From The Grace New Testament Commentary (Revised Edition)
By Zane Hodges
Introduction: Paul’s Grief for Israel (9:1-5)
9:1-2. Paul strongly asserts that he is telling the truth about his concern for the spiritual state of Israel. He forcefully adds, I am not lying, and my conscience bears witness with me in the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s attitude toward Israel is based on what the Scriptures reveal about that nation’s relationship to God. His feelings are his own but are also mediated to him by the Spirit through the Scriptures.
He has profound sadness over the state of Israel. His emotional reaction is one of both grief and pain in his heart. They are said to be great and unceasing. His feelings for Israel are neither shallow nor intermittent.
9:3. The verb in I…could wish can mean “I almost wish.” The word accursed does not suggest eternal condemnation. Physical death, perhaps by execution, is the worst that the word implies (Acts 23:14).
It is likely that this deeply Christ-like man might at times almost have wished that he could undergo death for his brothers, his fellow-countrymen according to the flesh, just as Jesus had done for him. But, of course, no such possibility was available to him. Paul is speaking here out of very deep emotions.
9:4-5. Paul’s grief for Israel is also based upon Israel’s relationship with God. They are Israelites, which denotes special divine favor (Gen 32:28).
Paul lists six blessings that they have received: Adoption as sons (Exod 4:22-23); the glory; the covenants; the legislation; the sacred service; and the promises. God had called them His son, revealed His glory to them, made covenants with them (Deut 5:3; 19:1), gave them stipulations through the Law of Moses, gave them a God-ordained system of worship, and gave them many promises, including the promise of the coming Messiah.
By specifically stating to whom belong the fathers Paul indicates that the nation benefited from being the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But above all other things—and climactically—it must be said that this is the nation from whom came Christ according to the flesh. That the nation of Israel produced “the Savior of the world” (see John 4:22, 42) is indeed the very pinnacle of divine privilege. This Christ was also the One who is God over all, blessed forever.
God’s Grace Is Selectively Channeled (9:6-13)
9:6. No one should suppose that anything has failed which the word of God had promised or foretold. As Paul will carefully show, Israel’s future is firmly guaranteed by that word, and nothing that has happened in the current behavior of Israel alters this ultimate reality.
Israel does not consist of all those who are related to it by being a part of the nation. For Paul, it is one thing to be an Israelite in the natural sense of that word, and another thing to be an Israelite spiritually.
9:7-9. This can be seen in the experience of Abraham. Just because there is a physical descent from Abraham, that descent is not necessarily spiritual in character. Ishmael and Isaac are examples.
The quotation from Gen 21:12 shows what Paul has in mind. The words, “Through Isaac shall the descendants be called your own,” are part of a response by God to Abraham regarding Sarah’s request that Ishmael and his mother, the bondwoman, should be expelled from Abraham’s home (Gen 21:12). Isaac is designated the “true” seed of Abraham, leaving Ishmael with a physical link to him but no spiritual standing as the divinely designated line of descent.
Simply because people are Abraham’s descendants does not mean that they are all his children. And by this he means, as he goes on to state in v 8, that it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God. To be truly children of Abraham, Paul implies, is to be the children of God.
By way of analogy, therefore, believing Israelites are children of God by faith in Christ, in contrast to unbelieving Israelites who are not. Instead, as mere physical descendants of Abraham, they are actually children of the flesh (Gal 3:7). Only believing Israelites have a spiritual sonship. These children of God are, like Isaac was, children of the promise. It is the children of the promise who are accounted as descendants of Abraham.
In the case of believers, however, the promise in question is no doubt the promise of the Abrahamic blessing (Gen 12:3), which is a gospel promise (Gal 3:8-9).
Isaac’s selection over Ishmael establishes the divine channel for fulfilling God’s purposes through Israel. God Himself chose this channel.
9:10. The pregnancy of Rebecca with the twins Esau and Jacob is the starting point of the new example.
It is significant that Paul stresses here that this pregnancy was by one man. In the example of Isaac and Ishmael, two different mothers were involved. In theory an opponent might argue that Isaac was chosen over Ishmael because of the differing status of the two mothers, but no such difference existed for Esau and Jacob. No Israelite descended from Esau, though Isaac and Rebecca were his parents as well.
9:11-12. With Esau and Jacob, behavior and character played no part in God’s selection for the Messianic line. They had not yet been born when God’s word came to Rebecca, so naturally neither of them had…done anything good or bad. It was due entirely to God’s purpose in accordance with His choice.
This has nothing to do with their eternal destiny. Paul was certainly not discussing whether Esau and Jacob will be in God’s eternal kingdom. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that either of them will not be. Instead, Paul is simply reemphasizing that God sovereignly chose the vehicle through which His purpose for Israel was to be realized. Natural, physical descent is not the basis for God’s sovereign choice.
God’s favor toward Jacob was not by works but by Him who calls. Jacob became the progenitor of the nation not because of works but because God called him to that role.
Paul leaves completely unaddressed the question of why God chose Jacob over Esau. It is illogical to deduce from this silence that there was nothing at all about Jacob that made him a suitable object of divine grace. In Jacob’s and Esau’s case, God’s purpose in accordance with His choice dealt with their positions relative to one another in God’s plan. Esau thus received a status inferior and subservient to that of his younger brother, Jacob (Gen 27:36-37).
9:13. Paul’s quotation of Mal 1:2-3 demonstrates that the status that Jacob obtained through the blessing of Isaac was borne out by subsequent events. It speaks of the inferior heritage of Esau in relation to Jacob as it concerns their lands.
God’s treatment of Jacob’s heritage as opposed to Esau’s heritage was like the contrast between love and hate. God did not hate Esau as a person. Still less is this a reference to his eternal damnation. The descendants of Jacob had a special and superior destiny.
The Israelites of Paul’s day could be divided between those who were simply descendants of Abraham and Isaac (like Ishmael and Esau were) and those whom God had “called” and “justified” apart from works.
Scripture Validates God’s Mercy and Wrath in Reference to Israel (9:14-29)
9:14-16. This discussion leads to a question: There isn’t any unrighteousness with God, is there?
Far from it! Paul replies. God has prerogatives regarding such matters.
In Exod 33:19, God says “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” When it comes to mercy and compassion, God asserts His own prerogative to exercise these attributes toward the person, or persons, He Himself selects. Thus, if God acts in mercy and compassion toward Isaac or towards Jacob, there is no unrighteousness in doing so. Neither Ishmael nor Esau was deprived of anything he had a right to claim.
It is God who sovereignly bestows mercy on whom He will. God, not man, determines who receives His mercy. If we ask the question, “Whom does God choose to have mercy on today?” the Pauline answer is transparent. God has chosen to have mercy upon believers, both Jew and Gentile (11:28-32).
Neither here nor elsewhere in Romans does Paul suggest that anyone is prevented from believing by means of some kind of negative predestination in eternity past. At the same time, Paul would not have agreed that faith occurs without divine intervention (cf. 2 Cor 4:4-6). But Paul never tries to “harmonize” these realities.
9:17-18. The right to show mercy involves also the right not to show mercy. But in the withholding of mercy, God is free to harden whom He wishes.
The Pharaoh in Exodus illustrates this principle. Once again, the issue is not that of being predestined to eternal damnation. The issue is far narrower than that. If God so chooses, He has a right to harden anyone He wishes.
God declares the reason for the hardening from His perspective: “that My name may be declared in all the earth.” In short, Pharaoh was hardened that God might be glorified.
In Exodus the hardening process is attributed to Pharaoh himself (Exod 8:15, 32). Had Pharaoh repented after only a few of the ten plagues, God’s power would not have been fully demonstrated. But Paul’s point is to simply insist that God had every right to do it.
Both points matter for Paul’s argument. God in fact is presently having mercy on both Jews and Gentiles who believe (see 9:23-24; 11:30-32). But He has also hardened unbelieving Israel (11:25). Both are sovereign prerogatives that God exercises as He wishes. But the case of Pharaoh is instructive, since Pharaoh hardened his own heart before God hardened it. Paul would no doubt have said the same of Israel.
But Paul’s development of this theme also shows that God will still have mercy on any individual Israelite who believes. Paul leaves undiscussed any particular factors that might distinguish believing and unbelieving Israelites, either in his time or in ours. The attempts to penetrate the unrevealed counsels of God on this point are futile.
9:19-21. Someone might say, “Why does God still blame anyone? For who withstands His will?” If God hardens the human heart, how could anyone do anything differently, and therefore why would God blame him for what he does? But Paul does not consider this a worthy question.
The words, On the contrary, O man, who are you to answer back to God?, disallow the right of the questioner to raise this issue at all. This shows the extreme limitations on knowledge that man possesses. How can I, a mere human, possibly know in any case of hardening, the extent to which there is human culpability?
So, the objection Paul is dismissing is a conceptual mismatch. One could not imagine, says Paul, that the thing molded could say to its Molder… “Why have you made me this way?”
A potter, in fact, was well within his rights to take a lump from a batch of clay and make a beautiful vessel out of it. But equally he could draw from the same batch the clay needed for a vessel used in the labors of a household servant.
God is the eternal “Molder” and “Potter.” In His infinite wisdom and skill, He fashions and forms human “clay” as it pleases Him to do.
A vessel for honor was proudly displayed to the guests in a household. A vessel for dishonor was used for ignominious tasks and so was kept out of sight in the kitchen area or in a closet.
To the vessel that reflects His glory, there is honor. To the one that serves as the dark backdrop for that glory, there is dishonor. Man has no standing at all to challenge this! Man cannot delegitimize God’s prerogatives.
9:22. The Divine Potter has a right to demonstrate His wrath and make known His power if that is what He wishes to do. Wrath here recalls Rom 1:18. Israel in unbelief has become a focus for God’s wrath.
As Paul’s discussion of God’s wrath in 1:18-32 shows, the term wrath is temporal. Unbelieving Israelites do not have to remain in unbelief.
In fact, God has been implicitly merciful to the vessels of wrath. This is seen in the fact that He has borne them with great patience. God has not fully judged the nation yet.
9:23-24. God’s patience towards the vessels of wrath has lengthened the time for the demonstration of His “wrath” and “power.” But it has also afforded an opportunity for God to display Himself as well in terms of the wealth of His glory. This glory is nothing less than the richness of His mercy since that mercy has now been extended to Jews and Gentiles alike (v 24).
The recalcitrance of Israel which has called forth divine wrath has also been the catalyst for demonstrating how rich God is in mercy. Paul means by this that God’s mercy has overleaped the boundaries of Israel itself and has gone out to the Gentile world.
The vessels of mercy that have been prepared in this way are identified as us whom in fact He has called. The idea is that this glory lies ahead, and God has been at work to get us ready for it. Those vessels consist not only of people from among the Jews, but also of people from among the Gentiles.
9:25-26. Paul now begins to enforce his point from OT proof texts. He has argued that God is dealing with unbelieving Israel through a wrath that is tempered by long patience with them, and this allowed Him to extend His mercy beyond the boundaries of Israel to Gentiles, who were not previously God’s people at all. Hosea says this is true to God’s character.
The two quotations from Hosea present God’s loving acceptance of those upon whom He shows mercy, since He acknowledges them as His people and as “sons of the living God.” This acceptance is experienced by those among both the Jews and Gentiles (vv 23-24). In the very broadest sense, then, the divine action referred to by Hosea applies to all who experience new birth and who thereby become God’s sons and are members of His eternal family. What Hosea applied to Israel refers to nothing less than the wealth of mercy that God bestows on all who are part of His true people.
9:27-28. In his second quotation, taken from Isa 10:22-23, Paul wishes to establish the additional point that God’s mercy to Israel takes the form of mercy to a greatly reduced segment of the whole nation.
In the Isaiah passage (see Isa 10:20-27) we see that in the Great Tribulation only a remnant of Israel will “be delivered” and survive to enter the kingdom. Jesus was speaking of these very calamities in His Olivet Discourse when He said, “And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake [i.e., for Israel’s sake] those days will be shortened” (Matt 24:22). Israel will survive though in greatly reduced numbers, precisely because of God’s mercy and fidelity to them.
It is important to note that this future deliverance is from temporal divine wrath. The statement that “the remnant shall be delivered” ties the Isaiah text back to Rom 5:9-10 and 8:24, and, finally, to the theme in Rom 1:16.
The reckoning that God would make with mankind “on the earth” would be brief. Isaiah sees the Lord “completing it and cutting it short in righteousness.” God’s righteous work of judgment will be swiftly completed. God’s mercy would finally bring His wrath to its swift consummation.
9:29. Isaiah 1:9 drives home Paul’s point. The destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is not an example of eternal damnation, but of devastating temporal judgment. Isaiah says that, but for God’s mercy, Israel might be as completely wiped out as were these two notorious cities.
The OT (vv 25-29) has established that the God who sovereignly bestows mercy on whom He wishes (9:14-18) is acting now in a way consistent with Biblical revelation. As the Divine Potter, answerable to no one, He both postpones His ultimate judgment on the vessels of wrath while dealing mercifully with the vessels of mercy, both Jewish and Gentile (9:19-24).
Conclusion: Israel Has Stumbled over Christ (9:30-33)
Paul is now prepared to state the bottom line in his argument so far. Israel is the object of God’s wrath, and the Gentiles of His mercy, because of Israel’s rejection of Christ. He now summarizes the present situation.
9:30-31. Gentiles are among those who are now vessels of mercy (9:24). This leads to the startling result that the notoriously unrighteous Gentiles have obtained righteousness. God’s mercy is such that this is true even though these Gentiles previously were not pursuing righteousness at all. This righteousness is not based on their conduct, since they were not even pursuing such a goal, but is bestowed on them based on faith.
The righteousness that is by faith, which has been obtained by Gentiles, is quite different in character from the kind pursued by Israel. The Jewish people are pursuing a form of righteousness. But it is not a faith-righteousness, but rather the law of righteousness. But this pursuit has failed (3:19-20), with the result that Israel has not attained to the law of righteousness. Though Israel pursued legal righteousness with zeal (see 10:2), they have not reached their goal.
9:32-33. The reason for Israel’s failure to attain righteousness is because they were seeking it in the wrong way. It was by means of the works of the law rather than by faith.
In my translation the phrase “Stone of collision” replaces the traditional one of “stumbling” because it is too weak here. Obviously, Israel had collided violently with her promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, with the result that He died a violent death at her hands.
But this collision was foretold by Isaiah the prophet. It comes from Isa 28:16 and includes the words about the believer not being ashamed. This concluding statement from Isa 28:16, “And everyone who believes in Him shall not be ashamed,” is important to the following discussion found in Romans 10 and it is cited again in 10:11. Its use there suggests that Paul understood these words as a command (e.g., “you shall not kill”) rather than as a statement (e.g., “you will not kill”). Its force, then, is that despite the rejection of Christ by Israel, for whom He is a Stone of collision, the believer in Jesus should never be ashamed of Him and of his identification with Him.
Zane Hodges was a pastor, author, and professor of Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was promoted to glory in 2008.