A Commentary by John Stott
Paul’s fourth evidence that God had not totally rejected his people was *contemporary*. Just as in Elijah’s day there was a remnant of 7,000, *so too, at the present time*, namely in Paul’s day, *there is a remnant….* (5). It was probably sizeable. James was soon the tell Paul in Jerusalem that there were ‘many thousands’ of believing Jews (Acts 21:20). Moreover the chief characteristic of this remnant was that it had been *chosen by grace* (5b). Literally, it had come into existence ‘according to the election of grace’, just as God’s purpose is ‘according to election’ (*kat’ eklogen* here as in 9:11). ‘Grace’ emphasises that God has called the remnant into being, just as he had ‘reserved’ for himself the loyal minority in Elijah’s day (4). For grace is God’s gracious kindness to the undeserving, so that if his election is *by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace* (6). It is refreshing, in our era of relativistic fog, to see Paul’s resolve to maintain the purity of verbal meanings. His objective is to insist that grace excludes works, that is, God’s initiative excludes ours. ‘If you confuse such opposites as faith and works, then words will simply lose their meaning.
*What then?* That is, how does Paul apply this remnant theology to the facts of his own day and experience? It obliges him to stop generalizing about ‘Israel’ and to make a division. For *What Israel sought so earnestly* (presumably the righteousness of 9:31) *it did not obtain*, at least not as a whole; *but the elect did*, namely those who were *chosen by grace* (5) and so justified by faith. *The others*, the unbelieving Israelite majority, *were hardened* (7). There can be little doubt that Paul meant that they were hardened by God (since the next verse says that *God gave them a spirit of stupor*). Nevertheless, as with the hardening of Pharaoh and those he represented (9:18; cf.11:25), a judicial process is in mind (*a retribution*, in fact, verse 9) by which God gives people up to their own stubbornness. What this ‘hardening’ means in practice Paul goes on to indicate from two Old Testament quotations, both of which refer to eyes which cannot see.
The first quotation (8) is a conflation of Deuteronomy 29:2ff. and Isaiah 29:10. In the former text Moses tells the Israelites that, although they have witnessed his wonders, yet he has not given them ‘a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear’ (Dt.29:4). From the Isaiah text Paul quotes only the first sentence, to the effect that God has given them *a spirit of stupor*, a complete loss of spiritual sensitivity which (as the context makes clear) was self-induced before it became a divine judgment. Moreover, this condition, Paul adds, continues to afflict Israel to this very day:
8. ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes so that they could not see
and ears so that they could not hear,
to this very day.’
The second quotation (9) comes from Psalm 69, which portrays a righteous person’s experience of persecution. Jesus applied it to himself (‘They hated me without reason’) (Jn.15:25 = Ps. 69:4), and early Christians therefore quickly identified it as messianic. This victim of unprovoked hostility prays both that God will vindicate him and that God’s just judgment will fall on his enemies. Because of the messianic nature of the Psalm Paul is able to reverse its application. Instead of Israel being the persecuted, she has become (in her rejection of Christ) the persecutor. This is what the Psalmist prays:
9. May their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling-block and a retribution for them.
10. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever’.
The imagery is not easy to interpret. But *their table* seems to be a symbol of the security, well-being and community which are enjoyed at home, and which can somehow be turned into the opposite, becoming *a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them*. The reference to *their backs* being *bent forever* is also obscure, although the bent back is normally a picture of carrying a heavy load, whether in this case of grief, fear or oppression.