BUT WHAT ABOUT ISRAEL?
I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. Romans 9:1-2
It is amazing how Paul could move from the most profound joy of chapter 8 to the most profound sorrow of chapter 9. When he looked at Christ he was filled with joy but when he looked at Israel, his own people, he was filled with sorrow. 1 In fact, there is such an abrupt transition between these chapters that some have felt them unnatural and disconnected from the theme of Romans. However, we must remember what we have said previously in chapters 1-4, about the importance of Israel and the Jewish people in Paul’s gospel. We can then understand how chapters 9, 10 and 11 are absolutely necessary and germane to the epistle. Although Paul was apostle to the Gentiles, yet the Gentile church he was founding could never be complete without Israel (cf. Eph. 3:6). In fact, it would be the Gentile church that would ultimately make Israel jealous enough to accept the Lord Jesus (Rom. 10:19).
There may have been other factors involved here. Paul’s countrymen had great difficulty accepting him and his ministry to the Gentiles. It is possible that some of the Jewish church members in Rome had similar feelings about Paul. No doubt he was anxious to convince them that he was not just pro-Gentile but pro-Jewish as well.
Finally, there was the imagined problem with God and his ability to maintain a covenant. Paul has just made some astounding claims about the security of the believer under the New Covenant in Romans 8. Yet, someone could surely object that if God could not maintain the Old Covenant with the Jews perhaps he would not be able to maintain the New Covenant with the Gentiles. Obviously, the character of God was at stake
for some. 2
“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race” (9:3). Cursing (anathema) in Israel was a rather common idea, but a severe one. We remember how Achan was cursed for coveting and taking to himself some sacred items during the battle of Jericho (Josh. 7:1ff.). Since the sacred items were devoted to God for utter destruction, Achan, his family and all his possessions were totally destroyed by the people of Israel. The meaning of anathema always contains the ideas of being doomed, devoted to destruction, cursed, or in this case being cut off from Christ. 3
This passage reminds us of the great leader Moses who said a similar thing concerning Israel. He cried to God: “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exo. 32:31-32).
Paul continues to speak of “the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (9:4-5). As Paul mentioned earlier in the epistle, the Jewish people are endowed with many benefits. Here he mentions several spiritual privileges. First of all they are sons of God as we see in a number of places in the Bible (Exo. 4:22; Hos. 1:10; 11:1). They have also beheld the divine glory or the Shekinah (Exo. 16:10; 24:16-17; 29:43). This is something that so few faith people have experienced over the many centuries. It must have been a great encouragement for the Israelites to be led in their many journeys by a supernatural pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exo. 13:21). God was present with them for all to see.
The Jewish people also possessed the covenants, those made with the patriarchs and with Israel, for instance, the covenant of circumcision. Also, no other people on earth had ever received a law from the hands of God. No other people on earth had enjoyed a divinely instituted Temple and its system of worship. No other nation before them had personally received God’s sacred promises, or enjoyed God-led patriarchs. But most of all, it was to Israel and Israel alone that the Christ or Messiah was initially revealed. What a special position Israel enjoyed with God. In Psalm 147:19-20 it is written: “He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws. Praise the LORD.”
With his earlier statement “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen,” Paul openly declares that Christ is God. There are several other places in scripture where Christ is alluded to as God, such as in John 1:1, and Colossians 2:9.4
DID GOD MAKE A MISTAKE?
It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Romans 9:6
Now the Lord introduces us to the mystery of the “remnant.” Without some understanding of this very deep and profound mystery it would be impossible for us to make sense of God’s dealing with Israel and even with the church for that matter. No, God did not make a mistake. He does not make mistakes because he knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10). No matter how bad it looks for Israel or the church, God’s plan has not failed. The secret is that all the descendants of Israel are not of Israel. They never were. God has always had his faithful remnant. Even in the dark days of Elijah when the prophet thought he was the last true Israelite on earth, God reminded him that there was still a faithful remnant of 7000 in Israel who had not bowed to Baal or kissed his image (1 Ki. 19:18).
“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’” (9:7). Keener remarks about this that most Jewish people believed themselves saved, contrasting themselves with the Gentiles. Of course, they would have seen their salvation as beginning with the choice of Abraham. He points out how Paul makes clear that mere ethnicity cannot be proper grounds for salvation, and that this is taught by numerous Old Testament texts, such as Numbers 14:22–23; Deuteronomy 1:34–36; and Psalm 95:8–11. 5 Stott goes on to state this principle with great simplicity: “There have always been two Israels, those physically descended from Israel…on the one hand, and his spiritual progeny on the other.”6
We see in the above scripture passage that this spiritual progeny began at the outset of Israel’s history with Isaac being chosen rather than Ishmael. Of course, Ishmael was supposed to have had the birthright and numerous rich spiritual blessings from his father Abraham. God decided otherwise and chose Isaac, the seed of promise, to be the heir. Had God not made this choice the patriarchal list would have read Abraham, Ishmael, etc., etc.
“In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (9:8). Edwards remarks: “Herein lie the seeds of the idea of the remnant…. Obviously what constitutes Israel is not biological generation, but the supernatural endowment of God’s promise.”7 Abraham had waited in faith until he was one-hundred years old and his wife Sarah was ninety. It was at that impossible age that Isaac was finally born. God’s heritage works by faith as Paul has pointed out many times already in Romans.
As Christians this should not surprise us in the least. Our Christian lives also operate from faith to faith, and our lives also are based upon God’s promises. We cannot fail to draw out some conclusions for us as well as for Israel. God still operates on the concept of a faithful, holy remnant that he himself chooses. We see this in the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:14: “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Jesus also gives us this warning in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Then there are Jesus’ words in his final hours: “I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen…” (Jn. 13:18). We must remember that in the midst of the masses of so-called Christianity today God maintains a faithful and holy remnant for himself.
Paul continues regarding Israel: “For this was how the promise was stated: ‘At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son’” (9:9). Due to the greatly advanced ages of Abraham and Sarah this promise was almost laughable and in fact, Sarah did laugh (Gen. 18:15). Although the Lord rebuked her for laughing, it is interesting that the child was later named “Isaac” which means “laughter.” Little Isaac was therefore the child of promise and God chose him over the natural born and firstborn Ishmael to be the faith heir.
Now the choice of Isaac might seem to be a sensible one from the physical perspective. Ishmael had the disposition of a wild man and a man whose hand was always against all his brothers. He was also a man filled with hostility (Gen. 16:12). Isaac seemed to be a quieter sort who apparently spent time meditating on the things of God (Gen. 24:63). Ishmael also had an ignominious birth, being the son of Abraham’s slave woman, Hagar. So, this choice by God might make some sense. However, the next choice makes no sense at all. Let us look at it.
“Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac” (9:10). When God made a sovereign choice over Isaac and Rebekah’s children, both were still in the womb. They had both been fathered by Isaac and conceived by Rebekah. They were both obviously in the faith line and in the covenant heritage. Esau who was born first should have been the logical choice for the faith heir of Isaac.
“Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (9:11-12). We can understand that God is speaking in terms of the spiritual and not the physical. We remember that Jacob never did exercise any power over his brother Esau in the physical sense, and that Esau was never really subject to him. However, regarding the special spiritual covenant with Israel, Jacob exercised immense authority over Esau and his heirs as is mentioned much later in Malachi 1:1-4.
Paul concludes: “Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated…’” (9:13). This seemingly harsh statement is not really palatable to the western mind today. But actually this statement is not as harsh as it seems. The word for “hate” (miseō) means to love to a lesser degree as used here. The basic idea is, “Jacob I loved, but Esau, I loved less.”8 The very same word miseō is used in Luke 14:26, where Jesus says to those who would follow him: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” Again the same root word is used in John 12:25, where Jesus says: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for
We must understand that God’s choices are not based upon some whim of his but upon his great redemptive purposes for the earth. We get some idea of how those redemptive purposes might have worked out had Esau been the chosen one. Many centuries later the newborn Messiah from Abraham’s line was hotly pursued by an enraged king. The pursuer, King Herod, was so insistent upon destroying the baby Jesus that he had all the young male children in the Bethlehem area murdered (Matt. 2:16). We know from history that King Herod was not actually of Jewish descent but was of Idumean of Edomite origin. Of course, the Edomites were the descendants of Esau.
IS GOD UNJUST?
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Romans 9:14-15
Not only is God not unjust, but he is scrupulously fair in his dealings with human beings. However, his ways are far beyond our comprehension. God , the Creator of the Universe, is free to show mercy and compassion on whomever he chooses. Paul adds to this: “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (9:16). It is clear that no human being is worthy of this mercy and compassion. Guzik has remarked that “Mercy is not getting what we do deserve.”9 Rather than our grumbling about the Lord’s mercy which is shown to some and not shown to others, we should rejoice that God has seen fit to show mercy on anyone at all.
“For the 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’” (9:17). God’s dealing with Pharaoh some 3500 years ago is one of the classic dramas of all times. Although some today may be offended regarding God’s actions toward Pharaoh, we must realize that this is a most important and crucial epic in salvation history. Through God’s actions with Pharaoh his elect people Israel were delivered out of slavery and from probable destruction. This event became a type and pattern of our salvation. So because of God’s actions with this stubborn monarch, multiplied millions have come to know and experience God’s saving grace.
“Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” (9:18-19). When we look closely into the story we realize that God is not really to blame for Pharaoh’s hard heart. According to someone’s count this hardening process concerning Pharaoh is mentioned at least fifteen times in Exodus chapters 7—14. Keener explains how it is clear that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as seen in Exodus 9:12, 35; 10:27 and 11:10. However, this was not before Pharaoh had hardened his own heart in Exodus 7:22; 8:15, 32. 10 Thus man is responsible for his sin and perdition and not God. In Ezekiel 18:23, God asks: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways
It seems that Paul is actually quite indignant with one who would make such a complaint as this in the first place. He asks: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”(9:20). Osborne remarks: “Paul challenges the legitimacy of this complaint. He is saying not that there is no answer, but rather that there is no right to ask such a thing.”11 Who are we as little clay pots to question the potter on his intentions and wisdom in making pots? Stott says here: “Refusing to allow God to be God, they even attempt to reverse roles, as if the potter had become the pot and the pot the potter.”12
Paul asks: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (9:21). The potter has the right to make whatever he wishes. He can make a pot that would grace the table of kings or he can make a chamber pot for carrying out wastes for the very poor. The clay has absolutely no say in the matter. This picture is no doubt taken from Jeremiah 18:1-6, where the prophet was instructed to visit the potter’s house. He saw how the potter could take a marred vessel and reshape into an entirely different one. The message for the House of Israel was that God could do as he wished with them and they were simply clay in the potter’s hands (cf. Isa. 45:9; 64:8). Barnes adds that “nowhere is there to be found a more cutting or humbling reply to the pride of man than this.”13
“What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 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 — ” (9:22-23). It appears here that God continues to tolerate those who are evil, not ending the world immediately, for the sake of those who are being saved. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come
In the celebration of the Jewish Passover as the plagues upon Egypt are considered it is customary for participants to pour a drop of wine from their cup at the mention of each plague. This is meant to be an expression of sorrow for the Egyptians who were slain in order that Israel could be delivered. The Bible says, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life” (Isa. 43:4). God’s strange acts of rejecting some people cannot be understood except by his redemptive choice and plan of showing mercy to others. Obviously it was horrible that Pharaoh’s whole army was destroyed in the sea. However, it was a wonderful result of grace that multiplied millions through the ages have been saved because of God’s deliverance of Israel.
GOD CHOOSES GENTILES
—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? Romans 9:24
No, God is not unfair in his dealings with men. We see here that God was not just interested in Israel being saved but he is also interested in Gentiles being saved. This deep mystery of Gentile salvation is hinted at throughout the Old Testament. In Bible times many Gentiles actually joined with his covenant people, but the New Testament makes clear that there is much more in store for believing Gentiles. We will get a better insight into this mystery in chapter 11 of this section, but let us consider some scriptures.
Paul quotes from a prophet to the northern ten tribes of Israel: “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,’ and, ‘It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God’” (9:25-26). It is interesting indeed that Paul uses prophetic scripture here which was explicitly spoken to the northern ten tribes of Israel and he applies this scripture directly to the Gentiles.
This would make very little sense if we did not understand some principles of how prophetic scripture is used and interpreted. Stott enlightens us: “In order to understand Paul’s handling of these texts, we need to remember that, according to the New Testament, Old Testament prophecies often have a threefold fulfillment. The first is immediate and literal (in the history of Israel), the second is intermediate and spiritual (in Christ and his church), and the third is ultimate and eternal (in God’s consummated kingdom).”14
Obviously, we are bumping up against mysteries that are too great for us to fully comprehend. For instance, there remains a great mystery of exactly how the literal “lost tribes” of Israel will ever be restored, although the Bible assures us that they will (Ezek. 37:16-22). They have been dispersed now for some 2700 years. In Israel today there is a great move on to bring these literal lost tribes back home. Many have already returned. Thousands have come from Ethiopia on massive airlifts. These Ethiopians through the centuries maintained a simple form of pre-Talmudic Judaism and claim to be from the tribe of Dan. On one occasion, 15,000 were flown home from Ethiopia in one weekend.
A good number who claim to be from the tribes have returned from India and other points. Of course, close to a million and a half Jews have returned from the scattered areas of the old Soviet Union since 1989. Some of these from the Caspian Sea area were known as Tats and traced their lineage back to the ten lost tribes. We will have to wait and see how God continues to handle all this in the immediate and literal sense. However, in the intermediate and spiritual sense we can be assured that multiplied millions of Gentiles have now joined together with Israel because of their salvation in Jesus the Messiah.
Now Paul goes back to the idea of Israel’s remnant that we mentioned earlier: “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved’” (9:27). The idea of the remnant in Israel is very old. We see an ancient type and pattern of this in Noah and his family. In that instance God brought a great flood destroying the whole world and all the people in it, but he left the holy remnant of Noah and his family. The prophets of Israel continued to develop this mystery. In the above passage Paul is quoting from Isaiah 10:22-23. We see other clear and important prophecies such as Amos 3:12 and Micah 2:12; 5:7-8, which also deal with the remnant. The idea of “remnant” is a popular subject particularly with Jeremiah. We see many other instances of the “remnant” idea in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai and Zechariah.
We are beginning to understand why the Book of Romans makes such an intense study for us. All through the book Paul is revealing great mysteries, one right after the other. Some of these have been hidden since the foundation of the world and now he opens them up to us. In pondering all this, Calvin once sighed: “If we wish fully to understand Paul, almost every word must be examined.”15
Actually the idea of the remnant is exceedingly complex. It is clear in scripture that the righteous “remnant” or “seed” of Abraham continued to contract until it ultimately became Christ alone. It then began to expand to include all those who are in Christ. 16 One of the critical scriptures for our understanding of this is found in Galatians 3:16. Here Paul says: “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” In the Hebrew language, unlike the English, the word “seed” can be designated singular or plural. In the verse to which Paul has reference, Genesis 22:18, it is surprisingly singular. So in Galatians 3:29 Paul sums it up: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
To all this Paul adds: “For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality” (9:28). It is probably for this reason that Jesus is so insistent in commanding us to “watch” (Mk. 13:37). It is clear from Jesus’ teaching that when end-time things begin to happen they will develop with alarming and amazing speed. We must be watching and ready just as the wise virgins of long ago (Mt. 25:1 ff.). In Revelation 1:1 we see the expression “what must soon take place.” It is interesting that the word for “soon” (en tachei) indicates a future event that is coming with suddenness or swiftness. It is from this term that we get our mechanical word “tachometer.”17 Here we are reminded of Zephaniah 1:14: “The great day of the LORD is near—near and coming quickly.”
Paul begins to conclude this section saying: “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’” (9:29). Here Paul in speaking of the remnant uses the word “descendants” (NIV). In the Greek this word is sperma and is translated “a seed” (singular in the Greek). We can see how true are Barrett’s words that the “remnant” [sarid] and the seed [sperma] were alike reduced to one in Christ. 18 Therefore if we are to be in Israel today it is necessary for us to be “in Christ.” All God’s eternal promises are summed up in him.
Outside of this covenant there is only disaster, disgrace and loss. Isaiah and Paul compare it with the great wastelands where the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah once stood. Today this area around the Dead Sea is barely habitable. This wasteland of sand and salt covers hundreds of square kilometers. It is the lowest inhabitable spot on earth (422 meters or 1,385 ft. below sea level), and is frequented by occasional Bedouin, camels, wild goats, a few leopards and some adventurous sunbathers lounging at the Dead Sea. It is one place on earth where the curse of Genesis seems especially evident.
ISRAEL STUMBLES OVER THE STONE
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Romans 9:30-31
What contradictory truths we seem to have here. Israel pursued righteousness in an almost fanatical manner over the many centuries but failed to attain it while the Gentiles didn’t pursue it at all and found it. As God says in Isaiah 65:1: “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’” Israel pursued righteousness through the law and the Gentiles who didn’t pursue it found it by simple faith in Jesus. As Jeremiah 23:6 has it: “This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.”
Paul asks why Israel could not attain righteousness: “Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the ‘stumbling stone’” (9:32). Sadly, “they sought the right goal by the wrong means.”19 Since Israel pursued righteousness by the law, the simple faith in Jesus the Messiah was a great stumbling block to her. Israel had many scriptures instructing her on the importance of faith. Among these were Habakkuk 2:4, Psalm 130, and Psalm 32. So instead of humbling herself and accepting God’s salvation she went stumbling over the rock of offense. 20
There was something about the concept of the stone or cornerstone that fascinated early Christians. We see references to it in many places in the New Testament, such as in Acts 4:11, Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Peter 2:4-6. Paul here strings some more of his pearls by weaving Isaiah 8:14 and Isaiah 28:16 together: “As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame’” (9:33).
We remember how Jesus referred to himself as “the cornerstone” (Mk. 12:10) and how others did the same (cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7). It is even thought that early Christians had some sort of “stone testimonium,” or a collection of Old Testament scriptures illustrating Christ as the stone.21 In Psalm 118:22-23 we read: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” It is interesting that Jesus used this passage to point to himself in some of his final discussions with the Jewish leaders (Matt. 21:42).
In Jerusalem along several of the roads which have heavy foot traffic as well as vehicular traffic, the municipality has erected a series of stone pillars. These are designed to keep vehicles from getting into the pedestrian’s lanes, as well as to keep pedestrians in the safe footpaths. Since these stone pillars are not quite knee-high, they sometimes serve as stumbling-blocks for the unwary. So, stones meant to guide and help people become their downfall. How strange it is that a stone meant to be the foundation stone of all the ages can end up being the stumbling block for the nation of Israel, both then and now. There is not another stone of foundation for Israel. As it is written in 1 Corinthians 3:11, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”