Richard Rice on Israel’s Election

‘The outstanding instance of divine election is God’s choice of Israel as His special people. The choice provides the background for the New Testament concepts of foreknowledge and predestination. The nature and purpose of Israel’s election have attracted extensive scholarly attention, and we can do little more than delineate its major features here.

To begin with, God’s election of Israel was fundamentally a gracious invitation. It was not an announcement of fate. Neither was it inevitable destiny. It was not as if the Israelites had no choice in the matter. God was not informing them of what had to be the case. Instead, He was telling them what could be the case if they cooperated. This does not mean that God presented the invitation as a take-it-or-leave-it matter. He never acted as if their response were of little importance. To the contrary, their response either way entailed serious consequences. But they could choose to refuse their election as God’s special people. God’s call represented an opportunity, not a necessity.

The calls to obedience throughout Hebrew Scripture reflect the conditional nature of Israel’s election. Along with assurances of God’s gracious love, one finds warnings of divine wrath and discipline. “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and requites to their face those who hate him, by destroying them; he will not be slack with him who hate him, he will requite him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which I command you this day” (Deut. 7:9-11).

A second feature of Israel’s election was its basis in divine grace. God did not choose the Israelites in response to any attractive features they exhibited. The Israelites had nothing to recommend them to God. God did not choose them because they were larger than other nations: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7). Nor did He select them because of some superior righteousness: “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land” (Deut. 9:5). God’s choice lay solely in His love: “It is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the land of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut. 7:8). As far as nations go, then, the Israelites were weak and insignificant. God’s call was solely a matter of grace. It rested entirely on God’s initiative. It provided no basis for self-congratulation.

The Scriptures repeatedly emphasize the fact that Israel owed its very existence to God’s grace. One example is the biblical account of Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah long after she had passed her childbearing years (Gen. 18:10, 11; 21:1-7). Contrary as it was to the natural course of events, Isaac’s birth demonstrated that the fulfillment of the promise to make of Abraham a great nation depended on divine power, not on human resources.

Paul emphasized the wholly gracious character of Israel’s election. He pointed to God’s preference of Jacob over Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. God expressed His preference before their birth, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad” (Rom. 9:11). To Paul this demonstrated that Election is based solely on God’s will. It is in no sense a response to human qualifications. “So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy” (verse 16).

A third feature of Israel’s election is that involved a summons to service, not an elevation to privilege. The Israelites were not simply called. God called them to do something. Specifically, they were supposed to extend the knowledge of God to other nations and ultimately to the whole world. By precept and example, the Israelites were to enlighten the earth with an understanding of God’s saving power. As a later propjet lyrically described it, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6; compare 42:6). God’s call thus provided no basis for feelings of exclusivism and superiority. It did set Israel apart, but only for the purpose of rendering service to others.’

Source: Richard Rice, God’s Foreknowledge & Man’s Free Will, p. 87-89 (Minneapolis, Bethany House Publishers, 1985).

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