The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Who are you to answer back to the potter indeed?

I realized earlier this afternoon that somehow I had never posted this material before (or not in print anyway – it was part of my debate with TFan two autumns ago); so since I refer to it quite a bit I figured I ought to put it somewhere.

Rom 9:19-21 are frequently quoted to people who complain about Rom 9 being interpreted as teaching hopeless punishment, and are especially appealed to by Calvinists against complaints about Rom 9 teaching a Calv version of election and non-election.

I may observe in passing that this looks (in Greek) to be a statement of what will happen: the pottery will eventually not complain about being made this way. To me this seems a bit hard to square with persons originally elected, by God’s own choice, to never be saved from sin (much moreso elected to be sinners at all) and so to continually fulminate in rebellion against God forever!

But more importantly, Paul is referencing something from the Old Testament.

It might be from Jeremiah 18:6, where the Lord sends the prophet to see a potter for an analogy; the pot was spoiled so the potter destroyed it back to a lump–and made it again. “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does? Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand O House of Israel!” This is very far from hopeless for the ruined pottery, even though Jehovah goes on to predict that Israel will refuse to repent and so will be destroyed. From the description in chapter 18 verses 16 and 17, that destruction may look hopelessly final–but that wasn’t how the story ended for the pottery. (Nor is it how the story ends elsewhere in Jeremiah.)

Paul could also be referencing Isaiah 29:16: “You turn things around! Shall the potter be considered like with the clay, that what is made should say to its maker, ‘He did not make me’, or what is formed say to him who formed it ‘He has no understanding’?” That’s a reply to those who try to hide their plans and deeds from JEHOVAH in dark places, to convince themselves that no one sees them. But Jehovah is also talking about a situation where, thanks to their insistence on sinning and on refusing to listen to correction and instruction, God has confirmed Israel in her ignorance, and darkened her prophets, and reduced them to being virtually illiterate when it comes to understanding the scriptures. This leads to Israel’s overthrow and destruction. In fact, it leads (per Isaiah 30) to Israel being shattered like the smashing of a potter’s jar so that not a sherd remains large enough to scoop any water or even hold a coal from a fire (e.g. 30:12-14).

But most of this prophecy is about what happens afterward as a result of her destruction, after the ruthless have come to an end and the scorners are finished and all who are intent on evil are cut off. What happens, is that YHWH deals “marvelously wonderful” with those people despite the acknowledged fact that their hearts are far from Him and they only worship with their lips not their hearts, revering Him only by rote tradition learned from men. On that day the people God has deafened due to their sins will hear, and the people God has blinded due to their sins will see, and Jacob (the righteous patriarch, standing here for righteous Israel as Rachel does elsewhere) will no longer be ashamed of his children, for they will sanctify God’s name and stand in awe of the God of Israel. “And those who err in spirit will know understanding, and those who murmur (or criticize) will learn instruction!”

Even though they were not willing to repent even when the invading Assyrians came to overrun them (30:15-17), and so were shattered in such a way that no human could remake them, as a fired pot is shattered, God waits to be gracious and merciful to them, promising that they shall eventually repent and He shall eventually restore them with great blessings (possibly indicating resurrection here, or maybe only talking about the few survivors); binding up the fracture of His people and healing the bruise of His blow against them (e.g. v.26). The rest of the chapter involves YHWH smiting the invading Assyrians instead, striking them with the flame of consuming fire and the rod of punishment and burning them with brimstone and fire in the valley of Topheth (i.e. Gehenna but using the name of its days as a Moloch sacrifice area). The reference to Topheth per se is not only ironic (that the unjust shall be slain where the unjust unjustly slayed), but the term usage itself indicates that YHWH rejects what happens there even though He does it Himself. Together with the explanation of the goal of the utter destruction of rebel Israel, this suggests God does not mean the punishment of the rebel Gentiles to be hopeless either.

Or, perhaps Paul was referring to Isaiah 64:8, a portion of scripture we know Paul had on his mind while writing Romans 9 because he quotes from the beginning of Isaiah chapter 65 soon afterward. In 64:8, the prophet is speaking for destroyed rebel Israel, praying in repentance that God will not be angry beyond measure but will stop punishing them and restore them. God replies (in summary) that He will keep on punishing impenitent sinners, but will restore the penitent ones. He also replies, however, while describing the new heavens and new earth to come (in the second half of chapter 65) that eventually natural enemies shall live together in peace on His holy mountain, including typologies of ravening rebels like wolves, lions, and most notably the same bronze-serpent from Genesis 3:14–finally eating the dust of his humility! So the whole prophecy there in context involves destroyed sinners repenting and being restored, sooner and later, up to and including the great rebel himself.

The language at Romans 9:20 is most similar, however, to Isaiah 45:9, where God is remonstrating against those of Israel who do not believe God will stop punishing Israel and restore her to faithfulness with Him. (And, who perhaps are especially freaked by the recent prophecy that God will accomplish some of this by means of the pagan tyrant Cyrus, a man who does not even know God, but whom God prophecies will come to know of Him! Which Cyrus historically did not before he died, by the way, although he did help restore some of the dispersed Jews to Jerusalem.) The whole chapter, and its preceding prophecy from Isaiah 44, is about God’s absolute ultimate power to save sinners from sin, and especially from idolatry to false gods. The end result is predicted: “I have sworn by Myself!–the word has gone forth from My mouth unto fair-togetherness (or ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’ in English) and will not turn back: that to Me every knee will bow and every tongue will swear allegiance! They will say of Me, ‘Only in JEHOVAH are fair-togetherness and strength! Men will come to Him and all who are angry at Him shall be put to shame!’”

We know for certain this portion of scripture was very important to Paul, because he refers to that final result several times, including later in Romans 14:11. The scope is total salvation from sin; none remain disloyal to God, Who (per Isaiah 29 as mentioned above in similar connection to Romans 9:20) does not accept false worship of lying lips and a disloyal heart.

So then, it is true that God hardens whom He desires (as with blind Israel in Isaiah 29), but it is also true that God has mercy on whom He desires (such as blind Israel in Isaiah 29!) God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endures with much patience the instruments of wrath that He has created to pour destruction: a patience the term of which (makrothemia) is everywhere else in the New Testament related to God’s intention to save sinners from their sins.

Thanks, this occasionally comes up so it will be useful to know this is here.

Do you know of anyone else who thinks the Greek implies it will happen?

I don’t recall reading that from anyone’s interpretation yet, no. I don’t hang anything on it, though. The OT citation refs are much more important (along with a fuller exposition of Rom 9 altogether of course.)

Thanks for this Jason:

This passage continues to fascinate (/perplex) me. Is it teaching sovereignty? or free will? – or some marvelous synthesis of the two. I asked about this a couple years ago and the discussion there is certainly relevant here. The thread is titled:
Is Paul’s potter/clay analogy about freedom?

[Is Paul’s potter/clay analogy about freedom?)

The matter of us getting to choose “what kind of clay we are” yet interests me. Jason’s very pithy answer, as I see things, can not be improved upon!


As long as we’re thinking in terms of everyone starting (in principle if not always in practice) in the “vessels of wrath” category, and bring brought over into the “vessels of mercy” category, it doesn’t really matter how much free will does or doesn’t come into it – a fairly robust freewiller (freewheeler?) like myself can work with it just as easy as a hardcore determinist. Everyone is imprisoned into stubbornness so that God can show mercy to all.

Rom 9: 19-21 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” 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?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?

There is also another way to view this… leaving it in its historical context – something that Calvinism for one has not done, and so imposed its own interpretative dogma upon it.

Paul uses this OT passage prophetically… being indicative of the forth coming wrath to be visited upon Israel in general Lk 19:43-44] and upon Jerusalem and her Temple in particular in the Roman-Jewish wars of AD 66-70.

These “chosen” or elect vessels had NOTHING to do with ‘who’s in or out of heaven’ universally post-mortem as per tradition, NO. Those chosen where EITHER the first-fruit saints through whom the gospel was being presented and preached OR obstinate Israel, hardened ONLY in part, but not totally nor perpetually.

IOW… biblical “election” was all about who was called into the blessed redemptive work of Christ AS IT APPLIED in its historical context of the first century, period! And I mean “period” in both its senses.

You will note Paul says… “from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor” – the same lump was covenant Israel. The vessels of honour were obedient faithful Israelites whereas the vessels of dishonour were disobedient and rebellious Israel. Those faithful were well and truly outnumbered by their stiff-necked brethren, but as always it was these faithful vessels or “remnant” in Christ who facilitated the redemption of ALL historic Israel.

Consequently with the redemption of ALL Israel came the reconciliation ALL of humanity – and it ALL happened back then – hence Jesus’ prophetic words “it is finished!

Was Pharaoh regarded as part of the covenant lump of Israel? Because Paul seems to be including the Gentiles in his accounting here.

Also, if Paul was prophecying about the forthcoming fall of Jerusalem, he’s being awfully vague about it. Even in the OT scriptures he’s alluding to, Israel has in some cases already fallen to invading enemies. (Thus the surprise that the pagan tyrant Cyrus would be acting as a legitimate messiah for rescuing Israel.)

Moreover, if it all happened back then and was finished with Christ on the cross, there wouldn’t have been any need for forthcoming wrath per se to be visited on Israel and Jerusalem.

I do agree about the election being (both Jew and Gentile per Paul in these verses) to pour mercy on the vessels of wrath. Someone gets chosen to be the firstfruit as part of a process.

Certainly gentiles were brought into the picture [elect] of God’s workings on Israel’s behalf, but no Pharaoh definitely wasn’t regarded as part of covenant Israel.

Well I have in mind the greater context wherein Paul was wanting to “save” i.e., deliver “some of them” from the situation as it was potentially arising in those times.

Yes, so in that sense Paul wasn’t saying anything that his audience couldn’t have looked back in retrospect and known what he was alluding to, i.e., disobedience to the prophetic word being brought to Israel [through Jesus and his first-fruit saints] would lead to inevitable judgement… in this case by the invading legions of pagan Rome.

Actually in His redemptive plan for Israel I understand the Cross of AD30 to be God’s DECISIVE EVENT and the Parousia of AD70 to be the CULMINATING EVENT, that is, they BOTH together constitute the fullness of God’s grace working towards mankind – e.g., “to the Jew first and then the gentile” etc. IOW the process of redemption and reconciliation was a generational reality spanning Jesus’ “this generation” – a forty year period AD30-70 replicating in one sense the pattern of Israel’s coming out of bondage into liberty.

Kind of weird that Paul would bother to mention him at all then as a lead in to the lump: there’s a rebel son of Isaac (Esau) and a rebel Gentile (Pharaoh). The lump, and the vessels of wrath, look much more extensive than only rebel Israel, just as the salvation is much more extensive than only righteous Israel (and rebel Israel for that matter).

Ah. Whereas, it looks to me like Paul, in the greater context, was wanting to deliver all of them, not only some of them, from their sins – this being a greater problem for anyone at any time and any place, Jew and Gentile both. It isn’t only rebel Israel who is stumbling over the stumbling stone, back then or today either.

I’m kind of missing how the zorching of Israel and Jerusalem exemplifies the culminating event of God’s grace towards mankind in a process of redemption and reconciliation replicating Israel coming out of bondage into liberty (parallel to being saved from pagan Egypt into the promised land). Looks more like God’s wrath to me, throwing Israel out of the promised land and handing it over to pagan rebels for a while.

I would have thought a culmination of the process of redemption and reconciliation would have resulted in what the Bible promised: Jews going back to inherit the land, and Jew and Gentile reconciling with one another to live in peace under loyalty to God. Didn’t happen at all in 70. Much the reverse.

However, I shouldn’t be trying to argue the pros and cons of preterism in this thread. If readers think your exposition makes sufficiently good sense of Rom 9, let it be so. It’s certainly a different interpretation than the usual ones! :slight_smile:

Hi Jason… I’m not convinced it’s that weird… Pharaoh was an integral part of Israel’s story and so in the workings and will of God in relation to His people, not beyond His will. Again, what God was doing on behalf of Israel [redemption] He was in fact in the greater plan of things doing on behalf of the wider world [reconciliation] – Israel was the means whereby He accomplished this. So it is quite “extensive”.

Yes that IS the greater context… but again what I’m pointing to is the avenue whereby this occurred, i.e., the redemption of historic Israel via the faithful first-fruit saints - a ministry gentiles now became a vital part of.

Yes I can see you are missing it, but this is what I mean. OC Israel under the tyranny of Egypt is likened to Israel under the tyranny of sin. God provided a way out of that oppression. Those of “faith” went on into the fullness life in the Land of Promise – this process took a biblical generation of 40 years. In Jesus’ day “law righteousness” was oppressing the people of God and only covenant renewal could set them free. Those of “faith” who believed Jesus was ‘the way’ out of bondage grasped this reality and so realised the fullness of their redemption, and those enduring to the end were saved Mt 24:13]. This is what was happening in that 40yr period AD30-70 - a biblical generation.

You are right about God’s wrath, but this was the other side of the coin… some from that same lump [historic Israel] were assigned as vessels of honour while others were assigned to be vessels of dishonour. But either way, both worked together under the hand of God to work redemption on behalf of all.

This indeed would have been the expectation of fleshly Israel, totally missing the greater essence of covenantal promise to be servants of God. They too in their myopia were looking for such an earthly king Jn 6:15] but Jesus was wanting none of it.

This was NOT an expectation inherent in Israel, much the reverse, for gentiles were viewed as “dogs”. The dividing wall of who could serve God was indeed brought down by Christ and it has only ever been religiosity that seeks to build that wall again. That’s why Jesus and his followers were seen as such a threat to Israel’s hierarchal status quo Jn 11:48].