The parable of the potter and clay is a common, and probably the most popular, illustration of God’s sovereign control over mankind. Isaiah used this illustration in his message of doom to the city of Jerusalem (Isaiah 29:15-16). The LORD told Jeremiah, “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words” (Jeremiah 18:2). Jeremiah was given a first-hand account of the LORD’s plan to change his people into a different kind of “vessel” for his use. Jeremiah said, “Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it” (Jeremiah 18:3).
One of the key points in the message Jeremiah received was shown in the actions of the potter. It says in Jeremiah 18:3, the potter “wrought a work.” He was making a valuable object that he intended to sell for money. The Hebrew word translated work in this verse is derived from the root word malak, which means to dispatch as a deputy; a messenger (4397). The purpose of the vessel the potter created was most likely a container for storing and preserving important documents. The LORD was depicting his people as receptacles, perhaps, of the gospel. They were to be used to transport his message around the world. The fact that the vessel was formed on “wheels” indicated the potter was using motion to facilitate the process of his work.
The illustration of the potter and clay may have suggested that Israel was no longer fit to be used by God as messengers of the gospel. After Jeremiah’s life was threatened a second time for speaking God’s word, he was told to “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 19:1-2), the place where human sacrifices were made. There, he was instructed, “Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee. And shalt say unto them, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again” (Jeremiah 19:10-11).
The breaking of the clay bottle signified not only the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s temple, but also the breaking of the covenant between God and his chosen people. The Hebrew word used for break in this passage is the same word used in Exodus 32:19 where it is recorded that Moses cast the stone tablets that contained the Ten Commandments out of his hands when he saw the golden calf that Aaron had made the people worship. The clay bottle, as well as the stone tablets, were not merely broken, but completely shattered. The LORD’s reference to the bottle not being able to be made whole again indicated that the clay bottle also may have signified the heart’s of his people. To be made whole meant you were healed or cured of a disease (7495). Apparently, the hearts of the people of Judah were so hardened toward God that he could no longer cure them of their idolatry.