NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson X)
Charles Hodge adds his commentary on mankind’s moral collapse: “Blinded by sin to the perfections and loveliness of God and truth, they have turned from the way which He has prescribed and which leads to Himself, and have made choice of another way and of another portion [destiny]. Here, as in the first chapter, the loss of the knowledge of God is represented as [being] followed by spiritual blindness, and spiritual blindness by moral degradation. [When] men do not understand, i.e., have no right apprehension of God; then they turn away from Him, then they become altogether unprofitable, worthless, morally corrupt. This depravity is universal, for there is none that does good, no not one.”1 Not only was this the case during Paul’s time, and again in Dr. Hodge’s day, but we see this same moral and spiritual deterioration today, something we never thought we’d ever see repeated.
There are some in our world who think that when you get rid of religion because you’ve come to a conclusion there is no God, or that the God of the Jews and Christians is dead, that your mind becomes free to think with greater freedom and thereby you can look a life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a more intellectual, amoral way. That way, there is less chance of others being offended by your point of view.
The great Charles Spurgeon adds his insights: “This is God’s verdict upon the whole human race. He has the best opportunity of seeing them, and He has the best capacity for judging them, and this is what He says of all men as they are by nature. Yet men come and talk to us about the righteous heathen whose virtues they extol, the imaginary good people, for there are none such actually in existence. Here the Lord himself is speaking, and the Spirit of God is quoting from passages of the Old Testament, which he puts together to describe the character of humanity. How sweeping are all the terms!”2
And theologian Frédéric Godet sees it from a scholarly perspective: “The two terms which follow in Romans 3:11 have a more particular sense. The first is related to the understanding: the knowledge of the Creator in His works; the second to the will: the aspiration after union with this perfect being. God is represented as seeking that one person and not finding them.”3 We must remember that Paul is quoting from the Psalms which expresses the state of mankind under the old agreement. After not finding anyone who could qualify for unity with God on their own merits, the Father sent His Son to seek and to save those who were wandering aimlessly in search of truth. And even though there are still none to this day who qualify based on their own righteousness, God willingly receives them as soon as they accept His Son. Salvation is not a treasure hunt, it is a gift from God by grace through His Son Jesus the Christ.
Verse 13-14: “Their words come from mouths that are like open graves. They use their lying tongues to deceive others.”4 “Their words are like the poison of snakes.”5 “Their mouths are full of cursing and angry words.”6
Paul continues to use the words of the Psalmists to express his disgust for those who come dressed in the robes of a peacemaker but in fact are only covering their real intentions of sowing discord and disharmony. And one of the factors that add to the dilemma is that these people are not satisfied to live in such a decadent condition themselves, but since they can’t escape on their own, they want everyone else to be just as miserable as they are. They are described as having characteristics that all point to decay, deceit, and dying.
David described them this way: “For nothing sincere can be found in their mouths, all you find there is disaster because their throats are like open graves. They use flattering tongues to deceive others.”7 It is what came out of their mouths that reminded David of an open tomb, their words were like the stench of decaying flesh. Jesus joins David in describing His opponents the same way: “You are hypocrites! You are like tombs that are painted white. Outside they look fine, but inside they are full of dead people’s bones and all kinds of filth.”8 Paul would not be quoting David’s psalms if he did not feel that some of these same traits were present among Jews living in Rome. Each carnal fault and character defect enumerated here can be seen as symbolic of what was being practiced.
Paul goes on with David’s words. This time targeting their tongues as weapons they use to wound and even prove fatal. David himself had a prayer for such people: “The Lord should cut off their lying lips and cut out their bragging tongues.”9 No wonder that the prophet Jeremiah saw such people this way: “They use their tongues like a bow; lies fly from their mouths like arrows. Lies, not truth, have grown strong in this land. They go from one sin to another.”10 David recognized that there was power in lying. He knew from personal experience because of what happened to Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. And the reason it was so effective is that accomplished liars can make things seem to be the way they want them to be. This then will cause people to do things they otherwise would never think of doing. The prophet Ezekiel had to confront this during his time. He said to the children of Israel: “Your prophets say they have seen visions. They did their magic to see what will happen next. But everything they said would happen is a lie. They claim to speak for the Lord, but the Lord did not send them. And they still think that what they said is what will happen.”11
Since the fall of Adam and Eve due to the deception and temptation provided by the serpent, there are few things viewed more sinister to the Jew than a snake. That’s why it is so remarkable that at the end of Moses’ life when he wrote a hymn for the children of Israel to sing, he referred to the possibility of God’s judgment because of their deteriorating ethics and values. He said it would happen because their vines had been transplanted from Sodom and their fields with seeds from Gomorrah. That’s why their vines are clusters of bitter, poisonous grapes, that makes their wine as deadly as snake poison, yes, like the cruel venom of vipers.12
It is not surprising then that this same sentiment made its way into Jewish teachings and writings. In fact, it’s in their Talmud where Rabbis discuss various things that are condemned as bad behavior. Among them are cases of young women flirting as they walked through market-place. It was said that: “They placed myrrh and balsam in their shoes and walked through the market-places of Jerusalem, and on coming near to the young men of Israel, they kicked their feet and spurted it on them, thus instilling them with passionate desire like with serpent’s poison.”13 Of course, the venom of a serpent was often used to paralyze their prey, putting them totally under their control.
And speaking of a mouth with a poisonous tongue, Paul uses Davids words to indict those from whose mouths flowed curses and bitterness. This comes from the psalm where David said of a particularly wicked person: “His mouth is full of curses, deceit, oppression; under his tongue, mischief, and injustice.”14 We find that individuals who went around cursing were not hard to find in David’s day. In one place it says of someone: “He loved to curse others, so let those bad things happen to him. He never blessed others, so don’t let good things happen to him. Cursing was a daily part of his life, like the clothes he wears. Cursing others became a part of him, like the water he drinks and the oil he puts on his body. So let curses cover him like the robe he wears and always surround him like a belt.”15
It is important to note that “cursing” in those days had a different connotation that it does today. At the present time, we use the vernacular and call it “cussing,” which means going around using bad words. But in David’s day, as well as in Jesus’ day, “cursing” mean wishing bad things on people. You might hear the same today when someone says in anger, “Drop dead!” or “I hope you break your neck!” The Apostle James found out that there were some among the believers who were guilty of this, so he told them: “We use our tongues to praise our Lord and Father, but then we curse people who were created in God’s likeness. These praises and curses come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, this should not happen.”16
Several early church scholars weigh in on Paul’s quote concerning curses and bitterness. For instance, Origen says: “Paul did not say that their lips were full of the poison of asps. For although many may be involved in sins of that kind, there are not many who are totally given over to the harm which that poison can do. On the other hand, there are many whose mouths are full of curses and bitterness. For whose mouth is so pure that he never curses? I am not speaking now of those who deserve to be cursed but of those whom God has not cursed, i.e., the just and innocent. For this vice is so prevalent and so automatic a trait of human weakness, especially with respect to those who are under or inferior to us, that many people would not even think to call it cursing.”17
Then Ambrosiaster states: “It is clear and obvious that evil people are always throwing curses and bitterness at the good in an attempt to harm and distract them.”18 This is still used today as a classical method of diverting an opponent from their original intent. When anyone becomes preoccupied in defending themselves, they are given little time to stated their intended position. Pelagius makes this point: “There is not just one kind of malicious talk. What is said out of malice is, without doubt, said recklessly.”19 So often what a person says in criticizing another to besmirch their reputation is analyzed based on the wording rather than on the intent. Even acceptable conversation when delivered out of hatred should be considered a malicious. We find this most often today in what we call “gossiping” or “backbiting.”
1 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 122
2 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Frédéric Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Psalm 5:9
5 Psalm 140:3
6 Psalm 10:7
7 Psalm 5:9
8 Matthew 23:27
9 Psalm 12:3
10 Jeremiah 9:3
11 Ezekiel 13:6
12 See Deuteronomy 32:32-33
13 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Sabbath, folio 62b; See also Yoma, folio 9b
14 Psalm 10:7 – Complete Jewish Bible
15 Ibid. 107:17-19
16 James 3:9-10
17 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit
18 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, loc. cit.
19 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.