Commentary on Romans 9:13

14 Jun

13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

This verse is a quote, which we can tell by the phrase, “as it is written.” The phrase is from the opening of the book of Malachi. 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!” Now this passage is about Jacob and Esau as representatives rather than as individuals. In other words, the contrast is not between God’s choice of Jacob and rejection of Esau but is on how that choice and rejection leads to a certain destiny for each group.

In both Malachi and in Romans 9, God’s love is defined by its freedom. God’s love for Israel is shown in the return from exile and the rebuilding in the land. On the other hand, Esau’s land has been brought to ruin. Yet no matter how Edom determines to rebuild its ruins, the Lord will tear them down (1:3–5). Israel has been blind to God’s love, living thankless lives, living disobedient lives. They did not see all the ways God had prospered them. So in Malachi, the phrase “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” is intended not to put down Esau so much as it is intended to open Israel’s eyes to all that they have been given. And perhaps that is the best focus for us as well.

We need to take into account the rest of Scripture as well. We aren’t going to get around what this text says, but we do want to make sure we understand it from a thoroughly biblical point of view. How is Paul using this phrase and how does it apply to the broader question of God’s choice in salvation?

One thing we can know for sure is that one sense in which love and hate applies is in the matter of choice. God loved Jacob in His choice of Jacob and God “hated” Esau in not choosing Esau.

There is a kind of Bible hatred that is a hatred of degrees. Let me show you a couple of texts.
Luke 14:26 If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. That verse seems obviously comparative. In comparison to following Jesus and loving Him, love for my family must seem like hate. But remember the book of Ephesians and many other places tell us to love our families.
Another comparative verse is John 12:25, Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Again, in Ephesians 5 there is a verse that says no one hates his own body but cherishes and cares for it. So again, this is a comparative verse.

So as I look at this, I don’t think “hate” here can be softened to mean simply loved less or “did not prefer.” It must mean what it says. Yet we take into account how the Bible uses language in a comparative way and we remember verses like John 3:16 and we read that God does not delight in the death of the wicked and we read elsewhere of God’s mercy and we must take all this together. Still though, this verse along with what we have read before would bring us to a point of tension and that is exactly what Paul expects.

The problem is that it seems that Paul has dealt with one problem, the problem of God keeping His Word, only to put God into a deeper hole, making Him subject to unjust favoritism. That’s what the very next verse brings out. Paul is not taken by surprise. And he actually won’t back down a bit in his answer. But that’s next week.

To sum up, then, let’s look at where we’ve been . . .
So what has Paul said so far? These three things:
1. The nation of Israel was chosen as a people through which his blessings would flow to the world (Gen. 12:1–3; Amos 3:2).
2. Within that people, God’s purpose resulted in additional choices (elections) being made which involved individuals.
3. God’s word (promises) has not failed. The elect Israel within national Israel still are recipients of his promises.
The way we know that we have interpreted Paul correctly so far is by reading what happens next. In Romans 9:14, Paul returns to the diatribe format, allowing the fictional objector the opportunity for cross-examination.

As NT Wright says, “Paul appeals to OT history to establish a principle about the way in which God brings into being his own people. What it means to belong to the New Covenant people may not be exactly the same as what it means to belong to the Old Covenant people; in this regard, for instance, Paul is not clearly asserting that Jacob and Isaac were saved while Esau and Ishmael were not. But he is arguing that God in his own day is bringing into being a covenant people in the same way he did in the days of the patriarchs: by choosing some and rejecting others. So, Paul will make clear later in this text, some Jews are called by God to be part of his people, while others have, for the time being at least, been rejected.”

I really like what the commentator Douglas Moo said on this passage, “Any basis for God’s election outside God himself defies both the language and the logic of what Paul has written. The only logical possibility, then, would seem to be to reverse the relationship between God’s choosing and faith; as Augustine stated it: “God does not choose us because we believe, but that we may believe.” This way of putting the matter seems generally to be justified by this passage and by the teaching of Scripture elsewhere. But it comes perilously close to trivializing human faith: something that many texts in Romans and in the rest of the New Testament simply will not allow us to do. We need, perhaps, to be more cautious in our formulations and to insist on the absolute cruciality and meaningfulness of the human decision to believe at the same time as we rightly make God’s choosing of us ultimately basic. Such a double emphasis may strain the boundaries of logic (it does not, I trust, break them) or remain unsatisfyingly complex, but it may have the virtue of reflecting Scriptures own balanced perspective.”

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