Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.” It is just as Isaiah said previously: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” – Romans 9:27-33
Wow, I just read through the entire book of Romans and I think this is the sole water reference in the book. Paul’s main focus in writing this letter is to provide theological and historical underpinnings for many of the practices of the early church and its members. He also shares about his own journey and expresses a longing to return to Rome.
I suppose part of the reason for the dearth of water references is that Paul is speaking with a pragmatic purpose. I feel like Paul could have used a few more metaphors to connect with his audience at a soul to soul level. Perhaps his scholarly background, and lack of lessons by the lake with Jesus, left him with limited literary skills outside of legal matters. I do not know.
I reflected on the Isaiah reference (Isaiah 10:20-27) in this passage way back on September 5, 2015. The post was called “Sands by the sea” and the main point was that Isaiah was predicting the very thing that Paul is describing. A remnant of Jewish people will follow God faithfully and others will have this opportunity too. The part that Paul is adding here, after the great conjunction of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is that those that are successful at this faithful following embrace a new internal relationship with God provided by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. This opportunity is open to Jew and gentile alike.
Paul goes on to explain why the remnant does not contain more followers from the Jewish tradition. Paul says “Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” Something about the way they were relating to God was blocking a more intimate relationship.
The “Rock in the road” on the Jewish journey home was of course Jesus the God-man who walked on water, calmed storms, and ultimately promised to help us cross the uncrossable river. Many of the Jews Paul was addressing, and those like myself reading it now, are caught up in a spiritual tug of war for our souls. Earthly endeavors (works) on one side and eternal events inspired and orchestrated by the Holy Spirit on the other.
We have to choose which “team” we are pulling for in this spiritual struggle and apparently many Jews are pulling for the works side. So why are the Jews more comfortable as “humans doing” than “humans being”. They have allowed their searching on the great spiritual sea to be more about the boat and tackle and less about the destination in the undiscovered country. They are not alone in this.
So how does one keep from stumbling over the “stone” that is the savior Jesus? Paul provides an answer “and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” So it is as simple, and as complex, as believing – allow the “stumbling stone” to be your savior and Lord. It need not be more complicated than that.
Prayer; God help us to build You into our soul and spirit.