Romans (Part 28) - God's Choosing (9:1–12)
We have come through three major sections of Romans so far: The Introduction (1:1–17), God’s Righteousness (1:18–5:21), and Messiah’s Renewal of Life (6:1–8:39). Section 4, which covers chapters 9 through 11, we will call “God’s Israel.” The name Israel comes from two Hebrew words: sarah and El. El, of course means God. The word sarah has many forms, covering a half dozen or so entries in Strong’s concordance. Principally, the root means power or to prevail. As a name (like Abraham’s wife), it meant princess or prince, in other words, one who has power or can prevail. Sarah’s name was changed from Sarai (something like my princess) to Sarah (a broader term for a noble or prince) to indicate her transition from simply Abraham’s wife to mother of God’s people (“I will bless her, and she will produce nations; kings of peoples will come from her”—Ge 17:16b). So, Israel means God’s power or God prevails. Of course, Jacob received this name after wrestling with the angel (perhaps a Christophany) and prevailing. However, the whole idea behind Jacob’s name change was not that he prevailed against God but rather that he prevailed in obtaining God’s blessing. That is why Jacob wrestled—because he wanted that blessing from God. He wanted God’s will accomplished in him. From that picture, we see the greater purpose of God being accomplished in the nation, and thus it is fitting for the nation to be known as Israel. But the nation itself was an image—an image of what God would covenantally accomplish for all humankind through his righteousness in the Trinitarian Covenants of Operational Essence and Creative Purpose and also then in his covenant with his image bearers—the New Covenant of Life. Therefore, it is fitting that the name Israel would apply to all the redeemed people of God. In them God has shown himself to have prevailed.
It is a bit redundant, then, to call this section “God’s Israel” since “God” is already included in the name IsraEL. But we do that to distinguish between the nation of Israel and the New Covenant people of God. Paul makes such a distinction, for example, in Romans 9:6b: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” further giving all New Covenant participants the specific title of Israel in Galatians 6:15–16: “For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation. May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy to the Israel of God!” This Israel of God, or God’s Israel, then, is the subject of the coming three chapters.
Of course, Romans 9 is the chapter which Calvinists insist is the longest, most clearly reasoned support for certain of the ideas central to Calvinism. And a cursory reading (without examining a lot of presumption) would seem to indicate so. From “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau (13) before they were born or accountable for their works (11–12) to God having mercy on whom he will and hardening whom he will (15 and 18) and also the potter’s right and power to make of the same lump one vessel for honor and another for dishonor (21), the alignment with Calvinistic doctrines seems indisputable.
But even taking those few verses I mentioned, we seem to form a concept or understanding that is, in my consideration, extremely unbiblical. We seem to be saying that in God’s interaction with his image bearers on this earth, he has no regard at all for who we are, but cares to enjoin relationship on singularly capricious terms. We simply cannot be satisfied with that thought to say, “Yeah, but the text says so!” We cannot blindly and simply read the text as if it were telling us that because God is God, he will do whatever momentary compulsion drives him that could be against what he previously determined was good. That is not what either the Bible or sound reasoning tells us. We’ve discussed at length God’s Trinitarian Covenant of Operational Essence. According to that covenant, God always acts according to his essence—his truth, goodness, and beauty. Further, the Bible defines by statements and illustrations galore what that truth, goodness, and beauty mean—how they look. To say that this passage in Romans 9 tells us that God will ignore his very own essence of truth, goodness, and beauty to act on whim that results in permanently harming people when he has the righteous ability to rescue tells me one thing only: it tells me that we must be reading the passage incorrectly.
What I suggest, therefore, is that we go back to attempt an approach to this chapter that sits solidly in the direction Paul has pointed us and is indeed trying to guide specifically according to his subject matter (and not weighted down with our own eisegetical presumption).
But admittedly that may be a little difficult. After all, did not Paul just end discussion of a subject in chapter 8? He tied it up with that hymn of assurance, giving us confidence of our bodily resurrection in the fullness of Christlikeness and secured relationship with God. So, would not Paul now actually be turning to a new subject?
Yes, Paul did finish his immediate topic of bodily resurrection in chapter 8. But the completion of the Christian’s redemption was discussed in part as a contrast to the Jew’s faulty perception that their covenants—the Abrahamic and Mosaic ones—were what established them in covenant of life relationship with God. Paul has not lost sight of that overall discussion. So, having explained what New Covenant of Life relationship is—that it is not what the Jews had imagined and therefore currently enjoyed—Paul will now turn back to the Jews to assure them that although their collective understanding had missed God’s plan, they are not abandoned. They may still take part in new covenant. But Paul’s discussion is complicated and requires an orderly, thoughtful approach.
From chapter 8’s exhilarating praise and satisfaction based on the culmination of the New Covenant of Life with the surety that redeemed bodies will accompany justified spirits, Paul, in grief, looks once again at the misunderstanding Jews. The Jews as a whole had missed that direction of God’s plan. By his sorrow, Paul shows he has not merely gone off to embrace the Gentiles to—with them—dismiss the Jews as an unworthy class for the new covenant. And he demonstrates this grief for them in the most dramatic and shocking of ways: he says he could be wishing or praying himself anathema from Christ for the sake of his fellow Jews—his brethren of the flesh (9:3). Several ideas in this statement need to be explored. Let’s start with this term—anathema.
The Hebrew from which this Greek word comes means a thing devoted to a god that becomes completely that god’s possession and is therefore irrevocably withdrawn from common use. It was often used of a votive offering or sacrifice—a person would turn over something of his or her own to God, offering it in a fire to be burned. It was anathema.
So what does Paul mean when he could wish or pray himself to be anathema? The parallel here is to both Moses and Christ. Back in Exodus 32, Moses had been on the mountain receiving the Law from God. The children of Israel couldn’t wait, so Aaron helped them fashion a golden calf from their jewelry. Moses came down the mountain, saw the orgy going on, smashed the tablets of stone, and ordered the Levites to kill those fellow Hebrews (brothers, friends, and neighbors) who were taking part in the debauchery. The Levites did so. Interestingly, then, Moses commends their action by saying, “Today you have been dedicated to the Lord, since each man went against his son and his brother. Therefore you have brought a blessing on yourselves today” (Ex 32:29). But strangely, then, Moses goes to God the next day to try to make atonement for (reconcile) the people to God. Moses admits the people sinned, but then asks God to forgive them for their sin. And, significantly, asks if God would not forgive them, that he (God) would erase him (Moses) from the book he has written. God relents and spares the nation.
We who know of the Book of Life with names of the redeemed written in it (Rev 20:15) shudder at the idea that Moses would risk being excommunicated from relationship with God forever by his request for the people. Why would Moses do so? Other serious questions that arise from this exchange are these: (1) Why would Moses praise and bless the Levites for not showing mercy in the killing of their relatives for this sin, but then go to God to ask him to do the exact opposite of the Levites and forgive, rather than destroy, for this sin—throwing himself in the lot with the condemned? (2) It seems like a great act of love for Moses to take the side of the people, but isn’t loving the people in this case, loving them more than loving God (from whom Moses is willing to be estranged)? And if Moses chose the people over God, why would God then grant what Moses asked? The passage seems to have problems all over the place!
But let’s take a step back. Perhaps some of our presumptions are incorrect. First, who did the Levites kill? The passage tells us that they killed about 3,000 (Ex 32:28). How many people were in the nation? Well, estimates range all over the place from just over 100,000 to about 3 million. Even if we assume only 100,000 Hebrews were at the camp, the Levites killed only about 3%. Why did they stop at 3,000? Remember, Moses did not stop the orgy, order everyone to either admit or deny taking part, and then have killed only those who admitted to it. So why did the Levites stop killing? Since the activity was going on as the Levites entered the partying, the Levites most likely killed all those taking part in the debauchery. Think of 100,000 people packed into a football stadium for a game. There are certain people actively taking part in some capacity for the game: refs, team members, coaches, medical personnel, camera crews, concession crews, security personnel, custodial crews, cashiers, parking attendants, cheerleaders, halftime performers, etc. In other words, you have active participants besides the tens of thousands in the majority who, though not active participants, are watching, cheering, and expressing approval of the game. It appears that the Levites attacked the active participants.
Thus, the stopping of the active sin against God was different from the general consent of the rest of the children of Israel in the camp. And the approval given for the Levites who ended the debauchery of the evening was in different circumstance from the request made by Moses for a now contrite nation of onlookers. That answers one of the questions posed, but still, why would Moses be willing to forfeit relationship with God?
Just as we may have presumed an incorrect association in the judgment/mercy scenario of the previous question, we may be misunderstanding here. Did Moses really risk eternal relationship with God when asking that his name be erased from the book God was writing? When we look back earlier in chapter 32, we find that God had already told Moses when up on the mountain that the people were sinning. God had indicated that he would destroy the whole nation and make a new one starting with Moses. Here Moses argued against that plan not merely because he feels sorry for the Israelites but because he was concerned with God’s plan being accomplished—the plan that God was (in essence) writing through his use of Israel. Moses’s argument then is that from this plan—this story—this book that God was writing—Moses wanted his part removed if God decided to remove the rest of the Israelites. That idea still shows a heart of love by Moses for the people, but it also shows a heart concerned first with God’s announced plan. It is not about Moses giving up everlasting relationship with God. It is an argument Moses uses to ensure God’s plan will continue. It is a forfeiture of Moses’s part in God’s plan of redemption.
The situation of Christ (which the Moses story images) involves similarities and differences. Christ gave up his life for people (as Moses was suggesting), but Christ gave up his life in support of God’s plan. In other words, the focal point in both stories is that God’s plan be continued. The one interceding for the people always supports God’s plan while at the same time showing love and mercy for the people.
Now we can return to Paul’s comments to see the same idea expressed. Paul knows the story of Moses and his interceding by putting his part in the plan of God at risk. Paul had a part in the plan of God for redemption. Paul had mentioned at the beginning of Romans that he had been called by God to be apostle to the Gentiles. By his calling, Paul had already been declared anathema—dedicated to God and useless for any other purpose. If now he would be declared anathema from Christ, he would not have purpose (in this life) for the world or for Christ—he would be worthless and ready to be thrown out (die). It would not have separated him eternally from God or Christ, it would have separated him from his calling in this life—from his evangelizing part in God’s redemptive plan.
But notice what exactly Paul said. In Young’s Literal Translation, we read in verse 3, “for I was wishing (or praying), I myself, to be anathema from the Christ—for my brethren, my kindred, according to the flesh.” The statement seems to indicate that Paul had had this wish or prayer (seemingly standing up for the people in the same manner as Moses), but that wish was a thing of the past. He was wishing, but he then stopped wishing. Why stop? I think it was because he realized the difference between his wish and Moses’s prayer. Moses prayed that he would be anathema if God would not continue his plan with Israel for establishing the redemption image. But Paul’s prayer was that he would be anathema if God would not end his plan for redemption and replace it with one based on a redemption for the physical, fleshly descent of the people. So, while Moses was praying in line with God’s purpose and plan, Paul would have been praying outside God’s purpose and plan.
I think Paul emphasizes this cross (wrong) purpose of his by mentioning that he was grieving for his kindred “according to the flesh” (9:3b YLT). He had just argued in previous chapters up to this point that justification was by faith by our spirits and the flesh would be redeemed surely but later. How could Paul demand of God that he be anathema from Christ for the sake of the still corrupt flesh?! It is this very question that launches us into the rest of the chapter 9 discussion.
What does Paul say in verse 6? “And it is not possible that the word of God hath failed” (YLT). They (the Jews) had all the elements of redemption (9:4–5), but that they continue in the plan of God was not necessary for God’s plan to be fulfilled. Thus, Paul begins a defense of God for choosing—not according to the flesh (as noted in his previous chapters’ discussions)—but according to his redemptive purpose.
Now before we just take off running here, let’s understand what this means for our continuing chapter 9 discussion. It means, first of all, that Paul is not talking about individual election to salvation—individual election to heaven or hell. Paul is talking about the reason it is not now or ever was necessary for God to choose on the basis of the flesh.
Review verse 6 again. Yes, Israel the nation had a part to play in the redemptive plan of God. But the fact that God no longer will use all of Israel in this redemptive plan does not mean that God’s redemptive plan would fail. And Paul underlines this point by saying that not all who are of Israel (of Jacob and the nation by physical, fleshly descent) are Israel (the true prevailing ones of God). Paul is simply saying that physical, fleshly descent is not what determines those with whom God will deal in orchestrating his plan.
And then Paul starts in on the examples. He starts, of course, with Abraham. God made promises to Abraham about his descendants. But not everyone descended from Abraham would receive those promises. Immediately, one of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael, was eliminated by God. God had made a promise that blessings would come to and through Sarah’s child, Isaac.
And if there were any of his audience still clinging to hope of physical, fleshly descent ruling the day, saying that the fleshly plan was through the combination of Abraham and Sarah (and not just Abraham’s descendants), Paul brings up Isaac’s children. Here he emphasizes that Rebekkah was the mother of both children, yet God chose only one to further his plan. (Note that! God chose one to further his plan, not to elect for salvation. We are still not talking about God’s choosing for salvation. We are discussing how God orchestrated his plan of redemption.)
Then Paul makes an even more dramatic underscore. He reminds them that Jacob was chosen to further the plan even before he was born—before either Jacob or Esau could do anything in the flesh to give them merit or dishonor. In other words, God did not give his plan involvement out as reward for the best moral actions taken in the flesh. God would choose for his plan, not on the basis of moral works, but on the basis of his calling.
An important consideration here is that if the Calvinists are right, and Paul is speaking of election to heaven not on the basis of works, Paul would be directly contradicting what he stated in chapter 2:6–7: “He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality. . . .”
So, then, the election (the choosing) of Romans 9:12 is not about heaven or hell; it is God’s choosing in working out his plan through the Jews to establish redemption.