“The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”Jeremiah 18:4
We start with playdough, as kids, molding shapes with our hands: a dog, a chair, a dinosaur, if we’re ambitious, a whole scene—little people on a little field with a tiny soccer ball. I’m remembering my own childhood here, sitting at the kitchen table, lost in my imagination, my sculpted figures coming alive before my eyes.
My parents packed my summers with every class offered by the city’s parks and recs department, including pottery, where I’d try to learn how to use the wheel, to figure out how to throw a bowl, to craft a mug, just the basics, which are not basic at all. The clay felt like it had a mind of its own, spinning on that wheel, but when I’d press into the soft clay a little too hard, and the bowl would lose it’s shape and get all wonky—when the clay would collapse in my hands, it would have been a bit of a stretch to blame the material, to say that the clay spoiled itself in my hands.
On a first glance, it seems like that’s how Jeremiah sees this situation at the potter’s house—the problem with the creation on the pottery wheel is not the fault of the potter’s hands. But the phrasing is more ambiguous than that.
The verb is in the passive voice, carefully phrased to skirt around the blame game. “The clay was spoiled.” Other translations use the word “marred”—“the clay was marred in the potter’s hand.” If you wanted to get into the intricacies of the Hebrew grammar, the verb is a niphal, which is translated into English with either the passive or reflexive voice. So either the clay was marred by an unnamed someone or something (that’s the passive voice), or the clay marred itself (that’s the reflexive voice).
There’s a mystery in this scene in the potter’s house, a mystery unanswered in the grammar: Who is to blame for the spoiled clay, the marred creation on the wheel? I get how all of this might be a bit nerdy, with all of this attention to the details of the grammar on the page—but this has everything to do with how we understand ourselves as creatures, as creatures in God’s hands, formed from the clay of the earth, and where we turn when things go wrong, when our lives fall apart, when society crumbles. Do we blame the potter? The wheel? The clay? An invisible force?
This same image pops up in the book of Job, where he uses it to confront God about the tragedy of his life. “Your hands,” Job confronts God, “Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me. Remember that you fashioned me like clay?” (Job 10:9). Job’s life, marred with tragedy, was formed in God’s hands. If God created his life, then God should be able to recreate it, to make it anew—God as the potter who throws us on the wheel of life, reworking the clay, always reforming us. The prophet Isaiah has the same image for God: “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8).
When Jeremiah visits the potter’s house, when watches as the clay first collapses on the wheel, then as that same clay is made again into a different form, Jeremiah interprets all of this as a call to repentance. “Turn now, all of you from your evil ways, and amend your ways and your doings” (18:11).
The clay is misshapen at first, but that doesn’t mean the clay is worthless, that the clay needs to be thrown away. The clay is still good, it just needs to ready itself to be reworked into another shape, a form perhaps more suitable for the kind of clay that it is.
That’s the good news here: that, no matter what’s become of our lives, no matter the we’ve done to ourselves, no matter what’s been done to us—the good news is that the clay is still good, that there’s nothing wrong with it, the good news is that God has created us as good, that the goodness of God is our nature, that God is at work molding us into who we are intended to be.
Repentance is how we say yes to God’s vision for our lives—to let go of all the ways we try to be something we are not, to release our grip on visions for life that aren’t good for us, visions that aren’t good for our neighbors, and instead entrust ourselves into God’s care, to trust that God will remake us and our world with the goodness we need. Jeremiah’s prophecy about the potter’s house is a word of judgment, a call to say no to what causes destruction in our lives and in our communities, in order to say yes to God’s goodness, to say yes to God’s grace.
That’s what church life is all about—this here, what we do with out lives together, our worship and fellowship, our potlucks and outings, our hospitality and public witness, our lifelong education in patience as we learn how to love each other, to delight in the goodness we share together, to experience the gift of joy in the company of others: all of this is our potter’s wheel, how we are being thrown together, shaped into a vessel to hold God’s life for anyone who needs it, living water, not only for ourselves but for anyone who needs grace in their lives.
I gave up on pottery, on the classes I took when I was young, but my sister didn’t. She has kept it up over the years. Her cupboards are filled with the dishes she’s made, mugs and plates and bowls. Each one uniquely beautiful, and useful. This ancient art of a potter’s wheel has always had a purpose: to make vessels, bowls and cups, dishes for ordinary and sacred use, for eating, for meals, for serving guests in homes and for serving the gods in religious rituals.
That’s what the anthropologists teach us. And that’s what helps us make sense of this scene in Jeremiah, in the potter’s house, with the clay and wheel. We are like the clay, being formed in the hands of God, made into a vessel with a purpose—to love, to offer God’s love, to overflow with God’s love for the world.
All of this sounds like such serious business. The serious art of pottery, of the clay and the wheel, the folding and stretching and reforming, the spinning and spinning and spinning, which is a pretty good description of life. When I picture the scene in the potter’s house, where Jeremiah sees the craftsman at the pottery wheel, I imagine the joy and intensity of a child, the delight of making something beautiful. I imagine the Christ child, Emmanuel, God with us, the Creator at a kitchen table, crafting wild wonders, with clay, with us—pure joy at what we’ve become.