What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." 9 And David says, "Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever."
What is revealed to us about God and his ways in these verses is serious and weighty. It is light-years removed from the trivial early-morning banter you hear on radio. It is never mentioned or considered on television. It is in another world from entertainment. It is never heard or seen in the manuals of church growth or popular assessments of modern culture. But if it's true, all of these are affected. Please listen carefully and consider the weightiness and seriousness of what God has chosen to reveal here in his word.
Verse 7: "What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking." Let's make sure that we see this in connection with the preceding two verses. Verse 5, "So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace." In other words, God has seen to it that out of the people of Israel as a whole, some have believed on Jesus as the Messiah and have been justified. They are now saved from sin and hell.
And Paul stresses that God brought about this believing remnant "according to the election of grace." The remnant was chosen to be the remnant. And that choosing was by grace alone, not owing to anything the remnant had done. That's what verse 6 clarifies and underlines: "But if [this election] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace."
Which leaves the reader with this picture in his head: Back in the days of Abraham, God chose the people of Israel for his own special possession. Over time he made covenants with them and gave them promises of a great future with him. But now Paul is saying that in his generation (as in Elijah's) God has only saved a remnant. It feels breathtaking to many of Paul's listeners. What are you saying, Paul? What are you saying about Israel as a whole?
That is where we are in verse 7: "What then? [What are you saying? Paul answers:] Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking." In other words, Israel as a whole has failed to live up to the law that they pursued (Romans 9:31). They have failed to be righteous in God's eyes. And they have stumbled over the stumbling stone (Romans 9:32), Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law for righteousness for all who believe on him (Romans 10:4). They are therefore lost and cut off from Christ (Romans 9:3).
Then Paul says in Romans 11:7b: "The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened." This is a tremendously important statement for understanding how salvation happens. "The elect obtained it." Obtained what? Obtained right standing with God. Obtained faith and justification and salvation. This is what Paul had said in verse 5: "At the present time there is a [saved] remnant, chosen by grace." So he says in verse 7, The "chosen" obtain it - obtain a standing in the remnant, the redeemed, the justified, the saved.
What then of the rest, Paul? If the remnant exists because of election and sovereign grace, then what are you saying about the rest? Paul answers (verse 7b): "The rest were hardened."
Just think of this in relation to popular American Christianity. Do we ever talk like this? How would we have written it? We would have written, "What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The believers obtained it, but the rest refused to believe." And that would have been true. Absolutely true. And how easily Paul could have written that! How easily he could have avoided the issue of God's election and hardening, just like most people avoid it today.
Why speak this way? I think I know why. God loves you. That's why. And it is good for you to see this and know this and build this into your mental framework—as one of the pillars in your mind that holds up the house of reality. If you don't see this yet—that it's is good for you to know this—you are not alone. It doesn't come immediately. What we should do is ask God to help us see the benefits of knowing this truth. We may see it brightly. Or we may see it dimly. But we should believe it, because God revealed it to us in his word, and he loves us.
"What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened." Three questions: 1) What is this hardening? 2) When did it happen? 3) What is the basis for it?
What Is This Hardening?
In verses 8-10 Paul uses three Old Testament texts to explain and support what he means (Isaiah 29:10; Deuteronomy 29:4; Psalm 69:22-23).
As it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." 9 And David says, "Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever."
We can see from this what the hardening means. Verse 8: God gave them a spirit of stupor, that is, a spirit of numbness and insensitivity. The result was that they were spiritually blind and deaf. "Eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear." They were physically able to see and hear, but they saw spiritual truth as foolish and unattractive.
Now in verse 9 Paul quotes Psalm 69:22-23. Paul sees Psalm 69 as fulfilled in the life and situation of Jesus. David writes it and the final Son of David fulfills it. So in Psalm 69:9 David says, "Zeal for your house has consumed me," and John 2:12 applies that to Jesus as he cleansed the temple. The psalm says, "The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me" (69:9) and Paul quotes this in Romans 15:3 to refer to Christ. The psalm says, "They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink" (69:21), and Luke 23:36 applies this to Jesus as he was offered sour wine on the cross.
So Paul reads the curses of this psalm as divine judgment, spoken by God through David, about the nation of Israel, especially as they rejected the final Son of David when he came, Jesus Christ.
Verse 9: "And David says, 'Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them.'" The table here is the table where they are eating. It probably represents bountiful food and the pleasure of eating. In other words, it probably stands for the simple, ordinary, good things of life. So I take this to mean that their hardness of heart includes the misuse of food and other gifts of God. These good things, given by God, become a stumbling block and a trap. I assume that means that they fall in love with these things. The pleasure that they get in things replaces the pleasure they should have in God. And so their physical appetites—for food or sex or aesthetic pleasure —deaden their spiritual appetites and they lose all desire for God.
Verse 10: "Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever." Again hardening is explained as blindness, as it was in verse 8. Then he says, God's hardening means, "Bend their backs forever." Probably the picture of a bent back is a picture of carrying a heavy load - doing hard work. This is almost the opposite of a table of pleasures becoming a trap. But that is exactly the way we oscillate back and forth when we are hardened against God. We express our idolatry either by preferring food or sex or aesthetic pleasures to God, or by constructing a morality that makes our work, not God's grace, the basis of our religion and our life. So "bend their backs forever" means give them up to their self-made and self-exalting works-religion.
That's what hardening is: spiritual numbness, blindness, deafness, and the turning of God's good gifts into God-replacing pleasures, and God's law into self-reliant labor.
When Did This Hardening Happen?
The answer is seen in the words "to this very day" in verse 8. "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." In other words, this hardening that is happening in Paul's generation to those who are not the remnant has been happening a long time. Paul gets this from Deuteronomy 29:4. "To this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear." Moses said that 1400 years before Paul. And Paul says it is still true.
To Moses' day and to Paul's day the hardening remains. And you can see how long it will remain in Romans 11:25, "Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in."
This must imply that the hardening is not merely in the hands of man, because there is a planned end for it. The hardening will last "until the full number of the Gentiles comes in." So God has appointed it, and God will remove it at the time he has appointed. And we should be like Paul in Romans 10:1, "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved." In other words, we should be praying that the hardening be removed and that the veil be lifted (2 Corinthians 3:14)—that a remnant be saved now and that one day soon the remnant will expand to include all Israel.
What Is the Basis for This Hardening?
Verse 7: "What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened." I tried to show last week from verses 5 and 6 that election is entirely by grace. It is not owing to anything in the remnant that explains why they are chosen for salvation.
The non-chosen—those who are hardened—are not passed over because they are worse. And the chosen are not chosen because they are better. Otherwise grace would not be grace. I was not rescued from my unbelief because I am better than any Jewish person or Gentile person. If you think you were, you nullify the grace of God. We were rescued from unbelief by sovereign grace alone.
In view of this, how shall we describe the basis of hardening? We must describe it in two ways, one way to stress the freedom of God, and the other way to stress the guilt and accountability of man.
First, in the act of hardening God is free and is not ultimately constrained by any act or any condition of man outside himself. We saw from Romans 9, on this very issue, that God's glory depends on his freedom never to be ultimately dependent on the will of man for the choices he makes. So Paul quotes God in Romans 9:15, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." And he concludes, "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. . . 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills." His aim was to stress God's freedom.
That's the first thing we must say about the basis of hardening. God is not finally constrained by human willing. We do not provide the ultimate, decisive causes for the actions of God. God does.
But just as important is the second way of describing the basis of hardening. Look at one important word we skipped over in verse 9: "David says, 'Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them." The word "retribution" implies that punishment of wrong is involved, somewhere along the way, in the hardening. The point is they deserved the snare and trap and stumbling that they experienced. Which means we must really reckon with true guilt and true accountability. You see it in Romans 11:20. Paul describes the non-remnant like this: "They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith." Here he stresses human responsibility.
So this is what we believe. This is what we see in the Bible. God is sovereign; man is a responsible moral agent. God is free and never ultimately determined by forces or actions or wills outside himself. On the other hand, we are morally responsible. We are really guilty for our sinfulness and really deserving of retribution and punishment.
Therefore, we sum up God's hardening work like this: God so arranges all reality, in his unsearchable wisdom, so that many indeed experience ongoing rebellion and hardness against God; but he does this, mysteriously, in such a way that he is never unjust or blameworthy in what comes to pass, and we never cease to be morally accountable.
When he draws us to himself and opens our eyes so that we believe in him and trust him and love him and treasure him, it is owing to nothing in us, and we should be the humblest, most patient, kind, loving, tenderhearted, forgiving, courageous people on the earth. God has made us his own, and it was grace and grace alone that did it. And when he passes over others and leaves them to become hard and rebellious and unbelieving, he does them no injustice. We are as deserving of judgment as they. And it is sheer, undeserved grace that we stand justified in faith.
Oh, that God might grant us to make our calling and our election sure (2 Peter 1:10) by the way we love all peoples. Remember, no one can give God a compelling reason why he should be excluded from God's elect. Let us then join Paul in a passionate pursuit to pray and witness and love and win as many as we can by the grace of God.