1I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit — 2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
6It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, 7and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants; but "It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you." 8This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. 9For this is what the promise said, "About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son." 10Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose of election might continue, 12not by works but by his call) she was told, "The elder shall serve the younger." 13As it is written, "I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau."
14What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. 17For the scripture says to Pharaoh, "I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth." 18So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.
The Apostle Paul is torn -- pulled in one direction for his love for his fellow Israelites who are not responding to the good news of the Messiah and pulled in the other direction by what he knows (that it is the mercy of God alone that makes anyone a true child of God).
You can sense his struggle even in this short passage. On the surface of things (in natural, human terms) it seems fitting and a matter of justice that all Israel should have received happily their Messiah. ("... to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.") But, sadly, all Israel does not accept the fulfillment of so many promises and the fulfillment of their many covenants -- Jesus the Messiah.
Did the word of God somehow fail because all Israel did not come around to Jesus? Paul actually considers such a possibility and answers emphatically that the word of God did not fail (v. 6). For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants (vv. 6-7). The meaning is plain: Hereditary lines are not sufficient for salvation. You cannot be born into God's chosen people. Conversely, just because you are not part of a certain family line does not exclude you from being part of God's chosen people.
Ultimately, whether someone is a member of God's family is a matter of God's mercy. Following the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, and later, Thomas Aquinas, and still later, John Calvin, all affirm that salvation or election is rooted ultimately in God's choosing, God's mercy. Paul himself asserts very clearly, "So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy." Mercy is the relevant notion because the "natural" outcome of our lives and our destinies without God's intervention would be one of alienation, rebellion, and lostness. Without God's mercy, in other words, we would all be in a bad state, our fallen state of living in bondage to sin and death.
Paul follows the Hebraic understanding of God's intimate, involved action in the affairs of the human heart. Paul writes, "So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses." The passage Paul alludes to is the Exodus passage about God hardening Pharaoh's heart. The actual instances of God actively hardening Pharaoh's heart are just a few; the majority of cases of hardening of the heart in the relevant Exodus passages are instances of Pharaoh "hardening his own heart." (The actual Hebrew word for "hardening" is "strengthening," indicating that God strengthens whatever that has been resolved for a person to do.) Why the distinction? If we are not careful, we might get the wrong impression that Pharaoh really wanted to release Israel from Egypt, that somehow Pharaoh's loving intention got thwarted by YHWH' unloving intrusion (of hardening Pharaoh's heart). This would be a misinterpretation and a gross misunderstanding. It is not the case that God goes around hardening people's hearts. It is not the case that there are people who really want to love God but find themselves unable because God prevents them by hardening their heart. Such a view goes completely against God's intention. 1 Timothy 2:3-4, "This is good and pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
It's better that we understand "[God] hardens the heart of whomever he chooses" as a Hebraic, figurative language. It's a way of affirming the sovereignty of God. That ultimately God saves those he wants to save. Taking such language literally got John Calvin into affirming the doctrine of "double predestination," that God elects positively those who will be saved and God elects positively those who will be damned. The "double" is redundant given our fallen state. We don't need any divine help to keep us in bondage. We don't need God's "grace" to keep our fallen hearts hardened against God. We are sufficient unto ourselves to be sinners. But we do need God's mercy to get us out of the trouble we've created for ourselves. Thank God for God's mercy.
Let's pray: Father God, we are thankful for your mercy. Without your mercy, none of us would know you as our Loving Heavenly Father. But because of your mercy as shown in the sacrifice of your Son, we have come to know you and we have come to love you. May your daily mercies keep us thankful. And may your mercy be known to our neighbors as we share the love of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. In Christ's name, Amen.