To illustrate Israel’s failure in pursuing the righteousness of the law, Paul quotes from Isaiah. His first point indicating their stumbling is from Isaiah 8:14. God is a rock, but as a rock, it can be a stumbling stone to those who are not watching it, blithely going along their paths focused on their own desires and efforts. That same stone, however, Paul characterizes as something that will keep believers unshakeable, as God says in Isaiah 28:16.
Having stated that the Jews have pursued but not achieved the righteousness of the Law, Paul continues in chapter 10 to explain this idea further. The first four verses present how the Jews misunderstood.
Paul opens with expression of a prayer that has more legitimacy than his prayer opening chapter 9. There Paul was considering sacrificing himself for the sake of the Jews. But of course, Paul realized that would not follow God’s plan for redemption. His prayer in chapter 10 still seeks the salvation of the Jews, but that prayer is surrounded by the understanding that faith precedes righteousness.
Paul comments in verse 2 that the Jews have a zeal for God, but that zeal drives them to activity that is not based on knowledge. We are not left to wonder what knowledge they are missing for Paul immediately discloses in verse 3 that they were ignorant of God’s righteousness.
We need to pause here to ensure our English translations don’t confuse. The old Holman Christian Standard Bible states that they “disregarded the righteousness from God.” That phrasing includes more interpretation than translation. The word “disregarded” should be disregarded. The Greek there (agnoeō) should definitely be translated ignorant or, as in the NIV, did not know. But more importantly, I think, using the phrase “righteousness from God” is misleading. The NET has even more of a faulty interpretive insistence by saying, “the righteousness that comes from God.” The Greek here is the simple genitive case showing possession. It is the righteousness of God, or God’s righteousness, that is being referenced. Remembering that righteousness means faithfulness to a covenant, we see then that Paul is saying the Jews were ignorant of God’s work at being faithful to his own covenants—the ones we discussed several sessions ago as the Covenant of Operational Essence (COE; that God will always act according to his essence of truth, goodness, and beauty) and the Covenant of Creative Purpose (CCP; that God created to have everlasting love relationship with his image bearers). While the Jews seemed fine with thinking that God chose them with whom to have everlasting relationship, they ignored or seemed ignorant of the fact that God could not simply choose to embrace them without sullying himself and violating his COE. Sin had to be permanently paid for or God could never permanently embrace any sinful image bearer.
Here then is the problem with the Jewish mindset. Thinking they already had been the permanently chosen people of God, they saw no need for salvation. Salvation rescues someone from death (separation from God) to life (relationship with God). “Why would we need that?” they thought. “We already have relationship with God.” Therefore, as Paul continues in verse 3, they pursued their own righteousness (faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant) with the understanding that, since they already had relationship, what they were doing was taking steps toward a higher degree of relationship.
Of course, we see that attitude of the Pharisees clearly in the Gospels. The excruciating detail to which they followed the Law was meant to exalt their status. Just as they “did everything to be observed by others” (Mt 23:5), the idea of performing works to gain righteousness (a higher status of faithfulness to the covenant) is entirely backwards. In these several verses opening chapter 10, Paul’s point is to argue that the Jews misunderstood because they thought their good works (following the Law) would earn them righteousness points. Rather, Paul insists, righteousness is based on faith; the good works flow from righteousness not toward it.
Assuming good works gains a greater level of righteousness shows a selfish pursuit. Rather, Paul’s insistence—God’s insistence—is that good works flow from hearts that are motivated by a righteous standing set on God’s TGB. Therefore, verse 4 draws this argument into logical completion by saying that Christ is the end—the culmination or fulfillment—of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
In other words, in being ignorant of God’s righteousness (his faithfulness in both COE and CCP), the Jews never looked to the righteousness of the Law as something unattainable without a savior. They didn’t think of their Messiah at all as someone who would rescue them from estrangement from God to relationship with him. Their Messiah was simply someone who would gain them prominence in the world. But the Law’s true image and purpose was to show unrighteous people the righteous TGB of God to which they could not attain without salvation. And in that way, the Law revealed God’s righteousness which was fulfilled in Christ, who at once settled God’s righteousness (his faithfulness to his Trinitarian covenants of COE and CCP) and believers’ righteousness (our faithfulness to the New Covenant of Life made possible by Christ’s death gift paying for our sins).
It is important to recognize in verse 4 that Christ is the fulfillment of the Law for righteousness. Paul is not arguing (and never has) that the Law is bad or following the Law is bad. The Law could be called righteous because it showed the purity of performance based on a heart set on TGB. I say it is important to recognize that so we don’t get confused by the next two verses.
In verse 5 Paul quotes Moses from Leviticus speaking about the righteousness from the Law. He goes on in verse 6 to speak about the righteousness from faith. Again, we are misguided by faulty translation to think that Paul is contrasting the two, as if the righteousness from the Law is a bad thing replaced by the good righteousness from faith. That is not, however, Paul’s intent.
The passage Paul quotes from Leviticus 18:5 shows God ordering Israel to “keep My statutes and ordinances: a person will live if he does them. I am Yahweh.” The translation seems to indicate that doing the Law will be rewarded with life. However, when we look at the Hebrew interlinear rendition, we find the message stating the person “who is doing them lives in them.” That statement gives an entirely different perspective. Instead of as first thought where we seem to be moving from good works to reward of life, the Hebrew is actually emphasizing that the person who lives in this goodness does the good work (follows the commands). So God, in Leviticus, is not arguing for a legalistic, duty-bound attitude of obedience. The true righteousness from the Law began with the heart just as God has always wanted his people to follow him—from the heart. No one can read Isaiah 1:11–13 and think God is satisfied with mere dutiful obedience: “‘What are all your sacrifices to Me?’ asks the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs, or male goats. . . . Stop bringing useless offerings. You incense is detestable to Me. . . . I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals. They have become a burden to Me; I am tired of putting up with them.’” Why was God so upset about the Jews bringing sacrifices—exactly what he had ordered them to do? He was upset because they were doing it out of duty and obedience only! They had not heart set on his TGB so that their good works were an expression of love. And that sickened God. Therefore, we cannot make an argument that Leviticus ordered obedience without heart. And if it didn’t—if the righteousness from the Law was supposed to show activity from the heart—than it cannot be compared in contrast to the righteousness from faith. Therefore, in Romans 10:5, Paul sets up proof of righteousness from the heart, commanded through Moses, likening it (not contrasting it) with the righteousness from faith realized in verse 4’s belief in Christ.
Our seeming confusion in thinking there is contrast between verses 5 and 6 is surely not helped by the word starting verse 6, translated But. The Greek de is used close to 3000 times in the NT, and it is true that about 1200-1300 times it is translated appropriately as “but.” However, according to Thayer’s lexicon, the word can also “introduce explanations separating them from the things to be explained.” And that is why it is sometimes translated “moreover.” Verse 6 is one of those times when the translation should have been different. Paul gives example in verse 5 of the righteousness from the Law and then continues explaining by pressing the same meaning in the righteousness by faith, this time using Deuteronomy 30 as the illustrating instruction. Verse 11 through 14 talks about the commands as not being difficult, having to be derived from some outside source (in heaven or across the sea). Rather, Moses says, it is right there in your mouth and heart, again showing that true righteousness comes from a heart already set in faith on God so that the commands or good works flow from it and are not meant to achieve it.