This is the second piece in an ongoing series of articles and reflections on Romans 9:10-24. Because of its subject matter, this particular article is necessarily far longer than the others. I wanted to be very thorough and careful in handling this text. For this reason it will take a bit longer to read through than many of the other articles. For the convenience of the reader I have outlined the article and structured it so that it can be read fully from beginning to end or it can be read through its individual sections.
I. Introduction: The Difficulty of Romans 9:13
II. The Life of Esau in Genesis 25-36
III. Malachi 1: “Jacob I Have Loved. Esau I Have Hated.”
IV. Biblical Hate Language in Connection to God
V. Putting the Pieces Together: Toward a Theology of Holy Hatred
VI. Romans 9:13 as Scripture: Inspired and Profitable
VII. Conclusion: The Gospel According to Romans 9:13
Introduction: The Difficulty of Romans 9:13
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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 will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!- Romans 9:10-14
I don’t know of a more shocking, startling, and unsettling verse in the entire Bible than Romans 9:13. Paul, in explaining the righteousness of God in sovereignly choosing Jacob, the younger son of Isaac, says that God “hated Esau.” That hatred is vividly contrasted with the preceding statement that God had instead “loved Jacob.”
I remember the first few times I read through that chapter as a serious reader of the Bible. I had to read it again to make sure I was seeing it right. Something seemed wrong. Something didn’t seem to fit. This wasn’t what I was expecting to read. So I looked through other translations. I was reading the NIV at the time, so I pulled out my other versions, the KJV, the ESV, the NASB, and there it was. They all used that strange, unnerving, and horrible little word “hated.” It was just staring back at me blinking like a flashing traffic signal barricading my path through the passage. I didn’t know what to do. So I did what I wanted. I stopped reading! I was tempted to be like Joey on Friends and stick my Bible in the freezer!
But eventually I had to pick the Bible back up. I couldn’t let it go. To put it more plainly, it wouldn’t let me go, but my questions still lingered. What was Romans 9:13 saying that God is like? How do I understand it? What does it mean?
If you’ve read that verse then you know what I’m talking about. When Toby preached through this passage last Sunday I’ll go out on a limb and guess that this verse is the one that caused all of us to get a big lump in our throats. I think there are several big reasons for this and several big questions that cause this verse to be such a problem:
1. First, Romans 9:13 names names. It’s speaking of actual persons, real people. We’re okay with hearing that God hates sin. We know that God hates rebellion. But that’s not what Paul is saying here, is it? Certainly there are wider angles that are implied. Yes, it’s true that Jacob is Israel and Esau is Edom, but those two nations had two definite points of origins: two individuals, and God’s stance towards them becomes the foundation stone for his stance toward their people. And Paul isn’t primarily focusing on the nations of Israel and Edom. He is establishing the justice of God in saving some individuals and not others. Therefore, whatever Romans 9:13 means, we’re clear that real individuals are its object.
2. Second, this verses raises questions about the character of God. What does this verse do to our understanding of God? Can a loving God be said to hate? Is that a contradiction? I mean, isn’t God loving? Doesn’t the Bible say that God is in fact love? Doesn’t the entire gospel message flow from the proclamation of God’s love for sinners? So what’s all this talk about God hating somebody?
3. Third, this verse creates problems for the church. What on earth does this verse say about the people of God? Everyone I know (including myself) is appalled (for good reason!) by the distorted anti-gospel that comes out of groups like Westboro Baptist “Church.” They’re known for standing in protest with signs that read, “God hates fags.” I genuinely believe that they are horribly and nauseatingly wrong, but if so, then we’re still left with the question: What do we do with this verse? What do we do with Romans 9:13?
In trying to understand it, there are several mistakes we want to avoid:
1. First, we can’t ignore the verse. We can’t pretend it’s not there. We can’t take an eraser and make it go away.
2. Second, we can’t twist the wording to make it say something that it doesn’t say. Whatever is meant by “hate,” that is still the word that is used and that’s why it’s the word that English translations pick.
3. Third, we shouldn’t seek to lessen its shock value. There’s a reason why Paul follows the statement up with the question, “Is God unjust?” If this verse had been easy to handle then there wouldn’t be any need to respond to that reaction! This verse is supposed to shake us a bit.
4. Fourth, we can never begin to understand this verse apart from the whole and complete biblical revelation of God and the gospel. Yes, Romans 9:13 says that God “hated Esau.” But that’s not all the Bible says about either God or Esau. The fundamental principle for interpretation is this: Scripture always interprets Scripture, so we have to take into account everything the Bible says everywhere in seeking to understand what is meant here.
5. Fifth, and finally we shouldn’t believe that this verse doesn’t matter for the Christian’s life. Paul tells us that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable.” That includes Romans 9:13. It’s these hard passages like Romans 9:11-24 that really shows us what we believe about the Bible. Was Paul right? Is all Scripture inspired and profitable? I think so, even Romans 9:13.
So, that’s what we want to explore together. I want to come to terms with what this verse doesn’t mean, does mean, and why it’s all important for the Christian life. Particularly, I want to explore how this verse relates to the goodness of God, the righteousness of God, and the love of God. We’ll do this in six stages. First, we’ll recount the life of Esau as it is recorded in Genesis. Second, we’ll transition to interpret Malachi 1:1-5. Third, we’ll look at how the rest of the Bible (outside of Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1) uses the language of hatred in relation to God. Fourth, we’ll seek to put the pieces together to finally come to terms with the meaning of Romans 9:13. Fifth, we’ll briefly explain why hard verses like this are important and applicable for the Christian’s life. Finally, we’ll conclude by briefly exploring how the gospel is displayed in Romans 9:13. Because this article is somewhat in-depth and long, I’ve divided these various stages into sections so that readers can read through the whole article as a whole or read the various sections as they can.
The Life of Esau in Genesis 25-36
We are told in Genesis 25 that Esau was the older twin of Jacob and was given his name because of the ruddy tone of his skin and his distinct red hair (v.25). The other description we’re given is that Esau was a skilled hunter and outdoorsman (v.27). We’re given this picture of a man’s man, a strong man, a mighty man, a born leader. This firstborn mighty man, however, had a huge problem. At the end of Genesis 25 we begin to see the internal character description of Esau, and it’s not a pretty picture. Esau, in a fit of hunger, rashly sells his birthright inheritance to his younger brother Jacob for a small bowl of lentil soup.
The second description we receive of Esau is equally dark. Instead of following in the steps of Isaac and later his brother Jacob, Esau marries a Hittite, marries outside the covenant community, identifying himself publicly with the people of the land (the Cananites with their worship of many gods and goddesses), not the sojourning visitors who were following the one true God (Genesis 26:34). If there was any question as to what this meant, the author of Genesis tells us immediately that Esau and his wife “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:35). He settles down in Canaan. He begins raising a Canaanite family, and just like his descendants (Edom) after him, he becomes an engaging tormentor to his own kinsmen. He was a skilled hunter with the bow, but he was deliberate in continually piercing the hearts of his mother and father.
In Genesis 27 we read the climactic moment. Jacob deceptively steals his older brother’s blessing from their aged father. Esau is cut out. Jacob is forced to flee for his life. So in response Esau “hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him” (Genesis 27:41). In the next chapter Esau once again strikes out at his father in anger. Jacob, for all his deception, had obeyed his father and mother and gone into exile with their kinsman Laban to find a wife among their own people. So to add torment to his parents Esau takes another wife deliberately out of spite, this time the daughter of Ishmael, Isaac’s older half-brother, the son of Abraham and Hagar (Genesis 28:6-9).
We next encounter Esau in Genesis 33. Many years have passed. Jacob finally returns home from his exile in the distant land, and Esau comes to meet him. The two brothers, for all their past, are reunited in peace. We glimpse him once again in Genesis 35 as both Jacob and Esau join together to bury their father Isaac. The end of Esau’s story comes in Genesis 36 recounting the lineage of Esau and his descendants summarizing how Esau’s family settles away from the land of Jacob and grows to become its own separate nation named Edom.
From its beginning Esau’s life was wild and tempestuous. It was hard, forcing him to make his way in the world through his own skill and power. And yet Esau’s own character, his heart, is continually displayed as being evil, disobedient, foolish, sinful, and reckless. He is in his own heart, an enemy of God.
Granted, Jacob’s life wasn’t better. Jacob was a thief, liar, scalawag, trickster, and coward. Yet before Rebekah gave birth to her twins God had made his choice of Jacob clear. The younger twin was the son of promise. It was to Jacob (not Esau) that God’s covenant love would be poured out. It was to Jacob (not Esau) that God’s faithfulness would be demonstrated. It was to Jacob (not Esau) that the line of God’s people would descend.
Malachi 1: “Jacob Have I Loved. Esau Have I Hated”
With that review in mind we next turn our focus to Malachi 1:1-5. This passage is foundational. This is where Romans 9:13 comes from. This is the verse that Paul cites in Romans 9 to support and explain exactly what he is teaching about God’s sovereignty in the salvation of his people, and that’s why we need to understand what Malachi says. Paul is not playing fast and loose with the biblical text. Paul is a wise, thorough, and divinely inspired interpreter of the Old Testament. That means that Paul is not misreading Malachi. He is not twisting the prophet’s words. He is not mistreating or misunderstanding Malachi. Here’s what the prophet wrote:
1 The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.
2 “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
3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”
4 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.’”
5 Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the LORD beyond the border of Israel!”
Malachi was the final prophet sent by God prior to the emergence of John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River, and his book is the final word in the long and sprawling pages of the Old Testament. In the book Malachi is calling the people of God to covenant faithfulness to the God who has saved them and that they claim to worship. He unfolds the passions of God for his people and calls the people of God to live in the light of those holy passions.
He begins by proclaiming that God is passionate for his people. God loves Israel. God has rescued them. God has been faithful to them. God has provided for them. God has been a husband to them. They are his. He loves them.
Yet the people didn’t feel very loved. They look around at the world and things don’t seem to be right. The kingdom of David has obviously ended. The glorious temple of Solomon has been rebuilt but without the glory. It looks more like an adobe garage than the house of golden splendor that Solomon had built. So they ask God, “How have you loved us?”
And God answers. He points their attention to the Southeast in the direction of their kinsmen the Edomites, the descendants of Esau. God says, “look there.” Wasn’t Esau Jacob’s older brother? Weren’t they twins? Wasn’t Esau the oldest? Weren’t they both sinners deserving of wrath? Neither one was deserving of God’s grace. And yet, God says, Jacob and his descendants have been the objects of God’s undeserved grace and love, while Esau was “hated.” He was rejected. He was passed over. He was judged. He was condemned in his sin, and God had rejected Edom along with him.
Notice a few key aspects of God’s judgment on Esau/Edom as it displays his love for Jacob: 1) God’s judgment on Edom/Esau was deserved, while God’s grace to Jacob was undeserved. They are described as “wicked.” They place their hope in their own strength by saying they “will rebuild.” 2) God’s judgment on Edom/Esau was connected to his wrath or “anger.” 3) God’s “hatred” of Edom/Esau was more than an emotional feeling or response. It was a righteous judgment. It was a handing over to destruction in the form of final judgment. 4) God’s election of Jacob and his judgment on Esau was for a twofold purpose. It was an expression of his unique love on his people, highlighting his covenant faithfulness to the descendants of Jacob, and it was a a display of God’s holiness, greatness, and glory. The final purpose of his elective purposes between Esau and Jacob was for God’s greatness to be seen and known “beyond the borders of Israel.” Global worldwide worship is God’s ultimate aim in salvation and judgment.
Biblical Hate Language in Connection to God
Now that we’ve spent some time exploring the presentation of Esau in Genesis and have sought to understand Malachi 1:1-5, we next want to spend some time digging into the way the Bible uses the language of hatred in relation to God. The truth is, if Romans 9:13 bothers us, then there are some other verses in the Bible that will bother us. True, God is not said to “hate” in the same way or as often as he is said to “love,” but Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1:1-5 are not isolated passages. If we’re going to understand what Paul is saying then, we need to spend some time considering other passages where God is said to hate something or someone, and we need to look at the actual word(s) for “hatred” that the biblical authors use.
Before we examine the precise words and their etymologies, it’s good to take a brief look at the way the Bible typically uses the language of hate in connection to God. The overwhelming usage in the Bible tells us that God hates sin. Deuteronomy 12:31 and 16:22 tell us that false worship is an abominable thing that God hates. Proverbs 6:16-17 says that “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood.” Isaiah 1:14 and Amos 5:21 tells us that God hates the empty and hypocritical religious ceremonies of his people. In Isaiah 61:5, God says “I hate robbery and wrong.” Hate language is not limited to the Old Testament. In Revelation 2:6 Jesus says that he hates the works of the Nicolaitans.
The above verses are the primary and predominant usage of hate language connected to God. In his holiness, he hates sin. Yet, these verses are not all that Scripture tells us. It also makes some statements that are just as shocking as Romans 9:13, because there are other places where God is said to hate not just sin, but sinners, actual people:
In Hosea 9, in a book that is all about how much God loves Israel, we find a verse where God is said to hate Israel in rebellion against him. In speaking of the rebellion of his people, God says that “I began to hate them” (Hosea 9:15). The “them” is referring to people, not inanimate objects or actions. In his despair and suffering Job cries out from pain and declares that God “has torn me in his wrath and hated me” (Job 16:8-10). Psalm 5:5 is even clearer. The Psalmist says that “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.” Likewise, Psalm 11:5 says that God’s soul “hates the wicked and the ones who love violence.”
God hates sin. The biblical witness is clear, but there are places (seldom, but there) where God’s hatred is said to be directed not merely at sin, but also toward sinners, actual people. Even if we omit the verse in Job (which is Job’s painful cry in the midst of his suffering), there are still clear statements where hate is directed toward people.
But before we try to put the pieces together, we should first ask about the actual words that are used and what they tell us about the sense in which God is said to hate. Paul uses the word ἐμίσησα (emisésa) from the word μισέω (miseo). This is the basic word for “hate” or “detest,” in the New Testament and is the same word that is used elsewhere in verses like Matthew 5:43, Mark 13:13, Luke 14:26, and John 15:18. The Old Testament Hebrew typically uses the word שְׂנֵא (sânê’) which again always carries with it the idea of hatred, abhorrence, or detesting. It is the word that is used in both Malachi and Psalms for God’s hatred.
These words always carry the force of “hate,” but they are linguistically more expansive. They have a broad range of meanings along a set spectrum. They are sometimes used to convey hatred in the human sense of that emotion or in a comparative sense with love, yet when used in connection with God they also imply wrath, judgment, condemnation, anger, handing over, passing over, and rejection. In other words, when used in connection with God they are not referring to hatred like unto my hatred of cabbage or even the world’s hatred of God and Christians. It is referring to a very specific type of hatred. Hatred then becomes the word that is used to describe God’s holy wrath toward sin as well as his just condemnation of those who practice it.
Putting the Pieces Together: A Theology of Holy Hatred
The language that Scripture uses in regards to God’s holiness and wrath are vivid. They are not meant to be light or dulled. They are sharp and terrifying. So how is God’s holy wrath being demonstrated in Romans 9:13? What exactly is the verse saying about God and his relation to Esau?
First, it is important to point out what this verse is not saying:
1. This verse is NOT saying that God did not love Esau. It is saying, at the very least, that God did not love Esau in the same sense as he loved Jacob. He did not love him in a saving sense. He did not love him as a part of the covenant people, the redeemed people of God. There is a very real sense in which God’s love for his people is far deeper and more intimate than his love for the rest of creation and humanity, just as a husband’s love for his wife is far deeper and distinct from his love for his mother, sisters, cousins, or female coworkers and colleagues. A distinction in love, however, does not make the reality of God’s love for Esau any less real. Esau was blessed. Esau was made into a great nation. Esau was given great talents and skills. Esau was protected and provided for. Esau enjoyed a large family and good things. Esau’s descendants prospered. All of this was due to the mercy of God and completely undeserved by Esau himself, for they were good gifts from the hands of the loving God. The Bible is not lying when it says that “God loves the world,” that God loves sinners (who are indeed truly sinful). Indeed, we are told that God makes it to rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). God loved Esau. In the end, it’s not just that God loved Esau less than Jacob. He loved them differently, but he genuinely loved both of them. As David Platt has written, “God hates sin, AND God hates sinners, AND God loves sinners.” God abhors sin. God responds with full and just wrath toward sinners, even as he truly loves those who are sinners and made in his image.
2. This verse is NOT saying that God’s hatred is synonymous with human hatred. It is not a sinful action or emotion. It is not disgust or a detesting of a person as a person, or a person due to something about them but accidental or incidental to who they are. It is the response, rather, of wrath upon a person who is a sinner.
3. This verse is NOT saying that hatred is an attribute of God alongside or equal with his love. Verses that speak of God as hating are rare in Scripture (although as we have seen they are there). Verses that speak of God as loving are too numerous to count! God’s love is always spoken of as the intrinsic and essential essence of the character of his person, of his being, while his hate is always a holy fury in response to sin. The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). There is no comparable verse (for good reason) that speaks of God being hatred. In other words, God’s love is who God is. God’s hatred is God’s just response to and stance toward sin.
4. Finally, this verse is NOT saying that God’s hatred of Esau was arbitrary, malicious, or random. It is saying that God, in his sovereign freedom, without regard to their actions (whether good or bad) chose Jacob as the object of his saving love and rejected Esau as the object of his judging wrath (Romans 9:11-12). But it is not saying that God did this in any sense that was separate from or disconnected from them as sinners who both deserved God’s wrath and judgment. The election that is being described in Romans 9:10-13 is the election of real flesh and blood people, real sinners, real rebels, the real Jacob and Esau, not nonexistent or hypothetical versions of Jacob or Esau. That means that God’s decision to judge Esau was a commitment to judge Esau the sinner not Esau the righteous or even Esau the morally neutral idea or possibility. There was and is no sense in which God has or ever would elect to judge anyone apart from their actually deserving judgment. It is not as if Esau could have lived a perfect life of faith and obedience and then at the end heard God say, “Wow, you really didn’t mess up any, but sorry I decided you’re going to Hell anyway even though you really don’t deserve to be there.” That doesn’t happen. That cannot happen. That will not happen. That would be in conflict with God’s character, but that is not what is being described in this passage. God’s saving election of Jacob really was a gracious election, meaning that he in no way deserved what he had been given. God’s condemning election of Esau really was a righteous election, meaning God chose to only give Esau the full weight of everything he did deserve.
These four clarifications allow us to reach an interpretive conclusion about Romans 9:13 and the hatred that is attributed to God in this verse. God’s hatred is a holy hatred because it is nothing more than the active response of his holiness. In other words, God’s hatred toward sin and his wrath toward sinners is an expression of his love for himself, his holiness, his righteousness, and his sinless perfection. God doesn’t hate in spite of his being good and loving. God hates sin and unleashes that hatred on those who practice it because God is good and loving. It is the righteous demand of his loving holiness and his holy love.
God’s hatred in Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1:1-5 is God’s eschatological, eternal, just, and holy wrath toward and judgment poured out on sinners who truly hate God and refuse in their own willful rebellion to repent, believe, and have life.
Romans 9:13 as Scripture: Inspired and Profitable
And these verses are infinitely applicable to our lives. I know it doesn’t seem that way. I know that at first glance it seems like this is just a downer of a verse that really doesn’t help the believer at all. But remember what I said, it is verses like this that test whether or not we really believe 2 Timothy 3:16. All Scripture is inspired and profitable, even Romans 9:13. How? Well, I believe there are several key applications that this verse has for the believer.
1. It tells us more about God. We want to know God, not the idea of God and not a product of our own imaginations. We want to know him for who he is, and verses that give us a clearer understanding of who he is really are good for us.
2. It confronts and destroys our domesticated views of God. God isn’t a housecat. He’s a lion. He cannot be tamed, confined, or controlled by his creation. We desperately need to be reminded that God is indeed God, and we need to always be reminded that we can never in any way put him on a leash or keep him in a kennel.
3. It confronts us with the full seriousness of sin. Sometimes because you and I have a tendency to take sin lightly, we have a tendency to believe that God takes sin lightly too. We have a habit of thinking, “it’s just a character flaw or struggle, it’s just something everyone does. God loves me so it doesn’t matter.” But it does matter. Sin is something God hates and his holiness can never be taken for granted or ignored. A wise man once wrote that “fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.” One of the problems with our Christianity is that it seems we have lost any fear of treading too closely. God in his holiness is far more dangerous to sinners than a nuclear reactor gone horribly wrong. God’s holiness is disgusted by sinners and is deadly to sinners.
4. It calls us to repentance, true broken repentance. The point of Romans 9:10-13 is NOT that God is free to save sinners or condemn sinners as he pleases, so it doesn’t matter what we do since God already has everything sorted out. The point is this: “God is completely sovereign, in complete control, and he is free to save sinners or condemn sinners freely as he pleases. He is not indebted to us, nor does he owe salvation to sinners. Therefore, since we have heard this good news gospel, and since we have heard of God’s holy hatred, and since we have been given this unpromised opportunity to repent and believe, let us not ignore God’s call and invitation, but all the more come running to the cross where we are covered in the crimson flow of saving grace. The force of these verses is not fatalistic (que sera sera) but urgent. Do not be hardened like Esau! Repent! Believe! Trust! Come!
Conclusion: The Gospel According to Romans 9:13
And that is ultimately where Romans 9:13 takes us and leaves us. It does not leave us in the shadow of Esau, the condemned rebel who suffered the just penalty for his sin. It leaves us in the shadow of the cross, where Jesus, the condemned king suffered voluntarily to take the just penalty for the sin of sinners.
Earlier I stated that it was never the case, was impossible in fact, for God to ever condemn a man who did not deserve it. That’s true, but it’s true because God has only done it once. There has only been one innocent man who fell under the crushing weight of God’s holy hatred. There has been only one man who could rightly scream into the darkness asking in pain why he had been forsaken by the Father. There has been only one man who has ever been judged in the place of those who justly deserve judgment. His name is Jesus.
Ultimately, Romans 9 paints us a picture of the face of Jesus, not Esau. Because it is Jesus who has carried the weight of the sin of rebels from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people so that they might be the objects of God’s saving love. The horror of this verse doesn’t leave us reeling with the question: Why would God do that to Esau? They leave us mesmerized, wondering “why would a just God be gracious to Jacob?”
To put it more personally and more bluntly, they leave me with this echo:
Cade have I loved. Jesus have I hated, condemned, judged, forsaken, cut off, and passed by in the fullest and truest senses of my wrath.
Such holy hatred met with such boundless love is truly unfathomable, and yet they violently collide on a hillside outside Jerusalem called Calvary, for sinners like you and like me.
Under His mercy,