Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
There is a distinct break in the Epistle at this point. The subject of the preceding chapters, the development of the gospel scheme, has been worked up to a climax. We might imagine that at the end of chapter 8 the Epistle was laid aside, and the Apostle now begins upon a new topic, in the discussion of which, however, he still retains the same vein of deep emotion that had characterised his latest utterances. This new topic is the relation of the Christian system just expounded to the chosen people. And here, after a few opening words of patriotic sympathy (Romans 9:1-5), the Apostle discusses: (1) the justice of their rejection (Romans 9:6-29); (2) its causes (Romans 9:30 to Romans 10:21); (3) its compensations and qualifications (Romans 11:1-32); with a closing doxology (Romans 11:33-36). The section including these three chapters is complete and rounded in itself.
I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost,(1-5) My heart bleeds for Israel, my country, that highly-privileged people. I could fain have changed places with them, and been myself cut off from Christ, if only they might have been saved.
(1) I say the truth in Christ.—The meaning of this expression seems to be, “From the bottom of my soul, in the most sacred part of my being, as a Christian man united to Christ, I make this solemn asseveration.”
My conscience.—Here, as in Romans 2:15, very much in the modern sense of the word, the introspective faculty which sits in judgment upon actions, and assigns to them their moral qualities of praise or blame. “This conscience of mine being also overshadowed with the Holy Spirit, and therefore incapable of falsehood or self-deception.”
For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh:(3) I could wish . . .—Rather, I could have wished. The wish, of course, related to what was really impossible. Still it is a nobly generous impulse, at which some weak minds have been shocked, and out of which others have made sentimental capital. Let us leave it as it is.
Accursed from Christ.—Separated from Christ, and devoted to destruction. Does not the intensity of this expression help us to realise one aspect of the Atonement—“being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13)? (The Greek word for “curse” is different, but comes to be nearly equivalent.)
Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises;(4) The adoption.—They are the theocratic people, the people whom God had, as it were, adopted to Himself, and taken into the special filial relation. (Comp. Hosea 11:1, “I called my son out of Egypt;” Exodus 4:22, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn;” et al.)
The covenants.—Not the two tables of stone, but the several compacts made by God with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:14-17; Genesis 15:1-21; Genesis 17:1-22; Genesis 22:15-18; Genesis 26:2-5; Genesis 26:34; Genesis 28:13-15; Genesis 35:9-12; Genesis 46:3-4).
The service of God.—The temple service and ritual.
The promises.—Especially the Messianic promises, a term correlative to the “covenants” above.
Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.(5) The fathers.—The patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Who is over all, God blessed for ever.—These words are a well-known subject for controversy. Trinitarian and English interpreters, as a rule, take them with the punctuation of the Authorised version, as referring to Christ. Socinian interpreters, with some of the most eminent among the Germans, put a full stop after “came,” and make the remainder of the verse a doxology addressed to God, “Blessed for ever be God, who is over all.” Both ways are possible. The question is, Which is the most natural and probable? and this is to be considered, putting altogether on one side prepossessions of every kind. We are not to read meaning into Scripture, but to elicit meaning from it. The balance of the argument stands thus:—(1) The order of the words is somewhat in favour of the application to Christ. If the clause had really been a formal doxology, the ascription of blessing would more naturally have come at the beginning in Greek as in English, “Blessed be God,” &c. (2) The context is also somewhat in favour of this application. The break in the form of the sentence becomes rather abrupt on the other hypothesis, and is not to be quite paralleled. Intruded doxologies, caused by a sudden access of pious feeling, are not uncommon in the writings of St. Paul, but they are either worked into the regular order of the sentence, as in Romans 1:25, Galatians 1:5, or else they are formally introduced as in 2Corinthians 11:31; 1Timothy 1:17. (3) But on the other hand, to set somewhat decidedly against this application, is the fact that the words used by the Apostle, “Who is over all,” and the ascription of blessing in all other places where they occur, are referred, not to Christ, but to God. (Comp. Romans 1:25; 2Corinthians 1:3; 2Corinthians 11:31; Ephesians 1:3; Ephesians 4:6.) There is, indeed, a doxology addressed to Christ in 2Timothy 4:18; it should, however, be remembered that the Pauline origin of that Epistle has been doubted by some, though it is also right to add that these doubts do not appear to have any real validity. The title “God” does not appear to be elsewhere applied to our Lord by St. Paul, though all the attributes of Godhead are ascribed to Him: e.g., in Philippians 2:6 et seq., Colossians 1:15 et seq. In 1Timothy 3:16, which would be an apparent exception, the true reading is, * Who was manifested,” and not “God was manifested.” On the other hand, St. John certainly makes use of this title, not only in John 1:1; John 20:28, but also in the reading, adopted by many, of John 1:18, “God only begotten” for “Only begotten Son.” Weighing the whole of the arguments against each other, the data do not seem to be sufficient to warrant a positive and dogmatic conclusion either way. The application to our Lord appears perhaps a little the more probable of the two. More than this cannot be said. Nor is a stronger affirmation warranted by any considerations resting on the division of authorities.
Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel:(6-13) Now follows a vindication of the dealings of God in rejecting Israel. And this is divided into three parts. Part 1 extends to the end of Romans 9:13, and the object of it is to clear the way by defining the true limits of the promise. It was not really to all Israel that the promise was given, but only to a particular section of Israel.
(6) Not as though.—The scholar will observe that there appears to be here a mixture of two constructions, “the case is not such that,” and “I do not mean to say that,” “I do not intend to say that the case is such as that.”
Taken none effect.—“Fallen through,” or “failed of its accomplishment.”
Of Israel—i.e., descended from Jacob. (Comp. Genesis 32:28.) The promise of God was indeed given to Israel, but that did not mean roundly all who could claim descent from Jacob without further limitation.
Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called.(7) Neither are all the bodily descendants of Abraham also his spiritual descendants. It was expressly stated from the first that the promise was confined to a particular branch of his posterity. The posterity of Abraham, strictly so called, was to be that derived through Isaac. This is very nearly the sense of the original, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” i.e., in “Isaac shalt thou have posterity, which shall be called thy posterity”—“true and legitimate descendants,” thus excluding the seed of Hagar.
That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.(8) They which are the children.—The Apostle explains this restriction in a spiritual sense. Mere natural descent gives no claim to membership in the theocracy.
Of the promise—i.e., not merely “promised children,” but “children born through the miraculous agency of the promise;” the promise is regarded as being possessed of creative power. (Comp. Romans 4:18-20.)
For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sara shall have a son.(9) This is the word of promise.—Rather, this saying is of promise. The children of promise, I say, for the saying, “At this time will I come,” &c., is a matter of promise; it implied a divine and miraculous intervention, and did not come in the ordinary course of nature.
At this time—i.e., at the corresponding time of the next year.
And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac;(10, 11) Nor was the restriction and special selection confined to the case of Abraham alone. It also appeared when Rebecca bore sons to Isaac. It was indeed pure selection. The children themselves had done nothing to make a preference be given to one over the other. There was no merit in the case. The object of the declaration was to ratify the divine electing purpose which had already chosen Jacob to be the inheritor of the Messianic blessings.
Here we have the doctrine of election and predestination stated in a very unqualified and uncompromising form. And it does indeed necessarily follow from one train of thought. However much we lay stress on freewill, still actions are the result of character—the will itself is a part of character; and character is born in us. Of the two elements which go to determine action, outward circumstances, and inward disposition, neither can be said strictly to be made by the man himself. If we follow this train of thought, then it would certainly appear that God, or the chain of natural causes set in motion and directed by God, made him what he is. In other words, he is elected and predetermined to a certain line of conduct. This is the logic of one set of inferences. On the other hand, the logic of the other set of inferences is just as strong—that man is free. There is an opposition irreconcilable to us with our present means of judging. We can only take the one proposition as qualified by the other.
It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger.(12) The elder shall serve the younger.—The margin gives as an alternative rendering, “the greater shall serve the lesser.” The quotation is taken from the LXX., in which there is the same ambiguity.
This ambiguity also appears to exist in the Hebrew, where it is a disputed question whether the words refer to age or to the comparative strength of the two peoples. In either case, it is the nations that should spring from Esau and Jacob that are meant.
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.(14-18) These verses contain the second part of the vindication. This power of choosing one and refusing another has always been reserved to Himself by God; as is seen by the examples of Moses and Pharaoh.
(14) Is there unrighteousness?—Again, as in Romans 3:5, the Apostle anticipates a possible objection. Does not this apparently arbitrary choice of one and rejection of another imply injustice in Him who exercises it? The thought is not to be entertained.
For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.(15) For he saith to Moses.—In the most characteristic period of the Old Testament the divine favour was promised in this way to Moses and denied to Pharaoh. The original of the first quotation has reference to the special revelation vouchsafed to Moses on Sinai, “I will show grace to whom I will show grace.”
So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.(16) Of him that runneth.—A metaphor taken from the foot-races as St. Paul may very possibly have seen them practised at Corinth. (Comp. Romans 9:16; Galatians 2:2; Galatians 5:7; Philippians 2:16.) The meaning is that the prize does not depend on human will or human effort, but on the grace of God.
For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.(17) The converse proposition is also true, that God also uses the wickedness of men as a means of exhibiting His power and justice.
Raised thee up.—Brought into the world and on to the scene of history.
Show my power.—By the plagues of Egypt and by the overthrow of Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.
Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.(18) Summary conclusion from the above.
He hardeneth.—The doctrine of the divine sovereignty is here expressed in its most trenchant and logical form. In Exodus 8:32; Exodus 9:34; Exodus 13:15, &c., the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is attributed to his own act. That act may, however, be regarded as a part of the design of Providence. God’s decrees include human free-will, without destroying it. But how they do this we cannot say.
Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?(19-21) These verses contain the third part of the vindication, which is based upon a possible extension of the objection. Not only might it seem as if this absolute choice and rejection was unjust in itself, but also unjust in its consequences. How can a man be blamed or punished, when his actions are determined for him? The Apostle meets this by a simple but emphatic assertion of the absolute and unquestionable prerogative of God over His creatures.
Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?(20) Nay but, O man.—The answer is not so much a solution of the intellectual difficulty, as an appeal to the religious sense to prevent it from being raised. That His dealings should be questioned at all is a breach of the reverence due to God.
Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?(21) Hath not the potter . . .?—In strict logic, this verse would supply a confirmation, rather than a refutation, of the original objection. If man is merely as clay in the hands of the potter, it would not be un-reasonable to say, “Why doth He yet find fault?” No one would think of blaming a piece of earthenware because it was well or badly made. The argument of the Apostle is not directed to this. He has left the point with which he started in Romans 9:19, and is engaged in proving the position taken up in Romans 9:20. Whatever they may be, God’s dealings are not to be canvassed by men. Still, we cannot overlook the fact that there is apparently a flaw in the logic, though, perhaps, only such a flaw as is inseparable from our necessarily imperfect conceptions of this mysterious subject. The two lines of thought—that which proves the divine sovereignty and that which proves human freedom—run parallel to each other, and are apt to collude when drawn together. (See Notes on Romans 8:29-30; Romans 9:11; Romans 9:18, above.)
What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:(22-29) These verses supply the concluding section of the vindication. All this scheme of God’s dealings, apparently so severe, is really most merciful. To those who really deserved His wrath, He showed longsuffering. While for us who now believe, Gentiles as well as Jews, He had mercy and glory in store. But in both cases the final result was strictly in accordance with prophecy. Hosea had foretold the admission of the Gentiles. Isaiah the exclusion of the greater part of the Jews.
(22) What if . . .—The sentence in the original is incomplete. In its full form it would run, “If God willing to show His wrath” . . . (what can man reply?) This latter clause is dropped or lost in the course of the argument. The best and simplest expedient to supply its place is that adopted in the Authorised version, inserting “what” in italics at the beginning: “What if,” &c. There is a second suppression later in the sentence. At the end of Romans 9:23 we should have to insert some such clause as “He reserved His glory for them,” in order to make the sentence strictly grammatical. These irregularities are due to the Apostle’s habit of dictating, and to the lively flow of his thoughts.
Willing.—While His will was (ultimately) to execute His wrath and display His sovereign judicial power, nevertheless He bore with evildoers, and gave them time for repentance.
Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?(24) Even us.—So far the form of the sentence had been abstract—“vessels of wrath,” “vessels of glory.” Now the Apostle explains who are meant by these abstract terms. The “vessels of glory” are those who were intended to accept the Christian teaching, whether Jews or Gentiles. The “vessels of wrath” are the unbelieving mass of the people of Israel.
As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.(25) As he saith also in Osee.—The original of the prophecy in Hosea relates to the pardon and reconciliation promised to the apostate and idolatrous people of the northern kingdom. It is here typically and prophetically applied to the Gentiles. Those who had ceased to belong to the chosen people, and those who had never belonged to it, were to all intents and purposes in the same position.
Osee.—“It may be questioned whether this word should be pronounced as a dissyllable, the double e being regarded as an English termination, as in Zebedee, Pharisee, &c., or as a tri-syllable, the word being considered as a reproduction of the Greek form of the name.” (Lightfoot, On Revision, p. 156, n.)
And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.(26) And it shall come to pass.—This, too, was originally spoken of the restoration of the northern exiles to the land of Palestine. As applied to the conversion of the Gentiles, it would mean that the lands which had previously been heathen should become Christian. There is some doubt whether the Hebrew of Hosea should not rather be translated, “instead of calling them,” for “in her place where it was said unto them.” Instead of calling them “Ye are not my people,” they will be called “Sons of the living God.” So Ewald and Hitzig.
Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved:(27) Crieth.—With reference to the impassioned utterance of the prophet.
A remnant.—Rather, the remnant, with an emphasis upon the word. “The remnant, and only the remnant.”
Shall be saved.—In the original, shall return—i.e., as it is explained in the previous verse, “return to God.” St. Paul has followed the LXX. in putting the consequences of such conversion for the conversion itself.
For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth.(28) For he will finish.—Literally, according to the correct reading, For a sentence, accomplishing and abridging it, will the Lord execute upon the earth; in other words, “A short and summary sentence will the Lord execute upon the earth.” The severity of the sentence is a proof that only a remnant can be saved from it. St. Paul follows the LXX., with but slight deviation. The sense of the Hebrew appears to be somewhat different:—“For though thy people. O Israel, were as the sand of the sea, but a remnant of them shall return: a destruction is decreed overflowing with righteousness—i.e., penal justice. For destruction by a sure decree will Jehovah of Hosts perform in the midst of all the earth.” (Cheyne.)
And as Esaias said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had been as Sodoma, and been made like unto Gomorrha.(29) Said before—i.e., in an earlier part of his book. The Book of Isaiah was at this time collected in the form in which we have it. In Acts 13:33, we find an express reference to the present numbering of the Psalms—“It is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.” (Some authorities read “first,” the two psalms being arranged as one, but “second” is probably the true reading.)
A seed.—Equivalent to the “remnant” of Romans 9:27. The point of the quotation is, that but for this remnant the rejection of Israel would have been utter and complete.
What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith.(30-33) The Apostle has finished with his vindication of the rejection of Israel, and finished also with the course of argument which seemed to bear a strong character of determinism. He now takes up a point of view which is the direct opposite of this, and in explaining the causes which led to the rejection of Israel, those which he puts forward are all such as depend for their validity on the freedom of the will. It is needless to say that this is abundantly recognised in other parts of St. Paul’s writings, especially in the earnest practical exhortations which he addresses to his readers. This, then, must be taken to qualify the argument that has preceded. The freedom of the will and the absolute sovereignty of God are two propositions which, though apparently contradictory, are both really true at one and the same time. When stated singly, each is apt to appear one-sided. They are reconciled, as it were, beneath the surface, in some way inscrutable to us. Both rest on evidence that in itself is incontrovertible.
The great reason for the rejection of Israel and for the admission of the Gentiles is that the Gentiles did, and that they did not, base their attempts at righteousness upon faith. Righteousness is the middle term which leads to salvation. The Gentiles, without seeking, found; the Jews, seeking in a wrong way, failed to find it.
(30) Which followed not after righteousness.—Not having a special revelation, and being inattentive to the law of conscience.
Attained to righteousness.—By accepting the offer of Christianity, and especially the Christian doctrine of justification by faith.
But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness.(31) Israel, on the other hand, though ostensibly pursuing a law the object of which was righteousness, did not reach such a law. They tried to keep the Law, but failed to keep it, and to bring themselves under its protection. The second “righteousness” is omitted in the best MSS.
Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone;(32) For they stumbled.—“For,” in this clause, should be omitted, and the two clauses thrown together, the words “of the law” also going out—Because (seeking righteousness), not of faith, but as if of works, they stumbled, &c.
That stumblingstone.—Christ. When Christianity, with the justification by faith which goes with it, was offered to them, they “were offended,” and refused it.
As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.(33) Behold, I lay in Sion.—A free combination of Isaiah 28:16—“Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone; . . . he that believeth shall not make haste”—and Isaiah 8:14, “And He shall be . . . for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel.” In the first of these passages the prophet refers to the foundation-stone of the Temple as a symbol of the divine faithfulness; in the second to God Himself. St. Paul, like the Jewish Rabbis, applied both passages to the Messiah; not wrongly, for they foretold the triumph of the theocracy which was fulfilled in the Messiah. The same two quotations appear in 1Peter 2:6-7, and with similar variation from the LXX., but they are there kept distinct.
Shall not be ashamed.—So, too, the LXX. The Hebrew is, “Shall not make haste.”