In Psalm 92:5-9 we read: "O Lord, how great are thy works! and thy thoughts are very deep. A brutish man knoweth not; neither doth a fool understand this. When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed forever: But thou, Lord, art most high forevermore. For, lo, thine enemies, O Lord, for, lo, thine enemies shall perish; all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered." Thus the Church sings about the deep thoughts of God concerning the workers of iniquity in the world. On the other hand, the people of God confess with joy: "Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me into glory." And they are sure "that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." These same truths are expressed in Romans 9:22, 23: "What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory."
It is plain that these words stand in immediate connection with the preceding, especially with the figure of the potter and the clay. They show the purpose unto which God makes vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. This purpose is on the one hand, to show His wrath and to make His power known; and on the other, that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy afore prepared unto glory.
There are several questions which we have to try to answer in connection with this passage. First of all, there is, of course, the question: what is meant by the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction, and, on the other hand, by the vessels of mercy which He had afore prepared unto glory? In the second place: how does God deal with both these vessels of wrath and of mercy in time? -- a question that is answered by the words "endured with much long-suffering." And finally, we have to ask and answer the question: what is the purpose of God in so dealing with both the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy? And again we will have to take our time and go slowly in order to interpret this most important passage.
We understand, of course, that the terms "vessels of wrath" and "vessels of mercy" are figurative. Nor is it difficult to determine who are meant by these figurative terms. The vessels of wrath are evidently the same as those that were called vessels unto dishonor in the preceding part of this passage. They are, therefore, the reprobate wicked. The vessels of mercy are identical with the vessels unto honor, and are the elect children of the promise, the heirs of salvation. However, in the words of our text, the vessels unto honor are called the vessels of mercy, while the vessels unto dishonor are called the vessels of wrath.
We therefore ask, first of all: what is the meaning of the phrase "vessels of wrath?" Does this expression merely denote the ungodly as actually being the objects of the wrath of God as they exist in time and walk in sin and iniquity in this world? In itself the phrase might well be interpreted in this fashion. Surely, the ungodly, as they historically exist in this world, are the objects of the wrath of God. This is the teaching of the Word of God everywhere. They are vessels that receive, that are filled with the wrath of God, men with whom God deals in His fierce anger: for He hates all the workers of iniquity.
The phrase, however, may also refer to the wrath of God's good pleasure. The expression then refers to the wrath of reprobation. It denotes the ungodly as the Most High ordained them from before the foundation of the world to be manifestations and objects of His righteous wrath. He sovereignly ordained them to be bearers of His wrath and to serve the revelation of His righteous indignation against and hatred of sin. And they are, then, vessels ordained in wrath and unto wrath. And a study of the entire context in which this passage occurs, as well as of the meaning of similar expressions in Scripture, leads us to the conclusion that this latter explanation of the phrase is correct. As we have had occasion to prove repeatedly, the entire context deals with God's sovereign and eternal determination in the matter of salvation and damnation. Jacob God loved, and Esau He hated sovereignly, without regard to their works, in His eternal counsel. Salvation is not of him that willeth, neither of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. The question of the objector which the apostle answers in this section is: why doth he yet find fault, for who hath resisted his will? And there would be no occasion for this question, if by vessels of wrath is meant that God is angry with the wicked as he exists historically in the world and walks in iniquity. He is, according to verse 18, merciful unto whom He will be merciful, and whom He will He hardeneth. And the divine Potter sovereignly forms out of the same lump of clay vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. It is quite in harmony with this entire passage to explain the vessels of wrath as referring to the ungodly reprobates from the viewpoint of God's eternal counsel and good pleasure to ordain some to everlasting manifestation of His righteous wrath. He conceived them as vessels of wrath in His eternal predestination. And according to that counsel He forms them in time to be manifestations and bearers of His wrath forever.
And this interpretation of the expression is in harmony, too, with the meaning of similar phrases in Holy Writ. The Bible, for instance, speaks of children of wrath; and this expression does not merely mean children that are the objects of God's wrath, but denotes men that are brought forth in wrath and that are born in and under wrath, so that wrath is, as it were, their mother. Thus, in this ninth chapter of the Romans Scripture uses the phrase "children of the promise," referring to men not merely as they are the heirs and recipients of the promise, but as they are born not of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by and of the power of the promise of God. In a similar way vessels of wrath are vessels that are conceived in God's wrath and designed to be the bearers of the righteous indignation of the Most High forever.
This interpretation is corroborated first of all by the fact that in the text vessels of wrath are the very opposite of vessels of mercy; and the latter phrase signifies not merely men that are historically the objects of the mercy, the saving mercy, of God, but men that are ordained in mercy from eternity. The parallel expression, vessels of wrath, must, therefore, be interpreted in a similar fashion. It refers to men whom God has sovereignly known in wrath and whom in His wrath He shapes into vessels unto dishonor in time. And secondly, that this is indeed the correct interpretation is also clear from what is added to the description of these vessels of wrath in the text. They are vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. The meaning of this latter addition is plain. It signifies: to be so constituted that the end must necessarily be destruction. The vessels of wrath are so constituted that their entire makeup and design and institution serves the purpose of reaching that end of destruction. If we abandon the figure of the vessel, the meaning is that there are men so instituted as to their personality, their power and talents, their position in the world, and their place in the whole of the works of God, that everything tends to their destruction, serves the purpose of leading them not to temporal destruction, but to eternal desolation. Unto this they are fitted. And the question arises naturally: fitted unto destruction by whom? Of course, also here the Arminian is bound to say that men fit themselves unto destruction. That God is sovereign also in the determination of the destruction of the wicked, that, although it remains true that the wicked deliberately seeks his own destruction and walks in the way into eternal desolation, this end is nevertheless sovereignly determined by God, so that there is no accident, the Arminian does not understand and does not want to admit. Everything depends on, is contingent upon the determination of the will of man, according to him. But this explanation is so wholly contrary to the entire context, that I need waste no words to expose its fallacy. If we really desire to submit to the Word of God, if we do not sinfully distort the plain meaning of the words of Scripture, the meaning which the text yields can only be that God fitted these vessels unto destruction. And well may the people of God rejoice in this truth, for it means that all the Pharaohs and all the Nebuchadnezzars and all the Neroes and all Hitlers and Stalins, all the destroyers on the earth, and all the persecutors of the Church, all the haters of Christ and His cause and His people in the world, are absolutely under the control and in the hand of God's sovereign power. According to Arminianism, it is the will of the wicked that rules and that determines the history of the world. According to Scripture, however, the wicked is but the ax with which God hews and the saw which He draws. We are absolutely safe; according to God's eternal thoughts and counsel, all the wicked of the earth are so instituted that they but tend to destruction. Fitted unto destruction they are in God's eternal wrath; for Esau hath He hated.
The others are vessels of mercy, afore prepared unto glory. As we already stated, vessels of mercy are not merely men as objects of the mercy of God in time; but they are those whom in eternal mercy God conceived and whom in mercy He forms and shapes unto vessels unto honor. We explained before that God's mercy is His knowledge of Himself and His will to be the most blessed in Himself; and His mercy to man is His will to bless him and make him happy in God and for His Name's sake. And when that man is in misery, in sin and death, His abundant mercy is His will to lift him out of his wretchedness and to exalt him into the highest glory of His incorruptible and undefilable inheritance that fadeth not away. Now the text says that he purposed to make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy. Eternally He willed to glorify His mercy, and unto that end He ordained these vessels of mercy, in order that eternally they might be manifestations and bearers of that mercy. And in contrast to the end of the vessels of wrath, these vessels of mercy are said to be afore-ordained unto glory. Glory is always and principally the glory of God, for God alone is glorious, and there is no glory apart from Him. For God is infinitely good, and the radiation of that infinite goodness is His glory. Just as there is a glory of the sun, and the glory of the sun is the radiation of its light, so there is a glory of God and the glory of God is the radiation of His divine, infinite goodness. Now, it has pleased God, according to Scripture, to reveal and reflect that glory of His goodness in His people. He wanted and ordained a people that should be glorious even as He is glorious in that creaturely way, a people that should be conformed according to the image of His Son: "For whom he hath foreknown, them he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." Rom. 8:29-30.
Now, when the apostle writes that the vessels of mercy have afore been prepared unto glory, the reference is, of course, to God's eternal counsel and good pleasure. God's glory is infinitely in the Son; in that eternal and only-begotten Son He beholds and has delight in His own glory. He willed and ordained a people that should share in that glory, reflect that glory of the Son of God in a creaturely way. Unto that purpose He ordained and chose a Church. Let us understand this. The one glory of the Son must become reflected in the millions and millions of the glorified members of the one Church. And when all this adorable work of God is perfected, each one of this multitude, innumerable as the stars or as the sand which is by the seashore, will have his own name, his own position, in that glorified Church, to reflect in his own particular way the glory of God in the Son. That is why all must be saved. Not one could be missed without marring the beauty of the whole. Now then, that entire multitude as a whole, a unity, as the Church, the body of Christ, and all the elect members of that Church individually have afore been prepared unto that glory. They have all together and each one separately been ordained to serve the eternal purpose of God to reflect the glory of God. Every individual saint has been assigned to his own place in that glorious whole, has been ordained, fitted into his own position in that glory in God's eternal counsel. The vessels of mercy have afore been prepared unto glory.
Contemplating this marvelous counsel and work of God, we may well exclaim with the apostle: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?" For note well that these elect so prepared unto glory were afore so fitted into the whole of God's infinitely wise counsel that all things in creation and history, good and evil, small and great events, the personal experience of the elect, and the affairs of the nations, must work together, must be conducive unto the end of their glory. For all things were ordained with infinite and perfect wisdom, and all must serve the purpose of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, and through the multitude of the glorified saints. Vessels of mercy the elect are, that have afore been prepared and fitted, instituted in God's eternal good pleasure unto the realization of His glory. And therefore: "Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen."
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer
Notes: You may also find many sermons of "H.H." at the RFPA website. And you may find copies in print of an entire set of "H.H.'s" catechism sermons here.