“Like the potter and the clay.”
It is a metaphor as common in Christian speech as almost any other. It is derived from this little scene in Jeremiah.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” (Jeremiah 18:1-6)
Typically, we view this passage as a metaphor for the shaping of individual human life in the hands of our Creator. However, the context is about nations and history more than individual persons.
“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.'” (Jeremiah 18:7-11)
What are the implications of this passage?
God Shapes the Nations
God is not a distant observer of human history. The story of nations and kingdoms has been and continues to be shaped by the Almighty. He may declare that a nation is to be built up, or decide to pull it down. Empires do not overthrow God. Empires are overthrown by God. Nations may decide how they wish to view God, but never how they stand beneath God.
No nation is exempt from God’s dominion. Egypt learned that the Hebrews were God’s nation, not Pharaoh’s slaves. When Israel approached Canaan, they were told to remember this lesson:
“If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’ you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the LORD your God brought you out. So will the LORD your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid.” (Deut. 7:17-19)
Centuries later, mighty Assyria marched against Jerusalem after crushing Syria and Israel to the north. However, God explained to Hezekiah that all that had happened had been at God’s direction, as would be the eventual Assyrian retreat.
“Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should turn fortified cities into heaps of ruins, while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops, blighted before it is grown. But I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. Because you have raged against me and your complacency has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.” (2 Kings 19:25-29)
In the days of the exile, God once again asserted himself as the God of the nations, saying through Isaiah that Cyrus of Persia was “his anointed … whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations and to loose the belts of kings” (Isaiah 45:1). God claims to have shaped the stories of many nations, including the Cushites, the Philistines, and the Syrians (Amos 9:7). Likewise, our Lord explained to a Roman governor that he had no power of his own except what “had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
Humans Do Not Shape Nations
If God shapes the nations, then I do not. All political campaigns revolve around the assertion that this particular person must be elected so that he or she can take the nation “Forward” (Clinton 2016), “Make America Great Again” (Trump 2016), or “Keep America Great” (Trump 2020). I don’t actually know what Biden’s campaign slogan was, but I assume it was of the same sort. All such claims and promises amount to less than anyone would ever believe. Faith may move mountains, but emperors do not.
We ought instead to remember the old tale of King Canute, who ruled over England, Denmark, and Norway:
In addition to the many wars in which he was most particularly illustrious, he performed three fine and magnificent deeds. … When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.” Thereafter King Canute never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of King Canute enjoy rest. (“The Changing Story of Cnut and the Waves,” medievalists.net).
If God shapes the nations, then I do not, nor does any king or candidate.
If God shapes the nations, then my anxiety over our national future is wasted. A Christian would be a fool to have no concern for the nation and its moral standing. Paul advocates prayer as a proper response to such concern (1 Timothy 2:1-2). However, many of us take this to an unhealthy extreme. We fear so much, and so often, ignoring the Scripture’s most common command: “Fear not.” We desperately need to recalibrate both our expectations and concerns. The ascendancy of an unworthy candidate or party and the downfall of our republic are not the worst things that could happen in this election cycle. Which brings us to …
The worst thing that could happen in this or any period of history is that the people of God would prove faithless. In Jeremiah’s time, God’s people are told that the nation is in God’s hand, but their decision to obey his voice was their own. “Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.” In the days of Christian persecution, the church was reminded that faithfulness was the only concern of God’s people (Revelation 2:20). Today, our task remains the same. Like King Canute, we cannot roll back tides, but we can decide who we recognize as the Lord of tides and nations.
Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.