Vessels of Mercy
In contrast to Pharaoh, Paul speaks of "the vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory" (Rom. 9:23). He then defines more precisely who these vessels are in verses 24-26,
24 even us, whom He also called, not from among the Jews only, but also from among the ethnos ["nations"].
The vessels of mercy are not limited to "the Jews only." They include also "the ethnos." Who are those ethnos that Paul includes among these vessels of honor?
25 as He says also in Hosea, "I will call those who were not My people, 'My people,' and her who was not beloved, 'Beloved'." 26 And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not My people,' there they shall be called sons of the living God."
The ethnos thus includes the lost House of Israel—the people who had lost their covenant relationship with God and were in need of a New Covenant to be reinstated.
We understand, of course, that Paul's focus upon those lost Israelites was not meant to exclude other ethnic groups (nations), but to show that Israel was one of those nations.
Paul's main point is to show that even vessels of mercy are subject to the judgments of the Law. Being "chosen" does not exempt anyone from the requirement of faith or obedience. Hence, Israel was cast out in 721 B.C., and the nation of Judea was about to be cast out in similar fashion within a few years of Paul's letter to the Romans.
Nonetheless, Paul says, God has a plan of restoration for the vessels of mercy.
To understand Paul, we must go back to his source, which, in this case, is the prophet Hosea. Hosea was a prophet to the northern House of Israel. As an intercessor, he married a prostitute named Gomer, who represented the House of Israel. She ran away and became enslaved to other men, even as Israel had followed after other gods and become enslaved by them. Hosea then later found her and redeemed her.
Before she ran away, however, Gomer bore three children, each of whom was named prophetically.
Jezreel means "God scatters or sows."
Lo-ruhamah means "not pitied, no mercy, or no compassion."
Lo-ammi means "not my people."
These children bore testimony of the divine judgment upon the House of Israel. God would "scatter" them in the world. Israel would no longer be God's people, because God would no longer have mercy upon them. This is how they became "lost sheep," as Ezekiel describes them. Hosea 2:1 refers to God's divorce, telling Israel, "for she is not My wife, and I am not her husband." This is consistent with Jer. 3:8, where we find God giving Israel a bill of divorce.
These vessels of honor thought that God was treating them quite badly. Conversely, the Assyrians thought that God was "on their side," because He had given them power over Israel. Neither of them understood the mind of God. Very few of the Israelites understood that God was using the vessels of dishonor to bring correction to the vessels of honor. And it is certain that none of the Assyrians understood their purpose in the divine plan.
So the situation with Israel looked grim and even appeared to be irreversible. But when Hosea redeemed Gomer, it prophesied of the ultimate redemption of the House of Israel—the so-called "ten lost tribes."
The Plan of Restoration
It is important to understand that when God divorced Israel, she became as one of the other nations. The marriage covenant was annulled, and Israel was sent out of God's house according to the law in Deut. 24:1. Israel as a nation could no longer claim any legal standing before God insofar as the covenant with Moses was concerned. In that sense she was no different from any other nation.
It would take a New Covenant to bring Israel—and everyone else—back to God. The terms of the New Covenant were different from the first covenant. The New Covenant was to be made with both the House of Israel and the House of Judah (Jer. 31:31; Heb. 8:8), but others could also join with them and receive the same benefits (Isaiah 56:6-8).
Thus, in the regathering of the House of Israel, a great unification would take place that would result in Christ being recognized as King of the whole earth (Is. 54:5). First, this plan would repair the breach between Israel and Judah, and secondly, it would bring all nations into the Kingdom of God as they unite under the same New Covenant.
So Paul quotes Hosea 1:10, 11 to prove his case. Though Israel was "scattered" as Jezreel, the underlying divine purpose was to "sow" them in the field. ("The field is the world," Matt. 13:38.) God's judgments are only temporarily destructive, but in the end they are corrective and reconstructive. After "sowing" Israel in the world, God obtains a great harvest, for Hos. 1:10 says,
10 Yet the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered...
What sort of harvest will this produce?
10 ... And it will come about that in the place where it is said to them, "You are not My people," it will be said to them, "You are the sons of the living God."
The divine plan has always been to bring forth the sons of God. This was precisely what Paul had been discussing in earlier chapters, showing how this requires death and resurrection. When a seed is planted, the seed dies and is put into the ground. This is necessary in bringing forth a great resurrection harvest. So God scattered the seed of Israel into the "field," in order to raise them up again in a great harvest of sons by means of a New Covenant.
Individually speaking, we must all go through the same death-and-resurrection process in order to become sons of God. God is working both nationally and individually in the same way, but we cannot simply claim a national connection as grounds for Sonship. Even as the nation had to die, so also do we as individuals have to die in the manner that Paul discussed earlier.
Furthermore, in Hosea 1:11 we read,
11 And the sons of Judah and the sons of Israel will be gathered together, and they will appoint for themselves one Leader, and they will go up from the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.
It is only under the leadership of Jesus Christ that the two sticks of Israel and Judah can be reunified as Ezekiel 37 says,
16 And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write on it, "For Judah and for the sons of Israel, his companions"; then take another stick and write on it, "For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the House of Israel, his companions." 17 Then join them for yourself one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand.
The unification of Israel and Judah comes only through the headship of Jesus Christ. Not only is He "the repairer of the breach" (Isaiah 58:12) between Israel and Judah, but He also repairs the breach between Israel and the rest of the world. When Israel and Judah are united under one Head, others are also gathered with them (Isaiah 56:6-8) in order that His Temple might be "a house of prayer for all the peoples" (Is. 56:7). This is to fulfill Solomon's prayer (1 Kings 8:41-43, 60; 2 Chron. 6:32-33).
So we see that God divorced the House of Israel, abolishing the marriage covenant between them, and casting them out among the nations. Israel became just one of the "gentiles" insofar as her legal status with God was concerned. God leveled the playing field, so that in making a New Covenant, the invitation would be extended to all the nations who were "not My people." This included Israel, but was not limited to them alone.
God's original intent was to make Abraham a blessing to all other nations. Who would have guessed that it would have to happen in this manner? If Israel had truly followed God, they would have been a light to the nations, and all nations might have come into covenant relationship with God through the Old Covenant.
That was God's WILL, but that was not His PLAN. The plan was for the Old Covenant to fail and that Israel would be divorced and given the same non-marital status as existed with all the other nations. Then God's plan was to bring about a New Covenant through which all the nations would come into a relationship with the Head of Israel and Judah as equal citizens of the Kingdom.
Hence, when Paul quotes Hosea in Romans 9:25 and 26, he uses Hosea's words about Israel in the greater context of the New Covenant. Israel was specifically said to be "not My people" in Hosea 1:9. Israel had to be cast out and the covenant annulled in order to reach that legal status of not being His people. The rest of the nations were already in that position. So in leveling the playing field, God "gentilized" Israel, giving her equal "not-My-people" status.
Hosea's promise, however, was to make those who were "not My people" into "My people" (Hos. 2:23) and turn them into the sons of the living God. In doing so, He makes the entire class of "not My people," including all nations into the sons of God.
The Remnant of Grace
Not all of these people will come into Sonship at the same time. Paul shows us that in Old Testament times there was a distinction between Israel and the Remnant. As we will see, this distinction carries into the New Testament time as well.
Israel under Moses was "the church in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38). Caleb and Joshua were the overcomers (or "the Remnant") in their day, as were the 7,000 in Elijah's day. This distinction has remained in the New Covenant Church as well, Paul says.
Paul writes in Rom. 9:27, 28, quoting from the Septuagint:
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, "Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved; 28 for the Lord will execute His word upon the earth thoroughly and quickly."
Paul tells us that "the remnant" are those who respond to God's call in their lifetime, for they are the ones who "will be saved." The meaning of this will become clearer as Paul proceeds, but we should explain in passing that this is a reference to being saved in the first resurrection. It is not to imply that the others will not be saved at all, but rather that those who hear and respond to the call of Christ shall be saved apart from divine judgment.
Isaiah had a son named prophetically, Shear-jashub, which means "the remnant will return." Like Hosea, Isaiah's children were named prophetically (Is. 8:18). Shear-jashub is mentioned in Isaiah 7:3, and the significance of his name is found in Isaiah 10:21, 22, which Paul quotes in Romans 9:27, 28 (above).
This term "remnant" is used as an equivalent of "the elect" in Paul's writings. Isaiah thus prophesied that only a small remnant of Israelites would actually "return" to the Lord and "be saved." So in Romans 9: 29 Paul gives us a second witness from Isaiah to prove the point.
29 And just as Isaiah foretold, "Except the Lord of Sabaoth [Hosts] had left to us a posterity, we would have become as Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah."
This is a quotation from Isaiah 1:9. Paul obviously equated the "remnant" to the "posterity" that was the smaller group. Even as God saved Lot in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, so also God saved a remnant of Israel, those who "returned" to the Lord as "the elect."
This reveals a very important principle. First, just because Israel as a nation was "chosen" by God and was therefore an "elect" nation, it does not mean that they all were individually God's elect. Far from it. The nation itself became as Sodom and Gomorrah, and God destroyed the nation for rejecting Him and breaking the covenant.
So who are the remnant-elect who returned to God? They are the ones who follow Jesus Christ, the King and the God of the whole earth, not only of the seed of Israel, but also of every nation. This is the basis of Paul's entire discussion in Romans 9-11, and if we understand this up front, we will be able to follow Paul's line of reasoning throughout these chapters.
30 What shall we say then? That the ethnos, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law.
Israel as a nation was given the Law and a covenant mandating obedience as a precondition of attaining righteousness (right standing before God). They failed miserably, as Paul explained to us earlier. So God cast out the whole House of Israel—as a nation. Yet in the midst of such judgment, a remnant continued to follow God, even though that remnant went into captivity along with their fellow Israelites.
Centuries later, Jesus Christ came to earth, and the remnant living in that generation followed Him, along with the rest of the ethnos who were gathered with them. Hence, the ethnos, who had not pursued right standing with God in earlier times, attained righteousness. They achieved under the New Covenant what the nation of Israel could not achieve under the Old Covenant.
32 Why? Because they [all the tribes of Israel under the Old Covenant] did not pursue it by faith, but as it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, "Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed."
This was the condition of both Israel and Judah—all the tribes who were under the Old Covenant. The "stumbling stone" is Jesus Christ Himself, for Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 1:23,
23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the ethnos foolishness.
This stumbling block was present from the beginning, for, as we have already set forth, Jesus Christ was the Yahweh of the Old Testament.
So when Paul speaks of Israel as a nation rejecting Jesus Christ, He was not referring merely to the Jewish rejection of Christ in the first century. Christ had already been rejected by Israel while He was yet in the form of Yahweh. Judah rejected Him directly in the first century, completing the failure of the Old Covenant in both nations.
Paul's quotation in Rom. 9:33 is from Isaiah 28:16, which is Isaiah's great "Pentecostal" chapter. In fact, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11 in his discussion on the gift of tongues in 1 Cor. 14:21. Isaiah prophesies many things in chapter 28, including the evil hearts of the religious leaders in Jerusalem as they plotted to crucify Jesus.
Paul links the Old Covenant with the people's rejection of Jesus Christ. The people refused to hear of the New Covenant and rejected its Mediator, preferring to remain under the Old Covenant and its works requirement. Christ, then, became the great stumbling block that offended them as long as they adhered to the Old Covenant. This was prophesied by Isaiah, who also gave us the solution: "He who believes [has faith] in Him will not be disappointed."