(Rom 9:30) What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith;
And so Paul sets up the contrast. The Gentiles are among the elect because they have faith in God’s Messiah.
(Rom 9:31-32) but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.”
Notice the arrow of causation. Paul plainly declares that election comes from having faith and not the other way around. He does not say: because you are not elect, you don’t have faith. Rather, the Jews are lost because of how “they pursued” God’s righteousness.
Paul’s distinction is that those who have faith in Jesus are elect and those who do not are not. And he is speaking of the Gentiles and the Jews as nations, not as individuals. After all, if he were speaking at the individual level, he could hardly say that “Israel … has not attained it [righteousness]” as Paul and many other individual Jews had indeed attained righteousness through faith. Plainly, the context is at a national level, just as are the prophesies Paul refers to.
(Rom 9:33) As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
Paul quotes Isa 28:16, which is speaking of the Messiah. God prophesied that some would stumble and fall over Jesus, and others would trust him and be saved.
As we conclude chapter 9, we see that Paul is dealing with a particular question: how can it be that that Jewish nation has, on the whole, rejected Jesus and yet the Gentiles have accepted him? How can “the nations” be saved and Israel be rejected?
The answer is, first, that God can do as he pleases. But God pleases to show mercy to those who love him and not to those who reject him. And God pleases to reward faith and reject unbelief (because faith leads to love, as Paul explained back in chapters 5 and 8).
Moreover, God declared, through the prophets, that it would happen just like this.
Finally, sometimes God hardens people’s heart to allow him to make a point, but he doesn’t take those who would otherwise be saved and damn them. Rather, he causes those who are in unbelief to be plainly not God’s people. He might even allow Israel to become so hardened that they rebel against Rome in a deluded effort to do God’s work for him — and suffer the horrific consequences of trying to do it on your own.
This theme is traced through Rom 1, where God “gives over” unbelievers to detestable sins to be shown as sinners and to demonstrate the necessity for God’s wrath and the need for repentance.
We’ll see the fullness of God’s hardening shortly after the writing of Romans when Jerusalem falls, re-enacting the destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. God will once again declare his rejection of Israel — other than for a remnant — because of their unbelief.
But God did not cause the Jews to rebel. In fact, he came in the flesh to warn them against exactly this and wept over them, foreseeing that their unbelief would result in their destruction.
Now, I don’t deny the logical problems caused by a God who can see the future. Different theologians have their own solutions. I have mine — and I hope to be getting to it. But this is not the problem Paul deals with in Romans 9. And therefore Romans 9 does not give the solution — at least, not directly. You can’t just pull a few harsh-sounding verses out of context and declare that God predestines some to be firewood. That is not the question Paul is answering.
But then, neither is what Paul is saying irrelevant for today. He is showing how God’s hand directs the flow of history. God had a plan to redeem the world, revealed it through his prophets, and then made it happen in Jesus.
The struggle Paul has is why God moved history in such a way that Israel (as a community) rejected Jesus. How could that have happened?