Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?This theme and argument were not original to the Epistle to the Romans, or even to Paul more generally. In fact, this theme is not merely a New Testament theme. It is firmly rooted in the Old Testament.
Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory ... .
The outlines for the theme are found first in Job.
Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly: how much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth?Here we see the basic point emphasized. Man is not in a position to judge his maker. It is not necessarily crystal clear that the "houses of clay" refers to the body as opposed to mud huts, but it becomes clear soon:
Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into dust again?The reference in Job harkens back to the Creation:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.Man is like pottery in this way - that God made us from the dust of the ground.
Against the backdrop of Job and Genesis (we know Genesis was written by Moses, but we don't know exactly when Job was written), Isaiah provides similar and further elaborated variations on the theme:
Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the LORD, and their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us? Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter's clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?Here the rebellion of the people against God is answered with the potter's clay analogy. They are just his clay - are they really going to deny his existence/power or his wisdom?
And it gets stronger:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it. Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth? Thus saith the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me. I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.In this passage, God takes ultimate responsibility for everything. He even says "I ... create evil," not that he is morally culpable for it, but that he decrees it. The potsherds can debate each other, but none of them can stand in judgment over God or demand that God account for his actions toward them. It's as absurd as if a child was to question the authority of his parents to procreate him. God says he is not accountable to man for what he has made.
Moreover, the righteous (like Job) acknowledge their relationship to God as the potter:
But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.When we see these precedents for Romans 9, the point in Romans 9 becomes clear. Paul is arguing that the question is impudent. Man cannot question God's holding man responsible, even though no one can resist the will of God. That's like a pot saying, "why did you make me this way?" to the potter. Paul affirms that God, like a potter, does have a purpose for his different pots. Moreover, for Paul that is enough to vindicate the potter.
Occasionally, we are told that some other passage is the precedent for Romans 9. I would refer to these as faux precedent passages. The most popular of these is in Jeremiah:
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. Then I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good. And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart. Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ask ye now among the heathen, who hath heard such things: the virgin of Israel hath done a very horrible thing.The point of the passage in this case is to emphasize God's mercy in judgment. God is saying that he is free to change the way that Israel is treated, and he offers to do so if they will repent. There is an aspect of sovereignty here, but this aspect of sovereignty has to do with God's ability to accept repentance. Such a point does not fit with the objection about why God finds fault despite having an irresistible will.
We see a similar theme in some of the non-canonical inter-testamental books.
For example, in Sirach we find the following expression, which seems to be drawn from Jeremiah:
As the clay is in the potter's hand, to fashion it at his pleasure: so man is in the hand of him that made him, to render to them as liketh him best.There is also an interesting passage in Wisdom. This passage, on its own, has some nice linguistic similarities to the Romans passage. However, in context the point being made is totally different, namely about the absurdity of idolatry. Don't worship a statue: it could just as easily have been a chamberpot.
For the potter, tempering soft earth, fashioneth every vessel with much labour for our service: yea, of the same clay he maketh both the vessels that serve for clean uses, and likewise also all such as serve to the contrary: but what is the use of either sort, the potter himself is the judge.Still it provides the intuition behind the apostle's argument: the potter is sovereign over the clay the same way that God is sovereign over mankind. Just as it would be absurd for a chamberpot to complain about its duties, seeing as it wasn't consulted regarding what it was going to be, so it is absurd for men to complain that God's showing mercy on whom He will, and hardening others is somehow unfair.