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Judges 13; Acts 17; Jeremiah 26; Mark 12

Jul 29, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 13; Acts 17; Jeremiah 26; Mark 12

BECAUSE DEVOUT READERS THINK of the biblical writers as heroes of the faith, they sometimes overlook the fact that in their own day many of these writers were despised, treated as outsiders, viewed with contempt. Of course, some who contributed to the canon of Scripture grew rich or famous or both: Solomon comes to mind. Some who were powerful at one point in their life faced extraordinary difficulties and malice at other points: one thinks of David. But many of the prophets were despised; some of them lost their lives. As the Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12, italics added).

Already we have seen that Jeremiah’s lot was not a happy one. From here on (Jer. 26), the dismal picture becomes clearer. To his most robust critics, Jeremiah’s message, especially his constant insistence that unless the people repented Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed, sounds perilously close to treason garnished with blasphemy: treason because Jeremiah could be charged with demoralizing the people and therefore making them less able to withstand the Babylonian onslaught; blasphemy because he is saying in effect that God either could not or would not preserve his city and temple. So the officials try to organize a judicial execution.

What saves Jeremiah, humanly speaking, is his strong insistence that if they kill him they will bring down severe judgment on their own heads. For “in truth the LORD has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing” (Jer. 26:15). Some therefore want to give him the benefit of the doubt; others recall that Micah of Moresheth (the biblical Micah) uttered similar words of denunciation. (The chronology of the prophets makes it probable that some of the oldest people standing before Jeremiah had actually heard Micah.) So Jeremiah is reprieved.

Not so his colleague Uriah son of Shemaiah. We know nothing of Uriah except what is recorded in these verses (Jer. 26:20-23). Jeremiah was not the only prophet faithfully proclaiming God’s word. When Uriah, like Jeremiah, was threatened with death, unlike Jeremiah he fled to Egypt. At this point Israel was still a vassal state of Egypt, and some sort of mutual extradition treaty pertained. Uriah was hauled back and executed. His flight had convinced his accusers that he really was some kind of traitor. So reflect again on Jesus’ words, cited above.

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Judges 14; Acts 18; Jeremiah 27; Mark 13

Jul 29, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 14; Acts 18; Jeremiah 27; Mark 13

IF THE PROPHECY IN JEREMIAH 27 takes place early in the reign of Zedekiah (Jer. 27:1), there are still years to go before Jeremiah is vindicated. At this point King Jehoiachin and the aristocracy have already been transported to Babylon, leaving behind Zedekiah and a ruling remnant. But far from being warned by these recent setbacks, Zedekiah and the ruling oligarchy want to be heroes and take on the Babylonian might. God instructs Jeremiah to provide both a verbal warning and an object lesson, not only to Zedekiah but also to the emissaries of the surrounding little nations and city-states (Jer. 27:1-3, 12). They are all in the same boat: if they submit to the Babylonian superpower, they will be spared; if they rebel, they will be crushed and destroyed. The God of Israel is sovereign over all the nations; the pagan states would do better listening to him than to all of their own diviners, pagan prophets, and mediums (Jer. 27:9-10). Of course, most listened to their own religious establishment. Nevertheless, after the tragic events unfolded, doubtless some individuals were a little more impressed by the God of Israel than before these events. He was the only one who had gotten the future right.

For some years I have been keeping odd essays and books that predict the future. These are written by astrologers, various futurologists, and self-proclaimed prophets. Of course, they do not all work on the same premises. Futurologists tend to project current trends into the future and infer what will take place. The best of them also make some allowances for reactions to current trends. Astrologers and self-proclaimed prophets claim some sort of external perspective. I have been keeping these projections for enough years to know that their track record is not good. Inevitably they get some things right—they make many predictions, and they cannot always be wrong. Nevertheless, picking an essay at random out of my files, I consult what one expert predicted in 1968 regarding the state of religion in Canada in twenty-five years, i.e., 1993. Among his predictions: the Catholic Church will be ordaining women; church attendance in the nation will be down by about 60 percent; a new Billy Graham will appear, “more charismatic, more hypnotic in his sway over the masses, than Graham himself”; the crucial public ethical issue will not be abortion or capital punishment but sterilization of the mentally retarded and brain transplants. And much more of the same. Many of us are familiar with the widely disseminated prophecy that predicted massive revival in the West by a set date (now long past).

Brothers and sisters, do not fear them, listen to them, or respect them. Fear and hear the words of the Lord.

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Judges 12; Acts 16; Jeremiah 25; Mark 11

Jul 28, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 12; Acts 16; Jeremiah 25; Mark 11

THE PROPHECY OF JEREMIAH 25 is dated to the fourth year of Nebuchadnezzar, i.e., 605 B.C., the year when the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish, forcing Judah to switch its allegiance to the new and rising power. By this time Jeremiah has been prophesying for twenty-three years—from the reign of the last good king, Josiah, to this day (Jer. 25:3).

The onset of Babylonian supremacy is an appropriate occasion for Jeremiah to reiterate some of his principal themes: a review of the chronic disobedience of the people, a review of the warnings not to follow other gods, the refusal of the people to listen to the words of the Lord (Jer. 25:4-8). But there are several elements in this chapter that either have not been mentioned before or have been given relatively light treatment up to this point.

First, in language reminiscent of that found in Isaiah, Nebuchadnezzar is designated God’s “servant” (Jer. 25:8). This is a way of saying that it is God himself who will be behind the destruction of Jerusalem, even though the temporal power that is doing the work is Babylon and its king.

Second, service to the king of Babylon will endure “seventy years” (Jer. 25:11). There are different ways of calculating the duration of the exile. This one is a rounded-off figure that begins with the ascendancy of Babylon in 609 and runs either to the defeat of Babylon by the Persians (539) or, perhaps, from the first transportation of leaders in 605 to the first return of the Jews to the land under the regime of King Cyrus of Persia (536; cf. 2 Chron. 36:20-23; Zech. 1:12).

Third, reminiscent of what God says he will do with the Assyrians after he has used them to chasten the northern kingdom (Isa. 10:5ff.), God here says that he will punish Babylon “for their guilt … and will make it desolate forever” (Jer. 25:12). “I will bring upon that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations” (Jer. 25:13).

Fourth, in the following verses, Jeremiah is required, in a visionary experience, to compel the nations to drink the cup “filled with the wine of [God's] wrath” (Jer. 25:15; compare Rev. 14:10). The God of the Bible is not some mere tribal deity; he holds all the nations to account. Judgment may begin with the covenant community, but it finally embraces all communities without exception. “You will not go unpunished, for I am calling down a sword upon all who live on the earth, declares the LORD Almighty” (Jer. 25:29). And where shall we flee to escape judgment, except to the refuge that he alone provides?

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Judges 11; Acts 15; Jeremiah 24; Mark 10

Jul 27, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 11; Acts 15; Jeremiah 24; Mark 10

THE VISION OF THE TWO BASKETS of figs (Jer. 24), one “very good figs, like those that ripen early” (Jer. 24:2—the early ones ripened in June and were viewed as a delicacy, cf. Isa. 28:4) and the other basket full of figs “so bad they could not be eaten” (Jer. 24:2), is plain enough. The good figs point to the Israelites who have already been sent away into exile in “the land of the Babylonians” (Jer. 24:5). God will watch over them and bring them back. He will give them a heart to know the Lord. “They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jer. 24:7). By contrast, the poor figs point to Zedekiah and his officials and the remainder of the people in Jerusalem. They will become “a reproach and a byword, an object of ridicule and cursing” (Jer. 24:9). They will not remain in the land. They will be banished, and God will follow them with “sword, famine and plague” (Jer. 24:10).

This analogy calls forth two reflections. First, it is a reversal of popular expectation, both in Jerusalem and in the exilic community in Babylon. The Jerusalemites were tempted to think that they were the elite, since they had been spared: God had not sent them into exile. The exiles were the rubbish; those left in the land were the faithful remnant. The exiles were tempted to think the same thing. They did not want to contemplate the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, for then there would be no “home” to go home to. So they tended to idealize the people who were left behind, praying that God would one day restore the exiles to the faithful remnant in Jerusalem. But God here says that the real situation is precisely the reverse. Those left behind in Jerusalem are disgusting and will be destroyed. The good figs are in exile, and God will bring them back to the land. In short, the remnant is in exile. The same theme (without the imagery of the figs) is developed in Babylon by Jeremiah’s contemporary, Ezekiel: e.g., Ezekiel 11:14-21.

Second, this is such an astounding reversal of popular expectations that it prompts the reader to think of a host of other reversals in the Bible. One thinks of the mighty Egyptian empire against the Israelite slaves; of the rich man and Lazarus; of the beatitudes of Jesus that promise the kingdom to the poor in spirit. Think of as many such reversals as you can, both within the pages of Scripture and in later history. God delights to exalt the humble and to humble the exalted. After all, our Redeemer died on a cross. So why should thoughtful Christians scramble for power and position, instead of for humility and faithfulness?

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Judges 10; Acts 14; Jeremiah 23; Mark 9

Jul 26, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 10; Acts 14; Jeremiah 23; Mark 9

MUCH OF JEREMIAH 23 IS A denunciation of the “shepherds” destroying and scattering the sheep of God’s pasture (Jer. 23:1; compare Jer. 10 and meditation for July 14). The long section denouncing the lying prophets (Jer. 23:9-40) is one of the most penetrating presentations of the differences between true prophets and false in all of holy Scripture. Its pathos is deepened by the asides of the prophet Jeremiah, asides that not only disclose some element of the true prophet but expose Jeremiah’s own heart: “My heart is broken with me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and his holy words” (Jer. 23:9). The blistering condemnation of dreams that are enthusiastically passed around the circles of the prophets, while these same prophets fail to speak God’s word faithfully (Jer. 23:25-39), has a contemporary relevance that only the blind could miss.

But here I want to focus on the first six verses. In the light of the abysmally immoral and idolatrous kings condemned in the previous chapter, and in the light of the destructive shepherds introduced in this chapter, God presents the ultimate solution. It has three components:

(1) God will destroy the destructive shepherds (Jer. 23:2). That is a theme we have seen before, and one that takes up a fair bit of this chapter.

(2) More importantly, God himself will gather the remnant of the flock from where they have been scattered, and he will bring them back to their pasture. “I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing” (Jer. 23:4), the Lord declares. In other words, the promise of an end to the exile and a return of the remnant is now cast in the categories of a scattered flock being returned to its pasture. But there is also an element of expectation that transcends the historical end of the exile: the Lord himself will provide a quality of “pastors” (i.e., “shepherds”) who will transcend what the people have experienced in the past.

(3) In particular, God “will raise up to David a righteous Branch” (Jer. 23:5). The Davidic line will be little more than a stump, but a new “Branch” will grow out of it, “a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land” (Jer. 23:5). His days will bring safety and salvation for the covenant people of God. “This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). Just so: for by him, God will be both just and the One who justifies the ungodly, vindicating them by the life and death of the Branch from David’s line (Rom. 3:20-26).

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Judges 9; Acts 13; Jeremiah 22; Mark 8

Jul 25, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 9; Acts 13; Jeremiah 22; Mark 8

ALL SERIOUS READERS OF JEREMIAH know that the various oracles are not given in chronological sequence. Sometimes the sequence of the oracles is perplexing; sometimes it is clearly thematic. In Jeremiah 22, we find a series of utterances regarding the final kings of Judah, but the list is not in chronological order. Perhaps the most important thing about these utterances is that collectively they provide a foil for the prospect of a far more fruitful king, introduced in the next chapter.

(1) The first nine verses continue the warning to Zedekiah, the plea to return to the covenantal stipulations to ward off imminent disaster.

(2) Jeremiah 22:10-12 deals with Shallum, otherwise known as Jehoahaz. He was one of the sons of the last reforming king, Josiah, who was killed at Megiddo in 609 B.C. Shallum reigned a mere three months before he was deposed by Pharaoh Neco (during the final years when Judah was still a vassal of Egypt, before Babylon took over the role of regional superpower in 605: cf. yesterday’s comments). Transported to Egypt, Shallum never returned to Israel—the first of the Davidic kings to die in exile.

(3) Shallum’s older brother Jehoiakim succeeded him (Jer. 22:13-23). Jehoiakim was forced to pay a heavy tax to Egypt, but laid on additional loads for his own glorification. He was oppressive, covetous, greedy, and foolish (cf. 2 Kings 23:35). Worst of all, he reversed all the reforming policies of his father Josiah, and sanctioned pagan rites, even those of the oppressing power, Egypt. His exploitation of workers defied the Mosaic covenant (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14). Jeremiah’s denunciation is scathing: “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him” (Jer. 22:15). The consequence of Jehoiakim’s disastrous and evil policies was the destruction of the nation. As for himself, he would die an ignominious death, and his corpse would be taken out with the garbage (Jer. 22:19). “I warned you when you felt secure,” God says, “but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ ” (Jer. 22:21).

(4) His son Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah [Jer. 24:1, note] or Coniah [Jer. 37:1, note]) took over in December, 598, when Jehoiakim died. By this time Jerusalem was already under siege. Jehoiachin was a mere lad, eighteen years old. He ruled for three months. Then Jerusalem fell, and he was taken to Babylon, where he lived out the rest of his years—in prison until 561, and then in the Babylonian court. None of his children or his grandchildren would sit on the throne of David (Jer. 22:30). “O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!” (Jer. 22:29).

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Judges 8; Acts 12; Jeremiah 21; Mark 7

Jul 24, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 8; Acts 12; Jeremiah 21; Mark 7

JERUSALEM BECAME A VASSAL TO Babylon from 605 B.C. on, after Babylon defeated Egypt at the Battle of Carchemish. Jerusalem revolted and was defeated in 597, when most of the royal family, along with the nobility, the wealthy, and the skilled craftsmen were transported to Egypt, leaving behind Zedekiah as caretaker monarch. Zedekiah was an uncle of the young King Jehoiachin, who was taken into exile. Despite God’s strong warnings through Jeremiah that Israel should not rebel again against the Babylonians, the Jerusalem authorities preferred to listen to the false prophets. When Judah rebelled, Babylon’s retaliation was implacable. Nebuchadnezzar’s troops destroyed Judah and besieged Jerusalem, which was finally destroyed in 587.

The prophecy of Jeremiah 21 takes place under Zedekiah, when the Babylonian troops are gathering for the final siege, probably 589 or 588. The Pashhur whom Zedekiah sends to consult Jeremiah is not the Pashhur introduced in 20:1. Massive destruction threatens, just as Jeremiah has been predicting for more than three decades. Desperate, Zedekiah consults with anyone he can, including Jeremiah, hungry for the slenderest thread of hope. Will the Lord perhaps do great miracles again, as he did in the past—at the time of the Exodus, for instance, or when the Assyrians were turned back during the reign of Hezekiah—and spare Jerusalem? God’s answer through Jeremiah is in three parts:

First, far from sparing the city, God is determined to destroy it (21:3-7). He will fight on the side of the Babylonians. “I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in anger and fury and great wrath” (21:5). Zedekiah and his entourage will not be spared.

Second, it follows that the only wise course is to surrender. Under the well-understood terms of siege warfare, the city that defended itself against a siege could expect no mercy. Those who surrendered might be enslaved or otherwise sent into exile, but at least their lives would be spared. These are the two ways that God sets forth (21:8-10): the way of life and the way of death. This choice is not exactly like other “two ways” choices in Scripture (e.g., Deut. 30:15, 19; Matt. 7:13-14), but it is like them in distinguishing between obedience and disobedience and their respective consequences.

Third, like so many of God’s promises of judgment, there is a way out—provided there is an immediate return to the social justice and personal righteousness at the heart of the Mosaic covenant (21:11-14). Without swift reformation, however, the little nation is doomed. And tragically, of reformation there is none—not the last time when somber warnings go unheeded.

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Judges 7; Acts 11; Jeremiah 20; Mark 6

Jul 23, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 7; Acts 11; Jeremiah 20; Mark 6

THE CHAPTER BEFORE US (JER. 20) provides insight both into Jeremiah’s external circumstances at this stage of his ministry, and into his inner turmoil.

(1) Jeremiah’s external circumstances: the priest Pashhur son of Immer is the “chief officer” in the temple, presumably the chief security officer, serving under the current high priest. The prophetic actions and words Jeremiah has delivered in the previous chapter, announcing the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, have been interpreted as something near treasonous, if not blasphemous, the more so because Pashhur has been among those who have “prophesied lies” (Jer. 20:6) to the effect that God would never let this city fall to the pagans (cf. Jer. 14:14-15). So he has Jeremiah arrested and beaten, presumably with the legal limit of forty stripes (Deut. 25:3—that number was reduced by one in Paul’s day to ensure that the limit was not accidentally exceeded, 2 Cor. 11:24). Jeremiah spends a night in the stocks, devices guaranteed to cause the terrible pain of cramped muscles. By the next morning Pashhur has second thoughts and lets Jeremiah go. If he thinks this leniency will reduce the prophet to cowering jelly, he is mistaken: Jeremiah uses the occasion to assign Pashhur a new name meaning “terror on every side” (Jer. 20:3-4)—another picturesque anticipation of the judgment sure to fall, when all of Pashhur’s false prophecies will be exposed for what they are.

(2) Jeremiah’s inner turmoil: if the prophet is outwardly courageous, the following verses (Jer. 20:7-18) disclose something of his personal anguish. By this point Jeremiah has been predicting judgment for decades, and it has not yet fallen. It has become progressively easier to dismiss him and mock him. The Lord’s forbearance becomes an excuse for cynicism (as in 2 Pet. 3:8-9). Jeremiah temporarily resolves on silence, but so strong is the prophetic word burning within him that he cannot hold it in (Jer. 20:9). So he speaks, and his erstwhile “friends” listen with sneering condescension, hoping he will say something that will enable them to report him to the authorities and get this silly man into trouble (Jer. 20:10). Jeremiah oscillates between a focused and brilliant faith utterly confident that the Lord will finally vindicate him (Jer. 20:11-13), and a debilitating despair that frankly wishes he had never been born and wallows in understandable self-pity (Jer. 20:14-18).

Perhaps there are some servants of the Lord who have never experienced such highs and lows. But they are rare. Certainly those who serve in hard places almost invariably mirror Jeremiah’s experiences in some degree. Pray for Christian leaders, especially those whose patch is profoundly discouraging.

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Judges 6; Acts 10; Jeremiah 19; Mark 5

Jul 22, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 6; Acts 10; Jeremiah 19; Mark 5

THE HEALING OF THE Gerasene man who was demonized by a “legion” of demons (Mark 5:1-20) calls for explanations and reflection at many points. To pick up on six:

(1) The setting is Gentile territory on the east side of Lake Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis (Mark 5:20), the Ten Cities of largely Gentile constitution. That point is clear even from the herd of pigs, something that no self-respecting Jew would keep.

(2) The poor man described in these verses was subject to some sort of cyclical attack. At times he was docile enough to be chained, and then the attack would be so desperately strong that he could tear the chains apart and free himself. Banished from home and hearth, he lived among the tombs, where he cried out and lacerated himself, a man in the final throes of destruction by demonic powers (Mark 5:5). We should not assume that every case of what is today called insanity is the result of demonic activity; neither should we adopt the reductionism that reduces all demonism to chemical imbalances in the brain.

(3) The words addressed to Jesus (Mark 5:6-8), though on the lips of the man, are the product of the “evil spirit.” This spirit knows enough (a) to recognize who Jesus is, and (b) to live in horrible anticipation of the ultimate doom that awaits him.

(4) This exchange between Jesus and the “evil spirit” has two elements not found in any other exorcism in the canonical Gospels. First, the strange interplay between the singular and plural—”My name is Legion, … for we are many”—suggests an ambiguity in certain demonic activity. Moreover, as Jesus hints elsewhere, multiple invasion by unclean spirits is a “worse” condition to be scrupulously avoided (Matt. 12:45). Second, these demons do not wish to leave the area, and they do wish to be embodied (Mark 5:10, 12). Jesus accedes to both requests. Presumably this reflects in part the fact that the final hour for their banishment has not yet arrived.

(5) While it is essential to reflect on Jesus’ absolute mastery over these evil spirits, one must add that he does not call forth these spirits one by one, solicit their names, enter into conversation with them, or a host of other things commonly practiced by some who are given to “deliverance ministries.”

(6) The responses to this deliverance are striking. The delivered man wants to follow Jesus, and is commissioned to bear witness, in his Gentile world, to how much the Lord has done for him and how he has shown him mercy (Mark 5:18-20). The people of the region beg Jesus to leave (Mark 5:17): they prefer pigs to people, their financial security to the transformation of a life.

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Judges 5; Acts 9; Jeremiah 18; Mark 4

Jul 21, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 5; Acts 9; Jeremiah 18; Mark 4

THE IMAGERY OF THE POTTER and the clay (Jer. 18) recurs in Scripture (e.g., Rom. 9:19ff.). Slightly different emphases are brought forward in the different passages, though all of them emphasize God’s sovereign sway over the people who are likened to the clay. The emphases here may be clarified by the following observations:

(1) The potter’s wheel was a common sight in the ancient Near East, not so much a hobby item as an essential element in the manufacture of vessels both useful and aesthetically pleasing. The word wheel is in the dual form in Hebrew: two circular stones were fitted onto a vertical axis; the lower one was spun by the potter’s foot while the upper one served as the platform for the work.

(2) Often in the shaping of a pot some defect or other would become obvious—a defect in size or shape or in the texture of the clay or in some pollutant. The potter might then squash the developing pot into an amorphous blob of clay and begin all over again. It rather misses the point to ask if the potter is responsible for the defect. In the real world of pottery-making, of course, the potter might well be responsible or might be proceeding by trial and error. Certainly no one is suggesting that the clay itself, in the real world of pottery-making, bears some sort of moral responsibility for the way it turns out. But the point of the extended metaphor is not to assign blame for the defect: that is another subject. To try to read any such lesson here is to make the imagery walk on all fours. Moreover, in the context of the chapter at large—i.e., outside the world of the extended metaphor—God clearly holds the people of Israel responsible for the behavior that is calling forth his judgment (e.g., Jer. 18:13-15).

(3) What, then, is the point of this imagery? Perhaps there are two points. First, God has the right to destroy this pot and begin again. Whatever the cause of the defects, he has every bit as much right as the potter has to squash the pot and begin again. In other words, the people are not nearly as autonomous and self-determining as they think they are. That means their present course of conduct and disobedience is a recipe for unmitigated disaster. Second, just as a competent potter may well begin again because he or she is dissatisfied with the way a pot is developing, so God begins again because he is dissatisfied with the way his covenant people are developing. Are God’s standards lower than those of the village potter?

God has the right, and he has the standards. What sense does it make to buck him?

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