The Promise Depends on Divine Mercy
Scripture: Romans 9:6–9:29
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea,“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted,“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
we would have been like Sodom
and become like Gomorrah.”
Last week we began our study of Romans 9 and the whole section of Romans 9–11. The main focus of these chapters is the question of what God has been up to with the nation of Israel. So many of the Israelites in Paul’s day had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, and this creates a problem for the gospel Paul preached. Paul understood that the promise of the gospel was that God would bring salvation to the entire created world through the agency of his chosen people, through the nation of Israel. But since so many Jews in Paul’s day had rejected their own Messiah, this seems to put the entire promise of the gospel on the line.
This is a question that doesn’t seem to concern many Christians, but that’s because we have a difficult time of grasping the importance of our own history and living our lives in light of that story. But if you’re going to understand the gospel and the God of the Bible, you’re going to have to be familiar with the Bible’s story, which is centered on the history of Israel. One of the reasons why Christians have a hard time understanding God and the gospel is because we are not familiar with God’s story. The more acquainted we become with the biblical story, the more acquainted we will become with God and what God is up to in our world today. Yes, what God did in the Old Testament goes a long way in explaining what God is up to even now. The God of Israel does not change. If we can see what God is up to in history, we might better understand what he is up to today.
Paul believes that God has kept his promise to Israel and that, in the end “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). In the passage before us today, Paul takes on a quick journey through three different periods in Israel’s history to show us how the plan and promise of God has been unfolding just as planned. The story of Israel displays the sovereignty of God in bringing about his promises through his abundant mercy.
As we consider these three periods in Israel’s story, we will see the mercy of God’s choice, the mercy of God’s name, and the mercy of God’s wrath.
The Mercy of God’s Sovereign Choice
Paul begins where we might expect him to begin, with Israel’s patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In verses 6-13, he demonstrates that Israel’s history, from the very beginning, is a story of the mercy of God in his sovereign choice.
The sorrow that Paul expressed in the first five verses might tempt one to draw the conclusion that God has broken his promise, but Paul is quick here to say that this would the wrong conclusion to make. What he does in verses 6-13 is to argue, not so much that there is still time for God to make it right, but that, in fact, the rejection of Israel’s Messiah by Israel is, paradoxical as it may seem, part of the plan. Israel’s rejection of her Messiah is to be seen as evidence that God is actually doing what he said he would do. God’s plan of cosmic salvation is moving forward and is not, in any way, being hindered. Now, how is this so?
The Seed and the Children
Paul’s shocking claim is this: “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” He is saying, “Just because you are an ethnic Jew, this does not automatically make you a member of the “Israel” to whom God had made his great promise. Of course, this would be offensive to many Jewish ears, but if it’s true, it would mean that those Jews who reject Jesus as Messiah, who are “cut off” from him, are no problem for the validity of God’s promise made to Israel, because they aren’t actually members of Israel in the first place. You can see that Paul is either going to be seen as a great expositor of Israel’s religion, what it is Israel’s God has been up to all along, or he going to be rejected as a heretic, a Jewish cult leader or something like that.
It becomes clear that if we are going to understand what Paul is saying, we’re going to have to see that he uses the term “Israel” in two different ways. Here in Romans, the two ways are meant to distinguish ethnic Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah (the second “Israel” in verse 6) and those who do not (the first “Israel” in verse 6). The second Israel is a subset of the first and the “Israel” to whom the great promise of the Bible was made.
Now, to prove his point, Paul takes us back to the stories of Israel’s patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Just consider, Paul says, that “not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” This English translation comes off sounding a bit ridiculous. How can any of Abraham’s offspring not be rightly called his children? The Greek of verse 7 literally says, “nor that are seed of Abraham all children.” The key to understanding what Paul is saying is to notice the theologically significant term seed, translated “offspring” in the ESV. The “seed of Abraham” is a smaller unit within the larger group of all his biological children.
Recall that in the biblical story, while Abraham had other children, God said that his promise to Abraham would come only through Isaac. Verse 7 cites Genesis 21:12, “Through Isaac shall your offspring (seed) be named.” The promise of God would not come to pass through all of Abraham’s children but only through the children of Isaac.
But then we must go further, for the Bible also shows that not all of Isaac’s biological children are considered Abraham’s seed either. Verse 10 reminds us of the birth of the twin sons of Isaac, Esau and Jacob. And “the promise,” as it is continued on to the next generation, demonstrates an even further limitation, seen in the prophetic words of Genesis 25:23, cited in verse 12 as well as the prophecy of Malachi 1:2-3, cited in verse 13. The promise would be carried on through the descendants of Jacob and not through the descendants of Esau.
The Purpose of Election
The point that Paul is making is made plain in verse 11. The promise of God will carry on according to “God’s purpose of election.” In other words, when we look to see if God has kept or broken his promise, we are looking at the wrong place if we look at unbelievers. God’s promise simply does not depend upon anyone believing the promise. The promise depends on God and never on us. That’s good news! It is a demonstration of his mercy.
God did not need Abraham to help him out with the promise by fathering Ishmael through Sarah’s maidservant, and God did not have to wait to see if either Esau or Jacob would turn out to be good or bad. The promise would advance according to God’s purpose, in accordance with what God elects or chooses to do. And just in case we miss the point, God’s purposeful choice of how his promise will persist in human history does not depend on the “works” of anybody but on “him who calls”—the “call” here reminding us of God “calling” the seed of Abraham through Isaac and not through any other biological children of Abraham.
Now let us take note of this point in verse 11, drawn from Israel’s own story. God will see to it that his promise of salvation comes to pass. Nothing will stop his plan because it depends on his own sovereign choice and effectual call not on any human works. And God’s sovereign choice means we should not be surprised if we see a pruning of sorts taking place, a narrowing down of just who this “true Israel” turns out to be.
When it comes to his great promise, the promise to save the cosmos through Israel, it becomes clear, already in the Old Testament, that identifying the true Israel is not as simple as counting the descendants of Abraham or Isaac, and we should be prepared that the same would apply to the descendants of Jacob, too. God chooses to narrow down the true Israel—he did this already with the patriarchs, so we should not be surprised if, in the current state of Christianity, he might be doing something similar. Paul believes God has a very good reason for doing this, which he will come to soon enough, but he has to deal first with another objection that arises from the fact of God’s sovereign choice.
The Mercy of God’s Name
The objection arises, quite naturally even to modern sensibilities, from verse 13. God’s purpose of election, of choosing some but not all to be the ones who carry the promise of cosmic restoration forward, brings up the charge of “injustice on God’s part” (v. 14). If indeed God has kept his promise by his sovereign choice, there is still this charge of unrighteousness that comes when we assume it is unfair for God to choose some but not all. Why me, but not them? And the answer to this question is found when we see the mercy of God’s name.
Why Jacob and Not Esau?
The shocking words of verse 13 offend many, and they should. God says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” God’s hatred of Esau is no small thing. It means that God rejected him and his descendants and left them outside his covenant promise choosing to enact it with the descendants of Jacob instead. Our sense of justice makes us wonder on what basis God could make this discrimination between the two brothers.
One thing is clear: God’s choice was not on the basis of what Esau and his descendants had done or not done, and neither was it on the basis of what they one day would or would not do. It is not that God foresaw what would be done by each, that Jacob would be, comparatively at least, better than his brother. That can’t be it because, had God looked into the future, what would he have seen? He would have seen Jacob every bit as evil as Esau, maybe even worse. It was Jacob who took advantage of Esau’s hunger to take away his birthright (Gen 25:29-34). It was Jacob who, in conspiracy with his mother, deceived his father and cheated Esau a second time and took away his blessing (Gen 27:36). It was Jacob who out-tricked his father-in-law and siphoned off his wealth (Gen 31:1). Jacob’s very name indicates who he turned out to be—a deceiver.
Now of course, Esau is not exactly painted in a good light, either. The point is that God did not choose the better of the two and neither did he chose the worst of the two. God simply chose one and not the other, not even taking into account the typical ancient near-eastern custom of which was the eldest. Why then did God choose Jacob and not Esau? The answer, from our perspective, is completely arbitrary, and that, to our ears, sounds unfair.
Mercy on His Own
But let’s take a step back for just a moment and consider our own sense of justice and fairness and equity. Isn’t it true that we human beings aren’t unified on how such things should be analyzed? What seems fair to one is entirely unfair to the other, and deciding what is “just” in a lot of situations gets us right to the heart of so many of our political debates. We better be careful here before we assume that we can play the judge on the rightness or wrongness of what God chooses to do.
Paul’s answer to the question of whether God’s sovereign choice is an act of injustice is, first of all, to respond in the strongest possible way: “By no means!” No way! It simply cannot be. After all, all injustice is sin, we are told in 1 John 5:17, and we are talking here about God who, by definition, cannot sin. Since we are dealing here with the creator God, we had best look at the issue a different way.
In verse 15, Paul cites God’s words to Moses in Exodus 33:19. We are back again in Israel’s story to the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. We are at the moment of the Golden Calf incident where, if we want to talk about fairness and justice, we’re going to have to admit that God’s own people deserve to have the book thrown at them.
Going back to Jacob for a moment, we need to remember that he was not a good dude. He was a liar, a deceiver. You wouldn’t have liked him. He’s not the typical good guy you’d meet in church. And neither were his descendants whom God had rescued from Egypt. Just remember the Golden Calf.
We expect God to be just, to punish all wrongdoing. But what is most surprising about God is his mercy. Because it’s not something God gives sparingly; his mercy is central to his character. You might even say it is his name.
You see, in the context of God’s words to Moses that Paul cites here in verse 15, Moses has asked God to show him his glory. And God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’” And that is when God says what Paul cites in verse 15. In other words, central to who God is, the very essence of his name, is mercy and grace. When we look to see who God is, at the very core of his being, in the awesome display of his glory, we see, if we have eyes to see it, astounding compassion and mercy.
So in verse 16 Paul draws the conclusion. Look, the only explanation for why the promise of God has endured throughout Israel’s history is because “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
The Power of God’s Name
Now this is a point that just cannot be grasped very easily. In Ephesians 2, Paul reminds us Christians that we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:3-5). If we look at the story of salvation, which is exactly what Israel’s history is all about, we should be astounded and humbled by the mercy of God.
Even the story of the plagues in Egypt are meant to cry out: “Behold, the mercy of God!” When we read of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart as a series of ten plagues devastate the Egyptians, what are we supposed to see? Verse 17 cites God’s words to Pharaoh in Exodus 9:16: “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” What is God’s power? What is his name? It is his mercy. And what God did to Pharaoh was not only just—Pharaoh was an oppressive dictator after all—and it was not only the way in which God rescued his people from oppression, it was also the means by which God’s name would be made known to the world. And that name, that power, is mercy.
Now don’t miss this. The way Paul is telling the story is to make the point that at the very time that God is pouring out his just wrath against sin he is, more fundamentally, making known to the world the abundance of his mercy. And so, if Israel now has a hardened heart against their own God, their own Messiah, we should not conclude that God’s promise has failed. Nor should we conclude that God has done something wrong. What we should expect, given Israel’s own history, is that God is up to some great act of mercy, some wider proclamation of his name. Verse 18 does not mean that God is arbitrary, showing mercy to some, hardening others by random choice. When God “hardens whomever he wills” it is for the very purpose of making known to the world the power, that is the mercy, of his name.
The Mercy of God’s Wrath
With this in mind, we turn now to the third era in Israel’s story that Paul brings up, namely, the period of Israel’s exile to Babylon. This is the story in view in verses 19-29 where Paul cites from the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea. This story in Israel’s history is used to illustrate how God’s mercy is not the opposite of his wrath. It’s not that God has to choose between one or the other. Rather, we can see God’s mercy in his wrath.
The Potter and the Clay
Now, in verse 19, Paul faces the objection, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” If, after seeing that the promise of God depends on his own sovereign choice and not human effort, and if, after seeing that God chooses to have mercy on whomever he wills, shall we then conclude that we are faceless characters in the drama of God’s story, and that God is still not to be trusted since he executes wrath on the characters he himself created?
Paul’s answer in verse 20 is not so much, “Hey, God is God, and you just have to deal with it.” For Paul goes on to illustrate from Israel’s own prophets the great mercy of God in the midst of his just wrath. The point of the first part of verse 20 is to say, “You can face the fact that you deserve God’s righteous wrath, or you can hope in the mercy of God on display precisely at the moment of Israel’s greatest judgment.
Paul reminds us of the prophet Jeremiah’s story of the potter and what he does with his clay. The vessel that the potter was making was ruined, so “he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do” (Jer 18:4). Doesn’t God have the right to do the same with Israel? (Rom 9:21). Yes, God can bring destruction on his people but still maintain his promise by his intention to make something new out of the destruction. Verses 22-23 ask us to consider if we might see things differently if we knew that God allowed the Pharaohs of the world to stand and to bring his judgment upon them so that his mercy could spread to more people. What if God did that to Israel so that his mercy could be spread to you and me?
Not My People
Next, Paul cites from Hosea, in verses 25-26.
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
Paul sees that in the story of Israel’s exile, when this strange act of judgment against Israel is done, what emerges is a widening of God’s mercy so that even you and I are brought in.
A Remnant for the World
Paul saw in the prophecy of Isaiah that this is what was to be expected all along. Citing from Isaiah 10:22-23, Paul notes that if God had simply poured out his wrath, there would be nothing left. But in Isaiah 10:22, the decree of destruction results in an “overflowing with righteousness.” So all along we should have expected that there would be a pruning of Israel in judgment, but that when this work of judgment was done, there would be an expansion of God’s mercy in all its glory.
What Paul had come to see is that with the coming of Messiah, Israel’s story had come to its climax and completion. God’s judgment had indeed come upon Israel, not just in exile, but most important at Calvary. God has pruned his people down until there was only one figure remaining. One figure on the cross, one seed, bearing the wrath of God so that mercy would go out to the world.
Shortly after his resurrection, Jesus caught up with two disciples on their way to Emmaus. Not recognizing that it was Jesus walking beside them, they expressed their sorrow, that Jesus had been crucified. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they said (Lk 24:21).
Jesus responded by saying, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:25-26).
If they had only seen in their own story that this is what the true Israel was called to do. This would be his strange work, to take upon himself the wrath of God so that God’s mercy would be extended even further.
Let us not be slow of heart to believe the gospel. The kingdom of the God of mercy comes in the humility of embracing the true Israel, the one who was cast away in order that we might be brought in.
 Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd edition, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 595, note 133.
 N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians, The New Interpreter’s Bible 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 639.
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