Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved (Romans 10.1)."
We have received a request to submit our views on the above text, and while keenly aware of our failings and frequent darkness of mind on the scriptures, we offer such as the Lord has given us. Our readers will, we feel sure, accept our views only to the extent that they are sustained by the infallible Word.
What we hope to show in this article is for whom Paul prayed, and how that his prayer is not at all incredulous, nor does it conflict with election and predestination, when compared with the total context of Scriptures.
Those for whom Paul prayed were by him called Israel. His prayer was also his heart's desire, whereby we observe his strong feelings of union for these he calls Israelites. That he felt an almost overwhelming concern for those he names is beyond dispute.
Who then are these people he petitions God to save? Are they the whole of the twelve tribes that came forth from Jacob's loins? Does his prayer embrace all that ever were, are, or shall be, the Israel that occupied the land of Canaan? If so in either case, Paul would have left himself open to grim charges of inconsistency and presumption. Inconsistency, because he had clearly, and with the strongest arguments, preached and written on discriminating election and reprobation; presumption, because he would have dared to plead with God for those souls he had to know were not embraced in the redemptive plan, and thus could never be saved.
Far, far worse than inconsistency and presumption, however, is that, if Paul did indeed pray for the whole sum of the tribes of Israel, he would be guilty of flatly contradicting in prayer, the words of condemnation uttered against many of the Israelites by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. We offer several examples of the denunciations by Christ toward various reprobate Israelites: "But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation (Matthew 23.13,14)." Could it be anything better than religious foolishness to even think of praying for the salvation of those particular Israelites upon whom the Lord had already pronounced woes and doom? If Paul had prayed for the salvation of all Israel, that would indeed be the case. Again: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell (Matthew 23.33)?" Surely these serpents, these seed of vipers, are destined for the torments of the burning fire where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. Could it be possible then that Paul included these condemned reprobates in his prayer to God for Israel? We think not.
It seems clear that, whoever Paul was praying so earnestly for, it was not for the whole of what we call natural Israel. In using the term natural, we mean those that were Israelites by nature, or physical birth. It would be a slander upon the good character and high calling of this blessed apostle to really even suggest he prayed for the nation of Israel as a whole, or to suppose that he desired for them something God had not purposed.
We are satisfied that in order to get a real sense of the Apostle's intentions in Romans 10.1 we must initially read carefully (and prayerfully, if the Lord so blesses) Romans, chapter nine. There Paul introduces and expounds at length those things which initiate his remarks in Romans 10.1. In a manner strikingly similar to his statement in Romans 10.1, Paul expressed much the same thing in the following: "I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsman according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen (Romans 9.1-5)." But for the expression "could wish that myself were accursed" we might somehow conclude that Paul was so eaten up with fleshly zeal, maybe even patriotism, that he had for that moment lost all sight of the precious doctrines he had so often proclaimed. But, there is the word of reservation, could. He says not, "I have wished", or "I will wish", or even that "I presently do wish." To our mind at least, the word could absolves the apostle of any error of emotion or statement. Such was his love for these Israelites of whom he spoke that he says in effect that "If it were possible, I could wish myself accursed for my brethren." Since then, he is not actually crossing the line and contemplating the benefits of Christ's death for all these Israelites, we can only conclude that what he is here manifesting is his deep devotion to these people. Or at least a certain portion of them.
The question remains, however, just who is the people to whom the apostle refers in both Romans 9.1-5 and 10.1? To find a satisfactory answer, and one that is in harmony with the rest of the Word of God, it is necessary to view the method of Paul's writing throughout the books of the New Testament. Paul often made a statement and then introduced lengthy parenthetical material to reach his conclusion. In other words there was a parenthesis between the beginning and the end of what he said. We will give only one example, though there are many. In Ephesians 3.1 Paul begins: "For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles," and then he introduces the thoughts contained in verses 2 through 13 before returning to his theme in verse 14, where he again takes up his thesis with, "For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." He began with "For this cause... (verse 1)" and returned to it, "For this cause... (verse 14)."
This is precisely what Paul did in Romans 9 and 10. He began with an expression of devotion to certain ones of Israel in Romans 5.1-5; introduced a lengthy explanation (parenthesis) in the verses comprising the rest of the chapter, verses 6 through 33, and then returned to his theme in 10.1. It is in this parenthesis that we find out who are these Israelites about whom Paul was so burdened.
The apostle was not burdened about every Israelite that had ever been born as the natural seed of Abraham. No; he was burdened with the welfare of those that had been appointed seed in Isaac. Being the seed of Abraham did not guarantee that a Jew would be saved. Being spiritually born a seed of Isaac did! Christ alone received the promises made to Abraham as seed. "Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ (Galatians 3.16)." "And if ye be Christ's then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3.29)." These two texts qualify the extent of the blessings of God to the seed of Abraham.
Paul then amplified on this distinction between the seed of the flesh and the seed of promise in his allegory contained in Galatians 4.19-31 wherein he said that, "Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise (Galatians 4.28)." Clearly, the allegory teaches that Abraham had two seeds; one born after the flesh, represented by Ishmael, and one born by promise, represented in Isaac. Both sons were born according to prophesy; an angel of the Lord had spoken to Hagar when she was with child, and she was told she would call his name Ishmael (Genesis 16.11). However, God Himself spoke to Abraham regarding Isaac as follows: "And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him (Genesis 17.19)." In passing, it is more than interesting to observe that Sarah would bear Abraham a son indeed. So then there was a casting off of the family of Ishmael in favor of the family of Isaac. There was to be, however, another separation, involving the family of Isaac this time.
Isaac had two sons; Jacob and Esau. The family of Esau was also cast off in favor of the family of Jacob, who was, by God Himself, also called Israel. This brings us to the final division described in the following scriptures: "Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called (Romans 9.6,7)." What could be plainer? The whole of Israel is divided into those that are, and are not, of Israel; we call them natural Israel on the one hand, and spiritual Israel on the other. Being a descendant of Abraham did not make one a true Israelite unless he was of the seed called (by God) in Isaac. But, Paul was not through with his explanation here in this parenthetical passage. He continues: "That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed (Romans 9.8)." This verse very well sets forth the various separations we have just described. A Jew might have descended from Abraham, but that would not make him a child of God. He might also have descended through Isaac, and even on through Jacob, but that too could only make him a child of the fleshly Israel. It was children of promise that Paul here, and elsewhere, equated with Isaac, or the true Israel. It was these, the children of promise for whom he prayed and yearned in his heart. Those God had accounted as seed were the Israelites, the only Israelites, that rendered Paul sorrowful with great heaviness.
Paul continued in this parenthesis by illustrating the doctrines of election and reprobation, using Jacob and Esau as examples of God's love and hatred. He loved one, Jacob, on the basis of no foreseen good; he bated the other, Esau, on the basis of no foreseen evil. For Jacob, God showed mercy and compassion. For Esau, He showed His power by hardening him. "Therefore bath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth (Romans 9.18)." This is the very heart and soul of the doctrines Paul expounded, here and in other passages of the Bible. We can only conclude then that when he prayed to God for Israel that they might by saved, he meant those that God bad elected in Christ from the foundation of the world. They were born into the family of Adam according to nature, and were the natural seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; ... my brethren, my kinsman according to the flesh (Romans 9.3)."
One other verse needs to be considered in Romans 9, before returning to the text at the heading. Paul wrote: "Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved (Romans 9.27)." This is much the same as what we have previously covered, and serves to reinforce the idea that out of the vast number of natural Israelites only a remnant would be reckoned as chosen to salvation. Although Israel had followed after the law of righteousness they had not attained to it, for they sought it by works rather than faith. The fatal error of their seeking righteousness by works was to stumble at the stumblingstone, which is Christ. See verses 30-33. So then Paul prayed for them; that is, the true remnant (verse 27) among the whole of Israel.
Paul acknowledged their zeal, (Romans 10.2) but attributed it to ignorance (verse 3) rather than knowledge (of Christ and His perfect righteousness). Seeking to please God with a contrived righteousness, they were unsubmissive (verse 3) to the righteousness of God, Christ; the only righteousness God ever has or ever will accept for the salvation of sinners. So; Paul prayed for the salvation, or deliverance, of the elect seed of Isaac among the tribes of Israel.
Someone may object by saying it is needless to pray for those that are certain to be saved anyway. We would respond by asking, is it wrong to pray, "Not my will, but thine be done" since His will is certain to be done? Is it wrong to pray "God be merciful to me a sinner" since it is positively certain He will be merciful, if such a groan is a work of the Spirit in you? We are satisfied that Paul has left the citizens of Zion a good example in his prayer. We may approach the throne of grace boldly seeking those things God has appointed; in fact we dare not approach with anything else. Predestination and election have never been a barrier to prayer; rather, it in a manner of speaking, they sanction and encourage it.
One final note regarding what is meant by the expression in the prayer of Paul, "that they might be saved (10.1)." It was for the Israelites salvation that the apostle prayed. Was it salvation only from error, or salvation such as we commonly understand the word to mean, regeneration or quickening? As we see it, it makes no difference really. If they were to be born again, the deliverance from error would certainly come as the Lord saw fit. We never knew of the Lord only half way saving any poor sinner ordained to eternal life. As many as were ordained to eternal life will believe. (See Acts 13.48.)
We are persuaded that whatever was meant by the word "salvation" it was to be by free grace. The whole of Israel had, as Paul clearly stated, missed obtaining righteousness in seeking it by works. Nor can it be any different in our day. No poor sinner shall ever be saved, in time or eternity, without free grace, and that apart from any effort of the flesh whatever.
J. F. Poole
Volume 7, No. 3