From The Grace New Testament Commentary (Revised Edition)
By Zane Hodges
National Israel has been blinded (11:1-10)
11:1. Paul asks whether God is through with Israel: God hasn’t cast away His people, has He? And Paul emphatically denies it: Far from it!
This question is relevant even today. Over the centuries of Christian history, right up to the present day, many have claimed in one way or another that Israel’s special relationship to God is over. This is often softened into the concept of a new Israel which the largely Gentile Church supposedly fulfills (Replacement Theology). But Paul knows nothing of this.
For Paul, an Israelite was an Israelite. He is therefore living proof that God has not rejected His ancient people.
11:2. The question of v1a is emphatically answered by the words, God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Paul himself is proof of this (1b).
Israel is a nation that God foreknew. This is not a reference to predestination. Instead, Paul has in mind the promises made to Abraham (Rom 4:19-22; 9:6). God promised the birth of the nation long before the nation existed. He would never cast them away.
Elijah lived in a day of deep apostasy in Israel. First Kings 19:9-18 shows that he was profoundly displeased and interceded against Israel. Elijah is exasperated with Israel and his statements imply that they deserve nothing further from divine benevolence.
11:3-4. Elijah complains to God about Israel. What does the divine response say to him? Only a word from God puts an end to Elijah’s intercession against Israel.
Elijah’s complaint against Israel is serious indeed. It involves nothing less than the rejection of God’s messengers (“they have killed Your prophets”), the rejection of the worship of Yahweh (“they have…torn down Your altars”), and the relentless pursuit of the Lord’s one remaining messenger (“I myself am left alone and they seek my life”).
God’s response informs Elijah that, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bent a knee to Baal.” In Elijah’s perception the entire nation had given way to Baal worship. But that was not the case. Paul will now apply this OT narrative to the contemporary situation of Israel.
11:5. As in Elijah’s day, God had graciously chosen at the present time to preserve for Himself a remnant of Israel. Many Jews in Paul’s day were believers.
The words according to His choice is not a reference to election before time. The simplest and most obvious meaning of the phrase in question is something like “the choice God has made in grace.” Just as in Elijah’s day God had “kept for” Himself those who had “not bowed the knee to Baal,” so also in Paul’s day God had kept for Himself those who had responded to His grace in Christ.
Here then Paul is concerned with the fact that grace is the basis upon which God has chosen the remnant of Israel at the present time.
11:6. God’s remnant in Israel was formed quite apart from meritorious works of any kind (it is no longer by works). Since God’s selection of the Jewish remnant was conditioned on grace, there could be no intermingling of that with the works of the law or with works of any kind at all. If works were added as a condition for God’s acceptance of a man, grace would be unmerited favor no longer.
This applies today. The simple fact remains that if we are eternally saved by grace, it can have nothing to do with works. Otherwise, as Paul insists, grace is no longer grace.
God’s “choice” of a Jewish remnant involved those Israelites who received His grace in Christ.
11:7-8. But the majority in Israel (the rest) have been hardened. This situation exists because Israel is still seeking acceptance before God by the works of the law.
By contrast, the chosen group has obtained it, that is, they have obtained the righteousness of God by faith.
The emphasis of these verses, however, is upon the fact that the rest have been hardened. And this reality is now attested from Scripture (just as it is written), beginning with a citation from Isa 29:10. God is responsible for the “spirit of stupor” that has blinded Israel’s eyes and stopped their ears so that they do not believe the gospel.
11:9-10. The testimony of Isaiah is now reinforced by the testimony of David in Ps 69:22-23. The poetic language of the Psalm refers to “their table” (i.e., Israel’s provisions and blessings). Their very blessings have “become a snare and a trap…for them.” What was intended for their benefit has instead become “something to trip over” and a form of “retribution” to them. Their very sense of privilege and blessing (an undoubted source of Jewish pride) had lured them into a feeling of “worthiness” that motivated them to vainly seek righteousness by means of the law (10:3; 11:7).
The words, “Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,” reinforce the citation from Isa 29:10a (in v 9) which states that God has given them a spirit of stupor. Israel as a whole has fallen into a blinding spiritual stupor.
The last line of the cited text presents Israel as bearing a heavy burden (“and make their back bend down always”). Israel is the object of the wrath of God that has fallen upon them in their unbelief (cf. 9:22, 29, 32-33).
National Israel will be restored (11:11-32)
11:11. The question: “They haven’t stumbled just to fall, have they?” expects a negative answer. God intends that their offense in rejecting the gospel should become the occasion for the Gentiles to receive deliverance. Even this mercy to the Gentiles is not for the Gentiles’ sake alone, but rather is intended to stir [Israel] to jealousy so that they too can obtain mercy.
The deliverance here is the same as 1:16. God wants the Jews to experience the same rescue from divine wrath which many Gentiles are now experiencing.
11:12. Paul immediately points out that the world has benefited from the transgression and loss of Israel. But if that is so, how much more would it benefit the world if Israel were to be restored to a harmonious relationship with God?
Thus, the transgression and loss that are at present so apparent in Israel have given God occasion for the enriching of the world. The results of this enrichment are even more apparent after nearly 2000 years of human history.
It follows that the reversal of these effects will have an even greater impact for good upon the Gentiles themselves. The full realization of Israel’s destiny (their fullness) is therefore much to be desired.
11:13-14. Paul, since he was indeed an Apostle to the Gentiles, attempts to maximize this ministry (I glorify my service) precisely for the reason that he desires the deliverance of his fellow Jews (if somehow I might…deliver some of them). The Gentiles should not be under the illusion that he has focused on his Gentile service simply because he has washed his hands of the rebellious Jewish nation. On the contrary, his very ministry to Gentiles has the same intent as that of God Himself.
Paul’s Gentile labors are accordingly directed to the stirring of Israel’s jealousy. The expression I glorify refers to the fact that Paul puts this service on highly visible display. His success in Gentile evangelism, wherever he went, was intended to arouse a holy jealousy among his fellow Jews so that at least he might deliver some of them.
11:15-16. God has definitively not repudiated Israel, but He has cast them to one side, which has led to the reconciling of the world. Reconciliation refers to the same truth he has already referred to in 5:10-11. The believer has “peace with God” (5:1). But for Paul that reconciling work was accomplished for all mankind, thus making possible the reconciliation of each person when he turns to Jesus Christ in faith (cf. 2 Cor 5:19-20).
But if such a superlative benefit accrues to the world through throwing Israel aside, how could one describe the potential benefit of Israel being received back into God’s gracious favor? The restoration of Israel would be like life from the dead.
In the end times, when Israel is back in its favored position, the entire world will experience a transformation for the better.
The believing remnant should be construed as a kind of first fruits which prefigure the future transformation of the entire batch of dough, that is, of the entire nation.
Israel’s root is holy with the result that the branches that have sprung from it are likewise holy. By the term root it is natural to understand a reference to Abraham who is physically the source of the entire nation. So despite the catastrophic fall of the nation, the branches sprung from the Abrahamic root remain holy to God.
11:17-18. The view that Israel’s present status was permanent could easily lead to what amounted to prideful Gentile exultation that in this new situation the Gentiles themselves were God’s favored people. Paul’s warning is that they should by no means exult over the branches.
They were merely branches taken from a wild olive tree and grafted in among the original branches after many of those branches were broken off.
It is natural to think of Paul’s reference here to the root as a reference to Abraham from whom the entire nation had sprung. The uncultivated olive tree is accordingly the Gentile world.
If the Gentiles had been grafted in, it was not at all the case that they brought inherent value to the olive tree to which they were now spiritually connected. They had simply become a sharer in the spiritual advantages that flowed from the root into the tree. Humility was thus in order for Gentile believers.
The Gentiles who believe have received the blessing of Abraham (justification by faith; Gal 3:6-14). Yet the richness Paul mentions goes well beyond this fundamental blessing. It suggests all the ensuing benefits that come from being placed in close connection to God’s ongoing purposes with His ancient people.
11:19-21. Paul admits that the Jews were broken off so that the Gentiles could be grafted in. But it is not a legitimate ground for pride since the issue is not “merit” (i.e., works), but rather an issue of unbelief and faith. What the natural branches lost in their unbelief, the Gentiles gained by faith. But it was not simply that they gained it by faith, but instead that they now stand by faith. They can only retain their position on the olive tree if they maintain their faith.
This, of course, has nothing to do with the issue of individual perseverance in the faith, or with anyone’s individual eternal destiny. This is a collective personification of the Gentiles that intends to describe their present privileges as the product of their believing response to the gospel.
Accordingly, he cautions, Don’t be haughty, but be afraid. Very simply put, should the Gentile world cease to be a responsive instrument for the gospel, God could return His focus to Israel.
11:22-23. God’s kindness was the source of the Gentiles’ present privilege, while those whom God originally favored with His kindness (i.e., the Jews) had now tasted His severity. The loss of the former (kindness) resulting in the latter (severity) could easily be repeated for the Gentiles. God’s kindness should not be taken for granted.
The kindness that the Gentiles currently enjoy is conditional: if you remain in that kindness. If the Gentiles do not continue to be responsive to the truth of the gospel, they can be removed from the olive tree: Otherwise you too will be cut off. This means that the Gentiles collectively will forfeit their privileged place in the ongoing purposes of God and will cease to be the primary instrument for the spread of the gospel.
But if the Gentiles are cut off, the restoration of Jewish privilege can also take place, provided that they (the Jews) do not remain in unbelief.
The issue hinges on whether the Jews continue their massive rejection of the gospel message. However, if they do not, the Jewish nation shall be grafted in, precisely because God is fully able to put them back where they were in the first place.
These words are a prophecy. It is only a matter of time before this prophecy catches up with Gentile self-satisfaction and pride.
11:24. God had grafted the Gentiles into a good olive tree and that was an act contrary to nature. It defied natural wisdom. The engrafting that the Gentiles had experienced was even more likely to happen to the natural branches, since that would be according to nature. The present Gentile situation is not destined to last (v 25).
The setting aside of Israel is temporary and her final deliverance from divine wrath is certain. Thus, the position of the Gentiles on the olive tree of the divine purpose and program is temporary.
11:25. Paul does not want the Christian readers to be uninformed about God’s intentions. The truth Paul has been discussing can be called a mystery. The incorporation of converted Gentiles into the olive tree itself, elevating them to the same privileged status as the remaining natural branches, was a situation not explicitly revealed in the OT. But this new situation will only last until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. At that time the partial hardening will be lifted.
The evangelistic movement into the Gentile world in Paul’s day had a specific goal: a complete harvest which must be brought in. After that, God will turn once again to His purposes for Israel.
11:26-27. Paul introduces OT citations (Isa 59:20-21; 27:9) with the declaration, And thus all Israel shall be delivered. This is a deliverance from God’s wrath (1:16, 18; 5:9). The words “The Deliverer…shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob” also connects this with the temporal wrath of God (1:18).
Since Paul has described unbelieving Israel as “vessels of wrath” (9:22), Israel’s full deliverance from wrath requires that “the Deliverer” (Jesus Christ) should “turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” That is to say, after believing in their hearts for justification (Rom 10:10a), Israel must also “appeal to Him”, “confessing” Him as Lord with their mouths (Rom 10:10b-13). When the nation as a whole does this, it will be delivered.
But this triumphant spiritual revival will take place only when the Deliverer comes “from Zion” at His Second Advent (Zech 12:10).
In the quoted material the statements that (1) “the Deliverer…shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob,” and (2) “when I take away their sins” are parallel statements. The deliverance in view is not simply justification by faith, though that of course is essential (10:9-10), but instead it is freedom from sin’s dominion over Israel’s conduct.
11:28-29. The bottom line for Paul is that God is not through with His ancient people. Even though they are currently at enmity with God (i.e., they are His enemies) on account of their rejection of the gospel, they remain His chosen people. Thus, they are still beloved because of God’s commitment to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God’s choice of this nation lay in His promises to these men and thus Israel remains in special divine regard for the fathers’[i.e., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s] sake. His choice of them remains unchanged precisely because the gracious gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
The word eklogēn (choice) here concerns God’s definitive decision to accomplish His purposes in the world through the descendants of the patriarchs. This choice does not refer to eternal salvation from hell.
God’s “call” of Israel into a special relationship with Himself will not be forfeited, any more than any of the “gifts” bestowed by that calling (9:4-5).
11:30-31. The privileges of the Gentiles mean that they have received mercy. Paul now reminds the believing Gentiles that you too at one time disobeyed God. Now this is true of Israel. The formerly disobedient Gentiles now have received mercy by means of Israel’s disobedience.
The Jews who had now disobeyed could and would benefit from God’s mercy to the Gentiles. Their present disobedience would be ended if they responded properly to what God was doing. That is to say, that by means of your [the Gentiles’] mercy, they [Israel] too might receive mercy.
More than 1,950 years have elapsed since Paul wrote Rom 11:28-32. If we are inclined to posit the “failure” of God’s effort to “stir” Israel “to jealousy,” we are being premature. God has measureless patience. His work among the Gentiles for some 2,000 years will yet achieve its goal in arousing a “holy jealousy” in Israel which will eventually lead to national repentance at the Second Advent.
11:32. God’s dealings with Jew and Gentile alike means that all have become potential objects of mercy as a result of their disobedience. Mercy will overtake Israel just as surely as it has overtaken the Gentiles.
The verb here rendered enclosed (or, caught) signals that God has now put everyone on the same level, namely, a status of disobedience before Him. What God has done is to “catch” all men in His “net” so that their only way out is by means of the divine mercy found in Jesus Christ.
God’s purpose has mercy as its ultimate objective. Mankind has been “caught” in its disobedience so that God might have mercy on all.
God’s Wisdom Is Unknowably Profound(11:33-36)
The seeming tragedy of Israel’s disobedience to the gospel is in reality a triumph of divine wisdom. The tragedy is real, but God designs mercy as its ultimate goal.
11:33. God, Paul declares, has measureless depths of wisdom. This wisdom can rise so far above the tragedy and evil of human disobedience and unbelief. It was previously a “mystery” (v 25), utterly unknowable apart from being revealed to men.
The expression His judgments is appropriately chosen, since the present state of Israel is the result of God’s judgment, by which “partial hardening” has taken place (11:25). But this very judgment is unsearchable since its surprising outcome will ultimately be the restoration of the nation God has judged (11:26-27). The ways of God—His paths—are untraceable because no one could have foreseen where God “was going” with His judgment.
11:34-35. Following his praise to God in v 33, Paul at once adds a final, climactic reference to the OT (Isa 40:13; Job 41:11).
The two quotations combined summarize Paul’s thought quite well. God’s dealings with Israel partake of the divine inscrutability. The “mystery” of Israel’s hardening (v 25) was God’s secret (“Who indeed has known the mind of the Lord?”) and was in no way a result of human “counsel” or “advice” (“Or who has been His counselor?”). At the same time, God’s plans for Israel do not flow from any merit on Israel’s part, as though they had given Him something He needed to repay (“Or who has given first to Him, so that it shall be paid back to him?”). All is the result of His mercy.
11:36. This doxology continues to express Paul’s awe at the unfathomable “depth” of God’s wisdom (v 33). But it also adds a new thought. The force of Paul’s words is that God is the divine Source of everything (all things are from Him) as He is also the medium through which everything is realized (all things are…through Him) and that finally everything is done with a view to His own interests (all things are…for Him).
God’s amazing “paths” (v 33) with Israel and the nations are according to His matchless wisdom.
Zane Hodges was a pastor, author, and professor of Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was promoted to glory in 2008.