Romans 11:1-36

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After raising the question about whether God had rejected “his people” (“his inheritance,” according to third-century P46), Paul answered it with a strong denial, “Never may it be! For I, too, am an Israelite, from the seed [or offspring] of Abraham, [and] of the tribe of Benjamin.” (11:1; see the Notes section for additional comments.) He had been shown extraordinary divine favor while a persecutor of believers, with the resurrected Son of God personally revealing himself to him. (Acts 9:1-6; 1 Timothy 1:12-16) If God had rejected Israel as a whole, Paul may have been implying that he also would not have been shown mercy. Another possibility is that the apostle was horrified about the very suggestion that God had rejected his people, for he himself was a descendant of Abraham and an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin.

God had foreknown Israel before it ever came into existence as a people, and so it was inconceivable that he would reject the very people whom he had foreknown when Abraham and Sarah were still childless. (11:2; Genesis 15:2-5)

Widespread unbelief among the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might have suggested that God had rejected his people. The situation in the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel during the time of Elijah, however, reveals that this was not the case.

With a question, Paul called attention to Elijah’s pleading with God against Israel, “Lord, your prophets they have killed, your altars they have demolished, and I only am left, and they are seeking for my soul [life].” (11:2, 3; see the Notes section regarding 11:3.) According to his estimate of the situation, Elijah considered himself to be the only one remaining of God’s people among the ten northern tribes of Israel, and his death would mean that there would be no one left.

But what was the divine response? “I have left for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” (11:4) According to the account in 1 Kings 19 (3 Kings 19, LXX), the words about the seven thousand men followed a pronouncement of divine judgment that would be carried out through Hazael (the future king of Syria), Jehu (the future king of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel), and Elisha (the successor of Elijah as prophet). The implication is that those who had refused to engage in Baal worship would be spared. They continued to be persons whom YHWH considered as his own people, whereas he had rejected the others as meriting his wrath. (1 Kings 19:15-18 [3 Kings 19:15-18, LXX])

“Therefore,” on the basis of past history, Paul continued, “thus also now in the present time, there has come to be a remnant according to the gracious [divine] choice [literally, according to the choice of grace (or unmerited kindness or favor)].” Those who responded in faith to the message about Christ came to be the beneficiaries of divine favor. Among the many who persisted in unbelief, believers proved to be the remnant that God, in expression of his unmerited kindness, elected or chose to be his approved children. (11:5)

With the election or choosing being on the basis of God’s gracious favor, it was not dependent on works (literally, “out of works”); otherwise favor would cease to be favor. (11:6; see the Notes section.) For the divine choosing to have been based on “works” or law observance would have meant that this choosing could have been earned or merited. It would then not have been an expression of divine favor.

Paul raised the question, “What then?” He probably meant, What should we conclude from the evidence presented? “What Israel is seeking, this it did not attain, but the chosen ones did attain [it], and the rest were hardened.” (11:7)

Earlier, Paul mentioned that Israel sought to attain righteousness or a right standing before God based on law observance or personal merit. (9:30-33) As flawed humans, they could not succeed in faultlessly living up to the requirements of the law and so did not attain the right standing before God that they were seeking. Having responded in faith to the divine provision for having their sins forgiven on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice for them, the “chosen ones,” though, did obtain righteousness or a divinely approved standing. God graciously chose them as his beloved children because they responded to his way to be in an acceptable state before him. Those who persisted in unbelief, rejecting the divine arrangement for attaining a divinely approved standing, were hardened. They continued to be unresponsive to the appeal to become reconciled to God through Christ.

To describe the hardened state, Paul used expressions from Deuteronomy 29:4, Isaiah 29:10, and Psalm 69:22, 23 (68:23, 24, LXX, which words of the psalmist he attributed to David). “God has given them a spirit of drowsiness, eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear, until this very day.” (11:8) In their unresponsive state, the unbelievers proved to be in a condition comparable to deep sleep. Though they had eyes, they could not see or perceive God’s will for them, and their ears proved to be deaf insofar as responsive listening was concerned.

“And David says, ‘Let their table become a snare and a trap and a stumbling block and a retribution for them. Let their eyes be darkened that they may not see, and always bend down their back.’” (11:9, 10) This quotation from Psalm 69:22, 23 (68:23, 24, LXX), although differing in word order, reflects the reading of the extant Septuagint text. The “table” would be representative of whatever they regarded as desirable for food and drink or what would be essential for their well-being. The psalmist’s appeal was that everything to which his enemies looked to benefit them would actually harm them. Similarly, in the case of those who persisted in unbelief, their pursuit of righteousness according to their own choosing actually led to their spiritual injury. They remained blind to God’s way. Instead of enjoying the freedom of God’s beloved children, they remained enslaved to sin (comparable to having their backs bowed down in servitude).

In the first century CE, the majority of the Jews did not respond in faith to the message about Christ. So Paul raised the question, “Did they stumble so that they might fall?” Was their stumbling in unbelief of such a nature that recovery would be impossible (as would be the case with persons who stumble, fall, and injure themselves so seriously that they are unable to get up)? The apostle answered the question emphatically, “May it never be!” He saw the “misstep” of his fellow Jews as leading to a spiritual benefit for the non-Jews. The result for believing Gentiles proved to be salvation and served to incite unbelieving Jews to jealousy. (11:11)

The “misstep” of the majority of the Jews meant that the first Jewish believers began to focus more attention on making known the message about Christ to Gentiles, with positive results in major cities of the Greco-Roman world. Non-Jews who responded in faith ceased to be dead in trespasses and sins and thus were saved or delivered from a state of condemnation. By God’s gracious favor, they came to be his free children, leading upright lives as persons no longer enslaved to sinful ways. Their manner of life gave evidence of an inner joy and a sense of well-being from being confident of God’s loving care and concern for them. (Compare Acts 8:1-8; 11:19-26; 13:44-49; 14:27; 15:3; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 2:1-7, 11-22.)

The tremendous change that faith in Christ had brought about in the lives of Gentile believers would not escape the attention of unbelieving Jews and, in time, would move godly ones among them to recognize the enviable spiritual state Gentile believers enjoyed. This would serve to incite them to jealousy or to look upon the faith that had so greatly benefited non-Jewish believers as also being highly desirable for them.

The misstep of the majority of the Jews in failing to put faith in Christ resulted in “riches for the world” and their decrease “riches for the Gentiles.” The priceless treasure of coming to be God’s approved children and all the blessings associated therewith made all other riches pale in value. Since a misstep on the part of the majority of the Jews had brought such a great treasure to the world and made it possible for non-Jewish believers to be spiritually enriched beyond measure, “how much more will their fullness” mean! The inclusion of the full number of the godly Jewish remnant in the community of Jewish and non-Jewish believers would result in a great enrichment of this corporate body. (11:12)

With these expressions about his fellow Jews, Paul did not intend to minimize his mission to the Gentiles. As the apostle to the Gentiles, he addressed non-Jewish believers, telling them that he “glorified” his ministry. (11:13) Paul highly valued having been personally entrusted by Jesus Christ to serve in this capacity. (Compare Acts 22:17-21; 26:12-18; 1 Timothy 1:12-14.)

At the same time, the apostle deeply cared about fellow Jews and his desire was that, through his ministry, he might be able to incite some of them to the kind of jealousy that would move them to put faith in Jesus Christ, resulting in their salvation or their deliverance from sin and condemnation. (11:14)

On account of unbelief, Paul’s fellow Jews did not possess the approved standing before God that faith in Christ had made possible. Accordingly, their unbelief had led to divine rejection. Their rejection, though, had resulted in an extensive proclamation of Christ in the Gentile world, with many responding in faith and coming to be reconciled to God as beloved children. Thus the rejection of the Jews meant reconciliation for the Gentile world. (11:15)

Regarding future acceptance of the Jews, the apostle added that it would signify “life from the dead.” (11:15) The context does not clarify in what sense the acceptance of the Jews would mean life from the dead. Paul may have thought of their responding in faith to Jesus Christ as a resurrection from the state of being dead in sin. This would parallel Jesus’ own words, “Whoever hears my word and believes the one who sent me has eternal life, and is not condemned but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) That the changed course resulting from repentance is comparable to a resurrection is reflected in the words Jesus had the father of the prodigal son say, “This son of mine was dead but has come to life again.” (Luke 15:24)

Commenting on the reason for a future believing response among the Jews, Paul continued, “If, however, the firstfruits [are] holy, [so] also [is] the lump [from which the firstfruits were taken]; and if the root [is] holy, [so] also [are] the branches.” (11:16) The initial number of Jews who became believers proved to be the firstfruits. They were Israelites in the true sense of the word who were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah and so were part of the people whom God had chosen as his own.

As Paul had emphasized earlier, not all who are natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are truly “Israel.” (9:6) This suggests that the holy “lump” designates the godly members of the Jewish nation who, like Paul prior to his encounter with the risen Christ, had not accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah and the unique Son of God.

The forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob proved to be the “holy root.” The branches springing from that “holy root” would likewise be holy. These branches would be the descendants of Abraham whom he would be able to recognize as his children on the basis of their faith in God and his promises. (11:16)

Gentile believers, though, did not have any valid basis for being proud about their standing before God. On account of their unbelief, Jews who had a direct link to the holy root proved to be like branches of an olive tree that were broken off. Gentiles, on the other hand, did not spring from the same root, with their situation being comparable to that of branches from a wild olive tree which had been grafted in among the branches of the cultivated variety. (11:17)

Thus the Gentile believers came to share the “fatness” or richness of the “root” of the olive tree. (11:17; see the Notes section for additional comments.) They participated fully with Jewish believers in all the privileges and blessings associated with the root. These privileges and blessings were primarily linked to Jesus Christ and what he accomplished when laying down his life in sacrifice, for he, according to the flesh, had come from the line of Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, and Judah.

Therefore, Gentile believers should not be boasting about their standing in relation to what had happened to the Jewish “branches” because of unbelief. The Gentile “branches” were not the bearers of the root, and it was not from them that all the branches received nourishment. Instead, they were dependent on the root from which all that was essential became available through Christ. (11:18) This harmonizes with Jesus’ own words to a Samaritan woman, “We [Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22)

Paul’s next words appear to highlight why certain ones among the Gentile believers felt justified in boasting. “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” (11:19)

While that was indeed the case, Paul pointed to the reason for this. On account of their unbelief or the failure to express faith, many Jews were like branches broken off from the olive tree. In the case of the Gentiles, they were standing by faith. The position of the Gentiles in the olive tree was solely attributable to their faith in Christ and the forgiveness of sins made possible through his sacrificial death. Accordingly, Gentile believers had no valid grounds for an exalted view of their situation. Instead, they were to have a wholesome fear of losing their place in the olive tree by succumbing to a loss of faith. (11:20)

Paul warned the non-Jewish believers about how serious this would be. “For since God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” Unbelieving Jews were not shielded from divine judgment, and neither would Gentile believers if they succumbed to a loss of faith. (11:21)

The development involving Jewish unbelievers and non-Jewish believers revealed the “kindness and severity of God.” He dealt with severity toward Jews who fell in unbelief but expressed kindness toward Gentile believers. To continue being recipients of God’s kindness, they needed to maintain their faith. Through faith, they entered the realm of God’s kindness and, by faith, they remained in it. Loss of faith would signify ceasing to be favored with God’s kindness and being lopped off from the olive tree. (11:22) If, on the other hand, unbelieving Jews became believers, they would be grafted in, for God is the one having the power “to graft them in again.” (11:23)

Addressing non-Jewish believers, Paul continued, “If you were cut from an olive tree that is wild by nature and, contrary to nature, were grafted into the cultivated olive tree, how much more so will these who are [natural branches] be grafted back into their own olive tree!” (11:24) Former unbelief would not prevent believing Jews from again coming to be branches in the olive tree to which they originally belonged.

Paul wanted his non-Jewish brothers or fellow believers not to remain ignorant of a “mystery” so as to avoid considering themselves wiser than they were in relation to the Jews because of their unbelief. Explaining this mystery, Paul added, “A hardening in part has occurred to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in and thus all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come a deliverer, and he will turn away impiety from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” (11:25-27)

It appears that, as earlier in Paul’s letter (9:6), “Israel” designates all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who have faith in God and his promises. In this Israel, a partial hardening has taken place, for not all were unresponsive to the message about Jesus Christ. Throughout the centuries, Jews have become his loyal disciples. The apostle, though, appears to have looked forward to the time when the partial hardening would end. This would be after the “fullness of the Gentiles” had come in or after they had become part of the “olive tree.” Seemingly, the proclamation of the glad tidings about Christ would then no longer result in more non-Jews coming to be believers. At that time, though, all those whom God regarded as Israel would come to believe in his Son. With these new Jewish believers coming to be part of the “olive tree” having both Jewish and non-Jewish branches, all that is truly Israel would be saved. (11:25, 26)

Paul did not explain just how this would take place, but he based his comments regarding the mystery on words from Isaiah 59:20, 21, and 27:9. The promised deliverer from Zion refers to the Messiah. This suggests that Christ’s return in glory may provide the opportunity for Jewish believers in God and his promises to accept him, and he, in his capacity as deliverer, would then remove impiety from Jacob. (11:26; see the Notes section.) This impiety may be their former unbelief. (Compare 1 Timothy 1:12, 13, where Paul describes his own situation before he became a believer.)

Isaiah 59:21 refers to God’s covenant with Israel, and Isaiah 27:9 (LXX) includes the words, “when I take away his sin.” It may be that Paul (11:27) also had in mind the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) when he chose to express the thought of the Scriptures with words from Isaiah 59:21 and 27:9.

With reference to the then-existing situation among the majority of the Jews, the apostle noted that, respecting the glad tidings, they were enemies for the sake of the non-Jews. This is because their unresponsiveness opened the door to faith in Jesus for the Gentiles to an extent that otherwise would not have been possible. On the basis of divine election or choosing, the Jews were beloved on account of their forefathers. (11:28) This did not change because so many of them persisted in unbelief, for God has no regrets in connection with his gracious gifts and calling. (11:29)

Paul reminded his non-Jewish brothers that they, too, had formerly been disobedient to God but had been shown mercy because of the disobedience of the Jews. (11:30) The unresponsiveness of the Jews had worked out as a blessing for the Gentiles. They became recipients of divine mercy upon embracing in faith the good news about Christ that was proclaimed to them.

Regarding his unbelieving Jewish brothers, Paul said, “Thus also they now have disobeyed with [resultant] mercy to you, that also they now [omitted in numerous manuscripts] may be shown mercy.” (11:31; see the Notes section.) Initial unbelief would not prevent Jews from becoming believers and being shown mercy as forgiven children of God.

Both Jews and non-Jews can have divine mercy extended to them. “For God has confined all in disobedience, that he might be merciful to all.” (11:32) He allowed both Jews and non-Jews to choose their own paths and to disregard his ways. Thus as disobedient persons, possessing no merit on their own, he can show them his mercy when they repent of their ways and put faith in his Son and the deliverance from sin he effected through his sacrificial death.

God’s gracious dealings with Jews and non-Jews prompted Paul to express praise, “O the depth of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable [are] his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (11:33)

The riches in the form of mercy and gracious favor extended to sinful humans are incomprehensible. The wisdom and knowledge reflected in the outworking of his loving purpose for the human family are of incomparable greatness. His judgments give evidence of the kind of impartial justice that defies analysis. The ways in which he handles matters are humanly incomprehensible.

Paul backed up his expressions with words from Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11 (or 41:2[3]). “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become his counselor? Or who has first given to him and will have it recompensed to him [the giver]?” (11:34, 35; see the Notes section.)

No human has the capacity to grasp God’s mind. No one is in a position to give him any counsel or advice. As the Creator and Owner of everything, there is no gift that any human could present to him and, on that basis, be entitled to a repayment.

Everything exists “from him,” for he is the ultimate source. “Through him,” all things are sustained. They exist “for him,” serving his purpose. (11:36)

Rightly he deserves having “glory” or the greatest praise ascribed to him. That is how Paul felt, saying, “To him [be] the glory forever [literally, into the ages]. Amen [So be it].” (11:36)


Paul’s question (11:1) and his comment that God did not reject his people (11:2) reflect the language of Psalm 94:14 (93:14, LXX). The Septuagint reads, “Because the Lord will not reject his people, and he will not leave his inheritance.” This inclusion of “inheritance” may explain why the word replaces “people” in third-century P46 in Romans 11:1. The reading “people,” however, has the stronger manuscript support and is more likely to be original.

Romans 11:3 is not an exact quotation of 1 Kings 19:10, 14 (3 Kings 19:10, 14, LXX), but accurately conveys the thoughts Elijah expressed.

In Romans 11:6, many later manuscripts add, “But if it is from [literally, out of] works, it is no longer favor; otherwise work is no longer work.”

The oldest extant manuscript (P46) does not include the word “root” in Romans 11:17. It reads, “sharers of the fatness of the olive tree.”

In Romans 11:26, the quoted words are nearly identical to the reading of Isaiah 59:20 in the extant Septuagint text.

According to the literal Greek, Romans 11:31 reads, “Thus also these now have disobeyed to your mercy, that also they now might be shown mercy.” The preceding verse attributes the opportunity for mercy extended to the Gentiles to the disobedience of the Jews. So it would appear preferable to regard “to your mercy” as meaning to the resultant mercy shown to the Gentiles. Accordingly, just as mercy was extended to the disobedient Gentiles, mercy would be shown to the disobedient Jews. “So now they also have been disobedient at a time when you are receiving mercy; so that to them too there may now be mercy.” (Weymouth)

Some have interpreted this to mean that, through the mercy of believing Gentiles expressed by their sharing the glad tidings about Christ, Jews would be assisted to become believers. This appears to be less likely, as such a development would not particularly be associated with the time the “fullness” of the Gentiles would be brought in.

The wording of Romans 11:34 is closer to that of the Septuagint in Isaiah 40:13 than to the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah. The Septuagint reads, “Who has known the mind of the Lord, and who has become his counselor? Who will instruct him?” The Masoretic Text says, “Who has assessed the spirit of YHWH, and who as his counselor has instructed him?” Numerous translators have understood the expression for “assessed” to mean “directed,” but the basic meaning of the word is “measure,” “calculate,” “estimate,” or “take the proportion of.” The pronoun “him,” with which the question ends, refers to YHWH. In the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, however, the pronoun is feminine and applies to the “spirit.”

Translators have often departed from the reading of the Masoretic Text for Job 41:2, 3, or 11 (depending on how the verses are numbered). The literal reading of the Masoretic Text is closer to the wording of Romans 11:35 than is the extant text of the Septuagint. A literal reading of the Masoretic Text is, “Who has anticipated me that I should repay him?” The term here rendered “anticipated” has, on the basis of Romans 11:35, been regarded as meaning to be first with the giving of a gift, but the word can also denote “confronted.” The meaning “confronted” may explain why the Septuagint contains the Greek word for “resist” and thereafter differs from the reading of the Masoretic Text, “Who will resist me and endure ...?”