Do you ever read letters from friends before you have opened the envelope? A lady to whom I had to write concerning repairs to a house she owned must have done so, as she replied asking about the very matters I had made as crystal clear as language could accomplish. Probably she was expecting something which I did not state, and not seeing what she expected, failed to grasp what I did write.
It is to be feared that the Scriptures are often approached in the same manner. This is specially true of the passage we are about to examine. Paul's original epistles suffered in the same way, and sometimes he had to write again to an Ecclesia to set aright their misunderstanding.
For example, what would happen did we colour our passage in Rom. 9 by verse 13, "Jacob I love, yet Esau I hate"? Are we to understand this classification as colouring the following ten verses? Is God's choice, one way or the other, governed by His love or His hatred (or lack of love)? Has His love for all the world ceased?
Would it not be wiser to attain the general sense of the entire passage, before trying to resolve the meaning of single statements? That is to say, do not jump to conclusions, but reach the meaning of the whole passage step by step.
Our first step should be to understand verse 15. Here the King James 1611 version reads "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy." As the "will" here is merely the future tense, nothing is said concerning God's determination, and the statement only repeats itself. Of course, it must be true that God will shew mercy to whom He will shew mercy. The Revised version of 1881 cut out the second "will" (in both clauses), to produce just what the Revised Standard version reads, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy." Such a statement seems appallingly trite. Suppose you said, "I shall go on loving whom I am loving." It is obvious that We have not reached the true sense of the verse. These versions have all ignored the tiny but very important Greek particle, an, which inserts contingency into a statement. This little word bears the force of "in the case of," or "in a (certain) case." It often precedes a verb in the subjunctive: All subjunctives express futurity and contingency of some kind.
For this reason, we ought to read here as do Hebert and the Concordant Version, "I may be merciful," or as do the Emphatic Diaglott, Bowes, and the primitive C.V., "I should be merciful." Rotherham's fifth edition reads "I can have mercy," which is really tantamount to "I may have mercy." Perhaps the closest we can get to the Greek would read thus; "I shall be merciful to whom I may (in a certain case) be merciful, and I shall be pitying whom I may (in a certain case), be pitying."
The version by Rev, James Challis (1871) calls for a change in punctuation, thus. "I will have mercy, whomsoever I may have mercy upon; and I will have compassion, whomsoever I, may have compassion upon." "The correction has an important bearing on the Apostle's doctrine. The assertion here is not, as in v. 18, that God will have mercy upon whom he chooses to have mercy, but simply that he will have mercy, whoever may be the recipients of his mercy. . ."
God's mercy is not arbitrary; it is contingent upon certain factors. Throughout all God's moral government, His will has some respect to the will of the creature, made in His own image.
God has never been known to refuse mercy to those who seek it in the proper manner. But it is not unrighteous for God to withhold mercy from those who decline to seek it in the appointed way, or those who are too proud to acknowledge God.
Only those Israelites who hearkened to their God were chosen to obtain mercy. Paul does not here state how God determines the kind of persons who will obtain mercy. But this has been declared in passages innumerable in the Old Testament, and is made clear from verse 30 onwards into ch. 10.
Years ago I read the strange statement, "Jehovah hardens Pharaoh's heart in order that he may sin against Him! Some insist that God cannot have such a close connection with sin. They would prefer to fix the blame on Pharaoh, or on Satan. But, while Jehovah directly causes Pharaoh to sin, by doing so He Himself avoids failure or sin."
There is no Scripture which states that Jehovah ever directly caused Pharaoh, or any other human being, to sin. Is it ever God who causes you to sin? Your whole heart would at once revolt from such a thought! Would the statement imply that God compelled Adam to sin, so that God Himself might be blameless? Or did God first of all harden the heart of Adam, in order to make sure that Adam might not continue to be obedient to Him?
Is it not "the Spirit, the Holy (Spirit)" who says, "Today, if you should be hearkening to His voice, you should not be hardening your hearts" (Heb. 3:7-8; 4:7; Psalm 95:8)? There must be some difference between men hardening their own hearts against God, and God hardening their hearts. The former is evil; the latter cannot be evil. It is the badness within human beings that hardens or stiffens them. But it is the inherent goodness within God that hardens men.
The late Pastor G. L. Rogers, in his fine chapters on Romans, says, "God does not blame men because He has first hardened them; He hardens them only when they are persistent sinners. Hardening is the visitation of His anger on willful sinners. Many men are now so hardened and deluded that no gospel call can reach them. They have loved darkness rather than light, and God has given them what they chose. When God hardens a sinner, He dooms him to become the slave of the sin he chooses and to reap its bitter harvest. The wrath of God is not without cause. It invariably falls on irreverence and injustice. Pharaoh and others will not be able to stand up in the judgment and say, I did not resist Thy will."
Some commentators have tried to say that Paul makes no mention of the agency by which human beings are fitted to destruction or lostness. I must differ here, as the verbal form makes this perfectly clear. When we find in the Greek that a verb is both used in the New Testament in the Active and the Middle, or in the Passive and the Middle, we must distinguish between the two forms. Godet has shewn that the perfect participle form used by Paul (katErtismena; fitted or adapted, Rom. 9:22) denotes a present state which has been previously formed in a certain manner; but this participle indicates absolutely nothing as to the mode in which this state has been produced. Some have inferred that because the potter has a right to do or make what he likes with his clay, God, as the great Potter, has adapted vessels of indignation for lostness or destruction.
But we are not told that God performed the fitting unto destruction. What we are positively told is, that God makes known the richness of His glory upon mercy-vessels, which He made ready, before, for glory, namely, ourselves.
There has been some confusion and dubiety regarding the start of verse 23. I would suggest the sense of verses 22 and 23 is as follows: Now if God, wishing to display His indignation and make known what is possible with Him (as Weymouth), carries on, in much patience, vessels of indignation, self-fitted unto destruction or lostness—(all) in order that He should (get an opportunity of) making known the richness of His glory. . . . . Or, to put this in other words: God was wishing to shew His indignation and get it over, making manifest what He (alone) could accomplish in the way of amelioration even through His wrath—"what is possible with Him," and Him alone. But He bore with those foolish vessels which had adapted themselves for a period of lostness; in order, that (Gk. hina) He should, at the same time, be free to call those whom He makes ready before for glory. Doubtless God would like to see His times of judgment over and done with. But He has waited, in very great patience, so that vessels of mercy may be multiplied.
God makes ready some "for glory" (eis doxan). Others make themselves fitted "for lostness" (eis apOleian). That lostness means the loss of that glory.
Throughout chs. 9 to 11 of Romans, Paul is largely dealing with the Nation of Israel. He visualizes the strange spectacle of the bulk of that Nation becoming like Pharaoh, running headlong into sure disaster, making their hearts hard and stony, fitting themselves for lostness. Since Paul's day Israel has been spiritually lost.
The question might be asked, How do men and women harden their hearts? There are various answers. Here is one, from John 15:25.
This was very true in the case of the Lord. He was hated or disliked without a reason, or, as Dr. Robert Young suggested in 1865, "gratuitously." Dislike can be more repulsive than hatred. Hatred is often at least honest and blunt, and shews itself more openly than dislike, which is often dissembling or concealed.
The Lord's peerless purity and spotless moral character only irritated those who were not attracted thereby, and gradually hardened them. Hard-heartedness, once acquired, generally leads to decay of all the moral qualities and principles, until the individual loses the power or the desire to repent, and make himself fit only for judgment.
Says one, "Each fresh miracle of Christ made the Pharisees and Scribes the more exasperated." This became another cause of hardening. Although the Prophets had foretold the coming of Messiah, the manner of His coming annoyed most of the Nation, and hardened them against Him.
In all heralding of the Gospel there is bound to be, sooner or later, a certain amount of hardening among the hearers. This happened when Paul spent three months at Ephesus boldly carrying on in the synagogue, arguing and persuading concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 19:8-9). The inevitable result was that some hardened themselves and were unpersuaded, and spoke evil of the Way.
But it cannot be wrong to proclaim the Gospel. We are commanded to stand by it, in season and out of season (2. Tim. 4:2). And if some do as a result become hardened, the blame lies entirely at their own door. No human being will ever be able to vindicate his indifference to, or rejection of, such a Deity as has been revealed in Christ Jesus. Here again, it is the goodness of God that leads to hardening. Only in such a sense can it be averred that God hardens any human soul, or leaves him hardened.
Perhaps this was one reason why the Lord told His disciples that He would make them to become fishers of men (Mark 1:17). It might do more harm than good to shoot or fling the Gospel at some people, as is often done by those who have the zeal but not the wisdom.
Paul does not say that God makes vessels like clay destitute of freewill, and for destruction. He asks whether the potter has not the right to do whatever he please with his own clay. He does not even suggest that the potter makes any vessel for destruction. The subject of this passage is simply God's absolute sovereignty: the matter of freewill and human liberty he leaves until v. 30-10:21, which must be kept in mind when we study ch. 9.
Paul does not say that God has a right to make some men good and others wicked—that would be false; or a right to give faith to some but not to others—which is true, though not the subject in hand here. Paul asserts that God has a right to chastise wrongdoers, who reject or ignore His mercy, and do not trust Him. At the same time, their punishment is used as a lesson to others.
While it is not the case that God makes human beings wicked, He does make wicked human beings vessels of dishonour. God endures, or carries on with vessels of indignation, but does not make them so. He does not make vessels of indignation, but finds them. He does not find vessels of mercy, but makes them. Nor is it stated that God prepared Israel for destruction, or that vessels of indignation make themselves fitted for everlasting lostness or destruction.
Paul has already laid down the principles upon which God's righteous judgment will proceed, in Rom. 2:5, "Yet in accord with your hardness and unable-to-repent heart you are hoarding for yourself indignation in a day of indignation. . . ." I render very literally "unable-to-repent heart" as the adjective here (ametanoEton) means that; the hardened sinner finds himself incapable of reversing his thoughts and manner of life. In contrast with Rom. 2:5 we must place 2. Tim. 2:20-21. Verse 21 reads "If then anyone should be purging himself from these, he will be a vessel for honour, having-became-hallowed, and useful to the Owner, having-become-ready for every good work." Vessels are for use.
The soldier on parade or on the battlefield does not wait for something called "grace" to come upon him before he obeys an order. It ought not to be difficult to obey God's instructions at once and with goodwill.
It must be obvious, to any but a very shallow person, that the relationship between God and man is not to be compared with the relationship between the potter and his vessels. The potter is never so foolish as to hold the clay responsible for its quality, whether good or inferior. The question is not concerning the quality of the clay, but entirely concerning the use made of it by the potter. The potter does not create the clay, but takes it as he finds it and uses it as best he can. And observe, it is not the shapeless lump of clay which asks, "Why do you make ME thus?" It is the finished manufactured article which thus interrogates him who has given it its present form.
Man is far more than a machine, and cannot be manipulated like mere matter. It is God's will that human vessels He makes from the clay of the earth should possess some freewill. It is God's purpose that mankind alone, so far as we know, should exist in the image of God. Mankind has further been linked up with Deity through the incarnation, even to the extent that men and women may become participants of divine nature (2. Peter 1:4).
As it has been revealed that all men and women have to answer some day for their actions, done in the body, it follows that each one bears his or her own responsibility. How then can it be said, that "Men are only puppets in the great tragedy of the eons"? If this world is really an "insane asylum," how will God ever be able to judge its lunatics? Lunatics, in common law, are adjudged "unfit to plead."
And if, after all is said and done, we are at the best only a miserable race of lunatics, and if the human race has been so from the beginning, why did God create us all in His image, and why do we bear marks of that image still upon us, in some degree?
One of Paul's grand arguments in our passage is, that no human soul has any right or grounds for asking, "Why then, is He still finding fault?" making his excuse that no one in any case can withstand God's resolve. If God does find fault, it will only be because He has not been obeyed. It is never He who has made anyone wicked. The very wickedest man or woman has the right to approach God in Christ, provided he or she will only repent of the evil life, and change his or her attitude to God.
Why does Paul bring this feature into the argument (v.22)? Is it not to shew that God is supremely interested in mankind, that His wish (thelEma) is that all mankind (emphatic) will be saved, and also come into a fuller knowledge of Truth (1. Tim. 2:4)? To that end He has been extraordinarily patient hitherto. One's long-suffering is not worth much if it suddenly vanishes in the smoke of fiery wrath. Only when matters get out of hand does God become a consuming fire of indignation. Kindly human beings put off the condemnation of others as long as possible. Much more must God shrink from finding fault and judging. So He uses grace first. If this fails, He must use judgment, which in His hands will be found to be another but sterner form of His grace. Yet even here we cannot conceive of the long-suffering and all-patient One losing His patience. If grace has been successful, so will judgment be. He will send forth the judgment (or judging) unto victory.
Thus neither Israel nor the Gentiles could find fault with God. In every nation he who is fearing God and working righteousness is acceptable to Him (Acts 10:35). God did not leave Himself without witnesses. The life of these witnesses condemns the godless, and will act as a judgment upon the world.
The prophet went down to the potter's house and watched him at work. A clay vessel was marred in the potter's hand. But he began again and remade it into another vessel, which was satisfactory. Jehovah then enquires whether He could not do the same with the House of Israel. Next, He shews how this could be done. The moment He speaks concerning a nation or kingdom, to break it up, should that nation turn back from its evil, Jehovah also will repent of the evil He thought to do to it. And the moment He spoke concerning a nation or kingdom, to build it and plant it, should it do evil in His eyes, so as not to hearken to Him, then He would repent of the good He said He would do to it. Then in v. 11 Jehovah pleads directly with Israel to turn back from evil ways and do good. But they do not wish to learn the difference between good and evil, and prefer their evil and stubborn ways.
Would it be correct to say that Jehovah was here compelling Israel to go on sinning, and that He was only dissembling in pleading with them to do what was right?
When Paul wrote the Parable of the Potter he must have had in mind the various passages in the O.T. which mention the potter and his work (Psalm 2; Isa. 29, 30, 41, 64; Jer. 18, 19). He must have known that Jeremiah infers that Jehovah would completely remake Israel. Jeremiah says a vessel might be "marred in the hand of the potter." The potter might be careless or unskilled. This was not the reason why Israel was marred in God's hands. Or the clay might be stubborn, or recalcitrant. Unlike clay, human beings have a will of their own. Jeremiah shews that Israel was marred in God's hands because they chose to sin against Jehovah. As in other parables, the analogy is not complete throughout. In ch. 31 Jeremiah proves that the marred clay of Israel will be entirely remade. If in ch. 18 Jeremiah meant that God is altogether arbitrary, this would imply that the Potter did what no sane potter would ever do, mar his clay deliberately!
Once again, Jer. 18 in no way opposes the composite doctrine that God is sovereign, yet man is free. Nor does any of the above passages in the O.T. concerning the potter teach that God makes some human beings good and others bad; or some to be blessed while others are to be cursed.
Paul makes no effort to solve the strange but wonderful antinomy that God is sovereign, though man has his freedom. Nevertheless, he maintains that both parts are true. Nor does he try to explain why one should possess faith, while another, with the same knowledge, has no faith. No one can answer these problems, and no one should attempt to solve them, during this life.
In Romans 9 Paul sets out to establish the supremacy of God, without bringing in such features in God as His vast Love and Holiness, which must influence His sovereignty. Paul had to deal first with the objector's pride and opposition, which must be humbled. Therefore, he does not yet qualify his assertion that God is supreme.
In other words, in ch. 9, down to verse 29, Paul does not stop short or interrupt himself in firmly establishing that God is sovereign. He had to do this first of all, because the mass of Israel had drawn the false conclusion, from the facts of their special election as His People, their Holy Law, their Circumcision, their ceremonial works, their monotheism, their whole moral superiority, that their national Deity, Jehovah, was tied to them, bound to treat them as specially favoured, not at liberty therefore to extend the Gospel or Divine favour to the Gentiles. Accordingly, Paul was obliged to vindicate the Divine Freedom. But he does so in a manner which does not teach complete Divine arbitrariness.
In the next chapter he proves and vindicates human freedom, even though such freedom is limited.
ALEXANDER THOMSON Last updated 5.2.2006