ROMANS 9: 27-end
Isaiah prophesies about Israel:
“Though the children of Israel are as numerous as the sea sands
only a remnant of them shall be rescued.
For by bringing to an end and cutting short
the Lord will perform his word on the earth.
And as Isaiah foretold:
“If the Lord of Armies had not left us a seed
we would have become like Sodom
we would have resembled Gomorrah.
Shall I put it like this? The Gentiles who did not press for justice have got justice, namely the justice that comes from trust; while Israel that pressed for a Law of justice did not reach it. Why? Because they did not press for it from trust, but as it were from achievement. They “tripped over the stumbling stone,” as Scripture says,
“Behold I am laying in Zion
a Stone to cause stumbling
a Rock to cause offense;
and whovever trusts in Him
will not be put to shame.”
Translated M Mair 2016
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is for their rescue. I can testify on their behalf that they have a passion for God, but without knowledge; for since they were ignorant of God’s justice and wanted to set up their own, they did not subordinate themselves to God’s justice. For all who trust in him, Messiah is the end of the Jewish legal way of becoming a just person.
This long connected argument is only half of what Paul has to say about his people’s rejection of Jesus Messiah, and what he sees as God’s abandonment of Israel in favour of the Gentiles. Some definite points can be noted here:
1. Paul believes God intended all humanity to be blessed through the descendants of Abraham. This would bring God’s creation to perfection.
2. God’s promise to Abraham concerns initially, the “child of the promise” namely Isaac, the miraculous child of his parents’ old age. In Paul’s terms the promise cannot be applied in a “flesh and blood” way to all descendants of Abraham.
3. The promise is applied by Paul to the “seed” of Abraham which Paul interprets as singular in number, meaning Messiah Jesus.
4 . The Jewish rejection of Jesus also means that God has rejected Israel as his people. This rejection is however temporary.
5. God has nevertheless planned this rejection. He fashions vessels of anger as well as vessels of kindness. My translation emphasises that God “brings forth” these vessels, which are of course, human beings.
6. Paul notes that this may lead to a question about God’s justice. If he makes faulty people, how can he then blame them? He answers this question with a bullying put-down: how can mere human beings criticise their maker? This is a particaularly bad answer for Paul to give, as he above all prioritises trust in God. How can anyone trust a capricious creator?
7 . But Paul presents the process of rejection as involving a hardening of the heart, which in turn involves human decisions. We can see God’s making of vessels of anger, and human decisions to refuse God’s way, as parallel descriptions of the same sinfulness. God’s “predestination” may be no more than his permission of human freewill and his foresight as to its results.
8. God’s abandonment of Israel as the means of blessing the world, is not total: a remnant (a prophetic word meaning those who will return from exile) are rescued by God to take the gospel to the Gentiles, who now are included in the people of blessing, inheriting the titles of God’s favour which had been reserved for Israel.
9. This transfer of God’s kindness has bowever happened through the faithfulness of one Jew, Jesus Messiah, the “seed” of Abraham. By means of his complete trust in God, the ancient promise has been fulfilled and made real for all who trust God through him.
10. Paul will go on to assert that in time Israel will return to God’s fold, which will signify nothing less than the resurrection of the dead.
In this long argument Paul is aggressive in his support of God’s freedom. God is not bound by human notions of right and wrong, just and unjust. Karl Barth and other theologians of the first half of the 20th century, picked up this theology and used it to crush more “humane” views of God. He wrote as if God could be utterly separated from human invention. Clearly he was wrong. So the real question is whether it makes any sense for human beings to invent a God who acts unjustly. The great story of Abraham and the cities of the plain, when he challenges God to behave justly or to surrender his right to judge the earth, shows his refusal to imagine an unjust God. The other great Abraham story however, shows that the invention of a God who is beyond the world and its injustice, brings Abraham the conviction that God is demanding a terrible sacrifice, namely of his son Isaac. The story says that God is testing Abraham, but in fact Abraham, in his iron faith that God is just, also tests God, saying in effect, “You don’t mean this.” And he’s right.
Luther magnificently comments on this story, “In the teeth of life we seem to die. But God says, no. In the teeth of death we live.” But that is an evasion. In the story, the teeth seem to belong to God. Abraham rejects that theology by his faith in God’s goodness and justice.
Human beings invent God, but they are capable of inventing One who is beyond their worlds and their grasp. At his best, Paul gives his audience glimpses of God who is both beyond us and yet infinitely just and loving towards us. At his worst, he gives us a God who is just another inscrutable tyrant.
There are wonderful things in this passage, but we need to be critical to find them.