God's Word has not Failed
After the publication of Philip Yancey’s book, Disappointment with God, he received many letters from believers who were having a hard time believing in God’s promises. It had appeared to them that God’s word had failed, that somehow God’s word didn’t work for them. Disappointments had come with such force that the flame of faith flickered. Charging God with infidelity is this question of doubt that forms the hermeneutical hinge of Romans 9-11. In chapter 9 verse 6a, the Apostle Paul asks, “Has God’s word failed?” In two other similar passages in the epistle, the same question is asked, (3:3) “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?, and (11:1) “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” To the detractor God was guilty of unfaithfulness? Were not the Jews recipients of great promises? Now the position of the Jews seemed so tenuous in light of their rejection of the Messiah? With so many Gentiles responding in faith to Jesus, was the Jewish hope vanishing? The sixth verse of chapter nine, with all its insistence, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed”, is the pivot point; the rest of chapters 9-11 answers this charge leveled at God. Let’s go back at the beginning of chapter nine and look a little closer.
The spiritual euphoria of Romans 8 gives way to dejection in the opening lines of Romans 9. Joy of Christian assurance (forgiveness, victory, relationship of adoption, help in prayer, life with supernatural purpose, and security) collides with the “great sorrow” of Paul’s heart in chapter 9. The shift in mood is introduced by an appeal to the listeners to trust the speaker’s honesty. (Romans 9:1) “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit” To many Jews Paul was a traitor, so He reassures them that integrity guides his concern. When as kids we used to say “cross my heart, and hope to die”, you knew it was serious. The Apostle Paul is serious.
Great sorrow and anguish of heart brings the apostle to pray an impossible prayer. (Romans 9:3) “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh”. In an exaggerated cry to God, he asks for Israel’s salvation. (Romans 10:1) “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved”. It is plain from the outset, that whatever lies ahead is not a matter of theoretical reasoning, but the responses of man who longed for the conversion of Jewish people. Paul’s attitude was like the parents standing at the bedside of their terminally ill child, praying, “God let me die, so she can live, Please God let her live”.
The book of the Acts tells the somber story of Israel’s rejection of the Gospel. (Acts 13:38-50) “. 38"Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses. 40"Therefore take heed, so that the thing spoken of in the Prophets may not come upon you:
41'BEHOLD, YOU SCOFFERS, AND MARVEL, AND PERISH;
FOR I AM ACCOMPLISHING A WORK IN YOUR DAYS,
A WORK WHICH YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE, THOUGH SOMEONE SHOULD DESCRIBE IT TO YOU.'" 42As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. 43Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God. 44The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord. 45But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. 46Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47"For so the Lord has commanded us,
'I HAVE PLACED YOU AS A LIGHT FOR THE GENTILES,
THAT YOU MAY BRING SALVATION TO THE END OF THE EARTH.'" 48When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. 49And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region. 50But the Jews incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.
This mood of Jewish unbelief has not changed in two millennia. Jacob Neusner, dean of rabbinic scholars, told a news magazine interviewer that he wanted Moses, not Jesus. A noted rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, insisted that if he was given the choice of conversion to Christ, or death, he would choose death at Auschwitz!
The sorrow over Israel’s rejection of Christ is only deepened as the Apostle remembers Israel’s historic privileges; catalogued in vss. 4-5, “who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Sonship- Exodus 4:22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD, "Israel is My son, My firstborn.
Glory- Exodus 16:7,10 and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, for He hears your grumblings against the LORD; and what are we, that you grumble against us?" 10It came about as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.
Covenants –Exodus 24:7-10 “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!" 8So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words. 9Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself.
Law- Dt. 4:5-8“See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. 6"So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' 7"For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? 8"Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?
Worship- Exodus 25:8 “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them.
Patriarchs- Exodus 6:8 “I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession; I am the LORD.'"
Messiah- “and of their race according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all God blessed forever. Amen”
Israel’s heritage is summed up in the well worn phrase, “God’s chosen people”. It’s crucial to remember that this is in the Bible (Dt. 7:6) “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth”. Israel’s place among the nations is provocatively singled out by Charles Murray who records (Commentary, 2007), “Disproportionate Jewish accomplishment in the arts and sciences continues to this day. My inventories end with 1950, but many other measures are available, of which the best known is the Nobel Prize. In the first half of the 20th century, despite pervasive and continuing social discrimination against Jews throughout the Western world, despite the retraction of legal rights, and despite the Holocaust, Jews won 14 percent of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when Nobel Prizes began to be awarded to people from all over the world, that figure rose to 29 percent. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32 percent. Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population. You do the math. At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are God’s chosen people. It is Israel’s election that sets them apart, and Moses is keen to remind them that God’s choice was not based on their superior numbers or righteousness, but on God’s love and fidelity to His promises to AIJ (Dt. 7:6-8; 9:6). Israel’s status as God’s elect nation, His special treasure, “the very apple of His eye” made it very difficult to understand the rapid conversion rate among the Gentiles and the formation of the church. Were the Jewish people being erased from the pages of history? If salvation is open to Gentiles as well as Jews on the basis of faith (3:29-30, 10:12), then ethnicity is not a deciding factor. That being the case, have God’s promises failed? If it can be proven that God has failed Israel, then the promises of hope in Romans 8 wither into wishful thinking. We don’t have a hope worth the name. Before we examine the vindication of God’s good name in the rest of Romans 9-11, let’s review God’s promise-keeping ability in the Old Testament.
Case Study #1 Numbers 22-24
God’s word is not obstructed by a pagan diviner who attempts to compel a god or a demon to curse Israel.
(23:8-9) How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him,
from the hills I behold him;
behold, a people dwelling alone,
and not counting itself among the nations!
(23:19-20) God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
Behold, I received a command to bless:
he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
(24:8-9) God brings him out of Egypt
and is for him like the horns of the wild ox;
he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries,
and shall break their bones in pieces
and pierce them through with his arrows.
He crouched, he lay down like a lion
and like a lioness; who will rouse him up?
Blessed are those who bless you,
and cursed are those who curse you."
Balaam, a Mesopotamian diviner, could not with powerful incantations undue the will of God.
II Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Rev. 2:14
Fragments from the Book of Balaam Found at Deir Alla
Biblical Archaeology Review
The date was March 17, 1967, a Friday. A Dutch expedition led by Professor Henk J. Franken of the University of Leiden was excavating a mound named Tell Deir Alla in the middle Jordan Valley, east of the river, in Jordan. The site lay halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, barely a mile north of what was known in Biblical times as the Jabbok River and now is called the Zerqa, a tributary of the Jordan.
Some scholars have identified Deir Alla with Biblical Succoth, where Jacob built a house for himself and booths (succoth) for his cattle (Genesis 33:17). My own view, as I shall explain, is that the tell is Biblical Penuel, where Jacob wrestled with the angel (Genesis 32:25–32). Of one thing we may be certain: During the eighth to seventh centuries B.C., long after Jacob’s time, Deir Alla was an important city, probably more than ten acres in size. It was in the archaeological levels from this city that the Dutch expedition was digging on that fateful Friday in 1967. An Arab foreman named Ali Abdul-Rasul suddenly noticed traces of letters on tiny pieces of plaster among the debris the workers were cleaning up.
These first words, written in red ink, were actually the title of that part of the text:
SùPùRù [B]Lù‘ùMù[.BR B‘]R. ’Sð.H|ZùH. ’LHNù
“Inscription/text/book of [Ba]laam [son of Beo]r, the man who was a seer of the gods.”
(The italics indicate that the letters are damaged; consequently, the proposed reading is probable, but given with some caution. The letters in brackets are probable restorations of missing letters.)
There is little doubt that this is the same Balaam, son of Beor, whose oracles are preserved in Numbers 22–24! Here we have the title of the inscription written in red. Although the name Balaam, son of Beor, in the title is partially reconstructed (“Ba” in “Balaam” and most of “son of Beor” are missing), the second line does much to confirm this reconstruction; nearly the full name appears in line 2 (“son of Beor” is complete and the “m” in “Balaam” has survived. In line 3, “Balaam” is complete, and in line 4 “Balaam son of Beor” is complete.
Despite these difficulties, the inscription from Deir Alla, dated to about the middle of the eighth century B.C. and written on the wall of what may have been some kind of religious teaching center, is very likely the earliest extant example of a prophetic text. The principal personage in the Deir Alla text is the seer Balaam, son of Beor, well known to us from the stories in Numbers. Balaam clearly appears as a foreigner in these Biblical stories; the ancient Hebrew scribes who wrote the Biblical stories about Balaam no doubt had some familiarity with old Aramaic literature, including the Aramaic book of the seer Balaam, son of Beor. Unfortunately, the Deir Alla fragments allow us to restore only a very small part of this book.
Case Study #2 Isaiah 45, 46
God’s word is not threatened by willful pagan monarchs.
(Is. 45:12-13) I made the earth
and created man on it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host.
13 I have stirred him up in righteousness,
and I will make all his ways level;
he shall build my city
and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,"
says the LORD of hosts.
(46:10-11) declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, 'My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,'
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
Cyrus, the Persian king, releases the Jews to return to Israel. This was accomplished according to God’s prescribed timetable.
The evidence is clearly points to God’s promise keeping character. Add to this the many prophecies about the Lord’s 1st coming and you have a mountain of proof that God follows through on his promises. One has only to consider that if the Jewish religious leaders had agreed to pay Judas 29 pieces of silver, the truth telling of God could be questioned (Zechariah 11:12 and Matthew 26:14-15). The powerful cycle of promise/fulfillment that permeates the Old Testament and New Testament rigorously contends for God’s faithfulness. Continuously, and consistently, the words of the prophets come to pass. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, his disciples attempted to rescue him by force, but the Lord reminded them that the events were moving according “to plan”. The scriptures were being fulfilled; it must happen this way! (Matthew 26:52f)
In Jesus the promise is confirmed, the covenant is renewed, the prophecies are fulfilled, the law is vindicated, salvation is brought near, sacred history has reached its climax, the perfect sacrifice has been offered and accepted, the great high priest over the household of God has taken His seat at God’s right hand, the Prophet like Moses has been raised up, the Son of David reigns, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, the Son of Man has received dominion from the Ancient of Days the Servant of the Lord having been smitten to death for His people’s transgression and borne the sin of many has accomplished the divine purpose, and has seen light after the travail of His soul and is now exalted and extolled and made very high. - F.F. Bruce
Has God’s failed you? I know men who have made decisions that have caused them financial problems, and then turned around and blamed God. I know men who stand on the sidelines of discipleship because commitment to Christ seems too risky. I know women who have concluded that life’s personal events prove that God is unfair.
We live in a world that is conflicted by rebellion; that does not want to retain God in its knowledge, that wants independence at any price. Reality must be bent to make me look good. Here is where for the believer the rub comes, and it can be a very painful rub- that is God’s conclusions about reality must become ours. When disagreement occurs, the truth of God makes us out to be liars. The apostle Paul asks, “Do you think their faithlessness cancels out his faithfulness? Not on your life! Depend on it: God keeps his word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth. Scripture says the same: That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged."
Dora Greenwell couldn’t understand, her father died when she was young, and the family estate had to be sold. She suffered bad health as she lived alone in London. Philip Comfort and Daniel Partner write that in her trials it was the suffering of her Savior that gathered her attention. She wrote of her life in a poem that we have come to love, “I Am Not Skilled To Understand” (One Year Book Of Poetry, Philip Comfort, Daniel Partner, Tyndale House, 1999, March 26).
I am not skilled to understand What God has willed what God has planned, I only know at His right hand Stands One who is my Savior
I take Him at His word and deed, “Christ died to save me,” this I read, And in my heart I find a need Of Him to be my Savior
That He should leave His throne on high, And come for sinful man to die You count it strange? So once did I Before I knew my Savior.
And O that He fulfilled may see The travail of His soul in me, And with His work contented be As I with my dear Savior
Yes, living, dying let be bring My strength, my solace, from this spring That He who lives to be my King Once died to be my Savior.