Paul does not want his readers to have a wrong grasp of why Israel found herself away from the experience of God’s salvation. In the previous passage he had explained that, in a way far beyond our ability to appreciate intellectually, what was happening was connected to God’s eternal plan. Yet we have to have a balanced approach to any subject, and to view anything only from the point of view of election will turn such people into speculators and spectators rather than admirers and participators. Human responsibility is an essential element of a Christian outlook.
Paul points out to his readers the reasons why Israel as a race have not retained the privileged position that they should have enjoyed. There are two reasons, one connected to what they did with the law and the other connected to their response to Jesus when he came.
God had given his law to Israel at Mount Sinai. The issue that concerns Paul here is why God gave it to them. He points out that Israel regarded the law as something they could use in order to achieve righteousness through their own obedience. Their response was wrong. So what should they have done with the law that God gave to them? In a sense, that same question comes to everyone who has heard about the law God provided.
God’s law was not given to show that perfect obedience to its requirements was possible. Instead it was given for the opposite reason, which was to show that such obedience was impossible. Israel engaged a form of spiritual pride when they assumed they could achieve such heights. And in the process, it became inevitable that they would have a wrong response to Jesus because he came to provide an answer and a remedy for those who could not please God by their own obedience.
Paul refers to Jesus by an unusual title in verse 33: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’ He combines two verses from Isaiah here, 28:16 and 8:14. The parts of the verse in Romans that comes from Isaiah 8:14 is the reference to stumbling and rock of offence. An interesting feature of Isaiah 8:14 is that the prophet says that the Lord himself will be the stone of stumbling and rock of offence. So here we have a statement claiming the deity of Jesus.
Perhaps we could render it this way. ‘The Father says, “Behold, I am laying in Zion my divine Son as a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence for the Israelites because they are misusing my law. Nevertheless, anyone who believes in him, including Gentiles, will not be ashamed.”’ So this title of Jesus reminds us that his coming to Israel was both a punishment and a prospect. It was punishment for those who misused God’s blessings and it was prospect of salvation for those who would embrace him.
One issue that is prominent here is the consequences of misuse of God’s kindness. The failure of Israel to use the law correctly meant that they would misuse Jesus. It is the same with us. Knowing about God’s law has three possible consequences. One is self-righteousness, a second is indifference to God’s authority, and the third is repentance because of our failure to keep it. The first two will cause us to trip over Jesus because we will not understand why he came. But the third will make us rejoice that he did.