Romans 9:22 “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?”
What is the tone/intent of the phrase “prepared for destruction”?
I don’t believe we can understand this phrase in isolation from the pastoral concern, rhetorical question and assuring response in which it is embedded. That is, we need to read it in the context of Romans 9-11 after 8 chapters arguing Gentile inclusion by faith in Jesus Christ. In what follows, I am drawing from David Bentley Hart’s interpretation in his short, dense article, “Traditio Deformis” (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/05/traditio-deformis):
The pastoral concern comes at the beginning of chapter 9 (v. 1-5). Paul’s heart is broken when he thinks of those in his Jewish family who have rejected their own Messiah. Having been God’s vessels for introducing the Saviour of the whole world, will they now be rejected? What then do we make of God’s promises? Will he not, in the end, be faithful to his covenant?
Paul then launches into a rhetorical argument that hinges on a conditional “what if?” scenario. Rather than stating theological facts, he begins his argument with a worst-case proposition:
Since divine election is given rather than earned, then Gentiles are not included by their own merit. They have been chosen. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (9:13 – citing Malachi). Has he now simply chosen to hate Israel?
And then he recalls the Exodus story where God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (9:15-18). And he remembers the analogy of the divine Potter, choosing some vessels for noble service and others are discarded (9:19-21). Has God now chosen to harden Israel’s heart or cast them aside as an unworthy pot?
WHAT IF that’s what’s going on with the Jews? WHAT IF they are simply vessels prepared for destruction? (9:22). WHAT IF the elect are saved and the rest are chosen to be reprobate? Isn’t that God’s right?
Here, from Augustine to Calvin and his -ism, the text is extracted from context and made into an airtight theology of sovereign election, predestining a few to glory while the rest are left to damnation. And why? That’s God’s business. But if you must know, it is “to the praise of his glory.” But Paul isn’t done yet. His ‘what ifs’ are NOT his theology. It is his hypothetical question that, if left unanswered, makes him wish he’d rather be damned. But he does answer and the remaining section of 9-11 comprise his argument.
Paul picks up the question and returns to Israel’s story.
First, Paul notes how God’s pattern of election had always been subversive and scandalous: an elder brother (Esau for example) loses his birthright to a supplanter (Jacob for example). Or a younger son is inexplicably favored ahead of his elder (Joseph for example).
And yet, these stories are not ultimately about inclusion and exclusion. The stories of Esau and Joseph eventually come around to a delayed blessing that, in the end, includes the good of the rightful firstborn and, in the case of Joseph, his whole family. Neither Esau nor Joseph’s brothers are, in the end, rejected. Rather, after a lengthy estrangement, the brothers are reconciled.
So it is with Israel after the flesh, the children of the Law. The end of the Law now means that ALL may attain righteousness. There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles and ALL will receive the blessing. The remnant of Israel is not, therefore, the few among Israel who will be saved, but the firstfruits who anticipate that ALL Israel will be saved (11:26). The remnant sanctifies the whole (11:16). Their temporary ‘rejection,’ which allows for the world’s salvation, will culminate in their restoration and resurrection as well (11:11-15).
And since Hart opened up this interpretation to me, I must give him the honour of delivering his own punchline:
- This, then, is the radiant answer dispelling the shadows of Paul’s grim “what if,” clarion negative: There is no final “illustrative” division between vessels of wrath and of mercy; God has bound everyone in disobedience so as to show mercy to everyone (11:32); all are vessels of wrath so that all may be made vessels of mercy.
So you can see how “prepared for destruction” is not Paul’s position or our theological truth, but rather, a horrific perspective within Paul’s hypothetical and ultimately debunked ‘What if?’ scenario. The salvation of his brethren was already anticipated in Israel’s own story and so his heart (and ours) can rest in God’s goodness.