Reading through Romans 9 today I came to this phrase which certainly appears on face value as a difficult passage to understand. The phrase is as follows “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” This sentence however deserves extra attention, lest one mistakenly see in it a great injustice on God’s part. Paul was quoting Old Testament Scriptures, and we must visit those verses if we want to understand the context.
“I have loved you,” says the LORD. “Yet you say, ‘In what way have You loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Says the LORD. “ Yet Jacob I have loved; But Esau I have hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage for the jackals of the wilderness.” Even though Edom has said, “ We have been impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places,” Thus says the LORD of hosts:“ They may build, but I will throw down; they shall be called the Territory of Wickedness, and the people against whom the LORD will have indignation forever.” (Malachi 1:2-4)
First, it should be clear that the Lord was speaking of 2 nations — Israel and Edom (Esau’s descendants). God was not speaking of the two men Jacob and Esau; both men were long dead. Nor is God saying He chose one race for salvation and another race for damnation. However, God DID choose (elect) one nation through whom to bring the Saviour into the world (this had nothing to do with personal salvation.) In this Malachi passage, God is reminding backslidden Israel how much He has loved them and favoured them as a nation. He sovereignly chose this nation to be used by Him to bless the whole world, and yet the nation (as a whole) had turned against Him!
When God says He hated Esau (the nation), we need to keep in mind that Jesus also taught this:
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Did Jesus mean that we should literally walk in hatred toward our earthly family members? No. For we are called to love both our fellow brother and sisters in Christ and our enemies, doing good to all. Obviously Jesus meant that we must esteem other people so much less than we esteem Him; we are to love Him with ALL our heart, soul, mind and strength. In this case, “hate” can mean “to love less by comparison.” In the same way, God did not bless the nation of Esau in the same way He blessed the nation of Israel. In the Malachi passage, God was calling the nation of Israel to account–for to whom much is given, much is required. He had blessed them exceedingly, and they had repaid Him evil for His good.
It is quite true that God had punished the nation of Esau (Edom) by laying waste his mountains. Did God do this for no reason?
The history of the nation of Edom is important to study. Esau himself, though he despised his birthright and thus became an example of one who gives up the spiritual blessings of God for carnal indulgence, did not necessarily die an ungodly man (as many assume). Though he was angry with Jacob and wanted to kill him at one time, when Jacob came seeking forgiveness of Esau, Esau readily forgave him. In fact, the house of Esau was under God’s protection at one time:
And command the people, saying, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. Therefore watch yourselves carefully. Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. (Deut 2:4-5)
Furthermore, it is written that God did for national Esau just exactly what He also did for national Israel–that is, He uprooted and destroyed a wicked nation before him and enabled him to take possession of the land.
The Israelites were specifically commanded not to despise the Edomites (house of Esau).
“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother.” (Deut. 23:7)
It appears that just as Israel apostasized from following the Lord, the house of Esau did the same.
God tells us exactly why Edom was judged and destroyed. It was not an arbitrary act on God’s part. Edom reaped what Edom sowed:
“The pride of your heart has deceived you…For violence against your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. In the day that you stood on the other side—in the day that strangers carried captive his forces, when foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem—even you were as one of them. But you should not have gazed on the day of your brother in the day of his captivity;nor should you have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; nor should you have spoken proudly in the day of distress. You should not have entered the gate of My people in the day of their calamity. Indeed, you should not have gazed on their affliction in the day of their calamity, nor laid hands on their substance in the day of their calamity. You should not have stood at the crossroads to cut off those among them who escaped; nor should you have delivered up those among them who remained in the day of distress. For the day of the LORD upon all the nations is near; as you have done, it shall be done to you; your reprisal shall return upon your own head.” (Obadiah 3, 10-15)
“Edom [shall be] a desolate wilderness, because of violence against the people of Judah, for they have shed innocent blood in their land.” (Joel 3:19)
“For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, Because he pursued his brother with the sword, And cast off all pity; His anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever.” (Amos 1:11)
So we see that the nation of Edom/Esau was destroyed by God for SIN. Esau was not “hated” by God–either as a man or a nation–due to some unchangeable “election to damnation” before time (as some would suggest).
The scripture above refers to the nation as opposed to the individual and God specifially commanded his people not to abhor (hate) an Edomite. The language used here is also used by Jesus in a hyperbolic sense to demonstrate the level of our love for another compared to our love for him.