Romans 9 — Moses, Pharaoh, and the Sovereignty of God

Moses, Pharaoh, and the Justice of God

Paul then anticipates a hypothetical question in response to his argument. Is God unjust? In light of the main topic of ethnic Israel and verses 6-13 above, the full question is “is God unjust to narrow the covenant to Christ/those in Christ?” (Remember, the topic at hand is the majority of ethnic Israel not coming to faith in Christ, not whether God was just in his dealings with Jacob and Esau.) No, God is still just, “For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” Moses not only had Abraham as his father, but he was also the major prophet in Judaism until Jesus. Paul quotes Exodus 33:19 to make the point that God still withheld the right to and made the choice to show mercy to Moses despite his advantages. The issue for Moses in Exodus 32-33 was a real concern that Israel would be the recipients of God’s wrath instead of His mercy—they would be separated from God. Lucky for Israel, God decides to show mercy after the requests of Moses. By comparison, ethnic Israel has very little to say in its defense, and God has instead chosen to show mercy to those in Christ. (It is worth noting here that Paul is dealing with the individual implications of God’s choosing of the people of God in Christ and justifying them by faith and not by the works of the Law. This by default creates a division between those who are recipients of God’s mercy and those who are not.) Expanding on his thought in verse 16, Paul uses Pharaoh as another example of God’s sovereignty in showing mercy:

“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed [k]throughout the whole earth.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”

Enough could be written about Pharaoh to fill an entire book. Since this is obviously not a book, I will address what I think are the most important points concerning Pharaoh, God, and Paul’s use of their relationship as an example for his own purpose to demonstrate that God “has mercy on whom He desires, and hardens whom He desires.” First off, context is super incredibly important here, as it is for just about every moment of life (Proverbs 42:39). By reading all of Exodus 9:15-16 instead of just verse 16 as quoted by Paul, it becomes evident that Pharaoh was raised up by God’s mercy—”For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth.16 But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to [h]remain…” The evidence that Paul intends this scriptural citation to be regarded in light of its context occurs in the very next verse in which he assumes the recipients possess knowledge of the association of the idea of hardening with Pharaoh despite the idea of hardening not being present within the citation. Second, the act of hardening is not what you probably think it means. The Hebrew word translated as hardened is chazaq, and its usage within the OT implies a less harsh connotation than the connotation carried by its english counterpart. The word is used over 300 times throughout the OT with a variety of translations such as strengthen, encourage, repair, or fortify; the most basic definition of chazaq is “to be or grow firm or strong, strengthen”. Only in Exodus is the word translated as hardened. The use of the word regarding Pharaoh implies him receiving strength or courage from God. Third, most of the occurrences where God hardens Pharaoh happen later in the story. Pharaoh is said to have hardened his own heart in (8:15, 32, 9:34), Pharaoh’s hardening is expressed passively in (7:13, 22, 8:19, 9:35), and God Himself is credited with the action of hardening in (9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:8). How this act of hardening works is not explained fully (whether it involves God imparting the courage/strength needed to follow through with sinful intentions or God providing the means by which people are hardened such as Moses or Christians), but I think we can be confident that God does not go around hardening people who would otherwise listen such as Pharaoh or most of Israel. Those whom God harden ultimately harden themselves and, as the example of Pharaoh displays, incur judgement upon themselves. There also remains the strong possibility that the phrase “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” is a Hebrew idiom meaning God allowed or permitted Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened. The writer of 1 Samuel 6:6 appears to have understood the act of hardening as such: “Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts?” (See the last two links above) Fourth, the comparison of Moses and Pharaoh makes evident how God responds differently based on people’s responses. Moses approaches God with humility and faith, God responds positively. Pharaoh hardens his heart to the cries of the Hebrew people and the signs worked through Moses, God responds negatively.

Now that we have established what the idea of hardening entails, we can move on to the remaining question: in what sense is the example of Pharaoh relevant to the fate of Israel? Under further investigation, the figurative head of Egypt serves as a strong parallel to the majority of ethnic Israel who also have been hardened. (Note: Paul describes this hardening as a mystery that will continue until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in 11:25. Whatever that phrase means, Paul acknowledges that the hardening will reach a temporal end and “all of Israel will be saved.” Whatever that phrase also means, the hardening Paul is speaking of here will one day reach an end. To say that Paul here is speaking of an eternal hardening against the majority of Israel ever coming to faith is to unfortunately stop reading before chapter 11.) Both Pharaoh and Israel hardened themselves to the signs of God and refused to listen. In the case of Israel, they had John the Baptist, Jesus, and, in the time of Paul’s letter, they had Peter, James, the earliest Christians, and the witness of the Spirit which was apparently really hard to ignore given what we can know from Paul’s writings and Acts. Perhaps Paul also senses and recognizes that Israel, like Egypt, is on a path to destruction, particularly a destruction by the sword of Rome. Speculation aside, Paul demonstrates how the majority of ethnic Israel currently stands not as Moses but as Pharaoh. Mercy and hardening remain God’s choice, Israel is not a Moses but a Pharaoh, therefore God is just to narrow the covenant people of God to those in the Messiah. A simpler way to summarize the argument is that God is just to narrow the people of God to those in Christ because he holds the sovereign right to set the standard by which he will harden and by which he will show mercy. Paul does not feel the need to defend God however. God’s willingness to show mercy is His prerogative.

The Potter, the Clay, and Moldy Imagery

In verse 19, the hardened majority of ethnic Israel hypothetically responds with an exasperated and perhaps angry (based on the passion of Paul’s response) question: “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” When quickly reading through this chapter, the temptation is to identify the object of God’s fault as Pharaoh. But, the hypothetical questioner is not primarily interested in why God found fault with Pharaoh. Pharaoh is only an example used by Paul to make a point. The issue is why God still finds fault with unrepentant Israel. The clarified question is thus “why does he still find fault with us, for who resists His will (to narrow the covenant, showing mercy to and hardening whomever He wills)?” Despite God choosing the true Israel to be those who are in Christ, justified by faith and not by works, why does he still find fault with ethnic Israel? The first part of Paul’s answer is this:

“…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? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel [l]for honorable use and another [m]for common use?”

In verse 20, Paul quotes Isaiah 29:16 to support his exclamation that the hypothetical questioner is not worthy to talk back to God. Concerning the context of Isaiah 29:13-16, Jerusalem is under threat of judgement for false worship and disregard of God and His law. Following the threat is an exclamation that the people have reversed the order of God and man:

“Woe to those who deeply hide their [a]plans from the Lord,
And whose deeds are done in a dark place,
And they say, “Who sees us?” or “Who knows us?”
16 You turn things around!
Shall the potter be considered [b]as equal with the clay,
That what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”;
Or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?”

Similar to how the Jews in Isaiah’s day refused to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in forming them as a people and His rule over them, the Jews of Paul’s day refuse to acknowledge God’s forming of them as a people and His rule over them. If we are talking individuals, then the things molded have been molded by either God’s mercy or His hardening, depending on their response to Him of course. Israel has no right to ask why God continues to find fault, because God as the molder is sovereign over the mold. Paul continues the moldy imagery by moving into the metaphor of the potter and the clay. Since the discussion at hand is ethnic Israel, the clay represents Israel, and the vessels the two diverging groups within Israel—those in Christ made for honorable use and those not in Christ made for common use. If Paul is in tune with Isaiah and Jeremiah regarding his use of the potter and clay metaphor (considering the strong parallels between the Israel of Paul’s and Isaiah’s day, I would venture to say the burden of proof lies with those who say Paul diverts from the same usage), then verse 21 is far less deterministic than it appears. In every passage where the metaphor is used, the people are under judgement and being called to repent from false worship and disregard of God and His instructions. (Is 29:16, 45:9, 64:8, Jer 18:1-12) Furthermore, restoration/avoidance of judgement on the basis of repentance is either implied or specifically offered in every instance. Jeremiah 18:2-12 most clearly expands this theme:

““Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the [a]wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.”

 Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will [b]relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; 10 if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will [c]think better of the good with which I had promised to [d]bless it. 11 So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and [e]reform your ways and your deeds.”’ 12 But they will say, ‘It’s hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”

The clay is not merely passive, and, though the potter retains ultimate control over the clay, He responds differently depending on the response of the clay to His words. Consider this idea God’s “relational sovereignty.” By determining the criteria for election (justification by faith) and Christ as the person by which the people of God will continue through, God formed two vessels from one clay. God has every right to do this, and He has every right to still find fault with those whom He formed and a clay that will not respond in repentance.

“[n]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? 23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory…”

In light of the previous verses, the vessels of wrath are those who are not in Christ. So long as they exist in a hardened and unrepentant state, they are prepared for destruction. In this verse, we finally receive a direct answer to the original question. God finds fault with Israel because he desires to demonstrate His righteous wrath and power. (To sidetrack onto a theological note, both God’s wrath and power are expressions of His love—a radical love that will not stop until all evil is eradicated, yet without destroying every rebellious human in the process. This is essentially the gospel. Jesus exposes evil to its fullest on the cross, condemns it, and defeats death through his death and resurrection, taking away the previously God-given authority and power from Satan and freeing us from the power and penalty of sin! The gospel is also the story of Jesus being the culmination of Israel’s story that began with the promises of Abraham. Jesus lived the life they were supposed to live, assumes the people of God in himself, and blesses the world. In doing so he paved the way for the entire world to potentially experience the forgiveness of sins. …For those with a little theological background, I just gave away my not-so-typical-Protestant views of the atonement. Guess the secret is out.) God is currently enduring them with patience for the purpose of making known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy (those of Israel who are in Christ). This begs the question: how would God enduring with patience ethnic Israel make known the riches of His glory to those in Christ? Paul never offers an answer to this question, and we, not knowing the assumed knowledge, are left to guess. I can think of two possibilities however. One is that God’s endurance would result in the latter category growing larger. The other is so the judgement on Israel will be total and complete, and therefore the deliverance of the believer from she who persecuted them (Israel) will be as equally freeing. Regardless, God’s patience in not destroying the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction somehow makes known the riches of His glory upon the vessels of mercy. According to the rest of the sentence, God prepared beforehand for glory the vessels of mercy, “even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” Those of ethnic Israel in Christ were prepared beforehand for glory. This does not necessarily mean that God arbitrarily chose who would be in Christ. In fact, this sounds extremely similar to the statement found in Romans 8:29-30:

“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”

Paul is essentially saying those whom God foreknew (fore-loved) God also pre-determined would be conformed to the image of Christ. And those conformed to the image of Christ would also be called, justified, and glorified. I know many commentators who argue for a corporate understanding of God’s foreknowledge and choice here. I am just not convinced, and there is evidence from Romans 11:1-5 to support this, how God’s foreknowledge is not individual in its focus. How this foreknowledge relates to faith and human action is a complex debate, and I will avoid opening the can of killer bobbit worms that is the discussion of God’s foreknowledge. All I will say is that God’s foreknowledge does not have to be taken in a deterministic manner, and I believe it is an acceptable mystery to hold to the idea that man’s actions are the determining factor while God also knows the future. Plenty of theologians have been okay with this. And then there is open theism, but why move on from the bobbit worms to the sharks? I am far too comfortable with my nice beach house thank you very much.

The Remnant

Starting in verse 24, Paul returns back to his original statement and the original problem; Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, and Gentiles are now a part of the call to Christ. In other words, Paul never really left this theme! He then throws out Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 in support of his position that Gentiles are now called by God to be a part of the people of Christ. Paul then cites Isaiah 10:22-23 to show how, even in Isaiah’s day, only a remnant was saved. This quote also serves the purpose of warning Israel that her days are numbered. In verse 29, Paul quotes Isaiah 1:9 to the effect of making the point that, if God had not left a seed (Christ, Gal 3:16) or a remnant, Israel would be entirely and totally destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah. Paul essentially implies through verses 27-29 that only a remnant being saved is not a new development regarding God’s actions with Israel, especially in light of near-future judgements on Israel.

Paul then sums up his argument in verses 30-33: The Gentiles obtained the righteousness that comes by faith. Israel pursued the law for righteousness and did not achieve the law, as they did not pursue it by faith. (The issue here is Israel rejected God’s declaration that faith in Christ is the new marker of those in the covenant.) They stumbled over Christ. This is the main problem. Paul does not sum up his argument with a statement claiming that Israel failed to obtain righteousness because God did not choose them. Rather, he sums up his argument by crediting Israel’s failure to obtain righteousness to their own actions and disbelief.

But What If…?

Let us pretend Paul is advocating a Calvinist understanding here. Do the rest of chapters 10 and 11 fit within this understanding?

Romans 10:1 “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.”
Only one verse into the next chapter and we encounter an issue. Paul has just spent an entire chapter explaining and defending how God has already chosen who would be saved. So…why would Paul even bother to hope and even to pray to God that unbelieving Israel would be saved? It has already been established that these people have been hardened and will not inherit salvation. I understand that Paul could simply be uttering an emotional exclamation in response to the doctrine he has just spoke about, but why bother to pray about something that won’t be changed? Why desire something that you know will not happen? This a false desire and a stupid prayer, and Paul, with all his authority as an apostle, does not strike me as stupid.

Romans 10:21 “But as for Israel He says, “All the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.””
Can God truly say he has held his arms wide open to a nation disobedient to Him if, by His choosing, Israel’s disobedience is His own doing? Furthermore, can Paul use this verse to explain God’s response to Israel when he has already taught that Israel’s response was due to God’s divine choice? It does not make sense.

Romans 11: 11-15: “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. 12 Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their [ffulfillment be! 13 But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if somehow I might move to jealousy my [g]fellow countrymen and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
Soooo…Israel stumbled, but they have not fully fallen yet. This is awkward. In verse 14, Paul’s hope is he may move ethnic Israel to jealousy and thereby save some of them. Wait, did Paul not already teach those who were not chosen by God will not be saved? I understand the objection that Paul want to move the elect to jealousy and save them, but I think that is truly a fine example of trying to hard to connect dots which were not meant to be connected. Paul here is hoping that the same Israel he has described as having stumbled over Christ will come to faith. These are the people now outside the covenant, existing in a state of hardening and refusing to come to faith in Christ. It is noteworthy Paul still thinks they can be saved.

Romans 11:23!!!: “And they[Israel] also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.”
This statement by itself all but disproves the notion Paul was a teacher of Calvinist doctrine. If Israel does not continue in their unbelief, they will be grafted once again into the blessing and covenant of God. There is absolutely no way one can reconcile this statement with God’s arbitrary choosing of people for salvation without sounding silly. (The objection is that all those who will eventually come to faith were previously chosen anyways and no logical contradiction is present. To do so in my mind is to squeeze orange juice from apples, or to read into the text foreign ideas to the extent the text is no longer taken at face value.) “If they do not…” You cannot get much clearer than this. The turning point is faith, a human response.


This would normally be where I would drop profound concluding thoughts to hammer in my case, but I am tired of writing about this and want to move onto something else already. If you just really want some concluding thoughts for the sake of closure, I encourage you to read from the not-so-amateur writers of the articles linked at the beginning. They say nearly everything I say but better (and with less humor), and they even wrote concluding thoughts.

One thought on “Romans 9 — Moses, Pharaoh, and the Sovereignty of God

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s