Opening The Old Testament
Cracked Pots I Have Known and Loved: Reflections on Jeremiah 18:1-11
"The vessel (object) of clay he was making was smashed by the potter's hand; he started again and made another vessel precisely as it seemed good for him to make" (Jer. 18:4). I have only once tried to "throw" a pot, and was frankly a rank failure. However, I have witnessed those who could genuinely do this art well, and the description here is quite accurate. Regularly, the potter makes a mistake of one sort or another while the clay is being molded on the spinning table of the wheel. Either his hand is too forceful or her hand slips and cuts into the clay or there is too much or too little water used to soften the clay to make it malleable. Starting over is a common act of any potter using a wheel.
And so it is with YHWH. "Am I not able to do to you exactly as this potter has done, house of Israel, a saying of YHWH? Look! Like clay in the potter's hand are you in my hand, house of Israel. On the one hand, I will say concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will pluck up, break down, annihilate! Yet, if that nation that I spoke of should turn from its evil, then I might change my mind about the evil that I intended to do to it" (Jer. 18:6-8). YHWH is just like the potter, having full control over the fate of the pot, Israel. Like the potter, YHWH can start again on the pot Israel after breaking it down. Of course, unlike the pot, Israel still has the opportunity to change its ways of evil that might then lead to YHWH's change of heart, sparing the nation after all.
"On the other hand, I will say concerning a nation or kingdom that I will build and plant, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I might change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it" (Jer. 18:9-10). The contrary divine thing might happen, too. YHWH may have decided to build and plant a nation, but if that nation goes bad, then building and planting might become annihilation after all.
The lesson of the potter is clear enough. YHWH is sovereign over Israel as the potter is sovereign over the clay and is able to do whatever she determines to do. The chief difference, and it is a most important one, is that Israel, we, have the chance to do better, once we know that YHWH is sovereign.
Nevertheless, there is a large problem here theologically, I think. If I do better, then God will be nice with me? If I do poorly, then God will rebuke me for my evil? It is of course not always so easy as all that, is it? The book of Job made that crystal clear not too many years after Jeremiah's prophecy. Then what to do with this old and disreputable theology? Is it all to be simply thrown out?
Perhaps not. Focus instead on the pot, the common easily cracked pot. We are then the cracked pots of God. Paul redeemed this image for me in 2 Corinthians 4:7 when he said "we have this treasure in clay jars," in effect the crackable pots of Jeremiah. And what does Paul mean by "this treasure"? This treasure is the fact that we do not "proclaim ourselves" but focus only on God and on Jesus Christ whom God has sent. In this light, the parable of the pots is less about the ability of God to respond to our good or evil acts, than it is about God choosing us to contain the gospel, despite the fact that we too often do evil acts and despite the fact that we are all finally cracked pots! Nevertheless, God has chosen us to be vessels of God's gospel. We are God's cracked pots, and that is a grand and wonderful and mysterious thing indeed!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.