Meditations in Romans, Ch.9-11 : 4: God of Mercy
Rom 9:14,15 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.”
Paul is not a modern philosopher. We, or at least I, would speak, even as we have already, about the God who knows and the God who chooses people on the basis of what He knows they will do, how they will respond to His good news, but Paul is working out his theology as he goes along and he simply presents to us what he knows of the Scriptures and will go no further.
But he has just spoken of God who chose the younger twin and rejected the older, accepted Jacob but rejected Esau. It seems, on the surface at least, as if God is simply choosing by whim or fancy and Paul is not going to go behind the scenes like we have done but is just going to face that head on. He faces the apparent problem: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” (v.14) That is what it might seem. But Paul won’t have that: “Not at all!” And so he explains: “For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Now that is very blunt but when you are facing a holy God who is perfect in every way, whatever He chooses to say or do will always be right, even if we don’t understand it, so God says He chooses how He will respond to each person. He doesn’t explain why He chooses as He will. If He decides to show mercy and compassion for one and not another, that is up to Him – trust Him, He does what is right. We’ve sought to explain it in terms of His knowing all thing of this person and how they will act in the future, but the Bible and Paul simply ask us to accept God’s wisdom for what it is – perfect!
So Paul declares the basic truth here: “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” This whole thing of salvation is not down to us. It doesn’t depend on what we think or want or hope – because all of our thinking may be utterly self-centred, even if it looks like we are trying to be good, and that falls short of what God is aiming for.
Now mercy is not a word that is used often in today’s world. A dictionary definition is “compassion shown by one to another who is in his power and has no claim to kindness.” This is the thing about mercy, it is not given because you deserve it or have anything of merit that makes you worthy of it. If God shows mercy it is simply because He chooses to. This is where we have to trust that God, being perfect in every way, does what is right. This is the Scriptural position and it needs some reading and thinking to go beyond that simple understanding (which is what we have sought to do previously).
Paul then uses the example of God dealing with Pharaoh in Exodus: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (v.17 quoting Ex 9:16) That needs thinking about. God raised up Pharaoh? Well He certainly brought him onto the pages of biblical history so He certainly raised him up in that sense. But perhaps the Lord had blessed and encouraged Pharaoh’s reign in a variety of ways to make him the great and powerful leader that he was. The only trouble is that greatness and power so often breed pride and Pharaoh had a lot of that, and pride made him foolish so he thought he could outwit God. He had become The most powerful man around and his fame would have spread around that part of the world at least, so that when he was brought down, that too would go around that part of the world.
So Paul comments, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” (v.18) Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was foundational to the story of Moses and Pharaoh. The truth is that Pharaoh already had a hard heart (hard against Moses and his people and hard against God, because that is what pride does) and so when God confronted Pharaoh again and again it just worked to harden his heart even more. Could God have dealt gently with Pharaoh? Gentleness never has any effect on a proud, stubborn and rebellious heart; it is just seen as a sign of weakness. No God chose to deal with Pharaoh in the way He did, so that it would be heard of around the world and people would hear about God.
Now there is an even bigger truth in the background which is not spoken of here because it was not Paul’s way or arguing, but the truth is that every man, woman and child on the earth is a sinner and (in Paul’s words), the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) or, to put it another way, every single person deserves death. Justice, left to itself, would have every single person destroyed, but God has mercy. God looks for a better way and it is the way of the Cross, the way of repentance and the way of redemption and salvation, but it is pure mercy. You might say that love (and God is love) always looks for a better way out to bless others, but then the question might be, but why should God love the unlovely, love those who hate Him, those who live their lives out turning their backs on Him? Why does He continually seek to draw them to Himself? Divine love and divine mercy are mysteries when it comes to it. All we can do is give up our intellectual struggling and just be very thankful. Amen? Amen!