Keys to Understanding Romans 9 : 19-21 – Who is Arguing with the Potter?

In this series, we are not going through Romans chapter 9 in depth. My goal is merely to give us some key cross-reference passages to help us come to a clear understanding of what Paul is communicating in Romans 9.

Let’s take a look at verses 19-21:

19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” 20 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?” 21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?

Romans 9:19-21

Here we have God represented as the Potter Who has sovereign authority over the clay. But those represented by the clay take issue with how God has dealt with them. Who are these people? In what way do they feel they have been misused by God? These questions are not difficult when we follow Paul’s argument from 9:1 up to 18.

Paul started off by telling his readers that Israel had been prepared for the promises of the New Covenant. But in their rebellion they rejected the Messiah and chose to boast in their ancestry and their devotion to the Law of Moses, instead of embracing the promises of God that are “Yes and Amen” in Jesus Christ. Their pride caused them to stumble over the stumbling block, and God in turn judged them by hardening them in their unbelief. They had sinned, and God justly judged them for their sin. But not only did He judge them, but He used their sin to further His purposes and bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. In this way, their sin did not hurt God’s glory in the slightest but actually magnified His grace to the nations. This is exactly what He had done with Pharaoh, which is why Paul used Pharaoh to represent the unbelieving nation of Israel in verse 17: “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’

Besides the context of Romans 9, what gives us the confidence to say that the clay arguing with God in verses 19-21 are meant to represent the nation of Israel? We find the confirmation we need in Jeremiah 18:1-11:

1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying: 2 “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.” 3 Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. 4 And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make. 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the LORD. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! 7 “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, 8 “if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. 9 “And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, 10 “if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it. 11 “Now therefore, speak to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.” ‘ ”

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Paul references the analogy that God gave to the prophet Jeremiah. God used the potter to represent Himself, and the marred clay to represent the nation of Israel. God explained to Jeremiah that God had the right to “relent concerning the good” He had planned for Israel and bring judgment on them instead. This is exactly what He did in Jeremiah’s day, and Paul uses this reference to show that God is doing the same thing in his day. Israel has rejected the Messiah, and so God has decreed judgment and wrath on them. But for those who receive Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, they will receive the mercy of God. He hardens those who reject Christ, and He shows mercy to those who place their trust in Him.

So, what exactly was unbelieving Israel, the lump of clay, objecting to in God’s dealing with them? The context makes this clear, but by referring to Romans 3:1-6:

1 What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? 2 Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God. 3 For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? 4 Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: “That You may be justified in Your words, And may overcome when You are judged.” 5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) 6 Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world?

Romans 3:1-6

In Romans 3 we see that Paul’s hypothetical debate partners from the unbelieving nation of Israel were objecting to the fact that they were being judged by God even though their unrighteousness magnified the righteousness of God. Their argument went something like this, “If you were glorified in our unbelief and rebellion, why are we being punished?! We didn’t harm you, but we are still in trouble!” But Paul makes it clear, that though God was not harmed by them, they were still guilty and worthy of punishment. God was just to judge their sin.

This is nearly identical to the argument that unbelieving Israel makes in Romans 9:19: “You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” Why should God judge them for their unbelief, if their rejection of the Gospel caused the kingdom of God to spread to the nations and bring His glory to the ends of the earth? And the answer these rebels receive is: “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?” God is a righteous God and He is just to judge the wicked for their willful unbelief. And the unbelieving nation of Israel has no right to object when He uses their judgment to further His kingdom and glory to the Gentiles.

The context of Romans 9 makes it clear that Israel is the lump of clay that is being referenced in Romans 9:20-21, and we see this confirmed when we go back to the passage that Paul drew this reference from, namely Jeremiah 18:1-11. And by following Paul’s argument from Romans 9:1 to verse 19 we can understand what objection the unbelievers of Israel were raising. It was almost the same argument that Paul referred to in Romans 3:1-6. The passage is clear when we read the context and refer to Romans 3 and Jeremiah 18.



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