Romans 11:7-10, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written,
“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”
9 And David says,
“Let their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling block and a retribution for them;
10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and bend their backs forever.”
As we continue to make our way through Romans 11, we need to pause for a moment and consider the various ways that Paul uses the term Israel. This will help us understand what many consider to be an extremely difficult text, especially as the Apostle works his way to his conclusion that “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26).
Over the course of Romans 9-11 alone, we can discern at least four different ways that Paul uses the word Israel. First, the term can signify the group of ethnic Jews who have true faith in the Lord. We see this in 9:6 when the Apostle says, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Here he distinguishes Israel according to the flesh—all ethnic Jews—from Israel according to the promise, which is that subset of ethnic Jews who trust in God and ultimately in Christ. A reference to this faithful but smaller group of Jews is also found in 11:1-6, where Paul points out that there is an elect remnant of Jews who have trusted in Christ even though the majority of ethnic Jews have not. Based on this, we can also see a second way in which Paul uses the term Israel, and that is to refer to the entire corporate nation that is made up of all ethnic Jews, including those who do not trust in the Lord (v. 2).
Ethnic Jews who have not placed their faith in Jesus make up the third group that bears the name Israel in Romans 9-11. We find this group in passages such as 9:31-32 and 10:21. Finally, the term Israel can also designate all of those who believe in Jesus, including both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles. In Galatians 6:16, the Apostle applies the name Israel to the entire believing community—the invisible church—that follows Christ. Paul does not make this application specifically in Romans 11; however, this meaning is clearly implied in his teaching about the one olive tree with both Jewish and Gentile branches (vv. 11-24).
Keeping these distinctive uses of the term Israel separate is not always easy because there is often overlap between them. As a believing Jew, for example, Paul is an Israelite according to definitions one, two, and four. It will be helpful for us to keep in mind that in Romans 11, Paul is often speaking in corporate categories, and so definitions two and four are particularly important. In any case, the Apostle has the third definition of Israel in view in today’s passage. The “Israel that failed to obtain what it was seeking” refers to ethnic Jews who have rejected their Messiah, Jesus. And Paul is once more clear that this failure to trust in Christ was not unexpected; rather, the prophets saw it coming (vv. 7-10).
All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and that means there is nothing insignificant in the Bible. Every word was carefully chosen by the Apostles and prophets, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so we must put in the hard work required to understand each word in context. In so doing, we show the proper respect for our Creator, and we are equipped to rightly understand and apply the text of Scripture to our lives.