Romans 9:20-21 – Do unbelieving ethnic Israelites have a right to criticise God’s judgement? – The potter and the clay

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

Having reached the centre of the structure of Romans 9:6-29 (the C2-B1 section) we are now ready to begin the return journey in this post. Following from verse 20a (‘But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?’), Paul continues with:

“[20b] Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?””

The sense of the question ‘why have you made me like this?’ is an objection that is answering back to God (see verse 20a) – i.e. the ethnic Israelite objector can be paraphrased as saying “you should not have made me like this”. This objection, which is expressed in the form of a question, matches in the structure with the objection from verse 19 of ‘why does he still find fault?’, which can be paraphrased as meaning “you should not be finding fault in me”.

Being made ‘like this’ (verse 20b) corresponds to the position of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of being outside of God’s blessing and instead experiencing God’s judgement due to their rejection of Christ (with this judgement involving being hardened).

Paul is likening the objection of “you should not be judging me” (from verse 19) to the situation of a moulded vessel (e.g. a pot) saying to the person who moulded it, “you should not be making me into one of these” – clearly a ridiculous situation. Verse 20b is a rhetorical question from Paul. Paul’s point is that, as the moulder has the right to make whatever he wants out of the material he has, so God has the right to make whatever he wants out of what he has. Therefore, God has the right to judge those whom he considers it appropriate to judge. No one being judged has the right to tell God that he should not be judging them.

As we have seen from similar statements before, the statement that God has the right to judge whom he wants and to judge them in the way he wants doesn’t say anything about how God has decided to do this. Paul is responding to an anticipated objection from people who will not like his explanation of whom God has decided to judge. He is explaining to them that they do not have a right to complain about this. We know already that Paul’s explanation of whom God has decided to judge is that God has decided to judge those who reject Christ and refuse to repent (Romans 2:1-5). An aspect of this judgement is to harden them in response to their rejection of Christ, but this does not dictate that they will always be in this state of judgement.

“[21] Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?”

This is another rhetorical question, making the point that a potter has the right to make two types of vessel from the same lump of clay. In this illustration, the potter is God, and the clay is the ethnic Israelites (see below). The ‘vessel for honourable use’ is those ethnic Israelites who are receiving God’s blessing (i.e. those who are trusting in Christ). The ‘vessel for dishonourable use’ is the remaining ethnic Israelites who are outside of God’s blessing (i.e. those who have rejected Christ). Paul is making the point that God has the right to include some ethnic Israelites in God’s blessing, and to exclude others. Again, the statement that God has the right to do this does not say anything about how God has decided which ethnic Israelites will be included in God’s blessing, or whether individual ethnic Israelites currently not included in God’s blessing can switch sides and receive God’s blessing.

Verse 21 matches in the structure with verse 18: ‘so then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’. This is another verse that states God’s right to do as he pleases in having two categories of people, without explaining how God has decided which people will be in each category, and without addressing the question of whether or not someone who has been hardened can become someone on whom God has mercy.

The potter and clay analogy used by Paul appears in the Old Testament. It appears briefly in Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9, which Paul alludes to in verse 20b. Its most extensive appearance is in Jeremiah 18. We will see that its use there fits with the context we have seen from Romans. Here is Jeremiah 18:1-11:

“[1] The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: [2] “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” [3] So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. [4] And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. [5] Then the word of the LORD came to me: [6] “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. [7] If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, [8] and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. [9] And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, [10] and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. [11] Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’”

The potter was making a vessel, but the vessel ‘was spoiled in the potter’s hand’ (verse 4). The potter did not spoil it himself, but rather this was an action of the vessel. In response to this, the potter reworked it into another vessel.

Verse 6 shows us that the clay corresponds to the ethnic Israelites. Verses 7 to 10 speak of God announcing something, but giving people an opportunity to respond before what God announced takes place. If God announces punishment, and the nation then turns from its evil, then God will react to this and not give the people the punishment that he had announced (verses 7 to 8). The reverse is also true (verses 9 to 10). So the reason some are punished by God is that they do not heed the warning given to them and therefore do not turn from their evil ways, and the reason others are blessed by God is that they trust God and do heed the warning given to them, turning from their evil ways. God decides how to treat people based on their response to his graciously offered warning. All of them were warned and all therefore had an opportunity to repent.

The story of the potter and the clay has a strong correspondence with the situation of the ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day. The ethnic Israelites were supposed to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:5-6) through whom God would make himself known to the whole world (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-60). However, many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites had ‘rejected the purpose of God for themselves’ (Luke 7:30). Just as the potter in the story decides to do something else with the clay in response to it being spoiled in his hand, so God responds to the rejection of him by most of the ethnic Israelites by doing something else with them. God is determined to make himself known to the world, and the intention was for the ethnic Israelites to be the people that would show the world who God is. With the rejection by most of the ethnic Israelites of God’s purpose for them, God decides to use the unbelieving ethnic Israelites in a different way in order to achieve his goal of making himself known. The different way God chooses is to harden the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, which itself results in the world coming to hear about God. Paul talks about this further in Romans 11, as we have seen with respect to Romans 11:11.

Linking this back to Romans 9:21, Paul refers to making, out of the same lump of clay (i.e. the ethnic Israelites), a ‘vessel for honourable use’ and a ‘vessel for dishonourable use’. The ‘vessel for honourable use’ is those ethnic Israelites who are trusting in Christ, and the ‘vessel for dishonourable use’ is those ethnic Israelites who have rejected Christ. The ethnic Israelites who are trusting in Christ are being used by God for the ‘honourable use’ of making God known to the world. The ethnic Israelites who have rejected Christ are being used by God for the ‘dishonourable use’ of being hardened, which also indirectly results in God being made known to the world (as explained via the link above regarding Romans 11:11).

Verse 21 is therefore stating that God has the right to use some ethnic Israelites for ‘honourable use’ and some for ‘dishonourable use’. Verse 21 does not address the question of how God decides which ethnic Israelites will be included in each vessel, nor does it address the question of whether it is possible for an individual ethnic Israelite who is currently part of the ‘vessel for dishonourable use’ to change category to become part of the ‘vessel for honourable use’. Regarding the first question, we have seen above that God has decided for the criterion for determining which vessel each ethnic Israelite will be in to be the criterion of whether or not that ethnic Israelite is trusting in Christ (if yes: honourable use, if not: dishonourable use). Regarding the second question, we must look to other verses to consider whether it is possible for an individual ethnic Israelite to change category from being used for ‘dishonourable use’ to being used for ‘honourable use’.

The terminology of ‘vessels’ for ‘honourable use’ and ‘dishonourable use’ from Romans 9:21 is also used by Paul in his second letter to Timothy. This also helps us to understand its meaning. Here is 2 Timothy 2:20-22:

“[20] Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honourable use, some for dishonourable. [21] Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. [22] So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

Paul again refers to the two types of vessels. Note that Paul considers it possible for an individual who is a ‘vessel for dishonourable use’ to change their status to become a ‘vessel for honourable use’. The two types of vessels are two fixed categories, but a person who is a vessel for dishonourable use can change category to become a vessel for honourable use. This is what happens when someone becomes a Christian. Therefore individual people are not permanently and unchangeably fixed as one particular type of vessel, but their type of vessel can change, depending on how they respond to God’s gracious warning.

In the next post, we will continue with Romans 9:22-23.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

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4 thoughts on “Romans 9:20-21 – Do unbelieving ethnic Israelites have a right to criticise God’s judgement? – The potter and the clay

  1. Pingback: Romans blog series – Contents | The Predestination Station

  2. Pingback: Structure of Romans 9:6-29 | The Predestination Station

  3. Pingback: Romans 9:22-23 – Why does God put up with unbelieving ethnic Israelites? Can ‘vessels of wrath’ become ‘vessels of mercy’? | The Predestination Station

  4. Pingback: Romans 9:24-29 – Whom has God “called”? What does “called” mean? | The Predestination Station

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