Commentary on Romans 11:33-36

Notes (NET Translation)

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

“Oh” is an exclamation of awe. The “depth of the riches” probably refers to God’s grace in bringing about the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles (Rom 11:12; Eph 3:6-8). The “knowledge of God” means God’s knowledge of us, not our knowledge of God.

God’s great plan of salvation is something that no one could have conceived. No one would have anticipated that God would effect salvation through the death of his Son on a cross. No one would have anticipated that God would bring salvation to Gentiles through the disobedience of Israel, or that the blessings enjoyed by Gentiles would lead to salvation for Israel.1

34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?

This verse is taken from Isa 40:13 LXX (with minor changes).

Paul also cites Isa. 40:13 in 1 Cor. 2:16, where he claims that believers have the mind of Christ. This assertion on first glance seems to contradict Rom. 11:34, but the two notions are compatible, for the main thesis of 1 Cor. 2:6–16 is that no one can know the mind and thoughts of God’s Spirit apart from God’s free and gracious revelation. Apart from the revelation of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9–10), no human being knows what God has prepared for those who love him, but the Spirit has granted that revelation to believers. The theme in Rom. 11 is remarkably similar. No human being has the wisdom or knowledge to discern (much less to advise) God on the course that human history should take. His wisdom and plan are inaccessible to us. Nonetheless, the point of this section is ultimately not that God’s plan is a mystery to us and beyond our comprehension. That observation is true insofar as it goes. Human beings cannot understand God’s mind or plan, since their capacities are restricted. But Paul goes on to say that this inaccessible wisdom of God has been revealed to us, even though we are still unable to plumb the depths of it. Human beings cannot discern God’s wise plan for history on their own, nor would they ever devise a scheme like God’s. Nonetheless, in Rom. 9–11 Paul has communicated the main strokes in that plan, so that believers can discern the wisdom of God as it unfolds. This is not to say that comprehensive and exhaustive knowledge is granted to believers, only that the chief lineaments of his plan are made known to them. Romans 11:34 is therefore remarkably similar in theme to 1 Cor. 2:16: human beings cannot know God’s wisdom unaided, but they can access it as the Holy Spirit reveals it.2

35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him?

This verse quotes Job 41:11 MT. God is under no obligation towards humanity. He implements his salvation plan as a matter of grace (Rom 3:24; 4:4-8; 11:6).

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

God is the source of all things, the means by which all things are accomplished, and the goal of all things. Since he is the source and means of all things, no one could possibly function as his counselor or expect payment for some service rendered. God is the giver, not the recipient, of wisdom to human beings; God is the one who gives all things to us, not the one who receives benefits from human hands. Not only is God the source of all things and the means by which all things are accomplished, he is also the goal (εἰς) of all things. The purpose for which the world was created is God’s purpose. It is fitting, therefore, that the text ends with an acclamation of God’s glory. The one from whom and through whom and to whom are all things deserves all the glory. The theme of Romans emerges clearly at the end of the discussion on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in salvation history. The salvation of Jews and Gentiles is penultimate. What is ultimate is the glory of God. As Schlatter says, “worship is the concluding word.” God has arranged redemptive history to bring the maximum glory to himself. He has arranged it so that it is clear that all things are from him, through him, and to him. The “amen” (ἀμήν, amēn) in the text indicates Paul’s intense wish that God’s purpose to receive glory and praise will be realized.3

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23 says: “From thee are all things, in thee are all things, unto thee are all things” (cf. Seneca, Epistulae 65.8). God is the source, the means, and the goal of all things, all historical purposes, and all salvific events. Paul’s largely Gentile audience may well have known this familiar saying, and he may have used it here precisely because, rhetorically speaking, it would help him to win over his audience to his remarkable view of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. The God Gentiles had known only vaguely through sources like nature (Romans 1) and Stoic thought, Paul is now glorifying because he is the God of all peoples in all ages. God’s plan is for Jews and Gentiles to be saved in and by Jesus Christ and to be united in Christ.4

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Kruse 2014, 458 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12365-12378 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12406-12417 
  4. Witherington III 2004, 278 
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