21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
21 [Or, indicating an alternative] Does not the potter have power [right] over the clay,
If man does not recognize that he does not have the capacity to ask this question about God, he must conclude that God does not have the sovereign right to make out of the clay what He wishes.
In this verse Paul alluded to Isaiah 29:16 where the idea is that God formed Israel into a nation. This phrase draws an analogy between God the sovereign “potter” and finite man the “clay.” God has undisputed right over the creature because He is the sovereign Creator.
from the same lump
The idea here is that God makes different things from the same common lump of clay. All creation comes from the same source. God takes shapeless clay and molds it into something for His design.
[on the one hand] to make one vessel [vase] for [purpose] honor and another [on the other hand] for [purpose] dishonor?
God has differing purposes for the same lump of clay. From one piece of the same clay He makes a beautiful, ornate vase to be used on special occasions, and from the other a common pot to be used for everyday purposes. God has a different purpose for Israel than for other nations:
Jer 18: 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!”
The infinite Creator has the authority to do with the clay what He pleases. Where is the right of finite creature in this?
Isa 29: 16 Surely you have things turned around! Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay; For shall the thing made say of him who made it, “He did not make me”? Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?
Is 45: 9 “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’?
Is 64: 8 But now, O Lord, You are our Father; We are the clay, and You our potter; And all we are the work of Your hand. 9 Do not be furious, O Lord, Nor remember iniquity forever; Indeed, please look—we all are Your people!
Hos 8: 8 Israel is swallowed up; Now they are among the Gentiles Like a vessel in which is no pleasure.
In this context it is unbelieving Israel who is the vessel for both purposes, as specially set apart and for common use. Maybe Israel is also the dishonorable vessel here. Vessels being destined for dishonor has to do with their destiny in God’s scheme of salvation, which they dishonorably rejected.
In both purposes God’s right to choose is absolute. God’s purpose is mercy. The Israelites were all of the same clay, but the difference lay in whether they wanted God’s arrangement for salvation or not.
The next chapter (10) presents the freedom to choose. Man has limited freedom, a freedom within God’s sovereign design for the universe. He has freedom but not absolute freedom. God then operates within a design whereby He offers choices.
It is an absurd idea that the potter does not have complete control over the clay vessel.
God alone is responsible for His plan.
We can track the answer to the objection about God’s hardening by understanding the difference between an infinite God versus finite man. If God is infinite then He has sovereign rights. He can do what he wishes with the creation He made. God made the universe to function this way to reveal His power (vv. 22-23).
The execution of power was not His ultimate purpose, because He wanted to show His wrath in the context of His mercy. It is a blessing that God does not treat us with strict justice, because none of us deserves it. None of us has a claim on God’s grace; it is His prerogative to give it.