NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson IX)
While growing up in the 1940s and 50s, both in the United States and Germany, whenever there was an evangelistic crusade or church revival, sometimes only a few people came forward for salvation. I used to hear evangelists call those who did not respond as being “Gospel-hardened.” This meant, they had heard so much preaching that they became immune to the power of the Word. And instead of it waking them up to their need for a Savior, it put them to sleep with the numbing effect of indifference.
Adam Clarke addresses this same idea in his comments on this verse. Israel had so willfully closed their eyes to the light, and their ears against the sound of God’s message, that He gave them up to the spirit of slumber. The very word and revelation of God, which should have awakened their consciences, and opened their eyes and ears, had a very different effect. And because they did not, thereby, receive the truth of God’s love that would have been the sweet savor of life unto everlasting life, it became the bitter taste of death unto eternal death. This same phenomenon continues to the present day.1 In other words, God’s Spirit stopped waking them up so they could respond to the alarm and left them to suffer the consequences of their indifference.
Robert Haldane also addresses God’s process of election or choosing, those to be saved. As he sees it, the election of a sinful creature is an act of the free and sovereign will of God. However, that does not make His punishment a sovereign or arbitrary act of rejected Divine authority. God does not punish without the accused having been found guilty. Condemnation presupposes positive criminality. Humans are in themselves sinful and commit sin voluntarily. So their punishment ends up being that they are hardened and finally perish in their sins. Therefore, their destruction is the execution of a just sentence of God against unforgiven sin. Their sins, which are the cause of their destruction, are their own; the salvation of those whom God chooses and calls to Himself is His gift.
God knows what people abandoned to their own inclinations will do. As to those who are finally condemned, He reluctantly must let them suffer the consequences of their depraved inclinations, and this further hardens them in their rebellion against Him. But as to His determination, by grace, to cause the sinner to believe, to will, and to obey, it requires a positive intervention of Divine power — a power which creates anew, which no person merits or deserves, and which God allows or withholds according to the counsel of His own will. In accord with this, we see throughout the Scriptures, that when people are saved, they are saved by the sovereign grace of God, and when they perish, it is by their own foolish and senseless rejection of God’s amazing grace.2
Charles Hodge also has an interesting commentary on the blinding and hardening of the hearts of the Jews who refused to listen to the truth. Hodge points out that the Greek verb pōroō rendered “were blinded” (KJV), literally means: “to cover with thick skin, to cover with a callus, to grow hard and to render insensible.” That infers that they became insensitive to the truth and life-changing power of the Gospel, and, therefore, disregarded its offers and its claims. This affected their understanding as well as their heart. It was both blindness and resoluteness. The passive form of blindness used here may simply express the idea that they became hardened to the Gospel. It is another way of saying that God abandoned them to the hardness of their own hearts.3
Charles Spurgeon makes the point that when people say that they have no interest in listening to the Gospel, if you should ask them if they wouldn’t mind listening to its simple message again, their answer will probably be, “No, I’ve heard enough!” They are just tired of hearing the same thing over and over. They may offer the excuse that the Gospel is too difficult to understand. So when you offer them an easy-to-read translation of the Gospels and ask them if they would try reading it again in that version, most likely they will tell you that it’s too much trouble and they just don’t have the time.4
No doubt Spurgeon would agree, that if you told someone you had a Will from a recently deceased wealthy uncle and that it was hard to understand with all its legal jargon, but could read it they thought it might include them as a beneficiary, they would grab it out of your hand and read it with a magnifying glass if necessary. It is a case of an individual wanting to get something without doing anything in return. So they must not blame anybody if they remain in ignorance. Even so, those who decline to hear what the Gospel has to say should not wonder why they still have such unrest in their soul and such confusion in their mind.
Frédéric Godet says that once the elect are accepted, it follows that all the rest who were not chosen are then eliminated, and this is done in the most regrettable manner. It was their decision to harden their resolve to remain as they are even after God visited them. Godet explains that the Greek verb pōroō, “to harden,”5 signifies in the strict physical sense: to deprive an organ of its natural sensibility. But in a moral sense: to take away from the heart the faculty of being touched by what is good or godly, and from the mind the faculty of discerning between the true and the untrue, the good and the bad. What Paul will go on to say helps explain how it is possible for such an effect to be ascribed to a divine decision.6
Charles Ellicott has a good explanation of the term, “the spirit of slumber” (KJV) in verse 8. He tells us that this phrase has a curious history. Etymologically, the Greek noun katanyxis translated ”slumber” would seem to agree better with the marginal rendering, “remorse,” since it comes from a root meaning “to prick or cut with a sharp instrument.” In other words, they have become insensitive to even a jab of the skin. There happens to be another root word somewhat similar, but certainly not connected, which means “drowsiness.”
Then we find out that the Greek word in the text has also been used to render the Hebrew word nuwm for “slumber.” It has been thought that there was a confusion between the two. It appears, however, from the Greek Septuagint Version, that the sense of “slumber” had certainly come to be attached to the word as used by Paul. So we can see that from the notion of a sharp wound or blow came the idea that it caused bewilderment or grogginess, and subsequently, it came to signify being in a stupor.7
F. F. Bruce helps us understand why the KJV would translate the Greek verb pōroō as “blind” rather than “harden.” He shares that it means “make hard” or “render insensitive” (cf. the noun pōrōsis, “hardening,” in verse 25). In modern English, such moral “blindness” is commonly used to denote spiritual insensitivity. They were made blind to the truth. If we were to ask by whom they were “hardened,” verse 8 seems to provide the answer. It is not the first time in this epistle such inward insensitivity is divinely permitted as a judicial penalty for refusal to heed the word of God8.9
Theologian Karl Barth gives us a very intellectual explanation of what he finds here. No doubt there were many who saw the ones God selected to be part of His chosen remnant, but how pitiful that Paul tells us, “The rest became as hard as rocks.” The Apostle John echoes this same sentiment with the words, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!” Hopelessness remains hopelessness, and death remains death. There is no continuity between the bearers of hope and those to whom hope is brought. There is no infection of the one by the other, no influence of the one upon the other. Nothing is transferred. Only God has the power to make a change in these things. Only from God can they obtain that which, if they do not receive it from Him, they cannot find anywhere else.
In Barth’s mind, God’s elect can be for others in this world no more than messengers of His kingdom. They cannot be a spiritual beginning or seed or kernel for others. According to the synoptic narrative of the Gospels, Jesus sent out His disciples to proclaim the Kingdom,10 not to establish it. Moreover, the disciples, as is expressly mentioned in Matthew 10:28, are in grave and mortal danger of leaving God out of the Gospel equation and projecting themselves “outside” of Christ and thus being hardened and hermetically sealed against the promised blessings for being His servants.
So it is clear, therefore, that the Church needs to appreciate hope, to understand that there is no hope for this world unless God somehow works a miracle. And the miracle of God is the message of the elect. In fact, the only observable truth which the Church can proclaim – and it ought to be inscribed on every church door, to be written on the first page of every hymnal, and to form the title of every religious book – is this truth: hardening of the heart removes all hope. Where God is not recognized and revered, such who do so will forever be part of the unchosen. And they all became so because of their rejection of Him.11
Jewish scholar David Stern believes that what Paul is saying here, in using the words of the Torah, about those who were chosen and the rest who became hardened, can be seen today with the Jews who have accepted Jesus as their Messiah and those who have not. He says, “The Messianic Jews have obtained it through trusting in the atonement God has provided in Yeshua, but the rest have been made stone-like by their rejection of Him.” Stein also makes note of the Greek verb pôroô as found here and in other Scriptures.12 He then tells us that the related Greek noun, pôrôsis is used in verse 25 below.13 In most versions, the verb is rendered “hardened” or “blinded.”
The Complete Jewish Bible’s literal translation points up the allusion to Ezekiel 36:26, where God, speaking of what He will do for Israel in the Latter Days, and says, “I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.” As here in Romans 10:14–21 Paul does not give a tough answer without Scriptural support. Three of Israel’s major religious figures writing in the three main sections of the Tanakh14 (Moses in the Torah; Isaiah in the Prophets; David in the Writings) are shown to bear witness to Israel’s dullness, blindness and deafness to God, and consequent bondage. Paul, who might otherwise be accused of arrogance or antisemitism, is seen instead to be in the tradition of the great prophets of our people, on whom he is relying.15
1 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 217
2 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 528
3 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc., cit., p. 555
4 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Romans 11:7 – The KJV has ‘blinded‘, the NIV has ‘hardened‘, the Amplified Bible has “callously indifferent.’
6 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Cf. Romans 1:21b; 9:17–18
9 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, Vol. 6, pp. 210–211
10 Matthew 10:7
11 Karl Barth: On Romans, op cit., loc. cit.
12 Mark 6:52, 8:17; John 12:40 and 2 Corinthians 3:14
13 See also Mark 3:5; Ephesians 4:18
14 Tanakh is an acronym of the first Hebrew letter of each of the Masoretic Text’s three traditional subdivisions: Torah (“Teaching,” also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”)—hence TaNaKh
15 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.