Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Let us remember, that when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost, most of the 3000 who were converted were visiting Jerusalem for the Feast. So what happened when they left to go back home? I’m willing to believe that most of them went back and told everyone in their local synagogue what happened to them. It should not then be a surprise if many of those who heard them also were converted. So in a sense, that’s how the Gospel first began to spread around the world. Later on, Paul would tell King Agrippa about his own missionary efforts to the Jews in Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea and then to the Gentiles in various places.1 So this was not wishful thinking on Paul’s part, he knew that by the time the Roman believers received this letter, they too would agree that it took the hearing of the Gospel to bring about conversion to Christianity.

For early church scholar Ambrosiaster, the spreading of the Gospel in an effort to announce the Good News of salvation was hindered only by the fact that some chose not to believe. In spite of the message being loud and clear to the Gentiles and often accompanied by miracles, they were so absorbed with idolatry that they closed their ears, minds, and hearts. As far as the Jews were concerned, many refused to listen even though the Messiah was part of their belief. So not only were they deprived of faith, but also forgiveness for their unbelief and sins.2

John Calvin, however, takes Paul’s question here of whether or not people have heard God’s message to be an indictment of the Gentiles. As far as Calvin was concerned, God had already manifested His divinity from the time of the Garden of Eden onward. It may not have been through preaching, but by way of the testimony of His creation.3 It seems clear that Calvin is taking his cue from what Paul said back in Romans 1:18-20.4 Bible scholar John Bengel agrees with Calvin’s point of view that what Paul is doing here is making an analogy between the declaring of the glory of God by the heavens to the Gentiles and by the all-penetrating Gospel to the Jews. Therefore, the comparison must rest mainly on what Paul intended to say rather than on what the quote from Isaiah implies.5 However, the question in the next verse seems to suggest that Paul was talking primarily to the Jews.

However, Adam Clarke hears Paul asking had not the message of salvation been carried to every Jew in Palestine, and within the reach of all those who immigrated to the surrounding Gentile countries where it was not only shared with the Jews but the Gentiles as well?6 When taken that way, then all mankind is without excuse for not heeding the message. Clarke also points to the stars as testimonies of God’s eternal power and sovereignty over the habitable world. Not only that, but emissaries had taken the Gospel of Christ to proclaim His eternal goodness and mercy to all the land of Palestine, and to the entire Roman empire.7 There is not a part of the Promised Land in which these glad tidings have not been preached. Furthermore, there is scarcely a place in the Roman empire in which the doctrine of Christ crucified had not been heard. So the fault lies not with the Gospel or those who preached it. Rather, it belongs to those who hear but refuse to listen and believe. God amply furnished them with the truth about faith and of salvation.8

Albert Barnes also sees a dual condemnation of both Gentiles and Jews in verse 19 on the question of whether or not they had heard. But it was not whether they had heard, but whether they had listened. The Apostle strongly affirms that they had heard. It wasn’t a case of one formula of salvation for the Gentiles and another for the Jews, perhaps permitting the right message being preached to the wrong crowd. It was the same for both. Some objected that there had not been enough time for it to reach everyone. So why should Paul jump to the conclusion that they didn’t believe when in fact they hadn’t yet heard? But Paul was not buying the argument. He saw it as an excuse, not a fact.9

Charles Hodge addresses the dilemma of deciding who the Apostle Paul was referring to. He notes that when we examine the concise and abrupt manner of the expression in this verse and the ones that follow, it still leaves in doubt who exactly Paul was speaking about. Many scholars take this verse as a reference to the Jews. It was intended to show them that in the words of their own Psalmist they could not excuse themselves on the grounds they hadn’t heard. The truth was, they had heard. Not only from Jesus Himself, but the Apostles after His ascension. In other words, they had been given ample opportunity to believe. However, there are other scholars who object to this view. They say this interpretation does not fit well in the context of this passage. As they see it, Paul is not speaking of the rejection of the Jews or the grounds for it, but of the calling of the Gentiles.10

Hodge points to the fact that in verse 16 Paul insinuates that the Jews were to be the first to hear the good news of salvation through Christ and then the Gentiles. With that in mind, then Paul is working backward by implying in this verse that the Gentiles have indeed heard because in the next verse (19) he clearly speaks of the Jews as having heard even before the Gentiles received the message. Hodge feels that Paul is vindicating the propriety of extending the Gospel to all nations, both Jew and Gentile.

So this verse, therefore, is to be taken as Paul’s way of saying that this had already been accomplished because there was no longer any reason to separate Jews and Gentiles when it came to being eligible to hear and believe the Gospel. As Paul put it, “The middle wall of partition had been broken down,11 the gospel of salvation, the religion of God, was free from its shackles, the offers of mercy were as wide and general as the proclamation of the heavens.”12

Hodge then concludes that the Apostle beautifully and appropriately expresses this in the sublime language of the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the dome of the sky speaks the work of his hands. Every day it utters speech, every night it reveals knowledge. Without speech, without a word, without their voices being heard, their line goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.13 As Hodge sees it, Paul’s purpose in using the words of the Psalmist was to convey to everyone that the proclamation of the Gospel was never meant to be limited to just one people. It was to be free from all national or ecclesiastical restrictions just as the lights in the sky shine down on everyone on earth. Hodge doesn’t think that Paul was quoting the Psalmist as though the ancient writer was speaking of the Gospel. He was doing the same as many do today. They use the Bible or poetry to express their thoughts in a more rhetorical way than in everyday language.14

Frédéric Godet follows the same line of thinking and feels that Paul chose to use the writings of the Psalmist to show that just as the heavens and their starry hosts proclaim God’s existence and perfections throughout the whole universe, although they are mute, still they let their voices echo in the hearts of all mankind through the Word of God. So in Paul’s mind, he sees himself and all those who spread out over the known world to preach the Gospel are like the stars that shine in the heavens. As far as we can tell from the record, there was not a synagogue wherever Paul went that had not been filled with the Gospel; not a Jew in the world who heard any of the Apostles preach could justly plead ignorance on the subject. For Godet, the Apostle was evidently speaking of those who had heard but did not believe. On a personal note, Godet asks how could Origen and Calvin think Paul was speaking here only to the Gentiles? It is the case of the Jews’ stubbornness in not believing what they heard that is being pleaded here.15

F. F. Bruce gives us his studied analysis of Paul’s intent in this verse in quoting Psalm 19. He finds no difficulty in applying the words of the Psalmist, in their original context, to the universal witness of the heavenly bodies. So it is not necessary to look for a reason to assign Psalm 19:4 as a prophecy of the world-wide dissemination of the Gospel in Paul’s day. Rather, the dissemination of the Gospel to the world can be illustrated by using how the light of the heavenly bodies disseminates its light to the world. Some find this to be an exaggeration. As far as they can tell, the Gospel had not been carried throughout all the earth, not even to all the lands that were then known to inhabitants of the Graeco-Roman empires. Paul was fully aware of that fact. He no doubt was thinking not only of his own plans to evangelize Spain, a province where the name of Christ was not yet known but of the work of the other Apostles and those yet to come.16 It was a “representative universalism” that we find implied in the quotation of Psalm 19:4 both here and previously in Romans 1:23, but also in Colossians 1:5–6. So it need not be taken literally.17

Douglas Moo also sees Paul using the scripture as an exaggeration, much as a person would say today, to impress the fact that they were fully aware of some advice, “I’ve heard that a million times!” Moo admits it puzzles him that Paul would claim that the message has gone into all the earth, even in his day. But we may find a clue in the second line of Psalm 19:4 in the Septuagint Greek Version (LXX) that uses “inhabited world.” Since Paul, like many others, including Jesus, used the Septuagint version, he may have taken this as a reference to the Greek and Roman empires of his day. He may have also been thinking in terms of ethnic groups or regions rather than villages or individuals. Thus, a person can either view Paul’s application of this verse as hyperbole or a generality.18

I find no reason to criticize Paul for such a broad statement that implied the Gospel had reached every corner of the world. We must remember that he was writing to the Church in Rome. Any world that he was referring to here was the one in their minds. And at that time the world consisted of the Greek and Roman Empires that has spread to Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa and the Middle East. Remember, Copernicus did not convince humanity that the world was round until 1543. The point Paul was making was to use what David said about how the message of the heavens had been shown to all who looked into the sky with how the Gospel had been delivered to everyone who would listen.

1 Ibid. 26:20

2 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.

3 Psalm 19:1

4 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

5 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 326-327

6 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 207

7 See Romans 1:20

8 Clarke: ibid., p. 208

9 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

10 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 541

11 See Ephesians 2:14

12 Hodge: ibid., p.542

13 Psalm 19:1-4; (2-5) Complete Jewish Bible

14 Hodge: ibid.

15 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

16 Cf. Romans 15:18-24

17 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 206–207

18 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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