Robert Compton and his wife have been making pottery in Bristol, VT for decades. They produce beautiful pieces in a variety of ways. To finish a piece, the clay is often heated to over 2000 degrees. And for one process in the middle of this burning, they sprinkle water on the pieces. The cold water hitting the burning hot clay produces spackles that add unique design elements.
In his experimentation with different clays, glazes, and firing methods Robert Compton does…whatever he wants. He is the complete master over the clay in all of his endeavors. If the clay and process creates something he thinks worthwhile, he keeps it. Maybe to sell, maybe to display. If the result is something ugly or cracked, he tosses it aside. It is his choice to sell, display, or throw out his creations.
You might think it odd I would know anything about the Comptons. But in the summer of 95 Anne and I went to VT with my family on a vacation. Touring the area we stumbled upon the Comptons and thought their work was beautiful. So we registered for a number of pieces for our wedding. Many of the pieces we still use, but quite a few have become shards long forgotten.
The reason for this excursion into the world of pottery is that the relationship of the potter to the clay is one of the images the Bible uses to describe God's sovereignty over his entire Creation. Whether it's the galaxies or the individual affairs of your life and mine, God is as complete a master over the details at the macro and micro levels as the potter is master over his clay and what it becomes. Even moreso really, because as Robert Compton would tell you, part of the beauty of pottery is its unpredictability. And for God, there is no unpredictability in his plans. All happens according to his joyful, complete, and perfect plan.
Isaiah 45 is one of the places where the Bible unpacks God's sovereignty and uses the image of the potter and the clay:
"Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, 'What are you making?' or 'Your work has no handles'?" (Isa 45:9).
The answer is, of course, No! Isaiah's point is that a pot striving against the potter is not just impossible, it's also inappropriate. Of course the potter has the right over the clay to do what he wants with that clay.
Wrestling with such a view of God's sovereignty can be difficult. But not wrestling with it can also be bad. It is one of those truths about God that remains true whether we think on it or not.
Below are some Scriptures and quotes from last week's sermon to consider as you give thought to this aspect of God. We'll consider four things true of God's sovereignty from Isaiah 45.
God's Unexpected Sovereignty
Start with a definition so we even know what we're talking about. Louis Berkhof defines "sovereignty" this way:
"Reformed theology stresses the sovereignty of God in virtue of which He has sovereignly determined from all eternity whatsoever will come to pass, and works His sovereign will in His entire creation, both natural and spiritual, according to His predetermined plan. It is in full agreement with Paul when he says that God 'worketh all things after the counsel of his will,' Eph 1:11."
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology
Isaiah 45 begins with an unexpected announcement. It says in verses 1-3 that God will use "his anointed…Cyrus" to accomplish his purpose. "Anointed" is typically for kings (Saul, David) and priests (Aaron, sons). Stunning because "Cyrus" is the king of Persia. Persia, an ancient superpower, will eventually destroy Babylon. There is no indication that Cyrus would turn to the Lord. Safe to assume he was an idol-worshipper. Yet, he is the one God would use to accomplish his purposes. That's stunning.
Also stunning that Isaiah names him. Isaiah writes this around 700 BC but Cyrus was not born till 600 BC.
Not the first time the Lord does this. 1 Kings 13:2 has prophecy not fulfilled until 2 Kings 23, about three-hundred years later.
And the man cried against the altar by the word of the LORD and said, "O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: 'Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.'" (1 Kgs 13:2)
Then centuries later fulfillment…
And as Josiah turned, he saw the tombs there on the mount. And he sent and took the bones out of the tombs and burned them on the altar and defiled it, according to the word of the LORD that the man of God proclaimed, who had predicted these things. (2 Kgs 23:16)
And of course, we read Isaiah as Christians—Christians who believe specific prophecies about Jesus: Born to a virgin (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23), born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matt 2:6), 'out of Egypt' (Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15), and more.
Also seems especially appropriate to name Cyrus in Isaiah. One of his key themes is God's ability to proclaim the future. Idols are worthless because they are silent; God is true because he speaks things before they happen! Look at Isa 45:11, 21.
God's Absolute Sovereignty
Here it gets more challenging. Thinking about God sovereignly using our enemies to bless us is good. We're open to about anyone blessing us really. IRS sends unexpected refund, we don't complain about corrupt govt. But God's sovereignty is bigger and deeper.
Isaiah 45:7 is one of those places where its depths are seen:
I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things. (Isa 45:7)
Here we see that God's sovereignty includes all things. The verbs used are very active, intentional ones: "form" (like forming Adam in Gen 2:7), "create" (like creating the universe in Gen 1:1), "make" (like God making light and dark in Gen 1:7, 11).
When God says he forms "Light" and "darkness," it could be day and night and passing of time. An idea like Ps 139:
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Ps 139:16)
Or maybe moral light and moral darkness - like Isa 9:2, "a people walking in darkness have seen a great light."
But then is the even more challenging word in the next clause, "I make well-being and create calamaity." "Well-being" is the Hebrew, shalom, a comprehensive term for a whole range of peace and joy and blessings. "Calamity" can mean "trouble, evil, calamity." God says he creates them both.
With an idea like this it's good to see it in other Bible passages:
Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it? (Amos 3:6)
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lam 3:38)
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'" (Isa 46:9-10)
This is hard truth. There is a complexity to it, though, especially when we consider how God's sovereignty incorporates our sin. Does he cause it? Is he the author of sin? The Bible says, no, and yet he uses our sins for his own purposes. Look at James 1 and Exodus 7 to see this:
Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. (James 1:13)
But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, 4 Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. (Exod 7:3-4)
Somehow God "tempts no one" and yet "will harden Pharaoh's heart."
One way theologians have thought about this is by envisioning God as being more active in willing some things than others. All are willed by him and destined by him, but with sin he is more "permitting" us to do what we want than causing us to do it.
Here is Louis Berkhof's definition of God's "permissive will":
It is customary to speak of the decree of God respecting moral evil as permissive. By His decree God rendered the sinful actions of man infallibly certain without deciding to effectuate them by acting immediately upon and in the finite will. This means that God does not positively work in man "both to will and to do," when man goes contrary to His revealed will. It should be carefully noted, however, that this permissive decree does not imply a passive permission of something which is not under the control of the divine will. It is a decree which renders the future sinful act absolutely certain, but in which God determines (a) not to hinder the sinful self-determination of the finite will; and (b) to regulate and control the result of this sinful self-determination (Ps. 78:29; 106:15; Acts 14:16; 17:30)."
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology
This leads to the next point...
God's Challenging Sovereignty
God's absolute sovereignty is not an easy truth to accept. There are so many places in life where God's sovereignty is challenging. We feel this when we look at words that exist now that didn't exist in the Garden of Eden: "Natural disasters," "genocide," "abortion," "murder," "adultery," "abandonment," "abuse," "betrayal," "terminal illness." To us these are not just words but personal. We have names and faces attached to them.
And as Christians, times where really good prayers go unanswered. The Bible understands that for us God's sovereignty can be challenging.
In Isaiah 45:9-10 the prophet speaks to those of us who are struggling with God's sovereignty. It's a fairly stern rebuke. It's not quite clear what aspect of sovereignty God's people are struggling with. It could be that God would use the pagan Cyrus. But could also be the discipline and hardship that precede (Babylon).
Either way, there's some internal rebellion against God's sovereignty.
We see what the potter is doing, and in us is a real rebellion against it rising up. At times it's easy to react like the naysayers in verses 9-10. Paul echoes this same idea in Romans 9:20, "But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me like this?'"
These verses in the Bible tell us a couple things: (1) The struggle is natural, common, human; and (2) questioning God is ultimately not right or helpful.
The Bible gives us some help in our struggle…
God's Wonderful Sovereignty
There is PURPOSE in his sovereignty. To reveal God: "That you may know" (verse 3), "That people may know" (verse 6).
See this in Romans 9:21-24:
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:21-24)
There is SALVATION in his sovereignty. Our eternal destiny is secure because of God's sovereignty. Further, God's enemies receive their appointed end as well, all because of God's sovereignty. Isaiah 45:16-17 make this clear.
Finally, there is PROTECTION in his sovereignty. The evil of our world goes only as far as God allows. The devil is God's devil. This is one of the lessons of Job 2:
Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die." 10 But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:9-10)
As we close, three things. First, consider God's sovereignty. Think on it. Study it. Don't be quick to dismiss it. It is ultimately a precious truth for the Christian.
Second, respond to the invitation in Isaiah 45:22, "Turn to me and be saved." For some the right response to Isaiah 45 is to set aside the complexity of God's sovereignty and first respond to God's free offer of salvation. All who turn to him in faith are saved. Even to "the ends of the earth"!
Third, apply God's sovereignty. One group we addressed in particular is men in their 30s and 40s. You're into the thick of your career. It has either gone the way you hoped or it hasn't. Your family has gone the way you hoped or it hasn't. True hardships, true failures have likely come your way. These can cause us to question whether God's sovereignty is such a good thing.
It's tempting to be the clay pot screaming out against the potter: "What are you making?" (Isa 45:9). Or the question Paul asks also clay, potter: "Why have you made me like this?" (Rom 9:20). It's easy to ask why God "made me like this"—as tall or short, as dumb or smart, as extroverted or introverted, as good in a particular skill or poor at it, as quick with a response or slow. There are thousand unique things about us that reflect God's intentional and creative sovereignty. But sometimes we ask, "Why have you made me like this?"
Isaiah 45 speaks to us who are struggling with these issues. It calls us to accept God's sovereignty and delight in it because it is wonderful. It is intentional and results in eternal blessings for us who are God's people. All things truly end well because of his sovereignty.