Jeremiah and the Potter

Jeremiah 18 and Romans 9: a shared metaphor

In talking with Calvinists, there is always one passage that they pull out that in effect tells Arminians/non-predestinarians to “shut up and color.” This passage is the potter/clay metaphor of Romans 9. Most Bible scholars acknowledge that Paul’s potter metaphor was drawn, at least in part, from Jeremiah 18. Here’s the relevant passage (Rom 9.18-24 NET):

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” But who indeed are you – a mere human being – to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use? But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

Contrast this with Jeremiah 18.5-12:

Then the LORD said to me, “I, the LORD, say: ‘O nation of Israel, can I not deal with you as this potter deals with the clay? In my hands, you, O nation of Israel, are just like the clay in this potter’s hand.’ There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it. So now, tell the people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem this: The LORD says, ‘I am preparing to bring disaster on you! I am making plans to punish you. So, every one of you, stop the evil things you have been doing. Correct the way you have been living and do what is right.’ But they just keep saying, ‘We do not care what you say! We will do whatever we want to do! We will continue to behave wickedly and stubbornly!'”

A perspicacious reader will notice that there is a marked difference in tone. The Jeremiah passage states very clearly that if the nation God intends to destroy repents, He will stay His judgment, or if He looks favorably on a nation and they rebel, He will punish it. On the other hand, the Calvinist tells us, Paul turns it around without blinking an eye and uses this metaphor to affirm that His will is inexorable and altogether independent of the human element.

Moberly on inevitable judgment vs. warnings

R.W.L. Moberly at the University of Durham, in a lecture I found on the Durham website, notes that not only does Jeremiah 18 apparently contrast with Romans 9, but it also seems to contrast with the tenor of the rest of Jeremiah.

…On the one hand, the shape of the book of Jeremiah as a whole conveys the message that national disaster for Judah is inevitable. Thus for example the prime section of the temple sermon in chapter 7 (which seems to envisage as a real possibility both amendment of life and aversion of destruction) and the well-known potter and the clay — this is directly followed by material which emphasizes the inevitability of coming judgment upon an unresponsive people for whom Jeremiah is forbidden to intercede. And you get comparable juxtapositions throughout the book. Even if once there was a time when human turning (repentance) might have elicited a divine relenting, that time has now passed and disaster is inevitable. [emphasis mine] If there is hope for the future, it is hope only on the far side of judgment; Judah must pass through the valley of deep darkness and cannot go around it.

On the other hand, corresponding to this emphasis that turning to God cannot avert coming national disaster is an emphasis that national restoration is not premised upon a turning to God; on the contrary, the initiative lies entirely with God. In the oracles of hope for the future, the so-called [Book of] Consolation (Jeremiah 30-33), there is only marginal reference to human turning and overwhelming emphasis on divine initiative in a way that seems entirely to bypass human action. This is the point of the famous New Covenant passage in chapter 31.31-34 where the Lord says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” The consequence or corollary of this divine initiative is that normal human processes of formation and growth will no longer be needed. “‘No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ says the Lord.”

In a comparable way, Jeremiah’s symbolic purchase of a field that expresses hope for the future in chapter 32 is interrupted by a prayer that expresses astonishment that the Lord should act thus for a disobedient people (the second part of chapter 32). This prayer receives an answer that underlines the evil of Israel and Judah and says nothing of their turning other than that they have failed to do it, but again speaks of divine initiative in restoration under the general principle, “Indeed, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32.27)

Trying to find internal consistency and determine how we are to interpret Jeremiah’s calls for repentance if God had made His mind up already to destroy Judah, Moberly turns to the verses from Jeremiah 18 immediately preceding those quoted above (vv. 1-4):

The LORD said to Jeremiah: “Go down at once to the potter’s house. I will speak to you further there.” So I went down to the potter’s house and found him working at his wheel. Now and then there would be something wrong with the pot he was molding from the clay with his hands. So he would rework the clay into another kind of pot as he saw fit.

From this Moberly notes,

  1. The vessel is spoiled.
  2. The potter remakes it.
  3. The new vessel appears to be a remaking of the original vessel which is not discarded as it might have been.
  4. The potter does what he does as seems good to him.

Pay attention especially to number 3, of which Moberly remarks, “…This can be taken as a picture of a fresh start that is entirely dependent on the will of the potter ‘as seemed good to him,’ to work with recalcitrant material rather than start afresh with new clay.”

Now let me be clear: I have no idea what Moberly believes about Calvinism; that is not directly his point. He does think this passage has implications for the theology of Jeremiah as regards divine sovereignty vs. humanity’s free will.

Bringing it home

What I think is interesting is that points 3 and 4 match my belief that the predestination language of Romans 9 refers specifically and only to God’s dealings with His covenant people as a matter of salvation history. Notice the parallels to Paul’s arguments in Romans 9-11 concerning ethnic Israel.

For one, Paul believes that Israel’s hardening was part of God’s plan to bring in the Gentiles; this hardening, like that of Pharaoh, was merely the giving over to their own evil desires (cf. Romans 1.24), but was not a permanent state of rejection. Like the obstinate clay of Jeremiah’s potter, God did not simply destroy the offenders, but retained them for His own use. In fact, in chapter 11 Paul argues that the promises of God to ethnic Israel would only be truly fulfilled after that point. This parallels Jeremiah’s statements: the time had passed in which repentance could bring salvation for the people of God. The only way that God could accomplish His plan of redemption was through judgment, and even after that judgment, Israel was not to be saved by her own turning, but at God’s initiative (cf. Rom 9.16). God had to fulfill His promises, and He did so in the gracious way that allowed for (and depended on) the induction of the nations into His salvation. Predestination was corporate and it was redemptive: there is certainly no double predestination argued in Romans 9-11.

Why does God go about things in this manner? Here again, Jeremiah and Paul agree: because it seemed good to Him (Jer 18.4; Rom 9.18). It seemed good to Him because it demonstrates His power (Jer 32.27; Rom 9.22). Moreover, God did this for the reason stated in Romans 9.23-24: “…to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles.” God’s glory is demonstrated by His great mercy.

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