Overview of Romans 9
Interpreters of Romans fall into two camps: those who claim that Paul’s subject is individuals and those who claim it is the nation of Israel. The former are mostly Calvinists, while the latter are mostly Arminians. The Calvinist arguments from Rom 9:14-18 about God’s hardening of Pharaoh, and from 9:19-23 about God’s freedom as the potter to make vessels of destruction sound powerful and trouble many Arminians. But the reason Arminians have difficulty explaining these passages is because they implicitly accept the Calvinist assumption that the subject is individual salvation and damnation. Once one remembers that the Arminian position argues that the nation of Israel is the subject, these paragraphs read much differently. The following survey of the paragraphs of Romans 9 will show how understanding the subject to be the nation of Israel makes sense out of everything – better sense, in fact, than the Calvinist interpretation.
Romans 9 falls into six parts. Verses 1-5 describe Paul’s anguish over the lostness of Israel and lists advantages that they were given, but they are not currently enjoying due to unbelief. This raises the question of whether God’s word has failed. In verses 6-13 Paul explains that contemporary unbelieving Israel is not the true people of God, so God’s word has not failed. God’s people are not the product of human pedigree, but of God’s promise. In verses 14-18 Paul explains how God is just to harden one group and show mercy to another just as he did concerning Pharaoh and Moses, because God’s national calling is not based on human will, but on God’s elective choice.
Verses 19-23 focus on the vessel of wrath, Israel. A representative of Israel objects to God’s judgment on them, claiming Israel should not be to blame since God willed their unbelief and apostasy. Paul responds by demonstrating that such a claim is proof of an obstinate heart, which also proves God’s justness in hardening Israel for having such an arrogant attitude toward God. Verses 24-29 focus on the vessels of mercy, the Church, which consists of believing Jews and Gentiles. Paul shows how Scripture prophesied the newly constituted people of God, and that everything has happened exactly according to God’s plan. Verses 30-33 are a bridge, a conclusion to the teaching of 9:1-29, but even more an introduction to the argument of chapter 10. In these verses Paul shows why Israel has lost favored nation status with God. Interestingly, it is not because of God’s predetermined will, but because of her own unbelief, stumbling over Jesus. In other words, it was something in her, not something in God, that made the difference. To demonstrate how each of these paragraphs teaches what I outlined above, I will now commence an examination of each paragraph at closer range, focusing specifically on why viewing the subject as the nation of Israel is a sounder interpretation than viewing the subjects as individuals.
Paragraph by paragraph explanation
In verses 1-5 Paul is grieved that his fellow Israelites are lost. It is not sufficient to say that the subject is merely the national historical purpose of God, because Paul grieves specifically over the Israelites’ standing outside of the promises and benefits that belong to his people. If verses 1-5 is not clear enough, 10:1 makes it inarguable that Paul is thinking about his people (according to the flesh) not being saved. But this is still a national condition, not an individual one for the following reasons.
1) The benefits Paul lists in verses 3-5 are things that belong to the people Paul grieves over. If these are individuals who are lost, then it would be inappropriate to say that they belong to such people. Unbelievers, regardless of whether they are Jews or Gentiles, are not the rightful possessors of such things as the glory, the adoption as sons, or even the ministry before God, as 12:1 makes clear this is a ministry that can only be performed by wholehearted believers. 2) the “Israelites” that Paul refers to uses a term that points to national privilege as God’s people, not to individual Jews. It is a term rarely used by Paul and that is used in the Old Testament to refer to the special calling of the nation as God’s people (Kruse, Paul’s Letter, 370 and note). It also refers to the same group discussed in Rom 11:25-29. There Paul describes the national salvation of Israel. Thus the continuity of Romans 9-11 argues strongly that the “Israelites” of 9:1-5 have the same referent as “Israel” of 9:25-29; that is, they are a corporate group, not a bunch of individuals.
3) Paul’s climactic item in his list of privileges is the genealogy of Jesus. He says, “from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah” (v. 5). This simply cannot be said of a bunch of individual Jews. It is not certain that any individual Jew in the genealogy of Jesus was even alive at the time Paul wrote Romans. The most likely candidate is Mary, and she was not an unbeliever, so Paul was not grieving over her. The only way to make sense of this statement of the tracing of the ancestry of the Messiah is if Paul is referring to national Israel, not individuals. Therefore, the only way the rest of chapter 9 can be about individuals is if Paul immediately deviates from the subject with which he opened the chapter and never returns to it.
Verses 6-13 follow the logical line of thinking for someone who acknowledges that the word of God, promised to his people, was not being fulfilled by Israel, whom God deemed to be his people. Paul proves that the word of God has not failed by simply asserting that contemporary Israel is not God’s true people. He does this by stating that not everyone who is born of Israel is truly Israel. This is not a hard case to press because Israel has long understood that a remnant, a people within the people, is the true people of God in times when the nation is in apostasy, which, sadly, covers most of her history. God established the principle when he called Abraham. He and his seed would receive the promises. But not all his seed, only the child of promise. Similarly, Abraham’s promised son, Isaac had two sons, but only one of them would inherit the promises, demonstrating that even when Isaac’s promised son, Jacob, who was renamed Israel, would have children, it should not be assumed that all of those children would be children of promise. Of all the seed that would be born of those twelve sons, only a remnant would be the true seed of promise. Contrary to what Calvinists assert, Paul quotes of Malachi 1:2-3 is in context as referring not to the individuals, Jacob and Esau, but to the nations they spawned.
So, Paul says, do not look at national Israel to see God’s word taking effect. Look to the newly constituted people of God for that. Now Paul does not go into this much detail in verses 6-13, because he is reserving discussion of the remnant and of the church’s role in enjoying Israel’s advantages, something God designed to provoke Israel to jealousy, for a later point in his argument. But if we are to understand the rest of Romans 9, we need to follow through Paul’s logic through verse 13, which has identified contemporary Israel as not God’s people, which implies that the church is currently enjoying the status of being part of the people of God.
Already, Paul’s quotation of Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 in verses 25-26 makes better sense, doesn’t it? In part 2 I will continue the explanation of the flow of Paul’s thought from verse 14 through verse 33.