Updated: Apr 19, 2022
Romans 9:1-33 a short commentary
Daddy knows best
After the highs of chapter 8 we come to chapter 9 which is probably one of the least popular chapters in the bible. It is about God and how He does things. In this chapter Paul gives a defence of God’s ways and reminds us that we are not God. Some scholars refer to a defence of God’s ways as a ‘theodicy’ though this term is defined by different people in different ways. The main difficulty with this chapter is the doctrine of election in which God seems to have selected certain individuals for salvation but not others. This raises the doctrines of predestination and of non-selection (reprobation). This chapter challenges us to recognise that God is sovereign, and we must trust in His character which love, holiness and justice. Welcome to the spiritual ‘facts of eternal life’.
Paul’s Anguish Over Israel
9:1 I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race,4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! [a] Amen.
Paul unburdens his heart of the deep sorrow he feels for most of his fellow Jews who are cut off from Christ. It is perhaps difficult to imagine the intensity or depth of his anguish and perhaps the nearest we feel to this is when one of our nearest and dearest loved ones refuses to believe the Gospel and we fear for their eternal destiny. Paul makes it clear he would not lie about this and that the Holy Spirit confirms in Paul’s conscience that he is telling the truth. This deep sorrow and anguish in his heart is a daily ongoing heavy burden so much so that Paul declares that he would rather lose his own salvation (if that were possible-remember chapter 8) than see most of the Jews go to a lost eternity. What a heart for the lost! It is extremely hard for Paul accept the fact that God’s chosen people Israel who had all the greatest privileges given by God to any people on earth were now cut off from God. Even Jesus Christ on His mother’s side came from the patriarch David and yet the Jews were lost. How could the chosen race fail to respond to the love of God expressed through His Son Jesus Christ?
God’s Sovereign Choice
6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are his descendants are, they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” [b] 8 In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. 9 For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”c God’s spoken promise to Israel does not pertain to all Israel who were Jews ethnically speaking but only to those who are Abraham’s true seed i.e. to those who have like faith with Abraham. The true line ran through Isaac and Jacob whose offspring were ‘the children of promise’. So it is not all Abraham’s natural offspring who are the recipients of God’s promise but rather the supernatural offspring like Isaac whose mother was barren. God made a clear distinction between Isaac and Ishmael though they had the same father but different mothers.
10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad —in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” [d] 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” [e] Jacob and Esau had both the same father and the same mother and were conceived at the same time! This situation is a clear illustration of the sovereignty of Almighty God. Everything in this situation was down to God. God’s purpose in their lives is what counted. This does not mean that man has no responsibility to recognise that they have been chosen to believe the Gospel. We need to remember that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked and that God is not the author of sin. God chose Jacob but did not choose Esau.
14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” [f]
So is Almighty God being unfair to those He did not choose?
Perhaps the real question is why is it that God should choose to save anyone?
Our focus should not be on why those who are the non-elect were not chosen but rather on the mercy of God that any of us should be chosen to be saved and inherit eternal life through Jesus Christ. We were not chosen because of any special merit or because we were better in any way than those who were not chosen.
God’s holy and just character shows His election of some but not others cannot be in any way capricious or based on a whim. He is the potter, and we are the clay. It is not our job to put God in the dock as C S Lewis put it. It is entirely God’s call as to whom He chooses to show mercy to, and this fact is very unattractive to human nature. This is part of the ‘facts of life’ from God’s point of view and our opinion is not required.
16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” [g] 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
So being chosen by God is completely down to His mercies though we do need to choose to believe His Gospel and that He has chosen us. Paul further makes his point by giving the example from Exodus of how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. After six of the ten plagues sent by the Lord on the Egyptians God reminded Pharaoh that He could have struck all the Egyptians off the face of the earth but rather chose to show mercy although it was undeserved. God spared the Egyptians so He could continue to punish them thereby drawing attention to His power and greatness. God hardened something that was already in Pharaoh’s heart. You could say Pharaoh was ‘en route’ to a cruel decision with God simply making his desires more concrete! God knows best and yet how often we struggle to accept this!
19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” [h] 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
If you think all this is unfair then you fail to understand God’s will and character and that it is not the place of man to question his Creator. Is the Lord not the best judge of what to do next? He correctly makes distinctions between men raising them up or putting them down in the same way as a potter does with his clay vessels. We might not understand His actions and decisions, so we simply must trust that God knows best!
22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
God has always been extremely longsuffering with sinners even those who are headed for ultimate destruction. The plagues of Egypt whilst demonstrating His wrath on Pharaoh and his people also highlighted in contrast God’s great mercy to Israel as He delivered them out of bondage. The elect Jews and Gentiles are now one people in Jesus Christ.
25 As he says in Hosea:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” [i]
“In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’” [j]
God’s favour will be returned to a remnant of Israel and along with a contingent of the Gentiles. God told Hosea to buy back his wife who had cheated on him as an act of great mercy and in the same way here Paul is alluding to God taking back his unfaithful wife Israel as an act of great mercy. Israel has sinned and has been punished and a remnant of them will be restored to their covenant with God.
27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:
“Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.
The numbers of Israel were going to be greatly reduced by the then upcoming Assyrian invasion. The express ‘remnant’ also means ‘seed’.
28 For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.” [k]
29 It is just as Isaiah said previously:
“Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.”[l]
If it was not for God’s great mercy at various points in history by sparing a seed or remnant of Israel, then same type of judgement as He executed upon Sodom and Gomorrah would have been meant a total wipe out of Israel. God is not finished with Israel and has not totally rejected them.
30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.33 As it is written:
“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” [m]
What mercy God has shown to Jews and Gentiles alike in that it is by faith in Jesus Christ that persons of both groups are saved. The Gentiles were not particularly looking for salvation and the Jews were trying to earn their salvation by trying to keep the law. Jesus Christ is a stumbling block to those who refuse to believe in Him but those who put their trust in Him will never be put to shame in eternity.
Our focus must always be on God’s mercy to us and not on how He deals with the unbelievers and yet ever reaching out in evangelism to find those who are the chosen and elect of God.
Romans 9:5 Or Messiah, who is overall. God be forever praised! Or Messiah. God, who is over all, be forever praised!
Romans 9:7 Gen. 21:12
Romans 9:9 Gen. 18:10,14
Romans 9:12 Gen. 25:23
Romans 9:13 Mal. 1:2,3
Romans 9:15 Exodus 33:19
Romans 9:17 Exodus 9:16
Romans 9:20 Isaiah 29:16; 45:9
Romans 9:25 Hosea 2:23
Romans 9:26 Hosea 1:10
Romans 9:28 Isaiah 10:22,23 (see Septuagint)
Romans 9:29 Isaiah 1:9
Romans 9:33 Isaiah 8:14; 28:16
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