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Romans 9:6-29

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,

and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy …

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as it were by works …

(verses 14-15, 30-32)


This is a troubling passage to me in many ways. There is much here that I struggle to get my mind around, so much that plunges me into mystery that can’t quite be hammered out as straight and true and linear as I’d like.

Yet, in the background I can’t help but think of Paul writing this with his mind’s eye filled up with a blaze of light on a Damascus Road. Without having consciously planned it, he’d found himself completely off-side with God, relentlessly pursuing a righteousness of works but missing the essential ingredient of faith. It was in that place, while blinded by his own self-reliance, that the Lord himself sovereignly chose to break through.

In that moment, Paul saw what he never would have seen on his own: Jesus is Lord. Faith awakened. Redemption and salvation broke through. In that flash the Lord extended mercy and compassion, doing so by his own choosing.

It is possible to read Romans 9 under the glare of cold, hard light, yielding an impression of steely, arbitrary determinism and fatalism. I don’t think Paul could ever have embraced such a perception. Rather, the warmth of mercy and compassion is what rings out. Yes, indeed, the emphasis is on God’s own choice. He is fully and completely sovereign. He is the potter, we are the clay. We need to remember all of this whenever we begin thinking that all is unfair, “For who resists his will?” (verse 19).

But woven in and around and through it all are the enduring themes of mercy and compassion which keep emerging – mercy and compassion, such as experienced by Paul himself.

What about Esau? What about Pharaoh? Pharaoh is easier, for although it is clear the Lord “hardened his heart,” having clearly stated beforehand he would do so (Exodus 4:21, 7:3), yet it is also clear that Pharaoh himself had a hand in it, at least at points (Exodus 8:15, 32).

The statement “Esau I hated” (verse 13) is harder. I read it as contrasting counterpoint, given to starkly highlight the fact that God himself chose Jacob for his purpose. It was before Jacob was even born – clearly he’d done nothing that could be counted as “deserving.” Esau, in this instance, is just the backdrop. His story isn’t the focus. It’s not his experience that’s being explored. It’s about Jacob, the point being that his blessing was all God’s choice. It was all mercy. Just like with Paul.

Again, there is much that is difficult in this chapter – it simply can’t be side-stepped. But I think we understand it best when we embrace the themes of promise and mercy and compassion, the themes that Paul himself had experienced.

And for those of us, likewise, who are inside the Kingdom, we simply look back and marvel. It had nothing to do with us. It had everything to do with him.

God is good. God has chosen. Wow. Praise his name.


Father, I am plunged into mystery by these verses. What I know clearly is that I am the beneficiary of your grace, your choice. “Chosen before the foundation of the world” – those words ring out over me. You are the One who has chosen. I stand in awe. Thank you. Praise your name.



Take stock. Number the ways you have been shown mercy by the Lord. Give thanks.


Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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