“What should we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! For He tells Moses: I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy. For the Scripture tells Pharaoh: I raised you up for this reason so that I may display My power in you and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth. So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden. You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will? ” But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this? ” Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory — on us, the ones He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As He also says in Hosea: I will call Not My People, My People, and she who is Unloved, Beloved. And it will be in the place where they were told, you are not My people, there they will be called sons of the living God.” (Romans 9:14-26 HCSB)
Did you ever lay on your back in a grassy field and just watched the clouds roll by? I can remember when I was about 10 or 11 doing that very thing. Just lying on my back and watching the clouds as they rolled by. I would see various shapes in the clouds and some would seem to form into familiar objects. I’d see a turtle or a running horse. But if I kept watching, that same cloud would eventually lose that familiar shape and become just an unrecognizable blob of fluffy whiteness. It might have looked like a turtle, but it wasn’t really a turtle. It was just a mass of water vapor and nothing more. But it was fun to watch and imagine. Imagine shapes, people, things and then make up stories to go with the objects I’d created in my imagination. I guess I’ve always enjoyed telling these stories, but I’ve just recently begun to write them down and share them with you.
My imagination might give life to those things in my mind, but my imagination could never ever make them real. Like the clouds, my thoughts were little more than a momentary collection of ideas and images formed in a boy’s mind and quickly discarded for another idea or image. To be honest, that’s still quite true. The words I write and post on this site possess no ability to transform thoughts, ideas or images into reality. You may read them, but I’m certain that they quickly fade in your memory and are replaced by someone else’s words or images. Perhaps, your own. My thoughts, my ideas, my imaginings have no ability to alter you, your life or your reality. They can influence, but they cannot alter or affect change. Change comes only when you act upon your own thoughts, ideas or desires.
Over the past several weeks, we’ve bumped up against the idea of God’s sovereignty. We bumped against it, but we didn’t really spend much time letting it settle into our thoughts or to affect any change in us. In some ways, my thoughts about God’s sovereignty are a bit like my thoughts about the clouds, momentary and fleeting. I’ve had them, but they quickly lose form and my mind wanders onto another subject. An easier subject. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I suspect you might also bump up against hard subjects, tough ideas, humbling thoughts about God and you move onto things that are much easier to grasp. Like fluffy clouds that look like a turtle. Ok, maybe a little harder than that, but you get the idea.
You might think I’m kidding, but go back and read our focal passage again and tell me you don’t want to just flip the page and skip this passage. I know that’s what I’d like to do. Let the thoughts just evaporate like the cloud and move on. Instead, let’s take it a little at a time and see if we can’t begin to make sense of it and, in the process, have a few thoughts that just might affect change in our lives. If you’re willing, stick with me… it might take a week or two, or three. So, be patient.
To begin, Paul anticipates another question from the Roman believers. “Is there injustice with God?” This question of injustice looks back on the issue of Jacob and Esau. If God loved Jacob but rejected Esau, is He unjust? Esau was the rightful heir to Jacob’s blessing as the firstborn of the twins. So, is God’s choice of Jacob as the heir of the promise unjust? Absolutely not! Then Paul gives us the key to understanding in the verses that follow. He quotes God’s response to Moses from Exodus 33, “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Then Paul clarifies, “so then it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.”
How does that help? It just makes it sound like God is capricious. Actually, I think we just assume that God would make these choices like we would – capricious or unpredictable. Without much thought or consideration. “Hmm. Well, this sounds like it might work. I sure hope so. Here goes nothing.” However, God would never act in a capricious or unpredictable manner. His choosing and election would ALWAYS be consistent with His character, will, promise and purpose. That’s simply who God is. He achieves His will and seeks His purpose. He keeps His promises. In other words, God chose Jacob over Esau because the choice of Jacob would achieve His will, purpose and promise but the choice of Esau would thwart His will, purpose and promise. So, is God unjust in doing so? No, both men were sinners and failed to be completely obedient to God. So, God’s choice was not a matter of one earning it while the other did not. God’s choice was a matter of God’s grace. It still is.
Next, Paul pulls in the example of Pharaoh from the Exodus story. He says, “I raised you up for this reason so that I may display My power in you and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” I’m going to encourage you to go read that portion of the story from Exodus 9, now. I’ve read and studied this passage before, but I’ve always made a mistake. I’ve never gone back and read the quote within context from Exodus. That’s why I’m encouraging you to do so. I found it to be quite surprising and enlightening.
Did you notice it? This statement is made about Pharaoh BEFORE God unleashes the final and devastating plagues upon Egypt. God had given six previous warnings and demonstrations of His power, but Pharaoh had refused to let the God’s people go. God tells him, “by now I could have stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with a plague and you would have been obliterated from the earth. However, I let you live for this purpose: to show you My power and to make my name known in all the earth. You are still acting arrogantly against My people by not letting them go. Tomorrow at this time I will rain down the worst hail that has ever occurred in Egypt.” I could have already obliterated you and your people, but I haven’t because I want to show you my power and to make My name known everywhere. Pharaoh stood in direct opposition to God’s purpose and intended to thwart God’s plan and promise. God had shown mercy to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, but Pharaoh refused God’s grace. Now, he would experience God’s power in such a way that He could not ignore or deny it.
If you read the story in Exodus 9, then you might also have noticed something fascinating. Some of Pharaoh’s officials had begun to believe and respond to God’s words as delivered through Moses. When Moses told Pharaoh what to expect, those who believed God’s word rushed to get their servants and livestock out of the fields before the promised hail storm arrived. This is where man most often stumbles, over the concept of grace and God’s mercy. God had every right to utterly destroy Pharaoh and this nation because Pharaoh had arrogantly refused to obey God despite the “warning shots” God had fired in the first six plagues. Some of Pharaoh’s officials listened and began to react accordingly, though they had no ability to overrule Pharaoh or dissuade him. God’s mercy had an affect on them, it did not on Pharaoh. How about you? Will His mercy elicit a response of belief from you or just an arrogant declaration of defiance and disobedience?
This brings us to another of the hard statements in this passage, “So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden.” I would simply remind you of our conversation, above, regarding the thought of God’s choice being unjust or capricious. God’s desire is that none would perish but that all would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). He’s not a vengeful or angry God. On the contrary, He’s long suffering and merciful. God could have given Moses the authority and power to walk into Pharaoh’s court and simply destroy everyone and everything, but He didn’t. He gave Pharaoh mercy and an opportunity for obedience and Pharaoh refused. The same could be said for you and me. God could have destroyed us at the first sign of sin and disobedience, but He didn’t. He has been merciful and long suffering.
Paul then anticipates another rebuttal from his audience, “Why then does God still find fault? Who can resist His will?” I love Paul’s response, “who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God?” There’s a part of me that just wants to leave that statement there and move on. If that statement hasn’t slapped you upside the head, yet, then you aren’t paying attention. Read it, again. Let it sink in, a bit. If it still hasn’t hit you, then let me simply say that you might want to go back and read that story about Pharaoh, again.
Arrogance was Pharaoh’s issue with God, it might also be yours. Paul puts it this way, “Can the pot say to the potter, “Why did you make me like this?” Pharaoh believed he was the physical manifestation of the Egyptian gods and this led him to question and resist God’s authority. God used the plagues as an attempt to soften Pharaoh’s will and to help him see that he wasn’t god, Jehovah was. Modern man has the same issue. He believes he is god, much like Pharaoh. What has God been using in your life to get you to listen to Him? Are you responding like Pharaoh, stiffening your neck, bowing your back, daring God to do something else? My prayer for you is that you’ll stop resisting and start listening. Let God’s mercy wash over you and discover that His grace is sufficient to bring you into faith-filled obedience.
Finally, Paul has been using this entire story to build up to his final point in our focal passage. God was doing in and through Pharaoh the very same thing that He’s now doing in and through Israel. God has been using Israel as a means of achieving His promise, the promise of a people that would come from every nation, people, language and tribe. There are those in Israel who are objects of God’s wrath because they, like Pharaoh, had rejected God’s authority, purpose and plan and pursued their own. They stiffened their necks, bowed their backs and rejected God’s Messiah. He was patient with them, longing for them to hear His word, believe His prophets, accept His Son. But they rejected Him. Paul says, what if God’s judgment on Israel is intended to do the same thing that His judgment on Egypt was intended to do? To display God’s glory, to make His name know to everyone and to make known the riches of His glory on the objects of His mercy, those He has called from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Paul ends our focal passage with some incredible statements, those who had previoulsy been known as “Not My People” will now be known as “My People” and she who is “Unloved” will be called “Beloved.” Also, in the place where they were told, you are not my people, they will be called “sons of the living God.” If you’ve ever felt like an outcast, rejected, and like you were unloved then let these words sink into the depths of your soul. Let them be like rain on your dry and parched soul. Let them wash over you like a flood of God’s grace, lifting you off your feet and carrying you along in the flow of His love. How? First, by acknowledging Him as God and Lord of all creation. Second, by recognizing His long suffering love and ongoing mercy for what it is, a call to repentance and faith. Lastly, by trusting and accepting His sacrifice and forgiveness through the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. Don’t become hardened by God’s mercy like Pharaoh did, let it shape you, change you. Forever!