Paul establishes the answer for what happened. It is not that the word of God failed. That is not the answer at God. God has kept his promises. God has kept his covenant. God has offered the blessings and has fulfilled his word. God’s righteousness (his covenant faithfulness) has been revealed. Rather, the answer is that not all who descended from Israel are truly Israel. This must have been shocking words. Put yourselves in the mind of the person who belonged to Israel. They thought they would be justified because they were descendants of Abraham. They had circumcision, Sabbath, separation from the Gentiles, clean and unclean foods, and the like to show that they were the people of God. They are Israel and the blessings and promises were to come to all of them. But Paul tells them to wait just a minute. Not all who are Israelites by blood are the true Israel, the people of God. Paul says that the Jews were in error for thinking that God’s promises applied to the whole of physical Israel. This is not the first time Paul has said something like this. But this is the first time that he has said it quite like this. Notice where Paul already mentioned this truth in passing.
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29; ESV)
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:9-12; ESV)
Notice that Paul was saying the same thing earlier in Romans. Not all who are physically circumcised are the people of God, the true Israel. In fact, those who are not circumcised can be recipients of the promises and those who are circumcised can miss out on the promises. The prophets had spoken of a remnant of Israel. It had become obvious that the nation as a whole was not responding to God’s leading. It was a smaller group within the nation of Israel that was really God’s people. Therefore, it was foolish to think that since the whole nation had not entered the blessing that the promise of God had failed. Romans 9:6 is a very important text to understanding the fulfillment of the promises found in the first covenant. Most scholars and churches teach that the promises that we read about in the prophets have not been fulfilled. Therefore, Israel must be a political nation to inherit God’s promises. Paul’s words here defeat such a thought. God’s promises were not to physical Israel, but to true Israel. The rest of Romans 9 is to prove this point to be true.
Proof #1: Abraham’s children. The first proof used by Paul is the children of Abraham. Paul points out that Abraham had other children (like Ishmael and the many children with Keturah), but the promises would only come through Isaac. God’s promises were not to all of Abraham’s children. Being descendants of Abraham does not make them children of promise. I think the NLT does a good job here: “This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children” (9:8: NLT). You are not children of promise just because you are descendants of Abraham. Being Jews does not mean you are people of God.
It is useful to observe that the contrast is between being children of promise and children of the flesh. Paul makes the same distinction in Galatians 4 and is worth reading for yourselves to grasp the point Paul is making. Recall that when Paul speaks about something in the flesh in Romans it has been a reference to the works of the Law (circumcision, Sabbath, defilement laws, clean and unclean foods, etc). I believe the other point Paul is making is that keeping the works of the Law does not make one children of promise. You may be children of the flesh (by blood and by works of the Law), but neither make you the children of promise.
Proof #2: Isaac’s children. Paul goes further to use the example of Isaac’s children, Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau were both children of Isaac, but only one of the two would receive the promises of God. Even within Isaac there is a distinguishing that must occur. Even within Isaac there has been a winnowing process. The point is that this winnowing process has been in effect since the inception of Israel.
So how did God choose between Jacob and Esau? It was not by human works. God did not select Jacob to be the nation through the promise based upon Jacob’s works. Israel did not merit its selection. It was not by works of the Law or by any action that Israel was selected. God elected Israel of his own plans and purposes. This was God’s doing. This was God’s choice, even before the children were born. Humans could not thwart God’s purpose. God would use Jacob (Israel), not Esau, as his nation.
Now here is where some make a big mistake. Some take this passage to mean that God chooses which individuals will be the elect (saved) and which will not be the elect (condemned). This greatly misses the point that Paul is making. It is important to see the context and carefully consider the text to defeat this false teaching. First, the context has not been about individuals but about the nation of Israel. Go back to Romans 9:6. Not all of Israel are truly Israel. Paul is explaining the destiny of the nation of Israel, not each individual. The context also reveals this as Paul is in great anguish over the nation (9:2-3), not for each individual. Second, the text also reveals that Paul is talking about the nation, not individuals. Look at the quotation in verse 12, “The older will serve the younger.” However, Esau never served Jacob. Instead, Esau was trying to kill Jacob for most of his life. Esau and Jacob are not being referred to as individuals, but as the nations that came from them. Esau’s descendants were the Edomites and Jacob’s descendants were the Israelis. Edom served Israel. Edom did not have power, but Israel did have power over Edom and the surrounding nations. Therefore the text and the context reveals that Paul is talking about Israel as a nation. When we understand this, then we do see God’s electing purposes. God selected Israel to be the nation before Jacob was born. God chose Israel. We could even use the Calvinistic term, unconditional election. God chose Israel to be his people without any works or acts on Jacob’s part. The choice was made before Jacob was even born. Thus, verse 13 concludes the thought: God chose Israel, but rejected Edom.