Encountering chapters 9-11 of Romans can seem a little bit like jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool. Whereas chapter eight had us basking in the power and glory of new creation and calling God Abba Father, chapter 9 has us considering what some might term God’s terrible sovereignty, particularly when it comes to those whose hearts God chooses to “harden.” The thing to know here is that Paul isn’t so much changing subjects as he is moving to a new phase in his argument. Chapters 5-8 dealt with the place of the law in the story of redemption. How could it be that the law, given by God and sacred to the Jewish people has taken a back seat in the new chapter of God’s plan in Christ? Beginning in chapter 9, Paul moves to talk about the place of the people of Israel in the story of redemption. How could it be that many of Abraham’s blood descendants could fail to see Jesus as Messiah? Has God somehow been unfair to Israel by including the nations when much of Israel itself has not come to a saving knowledge of Christ?
As Paul tackles this important and difficult question, he moves into territory that makes many of us uncomfortable. Basically, Paul tells his audience that it is not their business to question God and that excluding much of Israel (at least for now) is part of God’s plan. After all, Paul reminds us, God has a history of choosing some and not others, and there was even a moment when God allowed a person to rise to power (Pharaoh) for the express purpose of tearing him down to show forth God’s power and spread his name. So what, Paul seems to say, if in his providence God has chosen to leave much of Israel unseeing?
This is an admittedly harsh argument, but it is important to realize that Paul is making it from a place of love. Even as he explains how it might be that much of Israel has failed to come to faith, Paul makes it clear that it is his great desire that Israel be saved. He is so serious about this sentiment that he contemplates sacrificing himself for his people if such a thing were possible (see the beginning of chapter 9). And, as we’ll see next week in chapter 11, Paul is convinced that God is not done with Israel yet. For now Paul dares to pull back the curtain on providence, and we can only join him there in wonder at the mystery of God’s wisdom and his activity to save the world he loves.