(Rom 9:19-21) One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
Unquestionably, Paul speaks the truth. God can do as he pleases. And God elected one nation (Israel) and not the others. The others have no right to complain.
But individual Gentiles had become God fearers and proselytes. Doubtlessly, many in Rome fit this description. God’s election of Israel and later election of those with faith leaves some out in the cold. True. But Paul is not, here, speaking of the election of individuals.
Paul alludes to a metaphor — God as potter, people as clay — used twice by Isaiah, in Isa 29 and 45, speaking of Israel (Ariel refers to Jerusalem) and Persia (Cyrus was king of Persia). Both times Isaiah is speaking of God’s judgment on nations.
(Rom 9:22) What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction?
Notice, in fact, that Paul says: God can do as he pleases; and he pleases to be patient with those who deserve damnation. Even though God is entitled to make pottery for ignoble purposes (think about it: the Greek means “dishonored” not “common”), he nonetheless pleases to show great patience.
Reflect back on Romans 1. As we considered, Paul considered both Jews and Gentiles as objects of God’s wrath. Here, Paul is saying that God has been patient with a people — Israel — who deserve destruction. (And who would be destroyed shortly by the Romans in AD 70!)
(Rom 9:23-24) What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory– 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Paul now describes as “objects of his mercy” both Jews and Gentiles, clearly meaning those with faith (we can’t ignore chapters 1 – 8). Thus, those Jews without faith are those prepared for destruction and those with faith are those prepared for glory.
So what does “prepared in advance for glory” refer to? Paul explains,
(Rom 9:25-26) As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” 26 and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.'”
Paul refers to a prophecy of the return from exile in Hos 9:9-10. “Prepared in advance” means that God had been planning for centuries to graft the Gentiles into the Jewish root — as God had prophesied.
(Rom 9:27-29) Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. 28 For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.”
29 It is just as Isaiah said previously: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.”
These are references to Isa 10:20-23 and 1:9, both referring to the return from exile. Paul is saying that God said centuries ago that only a remnant would enjoy the blessings of the return.
But this is not because God only elected a few. Rather, Israel was denied the blessings because of sin, and it’s God’s grace that preserved a remnant — defined as those with faith in Jesus.
Consider the context of Isa 1:9 —
(Isa 1:10-20) Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies. 14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
18 “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; 20 but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
God condemns Israel for their sins and offers forgiveness for those who repent. He offers no help to those who resist and rebel, but utter forgiveness for those who are “willing and obedient.” It’s the identical thought as in Exodus where God speaks of his mercy and his wrath while revealing his glory to Moses.
Just so, in Isaiah 10, God explains his purposes plainly in the introduction to the prophecy quoted by Paul —
(Isa 10:1-2) Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, 2 to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
The rest of the passage defines the “woe” that God will give to the unjust, preserving only a remnant. God chooses them for a plainly stated reason: their violations of Torah for abusing the oppressed, the poor, widows, and the fatherless. God is not acting arbitrarily. Rather, we are astonished at his patience with such wickedness.
Isaiah is speaking of the Babylonian exile. The original remnant was, of course, those who returned with Ezra and Nehemiah. But Paul is saying the true remnant are those who have faith in the true Messiah.