Romans 11:7-10 “What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, as it is written: ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.’ And David says: ‘May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling-block and a retribution for them. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent for ever.’”
There is a lot of religion in the world, people seeking to know God and get God’s blessing in what they do, many of them very sincerely, not eating certain foods, knocking on doors with literature, and tithing to the group they belong to. Vast crowds gather in Mecca, or immerse themselves in the Ganges, or they go to Lourdes, or visit the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. When I ask some of you how you are doing spiritually then you’ll say to me that you are faithfully seeking God. But Paul tells us that what Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain. Seeking is no guarantee of finding. Take no comfort in being a seeker. Hell is full of former seekers.
1. EARNEST SEEKING DOES NOT GUARANTEE OBTAINING.
There were many earnest seekers in Israel in the days of the apostles. They filled the synagogues each Sabbath. What earnestness they showed, tithing even their garden herbs like mint and cumin and giving that to their God, visiting Jerusalem three times a year for feasts lasting up to a week. They kept food laws, and observed the seventh day of the week as a day or total rest. They made meticulous sacrifices for their sins depending on their gravity, and they traveled over land and sea to make one convert. What zeal! If you asked them what they were doing they’d say, “We are seeking the Lord and his righteousness,” and their hope of obtaining it was based on the earnestness of their seeking. But Paul tells us, “What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain” (v.7). For all its endeavours the result was nil. What it went for it didn’t obtain. And the reason for that was that their focus was on the works that they were doing not on God’s mighty saving grace. Have you considered that a possibility? That all your religion will in the end get you exactly nothing or worse than nothing.
I want to give every encouragement to men and women to seek for a church where the Bible is believed and preached and obeyed, and leave congregation where this does not feature. Seek a more God-honouring pulpit. Come to our services and hear the word of God explained and never be absent. Seek to listen earnestly, and seek to understand, and seek to learn, and seek to obey what God says. If you are asking God for a closer walk with him, and seeking greater trust in him, and knocking for entry into the deepest fellowship with him then keep on doing that. Indeed I do believe that in such longings and yearnings there is saving faith and the possession of Christ’s salvation – in that actual yearning and seeking and knocking. So seek the Lord while he may be found, and where he may be found, and that is often where people gather together in his name and hear his word. There he is near.
Yet I don’t believe at all that God says to men and women who are still in unbelief, “Seek Christ!” Indeed I think that the New Testament language is quite the opposite, that it doesn’t show us people seeking Christ, in fact it says quite categorically there is none seeking God. What we find in the Bible is the Lord seeking men and women. He sent his prophets to seek the. He sent Jonah to seek the Ninevites. He sent Elijah to seek the elect of Israel. He finally sent Jesus who came as the Good Shepherd to seek and to save that which was lost. God is seeking you. He is seeking you in the testimony of your friends, in the preaching of the gospel, in the offer of pardon and forgiveness through Christ, in the prayers of your parents and friends, in the Bible you read and the Christian books you’ve been given and in a host of providences that have made this world less and less satisfying and in your pleasure you get at being in the presence of other Christians. In all of that God is showing evidence that he is seeking you.
I am afraid that a great deal of what you refer to as your ‘seeking’ Jehovah is in fact seeking a better invitation than they’ve had so far. Is that the case with you, that in fact you are wanting to hear the gospel with more buzz? You’re wanting to feel it more deeply. You’re wanting to hear it more persuasively so that you won’t have to make that painful, lonely, personal decision all by yourself to entrust yourself to Jesus Christ for ever. You are seeking the tingle factor.
The Lord Jesus Christ today is not an object that you have to search for as if he were somehow lost, or hidden away in some mysterious place, in a cave in the Himalayas that required a trip to Nepal, or on a distant island in the south seas, or off on Bardsey Island in the Irish Sea, or some such inaccessible and forbidding spot. It’s not true for a single moment that the Messiah is so far from you that you’ve got to seek him because in the preaching of the Bible he is near you, in the word of faith which we preach, that word is touching you and moving you right now. Your task and your obligation and your privilege is not to be seeking him, and shaking your head sadly week after week that it is so difficult to find Jesus Christ. I say, ‘No!’ He is the one seeking, and he is so near that as you read these words he is seeking you now. You don’t need to go away from where you are right now, saying you will seek for him somewhere else, in your bedroom or in the garden or on some mountainside. There is no need to leave this spot without him. He is not to be sought for; he is the one seeking you at this moment. His words to unbelievers are not, “Seek!” He is not saying, “Go and look in and in and in and in, in the depths of your own experience and emotions.” He is not saying, “Give up your job and find a cabin in the woods and there meditate and read the Bible for days seeking the Lord. Just do that!” No! Don’t do that. Don’t give up your job to ‘seek.’ He says, “I am here, right before you, and so you come to me now.” He is here for this specific reason, he is seeking for you. He is not seeking your seeking at all, or more intense seeking or deeply emotional seeking, weepy seeking or sighing seeking. He is watching to see if you are receiving him as your prophet, priest and king. He is saying to us, “Come to me, just as you are, without one plea.” He wants you to come,
“Just as I am and waiting not
To cleanse my soul from one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot
O Lamb of God I come.”
Do not wait. Stop your seeking. If you tarry till you’re better you will never come at all. Enter the kingdom of God by the door. The door is Christ, and he sets it ajar before you. It is not locked. There is no key to enter it that you don’t possess. Push the door open as you come to him and it will open. Enter! He is not urging you to keep seeking for the door. No, he is saying, “Here is the door, right before you. I am that door and you must enter through it.” Israel sought earnestly but Israel did not obtain what it was looking for because its hopes were on its works and not on God’s mighty grace. There is no one here you are to look up to for being a superlative seeker. No one is trying to be cool and hinting at the laborious extensive seeking that he had to do so that finally he found the Lord. We came just as we were to the Lord. We said, “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling,” and God received us for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ. Have no confidence in your seeking, only in your being found by the good Shepherd.
2. FAVOURED PEOPLE OBTAIN SALVATION.
So our text begins with a warning not to be relying on your sincerity about religion. You are not to think that all is well because you are serious about going to church each Sunday. You are not to focus on such religious works of you have done. That is the sure way to hell. Israel sought so earnestly but it failed to obtain. Don’t be like Israel, but this warning quickly changes to hope and encouragement because Paul adds four words, “but the elect did” (v.7). There were those in Israel who heard the word of God and they did what it tells men to do. There were those favoured sinners who heard God saying to them, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.” (Isa. 55:1-3). They gave ear, and they came, and their souls lived! Or they heard God saying to them, “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Is. 45:21&22), and the elect turned and were saved. Or they heard God saying, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ek. 33:11). And the elect turned and the elect obtained God and his grace and his great salvation and a right standing before him and innumerable blessing each day of their lives and eternal life.
And when the promised Messiah came preaching to the lost sheep of the house of Israel then he said to them, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Hundreds of them did so and they had rest for their souls. They all discovered that Christ’s yoke is an easy yoke and his burden is rest. The elect cast themselves on God’s grace. They turned away from trusting in what they felt like and what they did. They made a great heap of all that they had earnestly done and they set fire to the lot, and they fled from it all to hide in the wounded side of Jesus. They alone obtained the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
3. THE UNFAVOURED GROW HARDER.
That is what the Holy Spirit says here; “The others were hardened” (v.7). What serious words about God and his ways! What weighty views of the sovereign Lord. This is light-years removed from the Thought for Today that you hear on the radio each morning. Why is this truth so rarely heard in university Christian Unions? Is this sovereign work of God ever referred to in the manuals of church growth? Is this divine hardening ever considered as the reason for the ethical declension of our civilization? But it’s here in the word of God as inspired by the Holy Spirit. I support the Holy Spirit. I won’t grieve him by hurrying over it in embarrassment. Listen carefully and consider the weightiness and seriousness of what God has chosen to reveal here in his word . . . “the others were hardened.”
As I look around at our land today I find an increasingly hard nation. I find hard children, and hard teenagers, and hard young men and hard young women, and hard middle aged people and hard old people. And I could give you some of the symptoms I see of this hardness; young boys watching pornography, women seen as sex objects, bad manners, bullying, the treatment of the unborn child, foul language, family abuse, violence, threatening talk, lack of respect, the London gang culture and murder. That’s enough. You don’t want statistics. There’s an abundance of them. You know that alongside the kindness of our neighbours because of an earlier grace in the land there is also the pervasive macho culture of hard men and women.
The point we are making is this, that without the influence of the life and example and teaching and death of the Lord Jesus Christ then it’s the ‘me’ generation that has flourished, the man in the street who lives for himself, and he has multiplied in numbers and has grown in his confident repudiation of God. These are the people who think that there is this life alone and nothing more. They reject the fact that this is a moral universe. They reject the concept of judgment following death and the bifurcated eternal state, two roads and one of two destinations only. They are just living for the moment. They go with the flow. These are the people who have hardened their hearts against the claims of Christ. It is significant to note the hostility aroused by a table with free Christian books on display on a Saturday morning in the middle of town, literature being offered to any who would take them. What scowls and head shaking one sees, as though the worst kind of ugly teaching was being paraded. Men and women have hardened themselves against the Lord Jesus.
But we can look at that phenomenon in another way, indeed we must because there is another way in which God speaks of their state, not only that they have hardened their own hearts but that they have been hardened by God. We have seen it already in this letter so very clearly in Romans 9 and verse 18; “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” The judgment of God shows itself in his hardening work. The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the unrighteous hard-heartedness of men and women. We’ve read this week of a man charged with murdering a little girl not many miles from here and of that man’s lifestyle, the drunkenness, the adulteries, the lying, the pornography on line. He wrote the day of the murder to a woman and asked whether they could meet up, adding, “No ties.” There are always ties. We have read of another man being run over by a car and then beheaded by two men with machetes on the streets of London – all just a few days ago. These are mere symptoms of a society being hardened by the anger of God because of the self-hardening of men’s hearts. For years we have sowed a hard wind and we are now reaping a harder whirlwind
Just think of this picture of God hardening men in relation to contemporary evangelical religion. Do we ever think, let alone talk, as the Bible does here? How would we have composed and written these words? We’d have said, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The believers obtained it, but the rest refused to believe.” Now that would have been true. Absolutely true. And how easily Paul could have expressed himself like that! How easily he could have avoided the right-angled truth of God’s election and God’s hardening (the two words he uses in verse7), just like most Christian people deliberately avoiding it today. But the Holy Spirit told him not to avoid it. “Tell it like it is, my servant Paul,” said the Spirit of God. God hardens. Is he hardening your heart because of your years of defiant unbelief?
Let’s ask why Paul used these words? One reason was this; it was because of his great love for these people. This letter is written to a suffering church under the shadow of the Coliseum with all its murderous circuses. Thousands of citizens of Rome paid in order to see men kill animals, and starving animals rip apart Christian men and women, and gladiators fighting one another and butchering runaway slaves. That was public entertainment for the Roman citizen. What a decadent culture. Paul is telling them that Rome was a city being hardened by God because of its depraved self hardening. But God loves his people there in the Roman church (just as he loves us), and that is why he writes exactly as he does under the guiding of the Holy Spirit. It was good for the Romans Christians to look at things as God saw them, as being in control of Rome and hardening its citizens who rejected the gospel, and it is good for us to see and know similar things in the same way. It reinforces a certain theocentric mentality and mindset which we must cultivate; it erects a certain framework of God’s power and sovereignty. In our decadent ungodly culture God is in control still. We must cling to that certainty. It will help us handle hostility and persecution and the hardness of men’s hearts. If you haven’t see this yet then please begin to learn it today! How important it is for you to know that our God reigns, that all authority in heaven and earth is given to our Lord, and that God is alive and active and saving and judging the whole world this very moment. What benefits come from knowing this truth! May we see it brightly! Certainly we should believe it, because God has revealed these exact words to us in Scripture and he has done so because he loves us. Let me show you what God is doing.
4. THE UNFAVOURED ARE GIVEN A SPIRIT OF STUPOUR.
What Paul by the Holy Spirit writes is this, “As it is written: ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.’ And David says: ‘May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling-block and a retribution for them. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent for ever.’” What does this mean?
i] One mark of the divine hardening is a spirit of stupour. Where does this come from? From God, the God we praise from whom all blessings flow. He is the God who also can give the defiant and the indifferent this spiritual sleeping-sickness, a spirit of stupour. It is a spirit of numbness and incomprehension and weariness. Paul is quoting from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 29 and verse 4. It seems to us such a contemporary phenomenon, but it is as old as Moses. You see it all around you! You show men the glory of Christ, the beauty of his life, the magnificence of his teaching, the mighty works he did, his love in giving himself for us, his triumphant resurrection from the dead, and what do men say? “I just don’t see it!” A spirit of stupour! Or we are particularly blessed hearing a sermon in which the truth of the Christian message has been set forth irresistibly so you’d think that everyone who’d heard it had become a believer, but obviously and sadly many had not heard a single word. They wanted to go home and watch TV. Ears that could not hear! A spirit of stupour!
Is that something that Moses alone witnessed as the people turned from the living God to worshipping a golden calf? Was it something that Elijah alone witnessed as the vast majority of the people worshipped Baal? No. It was not an ancient attitude at all. Paul says that it exists, “to this very day” (v.8). It was there in Rome in the first century. It was in Jerusalem too and in all the centuries since that time fallen man has not heard and has not seen the glories of God in the face of Jesus Christ. God has given to the world in its rebellion a spirit of stupour! Paul has told us the plight of man like this, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). The spirit of stupour!
ii] Another mark of the divine hardening is the destruction of the best. R.B.Kuiper taught preaching for many years at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. He loved one Latin proverb in particular, Corruptio optimi pessima. In other words, the corruption of the best is the worst. He said, “Few things taste as good as a ripe strawberry; few things taste as bad as a rotten strawberry.” So here are some of the best gifts that God gives us, relationships, a sense of righteousness, satisfying our hunger and our thirst, sexual desire and its fulfilment, companionship, the family, work, rest, a sense of beauty, the night sky. What wonderful gifts from God, but the corruption of these things is the very worst that can happen. We could add today the Internet and the wonderful gift it is for us with the offer of information and knowledge it can bring into our lives, and yet what ugly, corrupting material it can also. It can encourage men to make bombs and to kill people.
Paul in our text quotes from Psalm 69 and verses 22 and 23, “May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling-block and a retribution for them. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent for ever” (vv.9&10). Do you see the destruction of the best so vividly presented here? David speaks of a table. Do you see that picture that is the centre of our get-togethers, the fine food and the family and friends sitting around it talking and laughing and eating? Simple, ordinary, good things in life, and yet that very table can become a snare and a trap. A man starts to seduce another man’s wife over supper. People get drunk during dinner. Gossip is spread and reputations destroyed at a table. Revenge and anger brew at a table, plots are hatched and retribution comes while people are sitting and eating a meal together. Such a table of family and friends becomes a snare and a trap and a stumbling block. Corruptio optimi pessima. The corruption of the best is the worst. That’s the way the divine hardening shows itself.
Or again David says, “May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent for ever” (v.10). Again they cannot see that it’s a good thing that’s ruining their lives. They are elevating simple, ordinary, necessary things and they are hoping that they can get from them what they’ve never been designed by God to provide. A man will worship his family or his land or his aesthetic sense or his creativity and he will live for it and worship it and it will destroy him. I have a friend whose brother in law has a business and he lives for this business and it is backbreaking. It is destroying him and his relationships. His work is his life. How good it is to hear a man say to you that he rates his job satisfaction as 9 out of 10, or “almost 10 out of 10” he adds with a smile. He loves his work, and that is good, for God says, “Six days thou shalt labour,” but this man’s work is killing him. He has so many forms to fill in, and taxes to pay, and inspectors to arrange to see what he has built. He is up first thing in the morning and he works until after nine almost every day of the week. My friend’s brother-in-law is now in his mid 70s and he can see no way he can give up his business. His back is bent for ever. Corruptio optimi pessima. The corruption of the best is the worst. This is another mark of God hardening our civilization.
What is all this? It is God’s retribution on a God-defying and a God-ignoring generation, and there is no escape for them. Husbands and fathers retire to their homes at the end of a wearying day. They would love to have peace and consolation over a quiet meal with their wives, but their wives are resentful because their husbands left for work at 7.30 and were not back from their work until after 8 p.m. and they have had the children all day and all the chores of the house. There are arguments and tension and coldness at the table. I am not making that up. It is here in verse 9, “May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling-block and a retribution for them.” God’s judgment on them comes and visits them at their homes, and the marriage bed is cold. They are living under the hardening judgment of God and they deserve it. They deserve the snare and the trap and the stumbling because they are worshipping their work and not God.
In other words, all men and women are accountable for how they live. These are not guilt feelings that they experience; this is true guilt. We sin and we answer to God day by day. You see it in verse 20, Paul describes hardened sinners like this: “They were broken off because of their unbelief.” They were hardened suffering the retribution of God because of their unbelief. That is what I believe. This is what we see in the Bible. God is sovereign; man is a responsible moral agent. God is free and never ultimately forced to act in a certain way because of forces or actions or wills outside himself. On the other hand, we are morally responsible men and women. Children are responsible; people with learning difficulties are; people with a minimal knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ are. We are found guilty because of our sinfulness, and our punishment starts now, at the table, in our homes, in our jobs and especially in the callous hardening of our hearts. We really deserve such a divine response of retribution and punishment.
Will you hear me? Will you please consider that the living God has a case against you? He has blessed you with every good and lovely gift. The best of everything has been given to you by God. He has arranged your life, the home in which you were reared, loving parents, brothers and sisters. He gave you intelligence and success, work, marriage, prosperity, children, health, long life, peace in your time, retirement, security – just some of his gifts to you, and yet you’ve ignored him. You’ve never got down on your knees before him and given him thanks. There were times when he spoke to you, addressed your conscience, warned you and told you to turn to him. He summoned you to the bar of his justice in the middle of the night and you knew you’ve been living in rebellion towards him. Your conscience convicted you, but you ignored it and silenced it and went on living without him, but God would not let you alone and he began to harden you. He so arranged all reality that your table lost its pleasantness and your work became a burden to you. When God did this to you he was never unjust or blameworthy in what happened, and you never ceased to be morally accountable.
Then what must you do? Cry to him that he will deliver you from the spirit of stupour, give you sight and hearing, make your table a table of happiness and blessing where you can thank God that he has given you your daily bread and made your work your servant and not your master. And you must pray this prayer with increasing earnestness until you know he has heard and answered you. Then you will be assured that you are not amongst those whom God has hardened but amongst the others who have obtained righteousness. That is the only way of deliverance.
Let me ask you this question: could Paul have written these words of our text without weeping? Here were the most religious people in the world and yet they were living in an anti-Christian stupour. Paul in captivity in Rome met a deputation of Jewish leaders and he addressed them with the message of these verses. Some were convinced by what he said while others rejected it. So this is what Paul says, “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”’ Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (Acts 28:25-28).
There’s only one way of deliverance from a calloused heart and that is simply to ask the Lord Jesus Christ to take the callouses away and make the hard heart soft, giving you a new heart that believes the truth and loves God. Don’t listen to the devil when he says it’s too late. It is never too late while life and thought and being last. Don’t listen to the devil when he says that you’d be a hypocrite to confess your hard heart to him now, that you’ve sown your seed and so the brave thing is to wait to reap what you have sown. Don’t be so foolish. Who are the men we admire? Men who have changed their minds after considering the evidence for such facts as the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus. Men who have been Marxists for decades who finally come to see the tyranny that Marxism is. It is not hypocrisy to think aright, that you have foolishly lived for yourself and ignored God for too long and that now you are coming home. That is the truth. That is coming out of shadowlands into the light that is Jesus Christ. You come now confessing your sinful heart and you receive the mercy of God in Christ.
26th May 2013 GEOFF THOMAS