Romans 11:33-36


In Romans 8:31-39 Paul exulted in his conviction concerning Christ and what Christ had done for him and all believers. He exclaimed: "We are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us."  In the next paragraph, Romans 9:1-5, Paul spoke as he did, in great sorrow, because of his love for his fellow Israelites.

Romans 9-11 is a difficult section in the New Testament. Because the majority of Israel rejected Christ, Paul turned to the Gentiles. In the providence of God this caused some Jews to become jealous. As a result some Jews in every generation since that day come to faith in Christ.

In the final analysis all Israel will be saved. All Israel means the elect among both Jews and Gentiles. Just prior to our pericope Paul said: "As far as the gospel is concerned, they (the Jews) are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too, as a result of God's mercy to you, have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." 

And then follows our pericope, a doxology which praises God and admits that we puny human beings cannot understand all the ways of the Lord. Faith, love, praise. That's the life of every true Christian. No more. No less.

Romans 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

The historical part of Paul's exposition (chapters 9-11) is now ending. At this point the Apostle feels constrained to break forth in a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. He is no longer sad as he was at 9:1-5.

The interjection "Oh" goes, as an exclamation, with the entire verse. Note that none of the nouns in the first sentence of this verse has an article. But all are definite and require articles in English. The rule is that a noun modified by another noun in the genitive causes both to become definite.

The RSV takes the three genitives as coordinate: "0 the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!"  The KJV and NKJV take only the second and third as coordinate: "0 the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" The second seems to be preferable. If that is so the sentence means: "0 the depth of the rich wisdom and the rich knowledge of God!" 

The word "depth" will be explained in the second sentence of this verse. The word "riches" is in sharp contrast to verse 32 which speaks of the spiritual poverty of all men. God cannot help us until He makes us see our own spiritual poverty. God uses the riches of His wisdom and knowledge to bring us to Him and to keep us there.

Another exclamation follows: "How unsearchable His judgments! How untraceable His ways!"  These two statements explain the words "His decisions."  Arndt, Stoeckhardt, and Kretzmann limit this to adverse judgments, those of unbelievers and not to believers. Franzmann does not say that in so many words but his exposition makes clear that is his understanding. If Franzmann and Lenski are correct we have an instance of Hebrew poetry. The second line restates the first line in different but analogous words.

Stoeckhardt: One must indeed wonder at divine wisdom, considering how God has mercy upon the disobedient, how He gathers from the apostate Jews and the Gentiles a people of His own, how He converts some through others, that He uses the faith as well as the unbelief of some to turn salvation towards others, that He maintains so long in spite of the malice of men, until He has carried out His counsel of grace upon His elect. . . . Indeed, we see the ways and judgment of God in history, and Scriptures also expressly point to them. It is also revealed to us in Scriptures, e.g., that the judgments of God are merited by men, and that the gracious ways of God rest in God Himself, in God alone. But that does not explain everything. The final reason and motives of divine ways, works and decrees are and remain hidden. If we consider the destinies of peoples and of individuals and compare them with one another, questions and riddles arise, which we cannot, and Scriptures do not, solve. We cannot understand for example, why God, who desires the salvation of all, converts some with the same guilt and corruption and gives others into their corrupt mind. But we should not investigate the cause of discrimination, since God has not revealed it to us.

God wills that I repent daily of my sins, believe in the Lord Jesus for forgiveness, love my neighbor as myself, love God above all else. That is the revealed will of God. Does 1 Corinthians 13:10 promise that I will understand God's unsearchable judgments and untraceable ways when I reach everlasting life? Some commentators think so. It surely does not mean that we will fathom His attributes. Perhaps these questions which bother us now will no longer bother us then.

Romans 11:34  "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" 

This verse is obviously quoted from Isaiah 40:13, according to the LXX. These words form the beginning of the second great section of Isaiah. According to the Massoretic text the passage reads as follows: "Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as His counselor has informed Him?"  (NASB). Paul does not say that he is quoting.

Arndt: The meaning is: It is not surprising that the ways of God are inscrutable, for no one can look into the heart and mind of God. Then Paul mentions an additional reason why God's ways are beyond us. No one of us was His adviser. If one of us had been His counsellor that person would be able to surmise why God had acted thus and thus.
Bengel: Many talk as if they were not only the Lord's counsellors, but also his inquisitors, his patrons, or his judges.

That is true. If man had access to the mind of the Lord, if the Lord had called him in to take part in His planning, then and then only would man have had a right to ask for answers to questions which are too great for him. A childlike faith which submits and says: "Thy will be done" is, indeed, a great gift.

Romans 11:35  "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?" 

Paul is not quoting the LXX. In fact, he is only alluding to the Hebrew text, which in translation (NASB) reads at Job 41:11: "Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine." 

Franzmann: No man has ever made God his debtor with a gift.
Arndt: If men did something for God and received a reward for it, then man could calculate to some extent how God is going to act. He would know at least one rule, namely that God pays back what has been given to Him. But this condition does not obtain at all. No man gives to God, but God gives to man. God is always the first one to show favors. Hence we cannot calculate the actions of God on the basis of rewards for good deeds either.

Man cannot dictate to God how God should treat or act toward man because man has not given God anything to begin with. Man cannot figure out what he may expect from God because man has no merit in the sight of God. The point is that man is completely at the mercy of God. A believer gladly admits this.

The answer to the three questions asked in verses 34-35 is "No one."  And now Paul gives the reason for this answer.

Arndt: The reason is given why man cannot understand God. In the first place, everything comes from God; He is the beginning of all things. In the next place, He i& the Administrator. All things are done through Him, everything serves Him, His great purposes, His glory. All things, even those that are evil. Stoeckhardt says beautifully of these evil things: God permits them, He limits them in their influence. He makes them serve His purpose. Considering the mercy and majesty of God the Apostle cannot but glorify Him in a brief doxology.
Franzmann: He stands at the beginning as the Creator of all, the Giver of all gifts. He holds the reins of all man's sorry history in His wise, almighty hands. He shall bring all His creation home, purged by His judgment, restored by His grace, that all may witness to His glory everlastingly.
Kretzmann: All things that happen in the world, particularly all circumstances connected with man's salvation, have their origin in God, are put into execution by God, and serve the purposes of God. Instead, therefore, of trying to penetrate the mysteries of God and to uncover His unsearchable, incomprehensible wisdom, all men, and especially all believers, shall bow their knees in praise and adoration and say with the apostle: To Him be glory forever! Amen.
Lenski: Not the attribute is referred to, but the acknowledgment, honor, and worship due to God from men, which by this very doxology Paul for his part gives to God.

TEV renders this verse thus: "For all things were created by him, and all things exist through him and for him."  NEB puts it this way: "Source, Guide, and Goal of that is --to him be glory for ever! Amen." 

Romans 11:36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

The Formula of Concord,  Tappert 625, 54-55: Thus there is no doubt that before the world began God foresaw right well and with utter certainty, and that he still knows, who of those who are called will believe and who will not; likewise, who of the converted will persevere and who will not persevere; and who after falling away will return and who will become obdurate. God is also aware and knows exactly how many there will be on either side. But because God has reserved this mystery to his own wisdom and not revealed anything concerning it in the Word, still less has commanded us to explore it through our speculations but has earnestly warned against it (Romans 11:33), therefore we are not, on the basis of our speculations, to make our own deductions, draw conclusions, or brood over it, but cling solely to his revealed Word, to which he directs us.
The Formula of Concord, Tappert 626, 62-64: If we go thus far in this article we will remain on the right path, as it is written, '0 Israel, it is your own fault that you are destroyed, but that there is help for you is pure grace on my part.' (Hosea 13:9). But whenever something in the discussion of this subject soars too high and goes beyond these limits, we must with Paul place our finger on our lips and say, 'Who are you, a man, to answer back to God? ' The great apostle Paul shows us that we cannot and should not try to explore and explain everything in this article. After a lengthy discussion of this article on the basis of the revealed Word of God, as soon as he comes to the point where he shows how much of this mystery God has reserved for his own hidden wisdom, Paul immediately commands silence and cut off further discussion with the following words: '0 the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?' --that is, outside and beyond what he has revealed to us in his Word.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1984, pp. 55-57. Used with permission.

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