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The Divine Potter
What did the potter do? "I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred [spoiled] in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it." He did not consult the clay; he acted upon his own judgment, he carried out his own will. "Whilst I was looking on the word of heaven came swiftly to my soul, and said, Cannot I the Lord do with you, O house of Israel, as this potter has done with the clay?" That is an inquiry which may force itself by pressure of event and by tragedy of experience upon us all. Am I clay in the hands of the divine Potter? The Bible does not say so: yet apparently this is the very thing that it does say. The context does not teach us that God is speaking about the individual man, or about personal salvation, or about the eternal destiny of the individual soul: the Lord is speaking about nations, empires, kingdoms, vessels which he only can handle. Moreover, he himself descends into reasoning, and therefore he gives up the arbitrary power or right, if he ever claimed it. He bases his action upon the conduct of the nation spoken about. So his administration is not arbitrary, despotic, independent, in any sense that denies the right of man to be consulted, or that undervalues the action of man as a moral agent. The potter did not reason with the clay: God did reason with Israel. The analogy, therefore, can only be useful up to a given point; never overdrive any metaphor; always distinguish between the purpose of the parable, its real substance, and its accessories, its incidental draperies and attachments. We may miss the meaning if we seek for it in the wrong place: the question should always be, What does this author want to express? what is this poet speaking about? to what conclusion would this reasoner conduct us? Then, as to the accessory incident, colouring, and the like, let all these fall into their proper place; they contribute somewhat towards the general effect: but the question which we ought to put to ourselves, in justice to our own mental culture as well as in justice to the claims of the author, is, What is the meaning of this book, poem, argument, or exhortation?
Let us take the inquiry in its crudest and most ruthless form. Can we not do with a man as this man does with the clay? The answer is in a sense yes, in a larger sense no. Many inquiries can only be answered by a double reply. The men who would force us to a sharp yes or no are playing a trick upon us; they want to lay a trap for the unwary. No great question in life can be answered by a definite yes or no. As to mere matters of fact we can be very positive; but where the fact at all touches the line of reasoning, and where the fact is to be accounted for by processes of reasoning, then we must recognise the atmosphere as well as the naked event. As a matter of power, crudely defined, God can do with us as the potter does with the clay: but God himself has introduced a new element into power; he is no longer in relation to the soul simply and merely omnipotent, he has made himself a party. In so treating himself he exercised all his attributes. He need not have done so, but having done so he never shrinks from the conditions which he has created and which he has imposed. Observe, he does not give up any part of his sovereignty. In the first instance he created man, devised a great scheme and ministry of things: all this was done sovereignly; it was not man that was consulted as to his own creation, it was the Triune God that said, "Let us make man." The Lord then, having thus acted from the point of his sovereignty, has himself created a scheme of things within which he has been pleased to work as if he were a consenting and co-operating party.
This can easily be made clear. If it were a question of desert, then the Lord could surely throw us away. There is none righteous, no, not one: all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way: there is not a man that doeth good, and sinneth not. If it were a question of law-breaking, a question of trespass, and direct offence against the spirit of holiness, then no man could live were God to arise in judgment. But we are not dealing with a question of power or of desert, but with a question of moral right. God never claims the right to destroy any man against that man's will. On that assertion we base the whole philosophy of what may be called the evangelical theology. Find an instance if you can to the contrary. The record is open and is written in our mother tongue. When did God say, By the exercise of a potter's right I will break you, the soul, in pieces, although you want to be preserved and saved? When did Jesus Christ ever say to any man, You want to be saved, but I do not want to save you; I doom you to everlasting alienation from the throne of light and the sceptre of mercy? Never. The right to create never gives the right to destroy. It is questionable whether there is any right in destruction; it must rather be the realisation of a consequence happily necessary, than the infliction of a destructive blow. Hell is in the sin; hell is in the poison you drank; hell is in the deed of shame.
May not a man, changing the level of inquiry, do what he likes with his own? No. Society says no; law says no; the needful security without which progress is impossible says no. Yet we must define what is meant by "can" and "may" and "cannot." These words are not simple terms. The word "can" may be one of the largest words in the language; the word "cannot" may hide within its dissyllables all the philosophy of necessity, free-will, and all the attributes and elements which constitute the mystery which is called man. There are various kinds of power; the word "can" or "cannot" will apply to any one of them, but the word "can" or "cannot" must be defined in its applications and within its own atmosphere, and not on the pages of a dictionary. Yet, if you put the inquiry again, Cannot a man do what he likes with his own? we might say, Yes: first he must show that he has something that is his own. That has never been shown yet. We have nothing that is our own. If there were only one man in all the world, he might possibly in a secondary sense have something that was his own; but the moment the man is pluralised his right is divided, modified, fixed to the extent of the plurality. Then in the use of the word "can" we always come upon the farther word "cannot" at the same time. You can and you cannot, in one act. Why, how is that? Is not that a simple contradiction of terms? No, that statement, though apparently paradoxical, is one, and admits of easy reconciliation in both its members. If it were a question of mere power of physical ability, as we have often seen in our study of this Bible, we can do many things: but where are we at liberty simply to use ability or power in its most simple definition? Power is a servant; power is not an independent attribute that can do just what it likes: power says, What shall I do? I am an instrument, I am a faculty, but I am intended by the Sovereign of the universe to be a servant the servant of judgment and conscience and duty and social responsibility. Power stands in an attitude of attention, awaiting the orders of conscience. You can, as we have often said, as a matter of simple ability, set fire to your house, yet you cannot: why do you not burn down these premises? You could do so: here are the lights, there is a handful of gunpowder, there an ounce of dynamite: why do you not blow up the house? You cannot. You can. Yes: you can, and you cannot. What keeps you back? Something invisible. God is invisible: no man hath seen God at any time. What restrains you? Spiritual power. Yet you are a materialist! What spiritual power? Reason: you have never seen it, weighed it, taken its dimensions, ascertained the velocity of its motion; reason solemn, stern, gracious, all but divine reason keeps you back. Why, you are almost a spiritual believer! Here you have two great invisible forces operating upon you, and you respond to the operation. Looking at your hand and at your resources you say you can; listening to reason you say you cannot As a mere matter of dependent ability, probably many of you could wind up your business tomorrow morning, and dispose of it and leave it for ever. Have you the right to do so? You say you have. Is it a freehold? You say so. You can then get rid of it if you wish to do so: why do you not? You cannot. Why cannot you? Because of your wife, your children, your responsibilities, your future. It is not easy to commit even commercial suicide. A man must be a madman before he can put the razor to his throat. Yet the hand is strong, and the razor is ready and the throat is bare; the man could "his own quietus make with a bare bodkin." Yet he cannot: because this same majestic, tranquil reason says, Your life is not your own. Mere power therefore is one thing, mere ability, and it is a faculty that never ought to be exercised in itself, by itself, for itself. It must be always worked in consent, in union, in co-operation. I repeat, power great, self-boasting power must obey orders. "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God."
God has made man what he is, and therefore God must treat man as he is. God is not changeable, fickle; God proceeds upon lines of reason. It has pleased God to enshrine his ministry amongst men in all the attributes and forms of reason. God acknowledges that he made man by the very way in which he consults man: "Come now, let us reason together." What is your case? state the position, let me hear your arguments: oh, poor withered perverse soul, talk out all thy bad logic, it will do thee good to get rid of it in words: come now, let us reason together. God cannot deny his own work, he never has done so. God made man intelligent, and therefore he appeals to human intelligence; God made man responsible, and therefore he demands from man an answer based upon reason. God made man redeemable, and therefore he came out to seek and to save man. The whole scheme of God, so far as it is dimly outlined amid the clouds of time, shows that the Lord has ever honoured man. How could he do otherwise? He made man in his own image and likeness. The flesh was almost part of God when it was first made: "no man," then not God, "ever hated his own flesh; but nourished it and cherished it, even as the Lord the church." When God and man stand face to face, for a moment there is a flash of light that seems like equality. Sometimes, for one bright glittering moment, man is almost like his Maker.
May not a man do what he likes with his own? What is his own? Not his child. He says, This child is my own; we say, Yes and No. Once more we come upon the double reply. Every child has two fathers. There is a little measurable, individual father, and there is the greater father called Society: may we not recognise a third, and say, there is the Father in heaven? Your child cannot speak, and yet you cannot do with it what you like; your child has no will, no opened judgment, and yet you cannot do with the child as you please. Society has taken its name, and its age, and the eyes of Society are upon that child night and day, and if you slew it at midnight you would have to answer for its blood at midday. What is your own? What hast thou that thou hast not received? What is this mystery of proprietorship? And what part of it do you hold? the land, or the landscape? the deeds, or the poetry? You may possibly be allowed to do what you like with your own when you get it.
Here, then, we rest, in presence of this great doctrine of divine sovereignty in relation to man. We may search the Bible from beginning to end to find that the sovereignty of God ever said to a man, I will not save you when you want to be saved, and we shall find no such instance in the record. With regard to nations, it is perfectly evident from the face of things that there is a Power that is placing nations where they are, and working up the great national unit to great national ends. We are not born where we would like to be born; we cannot have our own way as nations, saying, We will leave this region of ice, and go to a region of eternal sunshine. Nations cannot follow the sun. An individual may follow the strawberries all the year round, but a nation cannot. God has always had as it were a double policy, and it is because we have confounded the one policy with the other that we have been all our lifetime subject to bondage through fear lest God may have predestined us to hell. He never predestined any man to such a place. He predestined unrighteousness to hell, and nothing can ever get it into heaven; into that city nothing shall enter that is unholy, impure, defiled, or that maketh a lie. Eternity has never been at peace with wickedness. The infinite tranquillity of immeasurable and inexpressible duration has never been reconciled to one act of trespass, one deed of violence, one thought of wrong. Thy universe, O God, fights with thee against all unholiness: but neither God nor his universe fights against the sinner who wishes to get rid of his sin; then all the stars help him, all nature says, Poor child, take what light I can give thee on the right road: and a voice in the wind says, Follow the footprints of the flowers, for all those footprints lead up to paradise: and then a great voice from heaven, great in its stillness, great in its subtle mystery of energy, says to the soul, Hope thou in God: behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world; come, I will show thee Calvary, I will show thee the Cross, and read thee the writing that is upon it, for there is another superscription upon the wood than that written by Pilate; come let us study together at Golgotha, and I will read off to thee all the eloquence of love, all the music of mercy, I will show thee the heart of God. "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God;" let no man say, I am an outcast; let no man reason that if he is to be saved he will be saved. He never reasons so about things which are nearer at hand. Why will he not carry up his common-sense to its noblest and broadest applications, and show that his reason is still a light within him to. light him to higher heights, and not a dim lantern to light him down to some underground cellar where there is nothing but darkness and nothing but imprisonment? You know that you have not your own consent when you say that God does not mean you to be saved. You know in the depth of your consciousness that you are telling a lie. You know that the contrary view would fall more rhythmically into all the movement of nature of providence and grace. I charge you, before God and his holy angels, that you know this. Obey the impulse of this holy knowledge!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 18". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13