Romans 9:1-33

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When commenting on the unbelief of fellow Jews, Paul used very strong language. He referred to those who adamantly rejected Christ as having killed him and acting against the interests of all humans through their efforts to prevent the glad tidings about him from being proclaimed to the Gentiles. (1 Thessalonians 2:14, 15) The apostle’s words likely prompted his detractors to accuse him of having turned against his own people. Paul, however, left no doubt about the depth of concern and love he had for fellow Jews. He solemnly declared, “I am speaking the truth in Christ; I am not lying. My conscience testifies to me in holy spirit, that I have much grief and unceasing pain in my heart.” (9:1, 2)

The Son of God is the embodiment of the truth, being the one who fully revealed his Father. As a believer “in” or at one with Christ who always expressed the truth, Paul could not possibly be lying. Moreover, his conscience, enlightened and guided by the holy spirit, attested how he felt about his fellow countrymen. He was grieved that they were missing out on the privileges and blessings that would result from their responding in faith to Jesus Christ. In his heart or his inmost self, Paul was continually pained because of this.

He would have been willing to do anything possible to help fellow Jews, his “brothers” or “relatives according to the flesh,” become reconciled to God through his Son. Paul would have been willing to sacrifice for them to the point of being declared “anathema,” a cursed one, or an outcast from Christ for their sake. (9:3)

The apostle sincerely felt this way because of who his Jewish “brothers” were and on account of the privileges they did and could have. They were “Israelites,” God’s people. (Deuteronomy 7:6) Sonship, glory, the covenants, the law, sacred service at the sanctuary, and the promises were all theirs. (9:4)

As a people, their forefathers had been divinely declared to be God’s firstborn son. (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9) Because of having been adopted as a firstborn son, they came to share in other privileges and blessings.

Of all the nations, they alone experienced an awesome manifestation of divine glory at Mount Sinai. This glory appeared to them like a consuming fire on the summit of the mountain. (Exodus 24:16, 17) The glory could also include God’s dwelling representatively among his people at the sanctuary. (Exodus 25:8; 40:34-38; Deuteronomy 4:7; 2 Chronicles 5:13, 14; compare 1 Samuel 4:21, 22.)

Paul did not identify the specific covenants. One of them would have been the covenant God made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai after their departure from Egypt. (Exodus 24:3-8; 1 Kings 8:9) Another covenant would have been the one he concluded many decades earlier with their ancestor Abraham, assuring him that in his “seed” all the families of the earth would be blessed. (Genesis 15:9-21; 22:16-18; Acts 3:25) The covenant with David revealed that the Messiah would come through his line of descent, and so it may also have been one of the covenants Paul had in mind. (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 89:3, 4; compare Luke 1:32.)

Only the Israelites were given the law, which stood out prominently among the laws existing among other nations. (Exodus 24:12) In Deuteronomy 4:8 (REB), Moses is quoted as telling the people, “What great nation is there whose statutes and laws are so just, as is all this code of laws which I am setting before you today?”

The Israelites were unique in having an arrangement for worship that God had authorized. It included a divinely appointed priesthood, sacrifices, and annual festivals, and a sanctuary and associated items made according to divinely given specifications. (Hebrews 8:5; 9:1-7)

The promises focused on the coming of the “seed,” the Messiah, through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and, finally, through the royal line of David the son of Jesse and all the blessings that would result. (Genesis 12:2, 3; 17:19; 25:23; 28:12-16; 49:9, 10; Isaiah 11:1-10)

The “fathers” or ancestors of the Israelites were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “According to the flesh” or natural descent, they were also the ones through whom Christ came. (Matthew 1:2; Luke 3:34) This was indeed the greatest honor. Because God was the source of everything that made the Israelites stand out as different among the nations, Paul appears to have been moved to make an expression of thanks, “[May] God, the one over all, [be] blessed forever [literally, into the ages]. Amen.” (9:5; see the Notes section for additional comments.)

In view of Paul’s focus on those who had been called or invited to be reconciled to God through Christ, the question logically arose about why so few of the Jews, who had been highly privileged and were the first to receive the invitation, responded in faith. Did this mean that the word of God had failed, not succeeding in accomplishing the purpose for which it was directed to the Jews? Paul’s answer was, No. He explained, “For not all [who are] out of Israel [are truly] Israel.” (9:6)

Natural descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel [Genesis 32:28]) did not make one an Israelite in the real sense of the word. The name “Israel” may be defined as “contender with God” or “God contends,” implying a relationship with God, and that relationship did not come into being on the basis of natural descent. Using historical examples, Paul established this point.

Abraham fathered Ishmael and, after the death of Sarah, had six sons by Keturah (Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah). (Genesis 16:15, 16; 25:1, 2) Although Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, Isaac is the one whom God designated as Abraham’s “seed.” (9:7) Thus not all the “seed” or offspring of Abraham were his children or like him in their relationship to God, but, as Abraham was told, “In Isaac will seed for you be called.” (Genesis 21:12, LXX) Accordingly, as Paul added, “The children of the flesh” (mere offspring of the procreative function) are not the “children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.” (9:8)

God is the one who made the promise to Abraham, conveying his “word of promise” through his representative angel, “At this time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” (9:9; compare Genesis 18:10, 14) As a son of God’s promise, Isaac had a relationship with God (as did his father) and, therefore, was a true son of Abraham.

Paul next called attention to another case. Rebekah conceived twins by her husband Isaac. Before the fraternal twin boys were born and neither one of them had done anything good or bad, Rebekah received a divine revelation, “The elder will serve the younger.” This indicated that the one to be born first would not be the preeminent one in God’s purpose. Commenting on this development, Paul added parenthetically, that, with reference to election or choosing, God’s purpose might continue, not “out of” or on the basis of works, but “out of” or by his calling. (9:10-12)

Neither one of the twins had done any works that provided a basis for the divine choice. Isaac, too, had no works that would have merited God’s choosing, for he was not even conceived at the time the divine promise was given to Abraham. Therefore, as Paul noted in connection with Jacob and Esau, God’s choosing continued to be independent of works. In his foreknowledge, God chose the twin that would best serve his purpose. The later history confirmed that Esau and his descendants would not have been suitable. They chose not to have a relationship with God, and merited the divine judgment expressed centuries later in Malachi 1:2, 3, “I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.” (9:13)

Paul anticipated that the manner in which God deals would give rise to questions about his justice. “What, then, shall we say?” the apostle continued. “Is there not injustice on God’s part?” Paul then categorically rejected such a charge, “Never may it be!” (9:14)

As the Creator, God has every right to act according to his purpose. Paul backed this up with words Moses is quoted as saying and which words represent an expression of God’s choosing (Exodus 33:19, LXX), “I will be merciful to whomever I may be merciful, and I will be compassionate to whomever I may be compassionate.” (9:15)

Ultimately, the divine prerogative or purpose is the deciding factor in God’s election or choosing. Therefore, as Paul summed up, it is not dependent on the one wishing (or desiring a certain outcome) or the one running (or pursuing with a view to obtaining on the basis of merit) but on God who has mercy. (9:16)

To prove this, Paul called attention to God’s words directed to Pharaoh, “For this [purpose] I have raised you up [you have been kept (Exodus 9:16, LXX)], that I may show my power in you and that my name may be declared in all the earth.” (9:17)

Pharaoh had been “raised up” or allowed to be elevated to his position of power. According to the reading of the Septuagint, he had been kept or spared from having divine judgment immediately executed against him. This served God’s purpose to have his own power revealed in Pharaoh, with Pharaoh being the means for achieving this purpose. God did so by using Pharoah’s repeated defiance as the occasion for bringing devastating plagues upon the land of Egypt, which plagues demonstrated the matchless power that no human might could resist. Additionally, this served God’s purpose to make his name known far beyond the borders of the land of Egypt. What befell Pharaoh and the Egyptians became widely known, and the name of the God of the Hebrews (YHWH) continued to be associated with it even in later years. (Joshua 2:10, 11; 9:9; 1 Samuel 4:8)

Applying the significance of the developments involving Pharaoh, Paul continued, “So, then, he [God] is merciful to whom he wishes, but hardens whomever he wishes.” (9:18) In the case of the Israelites in Egypt, God chose to show mercy to them and brought about their liberation. This was not because they merited his favorable attention, for they had defiled themselves with idolatrous practices in Egypt. The choosing served his purpose and fulfilled the promise he had made to their ancestors. God acted for the sake of his name, revealing himself to be deserving of unqualified trust. (Deuteronomy 4:20, 37, 38; 7:7-11; Ezekiel 20:4-10; 23:3, 8)

As for hardening, this occurred in connection with Pharaoh. The miraculous signs and the devastating plagues did not move him to yield and voluntarily allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. Instead, YHWH’s action produced a hardening response in Pharaoh, for he obstinately persisted in his defiant stance and refused to obey YHWH’s command respecting his people. (Exodus 5:2-9; 7:3, 9-13, 20-22; 8:5-32; 9:1-35; 10:1-27)

Again Paul anticipated an objection. “You will say to me, Why, then [not in all manuscripts], does he [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (9:19) If all is dependent on God and human merit is excluded when it comes to having his favor, why would he still find fault with the way in which individuals conduct themselves? No one is in any position successfully to oppose what he has purposed. When raising this objection, Paul did not here include the point about the choice that humans can make of either yielding to God’s will or setting themselves defiantly against it. The apostle’s development of the subject, however, does so by implication.

With personal merit not being the determining factor, someone might question God’s justice or fairness. All humans are flawed and so should not all be granted the same favorable treatment? Paul addressed this implied objection. “O man, who really are you to be talking back to God? Will the thing fashioned say to the one fashioning [it], Why have you made me this way? Or does not the potter have the right” to do what he wants with the clay, making both a vessel for noble purposes and one for ignoble or ordinary purposes from the same lump? (9:20, 21; compare Isaiah 29:16; 45:9.)

These questions suggest that, if God’s dealings with humans result in two very different kinds of vessels, this is not to be attributed to any injustice on his part. No human has any merit that would of necessity limit the kind of vessel or person the divine molding should produce. As the Maker or Potter, God deals according to his purpose, which is not dictated by humans, the “clay.”

The question Paul next raised is not grammatically complete. It does, though, set forth the nature of the divine molding process. God has every right to express his wrath and to reveal his great power, acting swiftly against those who deserve punishment. Instead, he has patiently put up with humans who have proved to be “vessels” deserving of wrath and fit for destruction. This patient endurance on his part has served his purpose to “make known the riches of his glory to vessels of mercy, which he has previously prepared for glory — us, whom he called not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles.” (9:22-24) In every generation that has passed since the first century CE, God’s patience with “vessels of wrath” or persons deserving to have his wrath expressed against them has provided the opportunity for individuals to respond, either hardening themselves in defiant unbelief or responding in faith to the provision he has made through his Son to be reconciled to him as his beloved children.

That divine patience serves as the molding process, providing an opportunity for individuals to submit in faith to God’s will or to resist it, is confirmed in the prophecy of Jeremiah. The prophet observed a potter reworking a spoiled vessel into another vessel that met his approval. The word of YHWH then came to Jeremiah, revealing the significance of what he had seen. “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.” (Jeremiah 18:2-10, NRSV)

The same reason for divine patience is found in 2 Peter 3:9. God is not slow about fulfilling his promise, but he is patient, not wanting anyone to be destroyed but desiring “all to come to repentance.”

It is to those who come to repentance that God extends mercy. They are the “vessels of mercy” or persons who come to be the recipients of divine compassion. To them, God has made known “the riches of his glory.” He is the possessor of matchless glory, dignity, or majesty and is in position lavishly to bestow blessings of incomparable grandeur. Nothing can equal sonship and the fatherly care and love that being part of his family includes. (9:23)

Paul could refer to “vessels of mercy” as having been “previously prepared for glory,” for God had determined beforehand that all who would come to be his approved children would share the glory of his unique Son who flawlessly reflects his image. (9:23)

The divine calling to be reconciled to him as his children had not been limited to a particular people or nation. The invitation had been extended not only to Jews but also to non-Jewish peoples (the “nations”). (9:24)

Paul backed up his statement regarding the divine calling from the Scriptures. He first quoted from Hosea, “I will call those [who are] not my people, ‘my people’; and her [who was] not beloved, ‘beloved.’” (Hosea 2:23[25]; Romans 9:25) “And it will be in the place, where it was said to them, ‘You [are] not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” (Hosea 1:10 [2:1], LXX; Romans 9:26)

Although the words of the quotation from Hosea 2:23(25) are not the same in Romans 9:25, they are in harmony with the message conveyed through the prophet. In the original setting, these words applied to the Israelites of the ten-tribe kingdom. As a result of their pursuit of idolatry and their disregard for God’s law, they were no longer God’s people and, in this respect, resembled the non-Jewish peoples. YHWH’s rejection of the unfaithful Israelites did not permanently cut them off from the possibility of being reconciled to him. By implication, this did not forever debar others who were not God’s people from coming to be such and so also objects of his love.

The part of Hosea (1:10 [2:1]), which is quoted in Romans 9:26, corresponds to the language of the Septuagint. In Hosea 1:10 (2:1), the Hebrew word maqóm and the corresponding Greek word tópos basically mean “place.” There is a strong possibility that the phrase “in the place” is being used idiomatically to mean “in the place of” or “instead of.” (See the Notes section for additional comments on Romans 9:26.)

The apparent application Paul made of Hosea 1:10 (2:1) relates to the Gentiles who formerly were not a part of God’s people (just as the idolatrous Israelites in the ten-tribe kingdom had ceased to be his people). Nevertheless, to the non-Jewish people, the opportunity would be extended to become “sons of the living God.”

Focusing on Israel, Paul quoted from Isaiah, “Though the number of the sons of Israel may be as the sand of the sea, [only] the remnant will be saved. For a word [the] Lord will carry out on earth, finishing and shortening [it].” In quoting from Isaiah 10:22, 23, Paul made it clear that one should not expect all who are Israelites by natural descent to become sharers in the blessings God has promised to his people. After the foretold exile, only a remnant of the far larger number of Israelites (likened to the sand of the sea) repentantly returned to YHWH. In keeping with past history, only a remnant would be saved and share in the inheritance of all whom God recognizes as his approved children. (9:27, 28; see the Notes section for additional comments on 9:28.)

To highlight the comparatively small number who would make up this remnant, Paul quoted from Isaiah 1:9, “If the Lord Sabaoth [Lord (YHWH, Masoretic Text and Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah) of hosts] had not left us a seed [survivors], we would have become like Sodom and made to resemble Gomorrah.” In the time of Isaiah, the enemy invaders decimated the population of Judah to such an extent that, had it not been for divine intervention, the destruction would have been as complete as that of Sodom and Gomorrah centuries earlier. (9:29)

Based on what he had presented, Paul raised the question, “What, then, shall we say?” The apparent thought is, What conclusion should be drawn from the record in the holy writings? People of the non-Jewish nations did not pursue the way of righteousness by striving to observe the law, for it had not been given to them. Yet, among them were those who attained righteousness or an approved standing with God “out of faith,” putting their trust in God and the provision he had made through his Son for their sins to be forgiven. (9:30)

Israelites, however, did pursue the “law of righteousness,” endeavoring to conform to it. Being the “law of righteousness,” its commands were right or just. As flawed humans, the Israelites did not “attain to the law,” for they were unable to live up to its requirements and to act in harmony with the purpose for which it had been given. (9:31)

Setting forth the reason for their failure, Paul explained that it was because of pursuing the law, “not out of faith, but “as out of works.” The source of the problem was that their efforts did not rely on faith in God. Their striving to observe the law did not have its origin in faith, but they relied on their own efforts, seeking to be divinely approved through conformity to the letter of the law.

This emphasis on the role of human effort proved to be an obstacle in recognizing their hopeless sinful state and looking to the provision God had made through his Son for forgiveness of their sins and the attainment of an acceptable standing before him. They, as Paul continued, “stumbled over the stone of stumbling,” the one Isaiah represented YHWH as laying in Zion, “Look! I am laying in Zion a stone [occasioning] stumbling and a rock [causing] falling, and the one believing on him will not be put shame.” (9:32, 33)

The quotation in Romans 9:33 is drawn in part from Isaiah 8:14 and Isaiah 28:16. YHWH would be a sanctuary or a place of true protection for those who would treat him as holy and who would have a wholesome fear of or reverential regard for him. At the same time, he would prove to be a stone causing stumbling to the Israelites who failed to put their trust in him. (Isaiah 8:13, 14) Likewise, Jesus Christ, the direct representative of his Father, became a stone occasioning stumbling to those who persisted in unbelief. He is the stone his Father laid in Zion (with Zion seemingly being representative of all Israel to which the Father sent his Son), the sure foundation on which all who become part of the family of approved children are built like stones that align with it. Their faith in him is expressed through loyal adherence to his example and teaching. No one putting faith, confidence, or trust in Jesus Christ as the stone laid in Zion will be put to shame. No one will experience the panic and humiliation that comes to those who see the object of their confidence shown up as unreliable.

Notes:

According to the literal Greek reading of Romans 9:5, the phrase, “Christ according to the flesh,” is followed by the words, “the [one] being over all, God, blessed into the ages. Amen.” Therefore, a number of translators have taken this to be a reference to Christ as being God over all. “Christ who is above all, God, blessed for ever. Amen.” (NJB) “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” (NIV) “They are the earthly family into which Christ was born, who is God over all. Praise him forever! Amen.” (NCV)

Nowhere in Paul’s letters, though, is Christ designated as God over all, and other translations are explicit in not linking the words to Christ. “May God, supreme above all, be blessed for ever! Amen.” (REB) “God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.” (NAB) “I pray that God, who rules over all, will be praised forever! Amen.” (CEV)

After his resurrection, Jesus Christ was granted all authority in heaven and on earth. (Matthew 28:18) So he could rightly be referred to as “being over all.” There is a possibility, therefore, that Romans 9:5 means that Christ is over all, with the expression of blessing applying to the Father (“Christ ... who is over all. [May] God be blessed forever. Amen.”) At other times, Paul directed similar expressions to God. (Romans 1:25; 7:25; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 9:15; Ephesians 1:3; 1 Timothy 1:17)

In Romans 9:26, the apostle Paul made use of Hosea 1:10 (2:1) to establish that persons who were once not God’s people would become “sons of the living God.” Therefore, whether “in the place” has reference to a literal place or the phrase signifies “instead of” is immaterial, for it has no direct bearing on the apostle’s development of the subject.

A number of translations have adopted the meaning “instead of” or omitted the reference to “place.” “Instead of being told, ‘You are ‘Not-My-People,’ they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God.” (Hosea 2:1, Tanakh) “They were called, ‘You are not my people,’ but later they will be called ‘children of the living God.’” (Hosea 1:10; Romans 9:26, NCV) Und es soll geschehen, anstatt dass man zu ihnen sagt: »Ihr seid nicht mein Volk«, wird man zu ihnen sagen: »O ihr Kinder des lebendigen Gottes!« (And it must occur, instead of one’s saying to them, “You are not my people,” one will be saying to them, “O you children of the living God!”) (Hosea 2:1, Luther, 1984 revision [German]) Und es soll geschehen: Anstatt dass zu ihnen gesagt wurde: »Ihr seid nicht mein Volk«, sollen sie Kinder des lebendigen Gottes genannt werden. (And it must occur: Instead of its having been said to them: “You are not my people,” they shall be called sons of the living God.) (Romans 9:26, Luther, 1984 revision [German])

If the term “place” is to be understood as designating a literal location, the meaning could be that, while the Israelites were in their land and engaged in idolatry, they ceased to be God’s people. Upon being restored to the land, a repentant remnant of Israelites would in that very “place” be called “sons of the living God.”

In Romans 9:28, numerous manuscripts contain an expanded reading that includes words found in the Septuagint text of Isaiah 10:22, 23. “For he is finishing and shortening a word [a sentence, an accounting, or a deed] in righteousness, because a shortened word [sentence, accounting, or deed] the Lord will carry out on the earth.” This may be understood to mean that, in executing justice, the Lord would completely and in a short time or quickly carry out his word respecting the inhabitants of the land. No protracted period would be involved in performing the deed that his word of warning had expressed. The Greek term for “word” (lógos) has often been rendered “sentence” (NAB, NJB, NRSV, REB) and can also refer to a thing or an act.