The Word of God is true forever, but I think sometimes certain metaphors in the Word lose a little as cultures and technology change. The truthfulness remains, but people’s understanding of it may diminish simply because of different life experiences.
Lately, one such verse that has been on my mind is Isaiah 64:8, which says “But now, O LORD, You are our father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
For many people today, the art of pottery is a lost one. After all, we can purchase factory-made ceramics for minimal costs. Many people have never seen a skilled artisan shape a pot or pitcher. If one does find and purchase a hand-made piece, it usually remains on a shelf as a memento or decoration. Yet for most of history, pottery was not only an art, but a useful and perhaps necessary trade. Hand-made clay pots were used for eating, drinking, cooking, and storage.
I work at a living history museum that represents life in the early nineteenth century. One of the exhibits is the Pottery Shop. Here, visitors can marvel as a skilled craftsman in nineteenth-century costume forms a beautiful redware mug in minutes on a foot-operated wheel. While the techniques of our potters are surely different from those of Biblical times, some of the same principles of shaping clay remain.
Watching this process has given me a newfound appreciation and perspective of Isaiah 64:8 that I would like to share.
First of all, pottery is a messy art. As the potter throws the clay and works the wheel, wet clay inevitably splatters. The potter’s clothes often have dried remnants even when he was wearing an apron. The window and table next to the wheel also often have dried clay splatters on them. The same can be said of God’s dealing with us. It’s a messy proposition. Jesus literally came into the mess when he was born and laid in the lowly manger. Then he lived among people, many of whom were poor, sick, and/or labeled as “dirt” by society. He wasn’t afraid of the dirt. Figuratively, God also handles the mess of our sinful selves. He heals us, sanctifies us, and loves us, even though it can be and most certainly is a messy job. The messes that we make with our lives and the crimson stains of sin that plague us don’t scare Him. He enters the mess and makes us new.
Second, pottery is a skill. I have not yet tried my hand at the wheel, but I have seen people try it for the first time and usually their first pot isn’t all that great. It takes a skillful hand to make any mug, bowl, or plate. It takes patience. It takes the right tools, steady hands, and a good eye. God is a masterful artist who created the entire universe – every star, flower, animal, and person. God is our potter, and He shapes us with His skillful hands, pressing and holding us just right, sanctifying us and molding us according to His plans and purpose. Even when we don’t understand what He is doing, we can trust His skillful hands.
Third, pottery often has to go through some sort of extreme heat or fire for it to actually be useable. In the case of the redware pottery at work, the pieces are fired in a 24 ft. tall brick kiln, heated to about 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit. The complete firing process takes over 24 hours of constant monitoring and feeding of the fire. Talk about dedication! Sometimes circumstances in life hurt. Sometimes circumstances are just downright hard. Yet God remains through it all. He stays even in the darkest part of the night. He gives peace and strength to endure. He uses these circumstances to make us grow. He uses all things for the good of those who love Him. Sometimes life feels like going through a fire, but God sees us to the end.
Finally, every piece of hand-made pottery is unique. Sure, a skilled potter can make a set of mugs or bowls that look pretty similar, but they are never 100% exactly alike. The same is true of us. God made us and we all share some similarities. Yet we are also all unique. While we might share experiences, no two lives are exactly the same. God knew our days before we were born and knew us before we could even know anything. He formed us in our mother’s womb and numbered our days according to His purposes.
I truly believe God knows what He is doing when He makes us, with our unique features and talents. Then He shapes us, as a skilled artisan does, knowing what will come of it. We are the clay in His skillful hands. He is the potter. And what a messy, but lovely, thing to know.