A Journey through Romans 9 (Part Four)

A Journey through Romans 9 (Part Four)

This is the final part of a four part series on interpreting Romans 9. You can also read part one, part two, and part three.

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And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.” —Rom. 9:29

The citation is from Isaiah 1, where the prophet describes “survivors” of the great disaster. Where Isaiah has “survivors” (the same ones who declare the glory of God to the nations in Isaiah 66:19), Paul inserts “offspring.” Now, the thread started in Romans 9:8 is brought to completion, as the children “counted as offspring” for Abraham are interpreted as the remnant of Israel, who join together with many Gentiles and sing praises together with them. It is this blessed family in whom the promise of Genesis 15, read through the lens of Psalm 2 and Isaiah 54, is fulfilled. They are those who inherit the Earth.

The closing verses of Romans 9 bring us back to that image of the footrace.

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. —Rom. 9:30–31

The phrase “pursuing righteousness” has not been chosen randomly. It is an integral part of the footrace described throughout Romans 9-11. I described above the distinction between the righteousness of God and the righteousness from God. Understanding the source of Paul’s language in Romans 9:30 will inform us of what this “righteousness” is. The phrase is a rare one, and is used only once in the Old Testament (Isa. 51:1–5):

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples. My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait.

When we understand this, the passage becomes clear. The “righteousness” being pursued is precisely the redemption of Israel, in fulfillment of the promises of God. It is the redemption that leads to Israel’s Land turning into the Garden of Eden, and which turns Jerusalem into a burning lamp drawing the nations to its light. Paul’s argument is thus that Israel was running towards the promise of redemption and life found in the Torah. Yet, the Jewish people, by and large, have not attained it, while Gentiles have. The reason for this is because Israel’s heart was foreskinned, hard, and empty of the law. It is not for the runner to determine the goal. It is rather for the one who sets up the footrace. It is because the Jewish people did not understand the way in which God’s covenants would be fulfilled that they stumbled:

Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” —Rom. 9:32–33

Let the reader understand. Given the foundation that Paul builds in Romans 1-8, what the passage means is this. It was the Messiah’s faithfulness which led to the fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise for the people of Israel. Those who are “of faith” are those who embody the Messiah’s faithfulness in suffering with Him, thereby being glorified with Him. But Israel did not understand. Instead, they sought to achieve the “goal of the Torah” by running towards it, forgetting that they could not achieve that goal with their foreskinned heart. Here, the “stone of stumbling” is both the Torah and the Messiah. Torah was the imprint of the wisdom of God. As is said again and again in the Psalms, one becomes wise through the Torah. Yet, as Paul says in passages like Colossians 2:3, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. That is, the Messiah is the very embodiment of the Torah, because the Torah was made after his image in the first place. That is why the way to achieve the “goal of the Torah” is by embodying the Messiah’s faithfulness. Through that, one “does the Torah” in the way that God always intended.

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to the righteousness of God. —Rom. 10:1–3

Given what I have written above about the distinction between the righteousness “from God” and the righteousness “of God”, the meaning of this passage clears up. The Jewish people were ignorant of the way in which they could truly find restoration and redemption, as had always been promised. Instead, they attempted to “establish their own righteousness”, that is, to find redemption in the way that they determined. Therefore, they did not submit to “the righteousness of God”, that is, God’s way of fulfilling His covenant promises, disclosed in the death and resurrection of Jesus that established Jesus as the person in whom “Your God Reigns” (Isa. 52:7).

For the Messiah is the goal of the law for righteousness to everyone who is faithful. —Rom. 10:4

It is here that the footrace image reaches its climax. The “goal of the law for righteousness” is that which the law promised, that is, life and messianic redemption. Israel was running towards that goal, but it is “not of him who wills, nor of him who runs.” Israel “pursued a law that would lead to righteousness, but did not succeed in reaching that law.” They did not reach the “goal of the law” because the law found its goal in the faithfulness of the Messiah, crucified and risen, who then pours out his life to all who embody his faithfulness in “suffering with him”, in fulfillment of those Torah promises of life in Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 30. That is why the goal of the law is “for righteousness” (that is, Israel’s restoration) to everyone who is “faithful.” To be “faithful” means to “embody the death and therefore the life of the Messiah.”

The strength of this exegesis of Romans 9:6–10:4 is not simply that it explains one verse. It is that it follows Paul’s argument, verse by verse, step by step, with total coherence. It explains consistently the method with which Paul uses the Old Testament. It allows Paul to be creative in his use of the Old Testament, but creative only in a way that is faithful to what the Old Testament promised. It further explains Paul’s message in light of the concerns that Second Temple Jews had concerning Israel, the Scriptures, the Messiah, and the promised restoration.

Finally, and rather importantly, it explains how Paul could, in the synagogue, win Scriptural arguments in the face of a hostile audience. Midrash is a blessed thing, but it rarely wins arguments. It depends on an audience that already agrees that the crucified Messiah is what the Torah led up to. But Paul’s arguments were not formed to deal with a friendly audience. They were meant to deal with a hostile audience, and it is only when one reads Romans 9 in the manner I have explained above that one can understand how Paul actually achieved his aim in Scriptural argumentation.