Battling With God
“Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? Or thy work, He hath no hands?”—Isaiah 45:9
This is the answer of heaven to a man who is contending with God. To catch the full import of that verse, I would remind you of the context. Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, is speaking of a day when a heathen king would be used as an instrument of God to deliver His people from captivity and slavery in Babylon. But God issues to this man a solemn warning, a solemn reminder that, though Cyrus would indeed gain a notable victory, yet he is in the hand of God, a God whose dominion and sovereignty are absolute.
Notice the language of verses 5 to 7: what dramatic claims are made here! “I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me!…I am the Lord, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Here God is speaking to a man whom He is going to use, and He reminds him that He is God alone and there is no God beside Him. If everybody believed that in the world today, there would be no idolatry at all. He is the only self-existent, eternal, infinite God, and all others who set themselves up in competition with Him are mere counterfeit. He tells us in the sixth verse that from the rising of the sun (that is in the east) right through to the west, throughout the entire globe which we inhabit, He is Lord of all. Nothing is done without Him. He forms the light, everything that is good and pleasant. He creates the darkness, everything which is sinister and unpleasant. He makes peace, all that is good. He creates evil, not the evil of sin for He is not the author of sin, but He creates the evil of punishment. He is Lord. So therefore in all the different events which befall us—light or darkness, sorrow or joy—there is a God Who is the first cause of all them; and this sovereign Lord, the all-wise God, has the ordering of our comforts as well as the ordering of our crosses.
Now it is against the background of this tremendous claim of absolute dominion that we have the language of our text. He is the Maker of all things, therefore He is our Maker, and because He is this we must never contend, argue or battle with Him. Nobody, says our text, who hardens his heart will prosper. It is as absurd for a man to contend with God as it is for a piece of clay to find fault with the potter and to ask him why he made it in this shape and not in that, and even perhaps for that piece of clay to rise up and say when it is in the Potter’s hand, “You’re so clumsy you haven’t any hands at all!”
The question is, therefore, shall I contend with God, the one who has given me breath? Shall I doubt His power and challenge Him? Shall I say that my God has no hands, the God whose hands made me, and in whose hands my life, my very breath is even today?
To answer that question satisfactorily I would use Isaiah’s illustration and take you in your imagination to a potter’s house where this almost frightening doctrine of the sovereignty of God is seen in a somewhat different light. It is interesting to note how often the Bible uses the illustration of the potter and the clay, always in the same connection. Isaiah uses it and you will find it in Jeremiah 18, Zechariah 11, and Paul uses it in the ninth chapter of Romans. In every case it is given as an explanation of the sovereignty of God.
Come with me, therefore, into the potter’s house, and what do you see when you get inside? You see a potter, an intelligent capable being; you see a wheel, an instrument by which he is going to accomplish his purposes with the clay; and you see a mass of shapeless clay. You don’t see steel filings but clay, material that is pliable, the kind of material that is capable of responding to the mind of the potter, and in these things, you see a perfect illustration of God’s relationship to every one of us today.
There is a Master Worker, and this Master Workman has a thought in His mind, a passion in His heart for your life and for mine. Only He knows that thought. Then there is yourself, the clay, capable of responding to the pressures that are put upon it by the wheel in the hand of the Potter. Then there is all the turning of the wheels of circumstance, turning swiftly, so swiftly sometimes that they frighten us, until one day they are set aside by the Potter when the work is done and the clay is fashioned. That is what you see in the Potter’s house.
What has that picture to say to us in the light of our text? First, there is a principle taught here, on which I have already commented, of the absolute, total, complete sovereignty of God, and the necessity for my submission to it without question. The potter has a right which is absolute over the clay. That clay cannot resist his hand. It has no right to suggest what form it shall take.
We hear a lot these days about the rights of people, and this passage of Scripture—and indeed the whole Bible—has to do with the rights of God. The truth is that no man has any right to complain whatever God may do with him. We know that our God is not willing that one should perish and yet, let us face this fact, He has the right to take this whole world and annihilate it. He has the right to sweep out of existence the entire human race who have condemned His law and rejected the Christ of Calvary. That is God’s right. If there is one doctrine that is more terrible in my mind than the sovereignty of God, it is the doctrine of the supremacy of a man. If you and I, like Israel, seek to exercise power over the Almighty and contend, argue, and resist Him, then ultimately we meet only disaster.
It is one thing, however, to hold the doctrine of the supremacy of God, and it is quite another thing to give Him the place in your life which that doctrine demands. To give Him His rightful place is to give Him the place of deity. Therefore the right of an individual in His presence is to have no desire, no claim, no wish, save only to discover the desire and the claim of God upon his life and then to do it.
But you may say, “That piece of clay has no will: I have a will. It has no power to choose: I have a power to choose.” Oh, yes, certainly God gave you a will and He gave it that we might choose our Master, and in choosing your Master [we] choose our destiny. Our wills are our own that we might make them His, and even as you choose your Master, you do so under the government of God from which there is no ultimate escape whatsoever. To submit to the will of God is to submit to the way of righteousness and peace. To choose another master is to spell judgment, the judgment of God upon a rebellious life. It is impossible to escape the judgment and the sovereignty of God.
If the potter had a right to complete authority over the clay, how much more has the eternal God an absolute authority over the will of man! The potter and the clay are two finite things. God, infinite; you and me, finite. How much bigger the margin between the infinite will of God and your life than between that of the potter and the clay! If the potter had a right over the clay, how much more has God a right over you? The only path of wisdom, therefore, is the path of uncompromising surrender to God, and that is the principle that is taught here. That is what God was teaching Cyrus. That is what God is saying to the person who would begin to contend with his Maker.
If, however, you take the doctrine of the sovereignty of God like that, alone, exclusively, you find it the most terrifying thing in life, even repulsive. Too often we who preach the Word preach submission to the sovereignty of God without any reference to the character of God. I shall never, as an individual, submit to the principle of that sovereignty without first of all I come to know something of His character. I will not submit, even though I am frail and weak, unless I see Him and know Him and in a measure come to understand Him. Apart from that I will begin to contend with God in the language of the text: “What makest Thou? Why hast Thou brought forth? Thy work, Lord, You handle me so clumsily, that I think you have no hands at all.”
God doesn’t leave us like this. There is a purpose explained in the potter’s house which makes me not want to run from His sovereignty but which makes me long to experience it more and more in my life. Come with me again in your imagination to the potter’s house, and what is he doing? Before he puts his hand upon that lifeless mass of clay, he has a thought in his mind. The plan in his mind will regulate all he is going to do, and I watch him beginning his work. I don’t see what his purpose is, but he has a thought in his mind for that piece of clay. The clay is ignorant of it, of course; but the clay, because of its material, is capable of revealing the thought in the mind of the potter and of expressing that thought simply by submission to the potter’s hand.
Before God ever made you He had a plan for your life. God, Who is so careful for the grass in the field which today is and tomorrow is cast in the oven, Who is so concerned about the most insignificant things, has a plan for you. To Jeremiah He said, “Before I formed thee, I knew thee.” Because God has a plan for your life, it determined where you were born, the country you live in, the place where you work, how you came into the world, and many more things, for God had a thought in His mind before anybody else thought about you.
I see this sovereignty expressed not only as a plan in His mind, but in the pressure of His hand on that clay. Watch the potter at work. He is seated at a wheel underneath which are treadles that he moves with his feet to regulate its pace, to slow it down, to speed it up, and on the wheel there is a piece of clay. Presently the wheel begins to turn, and as it does the potter’s hands move and press upon the clay. They give a little here and press a little harder there in order to bring the thought that is in his mind for that clay into reality. The two most important factors are the pressure of his hand and the speed of the wheel, and he controls both of them. It is he who applies the pressure. It is he who regulates the speed.
The plan that was in God’s mind for you is brought into reality in exactly the same way. There are the same two deciding factors. First, the pressure of His hand; sometimes through the message we hear form the pulpit, sometimes through the Word of God as we study it alone, sometimes by the action of conscience you become conscious of the pressure of His hand. Have you ever said to anybody, as I have, “Oh, how I have felt the hand of God upon me today!”
Then there is the pace of the wheel. He arranges your circumstances, moving them at such a pace and in such a direction, that they enable Him to form a shapeless piece of clay into a vessel of His choice. “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Yes! Providence is the handmaid of God’s grace. The two are allies. The God of redemption is the God of circumstance.
Are you feeling the pressure of God’s hand and the pace of the wheel? When the pressure is greatest and the speed is fastest, I believe it is because God has in mind the production of a very special kind of vessel. When God fashioned Moses, Joseph, David and Paul, Daniel and Peter, oh, how the wheel turned! Think a moment about Joseph and how the wheel turned, its revolving almost makes me giddy to think about it! A sheltered home, and the wheel turned; a pit, and then the wheel turned; a slave market, the wheel turns again; Potiphar’s house, luxury, temptation, and the wheel turns; prison, dungeon, the wheel turns again; a place, becoming a governor. Oh, how the wheel turned in Joseph’s life, and it never turned one inch but the hand of the Potter was on the clay. God was making a special vessel. Maybe that is why the pressure of His hand upon your life is almost terrifying, and the speed of the wheel seems so fast. God’s sovereignty is being expressed by a plan in His mind which is being brought into action by the pressure of His hand and by the speed of the wheel.
His sovereignty is also expressed by the passion in His heart for you. In the potter’s house again—watch him with his hand upon the clay. What is his passion for that clay? I’ll tell you. Perfection, nothing less. When the job is done and the wheels have stopped revolving, the clay will come out of his hand and he sees that he has turned out a work that is absolutely without flaw. His name and reputation are at stake in doing that, so not a single flaw must be in the clay when it is complete.
How that lights up to my heart the apparent mystery of the insistence of the Potter in breaking up every hard lump of clay that He meets! He will break it apart as He puts the pressure on. He will keep the speed of the wheel going until that hard lump of clay gives in and breaks in His hand and He forms it as He wants it to be. It isn’t because He is a hard Master, but He is more concerned about our perfection than our comfort. Now that is the ruling passion in the heart of God for every one of us, that we might be conformed to the image of His Son. It is the passion for character and holiness. It is the longing that we might bear the image of Jesus, Who was the express image of His Person, says the writer to the Hebrews. God’s passion for the shapeless bit of clay, you and me, is that we are to be like Him, therefore He does not consider our comfort. The ultimate goal is so much more important. That is why some of us are ill at ease sometimes in church and after it, and why some get mad with the preacher. I recognize, of course, that many times you have every reason to be that because he’s a difficult sort of person! However, I do ask you very seriously to consider whether you have not been mad with the preacher at all, but with the pressure of the hand of God. That is why you have had some sleepless nights and been miserable: the wheel has turned and the hand has gone on pressing. It is your sovereign Lord wanting His rightful place in your life, the place of deity. He will be satisfied with nothing less. The thought of sovereignty may frighten you, for it sounds like tyranny, demanding submission, and you are afraid of that.
There is something else in the picture. We have seen a principle taught here, His absolute right which is His sovereignty. The purpose in His hand and in His mind is shown, but it is all terrifying until a Person is revealed here. Who is the Potter? There need be no argument about this, the Potter is God. Who is God? God is love. I could say a lot more about God than that. There are many other attributes, but they are all summed up in this one word, God is love. I’m not afraid of submitting to love, and as He presses and breaks my life in His hand, it is only that He might make. If He crushes, it is only that He might create.
If you look closely at the hands of the Potter, in your heart you will see that each one has a hole in it, for those hands have been pierced with nails as they hung upon a cross. If you would know the truth concerning the principle of His sovereignty and the purpose of it, you must lie down in the heart of God. What do I mean by this? Two things: I mean first that we have to exercise faith in the plan of the Potter. I accept it as best for me because it is His plan. How elementary that is, but how difficult to believe! Every turn of the wheel, every pressure of the hand, is really best, yes. He asks for implicit faith that through every turn and every pressure He will shape a vessel that shall be for His glory. Until I accept that, I battle with God. I imply that I know better than He.
Will you wield today to the pressure of His hand? There is only one point at which the Potter hurts the clay, and that is where the resistance of the clay is complete. Oh, how great is the pressure at the point of resistance! God is in control of your circumstances, He has you in His hand, and at the place where you deny and defy Him, there everything is against you and everything goes wrong. The world and God are against you because at that point you are putting on resistance, so that you can say with David, “Thy hand was heavy upon me, my moisture was turned into the drought of summer,” because you resisted the hand of the Potter.
You must have faith to accept His plan, but also you must delight in the passion of His heart for you. You must share His longing for His character and His great desire for you to reflect His glory. Answer this question to the Potter in whose hand you are: Is that your chief concern? How much time have you given this week telling Him that you desire above everything else that you might share His glory and His concern for your life, the glory of God in this little bit of clay that you call yourself? “Oh, God, for Jesus’ sake, glorify Yourself in this bit of clay.” That is His passion. It is not merely a passive surrender but your whole heart, soul and being is concerned to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). As a matter of fact, He is calling you to fellowship with Himself in perfecting this clay, and surely that is an evidence of your regeneration. It is an indication of your new birth that you share the heart of God in His passion and concern for yourself.
It is a wonderful thing when a little child looks up into the face of Mummy and Daddy and says, “If you say so, it must be best.” What a joy it is to be trusted! Have you ever given God the joy of knowing that you trust Him? Have you ever shared the pleasure and the thrill of His heart as you have said, “Lord, have Thine own way, Thou art the Potter, I am the clay?” God grant that you might stay that rebellion and stop battling with God. The pressure is from a crucified hand, and the mind that guides the hand and the pace of the wheel is the mind that has planned your salvation. But you rebel, then you take the clay out of His hands, and that spells ruin.
Have you ever seen a potter’s field? What wrecks there are: bits of clay, thrown aside, useless. Charge me with fanciful interpretation of Scripture if you will, but the potter’s field is last mentioned in Scripture in very strange company. Matthew 27:7 tells us that the priest bought the potter’s field with the price of Him Whom they pierced and they called it the Field of Blood. Are you saying, “Oh, I’m no use to God! He’s flung me away and I’m hopeless, spoiled! He had me in His hand, but I rebelled against His will and I became broken, and now I have just been cast beside the wrecks in the potter’s field.” Ah, but that field was purchased with blood, the blood of Jesus Christ. We are told that when the “clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it” (Jeremiah 18:4). Blessed be God! He came to the wrecks in His hands to make them again another vessel as seemeth good to Him. By the mystery of His being sold for the price of a slave, He has bought the field so that wrecks can be remade.
You may say that we have wandered a long way from Cyrus, king of Persia, and from Isaiah 45:9. Well, if so, I hope that I have wandered so far that I have wandered right into your heart! I want you to see behind the principles of sovereignty to the purpose of it, and to know that God’s purpose is best. If that frightens you, behind the purpose is a Person Whose hands have been nailed to the cross.
God grant that you may come to understand as never before the reason for the absolute authority and dominion of God in your life and to see that behind it He has a purpose which He brings to pass with the turning of the wheel and the pressure of His hand upon the clay. God knows what He is doing with you, and behind the purpose there are two hands that have been pierced on the cross which are fashioning until one day the wheel is taken away and the clay is presented faultless in His presence with exceeding joy.