Isa 29:16 reads, “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?[i]
Our theology gets a bit screwy and we mess things up when we fail to see that God, our Creator, is not like us. We were made to shadow Him, not the other way around. Being reminded of this truth is an important safeguard for the student of Scripture.
Highlighted in the Gospels…
Jesus applied these words of Isaiah to the religious leaders of His day for assuming that God thought as they did (see Mark 7.6-13). They had established traditions that they viewed as accurate additions to the what God had revealed in His Law-Word, but in reality, circumvented His instruction.
False ideas, false philosophies, even false doctrines are saturated in the notion that the individual in question speaks accurately for God (cf. Jer 14.14).
The whole time Jesus is correcting their false teachings, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” (Matt 5.21, 27, 33, 38, 43), they are running around thinking that He is really the one opposing God![ii]
This is demonstrated in how they rebuked his disciple’s behavior, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2.23).
This is demonstrated in how they condemn His behavior, attributing it to a work of Satan rather than God “He drives out demons by Beelzebub!” (see Matt 12.22-32).
Finally, we see it demonstrated in their desire to kill him: “‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10.32-33).
This desire was finally carried out in His crucifixion. Jesus died for the charge of blasphemy. He claimed not only to speak for God, to do God’s work, but be privileged enough to sit at the Father’s right hand in glory (Matt 26.64-65). Something no creature has the right, privilege, or ability to do (cf. Isa 42.8; John 5.23)!
Now, just in case I’ve lost you, allow me to point you back to the error God says that man is often guilty of through the prophet Isaiah. Namely, we wrongly assume that the Potter is like the clay.
Metaphoric Misappropriations: Physical Form
One of the key ways that we do this is in assuming that when we read anthropomorphic[iii] expressions in the Bible, they are the same as human expressions. The language in Scripture, in particular what we read about God, is laced with human terms. For example, the Bible says that God loves, hates, is wrathful, is good, He desires, He regrets/repents, He sits, uses His hands, eyes, feet, etc. If you read those expressions of speech in a wooden literal fashion, without considering the true nature of God, then you are effectively making the Potter like the clay.
I can understand when a young child thinks in this way. I even have patience when someone young in the faith struggles with the meaning of these metaphoric truths. But I must admit that I am baffled when I hear people who should be mature in the faith making these sorts of errors.
Notice I said “baffled” (confused, marvel at) and not angered or peeved. We are human, and as a result we are prone to error. Realizing this, my immediate response is patient, willing to teach.
However, if you have been taught to look at these things through a different light. That is, you’ve been given prescription to change, having your ideas rebuked and corrected. And yet, you still want to grope around in the dark and equate God to the creature—either in form or mode of operation, then my response will be markedly different.
I was once approached by someone who said to me, “What do you mean God does not have hands or feet or eyes? The Bible says He does, so why do you deny it?”
My response was, “Well, first of all God is not a creature. That’s a category error. Second, God is identified in Scripture as ‘Spirit,’ an eternal being.”
Before I was finished, I was cut off: “Yes, but isn’t Jesus God? He has hands, feet, eyes, etc.!”
“True,” I said, “but Jesus put on flesh. Before that He was identified as the eternal Word (John 1.14): God, but distinct from God the Father (John 1.1-3), and according to His own testimony, distinct from the Holy Spirit (John 14.26; 15.26).”
Now this fellow went so far as to tell me that the reason that Jesus put on flesh and became like one of us, is because that is really what the form of God is like. That’s why God made us like that in the beginning (i.e. Adam). I explained that he just committed another error. I told him that Jesus put on flesh to be like one of us, because He was not like one of us. The purpose in the incarnation was to complete the work that God had established long before creation was (Eph 1.3-5).
Jesus had to become like us in flesh and blood in order to take our place (Heb 2.14, 17). He paid the penalty for our sin. He experienced the wrath of God on our behalf (Gal 3.13). He became our substitute (Isa 53.4-6; 2Cor 5.21). However, notice that the Bible says he became “like” us not exactly like us. Jesus was notably different than what we in Adam are, if this were not the case His sacrifice no matter how noble would have been in vain.
The man, as far as I know, still does not understand the distinction to this day. The assumption he makes and struggles with is that the Potter is like the clay, when He’s not.
Metaphoric Misappropriations: Emotions
A similar mistake is made when we assume that God’s feelings (desire, love, goodness, repent/regret, anger) are equitable with mankind’s. For example, we read in Genesis 6:6
- “And the LORD regretted [repented] that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (cf. 1Sam 15.11).[iv]
Are we to believe based on a cursory reading of this text that God feels regret like human beings do? That His heart was grieved (broken) like human beings are?
Does that understanding comport with the nature of God as revealed in Scripture?
Is God somehow surprised by His creature’s activity? By the abuse of their creation? Are we to imagine that He is sitting on His throne room in heaven, weeping tears possibly wringing His hands in remorse over what His creatures are doing and/or have done?
How do we justify that understanding with this statement by the Lord through His prophet Samuel?
- And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1Sam 15.29; cf. Numb 23.19; Isa 55.8-9).
Correcting the Course…
The answer is found in the sense in which the biblical author uses the “regret” or “repent” and “grieve” in relation with God. A humanistic understanding relates God to the way in which humans “feel” these emotions, making the Potter like the clay. God does not “feel” the same way human beings do. The expression of His emotions is not comparable to mankind’s.
However, in these texts what is meant is that God is turning from the creature that He has made in judgment. Rather than be gracious to them and continue to put up with them, He is about to righteously judge them.
In the case of Genesis 6:6 He sends a catastrophic worldwide flood to destroy the earth and all creatures that have within them the breath of life. He removes from them the gift of life. In the case of 1Samuel 15 God removes Saul from being king, stripping the kingdom from him and his family line, and giving it to another of His choosing.
Regret or repentance then do not take on the emotional stirrings common in man’s heart, but a turning from the creature—removing His common grace—to them in judgment. This is an expression of God’s anger with the creature, but not an anger common to mankind.
Now you may fail to see the category distinction because you equate God with man, assuming the Potter is like clay, but you would be wrong. Such thinking leads to doctrinal errors as we shall see in the next post.
[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).
**Realizing that you may miss the applicability of this reference later on, I wanted to quickly point out that when Jesus quotes from this portion of Isaiah (specifically Isa 29.13), the complete reference to their folly applies. The people honor God with their mouths (even with their actions), and yet the sin is that they replace true worship and obedience with false worship/obedience. This may not be readily apparent to the reader until you identify what the religious leadership is doing, and how this activity relates to Isaiah’s context. Isaiah faced the same sort of hypocritical error that Jesus faced, and the source of the error is the same: “mistaking the Potter to be like the clay.”
[ii] God provides a safe guard against this in Deut 13.1-5, 18.20-22 and 1John 4.1. Comparing Scripture with Scripture, while weighing the contextual implications found in a proper understanding of the language of the text, helps prevent committing such errors.
[iii] Deals with attributing human traits to non-human things.
[iv] This is not an idle reference, there are many others that one could point to in Scripture. But for now the one’s I’m giving in this post should suffice.
Image by Ivan Burgos