Romans 9 - God's choice and ours
Throughout the Old Testament, since Genesis 12, God had been working especially with the nation of Israel. They were meant to be a blessing to the whole world too. Paul lists all the huge blessings and clues God gave the Israelites that Jesus was coming. God made them part of his family, turned up personally to be with them, gave them his laws of love, provided a temporary way to be forgiven and made promises about a saviour who would come from their own nation one day.
Paul grapples with why it is that these people don't see the truth about Jesus. The first answer he has is that it's not about genetics. Just because a person is born into an Israelite family, doesn't automatically mean they will trust and follow Jesus and be in his family. It's not about the family you were born into but about being born again into God's family through Jesus (John 3:3).
Paul's saying clearly that the Israelites are a mixed bag. Not all of them belonged to God. Not all of them trusted and followed God. Not all of them were chosen by God to be in his family. Paul quotes the prophet Malachi who put it most starkly - 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'. Even within the same human family, God choses who he will work with and include in his family.
Is Paul saying Jacob was better than Esau? Not at all. Both were sinful and we see some of the huge mistakes each of them made in Genesis. They were just the same as everyone else - Neither of them deserved anything good from God but God in his mercy chose to bring Jacob into his family.
Is he saying that Jacob and Esau had no choice in the matter? No. Paul uses the example of Pharaoh. Genesis tells us that God hardened Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 9:12) but it also tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus 8:32). Both were true at the same time. Jacob and Esau both made their choices too. Esau never trusted and followed God but Jacob (although he took a while to realise it) did. God's choice doesn't negate our choices. His will doesn't cancel out ours. They are both realities that Paul wants us to be aware of, even if we can't understand fully how they go together.
Paul then grapples with why God chooses certain people and not others but he's speculating rather than claiming to fully understand God's reasons. This is shown by his repeated question, 'What if...?' (v22 and v23). His best idea is that God patiently allowed and used some people's sinful lives to help his people realise their need of him. Paul puts it forward as a strong theory based on what the Bible records. His point is not that we try to fully understand God's thoughts. That would be impossible. What he's trying to do is show us that God rules over all our choices and being in God's family is not dependent on our own human effort but on God's mercy to us.
We have a choice about how to react to this. We really do!
Do we get angry, raise our fists to God and blame him for our own selfish choices - sinful choices we know we have willingly made and enjoyed?
Or do we get humble and ask God for mercy through Jesus because we know it's our only hope of being right with him and having peace?
For those of us who have already made the second choice, we get grateful. Grateful that God has had mercy on us. Not because we are good but because Jesus is good and we have received mercy, forgiveness, purpose, peace, life, hope, strength and infinitely more than we could ever earn. And maybe like Paul, we also get pain from thinking about people we know and love who don't yet know and love Jesus, despite all the huge blessings and clues they've had so far and we keep praying for them.