“Does not the Potter have power over the clay?”
We are continuing our study of Paul’s answer to the question: How can we trust God’s promises to us, when Israel seems to be rejecting the gospel? Did God’s promise to them fail?
In Part 2, we saw that an Israelite cannot trust in his lineage to be in God’s people. Their privileged nation status was only by sovereign grace, and nothing special in them. God gives mercy to whom He wills; He is obligated to no one. Now Paul will continue to vindicate God in how He is using Israel for His glory and purpose.
Clay in the Potter’s Hands
9:17 For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.”
9:18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
In verse 17, Paul selects an example that would be very familiar to Israel, and one unquestionably deserving of God’s judicial hardening. No Jew would question God’s righteousness in His dealings with Pharaoh, in using his evil heart to accomplish the divine plan.
Remember the subject Paul is writing about: God’s dealings with the nation Israel. Pharaoh the individual is being used as an example to make a point about Israel the nation. They are just as guilty. They are all worthy of judgment as much as Pharaoh, or the rest of Egypt, or the 3000 slain in Exodus, or the Gentiles (11:32). Not only did He have every right to withhold mercy on Israel, but He now has every right to use their present unbelief for His glory. He is just in raising them up, and by His longsuffering (9:22), harden their hearts for His glory.
God has the right to judge. He alone makes just decisions for who should be shown mercy and who should be hardened. From the human perspective, Pharaoh hardened his own heart many times before God finally hardened it. If we read the account in Exodus, God predicts that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh’s heart “grows hard”, Pharaoh “hardens his heart”, and then finally in Exodus 9:12, “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” Evidently, the Lord said “enough is enough.”
If you ask, could Pharaoh have humbled himself? You must also ask, would God have “raised him up” to be Pharaoh, in that case? You could also ask, if God’s purpose in raising up Pharaoh to that position, at that time, was to display His name and power, could God have done that in another way? God will be glorified no matter what, by humility and obedience (Moses), or by judgment and hard hearts (Pharaoh).
After Paul gives the example of Pharaoh, we feel the force of verse 18, “…He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.” The surprise in the statement is this: He has had mercy on the Gentiles, and He has hardened the majority of Israel.
9:19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”
In the same way that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to accomplish the divine will, God is hardening the nation of Israel. One translation reads, “Why does he yet find fault? for who resists his purpose?” (DARBY). So verse 19 asks, why does He still hold us accountable, if our hard hearts accomplish His plan?
Compare this with chapter 3 verses 1 through 8. Paul had said earlier in the book, “…if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world?” He then asks us to take that human-perspective thinking to its extreme, “why not say, “Let us do evil that good may come”?” Which is absurd. God’s righteous act in using an evil deed for good, does not absolve the perpetrator of responsibility – the deed is still evil, and justice must still be served. “Their condemnation is just.” (Romans 3:8)
9:20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”
9:21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
9:22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
9:23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,
9:24 even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Paul has spent the first part of the chapter defending God’s right to do what He’s doing with Israel, and he continues to do that here, but now he starts to answer why. God is just in setting Israel aside, but why is He doing so? This is developed fully in chapter 11.
As the vindication of God continues, Paul uses an illustration that would be very familiar to a Jew. The picture of the potter and vessels is used many times in Scripture1. Jeremiah 18:1-19:11 is the passage most similar to Romans 9:20-24. Paul was almost certainly thinking of Jeremiah 18 while writing Romans 9. Contrary to what is often taught, the analogy is not contrasting one individual with another individual. The potter’s vessels in the context of Romans 9 refers to the unbelieving majority of Israel, the remnant of believing Israel, and the larger group of believing Gentiles. So the thought is that God the potter holds two marred vessels of clay, fitted only for destruction. He takes from the first lump and refashions a piece of it into a vessel for glory (the remnant of Israel). Because He has this right, He also fashions a vessel for glory from the second lump (those He called from the Gentiles, also). In the process, he uses the vessels of destruction (unbelieving Israel, and unbelieving Gentiles) to show His glory to the vessels of mercy.
Notice the verb form in verses 22 and 23. Some people use this part of chapter 9 to justify the doctrine that God predestines men to judgment. But notice a very peculiar choice of words. In verse 22, the vessels of wrath are prepared for destruction, and in the next verse, God prepares the vessels of mercy. The verb is passive initially: they “are prepared”, and then becomes active, “He prepared [them] beforehand for glory.”
There is no idle word to be found in God’s word. In Matthew 22:23-33 Jesus Himself staked, of all things, the doctrine of the resurrection on the tense of a verb.2 Therefore, it is in no way insignificant that the Holy Spirit through Paul changed the verb from passive to active. The point is that the vessels of wrath were prepared -not by God- but by their own wickedness, for destruction. We all have prepared ourselves for destruction (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 53:6). On the other hand, God must prepare vessels for glory; He does the work.
9:25 As He says also in Hosea:
“I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved.”
9:26 “And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ There they shall be called sons of the living God.”
This quote from Hosea, and the following quotes from Isaiah serve to confirm what Paul has been saying in chapter 9. The verses from Hosea, specifically, show that God is in the business of calling out a people from those who have no right to be God’s people. These verses which in Hosea refer to Israel, Paul uses to say, this is what God does to Israel, and He has every right to do so among Gentiles. God has a sovereign right to show mercy on both Israel and Gentiles, and to call a people from both.
9:27 Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel:
“Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved.
9:28 For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, Because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.”
9:29 And as Isaiah said before:
“Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah.”
“Isaiah also” – Hosea confirms the message Paul has given concerning Israel, and so does Isaiah. Verse 27 reiterates what Paul said in verse 6. Both verse 27 and 28 come from the same passage in Isaiah 10, and together they show that the Lord will righteously destroy all but a remnant of Israel. The implication of verse 29 is that they are just as guilty as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the only reason they even have a posterity, a people, and a heritage is because of the grace of God.
The Stumbling Stone
9:30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
9:31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
9:32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
9:33 As it is written:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
What shall we conclude from all this? The Gentiles have found mercy from God, but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness with all fervor, has not found mercy. The very law they tried to follow was an undeserved gift from God. Yet, despite their efforts, they did not attain the righteousness that law pointed towards (it was a tutor – see Galatians 3:24). Then verse 32 asks, “So why has this happened?”
Paul has shown that God is justified in His choice to reject the mass of Israel. Now he answers why. God has chosen to show mercy on the principle of faith. The Gentiles have attained righteousness because they sought it by faith, unlike Israel. Israel sought their own righteousness through works of the law, so when God placed Himself directly in their path as Jesus the Messiah, they stumbled over Him. They stumbled because they were not actually looking for Him (the fulfillment of the promise), but they had their eyes on themselves (see 10:3).
This isn’t the complete answer to the question of why. This is the reason why Israel has been set aside from the human perspective. In chapter 11, we will see why from the divine perspective. Or in other words, 9:30-33 gives the moral, judicial reason why they have been set aside, and chapter 11 explains the sovereign reason. To each individual in unbelieving Israel, this is the reason he or she was numbered among the rejected. But why has God caused the whole nation to stumble? We saw a glimpse in verse 23, and we will see the full reason in chapter 11.
At this point Paul feels compelled to reiterate what he said to open chapter 9. It’s as if someone chimes in, “Ok Paul, I see that God is just in rejecting Israel and using them for dishonor… but do you really care about them? And did God give them a chance?”
10:1 Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.
10:2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
10:3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.
“I do care about them! My heart’s desire is that they be saved. I will even testify that they have a commendable zeal for God, but it’s an ignorant zeal!” says Paul. They were ignorant of the true way to righteousness. Instead, they were self-righteous and sought to establish their own way – they did not submit to the true way. Submission is intrinsic to faith. Faith is what they really needed, as he continues:
10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
10:5 Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.”
Christ is the end of the law, or its very purpose. Christ is the “final cause” of the law, to use a philosophical term, the end toward which the law was directed. This once again mirrors what Paul says in the book of Galatians; the law was a tutor to point Israel to Christ, who fulfills it.
Compare verse 5 with the key verse of Romans. Chapter 1 verse 17 is a quote from Habakkuk, “The just shall live by faith.” In Romans the emphasis is on the justification of those who live by faith. How and why does God justify? Whom does God choose to justify? Not those who seek life by works of the law, but those who seek life by faith.
Check out Part 4, as Paul shows that the principle of faith was even in the law itself. He will also reveal the first of two reasons why God’s promise to Israel is still very much alive, despite their present condition.
1 Psalm 2:9, likens the nations to a potter’s vessel. In Isaiah 29:16, “the wise men” of “this people” are they who “have things turned around” and are compared to clay. In Isaiah 30:14, the prophet says, “this is a rebellious people” who are a “potter’s vessel.” In Isaiah 41:25, clay is equated with princes. In Isaiah 64:8, the prophet says, “we are like clay”; we being, “your holy people.” Jeremiah 18:1-19:11 starts with, “Can I not do with you [Israel] as this potter?” Finally, in Lamentations 4:2, Jeremiah compares clay pots with the sons of Zion. BACK
2 MacArthur, John. “Inerrancy Under Attack.” Grace to You. Web. 1 Jan. 2016. BACK
Artwork is original.