A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 3:9-20. The whole human race.
The apostle is approaching the end of his lengthy argument, and asks himself how to wrap it all up, how to rest his case: *What shall we conclude then?* (9a).
He has exposed in succession the blatant unrighteousness of much of the ancient Gentile world (1:18-32), the hypocritical righteousness of the moralizers (2:1-16), and the confident self-righteousness of the Jewish people, whose anomaly is that they boast of God’s law but break it (2:17-3:8). So now he arraigns and condemns the whole human race.
Although there is considerable uncertainty about both the form and the meaning of the second verb in verse 9, I am content to accept the NIV rendering: *Are we any better?* That is, is there any benefit in being a Jew? If this is correct, then Paul asks the same question twice within the space of a few verses, and proceeds to give himself apparently opposite answers. In verse 1 he has asked: ‘What advantage , then, is there in being a Jew?’ And he has answered: ‘Much in every way!’ Now in verse 9 he asks: *Are we (Jews) any better* or ‘any better off’ (NEB)? And he replies *Not at all!* He certainly sounds as if he is contradicting himself, asserting first that there is great advantage in being a Jew and then that there is none. How can we resolve this discrepancy? Only by clarifying what benefit or ‘advantage’ he has in mind. If he means privilege and responsibility, then the Jews have much because God has entrusted his revelation to them. But if he means favouritism, then the Jews have none, because God will not exempt them from judgment: *We have already made the charge* (i.e. in 1:18-2:29) *that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin* (9), or ‘under the power of sin’ (RSV, REB, cf. Gal. 3:22). Paul appears almost to personify sin as a cruel tyrant who holds the human race imprisoned in guilt and under judgment. Sin is on top of us, weighs us down, and is a crushing burden.
This fact of the universal bondage of sin and guilt Paul goes on to support from Scripture. He supplies a series of seven Old Testament quotations, the first probably from Ecclesiastes, then five from the Psalms and one from Isaiah, all of which bear witness in different ways to human unrighteousness. Paul ‘follows here a common rabbinical practice of stringing passages together like pearls’.
11. there is no-one who understands,
no-one who seeks God (Ec. 7:20)
12. All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no-one who does good,
not even one’ (Ps. 14:1-3 = Ps. 53:1-3).
13. ‘Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practise deceit’ (Ps 5:9)
‘The poison of vipers is on their lips’ (Ps. 140:3).
14. ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness’ (Ps. 10:7).
15. ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16. ruin and misery mark their ways,
17. and the way of peace they do not know’ (Is. 59:7f.; cf. Pr. 1:16).
18. ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’* (Ps. 36:1).