In chapter 9 Paul is proving how not all of physical Israel is the true Israel, the people of God. God’s promises have not failed because it was never God’s intent to see the fulfillment in physical Israel. Rather, there has always been a winnowing process, a remnant of people, who are truly God’s. Paul used the children of Abraham as his first example. Not all of Abraham’s children were recipients of the promise, only Isaac. Further, not all of Isaac’s children were recipients of the promise, only Jacob. The first point of chapter 9 is that not all who can claim to be Abraham’s children are children of promise (recipients of the promise, the people of God). The second point is that God made this election unconditional. That is, Jacob and his descendants were chosen to be the vehicle through whom God’s promises would flow before Jacob was born and without regard if Jacob acted righteously or wickedly. In fact, the people acted unrighteously, but that has not prevented God’s plan. God would show mercy to whom he would decide to show mercy. God decided long ago that he was going to have a people for himself. Even though physical Israel has failed in being the people of God does not mean that God is not going to have a people for himself. This is not unjust on God’s part because (1) this was always the plan that not all Abraham’s children would be children of promise (not all physical Israel is true Israel) and (2) every person is deserving of wrath. If God has conditions of who he people of God are, then we are blessed by God’s mercy that he continues to have a people because none of us deserve that relationship. The condition of being his people is not being physical descendants of Abraham but spiritual descendants of Abraham, those who walk in the footsteps of faith (Romans 4). This is where we left off in our study and now we will continue our study in Romans 9:19.
God’s Sovereign Righteousness (9:19-21)
Verse 19 is quite challenging in understanding where Paul is leading the discussion because he does not seem to answer the rhetorical question in the following verses. This question, “Why does he still find fault?” appears to be quite similar to a previous objection made by physical Israel in Romans 3:5.
But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) (Romans 3:5; ESV)
The rhetorical question of Romans 9:19 seems to be along the same idea. God cannot find fault with us since this has been his purpose. Further, Paul is showing that Israel has resisted and rebelled against God’s plan. I think the NET translation carries the thought well in this verse because it translates the perfect tense of the sentence: “For who has ever resisted his will?” The NKJV also reveals the perfect tense, “For who has resisted his will?” The question is not forward looking, but backward looking. Who has ever and continues to resist God’s will? I don’t think the intended answer of this rhetorical question is “no one.” Rather, the intended answer is “Israel.” Israel has constantly resisted God’s plan and purpose. We will see this point fully revealed in Romans 10:2-3. Israel has resisted God’s purpose. But God’s purposes are not defeated. When we answer Paul’s question, “Who has ever resisted God’s will?” with the answer, “Israel,” then Paul’s response in the following verses becomes clearer.
Paul’s quotation from Isaiah 29:16 proves that Paul is speaking about Israel’s rebellion to God. The declaration, “Why have you made me like this?” is a quotation from Isaiah’s prophecy. In this section of text, the Lord declares that the people draw near with the mouths and honor God with their lips, but their hearts are from God (Isaiah 29:13). Israel was disobedient, hiding from the counsels of Lord, thinking that no one saw their wickedness (Isaiah 29:15).
“Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (NIV). Who are we to resist God’s plan? Who are we to think that God has it all wrong? Who are we to not like how God is going to save people? Who are we to not like the conditions of his grace? Who are we to think that we can conjure a better way? The TNIV captures the contrast of the frailty of humans arguing and talking back to God. “But who are you, a mere human being, to talk back to God?” (TNIV). We are not in our right place or in our right mind as mere humans to question God’s sovereign and saving purposes.
Verse 21 is the principle that Paul proved in Romans 9:6-13. God has the right to call Abraham’s seed through Isaac, not Ishmael. God has the right to have the promise come through Jacob, not Esau. God had the right to choose Israel as the nation through whom the blessings would come. God also has the right to declare that people are not saved because they are physical Israel or keep the works of the Law of Moses. God’s people are those who walk in faith, not keep the works of the Law. In keeping with the language of verse 21, God can have vessels of honorable use and vessels of dishonorable use come from the same lump of clay.
God’s Patience (9:22-29)
Verses 22-24 truly reveal the mercy and patience of God. Paul presents a question, but it is the reality of the history of Israel, and not merely a hypothetical. There are many times in Israel’s history that God desired to show his wrath and reveal his power against the nation of Israel. We read of these occasions when the nation leaves Egypt, when they wander in the wilderness, and even when they had judges and kings. They were a sinful, stubborn, and rebellious people. But rather than showing his wrath and revealing his power, God endured with much patience those vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. God continued to deal with physical Israel. Why did God show patience to the nation? Why did God endure with the vessels of wrath? Verse 23 explains that the purpose was to reveal the riches of God’s glory to the vessels of mercy.
The point is similar to the point made about Egypt in Romans 9:17. God raised up Pharaoh and allowed Egypt to rule in its wickedness because God had the purpose of showing his power and having his name proclaimed throughout the earth. In the same way, Israel was spared destruction and God patiently endured with the nation for his own purpose of revealing the riches of glory to those who are his true people. God was going to use the physical nation of Israel to bring about the Messiah who would fulfill God’s promises. Despite Israel’s rejection, God was going to accomplish his plan through this rebellious nation. Let us not forget that this passing of time allows for repentance. Israel was presented with numerous opportunities to turn back to God. The prophets preached the message of God, “Return to me and I will return to you.” That patience for the world has not worn off yet. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9; ESV) The wrath of God is coming. Delay must be interpreted as God’s mercy and not that anyone is getting away with their wicked acts.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16; ESV)
Who are the vessels of mercy? The vessels of wrath are prepared for destruction. But who are the vessels of mercy who are prepared for glory? Paul’s answer is, “Us whom he has called.” Paul is writing to Christians in Rome. Christians are the vessels of mercy. The vessels of mercy are not only those who were Jews who were walking in the footsteps of the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:12,16), but also from the Gentiles those who are conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). Notice that those who are merely physical Israel are prepared for destruction. But those who are spiritual Israel, who are circumcised in the heart, are the vessels of mercy prepared for glory.
Paul now validates this point with two quotations from Hosea. The first quotation comes from Hosea 2:23 and the second comes from Hosea 1:10. Hosea was prophesying of a time when Israel would be joined to the Lord in righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness. Israel will be punished for its sins and immoralities, but God in his mercy would call for his people again. Israel was no longer God’s people because of their sins. The Gentiles were never God’s people. Both Jews and Gentiles were not God’s people but now God is calling them to be his people. They were not beloved but God is calling them beloved. They were not his people but now they can be called “sons of the living God.” This description reaffirms the glorious thought that we are not slaves, but sons (Romans 8:12-17). We are not separated from God, but God’s people and in a family relationship with him.
Paul moves to a quotation from Isaiah to further emphasize that from physical Israel who is prepared for destruction God would call out his people. Of the not my people would be a people. Of the not beloved would be his beloved. Isaiah declares that though physical Israel be as numerous as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved. Verse 28 presses home the subtle point of verse 22. Israel is set for destruction. In fact, the whole world is set for destruction because the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness (Romans 1:18). Any saving reveals the mercy of God. The Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay. Only a remnant of the nation will be saved, not the whole physical nation of Israel.
Verse 29 shows us that for even a remnant to be saved is by the direct hand of God. If it had not been for God’s mercy there would not be a people at all. If God had not intervened there would not have been a nation of Israel at all. So it is ridiculous to declare that God is unjust when he has been acting with mercy toward the nation throughout its history, preserving it for his own glory. The HCSB and NKJV probably reveal Paul’s point more clearly by reading, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us a seed….” These offspring that are spared are children of promise, the sons of the living God. The remnant will be the “seed,” the true children of God promised to Abraham.
To summarize Paul’s overwhelming point: From Abraham to the promises of return from exile, God intended to have a true covenant people which would receive the fulfillment of God’s promises, not all of Abraham’s physical family. All Israel, like all the Gentiles, is guilty of sin. If God simply left Israel to itself not only would it have ceased to exist long ago but the promises made through Abraham to the whole world would never have come to pass (Wright, NIB, 644).
- Not all who are Christians are the people of God, the children of promise.
- Praise God for his patience with us when we act like vessels of wrath.