But we have, this treasure in earthen vessels,.... This is a further commendation of the Gospel; and by which the apostle removes an objection against it, taken from the cross and persecutions that attend it, and the outward meanness of the ministers of it. The Gospel is called a "treasure", for not grace, nor Christ, but the Gospel is here meant; which is so styled, because it contains rich truths, and an abundance of them; comparable to gold, silver, and precious stones, for the price of them, their antiquity, distance of place from whence they come, and their duration; because it has in it rich blessings, spiritual ones, the blessings of the new covenant, solid, substantial, and irreversible ones, and a fulness of them; and because it consists of exceeding great and precious promises, of more worth than thousands of gold and silver; free, absolute, and unconditional ones, which are yea and amen in Christ, and relate both to this, and the other world; and also because it exhibits and shows forth to us the riches of God and of Christ, of grace and of glory; which are unsearchable, substantial, satisfying, and durable: the repository, or cabinet, in which this treasure is, are "earthen vessels"; by which are meant, ministers of the word, who are so in themselves, in their own esteem, and in the esteem of others; probably the apostle might have in view Lamentations 3:2. The doctors and scholars among the Jews are compared hereunto;
"says R. EleazarF16T. Bab. Sanhedrin, fol. 52. 2. , to what is a disciple of a wise man like, in the esteem of a man of the world? at first he is like to a golden cup; when he has conversed with him, he is like to a silver cup; and when he has received any profit by him, he is like לקיתון של הרש, "to an earthen cup", which, when broken, cannot be repaired again: the law (say they) is not confirmed but by him, who makes himself ככלי חרס, "as an earthen vessel"F17Shirhashirim Rabba, fol. 4. 2. : R. JoshuaF18Juchasin, fol. 33. 2. was a great man in the king's palace, and he was deformed; wherefore Caesar's daughter said, wisdom is beautiful בכלי מכוער, "in an ugly vessel"; and he brought her a simile in proof of it from wine, which is not kept in a silver vessel.'
The allusion is either to the earth itself, in which treasure lies, or is hid, and out of which it is dug; or to pots and vessels made of earth, into which treasure has been used to be put; or to earthen pitchers, in which lights or lamps were formerly carried; see Judges 7:16 where Gideon's three hundred men, are said to have empty pitchers, and lamps within the pitchers; they carried lamps with them to give them light, it being night when they went into the camp of Midian; and those they put into pitchers, that the Midianites might not perceive them afar off, as a Jewish commentator well observesF19Laniado in Judg. vii, 16. ; in like manner the Gospel put into earthen vessels is a glorious light to some, whilst it is hidden to others: yea, even lamps themselves were no other than earthen vessels, in which light was put; for so says MaimonidesF20In Misn. Celim, c. 2. sect. 8. , a lamp, a burning light, is כלי חרש, "an earthen vessel", like a reed; and on the top of it is a little ear, which joins to it; and when it is made, a piece of old cloth is put upon the burning oil, and it continues in it; also an earthen vessel is made, in which there is a hollow place for to set the light in, and in it is gathered all that flows from the oil out of the light; and it is strengthened about the head of the candlestick, that the brass might not be hurt by the oil; and this vessel is called the house in which the light subsides, or the receptacle of the light; and which receptacle, another of the Misnic commentators saysF21Bartenora in ib. , is an earthen vessel, made to put the light in; and the lamp, he also says, is like an earthen platter, sharp pointed below, &c. and this allusion well agrees with the context, in which the Gospel is represented as a glorious light, shining in darkness, 2 Corinthians 4:4. The Greek word οστρακινοις, the apostle uses, signifies also "shells of fishes"; and in like manner does Philo the JewF23De Joseph. p. 536. compare the human body;
"I am (says he) very little concerned for this mortal body which is about me, and cleaves to me οστρεου δικην, "like the shell of a fish"; though it is hurt by everyone.'
And the reference may be to pearls, which are said to have been found in such shells, particularly in oysters; and is designed to express, either the frail mortal bodies of the ministers of the Gospel, comparable to brittle shells; or baked earth; or rather the outward mean despicable condition of the apostles, and preachers of the word; being men of no figure in the world, for birth, learning, or outward grandeur; and being attended with sinful infirmities also, as other men; and more especially as they were labouring under reproaches, afflictions, and persecutions, for the sake of the Gospel; see Jeremiah 32:14. The reason why it pleased God to put such a rich and valuable treasure into the hands of persons so mean and contemptible was,
that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us: that is, that it might appear that the making of such persons ministers of the word was not of themselves, was not owing to their natural abilities, or to any diligence and industry, and acquirements of their own, or to any instructions they had received from others, but to the grace of God, and the effectual working of his power; and that the success which attended their ministrations in the conversion of sinners, and building up of saints, could only be ascribed to the exceeding greatness of divine power; and that the supporting of them in their work, under all the persecutions raised against them, and opposition made unto them, could be attributed to nothing else; of which power, instances are given in the following verses.