Commentary on Romans 9:17

14 Jun

17 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.”

Notice again, “the Scripture says.” Paul is rooting his thoughts in what God has revealed.

Now he takes an interesting turn here. He turns not to Moses, the recipient of mercy, but to Pharaoh, the recipient of judgment. God had a purpose with Pharaoh in judgment and because of this He raised Pharaoh up. Now when we think of being raised up, we think of something positive, but here it is not for Pharaoh’s blessing but for judgment.

The word raised points to the idea of being made prominent. So Pharaoh comes to the forefront of history and becomes a central figure in God’s work. So why is Pharaoh the Pharaoh? Because God willed it to be so. And in putting Pharaoh in power, God gets to show His power and glorify His name in all the earth.

That power God displayed was some kind of power wasn’t it? The greatest display of God’s power in the Old Testament apart from creation and maybe the flood was the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. That all happened through God’s work in hard-hearted Pharaoh. It was Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness that necessitated the plagues and it was his hard-heartedness that brought about that great miracle at the Red Sea. If the Pharaoh doesn’t pursue Israel, they find another way to travel to the Promised Land but because he hemmed them in, God had to provide a miraculous deliverance. Whenever an Israelite celebrates God’s saving power he goes back to the Passover, when God delivered Israel from Egypt. These great works were the things God became known for in the people that lived around the Israelites. And the reason these things happened like they did was largely because of Pharaoh’s hard heart. Because he would not let the Israelites go, God had to miraculously save them. So this brings us to Exodus 9:16, where God says to Pharaoh the words Paul quoted here. God displayed His glory because Pharaoh stood in His way. God displayed His glory by triumphing over the most powerful man in the world.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Why was Pharaoh so stubborn? Over and over he refuses to let Israel go. Maybe you have to be stubborn to be the most powerful man in the world. I am sure stubbornness comes with the territory often in the halls of power. But beyond that, Pharaoh also hardened his heart against God and Moses. But someone else was doing some hardening too. God said in Exodus 4:21, “I will harden his heart that he shall not let the people go.” Why did God do that? This is not the only time. God will be said to harden Pharaoh’s heart ten more times in these chapters. Now it is true that Exodus also says Pharaoh hardened his heart. So we have here this issue of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Whenever we deal with God’s judgment on someone it is always a two way street because of our corruption because of sin. We are always cooperating with God in His judgment because of our actions. We deserve His judgment. So there is a sense in which God in judging, while acting by choice, is also confirming the course of rebellion we have already chosen. He is still free to choose but His choice is also confirmed by our actions. This is not the case in salvation because we have nothing in ourselves and no track record in ourselves to commend ourselves to God. We are not deserving in any way of salvation. So God’s saving work is all of grace. When we look at what God says about Himself in Exodus chapter 34 when he does appear to Moses, it is instructive. Exodus 34:6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” As I look at that text, I see a real justice in God that deals with sin. But the greater thing is God’s mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. God shows mercy to the undeserving and God can choose at any time to harden confirmed sinners in their way for His own purposes. We see this in the New Testament with Judas. God chose Judas to betray Jesus but Judas acted in ways that confirmed that choice. He was responsible even as he was also God’s chosen instrument of betrayal. The people who put Jesus to death according to Acts 4 chose to do so but they did what they did according to the foreknowledge and plan of God.

So God has chosen to show some mercy and to harden others. But this is very, very significant. Even God’s hardening in the case of Pharaoh served a positive purpose of demonstrating God’s power and proclaiming God’s glory. And this is often how God works when He hardens a person. He is working the hardening in order to open up a greater display of mercy.

Again, consider the example of Judas. God’s work in him led to the betrayal of Jesus, but the betrayal of Jesus led to the salvation of the world. The actions of the Romans and the Jews at the cross were God-ordained but led to salvation for the world. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart led to the deliverance of the Israelites.

Here’s the big connection. What Paul will bring out later in this chapter is that a hardening has come upon part of Israel in order that God might display mercy to the Gentiles. So what happened in Moses’ day is also happening in Pharaoh’s day. A hardening has come upon the Jews, God’s kinsmen in the flesh, in order that God’s name might be proclaimed in all the earth by the gospel going out to the Gentiles. This is where Paul is going in 9:22-23.
This theme of salvation through judgment is so prominent in Scripture you can even make a case that it is one of the primary themes of Scripture. From the cross to the Passover lamb to the entry to the promised land God brings salvation through judgment so that even the right display of His holiness against some has the effect of extending mercy to many undeserving sinners. It is a beautiful truth, especially when you consider that all of us deserve God’s wrath.

As Art Azurdia says, “We raise our fist at God and say ‘why do you save some and not others. And it makes us mad. In our arrogance it makes us mad. As the pot we think we have rights to the potter. But when you understand that we are all guilty then suddently the amazing thing is not that God saves some and not others the amazing thing is that God saves any”. And what we find, even though in this world that the way is narrow and it seems few are saved that when we get to Revelation 7 a numberless multitude is gathered around the throne praising the lamb. So it’s not just that God saves a few. In His great mercy He saves multitudes. He saves many. He is merciful.

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