“Of course I can almost hear your retort: “If this is so, and God’s will is irresistible, why does God blame men for what they do?” But the question really is this: “Who are you, a man, to make any such reply to God?” When a craftsman makes anything he doesn’t expect it to turn round and say, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ The potter, for instance, is always assumed to have complete control over the clay, making with one part of the lump a lovely vase, and with another a pipe for sewage. Can we not assume that God has the same control over human clay? May it not be that God, though he must sooner or later expose his wrath against sin and show his controlling hand, has yet most patiently endured the presence in his world of things that cry out to be destroyed?
Romans 9:19-26a (JB Phillips translation)
This past fall I took my first pottery class. My friend had been going for a number of years and had made some impressive pieces. Unfortunately, I discovered pottery is not as easy as it appears. It took me a number of frustrating attempts to make my first lopsided bowl— an item barely fit for the kiln. Clay is not always a perfectly uniform substance. Sometimes it can be downright stubborn. If it is not the right consistency or contains hard lumps that resist the potter’s gentle pressure it is not possible to get a good result.
Imagine my surprise if I were a highly skilled potter (I am not) and one of my failed projects were to start talking. “Hey, see that delicate teacup over there? Why didn’t you make me into that instead of this rough planter!” I would be tempted to answer, “Well, maybe if you weren’t so hard and resistant, I could have made you into a teacup.” I also might be heard to mutter under my breath, “who does that piece of clay think it is to talk back to me?”
The potter can make what he or she wants.
People’s reasoning for rejecting God sometimes goes like this: It’s not fair that God doesn’t choose everyone. Romans 8 makes it seem a little like that is the whole story: God foreknew, predestined and called some to salvation and at the same time others not. But that is only part of the picture.
Consider Pharoah. Moses asked Pharoah to let the Israelites go worship God, but instead, he immediately made their lives as slaves, even more difficult then they already were. (Exodus 5) When confronted with the miraculous, he rejected God. “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him…?” he asked Moses. (5:2) Pharoah dared to question Yahweh, the omnipotent God of Israel. Pharoah hardened his own heart and God hardened Pharoah’s heart.
Romans 9:17 states of Pharoah, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” This is clearly God’s prerogative and it is true that God chooses.
In Romans 9, Paul anguishes over the fact that his own people, Israel, missed out. They did not see what he saw, even though God had revealed himself to them, through the law, the prophets and Jesus Christ, Messiah. They rejected righteousness by faith (Romans 10:3) and did not submit to it.
In spite of their privilege of birth the Israelites repeatedly rejected what had been revealed to them and hardened themselves against it, like clay that would not yield. But there is good news– the hardness won’t last forever and they will come to faith (Romans 11:25).
Pharoah and Israel both remind me of hard, lumpy clay. God, being the divine potter, chose them for His own purposes, not theirs (Romans 9:17). His power will be displayed and his name will be proclaimed whether he chooses to harden or have mercy and when he will do so. The question for us, both Jews and Gentiles, is what kind of clay will we be?