Wow!—Romans 11:33-36

The prayers of Paul

This is a series on the prayers of St Paul found in the letters attributed to him in the order he is believed to have written them. Letters to the same place or person will be treated together with the first letter to that destination.

It looks like the end, but it is not the end. This prayer comes at the end of the section on the Jewish relationship with God which comes in chapters 9 to 11 of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is the kind of thing that is typical of Paul’s way of ending his letters, but it is not the end, there is a whole chunk of Romans still to come.

A sunset viewed through rows of sunbeds and parasols.
Sunset at Playa de Amadores, Gran Canaria, Spain.

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

This prayer of praise is a wow moment.

It comes out of the blue – like when you see a marvellous sunset, you just sit and say wow. Occasionally I get out my camera and position myself to get a good shot, like the picture taken from my mobile phone last September above. But mostly I forget and just look – like I did once for sunrise over the Grand Canyon. I really wish I’d taken that.

This prayer is not only at end of the section on the Jews but also at the end of the whole of the first 11 chapters of Romans, Paul looks back on what he has written and goes WOW!

The danger of these moments talking about God being in control is that we are not taking into account how the world is, there are a lot of conflicts particularly as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is almost a year old with no foreseeable end to the war in sight. There is a lot of conflict around between people, and social media shows this, it is far easier to ridicule someone for holding contrary views to yours than it is to join in a reasoned debate about why you disagree. There is inner conflict too, we see this not only in others but also in ourselves, there are still things in my own attitudes that need changing, not just passively in God healing my attitudes, but I need to make the effort to change. That is what repentance is, making the effort to change. I need to do this as much as Russian President Vladimir Putin does.

Paul is not praising God out of blindly clinging to the idea that God is in control despite evidence that contradicts this. He has dealt with this in the theology of the first 8 chapters of Romans and in the section on the Jews, which follows. He has dealt with the faults of other people, and turned them around to say, “and you are just as bad,” Chapter 7 is all about inner conflict and why we do things that make ourselves, as well as others, feel bad. His answer in chapter 8 is that we have been set free. Notice it is passive, we do not set ourselves free, but Jesus has done it all for us.

Then follows the Jewish chapters. I have heard it called an interlude, people quote from Chapters 1 to 8 then skip straight through to Chapter 12 for the practical outworking, I think that is a mistake. It is more than an interlude, it shows how we can go against God by sticking to rules rather than being in a loving relationship.
The Jews have a long history of reflecting on the bad things that happen, it is found in the lamenting Psalms, it is found in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes but most obviously it is in the book of Job, a whole book, in the form of a play, about bad stuff happening to a good person. Job does not read as the happiest book ever written. far from it.

So what is Paul doing here? He quotes from Job 5:8, 35:7 and 41:11 in what is a prayer of praise, a prayer of wow. (The first quote is from Isaiah) He puts them together into a prayer of praise that is not saying that God is in control without looking at the reality of conflict in the world, from the personal to the wars between nations and ideologies. He says God, who made the world good, is in control in and through the bad times in our lives. We have to look at the work of Jesus as a whole, not just his teachings as being laws or philosophy, not just what it meant for God to become human, or to take the crucifixion as being everything, although the incarnation does point to the crucifixion it also has a meaning of its own. In the same way, the resurrection has its own meaning—we can live a new life in Christ—which is separate from the crucifixion though pointing back to it. Then there’s sending the Holy Spirit. We live in the Spirit, but it points back to all of this.
Paul looks back at what God has done, appreciates the difficulties we face, but still goes WOW!

I leave the last word to Tom Wright:

“This letter, above all other writings in early Christianity, wrestles with exactly these problems in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and the gift of the spirit, and demonstrates that God has been true both to creation and to covenant, and that this faithfulness will work its way out – is already working its way out – to the point where we can see the end from the beginning.*”

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*Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 66-67). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

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