For the scripture said to Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised you up, that I might show my power in you…
(text, vers. 19-21, and Romans 5:5-8): —
1. The former of these two passages read by itself, without anything to qualify it, sounds like a naked assertion of the sovereignty of God; and as based on mere power. It seems as if St. Paul were saving that the might of God is the measure of His right; that, having made us, He is perfectly at liberty to do what He pleases with us. I say, "It seems so"; because we know that St. Paul cannot mean to assert this, for otherwise he must have forgotten what he had written in our second text.
2. In a passage like this a great deal depends upon the tone which one reads into it, and the feeling with which one reads it. Now this ninth chapter must not be separated from the tenth and the eleventh, which together form one indivisible section, and ought to be, and must be read together, if we are to understand them at all. The tone of the whole is then easily discoverable from its commencement in Romans 9:1-5, and from its conclusion in Romans 11:30-33.
3. The commentators seem generally to take it for granted that, in my first text, St. Paul is arguing with captious objectors and presumptuous cavillers, whom he is putting down with a high hand. But it is, to say the least, worth our while to consider whether St. Paul is not stating frankly his own difficulties and solving them as best he can, and really working his own way, painfully and laboriously, through the darkness into the light. Viewed in this aspect the passage becomes infinitely more interesting, instructive, and pathetic. We should be sorry to think that St. Paul had set an example of that high-handed dealing with doubts and difficulties which has always proved so disastrous. But if he knew, as he seems to have known, what it was not to stifle, but to face and fight, his doubts; then his example may be of the greatest possible service to us, even though his difficulties were not ours.
4. Yet are they not ours? If God's will acts in this sovereign, arbitrary way — hardening this heart, softening that, as chance or caprice may direct — what then? Is not the ground of human responsibility cut from beneath us? What room is there, then, for moral disapproval, and for retributive justice? Nor do we evade the difficulty by throwing the difficulty back one step, and saying, "It is by the operation of a law of man's nature as God created it, that he who will not turn at last cannot. And God, who established that law of man's nature, is said in Scripture to do that which occurs under it, or results from it. He has framed at His pleasure the moral constitution of man, according to which the rebellious sinner is at last obdurate. "This is the old, old puzzle, which has haunted men's minds from the very first — now by one name, now by another: liberty and necessity. The moment we begin to reason upon this problem, we are lost in perplexity. The interplay of the Divine will and the human can never have its path determined by any calculus yet discovered. As soon as it is attempted, one or other of the two forces is sure to be omitted from the calculation, and to disappear altogether. We are left either with a naked sovereignty on the Divine side, accompanied by an absolute bondage on the human side; or else we are left with a Divine will which is no will at all.
5. At this point we feel what a difference it makes in our text, whether we regard it as an endeavour to put down objectors, or whether we regard it as a debate in Paul's mind with doubts and difficulties. In the first case we can all see that it only removes the difficulty to a point at which it ceases to press against the reason only to press more vehemently against the conscience and the moral sense. For it may well be asked, "Is, then, man, with all his capacity of suffering, and his sense of right and wrong, merely as the passionless clay in the potter's hand. If so, what are we to think of the Creator? Does the fact of creation invest the Creator with unlimited rights, unaccompanied by any corresponding responsibilities? Or does it answer most nearly to that earthly relation of parent and child which, whilst establishing the parents' claim to the obedience of the child, establishes also the child's claim to the love and care of the parents?" St. Paul's reply is very different, if we regard it as a caution, addressed to himself, as he goes sounding on his dim and perilous way, through problems which human reason is all incompetent to solve. It is, then, tantamount to saying, "What am I, that I should dare to exercise my speculation upon such a theme as this — I, who am but a finite being in the hands of Infinite power?"
6. Now, this attitude of mind is the true philosophic attitude, for "The foundation of all true philosophy is humility." And this is the attitude which St. Paul is most careful to inculcate elsewhere, e.g., "Now we see through a mirror"; the reflection only, not the object itself — "darkly"; more exactly, "in a riddle" — "but then, face to face." And this is the attitude which our Lord inculcates, bidding us "humble ourselves, and become as little children." And this, indeed, is the attitude which, the more earnestly and seriously we inquire into questions of all kinds, the more do we find ourselves compelled to adopt. The more the circle of our knowledge enlarges, the larger becomes the circumference, at every point of which we feel our ignorance, and have the sense of vastness and mystery forced upon us.
7. St. Paul, however, does not leave the matter so. We can leave many problems unsolved — this of the relation of the human will to the Divine amongst others — when we have settled it clearly in our own minds, how we shall think of God — of His character, of His purpose and feeling towards his human creation: not till then. As we read chaps. 9-11., carefully and as a whole, we feel that St. Paul makes little or no progress towards a solution of his doubts, until we reach Romans 11:32, 33. He rises above his own efforts to reason the thing out, in the strength of a fresh perception of that unsearchable glory of God, which may be safely trusted to do nothing but what is wise, just, and loving. This perception does not come through any process of reasoning, but breaks upon his soul like light. He escapes at one bound from the trammels of his own logic, in the sense of that grace and love of God in Christ, of which he writes in our second text.
8. Very few of us will be able to follow the course of St. Paul's argument in these three chapters. But all of us can seize that point of view of his, which enables him to trust the future of his beloved Israel — to the unsearchable grace and wisdom of God. Where had he learned that trust? Not at the feet of Gamaliel; not through all his vast stores of Greek and Rabbinical learning; not through any exercise of his own quick intelligence and acute reasoning powers; but at the foot of the Cross. It was there and thence that he had learned the boundless charity of God; had learned to trust himself to that charity; had learned (harder lesson!) to trust his loved ones to that charity.
Parallel VersesKJV: For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.