NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XXIII)
One thing we should learn from this is that we are perfectly capable of silencing all objections and objectors in proving that anything God’s decides is in accordance with His sovereign will. No person, after God’s decision has been made, dare hesitate or doubt its validity. The integrity of God’s will is not to be questioned. What people must do is find out what God says, and then take Him at His word. Any cognition and discernment between right and wrong mankind possesses is a gift from God. So we can see why it is the ultimate discourtesy to question the conduct and motive of Him who gave it to them. Haldane says, the inquiry posed by the Apostle Paul about any person skeptical of God’s wisdom or reason, shows that such a thing is the most preposterous insult that can be hurled in the face of God.1 The good thing is this, Paul is not through yet with his explanation. So to get the whole story we must read on to the end of this chapter.
Albert Barnes outlines his reasons why he thinks Paul strongly admonished the impropriety and immorality of trying to impeach God. He says that such irreverence appears, first of all, because lost mankind is accustomed to accusing God of causing their troubles. And, secondly, no person is qualified to answer Paul’s inquiry in this verse: “Who are you to ask such questions?” What qualifications does a creature with the limited existence and corrupt intelligence of mankind have to sit in judgment of an Infinite Mind? Who gave them the authority, or invested them with the privilege to become a judge over their Maker? And, thirdly, even if a person were somehow qualified or given the privilege to investigate those subjects, what right have they to answer back after God has given them His reply, let alone charge their Creator with being involved in some kind of shameful and disgraceful conduct?
Nowhere has there ever been found a more cutting or humbling reply to the pride of mankind than this: Who are you to talk back to God? And on no subject was it more needed. The experience of every age of enlightenment, and the development of Christian theology has shown that this has been the main topic of objection against the sovereign rule of God.2 This is evident in the fact that so many want to live their lives as they see fit with no restrictions from any authority, especially a God they can’t see and don’t believe has the right to determine their destiny.
When it comes to people questioning God over the decisions He makes for their lives and then their response to whether to follow them or not, Henry Alford remarks that a person’s honor or dishonor are not to be considered as signs of moral purity or impurity of the human vessels. Their ultimate glorification or degradation will determine that. For Alford, Paul is asking these questions about our talking back to God and asking Him why He’s doing what He is doing as a way of silencing any objector. That is God’s unquestioned right to do. Therefore, it is not becoming for us humans to murmur or complain. Paul will go on to state his case and reveal the intent of his argument.3 This is good advice for any student of God’s Word. Wait until you get to the end of the argument or the point the writer is trying to establish before you make up your mind as to what it means.
H. A. Ironside also sees such objections to the doctrine of Divine Sovereignty as having been raised from early on in Paul’s letter. But since we noticed that Paul is only discussing how this in light of what we say and do here on earth, such objections have no real value. We must remember that God is working from eternity past to eternity future. He sees what we do not and cannot see. His foreknowledge leaves nothing out of the equation. As Paul sees it, the privileged Jew may fail utterly to appreciate all that God has done for the Jewish people, and by doing so comes under divine condemnation. Meanwhile, the ignorant Gentile, never having tasted of all the blessings of advanced civilization and enlightenment, may, nevertheless, possess such an open mind that the Holy Spirit will lead them directly to Christ. Either way, it is the height of irreverence for any human being to feel that they are qualified to sit in judgment of God. Paul illustrates this so perfectly with a vessel formed on a potter’s wheel to turn and with little respect ask potter, “Why did you make me this way?” It goes without saying that someone who has the intelligence and skill to form vessels out of clay reserves the right to make them into whatever shape or size they want and for such use as they deem fit.4
Frédéric Godet has an interesting view of what Paul says here. It is fascinating to read how Paul compares the relationship between God and man to that of a vessel and the potter who made it. But some say this is logically defective. A person with a freewill and responsible for their actions cannot be some unresponsive instrument in the hands of God. In addition, having been given the ability to know the difference between pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, they should not be treated as some mindless, worthless piece of clay.
Furthermore, unless the question asked by the vessel to the potter is: “Why did you make me this way?” it might suggest a different question: “Why didn’t you make me out of good clay instead of bad clay?” If the intent is to discover the answer to yet another unasked question of how such a choice affected a person’s relationship with God then they might ask: “Why didn’t you create me with a predisposed temperament of being good instead of being evil?” But all of this is mere gibberish. The real question is not about the production of the vessel, or the clay used, or its consequential qualities, but solely about its intended use by the Divine Potter.5
What seems to disturb people the most is that this seems to leave everything up to God. In my view, this is a part of some people’s interpretation of predestination that takes the illustration too far. Paul’s main point is this: God created Israel as a special vessel to be used to spread the message of His existence, power, and authority. But some of them turned out to be useless in that regard. Others, however, such as the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter were very effective. So neither one should confront God and ask Him why it turned out that way. The real important thing for any believer to know is this: What can they do to become part of God’s plan for good, not the devil’s plan for evil.
In other words, the usage of the potter and the clay, as an illustration, was only employed to show the absurdity of a brainless inanimate object speaking to an intelligent animate being, demanding answers as to why it was being formed in such a way. The moral of this parable was to emphasize God’s sovereignty over His creation which He can activate at His own discretion. F. F. Bruce is convinced that God does not need to give us a reason for everything He does. But one thing is for sure, we can be certain that whatever He does is consistent with His character. We can see this clearly in the way He planned and carried out what happened to His Son, Jesus. With a God like this to trust, should anyone have any reason to question His ways?6
Jewish scholar David Stern shares his thinking on what happened when Paul refused to budge on his insistence that God, by His sovereign right, has the authority to make out of His creation what He wants. In the same manner, as a potter has the right to make any vessel he or she wants out of the clump of clay on their wheel. The Jews understood that a potter could make a vessel for everyday use in the kitchen, or one for sacred use in the Temple. This is not without purpose. Those fashioned for service in the Temple were to praise God for being chosen for such a ministry. And those that found themselves in even the poorest huts can be told that they were made this way so that, “Everyone who calls on the name of Adonai will be saved.”7 This is similar to what Jewish Rabbi Akiva taught, “All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, but in accordance with the amount of person’s positive deeds.”8
Stern says that Paul does not surrender one way or the other to the apparent paradox of predestination versus freedom of choice. Instead, he is proactive, directing us away from standing around and foolishly questioning God’s right to rule and decide. Paul is looking for a practical and peaceful solution. That comes when we come humbly to God through Yeshua the Messiah — this path is open to everyone. In fact, Rabbi Rashi (1040–1105 AD), in his commentary on Exodus, refers to where God said: “Surely you will fear Me, you will accept reproof.”9 Rashi goes on to say: “Nevertheless, in the first five plagues, it does not say, ‘And the Lord strengthened Pharaoh’s heart,’ but ‘Pharaoh’s heart remained steadfast.’” Stern concludes that God has no interest in hardening anyone’s heart, but allows a heart to harden.10 Instead, God wants all to turn from sin to Him11.12 This leaves the door open for us to consider that when the potter puts the clay on the wheel, the clay that yields to His hands will be made into an honorable vessel for good, the clay that resists will end up as an ordinary vessel used for the least important purpose.
John Bengel describes the potter and the clay, God and mankind, in a precise way. He says that the potter does not make the clay, he only digs it out of the clay pit. In that sense, we must accept that God has greater power over man than the potter over the clay since He also created the clay. However, God’s absolute power to do what He wants with mankind does not imply that everything that’s going to happen has already been decided. In that case, Adam and Eve would have never sinned. But once they did, if God had assigned the whole human race to the power of sin and death, He would have done so justly. However, He did not exercise that right. It was Paul’s way of showing what might have been had God not taken mankind’s freewill into consideration and decided to place right and wrong in front of every descendant of Adam and let them choose.13 In other words, sinners cannot possibly see the wonder or get to appreciate the magnificence of God’s grace before they are redeemed, as they can, once they are called and chosen. Then, they can look back on what God did for them and see it more clearly.
I think it is fair to bring up at this point the case with the prophet Jonah. God informed him that he had been fashioned for the specific duty of bringing His message of salvation to the inhabitants of Nineveh. But Jonah didn’t like God’s choice for his ministry. So what did he do, he ran away and tried to escape the responsibility of doing God’s will. And what did God do? Did He abandon Jonah? Did He leave him to drown in the sea without receiving a proper burial? No! God pursued him and sent a big fish to intercept Jonah after he was thrown overboard. The final outcome, however, was that Jonah realized it is better to do God’s will than fight against it. God told him at the end, that if Jonah could be concerned over things he had no part in creating, then God has the right to be concerned over all the things He made?
1 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 480-481
2 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 85
4 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Frdric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 194
7 Romans 10:13
8 Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:15
9 Zephaniah 3:6-7
10 John 12:39
11 See Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9
12 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 317