is educating men and leading them to know and to do His will. Who does not feel in his calmer and clearer moments that this is the true account of the past chances and changes of his life? True, there is a point at which all such questionings reach their limit. In the language of another parable, to one is given five pounds, to another two, and to another one — to each according to his several ability. But the thought that sustains us beneath the burden of these weary questions is that the Judge of all the earth shall assuredly do right. Men's opportunities are the measure of their responsibilities. "To whom men have committed much, of him will they ask the more." The bitter murmur and passionate complaint are checked by the old words, "Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why hast Thou made me thus?" The poorest and the humblest may find comfort in the thought that if his work be done faithfully and truly, if he sees in the gifts which he has received, and the outward circumstances of his life, and the work to which they lead him, but the tokens of the purpose of the great Designer, he, too, yielding himself as clay to the hands of the potter, may become in the least honoured work, a vessel of election. What is required in such a vessel when formed or fashioned is, above all, that it should be clean and whole, free from the taint that defiles, from the flaws that mar the completeness of form or the efficiency of use. The work of each soul of man is to seek this consecration, to flee the youthful lusts, the low ambitions, the inner baseness, which desecrate and debase. Our comfort is, that in so striving, we are fellow workers with the great Work-Master. Our prayer to Him may well be that He will not despise what His own hands have made.
Parallel VersesKJV: The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,