What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. – Romans 9:14-18 ESV
Paul had just made the point that not all who are descendants of Abraham are considered children of the promise. God chose Isaac over Ishmael. He chose Jacob over Esau. And His choosing of one over the other had nothing to do with their behavior or perceived righteousness. In fact, while Jacob and Esau were still in the womb, God told Sarah, “The older will serve the younger” (Romans 9:12 ESV). And Paul comments that God made this announcement “though they were not yet born and had done nothing ether good or bad” (Romans 9:11a ESV). Why? “In order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (Romans 9:11b ESV). God chose. His plan, ordained by Him before the world was even created, included His choosing of some over others. He chose Abraham over all the other men on the earth at the time, and not because of anything inherently righteous about Abraham. He chose Isaac over Ishmael, even though Ishmael was Abraham’s first-born son. He chose Jacob over Esau, even though they were twins and Esau was the older of the two. He chose Moses, in spite of his murder conviction. God chose David over all the other sons of Jesse. Then He chose to replace Saul as the king of Israel with David.Paul even quotes the very words of God, spoken through the prophet Malachi. “‘I have always loved you,’ says the Lord. But you retort, ‘Really? How have you loved us?’ And the Lord replies, ‘This is how I showed my love for you: I loved your ancestor Jacob, but I rejected his brother, Esau, and devastated his hill country. I turned Esau’s inheritance into a desert for jackals’” (Malachi 1:2-3 NLT).
The natural, human response to all of this is to question God’s fairness or justice. Our human sensibilities struggle with the idea of God hating one and loving another. We wrestle with the thought of God choosing one and not another. And yet, as Paul illustrates, God’s election or sovereign choosing can be seen all throughout Scripture. God even told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15 ESV). And what is Paul’s point in all of this? God’s choosing has nothing to do with merit. It is all based on His mercy. “So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it” (Romans 9:16 NLT). Paul even reaches back into the history of Israel to show how God chose to use Pharaoh to accomplish His will and proclaim His own glory. “For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, ‘I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth’” (Romans 9:17 NLT). God used Pharaoh in order to display His own power. Over and over again in the story of the God’s deliverance of Israel from captivity in Egypt, we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He did so to display His power and accomplish His divine will for His people.
We struggle with that thought. We question why God would kill some and not others. We wrestle with the idea of God using people like pawns in some kind of divine game. But in doing so, we fail to ask the question, “Why would a holy God choose to show mercy on anyone?” Why would He choose Jacob over Esau? In a sermon on the story of Jacob and Esau, C. H. Spurgeon commented:
“I can tell you the reason why God loved Jacob; it is sovereign grace. There was nothing in Jacob that could make God love him; there was everything about him, that might have made God hate him, as much as he did Esau, and a great deal more. But it was because God was infinitely gracious, that he loved Jacob, and because he was sovereign in his dispensation of this grace, that he chose Jacob as the object of that love.”
Paul’s goal in this passage is to emphasize the mercy of God. No one deserves His mercy. The Jews, just because they were descendants of Abraham, did not automatically qualify for His forgiveness and mercy. They still had to believe. They had to place their faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Thomas Constable comments, “It is not man’s desire or effort that causes God to be merciful but His own sovereign choice. God is under no obligation to show mercy or extend grace to anyone. If we insist on receiving just treatment from God, what we will get is condemnation” (Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Romans, 2009 Edition).
The Bible states that God “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (2 Timothy 2:4 NLT). But we know that not all men will be saved. Many have rejected His offer of salvation and died in their sinful state. Many more will do so in the years to come. Some will be saved. Some will not. When Noah and his family were protected by God and placed in the ark, they were extended the grace of God. But many others were condemned by their own sinful state to suffer death in the waters that covered the earth. The thought of this is hard for us to grasp and understand. But the Bible clearly states, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). All deserve to die. The fact that God extends mercy to any should amaze and astound us. Until we fully understand the gravity of our sin, we will never appreciate the grace and mercy of God. And Paul goes on to say, “but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 ESV). The undeserved, unearned mercy of God should never cease to astound and amaze us.