Paul begins Romans 9 by sharing his heartbreak over the lost condition of his fellow Israelites (vs. 1-5). Israel had been adopted as God’s special people, and as such had received the covenants, the law, the promises, and the patriarchs. It was from their race that the Messiah would come. In spite of all of this they rejected God. As Paul later put it, they stumbled over Christ (vs. 33). How could the people of God who had received so much fail to receive the salvation provided in Christ? Had God failed to do what he promised?
Paul deals with this in the next section (vs. 6-13). The word of God had not failed because not all of ethnic Israel is the Israel of God (vs. 6). He first illustrates this in the life of Abraham (vs. 6-9). The Lord made a covenant with Abraham promising that he would make him a great nation and bless him, so that he would be a blessing. This included blessing the entire earth through the coming Messiah (vs. Gen 12:2-3). Abraham fails to trust God and fathers Ishmael with Hagar, his wife’s slave. However, God tells Abraham that it is by Isaac that the promise will be fulfilled (Gen 12:12, Romans 9:7).
While the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants, not all of them are included. The children of the flesh, the descendants of Ishmael, are not the children of God. It is the children of the promise that are the true offspring. Paul’s point is that simply having Abraham as their ancestor, did not qualify the Jews to belong to the Israel of God. The people who, like Abraham, exercise faith are the ones counted righteous (Romans 4:3-5).
Paul further explains this through the life of Jacob and Esau (vs. 10-13). Rebecca conceived twins and before they were born she and Isaac were told that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). This was totally contrary to their culture, and would have been very shocking. Paul says that God did this so that his purpose of election might continue. Before either boy could do anything to merit God’s favor, God chose to bless Jacob.
Again he is illustrating that not all the descendants of Abraham are of the true Israel. He drives this point home by quoting Malachi 1:2-3 “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated.” Some scholars try to soften this statement and say it simply means God “loved Esau less” than Jacob. First, we can quite simply note it says he hated Esau not loved him less. Second, Malachi 1:2-5 makes this view impossible. God says he has utterly destroyed the descendants of Esau and they will be called ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’ So, from the womb, before birth, God determined that he would love Jacob and hate Esau. This was not based on any works, including faith, but simply on the call, or choice, of God.
Paul is stating that the Lord has kept his promise because the remnant, the true Israel, is being redeemed while the remainder of ethnic Israel continues in rejection. He anticipated the Israelites shock so he asks “Is there injustice on God’s part” (vs. 14) and proceeds to address this issue (vs.14-18). First, he quotes Exodus 33:19 to address this concern. In this passage Moses has been commanded to lead the people out of Sinai, but the Lord says he will not go with them. This is because they are stiff necked and if God goes with them he will consume them (Ex 33:3). Moses intercedes on their behalf and God tells him “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and compassion on whom I have compassion” (v 15). Regarding this passage, Paul states that God’s display of mercy has nothing to do with human will or deeds but simply on God’s choice to show mercy.
Further, Paul points to Pharaoh in Exodus 9. Through Moses the Lord tells him about the coming of the seventh plague. The Lord says that he could have already destroyed the Egyptians (Ex 9:15) and freed the Israelites. Instead, he hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he might raise him up to demonstrate his power and that his name would be proclaimed (Ex 9:16, Rom 9:17). Again, Paul says it is God who has mercy on whom he wishes and hardens whom he wishes.
Expecting objections Paul asks “Why does he still find fault?” Certainly, we respond in the same way. How could God be just in finding fault when he hardens some for judgment and exercises mercy on others solely based on his calling? Paul’s response is very significant (vs. 19-29). He offers no explanation of this seeming injustice or contradiction. Instead he asks, who are we to question God? Just as the clay has no right to question the potter who shapes it as he wills, we have no right to question the one who created us (vs. 20-21).
It is God’s prerogative to create vessels as he sees fit, some to display his wrath and others to display his mercy (vs. 22-23). Surprisingly for the Jews, the Gentiles are found among those vessels called to display God’s mercy (vs. 24). This is shown through multiple Old Testament passages. The first passage is Hosea 2:23. In its original context, it refers to Israel, but here the Holy Spirit inspires Paul to apply it to the Gentiles. The second passage is from Isaiah. The prophet speaks to how the Lord preserved a remnant (Rom 9:27, Is 10:22, 23) otherwise the people of God would have been destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah (Rom 9:29, Is 1:9). Thus the word of God has not failed because he has preserved a remnant of ethnic Israel and added the elect of the Gentiles. These two make up the true Israel of God.
Paul closes out the chapter rather unexpectedly. He does not use the sovereignty of God and his election to absolve the Israelites of responsibility. He says the Gentiles have attained righteousness by faith, but Israel failed to attain it because they pursued the law of righteousness by works (vs. 30-32). They have stumbled over Christ. That is they rejected the righteousness of Christ that was made available to them through faith. They chose to remain under the law and will therefore be judged by the law. It is only in Christ that we can receive the righteousness of the law, because only he has fulfilled the law. Somehow God’s sovereign election does not diminish man’s responsibility.
This is a difficult chapter and we often don’t like it because we look at it from the wrong perspective. Just as Paul anticipated, our response is to say if this is true then God is unjust and unloving. This goes against his nature. However, this response reveals a major oversight on our part. We must remember that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), and none are righteous (Rom 3:10). Therefore, all deserve wrath and God is not obligated to save any. God does no injustice when he allows unrighteous people to persevere in their rejection or even when in judgment he hardens their hearts further.
However, God is exceedingly merciful when he chooses to intervene and call some of those unrighteous into saving faith. Admittedly, these are difficult truths but we are not called to justify God in them. We are called to humbly submit to them and rejoice in the undeserved mercy we have received. Further, far from quenching our evangelistic zeal, these truths should lead us to respond as Paul did in Rom 1: 2-3 and 10:1.