Isaiah 45:9 The Potter, the Clay & the Sovereignty of God

The Messiah in Isaiah Bible Study

Isaiah 45:9 Lesson: The Potter, the Clay & the Sovereignty of God

by I Gordon

Bible Study Lesson Potter and the Clay Isaiah 45:9As I read Isaiah 45, there was one verse that really stood out to me. As the neighborhood butterflies are attracted to my newly planted cauliflowers, so I was attracted to verse 9 which states:

"Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker-- An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, 'What are you doing?' Or the thing you are making say, 'He has no hands'? Isaiah 45:9

What I want to look at is the potter and the clay and what it means to be clay in the hands of the potter. Now the context of this whole chapter is really the Sovereignty of God  [1]. It tells us that God has a plan, God has a purpose and He is in control. So why would verse 9 be there if the whole context of this chapter about the sovereignty of God? Why would God liken Himself to the Potter and why would He give us, the clay, a warning about quarrelling with our maker? Let's have a look...

The Potter and the Clay 

Isaiah 45:9 above is a key verse in this chapter because it links God's sovereignty with our normal response. God is the potter but mankind often rebels against His authority. It rebels against the sovereignty of God. The clay likes to quarrel and to speak back to the potter. Now we will come back to this verse but we are actually going to look at this whole potter and clay illustration in the book of Jeremiah chapter 18. Everyday life contains many sermons and God often teaches us through the simple common tasks that make up our day. Jesus used to teach like this. He would talk about the things that they knew about - he would speak about the sower sowing the seed or a king going into battle with his army... They could relate to these things. Well in Jeremiah chapter 18 verses 1-6 God says to Jeremiah - Jerry, just come and have a look at this. I want to show you something. Let's read verses 1-6 and see what God wanted Jeremiah to see.

Going down to the Potter's House

'This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message. So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does? declares the LORD. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.' Jeremiah 18:1-6

So God said to Jeremiah, go down and have a look at the potter and observe what you see. And what did Jeremiah see? Basically he saw three things and I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to get them. He saw a potter, a potter's wheel and he saw clay. Now this is, hopefully, pretty simple because God gives it away anyway but what this whole illustration is saying is that the master skillful potter is God. The Potter represents God's work in our lives. And that shapeless, sticky, blobby, smelly lump of clay - well that's you. Yeah ok, that's me also. And as Jeremiah watched what the potter did, what do you think he would have noticed?

  • First of all he would have noted that the potter was in total control. That He could make whatever He liked, do whatever He liked.
  • Secondly he also would have noticed that the potter had a plan and a purpose in what He was doing. He knew right from the start what He was making even if those looking on had no idea. And this is where we are challenged in our lives. Do we trust the potter? Do we understand that He has a plan and a purpose even if we cannot see what He is actually doing and moulding in our lives?  [2] 

So let's just look at this process of moulding a little bit closer. How does the potter actually mould the clay into that which he wants? Well, by two basic means. Firstly it's the pressure from his hands and secondly it's the turning of the wheel. Do you know what the turning of the wheel represents? It is the changing events and circumstances that come into our life.  [3]  This hand and wheel was used in the moulding of all the great saints of old. Joseph, David, Daniel, Peter, Paul... God was going to use them radically and so we see a lot of pressure on their lives. We see a lot of circumstances changing in their lives. As Romans 9 tells us -

Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:20-21)

God doesn't have the same purpose in mind for all of us. The fact is that not all of us are going to be superstars if you like in the Christian life! Not all of us are going to be missionaries on the front line or great men like Moses, Daniel, Peter and Paul. Some of us are just made for common use. God has the right to choose what He wants to make and who He wants to use for what purpose. But you need to be aware that if God wants to use you for a special purpose then the moulding will take longer and turning of the wheel will be greater in your life than in those around you. You will wonder why God allows so many difficult things to come into your life while others around you seem to have things much easier. Unfortunately it is preparation for the making of a special vessel!

And what about the clay?

What rights does the clay have? As Jeremiah looked at the potter moulding this clay - if he was to think about the clay, what rights does the clay have? We hear so much about people's rights these days.  [4]  But what rights did the clay have? Well the clay didn't have any rights whatsoever! Let's go back to Isaiah 45 verse 9 where we started and read that again.

"Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker-- An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, 'What are you doing?' Or the thing you are making say, 'He has no hands'? Isaiah 45:9

The difference between a potter dealing with clay and God dealing with us is that the clay doesn't moan, groan and exert its own will against that of the potter! When the potters hand comes and starts to put pressure on the clay, the clay doesn't try to fight back just to maintain the shape that it was before. Yet when God deals with us we do all of those things. We have our own will and we moan, groan and fight back against what God is trying to do.  [5]  So what is God actually wanting from us? What does the potter want from the clay? What the potter wants from the clay is firstly that it will be flexible and mouldable. That it will not be brittle so that if He tries to mould it into the shape that He wants it just snaps or breaks. It has to be flexible enough that He can create what He wants to do with that clay. It's exactly the same with God in our lives.

Bringing the Potter down to our level!

Let's have a look at one another verse in Isaiah to do with the potter and the clay. It's in chapter 29 verses 15-16:

Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, "Who sees us? Who will know?" You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, "He did not make me"? Can the pot say of the potter, "He knows nothing"? Isaiah 29:15-16

In chapter 29 Isaiah says that we actually turn things around. We actually bring God down. We try to make Him like us and He is not. His thoughts are not our thoughts and we need to realise this when trouble and difficulties come into our lives. When we see the hand of God trying to mould our life, we need to realise that His thoughts are not our thoughts and He has thoughts that are good for us even though it might be a time of pressure and difficulty. Also in that verse it says 'that the clay speaks back to the potter' and it says 'shall the potter be considered equal with the clay that what is made would say to its maker He did not make me '. Isaiah was talking about his own time but it's even more relevant today because you have even more people that just think that they evolved, that they were not actually made by a creator.  [6] 


So just to conclude this message, the whole illustration of the potter and the clay is one that God wanted Jeremiah to come and watch and learn from. He wanted to point out that He is really the true potter and we are the clay. And this whole illustration is one of the sovereignty of God and His right to control and manipulate the clay for His purposes. Our response is to submit to God and to be flexible and moldable.

I will just conclude with one last illustration - it was something I read from Phillip Yancy. Yancy apparently was a very good chess player and he played quite a lot in high school and he considered himself to be pretty good as he won most of his matches. Quite a few years later he met a truly fine world class chess player who had perfected his technique for years. Yancy wrote

'I learned what it is to like to play against a master. Any classic offence I tried he countered with a classic defence. If I turned to a more risky unorthodox technique he incorporated my bold forays into his winning strategies. Although I had complete freedom to make any move I wished I soon reached the conclusion that none of my strategies mattered very much. His superior skill guaranteed that my moves inevitably ended up serving his own winning strategy.' And Yancy went onto suggest that 'God engages our world, His own creation, in much the same way. He grants us freedom to rebel against its original design but even as we do we end up ironically serving His eventual goal of restoration. If I accept that blueprint it transforms how I view both good and bad things that happen. Good things such as health, talent and money I can present to God as offerings to serve His purpose. And bad things too, disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failures - they can be redeemed as the very instruments that drive me to God. A sceptic may accuse me of flagrant rationalism arguing backwards to make evidence fit a prior conclusion. Yes, exactly. A Christian begins with the conclusion that a good God will restore creation to its original design and he sees all history proceeding towards that end. When a grand master plays a chess amateur victory is assured no matter how the board may look at any given moment.'

That's fantastic because that is God. God is the Grand Master and at any moment in our life, even if things look really, really grim, even if things are really difficult victory is ultimately still assured. He can turn any situation. And he has a purpose when He applies pressure into our lives. Amen.

[1] ↩  Just as a quick recap, at the start of this chapter God calls a man, a chap by the name of Cyrus. Who is he? He was actually the king of Persia. The one who would lead the Medes and the Persians in conquering the Babylonians. Now this prophecy of Isaiah was given in 700 B.C. Basically 150 years before Cyrus even came onto this planet! And yet God here actually calls him by name 150 years in advance. The Jewish historian Josephus actually recorded that the Jews showed Cyrus this prophecy when he conquered Babylon the fact that he was already written in their book... Boy would that blow you away or what? So God in this chapter is fairly much introducing Himself in a prophetic passage to Cyrus and He is saying that He is God and He has a plan and that He has chosen Cyrus specifically with a purpose in mind. Very much like you and me - He has chosen us also with a purpose for our life. When you get to verse 6 & 7 we read:

 I am the Lord and there is no other. The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these. 

So God here tells Cyrus about Himself. That He is the only God. That He is the Sovereign God. He is the one who is in control. He is the one that not only brings well being but scripture also says that He brings calamity. And that is all part of the sovereignty of God. Which brings us to verse 9 about the Potter and the Clay. Why do you think that follows on in this context?

[2] ↩  In this last week I heard two stories about two different pastors in two different parts of the world. I will just tell you about them briefly. The first pastor was an American pastor and he was well loved by his church and his congregation. One day he got a virus and the virus attacked his vocal chords and he couldn't speak. He thought to himself - I will get over this, I will get better and will go back to work. But the days went into weeks and the weeks went into months. And he could not speak. The congregation really loved him and they obviously wanted to keep him as a Pastor so he stayed on for a year even though he couldn't give any sermons or minister like before. He just could not speak. After a year he thought that he would have to resign, which he did as he didn't think it was fair to the church to stay on. And for the next three years, it seemed as if times were pretty tough. His wife had to go back to work. This virus that had attacked his vocal chords had rendered him mute, apart from just a slight little voice. After three years his church actually asked him to come back just to teach an adult Sunday school. He said that he couldn't really speak, that he only had a slight, slight whisper but they said 'we don't care, speak right into the microphone, we will turn the microphone right up and we will listen really, really intently... We just want you back!' And so he agreed. They recorded his message so as you listened you were hearing the actual events of that day. You could hear him speaking in just a little squeaky voice, very quietly. And he was actually talking about the fact when it comes to God and healing, people go to two extremes. Some people say that healing is in the atonement so that if we have faith then we should be healed because Jesus died for all our sicknesses and he said that that is not actually biblical (and I agree with that). He said that other people go to the other extreme and say that miracles and healing died out in the first century and he said that this was not biblical and this I totally agree with that as well! He began speaking about the Sovereignty of God and as he did an amazing wonderful thing happened... as he was talking slowly but surely his voice started to come back to him! And he had to stop as he was in bewilderment as to what was happening. He knew that a miracle was actually taking place while he explained the Sovereignty of God. It was an amazing thing to hear and suddenly after a while the congregation started to realise as well that he was speaking normally and they all started to clap and he was miraculously healed. I believe he now has a ministry called New Voice Ministries. And it was just an amazing testimony of God sovereignly moving to heal this man. He was able to go back and pastor again. Just a fantastic wonderful story. A real tear jerker when you hear it happening believe me!

The other story that I heard, and it only came a couple of days after this, was of a pastor who lives pretty close to where I live and he was out mountain biking in the Redwood Forest with someone from his congregation and there was a path that split and he went one way and the other person went the other. This path joins back up and where it joins up the person who he was mountain biking with got there but the pastor didn't arrive. So he waited and after a while he double backed down the track and found that the pastor had actually come off his bike and had gone head first into a tree. That Pastor, at the time I heard about it, was on life support and he couldn't even breathe by himself. The signs are that he may be a tetraplegic. And when you hear stories like that you just think WHY! WHY? And it can shake your belief in the Sovereignty of God. But the fact is we don't know what God is going to do in this situation, but we do know that God is sovereign, that he has allowed it for His own purpose and that He can turn all things and work all things for good for those who love Him.

[3] ↩  In Stuart Briscoes book 'Captivity to Conquest' he talks about the Potter's wheel. Let me quote part of this here for I thought it was very good... 'Presently the wheel begins to turn and as it does the potter's hand moves and presses upon the clay. They give a little here and press a little harder there in order to bring the thought that is in his mind for the clay into reality. The two most important factors are the pressure of his hand and the speed of the wheel and he controls both of them. It is he who applies the pressure. It is he who regulates the speed. The plan that was in God's mind for you is brought into reality in exactly the same way. There are the same two deciding factors - first the pressure of his hand and secondly the pace of the wheel. The pace of the wheel is indicated by the way the Lord arranges your circumstances moving them at such a pace and in such a direction it enables Him to form a shapeless piece of clay into a vessel of His choice. And we know that all things work together for good for those that love God and are called according to His purpose. Yes providence is the handmaid of God's grace. The two are allies. The God of redemption is the God of circumstance. And he goes on to say - Are you feeling the pressure of God's hand and the pace of the wheel? When the pressure is greatest and the speed is fastest I believe it is because He has in mind the production of a very special kind of vessel. When He fashioned Moses, Joseph, David, Daniel, Peter and Paul - Oh how the wheel turned. Think about Joseph and the turn of the wheel in his life. Its revolving almost makes me feel giddy to think about it. A sheltered home and the wheel turns, a pit and then the wheel turns, the slave market and the wheel turns again. Potiphar's house with its luxury and temptation and the wheel turns. A prison cell - the wheel turns again. The Palace and ultimately his elevation to second in the land with Pharaoh. How the wheel turned in Joseph's life. Yet not one inch of it did move without the hand of the Master Potter being on the clay. For God was making a special vessel.

[4] ↩  I was watching television the other day and a lady who was a teacher in England decided to sneak a camera into her class just so that she could show what the classroom scene was like. So she had this secret camera and she was trying to get one of the pupils to do their work. She was just trying to tell this young girl to stop chatting and do what she was supposed to be doing and as she was telling this girl to do her work the girl replied - 'you can't do anything to me. I know my rights, you can't tell me what to do.' And that is partly the generation that is growing up - it's all about their rights. The Christian message is come to Jesus and die. Take up your cross and follow me. You know for a generation which is all about their rights and what's important to them, becoming a Christian and submitting to the Lordship of Christ and submitting to the potters hand is not an easy thing.

[5] ↩  Just from a personal point of view, I lost all sight in my left eye three years ago in a surfing accident. I damaged it really badly. At the time I took it in my stride and I really tried to submit myself to God's Sovereignty. Probably now, three years on I find myself more likely to be thinking - 'Why God?' or 'Why did that have to happen. What were you trying to do there? What was I to learn out of all of this and what good can come out of it?' And if I am not careful I find myself going down those tracks and start to doubt God's purpose in it all and why it had to happen. The clay starts talking back to the potter! But it's not good. The fact is that in this world we will have trouble and we need to submit ourselves under the Sovereignty of God because He is kind and He does care and when hard things and trouble come into our lives (and that is an absolute 100% promise of God) you need to believe that He has a purpose for allowing it.

[6] ↩  Speaking about the fact that the clay would say to the Potter that 'You did not make me' one commentator said 'For the Lord and His prophet this was absolutely absurd, but today it passes as high science.'