Earthen Vessels

If an alien were to come to planet earth (or, to be less melodramatic, a brand new Christian) and read the New Testament for the first time, if he (or it) was observant, one name would keep cropping up. No, I am not referring to Jesus, but to a famous Old Testament figure.

The observant reader would notice how often David is mentioned (nearly 60 times), and would get the impression that he must have been one super-spiritual man. After all, the centrepiece of the NT, Jesus Christ, is so often referred to as the son of David, or as one who sits on the throne of David, and so on.

This guy must have been pretty special. But if our alien or new Christian actually goes back to the OT and reads about David (see 1 & 2 Samuel), he will find a much different picture. Sure, there is much greatness, strength, and godliness to be found there; but so too are all sorts of rather undesirable qualities and characteristics.

We find David to be far from perfect. In fact, he is often depicted as being a downright scoundrel. Simply look at the Bathsheba episode (2 Sam 11-12). If we have had some spectacular scandals in our modern age (think Watergate or Climategate, eg), what we have here is really the OT equivalent. Call it Bathshebagate if you will.

What a lot of lowdown and reprehensible things David engaged in, including a miserable cover-up attempt of the whole mess. Where is Wikileaks when you really need it? Fortunately we had something much better: the prophet Nathan who soundly and courageously rebuked David for this horrendous sin.

So David is clearly presented to us in the OT as a very screwed up, carnal, and ungodly person. Warts and all is how he is written about. Yet the NT seems to paint him as a superstar and a supersaint. Just how are we to make sense of all this?

The short answer is that God has chosen to work with second-rate material. He has stooped to our level and graciously said he will use fallen, sinful and imperfect humans to work with him in his task of redemption on planet earth. He has no one who is perfect to work with, yet he nonetheless chooses to use us anyway.

But if you read all of the account of his life, along with his many psalms, you will see that on the whole, despite his many obvious weaknesses and shortcomings, he was in fact a man after God’s own heart. That, incredibly, is God’s own assessment of David (see Acts 13:22).

We find a major clue to all this in Psalm 51. This is David’s great psalm of repentance, and it directly refers to Bathshebagate. Here we see how clearly David understood the evil of his actions. Here we see the depth of his repentance. Here we find a broken man who had only God to turn to.

We find no excuse-making here. No false repentance. No scape-goating. No mindless rationalisations. Instead, we find a man who has come face to face with the living God, and knows that he is dead meat, apart from God’s grace. Verse four makes this clear:

Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.

Yes, he sinned against Bathsheba, and against her husband Uriah, and against the people of Israel, etc. But ultimately and most importantly, he sinned against a holy and pure God. And in his prayer of repentance he rightly asks God for that which he cannot do for himself (vv. 10-12):

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

God always honours a prayer such as that. He longs to be merciful and gracious. He loves to pardon and bless. But he cannot do it if we do not first agree with God about our sin, and offer real repentance. David knew full well this truth: “a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (v. 17).

Or as we read in Proverbs 3:34 (and James 4:6): “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble”. David humbled himself before God, cast away his pride and excuse-making, and God graciously forgave him and lifted him up. Thus David really was a man after God’s own heart.

But like all of us he was not perfect, and he could blow it at times. And when he blew it, he sure did a good job of it. If he were a modern-day political leader, he would still be in prison for his heinous crimes. But God in his grace was still willing to work with the man.

That is good news for every one of us. God in his grace is willing to work with all of us as well, even though we are such imperfect and unholy men and women. And the Bible makes it clear why he is willing to do this. We find a key answer as to why God would even consider using such dirty, rotten scoundrels as ourselves in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NASB):

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” We are all just mere earthen vessels, full of cracks and other obvious defects. But so that God might be given all the glory, this is how he chooses to operate. His strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9).

Being such lousy earthen vessels prevents us – or should prevent us – from taking any credit for any good thing that comes out of our ministry. God alone gets the credit and the glory. He alone is worthy to receive praise for anything good and of value that we may do for him.

We are just miserable broken and dirty clay pots. Yet God stoops to our level and says, “Yes, I know you are a broken and corrupted vessel, but I will use you nonetheless”. As long as we stay humble and on our knees, God will keep using us.

And as long as we give God all the glory for anything good we may do in our walk and ministry, He will continue to bless and use us. So the life of David really should give us all some solid encouragement and inspiration. He was a lousy sinner who did some horrible things, yet God was willing to use him as long as he stayed in a condition of brokenness, humility, and reverence before God.

The good news is God will use every one of us as well, as long as our hearts reflect the sentiments found in Psalm 51. We need to pray with David every day: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (v. 17).

Thus my prayer for all of you is that you will never leave this place of brokenness and openness before God. Always stay on your knees in humility, and you will walk very tall with God indeed.

[1235 words]

19 Replies to “Earthen Vessels”

  1. Hello Bill! Beautiful! A pure heart and steadfast spirit! How important David’s prayer was! He discerned his own weaknesses and confessed these to the Lord. How easy it is for us, Christians, not to recognise where we come short. For to be steadfast, even in our minds, we surely need God’s Spirit to remind us, again and again. But glory to Jesus, that gift of forgiveness is always there available for us, as long as we daily repent and are willing to be broken and cleansed of our pride.
    Thanks Bill. I might not respond always to your writings but I do read them and I rejoice in your ministry! I still like to learn even at my age! (You know!)
    Evangeline Rykes

  2. I think in talking about David’s reaction to being confronted with his sin, you put your finger on the difference between success and failure, between being a man after God’s own heart and being rejected by God. This is the area where Saul and David differed. When Samuel confronted Saul with his disobedience, he first denied it, then when he saw that lying wouldn’t work, he made excuses and tried to shift the blame. On the other hand David, as you have pointed out, acknowledged his sin and went to God for forgiveness and restoration and a changed heart.

    We can learn a lot from that. It is the recipe for “super-star”-dom.

    John Symons

  3. Hi Bill

    I love your biblical sermons based on texts. I haven’t read 1st and 2nd Samuel in years. I have forgotten the reason why God rejected Saul etc and should read it again. I just had to check to remind myself of the ultimate punishment when after David repented, Nathan told him his child that Uriah wife born to David dies. I of course am far from perfect and too often, may be all the time too self absorbed in myself. Even to the point of giving up on God just because some things in my life have not turned out the way I would have liked. But this is encouraging that even Gods servant David was too often unworthy. So I persevere and try and pray and do God’s and to keep Christ in my thoughts every day.

    Carl Strehlow

  4. If you ever find yourself estranged from God. You haven’t prayed for a couple of weeks. You’re feeling alone and a little bitter towards God. You’ve indulged in some of your habitual sins that are favoured by your old flesh but at the same time disgust your new, redeemed spirit and you just can’t seem to see a way to get back on track … May I recommend reading Psalm 51. It is the antidote to PTSD “periodic transient spiritual disharmony”, a condition common to many Christians. Psalm 51 is designed to break your heart and make you weep. The tears are for David. The tears are for yourself and the tears are for all of us in this fallen world. I promise you that this course of treatment will have you wrapped in the Everlasting Arms in two shakes of a lambs tail.
    Col Maynard, Sydney NSW

  5. Bill, I eagerly await each of your blogs. Some of your recent blogs have mentioned your new book. When will it be published? I assume it will be available in the United States?
    John Moss

  6. Many thanks John

    We are hoping it will be available by month’s end. And yes we want to get it into places like amazon com. Until then of course it can be ordered through Australian outlets. But I will keep you posted.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Thanks Cameron

    Actually I don’t think I have ever looked at your website, alas. I tend to be pretty busy with my own, so I don’t usually look at others. But I will have a look now – it sounds like a good one.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. I thought that was the likely case just a bit surprised to see an article from you about Psalms 51 four days after my own.

    Oh well, humble minds think alike.

    Cameron Spink
    Resistance Thinking Co-ordinator

  9. Eagerly I checked out both sites, with respect Cameron, I found them very different!
    Jane Byrne

  10. I know what you mean Bill, this past week I have struggled with my own spiritual ugliness, my sin, my dark side and yet it is through this brokenness that I am able to humbly relate to others, especially those who are contemplating abortion. Praise God for this gift, the gift of relating to others in great need! Praise God for three babies saved!!
    Jane Byrne

  11. I have often thought about Bathsheba’s part in David’s sin. Of course we aren’t given any details of this in the Biblical account, but I have often wondered why she is not mentioned by name in the genealogy of Matthew chapter one. Rahab and Ruth – two godly women – were mentioned by name in the list. We know that Ruth was a godly woman and that Rahab had led a life of sin, before showing that she feared God in sheltering the spies. But Bathsheba isn’t mentioned by name as these two are. I have wondered if that might be an indication that she did not ever come to repentance for her part in her sin with David – she is referred to only as Uriah’s wife in the genealogy. I’ve always thought that she intended for David could see her, and deliberately positioned her bath to be visible to David on the roof. Wondering if anyone else has ever had any thoughts about this, without reading too much into the text.
    Kerry Letheby

  12. Thanks again Bill. The Psalms of David mean much to our family since the Lord healed me from a massive clot to the heart due to allergy to medication.given me. Whilst I was unconscious heart & breathing stopped, on life support for 3 days, prayers surrounding me from family and our Pastor – it was to the Psalms they turned for comfort and praise/prayerful words. Once in recovery mode due to the Lord’s gracious plan over the Hospital to which I was taken and wonderful Medical skills there, I too have known so much joy and peace through reading again David’s prayers and praises to our great Father God. May He bless and keep you and use all you do for the benefit of this Nation once known as the Land of the Great White Cloud. Christian & blessed by Him to be a blessing to others.
    Marion Minty, Victoria

  13. Lovely article, Bill. A good reminder especially to those of us who are tempted to steal glory when God has graciously allowed/enabled us to do well. And the psalms are such an inspiration. I meditated on psalm 23 – very well known – every day for several years and the Lord kept showing me new things in it. He loves the humble and rejects the proud. God give us all a humble spirit! While I was in Aus I heard that it had been named by one of the first to land there “The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit”. May that indeed be true!
    Katharine Hornsby

  14. I am reading through Leviticus at the moment – about all the offerings and sacrifices required for sin. It would have been extremely time consuming living in those days – and costly too. We might as well have camped right there by the sanctuary with our farms. I guess they did! But in chapters 4 and 5, the laws for sin offerings are for the unintentional sins people committed. Well all I can say is thank God for Jesus!

    And thank you Bill for encouraging us to read through the whole Bible from start to finish. I am using two commentaries as I work through. Even only at this early stage of the Bible journey, it has been of immeasurable benefit. These (supposedly) tiresome chapters make me consider even more, the mercy and work of Jesus Christ in my own life.

    Annette Nestor

  15. In Lev 6:28 the requirement for the burnt sacrifice is that; the earthenware vessel in which it is boiled shall be broken. But if it is boiled in a bronze vessel, that shall be scoured and rinsed in water.

    Do you think the reason the earthenware vessels were required to be broken was because they were somewhat absorbent and sin, in the form of the burnt offering, caused permanent contamination? Could this be symbolic of man (being an earthen vessel) needing to be broken before the Lord when sin pollutes? Or is it a picture of Jesus’ body broken for us? Or both? My commentaries do not indicate. What do you say?

    Annette Nestor

  16. Thanks Annette

    Levitical legislation is not always immediately clear, so there are times when we are not 100% sure of all the meanings of various regulations. The difference between the clay pots and the bronze pots is that the former are somewhat porous,thus making it impossible to fully cleanse them of the meat/blood. So they could no longer be used for that purpose. How much NT symbolism can be derived from all this is a moot point. But a good question.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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