(Rom. 11:9-10 ESV) 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.”
Paul next quotes from Psalm 69:22-23 to make a similar point regarding God’s darkening of the eyes of Israel. Except in this case, the psalmist is not asking for God to keep his enemies from understanding; he is asking for justice — that his enemies suffer as he has suffered. In fact, the curses he calls down on his enemies parallel his suffering recorded in vv. 1 – 10 —
Although the imprecations of these verses sound severe to modern ears, these wishes and petitions do focus on judgment in kind. They seek a reversal. Moreover, as prayers, they commit this just retribution to God. Because “they put gall in my food” (v. 21), may the table set before them become a snare (v. 22). Because “my eyes fail” (v. 3), may their eyes be darkened so they cannot see (v. 23). Because “I am a stranger to my brothers” (v. 8), may their place (or tents) … be deserted (v. 25). Because “I sink in the miry depths” (vv. 2–3, 14–15), may your salvation, O God, “set me on high” (Hb. teśaggebēnî, NIV protect me, v. 29). (On the book of life, see on 87:6.)
Robert L. Jr. Hubbard and Robert K. Johnston, Psalms, 2012, 288.
Therefore, the passage Paul quotes is not speaking of predestination or hardening but justice for the faithlessness of the Jews who reject Jesus. In fact, the earlier verses of the Psalm are often applied to Jesus —
(Ps. 69:9-21 ESV) 9 For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me. 10 When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach. 11 When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. 12 I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me. 13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness. 14 Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. 15 Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me. 16 Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. 17 Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me. 18 Draw near to my soul, redeem me; ransom me because of my enemies! 19 You know my reproach, and my shame and my dishonor; my foes are all known to you. 20 Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. 21 They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.
Therefore, the most natural reading is that Paul refers to Psalm 69:22-23 as fulfillment of the prayer for justice — for those who rejected Jesus to suffer these misfortunes, as examples of the curses found in Lev 26 and Deu 27-29 for refusal to follow God.
If that’s right (and seems pretty clear if you read the full Psalm rather than just the verses quoted by Paul), then we should take a fresh look at —
(Rom. 11:7-8 ESV) 7 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.”
Let’s see. “The elect obtained it” refers to the faithful Jews and Gentiles who obtained salvation. This is spoken of in the past tense. “The rest were hardened” could be speaking, not of why they didn’t believe, but the consequence of unbelief. If “obtained it” is about consequences of belief, then the parallel “were hardened” would be the consequence of unbelief. If you reject Jesus, not only do you remain damned, but there comes a point at which God gives you up to your natural inclinations. Any student of history can see it.
(Rom. 11:11 ESV) 11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.
This is a reference back to —
(Rom. 10:19-21 ESV) 19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” 20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” 21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
Paul reasons that God opened up the gospel to the Gentiles in order to (among other things) make the Jews jealous and motivate them to enter the Kingdom. Of course, this makes no sense from a Calvinist perspective. According to Calvin, if the Jews aren’t elect, they cannot come to faith, and therefore making them jealous would be pointless — and Paul just declared them not elect in Rom 11:7.
No, this is very much about free will. God hopes that the Jews without faith in Jesus will be made jealous by the inclusion of the Gentiles and so come to faith.
(Rom. 11:12 ESV) 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!
As in the Lord’s Prayer, “trespass” is a euphemism for sin. The sinful rejection of Jesus by the majority of the Jews led to the gospel being opened to the Gentiles — and thus “riches for the world.” But surely the full inclusion of Israel — were it to happen — would bring even greater blessings.
(Rom. 11:13-15 ESV) 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?
Paul says he magnifies (takes pride in, speaks highly of, glorifies) his ministry (diakonia, meaning his role as Jesus’ emissary) to make the unbelieving Jews jealous — in hope of saving them (obviously implying that they’re not presently saved!)
To remove all doubt, Paul then speaks of the “rejection” of the Jews for their lack of faith in Jesus, so that their eventual acceptance by God would be like “life from the dead,” plainly indicating that they’re presently spiritually dead.
Notice that Paul sees the possibility of the Jews repenting as potentially imminent — so imminent that he makes a point of magnifying his ministry to the Gentiles so the Jews will be motivated by jealousy to enter the Kingdom. Nothing could be further from the usual end-times interpretation of this passage. Paul thinks it just might happen in his lifetime.
(Rom. 11:16 ESV) 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
Leon Morris explains,
There is little doubt that Paul is here appealing to the fact that the patriarchs (perhaps he means only Abraham) were holy people and this has consequences for their descendants. It means that God will not discard them wholly, and thus in due course the fact that the root of Israel is holy will have its effect in the latest branches.
Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 411.
N. T. Wright offers a slightly different take, but with little difference in result —
It is much better to take the “root” as something, or someone, more permanent; suggestions include the patriarchs, the Messiah, even God. Of these I am inclined to prefer the Messiah.
It is possible that Paul already has in mind the text that he will use at the climactic and concluding point of the letter’s theological exposition, highlighting “the root of Jesse,” whose resurrection installs him as the Gentiles’ true ruler (15:12, quoting Isa 11:10). But even if that is too far away in the letter to be allowed, the Messiah has been at the center of the argument, either implicitly or explicitly, for much of chaps. 9–11, and it is the messianic pattern of casting away followed by life from the dead that Paul has been thinking through in the preceding verses.
The olive tree in the illustration is Israel, the true seed of Abraham, into which wild branches have been grafted but into which, far more easily, natural branches can be regrafted. And the crowning privilege of Israel, the human and historical focus of the nation’s long story as God’s people, is the Messiah (9:5). It is considerably easier, I think, to see the “root” that “bears” both Gentile and Jewish Christians (11:18) as the Messiah than as the patriarchs.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 684 (paragraphing added).
It does make a lot of sense to consider Jesus Messiah as the “root” and first fruit that makes the entire Kingdom holy. We all derive our holiness from Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile.
Or perhaps, in light of chapter 4, Paul is speaking of the Patriarchs for whom faith was counted as righteousness because of the work of Jesus, so that “root” means the entire narrative from Abraham to the resurrection of Jesus.