In light of the certainty of God’s promises as laid out in Romans 8:28-39 it must pain Paul tremendously to realize that some of God’s people are not coming to the result God has desired for them – that the law would lead them to Christ and be the perfect fulfillment of everything they have known up to this point. It must have pained Paul to pen the words that nothing in all creation would be able to separate us from the love of God and yet realize that some of his fellow Jews were exactly that – separated from God on account of their lack of faith in Christ. It would appear to make Paul’s claims about God’s faithfulness and the certainty of his promises in chapter 8 void. Because Paul will not be there in person to explain himself he goes to great lengths to address their concerns in advance in his letter.
The first thing Paul wants them to be sure of is his love for his fellow Jews. He begins chapter 9 stating his desire that he would even be willing to take the spiritual bullet for his countrymen if it would mean all Israel would be saved. Pau wants to be clear on the fact that he has not turned against his people. He does not dislike his people. He writes these things out of a desire for his people to fully experience what God had in store for them from the beginning and it pains him to even consider that any would miss out. As we see in Acts there were many rumors surrounding Paul’s faithfulness to the law and Paul wants them to be certain he is not apostate in regard to the law…he just understands that there is now something more in store. So it is not that Paul is against them that he writes these things.
It is also not the fact that God’s word had failed (Rom 9:6). What word? Apparently Paul is referencing the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis based on what he writes next, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” – Romans 9:6b-9
Paul’s point here is that Abraham had another son, Ishmael. Just because Ishmael was a physical and genetic descendant of Abraham did not mean he was guaranteed a share in the promise. The promise came through another son, Isaac. So it has been this way from the beginning…just because you are of the physical lineage of Abraham does not make you a part of Israel. So if those who are natural descendant can be outside the promise (and outside Israel) it would make sense that it could work the other way as well…those who were not natural descendants inside the promise could be allowed and become a part of Israel. Paul already covered this in chapter 4 – that it is not circumcision or lineage that makes you a child of Abraham (and thus an heir of the promise) but it is the one who has faith like Abraham had. Paul is saying that God did, indeed, make good on his promise to Abraham, you just have to understand the promise as God intended it from the beginning and not twist it to mean as long as you are physically descended you are in and those who are not physically descended are out…because Ishmael breaks the mold on that one.
It even goes a second generation. In 9:10-13 Paul uses the example of Jacob and Esau. God had plans for each of them even before they were born. Neither of them had opportunity to deserve good or bad but God made a choice in advance for each of them in order to advance his kingdom and carry out his will on the earth. If God can make these decisions for babies in the womb, before they were even circumcised or had opportunity to have faith…certainly God can allow in Gentiles who come to him through faith in Christ. The point is, God is justified to act freely to do what he sees as best for his creation and to fulfill his covenant promises. Before we take this too far it is important to remember that God was not predetermining their salvation there. God was making plans for them apart from their own choosing (see Cranfield on that). Witherington also weighs in on that issue,
The elder would serve the younger, not because the younger deserved better or had done better deeds, but because God In his unmerited favor decided to do it that way, showing mercy on Jacob more than Esau. But Esau’s historical role, however determined by God, does not mean that God cursed Esau and damned him for eternity. – BWIII, 253
In 9:13 we get to that verse that is hard to get our minds around. “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated.” How could God hate someone who had not been born or who at least took a path that God set in advance for him to take? Paul anticipates this objection in the next verse. The solution is in what Paul is trying to emphasize here. Paul is not trying to emphasize God’s hatred. Paul is emphasizing the fact that God had two different directions in mind for them and that was certain based on this strong language. Is God then unjust? Of course not (9:14). God has compassion on mercy when and where and for whom he desires to have it. It is not up to us and it is not based on our merits. It is based on God’s desire and will.
Let’s remember to not chase too many rabbits here and to try to answer questions Paul was not trying to raise. Paul’s whole point here is that God has always been this way and that it should come as no surprise for God to not allow some unfaithful Jews in and for him to allow faithful Gentiles in because God has always had compassion wherever he wanted to have it. Pharaoh was just one more example of God exerting his sovereignty. In 9:19-21 he uses the example of the potter and the clay to show that the potter is indeed free to purpose for a lump of clay whatever he desires and that the clay does not have the right to object because the potter knows how to make pots better than the clay knows and the potter is better suited to making pots out of clay than the clay is able to make itself a pot. Just the fact that we are in the potter’s hand at all is an act of mercy and compassion.
9:22-24 finally offer us a few solutions to the problems we encounter in this chapter. The fact is, God is patient. God is waiting. God wants all to turn and as we will see in chapter 10, God has made every opportunity for all of those involved, no matter what direction he purposed them for, to turn back to God (I believe this is true of Esau and Pharoah). Someone much smarter than myself, although I am not remembering who, made the point that the very fact that the Gentiles were allowed into the kingdom of God is evidence that God is able to show mercy to those who were once objects of God’s destructive wrath. If that is true, the same would be true of Israel if only they would turn back to God through faith in Christ.
In closing, we see in the final verses (9:30-33) that Christ is the stone that is either built upon through faith or is stumbled over through faithlessness. Chapter 10 will elaborate more on that but the point is, God has opened the doors to all who will believe, whether objects of wrath of of mercy, whether Jew or Gentile if they will respond in faith.