I remember being struck, a number of years ago, by the ‘hierarchy’ of imagery which fills out the picture of God’s relationship with his people. At one end of the scale, the ‘relationship’ is almost a non-relationship: that of the potter and the clay. The ‘clay’ is moulded by the potter, and the potter has complete control over the shape and even the existence of any resulting pot. It’s not as if ‘clay’ speaks of a sentient being, capable of affective relationships.
At the other end of the scale, however, is the relationship of Father and child. Immediately, this implies a high degree of intimacy and interrelationship — at least in an ideal sense, whatever the realities of impaired experience of fathering might bring.
Generally, these metaphors are well distributed throughout scripture. Today’s reading from Isaiah 64, however, brings the two ‘outer’ poles into close, even stark, proximity:
8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
The ‘psalm’ in which this verse appears starts at 63:7. It is a prayer seeking the intervention of the God who alone can save, by confessing sin which has brought the hostility of the God (63:10). In the earlier part of the prayer, the Fatherhood of God is already invoked (63:16), amidst the recognition that the people’s own actions have broken that relationship (64:6-7).
And so it is striking that in its confession, this prayer recognizes the whole truth of God’s character as well as their own. God is no less Father; but he is also Potter. The expected intimacy of one relationship does not cancel out the sovereignty of the other. In fact, the prayer draws on the same resources as Psalm 103, when it acknowledges:
13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we are formed;
he remembers that we are dust.
‘Dust’ and ‘clay’ are in the same family, I reckon. If you’re going to be formed by a Potter, it certainly helps if that potter is also your Father.