Jeremiah and the Potter

Jeremiah 18 and Romans 9: a shared metaphor

In talking with Calvinists, there is always one passage that they pull out that in effect tells Arminians/non-predestinarians to “shut up and color.” This passage is the potter/clay metaphor of Romans 9. Most Bible scholars acknowledge that Paul’s potter metaphor was drawn, at least in part, from Jeremiah 18. Here’s the relevant passage (Rom 9.18-24 NET):

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” But who indeed are you – a mere human being – to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use? But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

Contrast this with Jeremiah 18.5-12:

Then the LORD said to me, “I, the LORD, say: ‘O nation of Israel, can I not deal with you as this potter deals with the clay? In my hands, you, O nation of Israel, are just like the clay in this potter’s hand.’ There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it. So now, tell the people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem this: The LORD says, ‘I am preparing to bring disaster on you! I am making plans to punish you. So, every one of you, stop the evil things you have been doing. Correct the way you have been living and do what is right.’ But they just keep saying, ‘We do not care what you say! We will do whatever we want to do! We will continue to behave wickedly and stubbornly!'”

A perspicacious reader will notice that there is a marked difference in tone. The Jeremiah passage states very clearly that if the nation God intends to destroy repents, He will stay His judgment, or if He looks favorably on a nation and they rebel, He will punish it. On the other hand, the Calvinist tells us, Paul turns it around without blinking an eye and uses this metaphor to affirm that His will is inexorable and altogether independent of the human element.

Moberly on inevitable judgment vs. warnings

R.W.L. Moberly at the University of Durham, in a lecture I found on the Durham website, notes that not only does Jeremiah 18 apparently contrast with Romans 9, but it also seems to contrast with the tenor of the rest of Jeremiah.

…On the one hand, the shape of the book of Jeremiah as a whole conveys the message that national disaster for Judah is inevitable. Thus for example the prime section of the temple sermon in chapter 7 (which seems to envisage as a real possibility both amendment of life and aversion of destruction) and the well-known potter and the clay — this is directly followed by material which emphasizes the inevitability of coming judgment upon an unresponsive people for whom Jeremiah is forbidden to intercede. And you get comparable juxtapositions throughout the book. Even if once there was a time when human turning (repentance) might have elicited a divine relenting, that time has now passed and disaster is inevitable. [emphasis mine] If there is hope for the future, it is hope only on the far side of judgment; Judah must pass through the valley of deep darkness and cannot go around it.

On the other hand, corresponding to this emphasis that turning to God cannot avert coming national disaster is an emphasis that national restoration is not premised upon a turning to God; on the contrary, the initiative lies entirely with God. In the oracles of hope for the future, the so-called [Book of] Consolation (Jeremiah 30-33), there is only marginal reference to human turning and overwhelming emphasis on divine initiative in a way that seems entirely to bypass human action. This is the point of the famous New Covenant passage in chapter 31.31-34 where the Lord says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” The consequence or corollary of this divine initiative is that normal human processes of formation and growth will no longer be needed. “‘No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ says the Lord.”

In a comparable way, Jeremiah’s symbolic purchase of a field that expresses hope for the future in chapter 32 is interrupted by a prayer that expresses astonishment that the Lord should act thus for a disobedient people (the second part of chapter 32). This prayer receives an answer that underlines the evil of Israel and Judah and says nothing of their turning other than that they have failed to do it, but again speaks of divine initiative in restoration under the general principle, “Indeed, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32.27)

Trying to find internal consistency and determine how we are to interpret Jeremiah’s calls for repentance if God had made His mind up already to destroy Judah, Moberly turns to the verses from Jeremiah 18 immediately preceding those quoted above (vv. 1-4):

The LORD said to Jeremiah: “Go down at once to the potter’s house. I will speak to you further there.” So I went down to the potter’s house and found him working at his wheel. Now and then there would be something wrong with the pot he was molding from the clay with his hands. So he would rework the clay into another kind of pot as he saw fit.

From this Moberly notes,

  1. The vessel is spoiled.
  2. The potter remakes it.
  3. The new vessel appears to be a remaking of the original vessel which is not discarded as it might have been.
  4. The potter does what he does as seems good to him.

Pay attention especially to number 3, of which Moberly remarks, “…This can be taken as a picture of a fresh start that is entirely dependent on the will of the potter ‘as seemed good to him,’ to work with recalcitrant material rather than start afresh with new clay.”

Now let me be clear: I have no idea what Moberly believes about Calvinism; that is not directly his point. He does think this passage has implications for the theology of Jeremiah as regards divine sovereignty vs. humanity’s free will.

Bringing it home

What I think is interesting is that points 3 and 4 match my belief that the predestination language of Romans 9 refers specifically and only to God’s dealings with His covenant people as a matter of salvation history. Notice the parallels to Paul’s arguments in Romans 9-11 concerning ethnic Israel.

For one, Paul believes that Israel’s hardening was part of God’s plan to bring in the Gentiles; this hardening, like that of Pharaoh, was merely the giving over to their own evil desires (cf. Romans 1.24), but was not a permanent state of rejection. Like the obstinate clay of Jeremiah’s potter, God did not simply destroy the offenders, but retained them for His own use. In fact, in chapter 11 Paul argues that the promises of God to ethnic Israel would only be truly fulfilled after that point. This parallels Jeremiah’s statements: the time had passed in which repentance could bring salvation for the people of God. The only way that God could accomplish His plan of redemption was through judgment, and even after that judgment, Israel was not to be saved by her own turning, but at God’s initiative (cf. Rom 9.16). God had to fulfill His promises, and He did so in the gracious way that allowed for (and depended on) the induction of the nations into His salvation. Predestination was corporate and it was redemptive: there is certainly no double predestination argued in Romans 9-11.

Why does God go about things in this manner? Here again, Jeremiah and Paul agree: because it seemed good to Him (Jer 18.4; Rom 9.18). It seemed good to Him because it demonstrates His power (Jer 32.27; Rom 9.22). Moreover, God did this for the reason stated in Romans 9.23-24: “…to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles.” God’s glory is demonstrated by His great mercy.

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  • Quite a long post! I share your learnings that Jeremiah seems to be speaking much more clearly, but I also share a bias against a strong view of Calvinism. Thanks for sharing this. I am copying this to a word document to read it more closely in the morning.

  • Quite a long post! I share your learnings that Jeremiah seems to be speaking much more clearly, but I also share a bias against a strong view of Calvinism. Thanks for sharing this. I am copying this to a word document to read it more closely in the morning.

  • Dan

    Stephen,
    Excellent stuff! I remember being told repeatedly by a moderately calvinistic professor that Ro 9-11 is not about individual election, but about God’s dealings nationally. Even as a strong Calvinist at the time, I accepted his teaching. Just one more example of a passage that is often stripped of its covenantal context.

    Due to Wright’s article in Climax of the Covenant I also believe that Ro 9-11 is not promising a future massive infusion of Jews into the Christian faith, simply that “now” (v. 31) they may receive mercy. Is this the FP view?
    Dan

  • Dan

    Stephen,
    Excellent stuff! I remember being told repeatedly by a moderately calvinistic professor that Ro 9-11 is not about individual election, but about God’s dealings nationally. Even as a strong Calvinist at the time, I accepted his teaching. Just one more example of a passage that is often stripped of its covenantal context.

    Due to Wright’s article in Climax of the Covenant I also believe that Ro 9-11 is not promising a future massive infusion of Jews into the Christian faith, simply that “now” (v. 31) they may receive mercy. Is this the FP view?
    Dan

  • Danny,
    If you think that’s a long post, you should see my series on bibliology! Let me know your thoughts once you re-read it.

    Dan,
    I agree — I have never heard an FP argue for an en masse total infusion of Jews into the new covenant. Rather, God would not exclude ethnic Jews from redemption just because they “missed the boat” the first time.

    Oh, and thanks for calling me an FP, at least to my face, instead of the more frequent HP. It bugs me when people do that, although I suppose I should be used to it by now!

  • Danny,
    If you think that’s a long post, you should see my series on bibliology! Let me know your thoughts once you re-read it.

    Dan,
    I agree — I have never heard an FP argue for an en masse total infusion of Jews into the new covenant. Rather, God would not exclude ethnic Jews from redemption just because they “missed the boat” the first time.

    Oh, and thanks for calling me an FP, at least to my face, instead of the more frequent HP. It bugs me when people do that, although I suppose I should be used to it by now!

  • Hey, Steve! Shut up and color. 😉

  • Hey, Steve! Shut up and color. 😉

  • I love that expression! But I don’t fancy being the recipient of it. *ahem*

  • I love that expression! But I don’t fancy being the recipient of it. *ahem*

  • >this hardening, like that of Pharaoh, was merely the giving over to their own evil desires.

    Romans 9 doesn’t point back to chapter 1 for an explanation of what’s going on with Pharaoh, but gives the explanation itself. “So then he has mercy on whom he desires, and He hardens whom he desires.” Both halves sound equally active on God’s part – why see God’s mercy as active and God’s hardening as passive?

    Then Paul writes in 9:19 “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” Paul is recognizing that it sounds like he just said that God is finding fault with people when it is their inability to resist his will makes them unable to not be hardened. That is, God makes some people sin and then punishes them it.

    Suppose yours is the correct response, and Pharaoh was merely left to choose according to his desires. Verse 20 would then proceed, “Of course not! You are misunderstanding me. They aren’t vessels of wrath because they can’t resist my will, but because of their own will to sin. Vessels’ of wrath wills cause them to be vessels of wrath – not the other way around.” But Paul doesn’t answer this way. Paul’s response is that the objector had the wrong attitude but he confirms that they were properly understanding the way it works:

    Romans 9:20-22: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”

    Paul doesn’t attempt to argue that God’s justice is consistent with, or even similar to our sense of justice. His attitude is just “This is how it works. Accept it.” Which is one reason I don’t accept it.

  • >this hardening, like that of Pharaoh, was merely the giving over to their own evil desires.

    Romans 9 doesn’t point back to chapter 1 for an explanation of what’s going on with Pharaoh, but gives the explanation itself. “So then he has mercy on whom he desires, and He hardens whom he desires.” Both halves sound equally active on God’s part – why see God’s mercy as active and God’s hardening as passive?

    Then Paul writes in 9:19 “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” Paul is recognizing that it sounds like he just said that God is finding fault with people when it is their inability to resist his will makes them unable to not be hardened. That is, God makes some people sin and then punishes them it.

    Suppose yours is the correct response, and Pharaoh was merely left to choose according to his desires. Verse 20 would then proceed, “Of course not! You are misunderstanding me. They aren’t vessels of wrath because they can’t resist my will, but because of their own will to sin. Vessels’ of wrath wills cause them to be vessels of wrath – not the other way around.” But Paul doesn’t answer this way. Paul’s response is that the objector had the wrong attitude but he confirms that they were properly understanding the way it works:

    Romans 9:20-22: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”

    Paul doesn’t attempt to argue that God’s justice is consistent with, or even similar to our sense of justice. His attitude is just “This is how it works. Accept it.” Which is one reason I don’t accept it.

  • Jeffrey,

    Thanks for the response!

    Both halves sound equally active on God’s part – why see God’s mercy as active and God’s hardening as passive?

    The “giving over” of someone to that person’s own evil desires is hardly passive. But it’s not actively trampling on an innocent, either. God didn’t have to revise the naturally generous Pharaoh’s will to make it work out; He just made sure that he wouldn’t have a chance to repent before His glory was manifested in Israel’s release. This would prompt Paul’s defense that is the subject of this whole post (due to its allusion to Jeremiah).

    Paul doesn’t attempt to argue that God’s justice is consistent with, or even similar to our sense of justice. His attitude is just “This is how it works. Accept it.” Which is one reason I don’t accept it.

    My point was not that God would not or could not actively “harden” the hearts of people, only that His doing so was not arbitrary and was limited to certain key events in salvation history. Rather than arbitrarily splitting humanity down the line, He used those who rejected Him to allow for more to accept Him. I don’t have a problem with God using His enemies to secure His blessings for more of humanity (Ro 9.22-29).

    And FWIW, humanity has no use for a Judge whose justice is something we could mete out by our own wisdom. It does not stretch my credulity to posit an infinitely wise God who occasionally does things that confuse finite man, things about which we eventually have to shrug and say, “This is how it works.” That’s not quite the same as “Shut up and color,” in case Mike’s wondering. 😉

  • Jeffrey,

    Thanks for the response!

    Both halves sound equally active on God’s part – why see God’s mercy as active and God’s hardening as passive?

    The “giving over” of someone to that person’s own evil desires is hardly passive. But it’s not actively trampling on an innocent, either. God didn’t have to revise the naturally generous Pharaoh’s will to make it work out; He just made sure that he wouldn’t have a chance to repent before His glory was manifested in Israel’s release. This would prompt Paul’s defense that is the subject of this whole post (due to its allusion to Jeremiah).

    Paul doesn’t attempt to argue that God’s justice is consistent with, or even similar to our sense of justice. His attitude is just “This is how it works. Accept it.” Which is one reason I don’t accept it.

    My point was not that God would not or could not actively “harden” the hearts of people, only that His doing so was not arbitrary and was limited to certain key events in salvation history. Rather than arbitrarily splitting humanity down the line, He used those who rejected Him to allow for more to accept Him. I don’t have a problem with God using His enemies to secure His blessings for more of humanity (Ro 9.22-29).

    And FWIW, humanity has no use for a Judge whose justice is something we could mete out by our own wisdom. It does not stretch my credulity to posit an infinitely wise God who occasionally does things that confuse finite man, things about which we eventually have to shrug and say, “This is how it works.” That’s not quite the same as “Shut up and color,” in case Mike’s wondering. 😉

  • >But it’s not actively trampling on an innocent, either.

    As I’m sure you know, Exodus has Pharaoh hardening his own heart repeatedly from Exodus 7 until 9:7. After that, it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart repeatedly.

    However, Romans 9:17’s “For this purpose I raised you up” suggests that God played an active role in getting Pharaoh to the point at which he was hardened. This “quotation” of Ex. 9:16 is to be contrasted with Exodus 9:16’s “For this reason I have allowed you to remain.” Exodus suggests a passive role of God in getting Pharaoh to the point of no return, but Paul’s so dead set on making the point that God actively made Pharaoh do it that he’s rephrase the OT to strengthen God’s role in the Exodus.

    Also, Exodus 9:16 hints at a continued attempt to reach Pharaoh with “in order to show you My power,” but this is completely gone in Paul’s “to demonstrate my power in you.”

    Furthermore, if Paul was merely trying to find support for his position, all he would have to do is directly quote one of the many “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”s that follow. But instead he chose to quote Exodus 9:16. This is significant because this is the verse where God first speaks to Pharaoh after the tipping point between Pharaoh’s and God’s role in the hardening. God gives himself a passive role in getting Pharaoh to that point which leaves Pharaoh open to take the blame. Paul intentionally quotes this, but rephrased God’s words so as to ascribes to God what Exodus had ascribed to Pharaoh.

    Of course, this weakens an argument about what “actually” happened with Pharaoh due to the dissenting voice of Exodus, but this is quite obviously not what I’m after anyway. I don’t come to the text with the assumption that Moses (or the Elohist) agrees with Paul, but just look at what each author says. But I do think that it strengthens my argument about how Romans 9 says God works.

    >He just made sure that he wouldn’t have a chance to repent before His glory was manifested in Israel’s release.

    I would argue that this sentence could have ended sooner: He just made sure that he wouldn’t have a chance to repent.

    It seems what you are getting at is that after God was finished using Pharaoh, there was a chance Pharaoh could be remade as in Jeremiah 18:1-4. There is a key difference between Israel’s second chances and a second (or first) chance for a vessel of wrath. When Israel sinned, they became other than what God wanted his vessel to look like, so he redid it. When Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, this is exactly what God wanted his vessel to look like.

    While it makes sense for an ill-formed vessel of honor to be granted additional chances and be remade, why should this extend to vessels of wrath that are supposed to be vessels of wrath? The point of 9:20 is that vessels of wrath have no right to ask to be remade.

    Just like with Exodus 9, Paul is not merely using the OT to support his position. He is referencing the OT to show where he is changing it (or adding to it, if you prefer.) Jeremiah talks of misshaped pots, and gives a positive spin on it: that’s not the way it’s supposed to be and there still is hope for those who change. Paul turns this on its head: sometimes, God needs a vessel unto dishonor, and who are you to complain?

    >My point was not that God would not or could not actively “harden” the hearts of people, only that His doing so was not arbitrary

    Even if Pharaoh served a purpose, it’s still arbitrary who gets to be the vessel of wrath.

    >and was limited to certain key events in salvation history.

    What basis do you have for claiming the hardening to be a rare event?

    Romans 9:18 splits people in two groups, ones shown mercy and ones who are hardened. It sounds like a universal dichotomy, but more to the point, even if it is merely the sons of Jacob and Esau, these are hardly isolated events. But even if the events were rare, criminals are not acquitted for having behaved properly 99.9% of the time under either the laws of men or of God.

    >It does not stretch my credulity to posit an infinitely wise God who occasionally does things that confuse finite man,

    Granted, but what God is doing is more than confusing. Confusing is why God would call a lesser man to be a war hero and a better man to sew his uniform. Or why God would allow a missionary to die and go to heaven in their twenties while allowing a lesser one to continue. In Romans 9, he is hardening people, that is, making people sin – a task which goes beyond what most attribute to the devil. If I can’t call this evil, is there anything for which my moral intuitions are useful?

    As C. S. Lewis wrote in the Problem of Pain, pages 28-29:

    “On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgement must differ from ours on many things … On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good … The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.”

  • >But it’s not actively trampling on an innocent, either.

    As I’m sure you know, Exodus has Pharaoh hardening his own heart repeatedly from Exodus 7 until 9:7. After that, it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart repeatedly.

    However, Romans 9:17’s “For this purpose I raised you up” suggests that God played an active role in getting Pharaoh to the point at which he was hardened. This “quotation” of Ex. 9:16 is to be contrasted with Exodus 9:16’s “For this reason I have allowed you to remain.” Exodus suggests a passive role of God in getting Pharaoh to the point of no return, but Paul’s so dead set on making the point that God actively made Pharaoh do it that he’s rephrase the OT to strengthen God’s role in the Exodus.

    Also, Exodus 9:16 hints at a continued attempt to reach Pharaoh with “in order to show you My power,” but this is completely gone in Paul’s “to demonstrate my power in you.”

    Furthermore, if Paul was merely trying to find support for his position, all he would have to do is directly quote one of the many “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”s that follow. But instead he chose to quote Exodus 9:16. This is significant because this is the verse where God first speaks to Pharaoh after the tipping point between Pharaoh’s and God’s role in the hardening. God gives himself a passive role in getting Pharaoh to that point which leaves Pharaoh open to take the blame. Paul intentionally quotes this, but rephrased God’s words so as to ascribes to God what Exodus had ascribed to Pharaoh.

    Of course, this weakens an argument about what “actually” happened with Pharaoh due to the dissenting voice of Exodus, but this is quite obviously not what I’m after anyway. I don’t come to the text with the assumption that Moses (or the Elohist) agrees with Paul, but just look at what each author says. But I do think that it strengthens my argument about how Romans 9 says God works.

    >He just made sure that he wouldn’t have a chance to repent before His glory was manifested in Israel’s release.

    I would argue that this sentence could have ended sooner: He just made sure that he wouldn’t have a chance to repent.

    It seems what you are getting at is that after God was finished using Pharaoh, there was a chance Pharaoh could be remade as in Jeremiah 18:1-4. There is a key difference between Israel’s second chances and a second (or first) chance for a vessel of wrath. When Israel sinned, they became other than what God wanted his vessel to look like, so he redid it. When Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, this is exactly what God wanted his vessel to look like.

    While it makes sense for an ill-formed vessel of honor to be granted additional chances and be remade, why should this extend to vessels of wrath that are supposed to be vessels of wrath? The point of 9:20 is that vessels of wrath have no right to ask to be remade.

    Just like with Exodus 9, Paul is not merely using the OT to support his position. He is referencing the OT to show where he is changing it (or adding to it, if you prefer.) Jeremiah talks of misshaped pots, and gives a positive spin on it: that’s not the way it’s supposed to be and there still is hope for those who change. Paul turns this on its head: sometimes, God needs a vessel unto dishonor, and who are you to complain?

    >My point was not that God would not or could not actively “harden” the hearts of people, only that His doing so was not arbitrary

    Even if Pharaoh served a purpose, it’s still arbitrary who gets to be the vessel of wrath.

    >and was limited to certain key events in salvation history.

    What basis do you have for claiming the hardening to be a rare event?

    Romans 9:18 splits people in two groups, ones shown mercy and ones who are hardened. It sounds like a universal dichotomy, but more to the point, even if it is merely the sons of Jacob and Esau, these are hardly isolated events. But even if the events were rare, criminals are not acquitted for having behaved properly 99.9% of the time under either the laws of men or of God.

    >It does not stretch my credulity to posit an infinitely wise God who occasionally does things that confuse finite man,

    Granted, but what God is doing is more than confusing. Confusing is why God would call a lesser man to be a war hero and a better man to sew his uniform. Or why God would allow a missionary to die and go to heaven in their twenties while allowing a lesser one to continue. In Romans 9, he is hardening people, that is, making people sin – a task which goes beyond what most attribute to the devil. If I can’t call this evil, is there anything for which my moral intuitions are useful?

    As C. S. Lewis wrote in the Problem of Pain, pages 28-29:

    “On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgement must differ from ours on many things … On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good … The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.”

  • However, Romans 9:17’s “For this purpose I raised you up” suggests that God played an active role in getting Pharaoh to the point at which he was hardened. This “quotation” of Ex. 9:16 is to be contrasted with Exodus 9:16’s “For this reason I have allowed you to remain.” Exodus suggests a passive role of God in getting Pharaoh to the point of no return, but Paul’s so dead set on making the point that God actively made Pharaoh do it that he’s rephrase the OT to strengthen God’s role in the Exodus.

    While, as a non-inerrantist, I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility of Paul’s misinterpretation of the original, I’m not sure how far we should push this, given the Gk verb. exegeiro is used most often to refer to rousing up or inciting than bringing into existence (cf. BAGD, whose few examples of the latter are questionable). But even if we grant that your interpretation is what Paul meant, it’s only honest to keep in mind that it’s by no means clear that Paul misrepresented Exodus 9 intentionally, since the LXX – customarily used by Paul and others of the time – reads much closer to Paul’s way.

    Regardless, this misses the point entirely. I don’t have a problem with God’s ordaining that a selfish, prideful skeptic be in power at the time of the Exodus. God’s sovereign, after all.

    Also, Exodus 9:16 hints at a continued attempt to reach Pharaoh with “in order to show you My power,” but this is completely gone in Paul’s “to demonstrate my power in you.”

    Here again, the LXX literally says “show in you my power,” demonstrating an interpretive tradition well before Paul’s time. As far as I know, this may well be a possible interpretation of the Hebrew for this passage as well.

    Furthermore, if Paul was merely trying to find support for his position, all he would have to do is directly quote one of the many “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”s that follow. But instead he chose to quote Exodus 9:16. This is significant because this is the verse where God first speaks to Pharaoh after the tipping point between Pharaoh’s and God’s role in the hardening. God gives himself a passive role in getting Pharaoh to that point which leaves Pharaoh open to take the blame. Paul intentionally quotes this, but rephrased God’s words so as to ascribes to God what Exodus had ascribed to Pharaoh.

    Here again, you are assigning motives to Paul based upon a conclusion you have already reached. You’re right that it’s significant that Paul quotes Ex 9.16, since that follows the “tipping point” and God could truly be said at that point in the narrative to be the one responsible for Pharaoh’s hardheartedness (see Ex 9.12). Anyway, I’m not sure what you’re arguing here. At worst, God is saying that He “raised up” Pharaoh, but we have reason to doubt God’s motives. The understanding of the Jews and the Christians at the time based upon Scripture would have rendered a defense of God’s motives unnecessary; it was a given that they were moral (in the C.S. Lewis sense).

    Of course, this weakens an argument about what “actually” happened with Pharaoh due to the dissenting voice of Exodus, but this is quite obviously not what I’m after anyway. I don’t come to the text with the assumption that Moses (or the Elohist) agrees with Paul, but just look at what each author says. But I do think that it strengthens my argument about how Romans 9 says God works.

    As I’ve said, I have no inviolable commitment to concordism either; in fact, I doubt the historicity of the Exodus story anyway. There’s certainly little enough historical/archaeological evidence for it. But I don’t arbitrarily presume bad motives and worse interpretive skills to the writers of any ancient text.

    While it makes sense for an ill-formed vessel of honor to be granted additional chances and be remade, why should this extend to vessels of wrath that are supposed to be vessels of wrath? The point of 9:20 is that vessels of wrath have no right to ask to be remade.

    Of course, here the context is clear that those vessels would be remade – and that’s precisely what happens in chapter 11. But nevertheless, Paul was not arguing against the notion that every vessel has a right to be remade but the notion that everyone has a right to not be made into a vessel of destruction. God was under no constraint that Pharaoh be remade because he, unlike Israel, didn’t have the promises of Abraham applied to him. Pharaoh made his decisions; rather than strike him down on the spot, God used him to demonstrate His glory and then struck him down.

    Just like with Exodus 9, Paul is not merely using the OT to support his position. He is referencing the OT to show where he is changing it (or adding to it, if you prefer.) Jeremiah talks of misshaped pots, and gives a positive spin on it: that’s not the way it’s supposed to be and there still is hope for those who change. Paul turns this on its head: sometimes, God needs a vessel unto dishonor, and who are you to complain?

    I still think you’re missing it: the argument, “Who are you to complain?” could have been directed at those who groaned under Jeremiah’s words, thus: “How can we not have a say in what God brings upon us?” To which Paul responds in Romans 9, “Someone above your pay grade is calling the shots. Besides, don’t worry about it – it’s for the best (vv. 22-29).”

    Even if Pharaoh served a purpose, it’s still arbitrary who gets to be the vessel of wrath.

    Of course it’s not. You’re missing my whole argument, which is that it’s those who reject God who are chosen to be vessels of wrath. That’s not arbitrary.

    What basis do you have for claiming the hardening to be a rare event?

    Romans 9:18 splits people in two groups, ones shown mercy and ones who are hardened. It sounds like a universal dichotomy, but more to the point, even if it is merely the sons of Jacob and Esau, these are hardly isolated events. But even if the events were rare, criminals are not acquitted for having behaved properly 99.9% of the time under either the laws of men or of God.

    It “sounds like” a universal dichotomy to you, a former Calvinist. But if you understood the force of my argument, you’d see that it’s a principle I also affirm: it’s God’s prerogative to harden and to let go with the possibility of later repentance. This is almost a tautology: God knows that Bob intends to murder someone tomorrow. He could either have Bob meet his end before then, or He can let it happen according to His own transcendent plan (which I know you’ll be skeptical about). Either we allow Him to judge, or we judge Him. This is where we’ll have to agree to disagree: I trust His judgment and you don’t want to believe that the Christian God’s judgment could be different from yours.

    In Romans 9, he is hardening people, that is, making people sin – a task which goes beyond what most attribute to the devil. If I can’t call this evil, is there anything for which my moral intuitions are useful?

    Making sinners sin? Is that so much worse than making anteaters eat ants? You’re not engaging my actual position, here, Jeffrey.

    As C. S. Lewis wrote in the Problem of Pain, pages 28-29:

    “On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things … On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good … The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.”

    This stops far short of saying that nothing you dislike could be done by God, or that His ways must never appear to contradict our understanding of morality. For instance, have you ever stopped to wonder why – I mean objectively why – killing another human being is immoral? The classic Christian position has been that murder is wrong but that the state has the right – and in some cases the obligation – to sanction killing via war, capital punishment, etc. You’re presupposing that you know all contingencies and possible mitigating factors to matters of morality when you prescribe Jeffrey-defined morals to God. Most of us do this, however, because we tend to make absolutes out of good and evil that make the most sense to us without the requisite nuances.

  • However, Romans 9:17’s “For this purpose I raised you up” suggests that God played an active role in getting Pharaoh to the point at which he was hardened. This “quotation” of Ex. 9:16 is to be contrasted with Exodus 9:16’s “For this reason I have allowed you to remain.” Exodus suggests a passive role of God in getting Pharaoh to the point of no return, but Paul’s so dead set on making the point that God actively made Pharaoh do it that he’s rephrase the OT to strengthen God’s role in the Exodus.

    While, as a non-inerrantist, I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility of Paul’s misinterpretation of the original, I’m not sure how far we should push this, given the Gk verb. exegeiro is used most often to refer to rousing up or inciting than bringing into existence (cf. BAGD, whose few examples of the latter are questionable). But even if we grant that your interpretation is what Paul meant, it’s only honest to keep in mind that it’s by no means clear that Paul misrepresented Exodus 9 intentionally, since the LXX – customarily used by Paul and others of the time – reads much closer to Paul’s way.

    Regardless, this misses the point entirely. I don’t have a problem with God’s ordaining that a selfish, prideful skeptic be in power at the time of the Exodus. God’s sovereign, after all.

    Also, Exodus 9:16 hints at a continued attempt to reach Pharaoh with “in order to show you My power,” but this is completely gone in Paul’s “to demonstrate my power in you.”

    Here again, the LXX literally says “show in you my power,” demonstrating an interpretive tradition well before Paul’s time. As far as I know, this may well be a possible interpretation of the Hebrew for this passage as well.

    Furthermore, if Paul was merely trying to find support for his position, all he would have to do is directly quote one of the many “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”s that follow. But instead he chose to quote Exodus 9:16. This is significant because this is the verse where God first speaks to Pharaoh after the tipping point between Pharaoh’s and God’s role in the hardening. God gives himself a passive role in getting Pharaoh to that point which leaves Pharaoh open to take the blame. Paul intentionally quotes this, but rephrased God’s words so as to ascribes to God what Exodus had ascribed to Pharaoh.

    Here again, you are assigning motives to Paul based upon a conclusion you have already reached. You’re right that it’s significant that Paul quotes Ex 9.16, since that follows the “tipping point” and God could truly be said at that point in the narrative to be the one responsible for Pharaoh’s hardheartedness (see Ex 9.12). Anyway, I’m not sure what you’re arguing here. At worst, God is saying that He “raised up” Pharaoh, but we have reason to doubt God’s motives. The understanding of the Jews and the Christians at the time based upon Scripture would have rendered a defense of God’s motives unnecessary; it was a given that they were moral (in the C.S. Lewis sense).

    Of course, this weakens an argument about what “actually” happened with Pharaoh due to the dissenting voice of Exodus, but this is quite obviously not what I’m after anyway. I don’t come to the text with the assumption that Moses (or the Elohist) agrees with Paul, but just look at what each author says. But I do think that it strengthens my argument about how Romans 9 says God works.

    As I’ve said, I have no inviolable commitment to concordism either; in fact, I doubt the historicity of the Exodus story anyway. There’s certainly little enough historical/archaeological evidence for it. But I don’t arbitrarily presume bad motives and worse interpretive skills to the writers of any ancient text.

    While it makes sense for an ill-formed vessel of honor to be granted additional chances and be remade, why should this extend to vessels of wrath that are supposed to be vessels of wrath? The point of 9:20 is that vessels of wrath have no right to ask to be remade.

    Of course, here the context is clear that those vessels would be remade – and that’s precisely what happens in chapter 11. But nevertheless, Paul was not arguing against the notion that every vessel has a right to be remade but the notion that everyone has a right to not be made into a vessel of destruction. God was under no constraint that Pharaoh be remade because he, unlike Israel, didn’t have the promises of Abraham applied to him. Pharaoh made his decisions; rather than strike him down on the spot, God used him to demonstrate His glory and then struck him down.

    Just like with Exodus 9, Paul is not merely using the OT to support his position. He is referencing the OT to show where he is changing it (or adding to it, if you prefer.) Jeremiah talks of misshaped pots, and gives a positive spin on it: that’s not the way it’s supposed to be and there still is hope for those who change. Paul turns this on its head: sometimes, God needs a vessel unto dishonor, and who are you to complain?

    I still think you’re missing it: the argument, “Who are you to complain?” could have been directed at those who groaned under Jeremiah’s words, thus: “How can we not have a say in what God brings upon us?” To which Paul responds in Romans 9, “Someone above your pay grade is calling the shots. Besides, don’t worry about it – it’s for the best (vv. 22-29).”

    Even if Pharaoh served a purpose, it’s still arbitrary who gets to be the vessel of wrath.

    Of course it’s not. You’re missing my whole argument, which is that it’s those who reject God who are chosen to be vessels of wrath. That’s not arbitrary.

    What basis do you have for claiming the hardening to be a rare event?

    Romans 9:18 splits people in two groups, ones shown mercy and ones who are hardened. It sounds like a universal dichotomy, but more to the point, even if it is merely the sons of Jacob and Esau, these are hardly isolated events. But even if the events were rare, criminals are not acquitted for having behaved properly 99.9% of the time under either the laws of men or of God.

    It “sounds like” a universal dichotomy to you, a former Calvinist. But if you understood the force of my argument, you’d see that it’s a principle I also affirm: it’s God’s prerogative to harden and to let go with the possibility of later repentance. This is almost a tautology: God knows that Bob intends to murder someone tomorrow. He could either have Bob meet his end before then, or He can let it happen according to His own transcendent plan (which I know you’ll be skeptical about). Either we allow Him to judge, or we judge Him. This is where we’ll have to agree to disagree: I trust His judgment and you don’t want to believe that the Christian God’s judgment could be different from yours.

    In Romans 9, he is hardening people, that is, making people sin – a task which goes beyond what most attribute to the devil. If I can’t call this evil, is there anything for which my moral intuitions are useful?

    Making sinners sin? Is that so much worse than making anteaters eat ants? You’re not engaging my actual position, here, Jeffrey.

    As C. S. Lewis wrote in the Problem of Pain, pages 28-29:

    “On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things … On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good … The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.”

    This stops far short of saying that nothing you dislike could be done by God, or that His ways must never appear to contradict our understanding of morality. For instance, have you ever stopped to wonder why – I mean objectively why – killing another human being is immoral? The classic Christian position has been that murder is wrong but that the state has the right – and in some cases the obligation – to sanction killing via war, capital punishment, etc. You’re presupposing that you know all contingencies and possible mitigating factors to matters of morality when you prescribe Jeffrey-defined morals to God. Most of us do this, however, because we tend to make absolutes out of good and evil that make the most sense to us without the requisite nuances.