God told prophet Jeremiah to pay a visit to the potter and promised to give him a message there (Jeremiah 18:1-12). If you have ever watched a potter at work, you know the fascination of someone throwing a lump of clay on a pottery wheel, quickly fashioning a rough bowl, cup, vase, or other object from it, and then laboring over that shape for a long time to get it just right. Actually, there is only one difference between the potter of Jeremiah's time and modern potters. He had to turn the wheel with a foot treadle. Now they use electricity. But they still work the spinning clay with their hands.
Jeremiah's message about the potter
So Jeremiah dropped in on the potter, who started out to make something. After a while, he didn't like how it was turning out and smashed the clay back into a shapeless lump. Had I been watching, I might have assumed that he would start over to try the same thing again. Jeremiah may have thought so, too. The potter had other ideas. The next time around, he started something else entirely.
Jeremiah recognized God's message immediately. God chose the house of Israel as his own people and worked tirelessly to build them up as a shining example to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, like the clay that made the potter start over, Israel had proved intractable. The more God called them to repentance and holiness, the more determined they became to sin.
If the potter had the right to start over and use the same lump of clay for a new project, then certainly God had the same right. He could destroy his first work and make something else. And that, as Jeremiah constantly proclaimed, is exactly what he planned to do.
That doesn't sound much like grace, does it? It sounds like God' message to Israel is, "Do as I say and I'll be nice to you, but if you make me mad, I'll wipe you out." At best, it looks like God intends to treat his people according to what they deserve, where grace is undeserved favor. Yet the constant theme of my blog Grace and Judgment is this: God judges sin harshly, but every threat of judgment contains the offer of grace. Here, repentant sinners are still sinners, and God announces his intention to treat such as if they had not sinned. Viewed that way, Jeremiah's lesson from the potter is as full of grace as it is of judgment.
Paul's message about the potter
We find more lessons from the potter in Romans 9:21-24. (I'm looking at NKJV as I write this.) People seem to find that whole chapter troubling. In the first eight chapters, Paul develops the breathtakingly novel concept of justification by faith: no one can be good enough to earn God's favor, but anyone can receive favor as a gift simply by believing in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Then in Romans 9, he seems to take it all back. That chapter's message is that God is sovereign and can choose whatever he wants. Misreading that chapter has led to a lot of wrong teaching about the meaning of predestination.
Looking at only the verses about pottery can help clear up Paul's meaning, but we must take the real workings of an ancient pottery shop into account. First Paul says that a potter can choose to make a vessel of honor or a vessel of dishonor from the same lump of clay. Does that mean God makes people for dishonor? Hardly.
Any ancient household needed at least one large pot to transport fresh water from the well to the house. That water would be used to provide drinking water for the family and their visitors. It would provide water for cleaning and bathing. Perhaps because it appeared in public and contained water useful for so many tasks, it was called a vessel of honor.
Just as the house had no running water and therefore required pottery to transport clean water, it had no drains or sewer connections. What could the household do with the water that had been used for cleaning or bathing? Or with yesterday's stale drinking water? They needed another pot to hold the discarded, useless water—a vessel of dishonor. There was nothing dishonorable about the pot, just the dirty, stinky water that it held. Both vessels were equally necessary to run the household. Neither could do the work of the other.
Next, Paul asks rhetorical questions about what God could do to show his wrath and its power or to demonstrate the riches of his glory. Paul said he would bear patiently with "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" or lavish riches on "vessels of mercy . . . prepared beforehand for glory." God does not make people so he can take his wrath out on them any more than a potter makes a pot in order to destroy it. I believe that the word Paul wanted to emphasize in v. 22 is patience, not wrath.
Think back to the process of making pottery. In the course of a day's work, the potter will make many different objects. At the end of the day, not one of them is useful for any purpose. They must spend the night baking in a hot kiln. The next morning, the potter takes them from the kiln and inspects his handiwork. Most are successfully finished products, but maybe one or two cracked.
Here's where the patience comes in. The potter makes cement by mixing blood from a particular insect with ground up pottery and repairs the crack, but the pot must be baked again. The next morning, it's probably fit to put out for sale, but maybe it cracked again. That requires more cement and another night in the oven. Maybe it cracks again. How many times will the potter repair the same pot?
Eventually his patience runs out and he throws it against the wall to smash it in pieces. That's when it becomes a vessel of wrath. Was it prepared for the purpose of destroying it? Of course not. But if it couldn't be prepared for any useful purpose, then it had been prepared for destruction.
Destruction is not the same as damnation. In Jerusalem, the town dump was called Gehenna. That became one of the New Testament words for hell. If the potter intended to take his perpetually cracked pot to the dump, it would have been easier to transport it whole. He smashed it against the wall in order to get some use out of it. Shards of broken pottery have many uses, including grinding them to a powder to mix with that insect blood to make cement for fixing other cracked pots.
Just as the potter redeems the vessel of wrath for some other purpose besides what he originally intended, God intends to redeem whomever and whatever he must destroy in his wrath.
That leaves us with the vessel of mercy. Jews, at least, were required to perform ritual hand washing before prayer and before meals. When they traveled away from home, it was difficult to fulfill that requirement. Fortunately, Jewish communities provided small jugs of clean water for that very purpose. I understand that rural Arab communities continued the same practice until at least as recently as sixty years ago.
Is the vessel of mercy, then, spiritually someone God chooses before hand to glorify? Again, no. A little jug became a vessel of mercy because of the use to which its owner put it. God will, of course, use the person who displays mercy in order to display the riches of his own glory. In the process, this vessel of mercy receives reflected glory.
God has absolute sovereign choice over all creation. Superficial reading of some scriptures might make it seem as if God exercises his sovereignty like a bully. Any more careful reading of these same scriptures makes his message crystal clear. God sovereignly chooses to pour out grace and mercy on all his works. He chooses redemption, not condemnation, even for vessels of wrath. Is there, then, hell? Yes, but God never chooses to send anyone there. Hell is merely the only place God's staunch enemies can go in order to get away from him.