"But now, O Lord, Thou art our Father; we are the clay, and Thou our Potter: and we are the work of Thy hand." (Isaiah 64:8)
THE Lord told the prophet Jeremiah to go down to the potter's field, and there he should receive a lesson from heaven, in respect to that which he beheld in the potter's field. If we have a message from heaven we shall all have to know what it is to go down. Zacchaeus thought to see Jesus by climbing into the sycamore tree; but the Lord, when He came under the tree, said, "Come down," and Zacchaeus had to come down in order that he might know his helplessness. I believe that divine teaching in the soul has ever been the same through all ages of the Church's history. God's people must know what it is to come down very low in the dust, and the Lord says He will raise up the poor out of the dust, and lift up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among the princes of His people. (1 Sam. 2:8) Jeremiah had to go down to the potter's field, and we read in the text that Isaiah had to go down to the potter's field to learn, and the great Apostle to the Gentiles had to go down to the potter's field and learn. I hope we may learn today by a visit to the Potter's field--not an earthly potter, but the heavenly Potter. May we be able to realize that He is our Potter, and that we are in His hands; that we are being fashioned by His hands; and, above all, may we be able to realize that He is our Father, and that we are in His hands: that He is fashioning us, not as vessels to dishonor, but to everlasting honor.
Now in looking at these words, and viewing the potter at work, let us notice going down to the potter's field. The potter works in a sovereign way upon the clay. The clay does not command the potter, but the potter commands the clay. The clay does not fashion itself, but the potter fashions the clay. The clay is helpless, the potter does everything for it. He shows his sovereignty by taking one lump of clay, and leaving another lump of clay. We find very early in the Church's history that people did not like this doctrine, that God, in His divine sovereignty, chooses one and refuses another. All God's dealings with His people are according to the sovereign hand of the divine Potter. If I am speaking this morning to any who have felt enmity against this truth that runs through the whole of God's precious Word--"I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy;" "It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth; but of God that showeth mercy" (Rom. 9:15,16)--if any of you are feeling enmity against his doctrine, I would pray to God to show them the truth of divine sovereignty, and to manifest them as vessels of honor. If you say, "The great concern of my heart is this: Am I a vessel of honor? O that it might be made manifest that I belong to Him!" Now I can sympathize with you. For years I had been under the same exercise myself. I saw God's sovereignty in blessing Abel, and not Cain; He chose Isaac, and not Ishmael; He called Solomon, and gave him wonderful wisdom and grace, while He did not manifest any work in Absalom. I saw God's sovereignty run through the Word of God. Had He chosen me?
"Though God's election is a truth,
Small comfort there I see,
Till I am told, by God's own mouth,
That He has chosen me."
I read a remark about the unpardonable sin, where it said that if a soul was mourning over sin, and mourning after the Saviour, that they had never committed the unpardonable sin. It may equally apply to a poor sinner mourning over their sins and after the Saviour--it is a mark that they are elected. These words were a help to me, "For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon Thee." (Ps. 86:5) Saying prayers is not calling on the Lord. If a tradesman calls after anyone in the street, he is in earnest about it, he is anxious that the person should stop, he wants to communicate with them. So Paul says God's calling proves election; and David says, in the verse I just quoted, that the sinner calling on God proves his election. Paul says, "Whom He did predestinate, them He also called." That was their proof of election. So if God has put in your heart desires after His blessing, it is a mark of election. It is much better to be seeking after a manifestation of your election than to feel enmity and be kicking against the divine truth of God's election. Those whom God has elected are real mourners over sin, and want to know that their sins are pardoned. God's election causes them to mourn over sin, and "we love Him because He first loved us."
My experience has not been so deep as some. I was not brought into such great terrors, nor lifted up to the third heaven of joy. I felt, O I want to be one of these people! I wanted these marks of my election, and it troubled my heart. When I was here before, I said to a friend of yours, "I hope I had the words with a little softness of spirit; I hope they came from the Lord." He said, "I do not know a better mark of their coming from the Lord than some softness of spirit." Do you know what a little softness is--to come like a gentle dew with a softening effect upon the spirit? When I was wondering if God had chosen me, though my experience had not been so deep, or so joyful, or such a full manifestation as some, these words came: "The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear Him, in those that hope in His mercy."
I had a customer at my place of business the other day. I had never had any conversation with her before, and I did not know what her feelings about religious matters might be. She came down to me, and said, "I am sorry you are going to leave Blackheath. I thought I should like just a little conversation with you." She began to tell how she had had considerable distress of soul, and she had been blessed with some assurance of her interest in Christ. She had been groping for the wall like the blind. One morning she read these words in Nehemiah, that the Lord hears the prayers of those who desire to fear His name. She had felt sometimes afraid she did not fear His name, but she said, "I do desire to fear His name." She had been going from church to church, but she could not find anyone exercised and tried just as she was. Those "who desire to fear Thy name," was a help to her, and may be a help to some of you.
Secondly. If we go to the potter's field again, and look at the potter at work, we shall see not only the sovereignty of his hand, but also the power of his hand. The potter's hand is a very powerful hand.
If you go into a pottery they will show you the material that the potter has to work upon. They will show you a lump of clay; also stones of different kinds, and bones. They will say, "These are the materials that we have to work upon." They will bring you a beautiful dinner-service with a lovely pattern upon it, or a tea-service with some very fine design, or a vase with different flowers upon it, and say, "Those are the materials of which these are made--stones, clay, and bones; this piece of china was fashioned out of those materials; these handsome things were wrought under the power of the potter's hand; his hand formed these beautiful designs."
So what is the material the Lord works upon? He comes and works on the stony heart, once lifeless and dead as the dead bones. The Lord saw Manasseh following after all kinds of idolatry and sin, and he forsook all the godly counsel of his father, Hezekiah. Manasseh made the streets of Jerusalem to run down with innocent blood--probably offered his children as sacrifices to idols. Who would have thought that such a hard, lifeless, dead sinner, could ever become in grace like unto a David? Yet God took that Manasseh, and fashioned him into a gracious soul like unto His servant David. The Lord took the mad Gadarene, who lived amongst the tombs; no man could bind him--he broke the bonds, and was a terror to the whole country. Who would have thought that out of such materials as that ever could be formed a minister of Christ? But when the Lord took the mad Gadarene under His powerful hand, he became one to minister to others. When he was clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the Lord's feet, he wanted the Lord to let him be with Him, but Jesus said, "No--Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord has done for thee." You see the power of the Potter's hand in taking the most unlikely and fashioning them into vessels of mercy. This was one that He used for His service, for His glory. "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Some of you may say, "I was a lifeless, hard sinner indeed, but this wonderful Potter took me in hand, and fashioned me into one who sought His face and loved His name. "Is anything too hard for the Lord?"
In the pottery, before the potter works upon these hard, rough materials, those materials are put into a mill, and they are ground in that mill, perhaps for a day, it might even be for weeks, and the material is ground until it becomes like liquid cream, so that it can pass through a strainer with 4,000 threads to the square inch, which liquid the potter can use as he pleases. What do you know of the Lord's hand preparing you? Do you know something of being put into the mill? What mill does the Lord use? The mill of the holy law. This mill of God's holy law grinds the sinner down, and brings him down to perfect helplessness--into perfect submission to the Potter's will. I believe it is necessary to have some law-work in order to prize the mercy of our God. But though I say that, I do not set up a standard as to how long or how full of terrors that law-work must be; but I know that generally the great Potter works until the sinner is brought down as a bankrupt into perfect submission to the heavenly Potter's will.
Now, if I said, I know a famous physician, he can cure even cancer, the man who had not anything the matter, as far as he knew, could say, "I hope the poor things who are suffering from cancer will have the benefit." He does not think any more about it. But one day the doctor comes, and says, "I do not like that swelling on your hand; I feel you ought to have further advice," and they say it is a cancer. Then if I came along, and said, "I know a physician who can cure cancer," the man would be all ears at once; he would say, "Tell me where he lives. What evidence have you that he can cure cancer? What does he charge?" because the man wants to be cured of the malady. So it is with regard to Jesus. You may talk about Him, but those who do not know themselves, who do not know their need, may be interested to hear about Jesus, and may be pleased at the account, but nothing more. But the poor sinner that is brought condemned and guilty by God's law which says, "Pay me that thou owest!" feels, "I have nothing to pay with--I am ruined and bankrupt," when he realizes the Lord Jesus fulfilled that law (He had no need to do so for Himself; He did it on purpose for His people), that He paid all the debt, that He procured salvation for such as he--this is welcome news.
"Mercy is welcome news indeed
To those that guilty stand;
Wretches, that feel what help they need,
Will bless the helping hand."
They will indeed! Under the Potter's powerful hand, poor sinners are brought down in the mill of His law to feel their need of mercy. How long this may take I cannot say. I have known some under that work for years. The late Mr. Eli Page, who used to preach a few years ago, has told us that he was an ungodly young man, and the day his father was buried he stood by the open grave and looked at the coffin of one he had known so long, and now was dead and gone into eternity--the arrow of conviction entered his conscience, and he was persuaded that he was a sinner before God; and before long he was encouraged to hope in Christ, and that there was salvation for him, all in about half-an-hour (and He is able to do so still, if His heavenly will), though he had much to learn afterwards; and he became a useful servant of the Lord.
Thirdly, We will look at the potter's separating hand. The clay which has been brought down to a liquid needs separation. What does it need separating from? There is iron in the clay, and that iron must be separated from the clay. This is done with a magnet that draws the iron out. Iron represents strength. The strength of the clay must be taken out. So you find the Lord, when He is at work upon a poor sinner, takes away their strength--they are stripped of that strength, power and wisdom to make themselves better; they are brought helpless in the matter of salvation. They are brought down to feel their perfect weakness and helplessness to cause themselves to come. They cannot save themselves by their own strength, prayers and tears. That is the iron God draws out.
The potter separates the iron and the water as well. What does water represent? The Lord said concerning Reuben, "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." This instability may not be easily removed, it may be a long and difficult process. Look back, you that know what I am talking about. What a drawing there was after your old companions, and the allurements of the world in your early religious days. What instability. You seemed to be after the Lord one day and after man another. After the truth one day, and another day after some error. Drawn by the things of God one day, and another day by something in the world. Unstable. "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." The Lord draws the instability out, and brings His children more firm, more stable in the truth. How much this is needed. When a man is stable he is not moved about with every wind of doctrine; when he comes into trial and difficulty, he is brought to learn stability, and will find in tribulation what resting there is upon God Himself. How the Potter's hand is needed to separate from false strength on the one side, and from instability on the other side, so that they receive all their strength from the Potter's hand as seemeth Him good.
Shall we go down to the potter's field again, and ask the Lord to teach us something more? There is the potter's forming hand. He takes that clay in his sovereign hand, in his powerful hand, has it ground in the mill, brought into a plastic substance, separated from the iron and the water; then that clay is put upon his wheel, and he forms it into any vessel that may please him.
I remember once watching a potter with great interest take a lump of clay to form upon his wheel; first he formed it into a flower-pot, then into a jug, then into a tea-pot, and so on, and made different articles as it pleased his forming hand to work upon the wheel. So God fashions His vessels on the wheel just as He Himself sees best. There are a lot of wheels on which the heavenly Potter places His clay, His children; but I must say the Lord uses two wheels oftentimes to mold and fashion His people. One is the wheel of His providence. You remember Ezekiel saw the Lord's dealings with His children; he saw a wheel very high and very terrible, and full of eyes; it was so terrible that when he looked it was cried in his hearing, "O wheel!"--the Lord's dispensations with His people rolling through the earth, full of eyes great and terrible. The Lord uses some providential wheel to put His children--His clay--on, to form and mold them. Look at Ruth. We can but feel that it was a providential wheel that God used to mold Ruth. What was that? Death came into her house, came into her home, taking her husband, her husband's brother, and her husband's father. Three deaths! What a providential wheel Ruth was placed upon, and eventually she needed better comfort than the old religion of Moab could give her. One beneath her roof could tell her of the God of Israel, even good Naomi, and on that wheel Ruth was formed into a vessel, which was a vessel of honor and glory.
I dare say have told you before that it was the death of a young sister, taken away suddenly when I was an apprentice boy in London, which was the providential wheel used in order to form me into a vessel. I saw she had been taken so soon, and something said to me that I was unready for the great change.
Our heavenly Potter has another wheel that He works with. Ezekiel saw a wheel within a wheel. He uses the wheel of His Word. He speaks to poor sinners, and molds them on the wheel of His Word, as well as the wheel of His providence; He uses one with the other. You will find the Word of the Lord search through you at times, because of His molding power. What does He make with wheels of His Word and providence working together? Not a full vessel, but He makes an empty vessel. All God's teaching makes us empty vessels.
You know air always goes where there is a vacuum; if there is an empty vessel, there air goes. Where God makes an empty vessel, there the Holy Spirit is sure to be found. When your child hands a plate and there is something upon it, you say, "Take your plate back, you have got something in it." But let the child have an empty plate, and say, "Please will you put something in it," it is not long an empty plate, but has something put into it. The Lord intends to empty the plate, or cup, but He means to fill the empty plate, or cup. The work of the Lord in providence and in grace is a wheel within a wheel. He empties of pride and creature wisdom. Just like Jehoshaphat the king, when the three great nations came against him, he said, "We have no might against this great company that cometh against us, neither know we what to do." (2 Chron. 20:12) No wisdom--empty vessels. "But our eyes are upon Thee." God sent an answer of peace.
May the Lord's rich blessing rest upon what has been said, for His name's sake. Amen.
You find in the previous chapter that apparently some accusation had been hurled against Israel that God was not their Father. In the 16th verse we read, "Doubtless Thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: Thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer; Thy name is from everlasting." Then again in this chapter there is the same accusation referred to, "But now, O Lord, Thou art our Father (then there is proof given of the fact), we are the clay, and Thou our Potter; and we all are the work of Thy hand." Can you think of any better evidence of the soul being a child of God, and God being his Father, than that He had wrought a work by His hand upon them as the potter works upon the clay?
How many times Miss Steele's words have suited my feelings,--
"My God, my Father, blissful name!
O may I call Thee mine?
May I with sweet assurance claim
A portion so divine?"
If that is your desire as well as mine, may we both come to know what it is for God to work upon our souls, as set forth by the potter working on the clay.
We said this morning concerning the potter's work that, first of all, the potter has a very sovereign hand, and chooses a lump of clay in order that he may fashion it for his own use. Secondly, that in many instances He chooses the most unlikely materials, such as Manasseh, the mad Gadarene, Saul of Tarsus. He can choose such materials, and fashion them for His own use. Thirdly, the potter separates the iron and the water from the clay that has been ground in the mill, that it may become more suitable to work upon. The clay in the hands of the potter is fashioned into a vessel upon the wheel. As spoken of by Ezekiel, like a wheel within a wheel, God uses His Word and His providence. All His work is to make it an empty vessel, emptied of pride and everything but Himself, which He intends to fill this vessel with.
There is another sweet thought--may the Holy Spirit lead us into meditation upon it--the tenderness and compassion of the potter. Before the vessel becomes fired, before it goes in the oven, before it comes under the influence of the fire, the potter will put the vessel into a case and cover it all over, so that too great a heat should not touch it; and the potter watches the vessel through the firing, continually testing the heat so that it should not be too great and yet hot enough, and that the firing should not last too long. This shows the tenderness and compassion of the potter for the vessel he has formed on the wheel, and the great affection he has for the work of his hand. He knows, in order to strengthen it and do it good, it must go through the fire, so while the vessel is burnt it is not injured by it. The Lord, the heavenly Potter, if He has fashioned you upon His wheel, will know that it is needful for you to have the fire of trial. It is through much tribulation that God's dear children enter the kingdom. If there is no tribulation, there is no work for faith to do. The trial of faith is often spoken of as the "fiery trial." Yet, God knows our frame, He remembers that we are but dust. The Lord knows all about it. How beautiful are those two verses: "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust." (Ps. 103:13,14) Well, then, I may be speaking to some now in the furnace, or they may have been in days gone by in a fiery trial; that furnace shall do the work the Lord intends. He means that you shall be bettered by the cross; He does indeed.
The three Hebrew children were vessels the Lord was fashioning for Himself, but the Lord knew that the fire would do them good, and be to His own glory. The furnace was heated seven times hotter than usual. The Lord could have sent a waterspout and put the fire out, and that would have been a miracle; but He did a greater miracle when He permitted His children to be thrust into the furnace heated seven times hotter, taking care that they should not be destroyed by it. Their bonds were burnt in that affliction, but they did not lose the presence of their God. Some of you can look back to the fire where you lost some of your bonds, and were brought to realize the presence of God. Look at the loving, tender, compassionate hand of the Potter watching over His dear children in the fiery trial of persecution, or sorrow, as the case may be, designing that they should be bettered by the cross. Paul was bettered by his thorn in the flesh (that may be rendered stake). This stake, driven into his flesh, he asked the Lord to take away; but the Lord said, I shall not take it away, but My grace is sufficient to enable you to bear it, and to be bettered by that thorn in the flesh.
Another thought about the potter's hand is that he seeks to preserve the clay. It is a preserving hand. The clay that is wrought on the wheel must be put into the oven, and that vessel has next to be dipped in some particular preparation that forms a glaze over the vessel without and within--it is covered with this preserving medium; and it is put into the fire again in order that this preserving glaze shall be burnt into and upon it, to preserve it from the corroding influence of the atmosphere. The air itself is pure, but in this lower world in which we live it is so mixed with vapors, and dust, and things of a corroding nature, that it would be destroyed; but by the preserving care of the potter's hand, the vessel is not marred. The Lord preserves His dear children from the influence that surrounds them, that it should not mar His work, or injure them. The Lord gives a preserving medium--He puts upon His children imputed righteousness, and sanctification is wrought within their souls. Joseph Hart says--
"But let righteousness imputed
Be the breastplate of thy heart."
You see the need of being covered by the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, which he wrought out, but not for Himself; He had no need of it, but that righteousness was for giving away to poor sinners who needed it--some of us feel our need of it. We need to seek the Lord for His sustaining and upholding grace, that we may stand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Perhaps you say, "But I feel guilty and filthy." Did you always feel that? What made you feel it? The sanctifying influence of the Spirit within thy heart makes thee long for holiness. It does not come to you by nature, but it is wrought in you by the Spirit of God. Some good man told a friend that he was going to write a book on sanctification. The friend asked him, six months later, how it was getting on. He said, "I have not written a line, for I have felt so much of sin within that it seemed to be mockery to write about sanctification." That good man knew something of the work of sanctification, that showed him he was a guilty, unworthy wretch.
"And we all are the work of Thy hand." We may also see that the potter's hand is a conforming hand. He designs that the vessel he works shall be conformed into the image which is in his own mind, in the shape and the design he embosses upon it. The Lord works upon the vessel which He has in hand, so that it shall be conformed to the image in His own mind. What is the image that the Lord designs the vessel to be conformed to? That it shall be conformed to the image of Christ. Now, you may feel very unlike Christ. Remember you will never be conformed to Christ's glorified image till you meet Him in glory. While you are in the Church below you will be conformed to His image while here on earth--to His suffering image. The disciples who had walked and talked with Jesus, and who went forth in His name, it is said that men took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus. They bore the image of their Lord and Master; they were conformed by the great Potter. Grace separates from the world. Are you a separated one, not going after the pleasures and vanities of the world, but separated unto God? What about yourselves, dear friends? Dost thou bear the separating image of thy Master, or canst thou go into the world's vanities and follies, or art thou one separated unto the Lord?
"Cold mountains and the midnight air
Witness'd the fervour of His prayer."
"We are the clay, and Thou our Potter; and we all are the work of Thy hand." There is the potter's owning hand; because when the potter has made a vessel he approves of, he owns that vessel, he will put his mark, his seal upon it. I have a little china dish that was given me by a dear relative for a wedding present over thirty years ago. Only yesterday I had the piece in my hand, and a friend took it out of my hand, and turned to the back to look at the mark. He said, "That is real Derby china." How could he tell? Because it had got the potter's mark on the back. Well, what is the seal that the gracious Potter puts upon every vessel as His mark? Let us take the words of the Apostle: "And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption." That is the Potter's mark--the seal of the Holy Spirit; that is the mark on the Potter's work that the Potter will own. Therefore, how important to know something about the Spirit's work! When the prophet saw the man with the slaughter weapon in his hand he saw also one clothed in linen, with a writer's inkhorn by his side, who had to go first, and where there was one sighing and crying for the things done in the land, he was to put a mark upon the forehead--that was the seal. The man with the slaughter weapon was told, "Come not near any man upon whom is the mark." You may say, "Have I the seal of the Spirit?" Do you know something of the abominations done in your heart. That is the seal of the Spirit. One part of the Spirit's work is to bring the soul into mourning for sin. "When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment." (John 16:8-11) The Holy Spirit shows them that their sins are pardoned, that the righteousness of Christ is theirs, that the justice of God is in their favor. The Spirit's work is to take of the things of Christ, and reveal them unto the soul. (John 16:14,15)
If we are clay, the work of the Potter, we shall know something of filling. An empty vessel is made to fill with something, if it is only to be filled with a few flowers. When the Lord makes an empty vessel for His own use, He intends to fill that vessel Himself. What does He fill it with? He fills it first of all with repentance, He fills it with hope, He works in it the fruits of His Spirit, they are made manifest as put into this empty vessel. When that empty vessel is filled, it will be manifest unto others; they may see what the potter has done when the Potter fills His vessel. I want to be a filled vessel, filled with the fruits of the Spirit--with meekness, joy, longsuffering, love, and gentleness.
The Lord's vessels, the vessels of mercy, can never be destroyed. Where the Lord begins a work He carries it on even to the day of Jesus Christ. "We are the clay, and Thou or Potter; and we all are the work of Thy hand"--otherwise we should not be here. Therefore to Thy name be all the glory." Amen.