Commentary: Did God reject Esau in spite of his tearful repentance?


Did God reject Esau in spite of his tearful repentance? This question was asked me this morning, while quoting Hebrews 12:16-17: “And make sure that there isn’t any immoral or irreverent person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for a single meal. For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, even though he sought it with tears, because he didn’t find any opportunity for repentance.”

 The short answer is, "No!" However, these two verses deserve a more clarifying explanation for such “enquiring minds” who ask such probing questions. Let’s explore the immediate context and its background in Genesis.

First, we are warned in Vs. 15: “Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many.” God’s inspired writers are often expressing His will that no one be cut off from His grace by bitterness. As one wise scholar explains: “A person in the root of bitterness … is a corruptive influence, a serious contamination in the Body” (of Christ).

Second, Esau is remembered as an “immoral and irreverent person” who sold his spiritual birthright but later wanted to regain his father’s spiritual blessing; but, he was rejected by his father Isaac (cf. Genesis 27) in spite of his pleas and tears because “he didn’t find any opportunity for repentance" (for his father’s change of mind and course of action). As the classic commentator Albert Barnes points out, “It does not mean that Esau earnestly sought to repent and could not, but that once the blessing had passed the lips of his father, he found it impossible to change (his father’s decision) … He sought to change the purpose of his father, but could not do it.” Barnes goes on to conclude: “This passage, therefore, should not be alleged to show that a sinner cannot repent, or that he cannot find ‘place for repentance,’ or assistance to enable him to repent, or that tears and sorrow for sin would be of not avail, for it teaches none of these things.” 

Third, the Biblical word for repentance is the Greek term Metanoia which refers to a dramatic, about-face change of mind. Here in Hebrews it deals with Isaac’s unwillingness to undo what he has done, even under false pretenses. Of course, it raises the question of whether Esau had really made an about-face in his “immorality and irreverence” when he approached his father. John MacArthur observes: “When Esau finally woke up to some extent and realized what he had forsaken, he made a half-hearted attempt to retrieve it. Just because he sought for it with tears does not indicate sincerity or true remorse … he did not repent. He selfishly wanted God’s blessings, but he did not want God.”

Fourth and finally, one of the most sobering lessons embedded in this Hebrews’ discussion of “bitterness” are the words of Theodore Robinson, “Sin such as that of Esau actually damages the fabric of the soul, mutilates it, and deprives it of the power to exercise the functions of humanity … and destroy in himself the very faculty of repentance.” Here is the saddest of sins while God always stands willing and eager to forgive the repentant sinner!


Paul R. Baxter is the mission strategist for Georgia's Pine Mountain Baptist Association.