In Jeremiah 18, God sends the prophet to a potter’s house. When Jeremiah arrived, the potter was at his wheel refashioning a ruined piece of clay into a useful vessel. The potter and his clay are analogous to God and His people, says the Lord. “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” asks Jehovah. He goes on, “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (verse 6).
However, this analogy differs from conventional views of divine sovereignty. God describes Himself in much more flexible terms. “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (verse 8). Like the potter who altered his original intention in response to the clay, so God demonstrates His willingness to shift His designs in response to human repentance. He continues in verse 9, “Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it.” The message is simple: God withholds destruction from the penitent, but withholds good from those who rebel against His grace. Although God is sovereign, He allows human obedience and disobedience – our free will – to affect the ultimate outcome.
“So now then,” He says to Jeremiah in verse 11, “speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.” ’ ” God stated in verse 8 that sometimes He intends to destroy, to uproot, or to pull down a nation. In this case, He directs His retribution against Judah. However, God would relent should Judah repent: “if that nation which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (verse 8). The choice is simple: repent or perish.
What makes God’s will on these matters difficult to understand is what He predicts in verse 12: “But they will say, ‘It’s hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ ” This statement exposes the natural tension between human free will and divine sovereignty. God is willing to alter His course in response to human obedience and disobedience. His pleas in both verses 8 and 11 express that willingness to Judah. However, He knows the outcome even as He pleas for reconciliation: Judah will not repent due to their hardness of heart. Has God sealed Judah’s fate? Is Judah’s destiny fixed regardless of human response?
Determining an outcome and foreseeing an outcome differ from one another. The weather forecaster who weighs all of the variables involved and accurately predicts 10 inches of snow in two days does not make it snow 10 inches in two days. The parent who carefully observes the conduct of his or her children and by way of experience is able to predict their conduct does not cause their child to act. In Jeremiah 17, God says, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (verse 9). God took into account the hearts of Judah and realized that the people would not repent despite His most fervent pleas. God’s sovereignty did not solidify His course. As He stated in verses 8-10, He was willing to adapt to changes of heart. The stubborn hearts of men sealed Judah’s fate. “For My people have forgotten Me,” mourns God in verse 15. “They burn incense to worthless gods and they have stumbled from their ways, from the ancient paths, to walk in bypaths, not a highway.”
Jeremiah 18 is a helpful passage for the follower of Jesus. Jeremiah 18 teaches us that God is indeed longsuffering toward man. Jeremiah prophesied in the waning days of Judah and witnessed the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. And yet, God pled with His people even in that late hour. God is not willing for any to perish. Jeremiah 18 reminds us that our hearts must turn to God. Habitual sin hardens our hearts, it sears our conscious, making it nearly impossible to turn that heart back to the Lord. But above all, Jeremiah 18 shows us the true measure of God’s sovereignty. He does not impose His will upon the inferior. Our destiny is not fixed by some arbitrary choice. On the contrary, God allows human free will a place in His plans. If we repent He is willing to relent. Our fate is far from sealed. While the world spins and we breathe, there is hope.