*Minor differences ignored. Grouped by changes, with first version listed as example.
But we have this treasure. Those that heard Paul glorying in such a magnificent strain as to the excellence of his ministry, and beheld, on the other hand, his person, contemptible and abject in the eyes of the world, might be apt to think that he was a silly and ridiculous person, and might look upon his boasting as childish, while forming their estimate of him from the meanness of his person.  The wicked, more particularly, caught hold of this pretext, when they wished to bring into contempt every thing that was in him. What, however, he saw to be most of all unfavorable to the honor of his Apostleship among the ignorant, he turns by an admirable contrivance into a means of advancing it. First of all, he employs the similitude of a treasure, which is not usually laid up in a splendid and elegantly adorned chest, but rather in some vessel that is mean and worthless;  and then farther, he subjoins, that the power of God is, by that means, the more illustrated, and is the better seen. "Those, who allege the contemptible appearance of my person, with the view of detracting from the dignity of my ministry, are unfair and unreasonable judges, for a treasure is not the less valuable, that the vessel, in which it is deposited, is not a precious one. Nay more, it is usual for great treasures to be laid up in earthen pots. Farther, they do not consider, that it is ordered by the special Providence of God, that there should be in ministers no appearance of excellence, lest any thing of distinction should throw the power of God into the shade. As, therefore, the abasement of ministers, and the outward contempt of their persons give occasion for glory accruing to God, that man acts a wicked part, who measures the dignity of the gospel by the person of the minister." Paul, however, does not speak merely of the universal condition of mankind, but of his own condition in particular. It is true, indeed, that all mortal men are earthen vessels Hence, let the most eminent of them all be selected, and let him be one that is adorned to admiration with all ornaments of birth, intellect, and fortune,  still, if he be a minister of the gospel, he will be a mean and merely earthen depository of an inestimable treasure Paul, however, has in view himself, and others like himself, his associates, who were held in contempt, because they had nothing of show.
1 - "Ils le iugeoyent selon l'apparence de sa personne, qui estoit petite et contemptible;" -- "They judged of him according to the appearance of his person, which was small and contemptible."
2 - "The term skeuos (vessel), from scheo to hold, has an allusion to the body's being the depository of the soul. 'Ostrakon properly signifies a shell, (of which material, probably, the primitive vessels were formed,) and, 2dly, a vessel, of baked earth. And as that is proverbially brittle, ostrakios denoted weak, fragile, both in a natural and a metaphorical sense; and therefore was very applicable to the human body, both as frail, and as mean." -- Bloomfield. -- Ed.
3 - "De tous ornamens, de race, d'esprit, de richesses, et toutes autres choses semblables;" -- "With all ornaments of birth, intellect, riches, and all other things of a like nature."
But we have this treasure - The treasure of the gospel; the rich and invaluable truths which they were called to preach to others. The word "treasure" is applied to those truths on account of their inestimable worth. Paul in the previous verses had spoken of the gospel, the knowledge of Jesus Christ, as full of glory, and infinitely precious. This rich blessing had been committed to him and his fellow-laborers, to dispense it to others, and to diffuse it abroad. His purpose in this and the following verses is, to show that it had been so entrusted to them as to secure all the glory of its propagation to God, and so also as to show its unspeakable value. For this purpose, he not only affirms that it is a treasure, but says that it had been so entrusted to them as to show the power of God in its propagation; that it had showed its value in sustaining them in their many trials; and "they" had showed their sense of its worth by being willing to endure all kinds of trial in order to make it everywhere known, 2-Corinthians 4:8-11. The expression here is similar to that which the Saviour uses when he calls the gospel "the pearl of great price," Matthew 13:46.
In earthen vessels - This refers to the apostles and ministers of religion, as weak and feeble; as having bodies decaying and dying; as fragile, and liable to various accidents, and as being altogether unworthy to hold a treasure so invaluable; as if valuable diamonds and gold were placed in vessels of earth of coarse composition, easily broken, and liable to decay. The word "vessel" (σκεῦος skeuos) means properly any utensil or instrument; and is applied usually to utensils of household furniture, or hollow vessels for containing things, Luke 8:16; John 19:29. It is applied to the human body, as made of clay, and therefore frail and feeble, with reference to its "containing" anything, as, e. g., treasure; compare note on Romans 9:22-23. The word rendered "earthen," (ὀστρακίνοις ostrakinois) means that which is made of shells (from ὄστρακινον ostrakinon), and then burnt clay, probably because vessels were at first made of burnt shells. It is suited well to represent the human body; frail, fragile, and easily reduced again to dust. The purpose of Paul here is, to show that it was by no excellency of his nature that the gospel was originated; it was in virtue of no vigor and strength which he possessed that it was propagated; but that it had been, of design, committed by God to weak, decaying, and crumbling instruments, in order that it might "be seen" that it was by the power of God that such instruments were sustained in the trials to which they were exposed, and in order that it might be manifest to all that it was not originated and diffused by the power of those to whom it was entrusted. The idea is, that they were altogether insufficient of their own strength to accomplish what was accomplished by the gospel. Paul uses a metaphor similar to this in 2-Timothy 2:20.
That the excellency of the power - An elegant expression, denoting the exceeding great power. The great power referred to here was that which was manifested in connection with the labors of the apostles - the power of healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out devils; the power of bearing persecution and trial, and the power of carrying the gospel over sea and land, in the midst of danger, and in spite of all the opposition which people could make, whether as individuals or as combined; and especially the power of converting the hearts of sin ners, of humbling the proud, and leading the guilty to the knowledge of God, and the hope of heaven. The idea is, that all this was manifestly beyond human strength; and that God had of design chosen weak and feeble instruments "in order" that it might be everywhere seen that it was done not by human power but by his own. The instrumentality employed was altogether "disproportionate" in its nature to the effect produced.
May be of God - May evidently appear to be of God; that it may be manifest to all that it is God's power and not ours. It was one great purpose of God that this should be kept clearly in view. And it is still done. God takes care that this shall be apparent. For:
(1) It is "always" true, whoever is employed, and however great may be the talents, learning, or zeal of those who preach, that it is by the power of God that people are converted. Such a work cannot be accomplished by man. It is not by might or by strength; and between the conversion of a proud, haughty, and abandoned sinner, and the power of him who is made the instrument, there is such a manifest disproportion, that it is evident it is the work of God. The conversion of the human heart is not to be accomplished by man.
(2) ministers are frail, imperfect, and Sinful, as they were in the time of Paul. When the imperfections of ministers are considered; when their frequent errors, and their not unfrequent moral obliquities are contemplated; when it is remembered how far many of them live from what they ought to do, and how few of them live in any considerable degree as becometh the followers of the Redeemer, it is wonderful that God blesses their labor as he does; and the matter of amazement is not that no more are converted under their ministry, but it is that so many are converted, or that any are converted; and it is manifest tidal it is the mere power of God.
(3) he often makes use of the most feeble, and unlearned, and weak of his servants to accomplish the greatest effects. It is not splendid talents, or profound learning, or distinguished eloquence, that is always or even commonly most successful. Often the ministry of such is entirely barren; while some humble and obscure man shall have constant success, and revivals shall attend him wherever he goes. It is the man of faith, and prayer, and self-denial, that is blessed; and the purpose of God in the ministry, as in everything else, is to "stain the pride of all human glory," and to show that he is all in all.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels - The original, οστρακινοις σκευεσιν, signifies, more literally, vessels made of shells, which are very brittle; and as the shell is the outward part of a fish, it is very fit, as Dr. Hammond observes, to resemble our bodies in which our souls dwell. The Platonists make two bodies of a man: the one they call οξημα ψυχης, the chariot of the soul; the other, that which we see and touch; and this they call οστρακινον which is the same to us as the shell is to the fish. The word οστρακον not only signifies a shell, or vessel made of shell, but also πηλος ωπτημενος, an earthen vessel which has been burnt in the kiln, and earthen vessels or pottery in general; the difference between σκευη οστρακινα, earthen ware, and σκευη κεραμεως, the potter's vessel, is this: the latter implies the vessel as it comes out of the hands of the potter Before it is burnt; and the other is the vessel After it has passed through the kiln. St. Chrysostom, speaking of this difference, observes that the vessels once baked in the kiln, if broken, are incapable of being restored, δια την εκ τουπυρος εγγινομενην αυτοις ἁπαξ αντιτυπιαν, because of the hardness once gotten by fire; whereas the others are of clay unbaken, if they be spoiled ῥᾳδιωϚπρος το δευτερον επανελθῃ σχημα, they may easily, by the skill of the potter, be restored to some second form. See Hammond. This comports excellently with the idea of St. Paul: our bodies are in a recoverable form: they are very frail, and easily marred; but by the skill of the workman they may be easily built up anew, and made like unto his glorious body. The light and salvation of God in the soul of man is a heavenly treasure in a very mean casket.
The rabbins have a mode of speech very similar to this. "The daughter of the emperor thus addressed Rabbi Joshua, the son of Chananiah: O! how great is thy skill in the law, and yet how deformed thou art! what a great deal of wisdom is laid up in a sordid vessel! The rabbi answered, Tell me, I pray thee, of what are those vessels in which you keep your wines? She answered, They are earthen vessels. He replied, How is it, seeing ye are rich, that ye do not lay up your wine in silver vessels, for the common people lay up their wine in earthen vessels? She returned to her father, and persuaded him to have all the wine put into silver vessels; but the wine turned acid; and when the emperor heard it he inquired of his daughter who it was that had given her that advice? She told him that it was Rabbi Joshua. The rabbi told the whole story to the emperor, and added this sentence: The wisdom and study of the law cannot dwell in a comely man. Caesar objected, and said, There are comely persons who have made great progress in the study of the law. The rabbi answered, Had they not been so comely they would have made greater progress; for a man who is comely has not an humble mind, and therefore he soon forgets the whole law." See Schoettgen. There is a great deal of good sense in this allegory; and the most superficial reader may find it out.
That the excellency of the power may be of God; and not of us - God keeps us continually dependent upon himself; we have nothing but what we have received, and we receive every necessary supply just when it is necessary; and have nothing at our own command. The good therefore that is done is so evidently from the power of God, that none can pretend to share the glory with him.
(4) But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, (5) that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
(4) He takes away a stumbling block, which darkened among some, the bright shining of the ministry of the Gospel, that is, because the apostles were the most miserable of all men. Paul answers that he and his associates are as it were, earthen vessels, but yet there is in them a most precious treasure. (5) He brings marvellous reasons why the Lord does so afflict his principal servants, to the end, he says, that all men may perceive that they do not stand by any man's power, but by the singular power of God, in that they die a thousand times, but never perish.
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. Eleazar (p), 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 , "to an earthen cup", which, when broken, cannot be repaired again: the law (say they) is not confirmed but by him, who makes himself , "as an earthen vessel" (q): R. Joshua (r) was a great man in the king's palace, and he was deformed; wherefore Caesar's daughter said, wisdom is beautiful , "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 observes (s); 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 Maimonides (t), a lamp, a burning light, is , "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 says (u), 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 the apostle uses, signifies also "shells of fishes"; and in like manner does Philo the Jew (w) compare the human body;
"I am (says he) very little concerned for this mortal body which is about me, and cleaves to me , "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.
(p) T. Bab. Sanhedrin, fol. 52. 2. (q) Shirhashirim Rabba, fol. 4. 2. (r) Juchasin, fol. 33. 2. (s) Laniado in Judg. vii, 16. (t) In Misn. Celim, c. 2. sect. 8. (u) Bartenora in ib. (w) De Joseph. p. 536.
"Lest any should say, How then is it that we continue to enjoy such unspeakable glory in a mortal body? Paul replies, this very fact is one of the most marvellous proofs of God's power, that an earthen vessel could bear such splendor and keep such a treasure" [CHRYSOSTOM, Homilies, 8.496, A]. The treasure or "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God." The fragile "earthen vessel" is the body, the "outward man" (2-Corinthians 4:16; compare 2-Corinthians 4:10), liable to afflictions and death. So the light in Gideon's pitchers, the type (Judges 7:16-20, Judges 7:22). The ancients often kept their treasures in jars or vessels of earthenware. "There are earthen vessels which yet may be clean; whereas a golden vessel may be filthy" [BENGEL].
that the excellency of the power, &c.--that the power of the ministry (the Holy Spirit), in respect to its surpassing "excellency," exhibited in winning souls (1-Corinthians 2:4) and in sustaining us ministers, might be ascribed solely to God, we being weak as earthen vessels. God often allows the vessel to be chipped and broken, that the excellency of the treasure contained, and of the power which that treasure has, may be all His (2-Corinthians 4:10-11; John 3:30).
may be of God . . . not of us--rather, as Greek, "may be God's (may be seen and be thankfully [2-Corinthians 4:15] acknowledged to belong to God), and not (to come) from us." The power not merely comes from God, but belongs to Him continually, and is to be ascribed to him.
We have this treasure in earthen vessels. The treasure of the knowledge of Christ and of the ministry of the gospel of life. Perhaps his enemies pointed to his sorrows as a proof that he was not so favored as a minister of Christ. A splendid treasure was placed in a fragile, cheap earthen vessel. Then it was manifest that the great work wrought was the power of God, not of us, the apostles and evangelists.
We are troubled on every side. In 2-Corinthians 4:8-9 are four pairs of contrasts which should the frailty of the instruments and the greatness of the power: (1) "pressed on every side" (Revision), but not hemmed in by the pressure; (2) in apparently overwhelming difficulties, but never reduced to despair; (3) persecuted by their enemies, but not forsaken and delivered over to them; (4) overthrown and cast to the earth, but even then rescued from the enemy, standing over them prostrate, so that they are not destroyed.
But we - Not only the apostles, but all true believers. Have this treasure - Of divine light, love, glory. In earthen vessels - In frail, feeble, perishing bodies. He proceeds to show, that afflictions, yea, death itself, are so far from hindering the ministration of the Spirit, that they even further it, sharpen the ministers, and increase the fruit. That the excellence of the power, which works these in us, may undeniably appear to be of God.
*More commentary available at chapter level.