This sermon was preached in 2016.
In this text, we read the beginning of God’s plan for Jacob. Before Jacob is born, God chooses him to usurp his older brother, Esau, as the inheritor of God’s covenantal blessing from his father, Isaac. The chapter ends with Jacob’s first step in securing the inheritance of the firstborn, which Jacob does through less-than-ideal means. Indeed, if there is any account in the Old Testament that displays the reality of unmerited grace, it is the story of Jacob. Yet as we will come to learn, we tend to be far more like Jacob than Abraham.
ISAAC & ISHMAEL // VERSES 1-18
These verses can be divided into two parts: Abraham securing the covenantal blessing for Isaac (vv. 1-11) and Ishmael’s descendants (vv. 12-18). The first part concerns Abraham’s efforts to pass down his divine blessings to Isaac, and he does this by sending away his other children. There is much speculation as to when Abraham took Keturah as his wife. Given our understanding of polygamy, we would certainly like to think that Abraham took her after Sarah died; however, the text is silent in regard to the timeframe—common sense seems to suggest that Keturah was brought in before Sarah’s death though. Either way, Abraham’s other children provided competition for Isaac in the same way that Ishmael did. Though we may be inclined to think of Abraham as unloving by sending his children away, we have to remember the context of Abraham’s purpose and his blessing from God. The LORD chose Isaac to continue Abraham’s divine favor; thus, Abraham needed to be vigilant in protecting it.
We can also view from this section the necessity of believers passing the torch to the next generation. Allen Ross writes, “Abraham had the responsibility of ensuring that the blessing, as God planned it, would pass to Isaac. The message in this part is straightforward: believers will die, and so they must ensure that the work begun in them by God will continue as God desires. It may be through children, or it may be through some other means; but no one may personalize the program so that no thought is given to the next generation.”
Next, the brief narrative of Ishmael’s descendants is a confirmation of God’s trustworthiness and faithfulness. After Ishmael was born to Abraham through Hagar, God promised Abraham a son through Sarah as his inheritor. Abraham rebutted by asking if God would consider using Ishmael instead. God refused, but He spoke this to Abraham, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (Gen. 17:20). Here is now a confirmation of God’s promise.
THE OLDER SHALL SERVE THE YOUNGER // VERSES 19-28
There are many notable things to discuss within these verses, so let us take them one by one.
First, notice that even after reading the Abraham story, where a vast portion of the plot was the birth of Isaac, we are told twice that Isaac is the son of Abraham. Remember that Abraham was called by God to be the father of the Serpent-Crusher from Genesis 3:15, and Isaac was declared to be the bearer of that promise after him. Thus, the Bible is heavily reiterating for us that Isaac is next in the lineage that will ultimately lead to Christ.
Second, we are briefly told that Isaac and Rebekah were barren. From the beginning of Abraham’s story in Genesis 12, we were told that he and Sarah were barren, but God appeared to Abraham, promising him a son. After twenty-five years and nine chapters, Isaac was born, a child of miraculous birth. Does it not, therefore, seem strange that a family of such explicit blessing of God would have a second generation of barrenness? Perhaps, God allows Rebekah to be barren for a similar reason as Sarah: that God’s power might be revealed through opening her womb. If anything, the repeated case of divinely influenced births only emphasizes God’s favor upon Abraham’s family.
Third, God intervened explicitly in answer to Isaac’s prayer. How often we forget the importance and the effectiveness of prayer! Isaac and Rebekah were not capable of repairing the problem of her barrenness by themselves. God needed to intervene, so they came before Him for help. We are not told explicitly for how long Isaac and Rebekah prayed, but I believe we can safely assume that it was for the majority of the twenty years. Why would God have them wait twenty years for a child? Why did Abraham and Sarah need to wait twenty-five years for Isaac? Why did Jacob need to wait seven years to marry Rachel? Why did Joseph need to wait twenty years in Pharaoh’s prison? The unpopular, but truthful, answer is that we simply do not know. We see these as delays, but God sees them as occurring right on time. Rather than trying to solve the mystery of why God waits, let us be encouraged that God does answer in His proper timing. Therefore, we must allow the account of Isaac waiting twenty years for Jacob and Esau to strengthen our resolve to pray continually, refusing to be discouraged.
Fourth, God provides an oracle declaring that Jacob would usurp Esau’s firstborn place. God chooses Jacob over Esau, while they are still within the womb. If that is not enough, Malachi 1:2-5 speaks about God loving Jacob and hating Esau:
“I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the LORD of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.’” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the LORD beyond the border of Israel!”
As we will see in the next section of text, Esau becomes known as Edom; therefore, the nation of Edom came from Esau and Israel from Jacob. God declares that he loves Israel but hates Edom because He also loved Jacob and hated Esau. In case we try to lessen God’s words by thinking that God did not really mean hate, notice that God goes into detail about how He is actively against Edom.
We should also note that this message of Malachi is not exclusively within the Old Testament. Paul quotes Malachi directly in Romans 9. Before providing a brief overview of Romans 9, it is important to avoid two extreme views that are both equally destructive. First is the tendency to avoid this chapter like the plague. This happens because of the controversial nature of the text and its blatant proclamation of views that many Christians reject, such as predestination and election. The second tendency to avoid is exalting the chapter above other Scripture, making it the centerpiece of the Bible. This is the opposite of the first, yet it is equally harmful. In reading Romans 9, we can note Paul’s reluctance to write about the topic because it weighed so heavily on his heart. We cannot avoid Romans 9, nor should we gleefully run to it. Paul’s words possess great gravity because he is speaking about God’s sovereignty and the salvation or damnation of humans, both being thoughts that should be handled with great care and sobriety.
The message of Romans 9 is the sovereignty of God, particularly in electing who to save. Paul begins the chapter by languishing over the thought that many of his fellow Jews were refusing to acknowledge Jesus as the promised Messiah. He even goes so far as to wish that he could be cut off from Christ in their place! But in verse 6, Paul begins to explain that God’s word has not failed because of their refusal of salvation. Instead, Paul argues that even in the Old Testament not all children of Abraham were brought into God’s divine covenant. Of all the children of Abraham, only Isaac was the son of promise.
And the same happens with Jacob and Esau. Verses 11-13 tell us that “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” God elected some of Abraham’s descendants to be participants in the covenantal blessing, while rejecting others.
If this is the case, how then can God simply choose whom to save, while still being good and loving? Well, Paul aims to address these concerns in verses 14-29. He asks if God commits injustice by choosing some to save and not others, and he then answers by citing God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus. “So then he has mercy on whomever he will, and he hardens whomever he will” (v. 18). Next comes the question of human responsibility. Why does God find fault, if He is the one who chooses? Paul’s answer is simply, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this’” (v. 20)? Just as a potter has complete right over his creations of clay, so God has total authority over His creation, which includes us. Though some may not see it as such, this divine election is truly a blessing.
We have been saved one hundred percent by the effort and work of God because we could do nothing. As Paul told the Ephesians, “And you were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). We were dead, but Christ made us alive. Dead men can provide no effort for anything. I have heard it said that if even one percent of salvation is our doing then one out of every one hundred worship songs should be sung in praise to us. Though our first moment of salvation appears to be our choosing to follow Christ, we begin to see as we study the Scriptures that we could only choose because God first chose us.
SELLING THE BIRTHRIGHT // VERSES 29-34
To be fair, we do not know how hungry Esau was. There is a slight possibility that Esau may have considered himself to be genuinely on the brink of death from hunger. However, even if this were the case, Esau would still have been unwise for lacking the foresight to avoid starving. Or if this was an exaggeration on Esau’s part (which appears to be more likely), Esau is certainly despising his birthright as being unimportant, and this is the Bible’s verdict regardless of Esau’s truthful starvation or exaggeration.
The birthright in question is Esau’s physical inheritance. The firstborn would receive double the inheritance of all other sons. Thus, since Isaac had two sons, his assets would be divided into three parts, two shares would then be given to Esau and one to Jacob. There is a question here then as to what Esau was selling Jacob. Was this both of Esau’s shares, or was it the extra share of the firstborn? There is no way of knowing for certain which, but I would venture that this was Esau’s total inheritance, since that would seem to be more solid ground for Esau’s murderous anger against Jacob later on.
Other than telling us that Esau despised his birthright, we are given no other comments on the affair. Hebrews, however, gives us a further indication of Esau’s error.
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.Heb. 12:15-17
The author of Hebrews warns us against sins of bitterness and sexual immorality, telling us not to be like Esau. A quick reading of the verses can make it seem that Esau sought repentance with tears but was denied it, but I believe the better way to understand the passage is that he sought his birthright with tears. This paints Esau as a man who was fixated upon the physical, while paying no heed to the spiritual. He was a foolish man that did not see the vastly larger blessing before him because he was too obsessed with present pleasures. This illustrates Jim Elliot’s famous saying, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Like Esau, the greatest foolishness we can commit is to trade the immeasurable blessing of the gospel for temporary necessities and pleasures.