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Go down to the potter’s house.
The potter and the clay
(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. (Dean Plumptre.)
Man in the hands of God
I. Man in the hand of God as morally defective.
1. Humanity throughout all ages and climes has been defective--
(1) In moral judgment;
(2) In moral affections, and
(3) In moral conduct.
2. How this defection occurred is a question that lands us into the mysterious region whence evil sprang.
II. Man in the hands of God as morally improvable.
1. God can improve the “marred” vessel of humanity.
(1) He can emotionally. He has the heart for it. He is great enough in love to forgive the past, and bless the future.
(2) He can magisterially. The mediation of Christ enables Him to do so in a way consistent with the justice of His character, the honour of His government, and the stability of His throne.
(3) He can reformatively. He has all the moral instrumentality necessary to reform the soul.
2. The Gospel is the power of God.
III. Man in the hands of God as morally free.
1. Man is responsible for his conduct. The social history of the world, the universal consciousness of man, and the concurrent teachings of the Bible all show this.
2. Man is responsible for his destiny. Humanity will be “plucked up,” and “pulled down” by God, or built up and planted according to its conduct. (Homilist.)
The potter and the day
I. Every man naturally engendered of the offspring of Adam, is, in the sight of an all-seeing, heart-searching God, only as a piece of marred clay.
1. As man was created originally “after God in knowledge,” as well as righteousness and true holiness, we may rationally infer that his understanding, in respect to things natural as well as Divine, was of a prodigious extent: for he was made but a little lower than the angels, and consequently, being like them, excellent in his understanding, he knew much of God, of himself, and all about him; and in this, as well as every other respect, was, as Mr. Collier expresses it in one of his essays, a perfect major: but this is far from being our case now. Men of low and narrow minds soon commence wise in their own conceits; and having acquired a little smattering of the learned languages, and made some small proficiency in the dry sciences, are easily tempted to look upon themselves as a head taller than their fellow mortals, and accordingly, too, too often put forth great swelling words of vanity. But persons of a more exalted and extensive reach of thought dare not boast. No: they know that the greatest scholars are in the dark in respect to many even of the minutest things in life.
2. This will appear yet more evident, if we consider the perverse bent of his will. Being made in the very image of God; undoubtedly before the fall, man had no other will but his Maker’s. God’s will, and Adam’s, were then like unisons in music. There was not the least disunion or discord between them. But now he hath a will as directly contrary to the will of God, as light is contrary to darkness, or heaven to hell.
3. A transient view of fallen man’s affections will yet more firmly corroborate this melancholy truth. These, at his being first placed in the paradise of God, were always kept within proper bounds, fixed upon their proper objects, and, like so many gentle rivers, sweetly, spontaneously, and habitually glided into their ocean, God: but now the scene is changed; for we are now naturally full of vile affections, which, like a mighty and impetuous torrent, carry all before them.
4. The present blindness of natural conscience makes this appear in a yet more glaring light. In the soul of the first man Adam, conscience was, no doubt, the candle of the Lord, and enabled him rightly and instantaneously to discern between good and evil, right and wrong. And, blessed be God! some remains of this are yet left; but, alas! how dimly does it burn, and how easily and quickly is it covered, or put out and extinguished.
5. Nor does that great and boasted Diana, I mean unassisted, unenlightened Reason, less demonstrate the justness of such an assertion. The horrid and dreadful mistakes which the most refined reasoners in the heathen world ran into, both as to the object as well as manner of Divine worship, have sufficiently demonstrated the weakness and depravity of human reason: nor do our modem boasters afford us any better proofs of the greatness of its strength, since the best improvement they generally make of it is only to reason themselves into downright wilful infidelity, and thereby reason themselves out of eternal salvation. Need we now any further witness that man, fallen man, is altogether a piece of marred clay?
6. But this is not all, we have yet more evidence to call; for do the blindness of our understandings, the perverseness of our will, the rebellion of our affections, the corruption of our consciences, the depravity of our reason, prove this charge; and does not the present disordered frame and constitution of our bodies confirm the same also? Doubtless in this respect, man, in the most literal sense of the word, is a piece of marred clay: for God originally made him of the “dust of the earth.”
II. The absolute necessity there is of this fallen nature’s being renewed. Archimedes once said, “Give me a place where I may fix my foot, and I will move the world”; so, without the least imputation of arrogance, with which perhaps he was justly chargeable, we may venture to say, Grant the foregoing doctrine to be true, and then deny the necessity of man’s being renewed, who can. I suppose I may take it for granted that all hope after death to go to a place which we call heaven. But permit me to tell you, heaven is rather a state than a place; and consequently, unless you are previously disposed by a suitable state of mind, you could not be happy even in heaven itself. For what is grace, but glory militant? what is glory, but grace triumphant? This consideration made a pious author say, that “holiness, happiness, and heaven, were only three different words for one and the self-same thing.” And this made the great Preston, when he was about to die, turn to his friends, saying, “I am changing my place, but not my company.” To make us meet to be blissful partakers of such heavenly company, this “marred clay,” I mean these depraved natures of ours, must necessarily undergo a universal moral change our understandings must be enlightened; our wills, reason, and consciences, must be renewed; our affections must be drawn toward, and fixed upon things above; and because flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven, this corruptible must put on incorruption, this mortal must put on immortality. Christ hath said it, and Christ will stand. “Unless a man,” learned or unlearned, high or low, though he be a master of Israel as Nicodemus was, unless he “be born again, he cannot see, he cannot enter into, the kingdom of God.” If it be required, Who is to be the potter? and by whose agency this marred day is to be formed into another vessel? Or in other words, if it be asked, how this great and mighty change is to be effected? I answer, not by the mere dint and force of moral suasion. Neither is this change to be wrought by the power of our own free-will. We might as soon attempt to stop the ebbing and flowing of the tide, and calm the most tempestuous sea, as to imagine that we can subdue, or bring under proper regulations, our own unruly wills and affections by any strength inherent in ourselves. And therefore I inform you, that this heavenly Potter, this blessed Agent, is the Almighty Spirit of God the Holy Ghost, the Third Person in the most adorable Trinity, co-essential with the Father and the Son. This is that fire which our Lord came to send into our earthly hearts, and which I pray the Lord of all lords to kindle in every unrenewed one this day. (G. Whitefield, M. A.)
A visit to the potter’s house
I. Mind originates power. The work is a work on the wheels; but the power begins with the workman; it is spirit that presides, it is will that controls; an intelligent being makes use of the power he has set in motion to fashion his design. The perfect type is in the mind of the workman, and he must give it form and shape, and impress it on matter. All power originates with God, and is under His control.
II. Divine patience is associated with Divine power. You do not see in the potter at work what God can do if it pleases Him, but what it pleases Him to do; not what He may do with the clay, but what His purpose is. We are taught the intention of the Divine worker to mould men and nations according to a Divine pattern, that there is nothing arbitrary in His procedure; that every act is regulated by a reference to His plan, and that Divine patience is constantly and perseveringly at work.
III. Divine patience perseveres in the accomplishment of its design. How often have you been marred through want of submission to a perfect and loving will, manifested in God’s providential dealings with you or in His Gospel? The clay may be broken so often that it loses all its adhesive properties, and when placed on the wheels may splinter into fragments and become utterly worthless.
1. There is a fixed and settled plan, an original idea in the Divine mind, according to which His work is to be conformed. “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning.” Man is God’s work. God found in Himself the pattern of this wondrous creation. He made man in His own image, in His own likeness. Man was a failure; the world therefore was a failure, and the flood was brought in, and the work destroyed. There was to be a new manifestation of humanity. Men were to be distributed into families and tribes, into nations and kingdoms. We are “predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son.” We are to be “like Him”: our bodies are “to be fashioned like unto His glorious body.” There is a perfect type of society. There is to be the universal diffusion of truth and righteousness. There is a perfect type of a Church.
2. God does not make anything for the sole purpose of destroying it. See the interest God takes in what is going on in the world, and the effect it has on Him.
3. That there is no waste in life. There is no waste in nature. There was in Christ’s miracles no waste of power. There is no waste in human life. That part of it which is introductory to the rest, which we call childhood, is not waste; it has its relations to the rest of life. That portion which is tried and tested, which is subjected to many experiments, is not waste. The sorrows and tears of life are not the waste of life--toil, strife, agony, are not lost. All these things that seem to fall from life, are worked up again into new forms. Life may be a marred and broken thing, but God can work it up into a form of Divine beauty.
4. Life is a “work on the wheels.” Character is in the course of formation: it will come out either marred or perfected, just as you submit to the Divine will, or resist the influences brought to bear upon you. (H. J. Boris.)
Such was the invitation which came to me as I spent a holiday among the potteries of North Staffordshire.
1. The preparation of the clay. In my ignorance I had thought very lightly of that. I supposed that the clay was brought from some place or other, and, after being kneaded, would be used for the purpose of the potter. But as we looked over the various processes, several things astonished us very much in this preparation of the clay. In the first place, we were astonished at the materials used. There was, of course, the clay as we understand it, but in addition we found stones of the very hardest description and flints also used. In one factory some eight or ten mills did nothing else but grind to the very smallest powder these hard flint stones mixed with the clay. And then these ground flint stones were further churned with water until it became a fluid mass. Another interesting feature was the straining, and the use of magnets to extract any iron that might be there. At last it was run into bags placed under a press and the water squeezed out, and the clay left behind. It was then turned out as plastic clay for the potter’s use. We often speak of the potter and the clay, and we are warranted by the Scriptures to use this simile for the sovereignty of God. And, no doubt, we must hold fast the eternal sovereignty of God. But I am not quite sure that we do not see here the process anterior to what we speak of as the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God is shown in the form of the vessel made from the clay, but here we have something anterior to the making of the vessel--the preparation of the clay. And while we believe in the sovereignty of God, we also believe that salvation is perfectly free. Your heart may be as hard as a flint, or without any stamina as that liquid mass, and yet it is quite possible from that hard flinty rock, or from that fluid liquid mass, to make the clay which shall be plastic for the Potter’s use. Are you willing to be made clay?--willing to be just put into His hands?
2. The making of the vessels. Nothing could be more beautiful than to watch the skilful potter mould the clay upon his wheel until it became a beautiful vessel under his touch. Here I learnt what a great variety of vessels the potter made. Here were vessels which would adorn the tables of the rich, and also vessels necessary for the poor; here were vessels which might only be for ornaments, and others of the greatest practical use. Oh, if you are only willing to be as clay in the Great Potter’s hands, He is able to make you vessels meet for the Master’s use. The use may be very varied, and the vessels may differ in form and beauty, but if you are willing to be as clay in His hands, He will fashion you so that you may be a vessel for His glory, and for the benefit of those around you.
3. The varied processes to fix the shape of the vessels. Until the vessel was fired, the potter could break it up, as he did, and throw it back into the mass, but when once the vessel was fired, its shape and form were fixed. Two things about the firing interested me. The one was the gradual preparation that the vessel had to go through. I asked why it was necessary to dry it so slowly by steam first, before it was put into the great oven. I received the reply that if it was put into the oven at once, it would break. There must be the slow process of drying by steam. Ah! and is it not so with our Great Potter? Does He not gently train us? He does not put us into the fiery oven all at once. He prepares us by less difficult temptations for the fiery heat which we must all go through. Every man must pass through the fire in order that the stability of his own character may be brought out. God knows the amount of heat which is necessary, and He will not send one temptation more than we are able to bear. Another interesting thing in the firing was, that every vessel had to be separate from the others. They were packed up in the saggers so that not one single clay vessel should touch another. And the reason, they told us, was that the two vessels would be so fused in the fire that both would be spoilt. Is it not true with the great fiery oven through which the Great Potter passes us? We must pass through the fire alone.
4. Then we came to the decorative process. First, there was the making of the pattern. The pattern was made upon a copper plate, and then taken off upon the tracing paper and placed upon the plate. The pattern in many cases was very similar. One machine rolled off some millions of patterns. The Christian has only one pattern--the Lord Jesus Christ. It is His purpose that we should be conformed to His image. The next thing that struck us was the number of hands through which the pattern had to pass. An ordinary dinner plate had to pass through some ten or twelve different hands--one filling in one colour, and another another colour, until it passed down the whole line; one fining in a little stroke of blue, another red, another colouring a leaf, until at last the whole pattern was brought out upon the one plate. Is it not so with the Christian? The pattern must be the same, but the pattern is variously brought out. It may be a very different colour. We take our pattern from those we mix with day by day, and if we are only upon the lookout we may find many things to colour the pattern of Jesus Christ in our lives. Here we may colour with a little bit of unselfishness, here a little bit of charity, here a little bit of self-sacrifice. You may take from one and another impressions which will bring out the grand pattern. Another interesting thing was the firing in order to fix these colours. The vessel must be put into the kiln to fix the colours. There is intense scorching heat in there. And is it not so with the Great Potter? Does He not often put us Christians into the kiln in order to fix the colour? How many Christians you see who have had their colours fixed by adversity! This one’s love is brought out by trial; this one’s charity by temptation. Then came the last process. Once more the vessel is put into the kiln, and the fire brought to bear upon it, and then the colour and pattern come out still more glorious than before. The glaze is now dry, and the work of the potter now finished. And so ofttimes the Christian is plunged into despondency, losing all the evidences of his faith; is plunged once more into the fire; and in the fire he sees that there is One walking with Him, and His form is as the Son of God, and he sees the pattern is being brought out by the great Potter.
5. At last we were taken up to the showroom, and here were displayed all the triumphs of the potter’s art, and we could have spent hours in admiring the work of the potter. So we look forward to the show room when we leave all the dross of the workshop and the whirl of the factory; and when we ascend up to the showroom where we shall see the triumphs of the Great Potter’s art, we shall simply wonder that out of these stones and liquid clay it is possible to make such vessels as He has prepared for His glory. (E. A. Stuart, M. A.)
The teaching of the potter
Divine revelation is a possible thing only because of that great and earliest fact in the record of human history, “And God made man in His image,” a fact which nothing, not even sin, can destroy. God’s words to men are made possible and meaningful because of the fact that, in spite of rebellion and fall, there is enough deep, true kinship left to afford resting place for His appeal and interpretation of His speech. As long as spiritual being lasts, this must be true. Now proceed a further step. The method of communication is not a matter of essential importance. So long as I make you understand what I mean, the way in which I do this does not matter much. We meet with those who do not speak our language, or perhaps any tongue that we can speak and understand; but we find that some sufficient things can be said by signs. We can buy this or that by pointing to it, and showing the value in coin. There is one further step to take, and then we shall arrive at the position from which I want to look at the words of this text. The activities and occupations of men are full of resemblances to the activities of God. What we have to do, and are doing every day, illustrates much more fully than, perhaps, we have ever thought, what God is doing around us and within us; so that we may rise somewhat to comprehend His work in its grand patience and victory over hindrance and pauseless triumph, by means of a fuller understanding of our own. And, significantly enough, this is the more completely true of those occupations which are simple and manual, most necessary and least artificial, compelled by the wants which are common to us all, rather than of those which are the creation of empty social custom and artificial routine. The Divine word to Jeremiah, both in itself and in the manner of its communication to him, is strikingly suggestive. What was the word? Jeremiah had been a very faithful minister and messenger, and yet his endeavours had been unavailing to stay the torrent of national disaster. As a rock, staunch in midstream, only adds to the tumult of the waters that dash, and break, and hurry on their way, this man’s obedient and firm obstruction only made him to suffer the fretful wrath of the people, whose downward rush would not be stayed. It seemed as though he were a protest and nothing more. For the people there was nothing but hopeless ruin. God wants to show His servant that such despair is not true. What the people might have been they refused to be, but they might yet be something. What the potter does with the clay with which he works, the Lord can do with the men with whom He deals. What is that? Well, go down to the workman’s house and watch him. See the frame, and the wheels, and the mass of ready clay. See the man’s tutored hands and nimble fingers. He has purpose, ability, design. His power is complete. He can do what he likes. He can take the lump of clay in his hands and say, “This shall be a fair and stately vase fit to stand on the table of a king”; or, “This shall be a thing for common use, one among a thousand like itself, winning no regard or admiration, to be appraised at no appreciable value.” He can bid the clay be what he chooses. Can he? Let us see. Now the workman has put clay upon the wheel, and it begins to whirl; the beginning of the design is manifest, some outline of a shape appears under the touch of his plastic hand. But then comes a pause: something has gone wrong. Where is the fault? Not in the care and genius of the workman? Surely not in the clay? Yes, there is a flaw, a rebellious and intractable mingling of impurities, and the workman cannot do as he had purposed. What will the potter do? Toss the clay away? Clay is plentiful and cheap. No, not if the workman’s heart is right and his enthusiasm true. A fellow workman may say, “I would not trouble with it. No one can make anything of that piece; it is utterly useless.” But the right-souled man says, “I waste nothing, and despise nothing. I can make something of this clay if you cannot; and I shall make what can be made, if not what I hoped, at least the very best that is according to its nature possible.” “So he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it” (Jeremiah 18:4). And so can I do, says the cheery word to the prophet, so can I the Lord do with this apparently hopeless and intractable nation. With them, as with the piece of clay, there is a resolute, rebellious intermingling. They show themselves unworthy. They make themselves incapable of the high destiny among the nations to which My call would lead them. They must lose their crown. My purpose must be fulfilled in other ways, and by other instruments and ministries. But--and here speaks the heart of generous, patient love--I have not done with them. I shall do the very best that can be done with them, and put them in a place which they can fill. This is My pleasure anything short of it would be anguish. But, to do the possible best, even with the most unpromising material, is the object and aim of My redeeming hand. The right-hearted workman is like-minded of God, and, in his sphere, does an identical work. The man who makes two ears of corn grow where only one would grow before; the man who shapes wood, or beats and moulds metal into fashions of use, beneficence, and comeliness, is, besides all the wage-profit that his industry brings, doing a redemptive work that is akin to Divine. Industry, cleanliness, usefulness, beautifying labour--these are far more than means of livelihood, they are means of might and spiritual life. (D. J. Hamer.)
The relation of the will to character and destiny
The figure of the potter is of frequent occurrence in Scripture; and its meaning is the more easily understood, because there is scarcely any craft of which the principal tools have been less altered in the lapse of the centuries. The purposes for which the figure is used in the Bible may be arranged under two chief heads. In every case the power of the potter over the clay is emphasised. But while some passages stop with that fact,--that the potter’s power is absolute, without measure or limit, that he can do what he likes with the clay,--others teach distinctly that the potter is not ruled by his fancy or caprice, or by any momentary or arbitrary impulse, but the exercise of his power is itself determined by something, some quality or fitness, within the clay. Of these two lessons, the former is most frequent in Isaiah and in Paul, although other writers adopt or enforce it. That is the most obvious meaning of the figure, to be found in almost every literature, never to be forgotten by the reverent--the potter has complete command over the clay. He, at his wheel, is the symbol of power: the clay, of helplessness and necessary submission. There has probably never been a man who believed that more thoroughly than did Jeremiah. In this very chapter he represents God as saying to the house of Israel, “Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in Mine hand.” In his account of his own call, the prophet describes a Divine voice as speaking to him: “Before thou earnest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” He never hesitates in his ascription to God of the right and power of complete control over man, or to man of the necessity of submission and the obligation of obedience. But according to Jeremiah that is not a complete account of the relation, either of God to man, or of man to God. And in this chapter he uses the figure of the potter to show, on the one hand, that the potter’s power is not exercised arbitrarily, and on the other, that its exercise is determined, and even in some sense conditioned, by the clay itself.
1. With regard to the figure, it is in the particulars of the fourth verse that Jeremiah’s use of it differs from that of most other scriptural writers. As soon as the potter saw that the clay he was dealing with would not answer the purpose he had in view, with a slight touch of his hand he crushed it down into a shapeless heap of mud, began anew, and made it into “another vessel.” In other words, the potter’s treatment of the clay depends upon his knowledge or discovery of its qualities, its capability, or its faultiness. Or, dropping the figure, God does not always act upon and complete His first apparent design with a man; and any change of design on His part is determined by some adequate cause, which is always to be found in the man himself--in the way in which he exercises his freedom of will, or in the attitude in which he puts himself towards conscience, and duty, and truth. There has sometimes been a disposition, amongst nations and amongst individuals, to imagine that some moral character had been stamped indelibly upon them by God, and was permanent and unalterable, whatever they did. So far was Jeremiah from believing that, and so far is the Bible from teaching it, that it represents man’s will as in a sense entrusted with the supreme control over his spirit and over his destiny. The plastic skill and power of the Great Potter, in themselves immeasurable and without limit, are yet not applied arbitrarily, under the impulse of fancy or caprice, but depend at least for their direction upon the clay itself.
2. That truth is sometimes overlooked, or qualified, or even rejected. Some of the current philosophies deny it in theory, but, when pressed, will reluctantly acknowledge that consciousness can be quoted in its favour, or, as the greatest English psychologist of the day puts it, “The assumption of the freedom of the will is in a certain sense inevitable to anyone exercising rational choice.” In the Old Testament it is an especial favourite of Jeremiah’s, though not confined to him; and in this single paragraph he is not contented with the dubious form it assumes in the figure, but recurs to it once and again afterwards. When verse 14 is compared with the preceding verse, it becomes evident that the prophet wanted to point a contrast between the steadfastness of the phenomena and laws of nature, and the apparent fickleness of those of morals. To the one the eternal will of God which knows no change is central; to the other, the uncertain will of man. The forces that seem to play in the cloud forms and the winds, to move with slow rhythm in the solid structures of the ages, or with quick inapparent catastrophe and explosion, the life that modifies the cell and pulsates in a myriad forms through the universe--all simply fulfil their Sovereign’s will; and the only power, not in the same way subject to His rule, but permitted to rebel against Him, and to check and alter His purposes, is that of the personality or will of man. To that extent the Potter renounces His power over the clay, and the clay is allowed to determine the design of the Potter.
3. The same truth is put in a third way in verses 7-10. The inference evidently is, that neither God’s threats nor His promises are absolute, in the sense that they are incapable of diversion or of change. Every word that goes forth from His lips is of necessity law; but the nations, the individuals, are left at liberty to choose which of the words shall govern them, and the occasions of choice are more than one. It appears accordingly that men can actually, by their choice of evil or carelessness concerning right, frustrate God’s purposes or grace, just as by penitence and self-reform they can avert a doom that is impending. That is the word of the Lord by others than Jeremiah (Ezekiel 18:20-24). Nor does the New Testament reject such a lesson, which is in accordance further with the teaching of reason and with the fundamental conception of justice. There is no finality in God’s design for a man, until the man’s will has either frittered itself away, or hardened itself into invincibility. But by the attitude towards God into which men put themselves, they determine the pattern according to which His methods mould them, and every change of attitude on their part is quickly followed by its appropriate and necessary change of design. Nor is this modification of God’s design represented as confined to nations or communities. Jonah himself was called of God to be a prophet, but the action of his own will made him a sacrifice to appease the sea, until, when he willed better things, God’s plan for him changed back again. There is thus cumulative evidence, in Scripture, in history, in human experience, that God does not always act to the end upon His original design for a man, but that His designs are sometimes changed on account of something in the men themselves. What is that something? This chapter alone, to say nothing of teaching that abounds elsewhere, leaves no room for doubt. “If that nation turn from their evil,” is laid down with all emphasis in the eighth verse as the one condition upon which the modification of God’s purpose depends; and the most powerful and essential human factor in every act of moral turning is of necessity the will. The responsibility for a man’s character rests substantially, it would be hardly too much to say entirely, upon himself. It is a terrible responsibility, of which men have tried to rid themselves in many ways; but so long as human nature remains what it is, free to choose the right or the wrong, it is a responsibility which every man must face and every man must bear. God gives, in the conscience and by His Spirit, a clear revelation of what is right, and in His Son a source of strength that is sufficient for every duty. He gives opportunities, allurements, warnings without number; and having given those, ceaselessly present with us, His part in the formation of character may be said to be done. The man has then to determine, by the action of his own will, whether the law of perfecting or the law of perdition shall work in him. (R. W. Moss.)
The potter and the day
The whole revealed Word of God takes for granted, appeals to, and proceeds upon two facts: first, that nothing can proceed from God which is not like God; next, that man is a co-worker with God in the shaping out of his own destiny. The Bible is all quick with the great truth that man can escape from evil, and that the work to which the good God has, more than anything else, set Himself is to help him to escape. Even the heritage of misery and disease which a bad parent leaves to his child is--in God’s world--not so potent but that the child may rise above it.
I. Every human life is, first of all, an idea in the mind of God. The potter is an artist, and it is the thoughts of his head he embodies in the vessels he makes. He is thus a likeness to us of God. Such men as Bernard Palissy and Josiah Wedgwood did not spend their instructive lives only to make clayware for human use, but also to reveal to us, and enable us to understand, the working of the Divine Artist in the formation of human lives. Can you recall, you who have read Palissy’s life, the passionate eagerness with which he sought out beautiful forms in nature? Do you remember how his unresting brain toiled to make new combinations of colour and form? And with what unwearying zeal he sought to bring beauty and strength and polish into the vessels he made? It is all a far-off portrait of God. The human artist who never saw a wonderful conjunction of natural objects, of form and colour, in field or wood, without bringing it in straightway to his workshop in the brain, is but an outshadowing to us of the Divine Artist, and of the thought, the care, the skill, the beauty, which God expends on every life He makes. It is true that the Divine Artist has to work with inferior clay. He has to embody the thoughts of His creative mind in material that has been soiled by sin--flesh that has corrupted its way, and transmitted its taints and diseases and weaknesses to the children. But, all the same, the life and the outshaping of the life are the work of God. The gladsome fact, therefore, in the teaching of the potter and the clay, is that our lives are not shaped by accident; nor are the materials of our life combined by blind chance. My personality, as truly as my body, is the work of His hands. But here is my joy. In this very fact I have a ground of appeal to God. When my spirit is overwhelmed by the mysteries of existence, or my way hedged up by moral difficulties, which I have in myself no strength to overcome, I can go to Him and say: “O Maker of my being, O Planner out of my lot, Thou faithful Creator, I am poor and needy: wilt not Thou have respect to the work of Thy hands, and make haste to help me?”
II. Every human life is shaped for a Divine use. When the potter turns a vessel on his wheel, the first pulse of thought concerning it touches its use. It is the use which determines the shape. And this holds good in the shaping of human life by God. Anterior to the infinite variety of shape in our lives is this grand common fact for all life, We are not driftwood on a tumbling sea. We are created to be vessels for God and of God, vessels of His sanctuary, set apart to His service, and filled with all sweet and wholesome things. This great primal purpose of the Creator seeks to fulfil itself many ways in our lives. But in all ways the Divine intention is that we shall contain and give forth some fair measure of his own life. One is set to fulfil this purpose on one level, another on a level higher or lower. One must do it by work, another by suffering. But for one and all this is the Divine purpose and requirement, that we be vessels of truth and righteousness, embodiments and manifestations--up to the measure of our natural capacities and shapes--of the Divine character and life. It is the sad fact, as we all know, that this primal use intended by our Creator is not fulfilled in all. But our shortcomings do not alter the fact that we were made for this purpose. In the fulfilment of this end our happiness consists. He who made us has linked the right use of life and our personal well-being together.
III. Lives tried in one shape are sometimes broken up and reshaped to fulfil themselves in new spheres or different capacities. And He breaks up Joseph the dreamer and the slave, and forms Joseph the wise statesman, administrator, and prince of Egypt. That was a strong well formed vessel who went forth from Jerusalem to Damascus, carrying fiery zeal for God, cruel death for God’s people. The Divine Artist takes this vessel--formed of good clay, impact of such energies, such zeal--and breaks it up and puts it on the wheel, and reshapes it for higher levels and wider ends. Christian biography is full of such instances. Here is one who was only a timid lad at the outset, shrinking from boisterous companions, retiring to woods for meditation on God’s Word. The timid lad becomes a fearless preacher, and the founder of the Society of Friends. Here is another, a poor cobbler, piecing together little scraps of different coloured leathers to make a map of the world, and by the black pieces to point out to his friends the extent, of heathenism. The poor mapmaker becomes William Carey, the founder of Missions to India and the translator of the Bible into Indian languages. A third is at first a poor piecer in a spinning factory on the banks of the Clyde. But at last he is the voice of one crying in a wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord: make a highway in the desert for God.” And so great in this ministry that black men carry his bones, when he dies, a year’s journey from the depths of Africa to England; and white men there reverently bury them in the sepulchres of their kings, because he had done good to God and to man. God breaks up the first-shaped clay which has promise in it to make better vessels for His use. Shall we turn aside and look at the Divine Artist at this work of reshaping? Those awful times in the experience of His people when He comes with a succession of trials, when He sends whole tides of sorrow into the soul, are the times when we shall best see God at His work, when He reshapes for higher ends the clay that was shaped for lower ends before.
IV. God has left it to man himself to decide whether he will be a vessel of honour or of dishonour. “Hath not the potter power over the same lump to make one vessel unto honour and another unto dishonour?”--that is one side of this mystery. “If a man purge himself”--from being a vessel unto dishonour--“he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified and meet for the Master’s use”--this is the other. But the one side does not contradict the other. The Creator has power over the lives He moulds; but it is never so wielded as to quench the power of choice He has given to us. In respect of natural capacity, position in society, function, time and place of birth, joy and sorrow, health and sickness, this power of God is absolute. He appoints the bounds of our habitation. He alone designs the fashion of our personality. He alone fixes the doom on sin. But at those points in the development of life, where the real battle of the soul is waged, where the decisive shocks of the conflict between righteousness and unrighteousness have to be sustained, and the burden of responsibility taken up, we are in a region where God leaves man as absolutely free as He is Himself. The Creator has power over the life; but, as put forth by God, it is a power tempered with justice and mercy, and quick with all the goodness of the Divine character.
V. Be true to the Divine intention and shaping of your lives. Do not lower yourselves to evil shapes. Do not suffer yourselves to degenerate into vessels set to vile uses and filled with base, unwholesome things. What the great King desires is that we should all be vessels for Him, vessels to carry and pour forth His love, His life, His purity, in all we do and wherever we go. And what He seeks to fill our souls with is His own life as God, that eternal life which He has poured out for us all in Christ. And this is eternal wisdom to receive that life of God into the heart. This is the one grand, informing, outshaping, abiding power for human life. This will reshape the most unshapely into the very image of God. (A. Macleod, D. D.)
The Divine Potter
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. Let us take the inquiry in its crudest and most ruthless form. Can He not do with a man as this man does with the clay? The answer is in a sense Yes, in a larger sense No. 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 cooperating party. 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. 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. Then in the use of the word “can” we always come upon the further 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 or 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. 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 cooperation. I repeat, power--great, self-boasting power--must obey orders. “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God.” 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. 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. 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 predestinated 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. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The potter’s wheel
Does God rule the nations of the earth? When men set themselves in opposition to what are believed to be the laws of righteousness, will the nation prosper as it would have done if righteousness had been its aim? That was the question which perplexed the prophet. God’s work, he believed, was not frustrated by man’s sin, only the nation which set itself against God was broken. Somehow the human mind came to suspect that each man was in direct and intimate relationship with God, that He was dealing with him as truly as if there were no other being in the universe. Every word of Jesus tended to deepen that impression. “The very hairs of your head are all numbered . . . Not one sparrow falleth to the ground without your Heavenly Father. Are ye not of more value than they?”
I. The first thing which attracts our notice is the clay. It is of different qualities. Some of it is very pure and pliable, other is too soft--“fat” the potter calls it--to be used in its present state; some is almost white, and will make the finest porcelain, other has such an excess of iron that it will make only coloured ware; some is doubtful,--it will form, but it will twist or crack in the firing. The clay of the potter is human nature, good, bad, and indifferent. Is there any of it so bad that it cannot be used? Not if it be clay. There is no clay that the potter cannot employ. He cannot use stone, and he cannot make a vase of water. There are men so hard that they seem to be stone; there are others so flabby that it seems as if they never could hold together on the revolving wheel; still, if they be men, something can be done. It may not be possible to make poets and statesmen of them, any more than it is possible to make Sevres china of Jersey clay; but they can be moulded and fixed into some form of usefulness as long as they are men. The difficulty, however, which arises in some men’s minds, even when that is settled, is this: Is not the best what we want? Can we rest satisfied with any dealing with human nature which leaves the large majority of the race on a low plane, and exalts only a chosen few? Now, if we cannot, how can the Creator? Must we not suppose that He too is disappointed in His work, and that He is limited in His operations? How, then, can we believe in One who is omnipotent? Is not He too limited by necessity, and are we not right in saying that that which determines character is the previous condition of the material with which God works? And does not this lead finally to disbelief, in God? It certainly does lead to a disbelief in such a God as we have fancied. But it may lead to a belief in a nobler God than that. The potter puts his hand on a lump of clay. He can never make pure porcelain out of it. Well, who said that he intended to? Who told us that he tried to and failed? Did not the potter bring the clay into the house? Did he not know what he would find there? Not so. The fineness of the pottery is determined by the quality of the clay, and so is its colour, but not its form. That is the work of the potter alone. It is in that that we see the power of his genius. And the coarser the material and the cruder its colour, the more are we led to marvel at the genius and the goodness which was content to embody itself in such material. The more we study human nature, the more we become convinced that God never intended all men to be alike. The more we study sociology, the more we feel convinced that it would be a fatal thing to have a town with but a single industry, a nation with no variety of employments, a world perfectly homogeneous. We all admit that it is not possible for every man to have all the moral qualities in an equal degree. The important thing in life is that each man should be faithful in the employment of those which he has. It is with individuals as with nations. We say that we cannot, and God ought not to be content with anything less than the best. But what is best? Is it best that all the clay in the world should be turned into Dresden china? By no means. What is best is that there should be a great variety fitted for different purposes. There are certain virtues which would be out of place in certain conditions of civilisation--that is, in certain individuals. Refined sensibility would be as embarrassing to a frontiersman as a carriage hung on delicate springs. What is needed is that he should be brave and just. We say that it is not as high a type as the courteous gentleman who would shrink from profanity as from physical pollution. But the test is to be found not in the quality of the virtue, but in the faithfulness with which it is used. Two things, then, ought to be learned from a consideration of the clay in the potter’s house. The first is, that God is dealing with men as individuals indeed, yet not as isolated beings, but as members of a great family. It is to the advantage of the family that they should differ, and it is to their own advantage too. This difference in the clay, of which we have many theories, such as the law of heredity, or the influence of environment, are the conditions which God Himself has ordained. All creation is self-limitation. God is working in clay. He must make what the clay is capable of expressing; only, there is no clay which is not capable, on a higher or lower plane, of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
2. The second thing which we see in the potter’s house is the wheel. On it the lump is placed, and the unseen foot presses the treadle, and the wheel revolves. About the wheel, too, men have formed a theory. First they began with the clay--the substance of human nature. And there was evolved many a philosophy. It has produced the spirit of agnosticism. Men, weary with speculations which lead to nothing, have said there is nothing to be known of the constitution of the clay nor the mind of the worker. And they are right: there is nothing to be known by the exclusive study of the human mind. And so they have turned to the study of the revolutions of the wheel. The clay is on the wheel, and it turns and turns, and slackens not its speed, still less stops in answer to curses or groans. If you ask whence came the clay, the answer is, the wheel made it. If men asked how it took forms of beauty, the answer was given by pointing out that, if the wheel went slower by one revolution in a thousand years, the thing of beauty would be marred; that if it increased its speed but the fraction of a second, the clay would be destroyed. The wheel never changes. Well, how does the ease stand today? Men have roused themselves, and asked at length, What moves the wheel? Such a simple, natural question! But no one can answer it. “We do not know,” say the wisest students of nature. “Every increase of knowledge only serves to widen the surrounding abyss of nescience. And what is more, nothing can ever be known of that secret, for we have learned enough of nature to know that no study of it will tell us any of those things which we would like to know.” The study of the clay was formulated in metaphysics, and led to agnosticism. The study of the wheel has done the same. There are, however, certain impressions which the mind has received from the study of nature which nothing will ever shake. The first is the universality of law--that nothing happens anywhere except in accordance with invariable rules, which are never changed. That is the one thing we have learned from the study of nature, and almost the only thing we have learned which throws any light on the great problem which perplexes us. Is this all that can be learned from the potter’s house? So many tell us, but as we turn away there comes, we cannot tell how, & feeling that we have not seen all. And to me that is, after all, the greatest mystery of life. How did it ever come to pass that man should dream that there is more to be known than can be seen? That is the mystery. From what does it arise? How is it that I, a creature of a moment, without power, an infinitesimal particle in the universe, should come to believe that this is not the whole story of my life, but that there is a hand upon me fashioning me and moulding me, making me walk in the paths which I would not, and comforting me, and filling me with hope? It is because of something else which is in the potter’s house. That which the prophet saw first of all: “I saw the potter work a work on the wheels.” It is on that that our eyes must be fixed if we would gain comfort and hope. It is on that that the eyes of thoughtful men must be fixed before we can have a philosophy of life. The study of the clay will show us only the limitations of the clay. The study of the wheel will teach us nothing but the conditions under which the clay is moulded. The contemplation of the hand alone will yield nothing but unsubstantial dreams. The result of the first has been formulated in philosophy; of the second in science; of the third in theology. Should there ever be a complete philosophy of life, it must be from the combination of what each thing in the potter’s house has to teach us. The clay we can analyse. The wheel we can watch. How can we learn from the hand? Only by taking the testimony which the clay itself bears to its own experience, only by noting the effects produced on the human soul by the awful, mysterious experiences of life. The limitations of your life and mine were fixed long before we saw the light. We have learned that to begin with. The experiences which come to you and me are not made to break in upon the course of this world, violating the law which governs life. They come by rule. There is an undeviating law which governs life. That, too, we have learned. Where, then, is Providence? That is to be seen in the moulding of our life. God’s hand is on us, and in the turn of the wheel which brings joy He lifts us up, and in the turn which brings calamity He moulds us for some use. That is what men forget. The race has always believed, that there was overruling, but supposed that the proof of it was to be found in the events of life, and then was dumfounded when these events proved different from what had been expected. It is not in the events, but in the result of them, that we shall find the proof of the hand of God. That thought frees us at once from the deadness of spirit which comes with the knowledge of inexorable law. If there be a hand fashioning, we may be sure that it chose the clay to make that which it knew the clay could become. If there is a hand moulding our souls, it must be that these laws were prepared by it because He knew that no condition which those laws produce is unfavourable to the development of the life which He loves. And more than that, if there be laws for the clay and laws for the wheel, there are likewise, we may be sure, laws for the moulding hand as well. What are these laws? That we do not know, and that is why there is so much confusion and fear. There is one thing more to be said, and that is, that the parable is incomplete in one respect. There are times when we can speak of humanity as clay in the hands of the potter, but we all know that this human clay has the power of resistance. It can tear itself from the moulding hand; it can fatten itself in sin, so as to frustrate the work on the wheels. So the house of the potter has an exhortation for us, as well as an object lesson. What it is saying to every man is, Do not resist, but cooperate. Look at the clay--it is yourself, it has its limitations. Two things are before you when that truth has entered into your soul. You may despair; you may throw away your life because it is physically, mentally, or morally incomplete or marred. Or you may submit. You may learn to be content; you may rise to thank God that you are what you are. You may be made useful, and in the eyes of the Master beautiful, because expressing the love of God. Look on the wheel. It is the revolving life, with all its manifold experiences. They may be so joyous that we forget that we are here for a purpose, and pass the time in the enjoyment of things which unfit us for beauty or power. They may be hard and bitter, and you may upbraid God. You may say, I have been a religious man, and look at me, old and poor and sad! Are not these laws, which He established, and which now bear heavy on me, for a purpose? We may go further, and say, “The consolations of God are not small with us.” We may hear the voice of the apostle saying, “My brethren, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial” as if some strange thing happened to you; there hath no trial taken you but such as is common to man. He wrought a work on the wheels. Let nothing shake that faith. Submit your souls to God. Do not ask Him to make you great, only to make you useful. The hand of the Potter is on your life, moulding it in the midst of manifold experiences. It is the hand of your Father--the same hand which was on Jesus, and moulded that sweet Jewish boy into the perfect manifestation of His own glory. Remember that, and He will make you a thing of beauty, fit for the Master’s use. (Leighton Parks.)
The Potter and His clay
You can really see the prophet in his loose flowing robes, walking slowly and softly out of the temple, and away through the narrow streets of Jerusalem towards the Eastern Gate. Then selecting his road, he wanders down the slopes into the Valley of Hinnom. The voice of God is in his ear. The Spirit is directing his steps. Listen! He is reciting over the pathetic words of his great predecessor, with almost as much pathos as Isaiah himself. “O that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.” The prophet has come forth from a night of sore travail of spirit. The deep thought of his soul was ever this, “How different may have been the course of Israel, and the flow of their national life, if only God’s rule had been supreme.” He had chosen them to be a light to the Gentiles, but, alas! they were darkness. In their evil choice and deeds they had foiled the Divine plan, and frustrated the Divine purpose. A father loves his boy dearly. He conceives a plan unto which to shape his life. The boy is the one object for which he lives; to carry out his ideal he saves his hard earnings and seeks to inspire the lad to its lofty attainment. But there is resistance, and the plan is abortive. Again the father tries to shape the lad’s life according to another plan, only to result in another failure. Still the father never despairs, he will try again and again, until upon some noble model he has shaped the career of his lad. Now, while Jeremiah was wandering on, he was thinking something like that about Israel. Presently the prophet reaches the base of the Valley of Hinnom, and pauses in front of a potter’s bench. Here he stands and observes. He sees the potter take the clay that is on his bench, knead it until it is soft and pliable to the touch. What was the great truth that God forced home upon the prophet’s heart? Some have thought it was that men are irresistibly in God’s hand, that He is the absolute Sovereign, “working all things after the counsel of His own will.” We do not deny this truth, but we do not believe that was the lesson God taught Jeremiah by the side of the potter’s bench.
I. It is not a discussion of “fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute.” God’s will had not been absolute in Israel, or there would have been no Divine pleadings, “Turn ye, turn ye, for, why will ye die.” But another and more hopeful lesson came into the prophet’s heart. When the vessel was marred, the potter did not throw away the clay, but changed the pattern, and remoulded it. When God first called Abraham the type was patriarchal, afterwards it was theocratic, when God governed them by the dispensation of angels, prophets, and judges. After this there was set up a kingdom, wherein David was God’s viceroy, but now, as the 11th verse of the 19th chapter makes clear, God was about to change the pattern again, and ever will, until Shiloh shall come. Israel shall yet be perfected.
II. The symbols employed. The clay, the worker, the wheels, and the production. The people are the clay. God made man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into him the breath of life. Though made in the image of God, man fell; but God lifts man out of the pit of destruction and from the miry clay, that He may by regeneration conform him into the image of His Son. That clay is resistant or pliable. It was not for want of skill on the part of the potter that the vessel was marred, but there was some hidden defect in the clay itself, that would not yield to the plastic guidance of wheel and hand. But where the clay is pliable the potter perfects the vessel. The Worker is plainly God Himself. He is represented as possessing will, intelligence, and ability to execute. There are two wheels, an upper and a lower, a heavenly influence and an earthly circumstance. His hand is on the upper, His foot upon the lower. While the Divine Potter by His Spirit moulds us, He keeps His foot upon the lower wheel. Providence is under His control as well as grace. The productions are various. He may mould of the clay a common vessel or a beautiful vase. But we are all to be vessels for the King’s use, we are all to bear a likeness to His dear Son.
III. God has design in the life of every believer. What is the difference between the work of an unskilled workman and an artisan? We may define it thus. The unskilled man creates his design as he proceeds, according as necessity determines, or his ideal grows. A skilled man designs first, and then constructs according to plan. The Divine Potter is not shaping our lives indefinitely, but is moulding our character according to His will and purpose. You cannot understand the drift of your life, there is so much mystery in it; it often seems chaotic, a mere tangled skein. But patience! “Hope thou in God.” Be of good courage. We are not the creatures of chance, the subjects of a blind force that is whirling us round and round without purpose or aim. God employs all things to accomplish His will. God’s unique power is to use all things in our life to His glory, and our highest good. There may be a full flowing river, with a desert land on either side, but its larger usefulness is lost until it is skilfully employed to irrigate the land through which it flows. In the economy of God’s providence, nothing runs to waste. “All things” are turned to good account. All defeats, as well as victories, all the blightings of our hopes, as all fulfillments, are made to “work together for good to them that love God.” Herein is the power and the wisdom of the Master Potter. God works wonders out of the most disappointing lives. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!”
IV. Much depends also upon the material. With one piece of wood you may be able to do much, but with another nothing--it flies off ink chips, and breaks into fragments at the touch of the chisel. There are some souls that never yield to God’s moulding; others only when they are melted in the fires of affliction. There our wills bend. Now see this vessel that is marred in the hands of the potter. But why is it marred? There is no lack of skill. No, but there is some gritty substance there, some stubborn resisting quality that will not yield to the deftness of the potter’s hand. Human nature is often resistant, rather than pliable, to God’s touch. An evil disposition in our nature mars the vessel in the hands of the Potter.
V. The patience of the potter. Jeremiah was not particularly impressed with the fact that the clay was marred in the hand of the potter, but what made the deepest impression was, that when the clay was spoilt there was no sign of anger upon the face of the potter. That was the great lesson for Jeremiah, and for us. He had laboured for Israel, and failed; but had he been as patient as this? Had he not despaired when he should have commenced afresh? And have not we been Jeremiahs, and do we feel this rebuke? I have seen a mechanic spoil a piece of handicraft, and because he spoilt it, in a passion of wrath, dash it to the ground. That is never God’s way. If Israel has failed to answer to the one mould, He will try another. There are broken ideals, over which we all mourn. But God is patient, and if He cannot make us of such a glorious pattern as He first designed, He will go on shaping our life according to another pattern, and finally perfect us for the palace of the King.
VI. The process to which the clay was subjected. Had the clay possessed mental, sensitive being, it might have complained of the method, the pressure of the kneading hand, the spinning of the wheel. But objection is unwisdom. We are sometimes whirled round and round upon the wheel of life, until the head is giddy and the heart sick. But there is not one unnecessary pang. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” Courage! Trust in God. God’s will is of the highest purpose. Character can only come by discipline, and through suffering we pass into the perfect beauty of holiness. (F. James.)
On the potter’s wheel
Perhaps this second vessel was not quite so fair as the first might have been, still it was beautiful and useful. It was a memorial of the potter’s patience and long-suffering, of his careful use of material, and of his power of repairing loss and making something out of failure and disappointment. O vision of the long-suffering patience of God! O bright anticipation of God’s redemptive work! O parable of remade characters, and lives, and hopes! Who is there that is not conscious of having marred and resisted the touch of God’s moulding hands? Who is there that does not lament opportunities of saintliness which were lost through the obdurateness of the will and the hardness of the heart?
I. The Divine making of men.
1. The potter has an ideal. Floating through his fancy there is the vessel that is to be. He already sees it hidden in the shapeless clay, waiting for his call to evoke. Before the woman applies scissors to the silk, she has conceived the pattern of her dress; before the spade cleaves the sod, the architect has conceived the plan of the building to be erected there. So of God in nature. The pattern of this round world and of her sister spheres lay in His creative thought before the first beam of light streamed across the abyss. So of the mystical body of Christ, the Church, His Bride. So also of the possibilities of each human life. See that mother bending over the cradle where her firstborn baby son lies sleeping! Mark that smile which goes and comes over her face, like a breath of wind on a calm summer’s day! Why does she smile Ah! she is dreaming; and in her dreams is building castles of the future eminence of this child--in the pulpit or the senate; in war, or art. If only she might have her way, he should be foremost in happiness, renowned in the service of men. But no mother ever wished so much for her child as God for us, when first cradled at the foot of the Cross.
2. The potter achieves his purpose by means of the wheel. In the discipline of human life this surely represents the revolution of daily circumstance; often monotonous, common place, trivial enough, and yet intending to effect, if it may, ends on which God has set His heart. Many, on entering the life of full consecration and devotion, are eager to change the circumstances of their lives for those in which they suppose that they will more readily attain a fully developed character. Hence, much of the restlessness and fever, the disappointment and wilfulness of the early days of Christian experience. Do not, therefore, seek to change, by some rash and wilful act, the setting and environment of your life. Stay where you are till God as evidently calls you elsewhere as He has put you where you are. In the meanwhile, look deep into the heart of every circumstance for its special message, lesson, or discipline. Upon the way in which you accept or reject these will depend the achievement or marring of the Divine purpose.
3. The bulk of the work is done by the potter’s fingers. How delicate their touch! How fine their sensibility! It would almost seem as though they were endued with intellect, instead of being the instruments by which the brain is executing its purpose. And in the nurture of the soul these represent the touch of the Spirit of God working in us to will and to do of His good pleasure. But we are too busy, too absorbed in many things, to heed the gentle touch. Sometimes, when we are aware of it we resent it, or stubbornly refuse to yield to it. The wheel and the hand worked together; often their motion was in opposite directions, but their object was one. So all things work together for good to them that love God. God’s touch and voice give the meaning of His providences; and His providences enforce the lesson that His tender monitions might not be strong enough to teach.
II. God’s remaking of men. “He made it again.” The potter could not make what he might have wished; but he did his best with his materials. So God is ever trying to do His best for us. How often He has to make us again! He made Jacob again, when He met him at the Jabbok ford; finding him a supplanter and a cheat, but, after a long wrestle, leaving him a prince with God. He made Simon again, on the resurrection morning, when He found him somewhere near the open grave, the son of a dove--for so his old name Bar-jonas signifies--and left him Peter, the man of the rock, the apostle of Pentecost. Are you conscious of having marred God’s early plan for yourself? Whilst into the soul the conviction is burnt: “I had my chance, and missed it; it will never come to me again. The survival of the fittest leaves no place for the unfit. They must be flung amid the waste which is ever accumulating around the furnaces of human life.” It is here that the Gospel comes in with its gentle words for the outcast and lost. The bruised reed is made again into a pillar for the temple of God. The feebly smoking flax is kindled to a flame.
III. Our attitude towards the Great Potter. Yield to Him! Each particle in the clay seems to say “Yes” to wheel and hand. And in proportion as this is the case, the work goes merrily on. If there be rebellion and resistance, the work of the potter is marred. Let God have His way with you. We cannot always understand His dealings, because we do not know what His purpose is. (F. B. Meyer, B. A.)
A shattered life restored
Dr. Pope says, “When I was in Florence I saw a triumph of restorative patience and skill. There is a statue there which had been found broken into a thousand fragments, and a patient man, with fine tact, replaced the shattered particles, and eventually the broken image was restored; and there it stands in its elastic beauty, as wonderful and as perfect as in the ancient years. And I say that in Christianity we have a supreme Artist who can pick up the most shattered life that the philosopher would cast to the void with the rubbish, and He can hold that life up in moral beauty and perfectness, and He does do it every day.”
Restored! Men can restore many things. I have read of them restoring pictures, cleansing them from the dust and filth that have gathered in the course of years, and restoring them to something like the brilliance and beauty they had when they left the painter’s easel. I have read of them restoring old buildings--grand old cathedrals, monuments of the genius and devotion of past generations--which have begun to show signs of decay. But there is a restoration work greater far than the restoration of one of the old masters or the restoration of a cathedral, and that is the restoration of man himself. For man is a wreck, a ruin; a wreck so complete, a ruin so utter, that his restoration has seemed hopeless and desperate. The best of men gave up the task, shook their heads over publicans and sinners, and said, “The ruin is beyond restoration.” But Jesus came and looked upon these wrecks of humanity, and said, “These, too, can be restored,” and He has justified His word. He found Zacchaeus a wreck, and restored him; He found Onesimus a wreck, and restored him; He found Augustine a wreck, and restored him; He found Henry Barrowe a wreck, and restored him; He found J.B. Gough a wreck, and restored him. Out of these battered ruins and shattered wrecks of humanity He has made temples of the living God. (J. D. Jones, M. A.)
O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord.
The answer is Yes-and No
. So far as all physical energy is concerned, the Lord can do with us as the potter does with the clay; but the Lord Himself cannot make a little child love Him: there is a point at which the clay lives, thinks, reasons, defies. The potter can only work upon the clay up to a given point; so long as it is soft he can make it a vessel of honour or a vessel of dishonour, he can make it this shape or that; but once let him burn it, and it is clay no longer in the sense in which he can fashion it according to model or design. A marvellous thing is this, that the Lord has made any creature that can defy Him; and that we can all defy Him is the testimony of every day’s experience. Let the Lord say, Can I not crush the universe? and the answer must be, Yes, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye; Thou hast but to close Thy fingers upon it, and it is dead, and Thou canst throw the ashes away. But almightiness has its limits. There is no almightiness in the moral region. The Lord cannot conquer the human will by any exercise of mere omnipotence: the will is to be conquered by instruction, persuasion, grace, moral inducement, spiritual ministry, exhibition of love upon love, till the exhibition rises into sacrifice and indicates itself in the Cross of Christ. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Why does He not go in? Because He has no key of that door that can open it by force. Why does He not break it with one tremendous blow? Because then the heart would be crushed and killed, and would not be persuaded into becoming a guest chamber for the King. We have it in our power to say No to God, to defy the Lord, to withdraw ourselves from the counsel and guidance of heaven. (J. Parker, D. D.)
If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent.
I. The being and condition of countries and communities, of nations and kingdoms, are under the control of the Most High. To suppose Him watchful of the operations in the universe, and yet not active in the management of them, would seem irreconcilable with the inefficacy of all laws without His might; with the appearance of design in most events; with the effects of a sublime power which many of them display; and with the existence, on peculiar occasions, of some occurrences which have been departures from the ordinary course of nature. To believe any affairs to be under the guidance of His providence, and yet to imagine that the fortunes of whole countries and people are free from His observation and care, would be inconsistent with the variety and magnitude of the interests which are in those fortunes always involved. But it may be objected, if it is thus certain that the events of time are under the superintendence of God, why are there so great evils both in the natural and political world? To this it would be sufficient to reply, that in us beings of yesterday, who see but a few links of the vast chain in which the Almighty hath connected all occurrences in the universe; who with the utmost effort of our faculties are unable, in this our low position, to perceive the final results of any of His operations; it is vainly presumptuous to attempt to fathom the counsels of His mind; and worse than presumptuous, with the evidences which He hath vouchsafed to give us in His word and works, of His wisdom, goodness, and rectitude, to doubt that all His arrangements will terminate to the honour of His government, and the greatest possible benefit of His creatures. As the objection, however, is plausible, it may be well to observe further, that our estimate of what appears to be evil may often be erroneous. Somewhere I have seen it with striking force and beauty asked, whether the insect whose habitation the ploughshare overturns knows that its motions conduce to that fertility of the earth which is to sustain many intelligent creatures? In like manner, from the convulsions and terrible occurrences in the moral world, there may be educed by the Being who bringeth good out of evil, such results as will advance His purposes, and the general welfare.
II. The great cause of perplexities and troubles, calamities and ruin, in any region, is the predominance of corrupt principles and manners. For the evils which the Divine Providence sends upon the world, there can be no other cause than the transgressions of the inhabitants thereof. The Scriptures again and again represent the calamities of a people as the punishment of their sins (Hosea 14:1; Jeremiah 5:9; Jeremiah 5:25; Jeremiah 18:9-10; Habakkuk 3:12-13; Psalms 75:9-10; 1 Kings 9:7-9). Nor is reason less explicit upon this truth than revelation. Upon a little reflection she perceives that the Almighty, being perfectly holy, wise, and good, will approve and encourage virtue. This necessarily implies the condemnation and punishment of vice. In beings destined to exist hereafter, there is extensive opportunity for the fulfilment of the Divine intentions. Their immortality opens a wide field for the display of the justice of God. And hence it is, that in this present state vice does not always in the individual meet its retribution, nor virtue its reward. But nations and communities, as such, are not immortal. It should therefore seem reasonable that they should in their present existence enjoy the rewards due to their virtues, and endure the punishments which their vices deserve. To place the point beyond dispute, experience, weeping as she reviews her venerable annals, declares from them that the indignation of Heaven has frequently been brought upon whole communities by their sins: that debase inert, calamity, and ruin have resulted to them from the predominance of depraved principles and manners.
III. By a timely reformation of their principles and lives, communities may avert the displeasure of the Almighty. Contrition is estimable, and acceptable through the Redeemer, in an individual. It has turned away the wrath of Heaven from many an offender. But when a community, as one body, is roused by a sense of danger, or by the calls of the Most High, in alarming occurrences, in foreign examples, or in His holy Word, or by their own consciousness of a relaxed state of religion and morals, to “consider their ways,” and turn with sincerity to God, to humble themselves before Him, and to express their earnest desire to be made objects of His forgiveness and favour: if ever He may be said to be taken with holy violence, it is by such an act. (Bishop Dehon.)
Return ye now everyone from his evil way.
My text is all about repentance; it is an exhortation from God, very brief and sententious, but very earnest and plain: “Return ye now everyone from his evil way.” I want you all to notice that this is the call of mercy. God would have you saved, and therefore He cries to you, “Return,” because He is willing to receive you, and to blot out all your sin. But remember that it is equally the call of a holy God, the God who knows that you cannot be saved except you turn from your evil ways. Thou must be made to hate thy sin, or else, where God is, thou canst never come.
I. What does the text say? The picture is that of a man who is going the wrong way. He is trespassing, he is on forbidden ground, he is advancing in a dangerous road, and if he shall continue to go in that direction, he will by and by come to a dreadful precipice over which he will fall, and there he will be ruined. A voice cries to him, “Return!” What does that word mean? It is very simple, and that I may make it plainer still, perhaps, for practical purposes, let me say that the first thing such a man would do would be to stop. If I was out in the country, on a road which I did not know, and I heard a voice crying out to me, “Return,” I should certainly stop, and listen; and if I heard the cry repeated, with great eagerness and earnestness, “Return! Return!” I should pause, and look round, and try to see who it was that had called to me. I wish that all of you who are wandering away from God, would stop, and consider where you are going. In God’s name, I would arrest thee; as God’s officer, I would put my hand on thy shoulder, and say to thee, “Thou must stop; thou shalt pause; thou shalt consider thy ways. I cannot let thee go on carelessly to thy ruin, like a sheep into the slaughter house, or a bullock going to be killed.” Stop, I pray thee. Suppose a man did stop, that would not be returning; it is but the commencement of the return when a man stops, but it will be necessary for him, next, to turn round. The order for him to obey is, “Right about face.” There must be a total, a radical change in you, ii you are really to obey the command, “Return.” I think I hear you ask, “Who can effect this change?” And I am glad to hear that question, for I trust it will lead you to pray, “Turn me, O Lord, and I shall be turned!” There is something done towards returning when a man stops, there is still more done when he turns round; yet he does not actually return until, with persevering footsteps, the wanderer hastens back to him from whom he had departed. What God desires is that all His prodigal children should come home, that His stray sheep should be brought back to the fold, that the lost pieces of silver should be put into the treasury again; that, indeed, you who have wandered in sin should be as they are whom Christ has washed in His precious blood, whom the Holy Spirit has regenerated, and whom the Father has adopted, and put among His children.
II. When are sinners to return? “Return ye now everyone from his evil way.” The voice of God bids you to return now, and I would urge you to do so, because life is so uncertain that, if you do not return now, you may not live to return at all. He who would have his estate rightly ordered when he is dead should have his will made, everybody says that; and he who would have his eternal estate ordered aright should yield himself at once to the sovereign will of the Most High, for life is uncertain. Return, now, for the calls of grace may not always come to you. Recollect, also, that your sin will be increased by delay. If you keep on in the wrong path, not only will you have sinned the more, but that sin will have taken a more terrible hold upon you. Habits begin like cobwebs, but they end like chains of iron. Moreover, it is well for us to return unto our God now, because the sooner we return to Him the sooner we shall enjoy His favour, and the more delightful will our life become. Peace with God makes even this life to be a blessed life; and he who has it begins, even here, to enjoy the felicities of the glorified. Do you not see, too, that God will have the more service from you? The sooner you are brought to Him, the longer will you have of life in which to serve Him. If any of you have gone past youth, into manhood, and to middle age, or even to old age, then the word “now” should come to you with a sharp, clear crack, as of a rifle. It comes like a staccato note in music, “Now! Now! Now!” Yet once more, return now, because, if ever there is a reason for returning, that reason points to the present moment. If there is a hope that a man will leave his sin some time or other, there must be a better hope that he will leave it now than that he will leave it in a year’s time. Wisdom’s voice cries, “Now!” It is folly that says, “Tarry.”
III. Who is the person that is to return? “Everyone.” Many of you have returned. But every man, every woman, every child who has not returned, should hear the voice of the Lord repeating this message. “Well,” says one, “perhaps there will be some people converted through this sermon.” Do not talk so, I pray you. Will you be converted through it? Possibly some of you are like the man we read of in the papers some time ago. He was walking by the seaside, and trod on a large chain, and slipped his foot right through one of the links. When he tried to draw it back again, he could not, for he was held fast. The tide was coming in, and there he was a prisoner. He had to call long and loud before anybody came; and by the time the people arrived, he had very much hurt his foot in endeavouring to extricate himself. He begged them to run for the smith, that he might come, and break the iron. He came, but he brought the wrong tools with him, so he could not accomplish the task. It would be some time before he could be back, and, meanwhile, the tide had come in, and the water was up to the man’s feet, so he cried, “Run for the surgeon. Let him come, and cut my leg off; it is the only hope of saving my life.” But by the time the surgeon came, the water was up to the man’s neck, so the doctor could not get down to where his foot was fast in the iron chain, and there was nothing that could be done for him. There he was, poor fellow, and the tide rolled over him, and he was drowned. Some of you seem to me to be just like that man, held fast by some invisible force; yet, when I try to get at the chain, I cannot find out what it is, it is so far under the water. Perhaps you do not yourself know what it is. I am going to make a dive to try to get at it, as I ask my last question concerning the text.
IV. From what are these people to return? “From his evil way.” Then, each man has a way of his own,--an evil way of his own,--some personal form of sin. What is your own way? Is it some constitutional sin to which you are prone? “Well,” asks one, “what do you think is my evil way?” I will answer by putting another question to you, What is the sin into which you most frequently fall? I should think you can tell that, and that is the evil way from which you have most to fear. It is from that one way that you are called upon specially to return. Tonight, if you were tempted, to which temptation would you be most likely to yield? You do not know, you say; well then, let me put another question to you. When do you get most angry if anybody rebukes you? What is it in the preaching that makes you say, “There, I will never go to hear that man again; he cuts my hair so short, he comes quite close to the skin”? Well now, that will help you to find out what is your own personal evil way; and it is from that way that you are to return. Again, what sin of yours eats up the other sins? Where does your money mostly go? You could have told that Joseph was Jacob’s favourite, because he made him a coat of many colours; and there are some sins that wear the coat of many colours, and often, as it were, it is dipped in the man’s own blood, for everything goes for that particular sin. But I have not hit on your sin yet, my friend, have I? You have an evil way which you will not tell to anyone; it is not as bad as any I have mentioned; it is a very respectable kind of evil way which you have. Your evil way is this, the evil way of self-righteousness. It makes out that the death of Christ was a superfluity; it tells God that He is wrong in charging a man with sin; it raises a clamour against God; it claims as a right every good thing that God has to give; it does, in fact, uncrown the Saviour, bid the Holy Spirit go His way as no longer needed, and throws the Gospel, which is the crown jewel of God, into the mire. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Returning from evil ways
There are two things proper to a man that returneth: first, to go a way clean contrary to the way he went before; secondly, to tread out and obliterate his former steps, First, I say, he must go a way clean contrary to his former way. Many men think that the way to hell is but a little out of the way to heaven, so that a man in small time, with small ado, may pass out of the one into the other; but they are much deceived: for as sin is more than a stepping aside, namely, a plain, a direct going away from God; so is repentance, or the forsaking of sin, more than a little coasting out of one way into another. Crossings will not serve; there is no way from the road of sin to the place we seek, but to go quite back again the way we came. The way of pleasure in sin must be changed for sorrow for the same. He that hath superstitiously worshipped false gods must now as devoutly serve the true; the tongue that hath uttered swearings, and spoken blasphemies, must as plentifully sound forth the name of God in prayer and thanksgiving; the covetous man must become liberal; the oppressor of the poor as charitable in relieving them; the calumniator of his brother a tender guarder of his credit: in fine, he that hated his brother before must now love him as tenderly as himself. (Joseph Mede.)
Repentance useless without amendment
Repentance without amendment is like continual pumping in a ship, without stopping the leaks. (J. Palmer.)
There is no hope.
Hope, yet no hope-No hope, yet hope
There are two phases in spiritual life which well illustrate the deceitfulness of the heart. The first is that described in my first text (Isaiah 57:10), in which the man, though wearied in his many attempts, is not and cannot be convinced of the hopelessness of self-salvation, but still clings to the delusion that he shall be able somehow, he knows not how, to deliver himself from ruin. When you shall have hunted the man out of this, you will then meet with a new difficulty, which is described in the second text. Finding there is no hope in himself, the man draws the unwarrantable conclusion that there is no hope for him in God; and, as once you had to battle with his self-confidence, now you have to wrestle with his despair. It is self-righteousness in both cases. In the one ease it is the soul content with self-righteousness; in the second place it is man sullenly preferring to perish rather than receive the righteousness of Christ.
I. Considering the first text, we have to speak of a hope which is no hope. “Thou art wearied in the greatness of thy way; yet saidst thou not, There is no hope: thou hast found the life of thine hand; therefore thou wast not grieved.” This well pictures the pursuit of men after satisfaction in earthly things. They will hunt the purlieus of wealth, they will travel the pathways of fame, they will dig into the mines of knowledge, they will exhaust themselves in the deceitful delights of sin, and, finding them all to be vanity and emptiness, they will become sore perplexed and disappointed; but they will still continue their fruitless search. Carnal minds with all their might earth’s vanities pursue, and when they are by ceremonies. If you shall addict yourself to the fullest ceremonial, if you should be obedient to it in all its jots and tittles, keeping its fast days and its feast days, its vigils and matins and vespers, bowing down before its priesthood, its altars, and its millinery, giving up your reason, and binding yourself in the fetters of superstition; after you have done all this, you will find an emptiness and a vexation of spirit as the only result. It is only grace that can enable us to follow Luther’s example, who, after going up and down Pilate’s staircase on his knees, muttering so many Ave Marias and Paternosters, called to mind that old text, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God,” and springing up from his knees forsook once and forever all dependence upon outward formalities, and quitted the cloistered cell and all its austerities to live the life of a believer, knowing that by the works of the law there shall no flesh living be justified.
2. A great mass of people, even though they reject priestcraft, make themselves priests, and rely upon their good works. A poor and wretched man dreamed that he was counting out gold. There it stood upon the table before him in great bags, and, as he untied string after string, he found himself wealthy beyond a Croesus’ treasures. He was lying upon a bed of straw in the midst of filth and squalor, a mass of rags and wretchedness, but he dreamed of riches. A charitable friend who had brought him help stood at the sleeper’s side and said, “I have brought you help, for I know your urgent need.” Now the man was in a deep sleep, and the voice mingled with his dream as though it were part of it: he replied, therefore, with scornful indignation, “Get ye gone, I need no miserable charity from you; I am possessor of heaps of gold. Can you not see them? I will open a bag and pour out a heap that shall glitter before your eyes.” Thus foolishly he talked on, babbling of a treasure, which existed only in his dream, till he who came to help him accepted his repulse and departed mournfully. When the man awakened he had no comfort from his dream, but found that he had been duped by it into rejecting his only friend. Such is the position of every person who is hoping to be saved by his good works. You have no good works except in your dream.
3. Many persons are looking for salvation to another form of self-deception, namely, the way of repentance and reformation. It is thought by some that if they pray a certain number of prayers, and repent up to a certain amount, they will then be saved as the result of their praying and repenting. This, again, is another way of winning salvation which is not spoken of in Scripture. This is a way by which neither law nor Gospel receive honour. To repent is a Christian’s duty, but to hope for salvation by virtue Of that alone is a delusion of the most fearful kind. Repentance is a part of salvation, and when Christ saves us He saves us by making us repent, but repentance does not save; it is the work of God, and the work of God alone. Now wherefore dost thou weary thyself in this way also? for surely in it “there is no hope.”
4. Until thou art clean separate from all consciousness of hope in thyself, there no hope that the Gospel will ever be any power to thee; but when thou shalt throw up thy hands like a drowning man, feeling, “It is all over with me! I am lost, lost, unless a stronger than I shall interpose.” Oh, sinner, then there is hope for you.
II. We now turn to the second text. Here we have no hope--and yet hope. When the sinner has at last been driven by stress of weather from the roadstead of his own confidence, then he flies to the dreary harbour of despair. As if there were nobody in the world but himself, and as if he were to measure God’s power and God’s grace by his own merit and power. Hopelessness in self is what we want to bring you to, but hopelessness in itself, and especially in connection with God, would be a sin from which we would urge you to escape. If you are sitting down in despair, I want to speak to you first of the God of hope. His name is God, that is good. He delighteth in mercy: it is His soul’s highest joy to clasp His Ephraims to His bosom. But you say, Wherewithal shall I come before the Most High God? I have sinned, and what shall I bring as a recompense? If I had a mint of merits, if I had godly impressions, if I had high moral excellence, I would come with that to God, and hope to obtain a hearing.” But hearken, sinner, dost thou not know the name of the Second Person in the Trinity? It is Jesus Christ, the Son. Now, if thou wantest merit, has not He enough of it? Oh, sinner, if thou hast no merit, thou needest not wish for any. Take Christ in thy hand, for He is made of God unto thee, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; and all this for every, soul of Adam born who trusts in Him alone. But I hear you complaining again, “Oh, but I have not the power to repent. You have told me this, and I cannot believe: I cannot soften my heart; I cannot do anything; I am so powerless. You have been teaching me that.” I know I have; but there is another Person in the Trinity, and what is His name? It is the Holy Spirit. And do you not know that the Holy Spirit helpeth our infirmity? A great divine has said--and I think there is some truth in it--that a very great number of souls are destroyed through the fear that they cannot be saved. I think it is very likely. If some of you really thought that Christ could save you, if you felt a hope that you might yet be numbered with His people, you would say, “I will forsake my sins, I will leave my present evil way, and I will fly unto the strong for strength.” In the first place, would it not be wise, even if there were only a “peradventure,” to go to Christ, and trust Him on the strength of that? The King of Nineveh had no Gospel message; he had simply the law preached by Jonah, and that very shortly and sternly. Jonah’s message was, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”; but the King of Nineveh said, “Who can tell?” Surely if but on the presumption of “Who can tell?” the men of Nineveh went and did find mercy, you will be inexcusable if you do not act upon the same, having much more than that to be your comfort. Go, sinner, to the Cross, for who can tell? But, in the next place, you have had many clear and positive examples. In reading Scripture through you find that many have been to Christ, and that there never was one cast out yet. Moreover, you have comfortable promises in the Word of God. “Your hearts shall live that seek Him.” If you do seek Him your heart shall live. Leap on the back of that promise, and let it bear thee, as the Samaritan’s beast bore the dying man, to an inn where thou mayest rest--I mean to Christ--where thou mayest have confidence. “Whosoever calleth upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Now you do call upon His name. There are many others: they have been quoted in your ears till you know them by heart. “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely”; and you know that precious one, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
One instance of this is related by a well-known religious writer. He says: “A zealous minister went to the house of an aged respectable man, a man who bore an unstained character, and there addressing him and his family, he told simply of the salvation that is in Christ, and urged those who listened to a hearty acceptance of it. The minister finished what he had to say, and when he left the house, his friend accompanied him; and when they were alone together said something like this: Spend your time and strength upon the young; labour to bring them to Jesus; it is too late for such as me. I know, he said, that I have never been a Christian. I fully believe that when I die I shall go down to perdition.”
I. Its causes.
1. One is the judgments of God, especially those severer dispensations with which the Almighty sometimes visits us. Their real significance, I need hardly say, is that our heavenly Father still loves us and cares for us--that He has not forgotten us, nor given us over to destruction--that He still thinks there is good in us, and a chance for us; and that He is bound by loud and louder calls to warn us back from ruin, and by heavier and heavier blows, if necessary, to drive us from the perilous paths in which we tread. Nevertheless, with the perversity of a chastised child, we put upon them precisely the opposite construction.
2. The discovery of one’s sinfulness, and added to it the realisation of the jeopardy in which it places the soul, will often bring on a fit of hopelessness. That was the case with Judas. The author of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” has testified to a similar experience. When conscience had turned the light upon his life, and sharply reproved him for it, says Bunyan, “I had no sooner thus conceived, in my mind, but suddenly this conclusion was fastened on my spirit that I had been a great and grievous sinner, and that now it was too late for me to look after heaven, for Christ would not forgive me, nor pardon my transgression.”
3. Not only does the discovery of our sins produce this effect, but the same is also apt to follow upon long and unsuccessful conflict with them. For instance, if a man has struggled a great while with some besetting fault, with an appetite that has tyrannised over him--like that for strong drink, to give a common example, or with some passion, like a hasty temper or an uncontrollable tongue--if it seems to him that he has never conquered it, and never can, then there begins to spread over his soul that dark cloud of despair our text represents.
4. Finally, this feeling of despair may be sometimes accounted for by supposing it to be simply a satanic suggestion. Dante saw over the portals of hell this terrible sentence, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” It is the devil’s trick, his masterpiece of malice and cunning, to copy that inscription and trace it on the hearts of men--All hope abandon.
II. The progress that this disorder of the soul makes when left to run an unchecked course.
1. The first stage of it is misery. It must be. There is a very dramatic scene in the life of Bonaparte, depicted by Guizot. It is the moment when “on that solitary road (to Paris) at the dead of night, the grand empire, founded and sustained by the incomparable genius and commanding will of one man alone, had crumbled to pieces, even in the opinion of him who had raised it.” It is the moment when the officers announce to the great General that his capital is evacuated, and the enemy at its gates; and he realises that nothing is left for him to do but abdicate. The agony that pierced that dauntless soul who can paint! Napoleon, it is said, “let himself fall by the roadside, holding his head in his hands and hiding his face.” The onlookers stood by, silently contemplating him with heartfelt sorrow, unable to utter a single word. But oh! what is the fall of a kingdom to any monarch--what is his despair, what can it be compared to the anguish which must seize upon one, when the full conviction rushes over him that he is really doomed--that no chance is left him to avert damnation--when he must answer in his heart, There is no hope!
2. The second stage of progress is when insensibility sets in. You know that some diseases occasion excruciating pain at the start. Then after a while all disagreeable sensations cease. The patient has got “past feeling.” Well, so it is with the soul when attacked by spiritual desperation. From great suffering at the outset it is liable to pass on into a state of numbness and indifference. It is a condition worse and more alarming than the first. The individual I was alluding to a moment since is an instance in point. I mean the one who begged his clergyman not to waste time upon him, because he had become persuaded that he was predestined to destruction. I did not quote to you then all his conversation upon this subject. Let me give it more in detail now. He said, “I fully believe that when I die I shall go down to perdition. But somehow I do not care. I know perfectly all you can say, but I feel it no more than a stone.”
3. The third and last stage is when one arrives at recklessness. That was the stage reached by those Jews who spoke our text. They said there is no hope. Then they added, “But we will walk after our own devices,” etc. They sinned yet more and more, until Nebuchadnezzar came and carried them away captive. On the deck of a sinking ship, when rescue is impossible, and the end of all is nigh at hand, a curious scene, it is said, may often be witnessed. Here is a group weeping over their impending fate; there is another knot contemplating with utter apathy a watery grave; and yonder, is the strangest sight of all--men in the very frenzy of despair, cursing and swearing with their latest breath, and preparing, with wine cup in hand, and senses steeped in intoxication, to go to their last account. Most singular and dreadful influence this latter, which unavoidable physical danger exercises over the minds of men. But it is no more singular or dreadful than the influence of spiritual hopelessness at times over the soul. The more terrible the doom hanging over it, the more mad does the soul become to sink itself to lower and ever lower abysses of guilt and shame.
III. Is there any foundation in fact for spiritual desperation? Is there any truth in the feeling, there is no hope? No. It is not true of any living soul that there is no hope for it. I was reading the other day of an accident that befell an innkeeper of the Grindelwald. He “fell into a deep crevasse in the upper glacier which flows into that beautiful valley. Happening to fall gradually from ledge to ledge, he reached the bottom in a state of insensibility, but not seriously injured.” What would you say of that man? Well, you would say of him, if you understood what it was to fall into a crevasse, that it was all over with him--that there was before him only a lingering death. In fact, the man himself was at first, when he returned to consciousness of the same opinion. But no, the event proves you both mistaken. When he awoke from his stupor he found himself in an ice cavern, with a stream flowing through an arch at its extremity. Following the course of this stream along a narrow tunnel, which was in some places so low in the roof that he could scarcely squeeze himself through on his hands and knees, he came out at last at the end of the glacier into the open air.” So we see a man fallen into the crevasse of terrible sins. There he lies, spiritually insensible, at the bottom of the awful abyss of iniquity into which, by careless walking, he has slipped at last. You think there is no help for him, no opportunity or place of repentance and restoration left. You dare to say there is no hope. And in his troubled dreams, mayhap (for sinners dream), the poor unfortunate himself repeats your words, no hope. But it is false. A chance for even him still remains. The fallen sinner may yet wake from his stupor, and like that innkeeper of the Grindelwald, creep out on hands and knees into the open air and sunlight of God’s forgiveness and eternal love. Once, it is said, the servants of Richelieu refused to obey his dictates. “Our Father,” they pleaded, “it is useless, we shall but fail.” The great Cardinal drew himself up, fixed upon them his piercing eye, and in a tone that left no place for further parley, replied, “Fall! there’s no such word!” And when I see anyone today, a servant of the living God, perhaps afflicted, conscience-stricken, baffled, and mocked by whisperings of the Evil One, stand up and say there is no hope, I must despair, I hear a voice, loud as the wail of the dying Christ, ring out through the darkness from Calvary and its blood-stained cross, Despair! there’s no such word!” (G. H. Chadwell.)
The sin, danger, and unreasonableness of despair
I. To despair of God’s mercy is sinful.
1. The ancient divines were accustomed to call despair one of the seven deadly sins It well deserves this character. It is directly contrary to the will of God. He, we are told, taketh pleasure in them that fear Him, and hope in His mercy. He must, therefore, be displeased with them that refuse to do this. It is also a great insult to the character of God. It calls in question the truth of His word; nay, it gives Him the lie; for He has told us that whosoever cometh to Him He will in no wise cast out. It calls in question, or rather denies the greatness of His mercy. It also limits the power of God. He has said, Is anything too hard for Me? But despair says, It is impossible that He should renew my heart, subdue my will, and make me fit for heaven.
2. Despair is the cause or parent of many other sins. As hope leads all who entertain it to endeavour to purify themselves, even as Christ is pure, so despair leads all under its influence to wander farther and farther from God, and plunge without restraint into every kind of wickedness.
II. Despair of God’s mercy is dangerous. When a man gives himself up to this sin, he does, as it were, give himself up to the power and guidance of the devil; for he voluntarily throws away everything which can protect or deliver him from the adversary.
III. Despair of God’s mercy is groundless and unreasonable.
1. It is unreasonable to despair of God’s mercy, because He continues to you the enjoyment of life, and the means of grace. Will you say, There is no hope, while the walls of God’s house encircle you, while the light of the Sabbath shines upon you, while the Word of God is before you, and while the Gospel of salvation sounds in your ears!
2. The character of God, as revealed in His Word, shows that it is unreasonable for you to despair of His mercy.
3. The grand scheme of redemption revealed in the Gospel, renders it still more unreasonable to indulge despair.
4. The person, character, and invitations of Christ, show in the most striking and conclusive manner, that despair of salvation is unreasonable.
5. That it is unreasonable to despair of God’s mercy, is evident from the characters of many to whom it has already been extended. (E. Payson, D. D.)
I. Sources of this despair of amendment.
1. Indolence. It is the property of that quality of mind to be always seeking an apology for leaving things as they are. Sometimes it imagines difficulties, and sometimes dangers, neither of which have any real existence. There is what may be termed a vis inertiae, a power of indolence, in mind as well as in matter; and perhaps at the great day of account it will be found that where profligacy has slain its thousands, indolence has slain its ten thousands.
2. The secret love of sin. If we wish to be bad, how ready are we to believe that it is impossible to be better! The fallen heart is that marsh of corruption in which all things monstrous and mischievous find their birth and their dwelling place, and from whence they issue to the destruction of the peace of the individual and the injury of those around him.
3. A want of faith in the declaration of God. Will a merciful God command impossibilities? and yet He says, “Be ye perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”: “Be ye holy, as God is holy.” Will the holy God promise what He will not perform?
II. Some of the motives for endeavouring to escape from it.
1. This despair of amendment is altogether groundless. Imagine even your case to be as bad as possible. Suppose not only the spiritual health impaired, but the soul in a sense “dead,”--still I am privileged, on the authority of God, to affirm that this death is not necessarily either final or fatal. It is rather suspension than extinction. It is a state from which your Redeemer is willing to raise you.
2. The despair of amendment is irrational. Right reason in every instance demands an implicit acquiescence in the revealed will of God. But I name the unreasonableness of this despondency of improvement on purpose to touch on a particular point. If it be possible that you may fail by the one process, it is certain that you must fail by the other. If the success of vigilance and prayer be equivocal, the ruin which must follow despair is inevitable.
3. Such despair of growth in grace and holiness is deeply guilty. There is a sort of morbid humility on this subject, which leads men to value themselves on those doubts in the compassionate promises of God, which are in fact nothing short of a capital offence against Him. Is the earthly parent flattered by his children refusing to place confidence in his declarations of pity and love? And can the God of truth and compassion be gratified to find that, in spite of the language of Scripture, of His past dealings with His creatures, and in the constant experience of His Church, we should still presume to question His mercies, and doubt whether He, who spared not His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will with Him also give us all things? (J. W. Cunningham, M. A.)
I. A desperate conclusion.
I. In reference to themselves: despair as to their own amendment or reformation. There are people desperate in this regard because of--
(1) An absolute indisposition and averseness to all kind of good (Job 21:11). This proceeds from--a neglect of religious duties and exercises; a persisting in some loose course of life; a walking contrary to light; worldliness and too deep an implunging into secular affairs.
(2) An absolute thraldom and subjection to all kinds of evil. Spiritual laziness, unbelief of God’s promises, carnal confidence, indifference to the thing itself.
2. In reference to Jeremiah and his ministry; despair as to the value of preaching God’s messages amongst them. There are fortifications to this purpose, which men raise to themselves to hold out against the workings of the ministry.
(1) Pride and self-conceit.
(2) Cavillings and wranglings against the Word of the ministry.
(3) Prosperity and outward welfare.
3. In reference to God Himself. They despair of the grace of God, and call it in question.
(1) From the suggestions of Satan.
(2) From the infidelity which is in their hearts.
(3) From a measuring of God by themselves.
II. A peremptory resolution.
1. Simply and absolutely they declare that they will walk after their own devices.
(1) There is implied here that the nature of man is very prone and subject to evil devices.
(2) There is expressed here that there is in men an affection towards these devices. Their obstinacy and perverseness. Grounded upon security and presumption. Proceeding from the power which Satan has over them. They are not persuaded of the truth of God’s Word. Their conspiracy and combination. Their wilful transgression and sin against knowledge.
2. Reflexively and derivatively, they said this.
(1) Expressly in so many words.
(2) Practically in that which they did. (T. Horton, D. D.)
The terrors of a despairing heart
Bunyan very aptly pictures Diabolus when he was attacking the town of Mansoul, as making Captain Past-hope unfurl the red colours which were carried by Mr. Despair, and he also speaks of the roaring of the tyrant’s drum, which sounded forth terribly, especially by night, so that the men of Mansoul had always in their ears the sound of hell fire. Hell fire and all this to keep them from submitting to their gracious prince. Thus, for once, the devil craftily cooperates with the law of God and conscience; these would drive men to self-despair, but Satan would go farther, and compel them to despair as touching the Lord Himself, so as to believe that pardon for transgression is quite impossible. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The despair of a man who abandoned his belief in God
Mr. Quint in Hogg tells a remarkable story of an incident which happened quite recently in a great London club. He was chatting with a friend about a man who had died by his own hand. His friend spoke rather indignantly of such an ignoble termination to life, and characterised it--rightly enough--as a cowardly thing for a man to leave others to meet the troubles and reap the bitter harvest he had sown. A well-known scientific man, who was sitting close by, turned round and said, “I consider you have expressed a very harsh judgment. I don’t consider it the action of a coward; and for myself, the only rest I can look forward to is the grave.” Mr. Hogg’s friend, thinking that perhaps the gentleman had lost some relative by suicide, qualified his remarks by saying that such crimes were generally committed with deranged minds, and that, of course, his words did not apply to a man irresponsible for his acts. “There is something worse than derangement,” was the reply, “and that is despair.” Mr. Hogg says that his friend was very much shocked at the words and at the tone in which they were uttered, and began to speak to the scientist as best he could about the love of God. He told him he could not imagine how those who accepted the help of God could ever despair. “Ah,” was the sad reply, “I gave up my belief in God long ago, and I have had nothing but a deepening despair ever since. I repeat that the grave is the only rest I can hope for--the only home that remains for me.” (The Young Man.)
Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon which cometh from the lock Of the field?
Man severed from the inexhaustible resources
The idea of the text is that a man will cut himself off from the main, will cut himself away from the eternally feeding snow of Lebanon, and will begin to make himself a little cistern--ah me, a broken cistern, a cistern that can hold no water. Let us think of the suicide of isolation, the madness of amputating our life, of leaving the inexhaustible, the eternal, the infinite--and living little, miserable, self-devouring lives. “Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon and the fountain that rises from the rock?” You would not allow it in business. Shall I tell you what I have heard some of you business men say? Did not one of you point out a man to me, and say, “You see that man crossing from the Mansion House to the Bank of England?” “Yes.” “Very singular case,” you say; “that man is living on his capital.” I said, “What harm is there in that?” “Why, he is eating himself up, consuming himself. He ought to have his capital so invested that it will bring him in revenue day by day, year by year, and the capital should be kept intact if possible, and still the income should be accruing.” “I see!” That is the text from a secular point of view. “This man is living on his capital, he has cut himself off from payable, remunerative, compensative agencies, and he is eating up what he has.” The worst thing that can happen in military operations is for the enemy to get behind and to cut off the supplies. That is the horrible possibility and the dreadful mischief, that the supplies should be cut off. Take care how you dwell upon this as an instance of misfortune. I charge you, in the presence of God and the holy angels, foolish man, with doing this very thing. You have cut off your supplies, you have dismissed prayer, you are trying to live on your own miserable individuality and selfhood. Get back to your supplies--back to God, back to the fountain. Live and move and have your being in God, and then no man can impoverish you, until he has impoverished God. (J. Parker.)
I win scatter them;. . . I will shew them the back.
The sinner’s doom
I. The cause of the evil threatened.
1. Rejecting the Divine government.
2. Guilty of idolatry.
3. Rejecting the mercy of God.
4. Conduct characterised by the greatest folly.
5. A manifestation of basest ingratitude.
II. The nature of the evil threatened.
1. God sometimes shows His back in a way of mercy (Exodus 33:23; Job 25:2).
2. But this threat is expressive of Divine wrath.
3. The wrath of God is retributive.
4. A final departure.
III. The time when the evil shall be inflicted.
1. In the time of adversity.
2. In sickness.
3. When deserted by friends.
4. In old age.
5. In hour of death.
6. At last day. (Helps for the Pulpit.)
The east winds referred to by the prophets appear to be a violent form of sirocco. It was the east wind which brought the plague of locusts upon the Egyptians. It was by an east wind that the ships of Tarshish were broken (Psalms 48:7), and the ships of Tyre (Ezekiel 27:26). Jeremiah takes an east wind as the symbol of Jehovah’s punishment of His people, while references to its withering and scorching properties are numerous; from the seven thin ears of wheat of Pharaoh’s vision in Egypt to the sultry blast which helped to afflict Jonah outside the walls of Nineveh. The east wind still breaks at times with terrific violence upon the coasts of Palestine, and the records of victims tell of tents that have been blown away by its fury. (H. B. Freeman, M. A.)
Come, and let us smite him With the tongue.
The reformers’ task difficult and dangerous
If there were a hundred violins together, all playing below concert pitch, and I should take a real Cremona, and with the hand of a Paganini should bring it strongly up to the true key, and then should sweep my bow across it like a storm, and make it sound forth clear and resonant, what a demoniac jargon would the rest of the playing seem! Yet the other musicians would be enraged at me. They would think all the discord was mine, and I should be to them a demoniac. So it is with reformers. The world thinks the discord is with them, and not in its own false playing. (H. W. Beecher.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Jeremiah 18". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27