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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Romans 9

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-33

Chapter 20

THE SORROWFUL PROBLEM: JEWISH UNBELIEF DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY

Romans 9:1-33

WE may well think that again there was silence awhile in that Corinthian chamber, when Tertius had duly inscribed the last words we have studied. A "silence in heaven" follows, in the Apocalypse, [Revelation 8:1] the vision of the white hosts of the redeemed, gathered at last, in their eternal jubilation, before the throne of the Lamb. A silence in the soul is the fittest immediate sequel to such a revelation of grace and glory as has passed before us here. And did not the man whose work it was to utter it, and whose personal experience was as it were the informing soul of the whole argument of the Epistle from the first, and not least in this last sacred paean of faith, keep silence when he had done, hushed and tired by this "exceeding weight" of grace and glory?

But he has a great deal more to say to the Romans, and in due time the pen obeys the voice again. What will the next theme be? It will be a pathetic and significant contrast to the last; a lament, a discussion, an instruction, and then a prophecy, about not himself and his happy fellow saints, but poor self-blinded unbelieving Israel.

The occurrence of that subject exactly, here is true to the inmost nature of the Gospel. The Apostle has just been counting up the wealth of salvation, and claiming it all, as present and eternal property, for himself and his brethren in the Lord. Justifying Righteousness, Liberty from sin in Christ, the Indwelling Spirit, electing Love, coming and certain Glory, all have been recounted, and asserted, and embraced. "Is it selfish," this great joy of possession and prospect? Let those say so who see these things only from outside. Make proof of what they are in their interior, enter into them, learn yourself what it is to have peace with God, to receive the Spirit, to expect the eternal glory; and you will find that nothing is so sure to expand the heart towards other men as the personal reception into it of the Truth and Life of God in Christ. It is possible to hold a true creed-and to be spiritually hard anal selfish. But is it possible so to be-when not only the creed is held, but the Lord of it, its Heart and Life, is received with wonder and great joy? The man whose certainties, whose riches, whose freedom, are all consciously "in Him," cannot but love his neighbour, and long that he too should come into "the secret of the Lord."

So St. Paul, just at this point of the Epistle, turns with a peculiar intensity of grief and yearning towards the Israel which he had once led, and now had left, because they would not come with him to Christ. His natural and his spiritual sympathies all alike go out to this self-afflicting people, so privileged, so divinely loved, and now so blind. Oh, that he could offer any sacrifice that would bring them reconciled, humbled, happy, to the feet of the true Christ! Oh, that they might see the fallacy of their own way of salvation, and submit to the way of Christ, taking His yoke, and finding rest to their souls! Why do they not do it? Why does not the light which convinced him shine on them! Why should not the whole Sanhedrin say, "Lord, what wouldst Thou have us to do?" Why does not the fair beauty of the Son of God make them too "count all things but loss" for Him? Why do not the voices of the Prophets prove to them, as they do now to Paul, absolutely convincing of the historical as well as spiritual claims of the Man of Calvary? Has the promise failed? Has God done with the race to which He guaranteed such a perpetuity of blessing? No, that cannot be. He looks again, and he sees in the whole past a long warning that, while an outer circle of benefits might affect the nation, the inner circle, the light and life of God indeed, embraced "a remnant" only; even from the day when Isaac and not Ishmael was made heir of Abraham. And then he ponders the impenetrable mystery of the relation of the Infinite Will to human wills; he remembers how, in a way whose full reasons are unknowable, (but they are good, for they are in God,) the Infinite Will has to do with our willing; genuine and responsible though our willing is. And before that opaque veil he rests. He knows that only righteousness and love are behind it; but he knows that it is a veil, and that in front of it man’s thought must cease and be silent. Sin is altogether man’s fault. But when man turns from sin it is all God’s mercy, free, special, distinguishing. Be silent, and trust Him, O man whom He has made. Remember, He has made thee. It is not only that He is greater than thou, or stronger; but He has made thee. Be reasonably willing to trust, out of sight, the reasons of thy Maker.

Then he turns again with new regrets and yearnings to the thought of that wonderful Gospel which was meant for Israel and for the world, but which Israel rejected, and now would fain check on its way to the world. Lastly, he recalls the future, still full of eternal promises for the chosen race, and through them full of blessings for the world; till he rises at length from perplexity and anguish, and the wreck of once eager expectations, into that great Doxology in which he blesses the Eternal Sovereign for the very mystery of His ways, and adores Him because He is His own eternal End.

Truth I speak in Christ, speaking as the member of the All-Truthful; I do not lie, my conscience, in the Holy Ghost, informed and governed by Him, bearing me concurrent witness-the soul within affirming to itself the word spoken without to others-that I have great grief, and my heart has incessant pain, yes, the heart in which [Romans 5:5] the Spirit has "poured out" God’s love and joy; there is room for both experiences in its human depths. For I was wishing, I myself, to be anathema from Christ, to be devoted to eternal separation from Him; awful dream of uttermost sacrifice, made impossible only because it would mean self-robbery from the Lord who had bought him; a spiritual suicide by sin-for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen flesh-wise. For they are ( οιτινες εισιν) Israelites, bearers of the glorious theocratic name, sons of the "Prince with" Genesis 32:28; theirs is the adoption, the call to be Jehovah’s own filial race, "His son, His firstborn" [Exodus 4:22] of the peoples; and the glory, the Shechinah of the Eternal Presence, sacramentally seen in Tabernacle and Temple, spiritually spread over the race; and the covenants, with Abraham, and Isaac, and Levi, and Moses, and Aaron, and Phinehas, and David; and the Legislation, the Holy Moral Code, and the Ritual, with its divinely ordered symbolism, that vast Parable of Christ, and the Promises, of "the pleasant land," and the perpetual favour, and the coming Lord; theirs are the Fathers, patriarchs, and priests, and kings; and out of them, as to what is flesh-wise, is the Christ, -He who is over all things, God, blessed to all eternity. Amen.

It is indeed a splendid roll of honours, recited over this race "separate among the nations," a race which today as much as ever remains the enigma of history, to be solved only by Revelation. "The Jews, your Majesty," was the reply of Frederick the Great’s old believing courtier, when asked with a smile for the credentials of the Bible; the short answer silenced the Encyclopaedist King. It is indeed a riddle, made of indissoluble facts, this people everywhere dispersed, yet everywhere individual; scribes of a Book which has profoundly influenced mankind, and which is recognised by the most various races as an august and lawful claimant to be divine, yet themselves, in so many aspects, provincial to the heart; historians of their own glories, but at least equally of their own unworthiness and disgrace; transmitters of predictions which may be slighted, but can never, as a whole, be explained away, yet obstinate deniers of their majestic fulfilment in the Lord of Christendom; human in every fault and imperfection, yet so concerned in bringing to man the message of the Divine that Jesus Himself said of them, "Salvation [John 4:22] comes from the Jews." On this wonderful race this its most illustrious member (after his Lord) here fixes his eyes, full of tears. He sees their glories pass before him-and then realises the spiritual squalor and misery of their rejection of the Christ of God. He groans, and in real agony asks how it can be. One thing only cannot be; the promises have not failed; there has been no failure in the Promiser. What may seem such is rather man’s misreading of the promise.

But it is not as though the word of God has been thrown out, that "word" whose divine honour was dearer to him than even that of his people. For not all who come from Israel constitute Israel; nor, because they are seed of Abraham, are they all his children, in the sense of family life and rights; but "In Isaac shall a seed be called thee"; [Genesis 21:12] Isaac, and not any son of thy body begotten, is father of those whom thou shalt claim as thy covenant race. That is to say, not the children of his flesh are the children of his ( του) God; no, the children of the promise, indicated and limited by its developed terms, are reckoned as seed. For of the promise this was the word. [Genesis 18:10; Genesis 18:14] "According to this time I will come, and Sarah, she and not any spouse of thine; no Hagar, no Keturah, but Sarah, shall have a son." And the law of limitations did not stop there, but contracted yet again the stream of even physical filiation: Nor only so, but Rebecca too-being with child, with twin children, of one husband-no problem of complex parentage, as with Abraham, occurring here-even of Isaac our father, just named as the selected heir-(for it was while they were not yet born, while they had not yet shown any conduct good or bad, that the choice-wise purpose of God might remain, sole and sovereign, not based on works, but wholly on the Caller)-it was said to her, [Genesis 25:23] "The greater shall be bondman to the less." As it stands written, in the prophet’s message a millennium later, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated," I repudiated him as heir.

So the limit has run always along with the promise. Ishmael is Abraham’s son, yet not his son. Esau is Isaac’s son, yet not his son. And though we trace in Ishmael and in Esau, as they grow, characteristics which may seem to explain the limitation, this will not really do. For the chosen one in each case has his conspicuous unfavourable characteristics too. And the whole tone of the record (not to speak of this its apostolic interpretation) looks towards mystery, not explanation. Esau’s "profanity" was the concurrent occasion, not the cause, of the choice of Jacob. The reason of the choice lay in the depths of God, that World "dark with excess of bright." All is well there, but not the less all is unknown.

So we are led up to the shut door of the sanctuary of God’s Choice. Touch it; it is adamantine, and it is fast locked. No blind Destiny has turned the key, and lost it. No inaccessible Tyrant sits within, playing to himself both sides of a game of fate, and indifferent to the cry of the soul. The Key Bearer, whose Name is engraved on the portal, is "He that liveth, and was dead, and is alive for evermore". [Revelation 1:18] And if you listen you will hear words within, like the soft deep voice of many waters, yet of an eternal Heart; "I am that I am; I will that I will; trust Me." But the door is locked; and the Voice is mystery.

Ah, what agonies have been felt in human souls, as men have looked at that gate, and pondered the unknown interior! The Eternal knows, with infinite kindness and sympathy, the pain unspeakable which can beset the creature when it wrestles with His Eternity, and tries to clasp it with both hands, and to say that "that is all!" We do not find in Scripture, surely, anything like an anthema for that awful sense of the unknown which can gather on the soul drawn-irresistibly as it sometimes seems to be-into the problems of the Choice of God, and oppressed as with "the weight of all the seas upon it," by the very questions stated presently here by the Apostle. The Lord knoweth, not only His will, but our heart, in these matters. And where He entirely declines to explain (surely because we are not yet of age to understand Him if He did) He yet shows us Jesus, and bids us meet the silence of the mystery with the silence of a personal trust in the personal Character revealed in Him.

In something of such stillness shall we approach the paragraph now to follow? Shall we listen, not to explain away, not even over much to explain, but to submit, with a submission which is not a suppressed resentment but an entire reliance? We shall find that the whole matter, in its practical aspect, has a voice articulate enough for the soul which sees Christ, and believes on Him. It says to that soul, "Who maketh thee to differ? Who hath fashioned thee to honour? Why art thou not now, as once, guiltily rejecting Christ, or, what is the same, postponing Him? Thank Him who has ‘compelled thee,’ yet without violation of thyself, ‘to come in.’ See in thy choice of Him His mercy on thee. And now, fall at His feet, to bless Him, to serve Him, and to trust Him. Think ill of thyself. Think reverently of others. And remember (the Infinite, who has chosen thee, says it), He willeth not the death of a sinner, He loved the world, He bids thee to tell it that He loves it, to tell it that He is Love."

Now we listen. With a look which speaks awe, but not misgiving, disclosing past tempests of doubt, but now a rest of faith, the Apostle dictates again:

What therefore shall we say? Is there injustice at God’s bar? Away with the thought. The thing is, in the deepest sense, unthinkable. God, the God of Revelation, the God of Christ, is a Being who, if unjust-"ceases to be," "denies Himself." But the thought that His reasons for some given action should be, at least to us now, absolute mystery, He being the Infinite Personality, is not unthinkable at all. And in such a case it is not unreasonable, but the deepest reason, to ask for no more than His articulate guarantee, so to speak, that the mystery is fact; that He is conscious of it, alive to it (speaking humanly); and that He avows it as His will. For when God, the God of Christ, bids us "take His will for it," it is a different thing from an attempt, however powerful, to frighten us into silence. It is a reminder Who He is who speaks; the Being who is kindred to us, who is in relations with us, who loved us, but who also has absolutely made us, and cannot (because we are sheer products of His will) make us so much His equals as to tell us all. So the Apostle proceeds with a "for" whose bearing we have thus already indicated: For to Moses he says, [Exodus 34:19] in the dark sanctuary of Sinai, "I shall pity whomsoever I do pity, and compassionate whomsoever I do compassionate"; My account of My saving action shall stop there: It appears therefore that it, the ultimate account of salvation, is not of (as the effect is "of" the first cause) the wilier, nor of the runner, the carrier of willing into work, but of the Pitier - God. For the Scripture says [Exodus 10:16] to Pharaoh, that large example of defiant human sin, real and guilty, but also, concurrently, of the sovereign Choice which sentenced him to go his own way, and used him as a beacon at its end, "For this very purpose I raised thee up, made thee stand, even beneath the Plagues, that I might display in thee My power, and that My Name, as of the just God who strikes down the proud, might be told far and wide in all the earth."

Pharaoh’s was a case of concurrent phenomena. A man was there on the one hand, willingly, deliberately, and most guiltily, battling with right, and rightly bringing ruin on his own head, wholly of himself. God was there on the other hand, making that man a monument not of grace but of judgment. And that side, that line, is isolated here, and treated as if it were all.

It appears then that whom He pleases, He pities, and whom He pleases, He hardens, in that sense in which He "hardened Pharaoh’s heart," "made it stiff," "made it heavy," "made it harsh"-by sentencing it to have its own way. Yes, thus "it appears." And beyond that inference we can take no step of thought but this-that the Subject of that mysterious "will," He who thus "pleases," and "pities," and "hardens," is no other than the God of Jesus Christ. He may be, not only submitted to, but trusted, in that unknowable sovereignty of His will. Yet listen to the question which speaks out the problem of all hearts: "You will say to Me therefore, Why does He still, after such an avowal of His sovereignty, softening this heart, hardening that, why does He still find fault?" Ah, why? For His act of will who has withstood? (Nay, you have withstood His will, and so have I Not one word of the argument has contradicted the primary fact of our will, nor therefore our responsibility. But this he does not bring in here.) Nay, rather, rather than take such an attitude of narrow and helpless logic, think deeper; nay, rather, O man, O mere human being, you-who are you, who are answering back to your God? Shall the thing formed say to its Former, Why did you make me like this? Has not the potter authority over his clay, out of the same kneaded mass to make this vessel for honour, but that for dishonour? But if God, being pleased to demonstrate His wrath, and to evidence what He can do-what will St. Paul go on to say? That the Eternal, being thus "pleased," created responsible beings on purpose to destroy them, gave them personality, and then compelled them to transgress? No, he does not say so. The sternly simple illustration, in itself one of the least relieved utterances in the whole Scripture-that dread Potter and his kneaded Clay!-gives way, in its application, to a statement of the work of God on man full of significance in its variation. Here are indeed the "vessels" still; and the vessels "for honour" are such because of "mercy," and His own hand has "prepared them for glory." And there are the vessels "for dishonour," and in a sense of awful mystery they are such because of "wrath." But the "wrath" of the Holy One can fall only upon demerit; so these "vessels" have merited His displeasure of themselves. And they are "prepared for ruin"; but where is any mention of His hand preparing them? And meanwhile He "bears them in much longsuffering." The mystery is there, impenetrable as ever, when we try to pierce behind "His will." But on every side it is limited and qualified by facts which witness to the compassions of the Infinite Sovereign even in His judgments, and remind us that sin is altogether "of" the creature. So we take up the words where we dropped them above: What if He bore, (the tense throws us forward into eternity, to look back thence on His ways in time,) in much longsuffering, vessels of wrath, adjusted for ruin? And acted otherwise with others, that He might evidence the wealth of His glory, the resources of His inmost Character, poured upon vessels of pity, which He prepared in advance for glory, by the processes of justifying and hallowing grace-whom in fact He called, effectually, in their conversion, even us, not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles? For while the lineal Israel, with its privilege and its apparent failure, is here first in view, there lies behind it the phenomenon of "the Israel of God," the heaven-born heirs of the Fathers, a race not of blood, but of the Spirit. The great Promise, all the while, had set towards that Israel as its final scope; and now he gives proof from the Prophets that this intention was at least half revealed all along the line of revelation.

As actually in our Hosea [Hosea 2:23, Hebrews 2:5] in the book we know as such, He says, "I will call what was not My people, My people; and the not-beloved one, beloved. And [another Hosean oracle, in line with the first] it shall be, in the place where it was said to them, Not My people are ye, there they shall be called sons of the living God." In both places the first incidence of the words is on the restoration of the Ten Tribes to covenant blessings. But the Apostle, in the Spirit, sees an ultimate and satisfying reference to a vaster application of the same principle; the bringing of the rebelling and banished ones of all mankind into covenant and blessing.

Meanwhile the Prophets who foretell that great ingathering indicate with equal solemnity the spiritual failure of all but a fraction of the lineal heirs of promise. But Isaiah cries over Israel, "If the number of the sons of Israel should be as the sand of the sea, the remnant only shall be saved; for as one who completes and cuts short will the Lord do His work upon the earth." Here again is a first and second incidence of the prophecy. In every stage of the history of Sin and Redemption the Apostle, in the Spirit, sees an embryo of the great Development. So, in the woefully limited numbers of the Exiles who returned from the old captivity he sees an embodied prophecy of the fewness of the sons of Israel who shall return from the exile of incredulity to their, true Messiah. And as Isaiah [Isaiah 1:9] has foretold, so it is; "Unless the Lord of Hosts had left us a seed, like Sodom we had become, and to Gomorrah we had been resembled."

Such was the mystery of the facts, alike in the older and in the later story of Israel. A remnant, still a remnant, not the masses, entered upon an inheritance of such ample provision, and so sincerely offered. And behind this lay the insoluble shadow within which is concealed the relation of the Infinite Will to the wills of men. But also, in front of the phenomenon, concealed by no shadow save that which is cast by human sin, the Apostle sees and records the reasons, as they reside in the human will, of this "salvation of a remnant." The promises of God, all along, and supremely now in Christ, had been conditioned (it was in the nature of spiritual things that it should be so) by submission to His way of fulfilment. The golden gift was there, in the most generous of hands, stretched out to give. But it could be put only into a recipient hand open and empty. It could be taken only by submissive and self-forgetting faith. And man, in his fall, had twisted his will out of gear for such an action. Was it wonderful that, by his own fault, he failed to receive? What therefore shall we say? Why, that the Gentiles, though they did not pursue righteousness, though no Oracle had set them on the track of a true divine acceptance and salvation, achieved righteousness, grasped it when once revealed, but the righteousness that results on faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, aiming at what is, for fallen man, the impossible goal, a perfect meeting of the Law’s one principle of acceptance, "This do and thou shalt live," did not attain that law; that is to say, practically, as we now review their story of vain efforts in the line of self, did not attain the acceptance to which that law was to be the avenue. The Pharisee as such, the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus for example, neither had peace with God, nor dared to think he had, in the depth of his soul. He knew enough of the divine ideal to be hopelessly uneasy about his realisation of it. He could say, stiffly enough, "God, I thank Thee"; [Luke 18:11; Luke 18:14] but he "went down to his house" unhappy, unsatisfied, unjustified. On what account? Because it was not of faith, but as of works; in the unquiet dream that man must, and could, work up the score of merit to a valid claim. They stumbled on the Stone of their stumbling; as it stands written, [Isaiah 8:14; Isaiah 28:16] in a passage where the great perpetual Promise is in view, and where the blind people are seen rejecting it as their foothold in favour of policy, or of formalism, Behold, I place in Sion, in the very centre of light and privilege, a Stone of stumbling, and a Rock of upsetting; and he who confides in Him, (or, perhaps, in it,) he who rests on it, on Him, shall not be put to shame.

One great Rabbi at least, Rashi, of the twelfth century, bears witness to the mind of the Jewish Church upon the significance of that mystic Rock. "Behold," so runs his interpretation, "I have established a King, a Messiah, who shall be in Zion a stone of proving."

Was ever prophecy more profoundly verified in event? Not for the lineal Israel only, but for Man, the King Messiah is, as ever, the Stone of either stumbling or foundation. He is, as ever, "a Sign spoken against." He is, as ever, the Rock of Ages, where the believing sinner hides, and rests, and builds,

"Below the storm-mark of the sky, Above the flood-mark of the deep."

Have we known what it is to stumble over Him? "We will not have this Man to reign over us"; "We were never in bondage to any man; who is He that He should set us free?" And are we now lifted by a Hand of omnipotent kindness to a place deep in His clefts, safe on His summit, "knowing nothing" for the peace of conscience, the satisfaction of thought, the liberation of the will, the abolition of death, "but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified"? Then let us think with always humbled sympathy of those who, for whatever reason, still "forsake their, own mercy". [Jonah 2:8] And let us inform them where we are, and how we are here, and that "the ground is good." And for ourselves, that we may do this the better, let us often read again the simple, strong assurance which closes this chapter of mysteries; "He who confides in Him shall not be put to shame"; "shall not be disappointed"; "shall not," in the vivid phrase of the Hebrew itself, "make haste." No, we shall not "make haste." From that safe Place no hurried retreat shall ever need to be beaten. That Fortress cannot be stormed; it cannot be surprised; it cannot crumble. For "IT is HE"; the Son, the Lamb, of God; the sinner’s everlasting Righteousness, the believer’s unfailing Source of peace, of purity, and of power.

DETACHED NOTE TO Romans 9:5

THE following is transcribed, with a few modifications, from the writer’s Commentary on the Epistle in "The Cambridge Bible":

"[Who is over all, God blessed forever.] The Greek may, with more or less facility, be translated (1) as in A.V or (2) ‘who is God over all,’ etc.; or (3) ‘blessed forever be He who is God over all’ (i.e., the Eternal Father) If we adopt (3) we take the Apostle to be led, by the mention of the Incarnation, to utter a sudden and solemn doxology to the God who gave that crowning mercy. In favour of this it is urged (by some entirely orthodox commentators, as H.A.W. Meyer) that St. Paul nowhere else styles the Lord simply ‘God,’ but rather ‘the Son of God,’ etc. By this they do not mean to detract from the Lord’s Deity; but they maintain that St. Paul always so states that Deity, under Divine guidance, as to mark the ‘Subordination of the Son’-that Subordination which is not a difference of Nature, Power, or Eternity, but of Order; just such as is marked by the simple but profound words Father and Son."

"But on the other hand there is Titus 2:13, where the Greek is (at least) perfectly capable of the rendering, ‘our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’ There is Acts 20:28, where the evidence is very strong for the reading, retained by the R.V (text) ‘the Church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.’ And if St. John is to be taken to report words exactly, in his narrative of the Resurrection, in an incident whose point is deeply connected with verbal precision, we have one of the first Apostles, within eight days of the Resurrection, addressing the Risen Lord [John 20:28] as ‘my God.’ (We call attention to this as against the contention that only the latest developments of inspiration, represented in, e.g., St. John’s Preamble to his Gospel, show us Christ called explicitly God.)"

"If it is divinely true that ‘the Word is God,’ it is surely far from wonderful if here and there, in peculiar connections, [St. Paul] should so speak of Christ, even though guided to keep another phase of the truth habitually in view."

"Now, beyond all fair question, the Greek here is quite naturally rendered as in the A.V had it not been for historical controversy, probably, no other rendering would have been suggested. And lastly, and what is important, the context far rather suggests a lament (over the fall of Israel) than an ascription of praise. And what is most significant of all, it pointedly suggests some explicit allusion to the super-human Nature of Christ, by the words, ‘according to the flesh.’ But if there is such an allusion, then it must lie in the words, over all, God."’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Romans 9:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/romans-9.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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