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Interpreting Romans 8 in Light of Paul's Use of the Old Testament


Romans 8 seems to include a reflection on several Old Testament passages.  While only one is directly quoted, Psalm 44.22 in Romans 8.36, two others have been missed by commentators.  All three Old Testament texts have to do with suffering and pose a problem that needs resolution.  This essay seeks to demonstrate that Paul does, indeed, allude to Exodus 2.23-25 and Psalm 89 in Romans 8, and it intends to show how observing these allusions will help to interpret his arguments.  Standard interpretations of Romans 8 do not benefit from understanding the role of these Old Testament texts for Paul.[1] 

I intend to prove—to the extent that we can do so when speaking of allusions in texts—that these Old Testament texts focus our reading of Romans 8 on the corporate people of God, not individual salvation, explain the problem of God’s steadfast love in the face of suffering, and shed light on some of Paul’s Christology in this chapter.  Attention to these texts also helps to explain why Paul’s next section in Romans, chapter 9-11, is the next step in his overall argument.

Exodus 2:23-25 and Romans 8.22-30

The allusion in Romans 8.22-30 to Exodus 2.23-25 might be established on the basis of content and verbal parallels.  Israel is said to groan under the labours (‘works’) that they experienced in Egyptian slavery.  The word for groaning is the compound verb, kateste,naxan (Exod. 2.23), and the noun, stenagmo.n (Exod. 2.24).  Paul uses the simple form of the verb in Rom. 8.22-23:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together [sustena,zei] in the pains of childbirth until now.  23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan [stena,zomen] inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

The Israelites, moreover, are called the ‘sons of Israel’ (oi` ui`oi. Israhl; vv. 24-25—and elsewhere in the passage).  Paul, too, has in mind the ‘sonship’ of believers in Rom. 8.15-17, 23Exodus 2 begins the story of Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt.  Israel’s oppression is described, and Israel is shown to be waiting for redemption.  Paul speaks of the groaning that creation is experiencing as it awaits our ‘adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies’ (v. 23).  God promises to ‘redeem’ Israel, again said to ‘groan’ because of their slavery, in Exod. 6.5-6:
Moreover, I have heard the groaning [stenagmo.n] of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.  6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.
The significance of Paul’s usage of Exodus 2.23-25 lies in observing Paul’s narrative analogies between creation, Israel, and Paul’s Christian audience.  Paul is not exegeting Exodus 2.23-25 but interpreting salvation history narrativally.  He sees the story of Israel paradigmatically.  The sufferings of Israel in Egypt are like the sufferings of all creation in the world.  Israel’s groanings are like creation’s groanings.  God hears Israel’s groanings and remembers His covenant, just as we who have the Spirit groan inwardly (Rom. 8.23), the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings (Rom. 8.26), and God knows the mind of the Spirit (Rom. 8.27).
Psalm 89 and Romans 8
Psalm 89 has several parts.  The psalm begins as a song about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (vv. 1-18).  It then focusses on God’s eternal covenant with His anointed, King David, and his offspring (vv. 19-37).  It concludes with an appeal because God is angry with and has cast off His anointed, renounced His covenant, and the nations are mocking the psalmist (vv. 38-52).  The final section connects with the first and second sections as the psalmist asks, ‘Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?’ (v. 49).
This psalm, like Romans 8.17-39, has in view (1) suffering and (2) God’s steadfast love.  The Davidic focus of Psalm 89 allows a messianic reading, and therefore a Christological interpretation.
The third section of Psalm 89 not only relates to Romans 8.18-27, with the focus on suffering.  It also raises the question of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness towards His covenant people.  Having broadened the focus to the suffering of all creation, Paul turns to the question of God’s rejection of His covenant with His chosen people, Israel, in Romans 9-11.  Interestingly, Paul begins Rom. 12.1 with an appeal based on the mercies of God.  There is no verbal connection to Psalm 89 here, but Paul believes that he has solved the problem of divine rejection and established God’s mercy by this point in Romans: God’s steadfast love and faithfulness have been vindicated.
There are some verbal parallels to note between Psalm 89 and Romans 8.  First, Paul uses a somewhat rare word for ‘help’ (sunantilamba,nomai) that is also found in the psalm.  He does not use this word elsewhere.  In the psalm, God helps (His hand supports) David; in Rom. 8, the Spirit helps believers in their weakness.
Another parallel comes with the similar rhetorical questioning that points out God’s greatness to save His people.  In Psalm 89, we read:
For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,  7 a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?  8 O LORD God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O LORD, with your faithfulness all around you?    
In Romans 8.31-35, we read:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.  34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.  35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
There is another theological parallel between Psalm 89 (this is only seen in the LXX) and Romans, although it comes earlier in Rom. 3: boasting (kau,chma) is in God, not in our own works.  The psalmist says,
LXX Psalm 89:15-18 Blessed is the people that knows the joyful sound: they shall walk, O Lord, in the light of thy countenance.  16 And in thy name shall they rejoice all the day: and in thy righteousness shall they be exalted.  17 For thou art the boast (kau,chma) of their strength; and in thy good pleasure shall our horn be exalted,  18 for our help is of the Lord; and of the Holy One of Israel, our king.[2]
Paul asks,
Romans 3:27-28 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.  28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Two striking parallels between Psalm 89 and Romans 8 may be shown in the following comparison:

Romans 8:15  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"
Psalm 89.26 He [the Davidic King] shall cry to me, 'You are my Father [Aramaic: aba, Abba], my God, and the Rock of my salvation.' 
Romans 8:29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Psalm 89.27 And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. 
 We see two things in these two allusions to Psalm 89.  First, Paul makes the expected connection between the Davidic king in this messianic psalm and Jesus Christ.  Second, the cry of ‘Abba’ is not only the cry of the Davidic king but also of all God’s people.  Paul extends the idea of David’s offspring (Psalm 89.19), his heirs, to all those in Christ.  Those led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Rom. 8.14), heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ (Rom. 8.17).  There is also the link between David’s being adopted as a son and our adoption as sons of God (Rom. 8.15).  When God establishes his covenant with David and his house, the language of adoption is used—and the passage is parallel to Psalm 89:[3]
2 Samuel 7:14-16 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men,  15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.  16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.'
We gain an understanding of Paul’s ecclesiology here.  This is what it means to be ‘in Christ,’ a favourite phrase for Paul.  Christ is the heir to the Davidic promise, the Messiah; as David’s descendants inherited the adoption as God’s sons, so those ‘in Christ’ inherit His sonship.
The eternal promise of God to David and his descendants (Psalm 89.33-36) is also extended to Christians by Paul: nothing can separate them from God:
Romans 8.38-39 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,  39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul’s Narrative Hermeneutic
Exodus 2 has in view the sufferings of God’s people in Egypt before the exodus.  Psalm 89 has in view the sufferings of God’s people, particularly in regard to the loss of Davidic rule, in the exile.  Paul generalizes these historical moments of suffering to all creation, including the people of God.  He does not lose sight of the historical issue—he will address it full on in Romans 9-11 in regard to Israel’s covenant status and yet rejection.  The story of Israel, though, is paradigmatic for the story of humanity.  Their suffering is like the suffering of all creation, which is like Christians’ suffering in Christ.  Their groanings are like the groanings of all creation.  Their covenant assurances about God’s faithfulness are now also ours.  Their trust in God’s steadfast love is equally our faith in God’s mercies.  The assurances of God’s redemption, steadfast love, and faithfulness are the same for Israel in Egypt, Israel in exile, and Christians placing their faith in God.
Romans 8.28-30: The Missional Role of God’s Suffering and Glorified People
By reading Romans 8.18-39 in light of Exodus 2.23-25 and Psalm 89, given the verbal, content, and theological parallels, we gain some insight into Paul’s point in Romans 8.28-30:
Romans 8:28-30 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
The final statement, ‘those whom he justified he also glorified,’ seems rather odd if Paul has in view Christians who still anticipate being glorified sometime in the future at the resurrection.  However, if Paul is not reflecting on a future glorification but on God’s glorification of His chosen people, a past tense is understandable.  That is, if Paul is thinking paradigmatically or analogically with the story of Israel, the past tense of ‘glorified’ makes sense.  God’s plan leads to His glorification of a people that they might fulfill their missionary role in the world.  This brings Isaiah 55.1-5 into focus, where glorified (past tense) Israel leads it to fulfill its missiological role among the nations.  Note in this passage that God's steadfast love and God's covenant with David are also in view, as in Psalm 89:
Isaiah 55:1-5  "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  3 Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
To be ‘glorified’ is to be made God’s righteous and missionary people.  I am arguing that Paul is thinking of God's glorified people and not of the Christian’s glorified, resurrection body.  He is not thinking individually, as though Rom. 8.28-30 is about an individual Christian’s order of salvation.  He is thinking about the people of God, with Exodus 2.23-25 and Psalm 89 in view and, quite possibly, Isaiah 55.1-5 (especially v. 5) as well.  Paul’s point is that, despite suffering, God’s redemption--His steadfast love and faithfulness--has brought about His plan to establish a glorified people that extends God’s mission to the nations.
Psalm 44.22 and Romans 8.36
The problem to resolve in Exodus 2.23-25 is that God’s people are suffering as slaves in Egypt.  The problem to resolve in Psalm 89 is that God’s eternal covenant with David has been broken, and this raises questions about His steadfast love and faithfulness.  Psalm 44 is a protest: why, if God’s people have not forgotten Him or been false to God’s covenant (v. 17), has God abandoned them to their enemies?  ‘…You have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death’ (Ps. 44.19).  The verse that Paul quotes, v. 22, says, ‘Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’  The psalm concludes with an appeal to God to wake up (v. 23) and redeem His people ‘for the sake of your steadfast love’ (v. 23).  The psalm has three parts: (1) a rehearsal of how God has helped His people in the past (vv. 1-8); (2) a statement of the conundrum that a righteous people is in, since he or she is righteous but also afflicted by enemies (vv. 9-22): and (3) an appeal for God to help (vv. 23-26).
Paul quotes the psalm in Romans 8.36.  His list of enemies of God’s people includes ‘tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword’ (v. 35).  Unlike the psalmist, Paul does not appeal for God’s help but affirms that, indeed, we are ‘conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom. 8.37).  The psalmist asks God to intervene for the sake of his steadfast love (v. 23); Paul says,
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,  39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8.38-39).
Note that God's steadfast love in Psalm 89, Psalm 44, and Isaiah 55 is also Paul's concern in Romans 8.37 and 39.  The same linking of suffering and God's steadfast love in these Psalms is found in Romans 8.18-39.  Thus, Paul's entire discussion in this section involves the use of Old Testament texts concerned with the suffering of God's people and the certainty of God's love.

Paul’s allusion to Exodus 2.23-25 and Psalm 89 and his quotation from Psalm 44.22 involve his introducing three Old Testament passages into his argument in Romans 8.  (Isaiah 55.1-5 may also be in view.)  These passages address a problem: God’s (apparent) absence when His people are suffering.  By interacting with these texts, Paul is able to acknowledge the suffering of God's people and also affirm hope in God’s steadfast love.
His engagement with these texts also accomplishes some further theological points.  While none of the Old Testament texts mentions the Holy Spirit, Romans 8 turns to the work of the Spirit of God in accomplishing righteousness and interceding for Christians facing suffering.  The Spirit brings a partial resolution to the problem of suffering as He gives assurance to us of our adoption as sons of God and He communicates our suffering to the Father.  Psalm 89 is a messianic psalm, and this allows Paul to bring out a Christological focus: God accomplishes His plan through Jesus Christ.  Finally, Paul makes the theological connection between Israel and the Christian Church, both God’s people, and the Davidic (messianic) king, Jesus, and his heirs, Christians.  They are assured of God’s steadfast love despite the ongoing suffering in the world.  They, as God's righteous and glorified people, fit into God's plan for the world (a subject for the following chapters, 9-11).
An implication of this intertextual reading of Romans 8 is that the chapter is mostly about the people of God, not individual Christians.  Of course, the two are related: the people of God are made up of individual Christians.  Yet Paul’s language, use of Old Testament texts, and purposes have to do with the community of God.  Paul is not trying to offer counselling about personal suffering in Romans 8.28.  All things work together for good for God’s people, as in Exodus 2, Psalm 89, and Psalm 44.  Paul is not offering an order of salvation or offering an election theology for individuals in Romans 8.29-30.  He is thinking about how God has brought about His complete plan for His chosen people through Jesus Christ.  We can, further, understand the relationship between Jesus as Davidic King and His people in their sonship, suffering, and reception of God’s love.  Paul’s point in Romans 8 is that the Father’s love in Christ and through the Spirit for His people is victorious over sin and suffering.

[1] My purpose in this article is not to interact with all the scholarly writings on Romans 8.  I would note, though, that Douglas Moo, Robert Jewett, and Craig Keener do not see the importance of these three texts for Paul in Romans 8, and only Psalm 44, where we find the quotation, is discussed.  See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996); Robert Jewett, Romans (Hermeneia; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007).  Craig Keener makes note of Exodus 2.23—Romans (New Covenant Commentary Series, Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), p. 106.
[2] Normally, the Septuagint (LXX) numbering differs from the Hebrew and English numbering of the Psalms. Our Psalm, 89, is actually Psalm 88 in the LXX.  In the translation used, however, this is ‘corrected’: references to the LXX are given as Psalm 89.  The translation used here is: The English Translation of The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1844, 1851); available on BibleWorks.
[3] Cf. James M. Scott, Adoption as Sons of God: An Exegetical Investigation into the Background in the Pauline Corpus (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2nd series, no. 48; Mohr Siebeck, 1992).