“Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (Romans 9:21-23)
To further illustrate his point, Paul refers here to the metaphor of Israel being as clay in the hands of the Potter, i.e., God. To the Jewish reader, the metaphor was a familiar one employed by the prophets to demonstrate both God’s sovereignty and prerogative to move both men and nations according to His own unsearchable purposes, and to convey the utter absurdity of holding an infinite God accountable to finite mankind. Isaiah employs the imagery in his prophecy in verses 29:16, 45:9, and, most notably, 64:8 where the concession is resolutely made that all of Israel is as a lump of clay in the hands of the Great Potter Who is free to do with it whatsoever He will.
The Repentant Vessel?
“The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words.Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good. And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart.” (Jeremiah 18:1-12)
Although the same metaphor was used by Isaiah, I suspect that the Apostle Paul likely had this very passage from Jeremiah in mind when he mentioned the Potter and the clay. For this instance carries with it both a responsibility on the part of the clay and a subsequent call to repentance from the Potter, two principles present in the context of the entire passage here in Romans. To infer from Romans 9:21 that the Potter arbitratrily sets His hand to any lump of clay for the express purpose of shaping it into a vessel of dishonor is to both accuse God of wrongdoing while simultaneously excusing the wrongdoing of man. God has surely created both the vessels of honor and those of dishonor but, as verse 22 goes on to hypothetically suggest, the vessels of dishonor possess both the culpability for their actions as well as the opportunity to turn from their sin and do otherwise. This same opportunity for repentance is present in Jeremiah’s use of the metaphor, as well.
The Christian Vessel’s Choice
“But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.” (2 Timothy 2:20)
In another of the Apostle Paul’s writings, his second letter to Timothy, we see the imagery of “vessels” in the hands of the Master again; though this time he speaks not only of clay (earth), but of gold, silver, and wood. The subject here is not God’s Election of men or nations, but of those who already belong to God, those who already trust in Christ, and their usefulness to God. If the believer will purge himself from these (that is, iniquity, v. 19), he will be a vessel of honor. So it would seem to follow that, if Paul taught that the Christian vessel has the power to choose what type of usefulness he will have in the hands of the Master, then the non-Christian vessels would retain a similar ability to determine whether or not they would accept Christ and become a vessel of honor.
I say all of this to refute the interpretation of Romans 9:20-21 that implies that every man’s destiny is ultimately and forever sealed from the beginning of time and that he is powerless to influence it in any way. Yes, God has elected those who will be saved, but He never elected anyone to stay lost! The notion that God cruelly decided to create some people for no other reason than to populate Hell is simply unsupported by Scripture. God is not willing that any one should perish (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9), therefore an eternity to be spent in Hell was never God’s intention for anyone. Even so, the question is asked why God elected some and did not elect others and the answer is that we simply do not know. There is a limit to our understanding of God’s ways and there exists a wall into His thoughts and purposes where the Lord forbids anyone to come any further. We are limited to what He has revealed in His Word and we are compelled to be satisfied with that. The point comes where we are not asked to fully understand, but to trust.
With that in mind, Paul anticipates man’s curiosity and objections and suggests that there might be a lot going on behind the scenes to which we are not made privy. What if God, willing to show His wrath and power, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction? (Rom. 9:22). Looking back to the example of the Pharaoh from Exodus (v. 17), we know that God gave this man many chances to repent of his evil and obey the Lord. God did not visit Ten Plagues upon Egypt in a single night; Pharaoh could have submitted to the Lord at any time. But he didn’t. The Lord was extremely patient with this man. Finally, however, God used this rebellious and impudent king for His own purposes, demonstrating His power and the wrath of His judgment for all to see (including the infant nation of Israel).
Why Is The Nation Excluded?
Though the Apostle has touched upon the subjects of personal Election and Salvation, we must remember that the primary purpose of this passage is to explain why all of Israel has not been redeemed on account of their being Hebrews. Keeping this in mind, we further see the significance of Paul’s use of the Potter and clay metaphor, as the original use also applied specifically to Israel. The Jewish reader is shown that his own Scriptures (the Old Testament) prophesied of a rejection of the nation of Israel as a whole, the salvation of a Jewish remnant, and the inclusion of Gentiles into the fold of the called (vv. 24-33). Romans 9 concludes by showing just what it is that caused God to reject most of the nation and that is:
“…Because they sought [the righteousness, or Salvation, of God] not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” (Romans 9:32-33)
The problem was that most Hebrews were trusting in their own goodness and obedience of the Law of Moses to save them, they weren’t trusting God. They stumbled at the Stumblingstone, that is, Jesus Christ because they believed that their own self-righteousness was sufficient. They felt no need of a Savior and therefore rejected the Savior Whom God provided, even Himself.
Israel was not rejected because they were fashioned as a vessel of dishonor by the hand of God. They became a corrupted vessel in the hand of God by their own unbelief and rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, any individual member of the nation of Israel stands on even ground with every Gentile and is free to come unto the Lord Jesus and trust in Him. They are free, as is any man, to exchange their own self-produced righteousness for a righteousness that God alone can provide, a righteousness that is sufficient for Salvation. This righteousness is obtained by faith and we will get into the specifics of that, Lord willing, next time when we enter Chapter 10 of this wonderful Epistle to the Romans.
Until then. To God goes all glory. In service to Him,