Here in the western world, we no longer use pottery for much, other than plant pots and decorating. But potters and pottery played an important and vital role in Bible times.
The ancient peoples utilized clay pots and jars for a variety of purposes. For everything from plates and cooking pots, to storage and shipping containers. Just picture a caravan of loaded camels and donkeys, clay jars hanging from their bundles or saddles. They even used clay for lamps, or to form kilns and ovens. Like this portable clay oven (below) found in Greece.
Fortunately, clay was readily available in Palestine. And both potter’s wheels and clay pits (where it all began), were common sights. When in need of a new pit, all the potter had to do was look for dried earth, cracked and fissured somewhat like tree bark. Or for areas where water collected after heavy rains. These most likely indicated clay soil, waiting to be dug up and worked in the potter’s shop.
Clay needs the potter’s work
And just like the clay, we also need our Potter to work on us.
The clay needs cleaning
Clay is usually full of sticks and stones, and often either too wet and soupy, or too hard and dry. So the potter has a helper, who cleans the clay and works to get it to the right consistency. Adding either sand or water to reach the right texture, while kneading it with his feet.
Like clay, we need debris removed from our lives too. We need our heart softened, to love as Christ loved. And our character toughened to withstand hard trials. Thankfully, our Potter too has a helper — the Holy Spirit who leads us and guides us, helping us become like Christ.
The potter can only form clean clay.
Once the clay is cleaned and ready, then the potter can begin his work. And taking a lump of the clay, he throws (or forms) it into the desired shape and form, as it spins on the wheel.
Some he makes small, destined for tiny things like mustard seed. Some he gives narrow openings, for ease of pouring. Others have wider openings, making them easier to fill with grain or beans. Pantries in the ancient world would have been stocked with jars and jugs of every imaginable shape and size — each made for a certain purpose.
Just like us. We may sometimes feel small and unimportant, like the tiniest of clay bottles holding mustard seed. Yet both nature and the Lord teach that great things can come from even one tiny mustard seed! The Lord can do great things through us, when we place ourselves in his hands — letting him choose our path and purpose.
The objects then need curing.
At this point, the pottery was ready to be cured or air dried. To the inexperienced eye, that pot might seem ready for the oven. But the experienced potter knows that this drying process is essential. For by removing excess water from the clay, the risk of pots cracking during firing is greatly reduced. This process requires anywhere from several days to one week.
God sometimes sets us aside too, even though we already feel ready for service. He knows the oven of fiery trials we’ll have to face in life and service. So he makes us wait, knowing how much of our own ego and pride must come out before we can really trust him, and follow in complete obedience.
The clay has gone through a lot at this point.
It’s had stuff pulled from it, and been trodden under foot. It’s been pounded, pushed, and pulled. And it’s sat on a shelf gathering dust, if you will. But all this has served a purpose. It is now prepared to withstand the heat of the oven.
But still the potter may wait.
He doesn’t fire up his kiln for just one pot, but waits until he has enough to fill the oven. Then, together, he stacks them in the kiln, ready for baking.
We, like the pottery, are more useful in a team. One lone pot sitting in the pantry certainly can’t hold all the needed supplies. Nor can one pot serve every purpose. God places us in a body, because we need each other. Together we find strength to face the heat of trials. And together, with each using our own particular talents, we can fulfill God’s purposes.
Then the vessels go through fire.
Only several hours of extreme heat will make them into useful items, made to last over time. Only then are they laid aside to cool, and then ready to be filled and used.
This fairly simple process, though requiring great skill, rarely produced ornate or fancy items. But archaeologists have found, along with ancient potter’s equipment, numerous remains of their pottery. Useful things, made for everyday purposes. Like the storage jars and jugs, above, created to hold and transport things like water, wine, oil, honey, grain, herbs, and spices.
O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
We are like that clay. Like clay in the potters’s hands, God prepares us for the particular work he has in store for us. And though it may differ greatly from our plans, it will be infinitely better. For from ordinary clumps of clay, he turns us into useful servants for his kingdom. Ordinary, but made for an extraordinary purpose!
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.2 Corinthians 4:7
The Master Potter: Pottery Making in the Bible, by Bryant G. Wood PhD, via Associates for Biblical Research.org.