Delimiting the Text
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—
It does seem odd that we will end this section at verse 23 when verse 24 is grammatically dependent on verse 23. There are commentators that will make the case from the original languages that verse 24 includes a grammatical shift that starts a new section. However, such a discussion is beyond the scope here, so we will deal with what we see directly in the text. Paul starts off chapter 9 intent on discussing the future salvation of Israel and answering why Israel is not all saved. He will finish this in chapter 11 with the revelation that in the last days, a remnant, and then all Israel will be saved. Verses 6-8 highlight the main assertions of chapter 9-11. But it seems that in verses 14-15 and then through 19-23, he gets sidetracked with a discussion on the fairness of God in choosing some and not others, and that discussion seems to close at verse 23, with verse 24 applying the discussion to the Gentiles and shifting the topic back to God’s plan of salvation.
A commonly-heard refrain is that we have no right to question God for his wisdom. Verse 20, especially part a, are often used in conjunction with other verses to say that God’s ways are mysterious and deeper than what we can understand. But Paul, in vv. 22-23 does seek to understand the rights and purposes of the Creator. The first thing that he does though, is put the objector back in their place. Paul takes a problem with how the question is asked. It is not someone humbly seeking after the ways of God, like Mary does with the angel in Luke 1:34, it is an indignant declaration of what should not be. And in case the nature of the question was not clear, Paul puts the objector back in their place by framing his rebuke with “O man” and “to God”.
To follow up his point, Paul asks two rhetorical questions. “Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” The expected answer is that the potter absolutely has the right over the clay to do whatever he wants, to use clay in such a way that the full range of their skill becomes evident. No one questions his right and his authority to make such distinctions.
The closest parallel to Romans 9:20-21 is Isaiah 45:9, where a similar rhetorical question is asked:
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? (Isa 45:9)
Here, Isaiah addresses King Cyrus of Persia, leading many to believe that Paul is indeed talking about historical roles and destinies. In Jeremiah 18:1-6, the metaphor of the potter and clay to address the destiny of Israel.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 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. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “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. (Jer 18:1-6)
However, take a note of the following passages where similar language is found:
You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Isa 29:16)
In Isaiah 29:16, Paul again uses the metaphor of potter and clay, yet he addresses a subset of the nation of Israel – the wise men who have led the nation astray. Similar metaphors pop up in the apocrypha that informed Paul’s worldview, yet they do not address the destiny of nations. This suggests that Paul did not mean to quote directly from the Old Testament in order to develop a thought identified by the ancient authors, but rather he adapted a common metaphor for use in the argument for election and salvation. The specific interpretation of this metaphor must rest on the context of Chapters 9-11.
Just as the potter as the right over the clay, so the Creator has the right over men. To Paul, the idea that the creature can impose his ideas and values on the creator is preposterous. But men are not clay to be beaten into silence, so in verses 22-23, Paul sets forth the controlling purposes of God in sovereignty. “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”.
The question he asks is a hanging conditional – the reader is forced to infer the apodosis. Another way of understanding the question is by rephrasing it “What [objection can we make] if God did all this to show his wrath, make known his power… in order to make known the riches of his glory?” After all, it is the right of God to manifest the full range of his character by creating vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy. For us to argue that God is wrong to do so is to argue that it is right for God to never reveal a certain part of his character. It is perfectly fitting for God to work with his creation to display all aspects of his glory.
We have not quite yet answered “Why does he still find fault?”. The objector assumes Paul’s point that God has created and distinguished vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy, but what he sees in Paul’s theology that he so strongly objects to is the fact that God find fault over and against our free will. A couple of observations in the text that may help us here:
The first is that we can see that God actively and directly prepares the vessels of mercy for glory, but who prepares the vessels of wrath for destruction? The voice is passive in the sentence. To this, I have not found a compelling answer for why this is written in the passive voice, but I do not believe that Paul wishes to deny divine agency in preparing vessels of wrath – after all, who is the one that hates Esau, and who is the one who hardens Pharaoh? And we must not forget that Paul is extending the analogy of verse 21, where the potter is the one who makes the vessel for dishonorable use.
The second peculiarity here is the puzzling phrase “endured with much patience”. In light of Paul’s claim that God has already chosen beforehand who will be saved and who will not be, it seems curious that God would endure with much patience if he knows that they will not be saved. What are we waiting for? For their repentance. Looking at the context here, it becomes clear that Paul still has God’s dealings with Pharaoh in view, in that he continues to sustain Pharaoh’s hardness, that his signs and wonders would be multiplied in the land of Egypt. Paul applies that principle to the current situation; God’s forbearance with vessels of wrath is not a certificate of God’s favor (waiting for Israel to repent), but it serves to multiply his wrath and his power.
wrath is not co-equal with his mercy. In verse 23, we see that God subjugates
his wrath and power to his in service to his mercy. For to us who are being
saved, God’s mercy appears all the greater when painted against the backdrop of
the wrath from which we were saved. Therefore, it is right for God to prepare
vessels of wrath so that we can see the full extent of his mercy and glory, so
that we can see him as a merciful God. And for God to create vessels for wrath
and vessels of mercy and fail to visit wrath and mercy on them is for God fail
to act with regard for his own glory. Therefore, God must necessarily find
fault with men, lest he be unrighteous.
The closest references here would be Wisdom of Solomon 15:7 and Sirach 33:7-13. Wisdom of Solomon adapts the metaphor to point out the absurdity that the idol (made of clay) is made by the potter, yet the potter worships that which he has made. The metaphor in Sirach actually serves to advance the point that God determines individual destinies. But to say that Paul is quoting from Sirach rather than Jeremiah would be arbitrary, since Paul does not claim to be quoting anyone. (Piper, )
 Here, Murray sees a textual parallel between verse 17 (“that I might show my power in you…”) and verse 22 (“to make known his power”). The parallel is not readily obvious to me, but the development of Paul’s thought is quite accurate here. What God has done with Pharaoh is more broadly applied to the vessels of wrath.