God’s Heart for Israel Romans 9-11
When Bad Things Happen to Good People is the title of a best-selling book written a number of years ago by a well-known rabbi who had to endure the pain of watching his son suffer and die from a terrible disease. That experience would understandably cause any loving parent to pause and reflect on his or her spiritual resources.
The rabbi’s reflection led him to this conclusion: God’s power is limited. An all-powerful, loving God would not allow bad things to happen. But a loving God who had limited power could not prevent bad things from happening.
It’s too bad the rabbi could not have consulted with Joseph, great-grandson of Abraham, who lived a lifetime of sorrows, tribulations, and seemingly endless setbacks. Despite all this, Joseph had seen the hand of God working throughout his life. And as he faced his brothers, who had sold him into slavery, he was able to say, “ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good” (Gen. 50:20).
Joseph understood the concept foundational to Romans 9, 10, and 11—the sovereignty of God. These chapters form the fulcrum upon which the rest of the treatise of the book of Romans turns, for it is these chapters that demonstrate the sovereign rule of a holy God and the certainty of His promises. And they do so by examining Israel—past, present, and future.
To begin with, God is a sovereign Being who is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and who does all things according to His good pleasure. One of the ways in which God demonstrated His sovereignty was by choosing Israel. The Torah (Pentateuch) states, “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God; the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people who are upon the face of the earth” (Dt. 7:6).
Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with God’s choice. Many Gentiles, and even some Christians, seem less than comfortable with God’s arrangement. Curiously, many Jewish people also feel uncomfortable with it and have been known to wish that God had chosen someone else. Some Jewish people even reject this teaching as utterly false, because they cannot reconcile an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God with the suffering of the people He has chosen.
Yet the truth is that God chooses for His own purposes, and we often do not understand His choices. He chose Noah, the architect and builder of the ark, who later got drunk. He chose Moses and David, who both served Him well, but were also murderers. And He chose Israel. Paul used Israel as his example of God’s sovereign rule to help believers in Christ come to grips with His sovereign selection of them.
Indeed, Paul made a strong case for Israel’s election. He outlined the nation’s tremendous past privileges (chapter 9), its present-day problems (chapter 10), and its wonderful future prospects in God’s program (chapter 11). First, Paul listed the things that make “my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (9:3) unique as a people. To begin with, he said, they were Israelites (9:4). The name Israel (meaning “one who strives with God”) was actually given to Jacob (which means “deceiver”) after he wrestled with the Angel of the Lord (Gen. 32:24-28). Another word, Hebrew, or Eber, having to do with crossing over to an opposite side, is ascribed to them in reference to Abraham because he crossed over the Euphrates. Still another term, Jew, comes from Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Judah means “praise.” Indeed, that was one of God’s great purposes for the children of Israel. They were to praise the living God and cause the Gentiles to love and worship Him: “This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise” (Isa. 43:21).
Beginning in 9:4, Paul reviewed their privileges. (1) God’s glory had directed them in the wilderness. The rabbis called this shakan in Hebrew, meaning “to dwell.” From here comes the word shekinah, referring to the visible Divine Presence. (2) The unconditional covenants came to the Jews through Abraham and were passed on to Isaac, Jacob, and his sons. They also had (3) the commandments, or laws, which Moses had received directly from God on Sinai; (4) the service of God in and around the Tabernacle and Temple; and (5) the promises of God, demonstrated to be sure when a sovereign God enabled Sarah to give birth to Isaac in her old age (v. 9).
Although Abraham had another son, Ishmael, Isaac was the chosen one. Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, were twins; yet God chose Jacob and his descendants, not Esau, to become the channel to bring the Messiah, the Christ “who is over all” (9:5). “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth” (9:11).
Paul explained that as Sovereign, God can do what He wants. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (9:15; Ex. 33:19). God raised up Pharaoh, a prime enemy of the Jewish people, for the sole purpose of declaring His name throughout the earth (9:17, Ex. 9:16). That being the case, Paul anticipated a question: “who hath resisted his will?” (9:19). It seems like a fair question. In reality, though, the question is not fair at all, and Paul chose not to answer it. Instead, he cast suspicion on the attitude of the questioner. Romans 9:20-21a simply states, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay…?” As potter, God can do anything He wants.
Indeed, Israel had certain unique privileges. Yet it also had a not-so-unique problem. “For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (10:3).
This same problem—ignorance of God’s righteousness—characterizes much of the world today and is indicative of present-day Israel. The word ignorant is not derogatory; it simply means “lack of knowledge.” In Paul’s time, ignorance did not prevent the Israelites from being zealous for God. But their zeal was misdirected and not according to knowledge. Even now, zeal, sincerity, piety, and religiosity accomplish absolutely nothing toward gaining anyone acceptance before a holy God. In Israel’s case, even the nation’s unique privileges do nothing for the Jewish people as individuals before God: “For the scripture saith, Whosoever [emphasis added] believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek; for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him” (Rom. 10:11-12).
With Messiah’s death and resurrection came an opportunity for Jew and Greek (Gentile) to enter into a unique relationship with Him through personal faith in Jesus as Savior. “For whosoever [emphasis added] shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13).
Paul then asked another question: What will happen to unbelieving Israel? “Hath God cast away his people?” (11:1). Is He finished with them? Has He stripped them of the blessings He promised and rejected them forever because they have rejected their Messiah?
Paul answered emphatically: “No!” or, “May it never be!” God has a future for Israel, and He will keep His promises to them. To make his point, he used his own life as an illustration. Paul was a murderer—a self-proclaimed “chief of all sinners.” Yet God did not reject him (11:1). The chief persecutor of the church became instead its finest example of the grace and sovereignty of God. Today God still calls out individual Jewish people who embrace their Messiah.
Then Paul pointed to Elijah the prophet, who had cried out to God just after his great spiritual victory over the false prophets of Baal (1 Ki. 18). Fleeing from wicked Queen Jezebel, Elijah had felt alone and forsaken. He protested his circumstances to God. “Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and dug down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life” (Rom. 11:3). God answered His faithful prophet by assuring him that He still had a remnant of seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (11:4, 1 Ki. 19:18). Seven thousand may not be many, but it is a whole lot more than one.
As in the time of the prophet, there has always been a believing remnant among God’s chosen, though a much greater number have not believed. Spiritual blindness is nothing new. There were spiritually blind Jewish people who wandered in the wilderness of Sinai, even though they had witnessed God’s power over Pharaoh. Yet God did not forsake them. There were the spiritually blind who cried bitterly to Moses that slavery in Egypt was better than freedom in the desert. Yet God stuck with them. There were an abundance of blind when only one of the twelve tribes, Levi, joined Moses after being asked, “Who is on the LORD’s side?” (Ex. 32:26).
The majority within Israel, God’s elect, seem continually to go their own way. But “Have they stumbled that they should fall?” Paul asked (11:11). “God forbid,” he replied. (Or “May it never be!”) Rather, he said, “through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles” (v. 11). Paul continued in 11:20, “because of unbelief they [the Jews] were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear.” Gentile believers, he said, should not boast in their new position of privilege, but be humble and thankful. Did God know the Jewish people would reject their Messiah? Yes. Why did He allow such a thing? Because through the blindness of the Jewish people, the gospel went to the Gentiles.
Then Paul revealed a mystery: “blindness in part is happened to Israel, until [emphasis added] the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” (v. 25). Today God is calling out individual Jews and Gentiles to become part of the same body of believers. One day Jesus will return to carry all believers home to heaven (1 Th. 4). Then God will again deal with His chosen nation. After a time of unprecedented suffering (Jer. 30:7), the Deliverer will come out of Zion; and “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26). Then God will restore to them the Kingdom of David and give them all the blessings He has promised.
Paul, no doubt, was looking forward to that day and grieved over his nation’s unbelief. Earlier, in fact, he had said, “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3). Yet the apostle rested in the assurance that God had not abandoned His Chosen People. In His sovereignty, God chose the nation of Israel to display His faithfulness, glory, and grace. He will never abandon or reject them, because He has made promises to them (Jer. 31). And just as He is faithful to them, so is He faithful to you. His promises are always sure, and He will never leave you or forsake you if you have trusted His Son as your Savior.