NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XXI)
Bible scholar Charles Hodge feels that there were too many people who misunderstand the Apostle’s teaching about God’s justice. After all, if what God does hardens us, why does He blame us for being stubborn? On the surface, such perversion by such objectors to the Apostle’s doctrine is gross. First, Paul rebukes the spirit in which God is maligned and then demonstrates how unfounded the objection is. There is no doctrine in the Bible that declares that God first makes people wicked, and then turns around and punishes them for their wickedness. The Scriptures simply assert what we understand and know to be true: God permits people, by exercising their own free will, to sin. If such sins are not forgiven, then they will be punished in proportion to their guilt. God is only acting here as a fair and just judge. He is not blaming anyone for sinning, that is their choice, He is only carrying out the punishment prescribed for that sin. So who can complain that God is not being fair? Would you not want a court of law to act the same? But Paul adds another factor that is not part of human jurisprudence. Our sovereign God as our judge exercises His authority to determine whether or not He will also be our Savior, or allow us to suffer the just recompense for our evil deeds. This He does based on His divine foreknowledge and omniscience.1
Jewish scholar David Stern gives us something to think about concerning God’s involvement in people’s hearts being hardened, and their excuses: “If what God does hardens my heart, then why should He blame me for having a hard heart?” As Paul sees it, he offers little comfort before answering the question with a question, which was consistent with a Pharisee’s manners and customs. His question is: “Who are you, a mere human being, to talk back to God?” In case anyone would think that Paul was being arrogant, he lets God answer the question by quoting what He said to the prophet Isaiah about people who call what’s evil as good, darkness being light, and bitter being sweet.2 and then uses the image of the potter and the clay from Jeremiah.3 Stein tells us that traditional Judaism takes the same viewpoint. He points to the weekday morning prayers in the Siddur (Prayerbook) where it reads: “Who is there among all the works of your hands, among those above or among those below, who could say to you [God], ‘What are you doing?’”4 There is a strong possibility that Paul knew that the Jewish leaders in the church at Rome were acquainted with this morning prayer.
Verses 20-21: Don’t ask such questions! You are only a human and have no right to question God. A clay jar does not question the one who made it. It does not say, “Why did you make me like this?”5 The one who makes the jar can make anything he wants. He uses the same clay to make different things. He might make one thing for special purposes and another for daily use.
There are many people, even today, who raise the same questions found here. Some to find an excuse, others who earnestly want to know more. We must, first of all, consider that no human is capable of judging God’s actions. We know little – He is omniscient; we are restricted in scope – He is omnipresent; we are pitifully weak – He is omnipotent. How can we judge when we do not know one billionth of the facts that He knows? Furthermore, since He is God and has made all that exists, it is His right to do as He pleases with His creation. This does not imply fatalism on our part, but rather to acknowledge His sovereignty and His decrees. He has proven not only to be a God of Might but also a God of Mercy; He was willing to sacrifice His only Son, we are not asked to sacrifice ours. Only a fool would go around feeling sorry for themselves because they weren’t chosen when it was a case of them making the choice in the first place. One of the horrors of hell is that there is no consolation there.
So Paul’s concern is that the leaders of the congregation in Rome might opt to continue in the path outlined by the old understanding of God’s Word and not be open to the new revelation that Paul had been chosen by Christ to bring them. One of Job’s advisers made it clear that God does not need to defend His words.6 Furthermore, even though God may say something twice, still, there are those who will miss the point.
Even the Apostle James encountered those who were unwilling to give up the old way of thinking. He told his readers: “There still some among you who hold that ‘only believing’ is enough… When will you ever learn that ‘believing’ is useless without doing what God wants you to?”7 Finally, God grows weary of all the debate between Job and his friends and interrupts them by asking: “Why are you using your ignorance to deny My providence? …Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. Do you know how its dimensions were determined, and who did the surveying?”8 God goes on for the next two chapters offering evidence of His superior knowledge and intellect. Finally, He asks: “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? Or will you yield? Do you – God’s critic – have the answers?”9
Paul then uses an illustration to frame his point by supposing a clay pot speaking back to the potter asking, “Why did you make me this way?” Perhaps Paul remembered reading the Talmud where we find the story of Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Simeon who was traveling from Migdal Gedor,10 after visiting his teacher. He was having a leisurely ride along the river on his donkey, so happy at what he had learned from the Torah. As he rode along, Rabbi Eleazar encountered an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, but the Rabbi did not return the greeting. Instead, he called the man a fool and told him how ugly he was, and wanted to know if all the people where he came from were as ugly as he was? But then the Rabbi suddenly realized how insulting he had been and immediately apologized. But the man told him, he need not apologize to me, apologize to the One who made me. Likewise, if a vessel is asked why they are so ugly, they may calmly respond: “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘The vessel you have made is ugly’.”11
Paul wanted the Roman believers to know that when they talked back to him and tried to criticize his message, they owed an apology to the One who gave him the message in the first place. As King Solomon put it, God has a purpose for everything He’s made.12 In other words, God possesses no garbage can for items He considers a mistake. By using the potter as an illustration, perhaps Paul was reminded by the words of Isaiah: “Adonai, you are our father; we are the clay, you are our potter; we are all the work of your hands.”13 Also, the Apostle may have had the Lord’s instructions to Jeremiah in mind: “’Get up, and go down to the potter’s house; there I will tell you more.’ So I went down to the house of the potter; and there he was, working at the wheels. Whenever a pot he made came out imperfect, the potter took the clay and made another pot with it, in whatever shape suited him.”14 God goes on to tell Jeremiah that this was an example of how He takes a vessel and does not stop until He fashions it to be what He wants it to be.
That leads Paul to his next point. By acknowledging that God as our Potter; has complete control over how He fashions the clay, we need to be careful that we do not resist His work in our lives. After all, even though God had Israel’s best interest at heart, yet we find them described in Hosea as a nation lying among other nations as a broken pot.15 Paul himself wanted the Roman church to know that he too was one of God’s vessels, and wanted to be used for the purpose God made him. This was not just his imagination, this is what God told Ananias in Damascus: “Go and do what I say. For Paul is my chosen vessel to take my message to the nations and before kings, as well as to the people of Israel.”16
Then Paul finishes his point by making note that God fashions assorted vessels for various uses. So when He takes a lump of clay, only He may determine if that vessel will be one of honor or dishonor. This is in line with what Paul told young Timothy: “In a wealthy home there are dishes made of gold and silver as well as some made from wood and clay. The expensive dishes are used for guests, and the cheap ones are used in the kitchen or to put garbage in. If you stay away from sin you will be like one of these dishes made of purest gold—the very best in the house—so that Christ Himself can use you for His highest purposes.”17
By Paul asking and then answering his own question, early church scholars have a lot to say about their view of this method. Origen excuses Paul of any intended rudeness since this rebuke is not for them. It is intended rather for those who are unfaithful and living an ungodly lifestyle.18 And for those who see this as God being dictatorial by choosing whom He favors and whom He does not, Chrysostom preached that Paul says this in order not to do away with freewill but rather to show to what extent we ought to obey God. We should be as reluctant to question God as a piece of clay is to quiz a potter. There is no need for us to go on complaining or questioning every negative thing that happens in our lives. In fact, it should not be part of our conversation at all. Instead, we should become like that chosen piece of clay in the potter’s hands, letting ourselves be shaped in whatever way the potter wills. That way we will be known as His work, not ours.19
Then we have Augustine and Pelagius offering their points of view. First Augustine says that as long as we are part of God’s creation we are like a lump of clay. We have not become a new creation so, therefore, we have not been introduced to spiritual things. As a spiritual person, are we to judge all things but be judged by no one? Is it right for anyone to hold back from hearing this kind of inquiry and not give God an answer? If anyone wants to know God’s plan, they must first become friends with God, and this is only possible for spiritual people who already bear the image of the heavenly Potter.20
1 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 492-493
2 Isaiah 5:20
3 Jeremiah 18:6
4 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Isaiah 29:16; 45:9
6 Job 33:13-14
7 James 2:19-20
8 Job 38:2-5
9 Job 40:2
10 Possibly a town in Judah, see Joshua 15:36
11 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Ta’anith, folio 20a-b
12 Proverbs 16:4
13 Isaiah 64:8 – Complete Jewish Bible (64:7)
14 Jeremiah 18:2-4
15 Hosea 8:8
16 Acts of the Apostles 9:15
17 2 Timothy 2:20-21
18 Origen: On First Principles 3.1.22.
19 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 16
20 Augustine: On Romans 62, op. cit., loc. cit.