picture source: serraus.
The following text is my personal interpretation of Romans 9. I realise that different interpretations of this text are possible. I wouldn’t start with this midrash but with Paul’s clear conclusion from verse 27 onwards. Paul does not conclude that God has a dark, mysterious council for electing individuals, before the world was created, to salvation and damnation but rather that there is salvation available, through faith, to the gentiles and the Jews. In Romans 9 specifically, as is clear from his introduction, he tries to convince the Jews that salvation is not found in works under the Law but in faith in Christ Jesus. He does NOT write this whole chapter to say: I can’t change God’s alleged mysterious decrees concerning the salvation or damnation of individuals, although I want my fellow Jews to be saved.
verses 1-3: I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.
Paul writes about his concern for having his fellow Israelites by descend reconciled to Christ. This is what he tries to accomplish by writing the content of the following chapters.
v 4-5: They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.
These Israelites were elected by God as sons God, being vessels of His glory (see commentary on v 22-24). As a nation, they received all these Old Testament privileges and promises of God through their forefathers. Last but certainly not least, Jesus Christ Himself, who is God, came from their lineage. This is connected to why Paul will write the following verses. First he will try to show how God’s purpose in election still stands and secondly, but of premier importance, in the last verses of the chapter, he will show that the Jews in general are missing God’s greatest gift: the Messiah.
v 6a: But it is not as though the word of God had failed.
God’s vocational election has not failed, as God always keeps His faithful remnant and continues His promise through them. Examples that are given here include: Isaac (v 7), Jacob (v 10-13), Pharaoh (v 17). In Romans 11 there is also given the example of Examples that could have been given were Noah and his family, the returning Babylonian exiles and so on.
v 6b-10: For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,
This Israelite remnant does not consist of those born according to the flesh (the Jews believed in inherited salvation, read John the Baptist’s warning in Luke 3:7-9 and Jesus’s remarks in John 8:44) but those who are supernaturally regenerated/born of God/born from above (John 3:3, 5-8) because of their true faith in God. (Nowadays those are the Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus; John 1:11-13.)
v 10: And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,
Rebecca received her child in a supernatural way, a figure of not by the flesh but by the Spirit (John 3:3, 5-8).
v 11: though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call,
God’s purpose in election (to a vocation), which does not depend on merit, as the election is made before merit is possible, somehow continues…
v 12: she was told, “The elder will serve the younger.”
Even though Esau never served Jacob, rather Jacob served Esau (Genesis 32:4)…
v 13: As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Paul quotes from Micah 1:2-3. This passage was written approximately 1500 years later. Then the prophecy was fulfilled which stated that the elder served the younger; Edom served Israel and in this sense the purpose of election stands. This calling of election is not unjust.
v 14-18: What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills.
Another example of God’s justice: The pharaoh who was called to serve still served despite of his disobedience. God’s purpose in election still stands, whether Pharaoh liked it or not. Paul uses the first Exodus quotation (v 15) in the sense that God’s vocational election does not depend on human will or effort (v 16).
v 19: You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
If nobody can escape God’s election, in one way or the other, then how can He blame us? (The made-up person who asks this question confuses vocational election with moral responsibility)
v 20-21: But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?
[Context of Isaiah 45:9-12.] Paul’s reply: Can’t God choose certain people to be served and others to be servants, irrespective of their own (future) deeds? “Woe to him who strives with his Maker, an earthen vessel with the potter!” (Isaiah 45:9a) The vocational calling stands but just as Pharaoh strove with God, God will hold you accountable.
v 22-24: What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
“Paul, more cautious than some of his systematizers, does not say outright that God does this,” – F.F. Bruce, Romans, p. 190 but what if God uses people like Pharaoh or the Edomites, who, over time, have prepared themselves to be vessels of destruction? What if He uses those people, who are therefore under His wrath, after a long period of patience, to show His glory to those vessels who have chosen to be moulded by God’s mercy (Jeremiah 18:6-11)? We are those vessels of mercy, the Gentiles and Jews which are part of Christ’s Church says Paul in his days.
v 24-26: even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hose′a, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘my beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
It was prophesied that the Gentiles would also be part of this community.
v 27-29: And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; for the Lord will execute his sentence upon the earth with rigor and dispatch.” And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us children, we would have fared like Sodom and been made like Gomor′rah.”
Remnant theology: not all of Israel but only the faithful remnant “The Lord chose to show mercy to those who had believed steadfastly in Him and had been righteous in their lives. (…) Paul quoted (Rom 9:25-33) from Hosea and from Isaiah to demonstrate that the saving of a remnant from among the Jewish people was still part of the Lord’s method of redeeming His people. There would always be a future for anyone among the covenant people who would truly turn to the Lord for salvation.” – George Herbert Livingston, The Holman Dictionary.
v 30: What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith;
The Gentiles weren’t into salvation by the works of the Law and they understood that they hadn’t been caring about righteousness and that they therefore had to put their faith in Christ for their salvation.
v 31-33: but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
The Jews, on the other hand, tried to be righteous by how well they obeyed God’s law, therefore they did not become righteous as they didn’t put their faith in Christ but in their own works before the Law, therefore Jesus is to them a stumbling block.
No matter what people choose, God can respond accordingly so that His purpose in election will stand. This is, what I believe the wisdom of Romans 11 talks about, when a correct understanding of wisdom is used when engaging with the text. There are two probable examples which I notice from the Romans 9 text: 1. God postponed the promise regarding Esau serving Jacob. 2. God used Pharaoh for His own glory, in spite of his rebellion.
The interpretations of later church fathers, who came from a different culture, seem to be out of place. Also, with the furtherance of Western individualism, reading this text without a correct first century Jewish understanding, proves to be fatalistic. This text is simply not written to 21st Century Western Christians.
Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.