The potter at work with the clay is one of God’s favorite images of Himself and people. God’s hands began shaping people at creation. “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew word for “formed” is יָצַר (yāṣar) which means to shape, form, fashion, or create.
The potter pictures God’s ability to fashion and make things. According to Alan Coppedge, the strength of the potter and clay image is its “graphicness in creating pottery, often beautifully,” and “the key purpose is to communicate that God has the power to do what seems good to Him to do (Jeremiah 18:4)” (Allan Coppedge, Portraits of God, Kindle).
Isaiah connects the role of the potter with God’s role as creator or maker.
Isaiah 45:9-12 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? 10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’” 11 Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands? 12 I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.
The potter image describes God as creator, and the above text also uses the concept of the potter to compare God with the work of a Father fashioning or shaping his children in their growth. The father aspect of the potter metaphor is brought to the forefront in Isaiah 64:8, “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
The physical properties of clay make it a powerful biblical metaphor. It is soft and pliable in one form, and it can also be hard or brittle. Clay provides an excellent image for human beings as the work of God’s creative hand. As the master potter, God has the right to give each of His creations a specific shape and purpose (Leland Ryken, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, InterVarsity, 2000, 155).
We may not always like the way we are being shaped. The clay is gouged, poked, molded, heated, etc., as the potter works. Yet, it is futile for the clay to argue with the potter (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; Romans 9:19-21). The potter uses the clay to express His will. The clay needs the potter; without the potter, the clay is formless (purposeless).
We must be careful and not become “spoiled” clay (Jeremiah 18:3-6) or too hard for the potter to use. Let us determine to be soft, moldable, pliable clay that is open to God’s Word and God’s people. Sometimes this is painful. Yet the call is to have the attitude of the psalmist:
Psalm 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me
Psalm 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!