In order to understand this verse, we will need to read verses 14-21. They say, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’ Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills  He hardens. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’ But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” (NKJV)

This passage has been greatly misunderstood by many who teach that God (Who is the POTTER) creates some men to honor Him and other to dishonor Him. But the truth is ALL MEN (represented by the CLAY) start out the same. They are all “born in sin” as we see in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” This sinful condition is manifested by “acts of sin” and thus God’s says of all men, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Thus in verse 21 the CLAY represents SINFUL HUMANITY. In these verses we are taught that God, in His Sovereignty, will show mercy and compassion to one (and make him a “vessel for honor”) and to another He will harden, resulting in him being a “vessel for dishonor.”

We need to realize that if God didn’t show mercy to SOME, then NONE would be saved! In other words, if men were left to themselves, they would all perish in unbelief. When Jesus was here presenting Himself to His Jewish people as their Messiah, He was rejected by the nation. John 1:11 declares, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” In John 5:40 Jesus said, “You are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” Israel represents the condition of ALL MEN, for NONE are willing to come to Him to receive the free gift of eternal life. As we saw in our portion above, “So then it is not of him who wills” (for NO ONE IS WILLING to come)…”but of God who shows mercy.” God saw that none would come, so in His grace and Divine Sovereignty He shows mercy to some. He chooses them to be saved (see 2nd Thessalonians 2:13) and then He draws them to His Son for salvation (see John 6:37 & 44). The moment they come to Christ and are saved, they become a “vessel for honor.”

But there are those who God chooses to leave in their sinful state of rebellion against Him. Pharaoh is a prime example of one who continually hardened his heart against God and then eventually God hardened his heart. Exodus 7:13 states, “And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said.” Later, in Exodus 11:10 we read, “And the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land.” Let’s be clear, Pharaoh was a hardened sinner who resisted God’s grace. Because of this God also hardened his heart in order to show mankind His power over proud and rebellious sinners. Pharaoh was then manifested as a “vessel for dishonor,” as are all sinners who harden their hearts against God’s gracious offer of salvation.

Let’s read in closing Romans 9:22-23: “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the VESSELS OF WRATH prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the VESSELS OF MERCY, which He had prepared beforehand for glory.” The “vessels of wrath” prepare themselves for destruction by their unbelief; the “vessels of mercy” are prepared by God for glory through His wondrous mercy.  (222.9)  (DO)