Israel and the Divine Purpose
—Present And Future
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas. He is also visiting Professor of New Testament at Grace Theological Seminary. Winona Lake, Indiana. as well as a member of the visiting faculty at the newly formed Tyndale Theological Seminary in Amsterdam, Holland.
National Numbness—The Bequest of God
Without equivocation the Bible affirms three important truths regarding the nation Israel. First, as Balaam in his prophecies so eloquently declared under the sovereign control of God, Israel possesses a certain pre-eminence among the nations (cf. Num. 23:10, 21, 23; Deut. 33:29). And, second, Israel enjoys a certain separateness from the nations (cf. Num. 23:9). And finally, Israel has the promise of an everlasting persistence before God through convenantal grace (cf. . Jer. 31:31-37).
These are incontrovertible truths, and that is why Paul had to write Romans nine through eleven. After the marvelous exposition of God’s glorious good news in chapters one through eight, one might have asked, “Where is Israel? what is her place in this display of grace?” The propounder of the question would know that no exposition of divine truth can possess credibility without giving Israel her proper place, a place demanded by the ancient promises to her forefather, Abraham. Why is Israel missing from your construction of God’s salvation, Paul? Do you believe that Israel has been by her disobedience cast off like an old worn-out garment?
Almost all readers of the Bible know the basic answer to that question. Paul alluded to it earlier (cf. 3:1-8). God cannot cast off His people, for His faithfulness to unconditional promises is at stake —ultimately His divine honor. In fact, the apostle has said, there exists at the present time a remnant of believing Israelites, including Paul, left by God Himself in grace for Himself.
They have received the benefits of the promises and stand as evidence of the fact that God has not cast off His people (cf. vv. 1-6).
But what of the mass of Israelites, the nation, the “disobedient and gainsaying people” (cf. 10:21)? The picture darkens. They, it is true, have failed the test of faith-obedience (cf. 1:5, 17; 3:22; 16:26). To use Paul’s own illustration of the olive tree, which he expounds a few sentences on, they are branches that have been broken off, severed from the life of the patriarchal promises (cf. vv. 11-24). And worse, as we shall see shortly, they have been hardened in disciplinary judgment (vv. 7-10).
The section of Romans eleven before us in this study, then, becomes important for the light it throws on Israel’s past and present. It touches directly upon the trials and tensions of the Jewish people, whether in the State of Israel or scattered throughout God’s world. And it is the considered opinion of many biblical students that there is no solution to Israel’s troubles other than that suggested by Moses centuries ago in Leviticus 26:40-42, “If they confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass (is the singular important?) which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; and that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land.” But when that time does come, and it will, then the earth shall echo Moses’ final blessing of the tribes, “Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord (cf. Deut. 33:29).
The Pauline Interrogation
Since the apostle has answered his rhetorical question, “Has God cast away his people?,” he now turns to consider the logical conclusion of the discussion to this point. The nation stands in a state of unbelief, but in the general spiritual corruption sovereign grace has created a genuine remnant.1 Paul’s opening words in verse seven may be expanded into, “What, then, shall we say to the present situation?”
The Pauline Explanation
The failure of the mass (7b-c). Paul’s answer is clear. Viewed from the human side, what Israel seeks, namely a righteousness before God (cf. 9:31-33), she has failed to attain. The present tense in the word, “seeketh,” is a vivid picture of the ceaseless and noble (although misdirected) efforts of Israel after a right standing before God.2 Our society does not seem in the least concerned about their relationship with God.
The success of the remnant (7d). On the other hand, the election has attained that status before God. And it is clear that the apostle emphasizes the divine grace in this possession of righteousness. He calls those who possess it, “the election,” that is, they have their righteousness by divine selection, further defined in verse five as “the election of grace.” Thus, God has not cast away His people.
There are several things to note here. In the first place, it is sometimes said that God elects only to service, and not to salvation. Here, to the contrary, the election has as its goal the possession of the righteousness of God (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13-14). Second, the use of the term “Israel” quite clearly shows that the apostle has the mass of the people of Israel, the nation, in mind. In the case of “election” he has in mind that smaller particular body of believers in the nation. In other words, the election is not simply national; it is also individual election.
John Murray makes the interesting comment on Paul’s use of the abstract, “the election,” rather than the concrete, “the elect,” “When Paul says ‘the election obtained it’ he means the elect. But he uses the abstract noun in order to lay stress on ‘the idea rather than on the individuals’ and thus accentuates the action of God as the reason.”3
The judgment of the mass (7e) . Viewed from the divine side, however, something else must be said. Paul writes, “The rest were hardened.”4 The “rest” are those remaining after the subtraction of the chosen remnant. They have been hardened as a penal judgment for unbelief (cf. 9:18).
There is some question over the meaning of the word rendered, were blind” (A.V.). The verb, derived from a word referring to a callous, or a stone, is used metaphorically in the New Testament of the heart becoming hardened or callous (cf. v. 25 [the noun here); 2 Cor. 3:14). In this context, however, it may have the force of “were blinded,” as the Authorized Version renders it. The following citations with their references to the eyes gives some support to this. The word relates to both the mind and the will.5
The truth that men may be hardened spiritually is a stumbling-block to the natural man, who resists both the biblical view of man and the biblical view of the divine sovereignty. That attitude we must avoid and, if puzzled or perplexed, let us bow before Scripture and await God’s future clarification of the mystery.
Two mistakes have sometimes been made in handling the puzzling, “were hardened.” Without proper consideration of the context some have explained the words as they hardened themselves. As Cranfield says, that misinterpretation “Can easily lead to a hard and unbrotherly attitude to the Jews on the part of Christians.”6 Luther, for example, often expatiated on the hardening of the Jewish heart, forgetting that the Gentile heart is also naturally rebellious (cf. Eph. 4:17-19).
Others have been guilty of a second mistake. They have stressed the passive voice incorrectly, as if Paul was trying to void any suggestion that God performed the hardening. In fact, it is more likely that the passive is used simply to avoid the use of the divine name, a customary Jewish practice. A simple reading of the following verse will pointedly reveal the error. Divine retribution, endorsed by our Lord Himself, cannot be wrenched from Scripture (cf. Matt. 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12; John 12:40).7
In the discussion of such things we often forget an important truth: No one deserves the grace and mercy of God. God would be perfectly just in condemning all. The fact that He has graciously rescued His people is no basis for the charge of unfairness; it is a thrilling magnification of His love and grace. There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture that God prevents a seeking soul from coming to a saving knowledge of Him. On the other hand, there is every indication that, when one does come to Him and is saved, it is traceable to the efficacious drawing of the Father (cf. John 6:44). We rest in these truths.8
The Pauline Illustrations
From the Law and the Prophets (8). In order to nail down his argument and its conclusion, the apostle turns to specific passages from Scripture. In this case citations from the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, the threefold division of the Hebrew Scriptures, settle the matters under discussion. The quotations are freely woven together, and they provide a solemn and compelling climax to the section.
The citation in verse eight comes primarily from Deuteronomy 29:4, but a phrase is also borrowed from Isaiah 29:10. The borrowed phrase is an important one, “the spirit of slumber.” The apostle uses the passages in an illustrative, or typical, manner, finding a parallel between the Israel of Moses’ day and his day. Moses, reflecting on the nation’s history in the Exodus, traces their failure to the Lord’s failure in giving them a heart to perceive, eyes to see, and ears to hear up to his day. In typical Hebrew fashion he traces all their experiences to the Lord as the ultimate cause of everything. The words, of course, are intended to be an appeal to the nation to be faithful to the covenant. The condition of the people is the result of God’s “punitive inflictions.”9 Paul emphasizes this, since he modifies Moses’ negative form of statement into a positive expression of hardening.
The phrase from Isaiah 29:10, “spirit of slumber,” or stupor, is also found in a context of divine judgment upon the nation. Desiring alliances with the heathen nations rather than with the Lord God, Israel shall fall under a divinely imposed deep sleep, utterly unmoved by the glorious Messianic promises given them. Ridderbos has said it well, “Now comes the announcement of the awesome judgment that strikes at this culpable ignorance, rooted as it is in unbelief. They will not, therefore they shall not, understand. The word of God that they have rejected is still effective, if not in saving them, then in hardening them (6:10; 2 Cor. 2:16). The words ‘be stunned and amazed’ (he refers to Isa. 29:9) allude to the way they have often stared dumbly at Isaiah as though when he preached he had uttered incomprehensible things in their presence. Thus they will also stand and stare with the astonishment of incomprehension at the word of God and the work of God in which His word goes into fulfillment.”10 The effect of God’s message upon the people, then, is that of men suddenly awakened from sleep and unable to read a message thrust into their hands. Why? They have no personal knowledge of the Lord they profess to honor (cf. v. 13).
Hodge is right, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. The strokes of his justice blind, bewilder, and harden the soul.”11 Modern Israel testifies to that.
From the Writings (9-10). The apostle concludes the section with a citation from the third division of the Old Testament, the Writings, which includes the Psalms. The citation is from Psalm 69:22-23. The psalm itself is a Messianic one, and, in fact, next to Psalm 22 and 110 it is the most frequently cited one in the New Testament. It is an imprecatory one, that is, a psalm in which the author, in this case David, prays that God will bring condemnation and retribution upon his enemies, for he has been unjustly the object of their murderous ill will and slander.
Paul, as the other New Testament commentators, regards the psalm as a typical one, David’s experiences finding their final fulfillment in the experiences of his greater Son. David’s greater Son bore His suffering ultimately from Judas and his partners in crime and, thus, it is not surprising that Peter cites the psalm and refers part of it to Judas (cf. v. 25; Acts 1:20).
Paul follows the same methodology here. He sees in David’s enemies reflections of the generation that crucified the Messiah and continues on into the apostolic age. David’s opponents live on in Paul’s day. And Paul responds as David did in calling down retribution upon them. Sometimes Bible students try to make the point that the God of the Old Testament, on the basis of such passages in the imprecatory psalms, is a cruel and vengeful deity and not the God of love found in the New Testament. Paul’s citation indicates that the moral standards of the God of the Old Testament are not outdated standards of a warlike and vicious God, but simply express the mind of a just and holy God toward his willful enemies (Matt. 23:1-35; Gal. 1:8-9).
Several things emerge here. First, the figure of the “table” may be inclusive of their possession of the Law, in which they have delighted, yet in a mistaken fashion, and perhaps also of the Messianic promises. Their misuse of the Law, by trying to make it a way of salvation, and their neglect of the promises as the true means of salvation, Paul would have become a snare to them as a recompense for their unbelief. And second, the Authorized Version’s “alway” is better rendered by continually. The bowing down is to be sustained and continuous (cf. Mark 55; Acts 2:25; Heb. 9:6), but it will not go on forever.12 The lifting of the national judgment lies in the future, for retribution is not God’s last word for Israel (cf. vv. 25-27).
Many truths find illustration here. A man is free to accept or reject the gospel but, if he rejects it, he still sustains a relation to the rejected Savior. The rejected message abides, and the rejected Savior becomes a stumbling-stone against which the rejector breaks himself. Just as the smallest particle of light falling on unexposed film produces a chemical change that can never be undone, so the rejection of Christ leaves its ineffaceable mark on the spirit of a man. Men do not merely neglect the gospel. There is always a response, and if rejection takes place, the man is always a worse man, after having heard. Jesus’s words are solemnly true, “Whosoever falls on this stone shall be broken” (cf. Matt. 21:44). As Maclaren says somewhere, “The Gospel once heard, is always the Gospel which has been heard.” And those who turn from our Lord only signify that they have “loved darkness rather than light.”
All the heretics of the ages know the truth now. Just as the King of Babylon was greeted in Hades by the shades there with the words, “Ah, are ye also become weak as we? Art thou also become like one of us?” (Isa. 14:10), so have all the heretics of the past been greeted by their fellow pagans at their deaths. From Cain through Pharaoh, Balaam, Balak, Ahab, Jezebel, Goliath, Sennacherib, from Arius, Sabellius, Socinus, and in our day the existentialists, Bultmannians and other deniers of the full diety of Christ and the penal substitutionary atonement, they have all gone and shall go to the tomb to know the tragedy of a Christ-rejecting life.
Oh! the danger of becoming “gospel hardened!” “Let their table be made a snare,” David said of the unbelieving Israelites of his day, who nevertheless were still offering the sacrifices. That may happen in our evangelical churches, and our services and our observances of the ordinances may become a snare to us, if we are not exercised by them, giving them the attention of our hearts.
It was said of those around the cross, “sitting down they watched Him there” (cf. Matt. 27:36; Luke 23:35). In a sense the watch continues as Christ is preached. The four soldiers indifferently cast lots for His garment. The Sadducees and Pharisees, the intellectual and religious, blasphemed Him. The women and the crowds sincerely pitied Him, but did not really understand. Only the dying thief was touched by the despair of his lost condition, crying out, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” Even the saints fled out of fear and anxiety, provoking the question, “What is our attitude?”
May God move all who read this study to cry out with the thief in the despair of self-salvation, “Lord, remember me in grace and save me by thy sacrifice?”
1 Ernest Kaesemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Broimley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980 (trans. from 4th German ed., 1980), p. 300.
2 Cf. James Denney, “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” The Expositor’s Great Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961), II, 677.
3 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), II, 71: cf. Cranfield, II, 548.
4 Cf. William G. T. Shedd, A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967 [original ed., 1879]), p. 333.
6 Cranfield, II, 549. “Brotherly” is a questionable choice.
7 Cf. Black, p, 142.
8 Kaesemann thinks Paul’s predestinarian view protects justification by faith from confusion with a works justification.
9 Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953 [orig. ed., 1886)), p. 358.
10 J. Ridderbos, Isaiah, Bible Student’s Commentary, trans. by John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985 [original ed., 1950-1951]), p. 233.
11 Hodge, p. 358.
12 Cranfield, II, 552.