The “word of promise” calls back to God’s promise that he would give Abraham and Sarah a son. This was the foundational promise God made to start His chosen people, and Abraham responded in faith. It was God who chose Abraham, and God who willed the conception of their son Isaac. God likewise chose Isaac’s son Jacob to father the tribes of Israel, rather than his elder brother Esau. Even before either Jacob or Esau were born, before either one could prove who was better, God decided it would be Jacob whom He would use for His purpose. God is God. His will is ultimately accomplished.
The word of the promise God made to Abraham was that at this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son, He would give him a son in his old age, and that all of Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars, and that they would be God’s chosen people (Genesis 17). Isaac, Abraham’s son, was a promised child. Subsequently, when Isaac was continuing the line with his wife Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac God chose one son over the other, Jacob over Esau, to continue the line of His chosen people. For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of words but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “the older will serve the younger.”
There is a discernable theme of sonship in the book of Romans. Who are the true children of Abraham? Who are those that inherit the promises of God? Paul explained in the previous chapter, The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:16,17). Those of the promise are those whom God has chosen, who thereby obey God by faith. Paul is building an argument to say that those who are born of faith and live by faith are the true children of the promise (which he says outright in v. 30 of this chapter). However, these are still children whom God has chosen.
The larger point in this chapter is that God chooses His children. Paul uses the Old Testament yet again to prove his point; in v. 25 of this chapter he quotes one of Hosea’s prophecies regarding God’s sovereignty. Ultimately, God’s will prevails. God decides who His children are. These verses provide a specific example where God chose a child of the promise before the child had done anything. Not Esau, but Jacob. God can do whatever He wants to do. The fact that He chose to make the children of faith the true children of promise just means that He decided to do that. He decided that Jacob would be the one through whom the promise of a great nation would be fulfilled—before Jacob was born—just as God decided about the Gentiles long before (v. 24).
Since God tells us to love those who hate us, 9:13 seems confusing – as at first glance it appears to say that God hated someone before they were even born, Jacob I loved but Esau I hated. Further, God greatly blessed Esau, which would seem to make it even more troubling; why would anyone greatly bless someone they hated? Another passage involving a choice might shed some light.
The word translated “hate” is the Greek word “miseao”. Another New Testament passage that uses “miseao” in the context of a selection between two possibilities might provide an answer. Luke 16:13 uses “miseao” to describe the situation when someone has two masters. The verse says we cannot serve them both, we have to pick one. It goes on to say that by not picking one, we hate or despise that one. In this case it seems reasonable to infer that it is not the person being rejected as a person, but as a master. Luke 16:13 states that the master that is selected is loved, or held to, because they were chosen to fill the office of “master.” So love and hate appear here to apply to which person is selected.
In a similar manner, it seems in the case of Romans 9:13 that God selects from two twins, Jacob and Esau, which one will continue the blessing of Abraham, to inherit the promise. To fill this office. And God chooses one and does not choose the other. So he loves the one he chooses, and hates the one He does not choose, using the same language as used in Luke 16:13, concerning the choice of a master. But in the same way, this does not mean God hates Esau as a person. The result of this choice made by God is that Esau did not inherit the blessing of Abraham, since he was not chosen to be Abraham’s heir.
Romans 9:13 is actually a quote from the Old Testament, Malachi 1:2-3, which upon examination supports this idea further. It seems clear from the Malachi passage that God is not speaking just of the individuals Jacob and Esau, but of the nations they bore. Malachi 1:2 begins with a statement and a question addressed to the nation of Israel (another name for Jacob): “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have You loved us?”
The question is answered with the verses quoted in Romans 9:13:
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord.
“Yet I have loved Jacob;
but I have hated Esau,
and I have made his mountains a desolation
and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.”
Esau was blessed by God in a mighty way as Jacob was; God made him into a large nation as well— the nation of Edom. And when Israel entered the promised land after coming out of Egypt, God instructed Israel to keep their hands off Edom, because God gave that land to Esau’s descendants, in Deuteronomy 2:4-6:
“[A]nd command the people, saying, “You will pass through the territory of your brothers the sons of Esau who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful; do not provoke them, for I will not give you any of their land, even as little as a footstep because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. You shall buy food from them with money so that you may eat, and you shall also purchase water from them with money so that you may drink.”
God blessed Esau, but God did not bless Esau with the blessing with which He blessed Abraham, that went to Jacob. Jacob inherited Abraham’s mantle to father a nation through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
More than a thousand years after Deuteronomy, when the book of Malachi was written, God has judged Edom, has laid waste “his mountains”—referring to the land God gave Edom in Deuteronomy 2, Mount Seir. So this Malachi passage is clearly speaking of the nations, and referring to Jacob and Esau in their capacity as the respective founders of each nation.
Paul’s quote in Romans 9:13 seems to use “miseao” (hate) in the same way as Luke 16:13, not to refer to the person as a person, but to the fact that person was not selected for the position. Conversely, the one selected for the position, is “loved.” This interpretation seems to correlate with the Bible’s insistence that God loves each person in the world. In fact, God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to pay for the sins of the world. It also answers a seeming contradiction to the idea that God “hates” Esau as a person, since God hugely blessed Esau and made him into a great nation as well. But not the nation through whom would come the Messiah Jesus, to bless all the families of the earth; that was reserved for Jacob, later renamed Israel.
Paul is clear in using these examples: God was the one acting, not man. God did not look at what man had done, because our works are meaningless to Him apart from obeying Him. Rather, God, sovereign over all, chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, to accomplish His will. Esau was rejected by God, not for anything Esau had done or had not done. God chose Jacob instead of Esau for His own purposes. Why? The answer comes in the following verses. Paul expects many questions in response to what he is teaching here.
9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
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