After concluding Romans 8 with the great promise that nothing can separate those who have been declared righteous and adopted into the family of God from the love of God, a reader might object that God has in fact rejected his people Israel. God made promises to Israel which seem to remain unfulfilled because of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Chapter 9 argued God this is not a problem of God’s faithfulness. Like Ishmael, Esau or Pharaoh, Israel’s failure to respond to God is an opportunity for God to show mercy (or not) on whomever he wills. But this does not mean Israel was not responsible for their failure to obtain righteousness through the Law.
But God’s sovereign choice does not mean Israel bears no responsibility for their failure to obtain righteousness through the Law. This is true even though the Law was not able to produce righteousness in the first place.
For Paul, Israel did not pursue righteousness through faith, but rather by works. Does this implies righteousness could be obtained by the following law, but Israel pursued righteousness in the wrong way? Schreiner does not think this was Paul’s point at all (Schreiner, “Israel’s Failure,” 213). Earlier in Romans Paul has argued the Law could not make someone righteous since that was not the purpose of the law in the first place (Rom 7:4-6).
Israel failed to obtain righteousness assuming a right relationship with God depended on total obedience to the Law rather than God’s grace. For example, in is likely that the worship offered by the northern kingdom of Israel was properly performed, all sacrifices were made according to the Law, yet God says that this worship is a stench to him because the people are not acting justly (Amos 5:21-24).
The verb translated “reaching” in verse 31 (φθάνω) can refer to attaining a particular status or state. Schreiner detects a racing metaphor, citing the verb “pursue” in this verse and “to run” in 9:16. I would also add the idea of a “stumbling block” in 9:32 could be part of the metaphor of running a race.
The Jewish people pursued the law of righteousness yet did not attain the goal of the Law. Looking ahead to 10:4, Paul will conclude this paragraph by stating clearly that Christ is the goal of the Law.
The Law was the standard to which Israel held themselves, but they could never obtain that standard. They therefore failed because they were seeking the wrong goal from the beginning. It really did not matter how close they came, they were never able to reach the goal since it was the wrong goal for them in the first place.
To extend Paul’s metaphor of a foot race, imagine competing in 100 meter sprint. You wear the right shoes and get into the proper starting crouch, and make an excellent start when the gun sounds. You bear down and sprint the 100 meters, finishing well ahead of all the other runners, absolutely certain you have won the contest. But as it turns out, you were competing in a 26.2 mile marathon. Your excellent start, perfect performance and stellar finish do not count for anything, since the goal set before you is still 26 miles away.
By way of analogy, Israel pursued righteousness by pursuing the Law. Many kept the Law as well as they possibly could, yet found themselves falling short of the glory of God since they were pursuing as if the works of the matter rather than faith in the grace of God who has called them into a unique relationship with God.
Although this is aimed that Paul’s Jewish dialogue partners, I suspect this warning is important also for Christians. It is easy for us to think we are pursuing Christ well by doing the right things, or by having a vibrant (emotional) worship time, by reading the right blogs, by voting for the right candidates or supporting all the right causes. These are not the standards by which we were declared righteous in the first place, nor is it the standard by which we maintain our relationship with God.