Romans 9:13 – What does it mean when God says he “hated Esau”?
We don’t like verses like Romans 9:13. They make us feel uncomfortable. We don’t like to read that God ‘hates’ anyone because our God is a God of love, mercy and grace. But here is that terrible word, plain and simple:
“Jacob have I loved. Esau have I hated,"
Now some will try to explain this word away. They will say things like, ‘God doesn’t really hate anyone,’ or they will suggest that ‘hate’ really should mean ‘love less’ or something like that. But these kinds of explanations disregard what Paul, and Malachi, and ultimately God is saying, since he spoke these words. Often these types of explainations are nothing more than trying to defend our view of God rather than allowing God to speak on his behalf. As John MacArthur so clearly states,
"I mean, let God hate if He wants to hate, and He hates evil and He hates idolatry and He hates paganism and so He hates Esau. He hates. You can read about God’s hate in Psalm 5:5, Psalm 11:5, Psalm 26:5, you can read it in Proverbs 6:16 where it says six things the Lord hates, yea seven are an abomination to Him. In Jeremiah 44 verse 4, the abominable thing I hate, says God. You can read it in Hosea 9:15, Amos 5:21, Zechariah 8:17 and Malachi 2:16 and many other places. God hates. He hates evil, He hates wickedness, He hates idolatry. And He hated what He saw in the seed of Esau."
What a sad and damnable situation in our churches when our preachers feel the need to explain away the word of God!
To properly understand what God means when he says “hate” in Romans 9:13 we need to do some exegetical work. Our exegesis needs to take into account four things:
the context of Malachi 1:2;
the context of Romans 9:13;
the verse itself, and
the covenantal realities that both of these texts communicate.
Since these words in Romans 9:13 are a quotation from Malachi we must begin there. Malachi 1:2, is set within a context where God is defending his love for Israel by reminding them of the definite distinction that he made way back in the birth of Jacob and Esau. When Israel complains against God and asks him, “how have you loved us?” God points to Esau as evidence of his love for Israel. He reminds his people that he loves them not because of anything that they have done but because of his sovereign choice of them. Thus since God “loved” the individual Jacob, Israel is blessed. But since God “hated” the individual Esau he has not received God’s blessing and thus Edom, the descendants of Esau, have not enjoyed the blessing of God. So the Old Testament context is that of God’s sovereign differentiation, choice, and election.
Now let’s look at Romans 9:13:
We need to understand the word “hate” should not be translated as “loved less” or “not loved”. To speak this way is too soft for the word being used. The word must be translated as communicating an attitude of active divine disfavor. In this way, Esau is the object of God’s definitive displeasure. (cf. Murray)
The word that Paul uses here for “hate” is probably best translated in this context as ‘reject’. Notice I said – ‘in this context.’ This Greek word does have a range of meaning that allows for us to translate it as “hate”, but given Paul’s topic and Malachi’s context the best translation is probably ‘reject.’ (cf. Moo)
‘Reject’ is not really all that nicer or softer than “hate” when you think about it. But it does bring to the forefront the point that Paul is really getting at – that the rejection of someone, in this case Esau, is based upon his covenantal discrimination; it is preferential treatment based on God’s sovereign will in election. For God to ‘reject’ Esau is for him to be placed outside of God’s covenant promises. God has chosen to bestow his covenantal blessing on Jacob, but to reject Esau and therefore not give him these blessings. “Thus we should read the language of love and hate in terms of covenant blessings and curses, not sinful human emotions or passions.” (Riddlebarger)
Further, Paul is not using the words “love” and “hate” as emotional words, which is how we typically think of them. As John Murray reminds us – we do not “predicate of this divine hate those unworthy features which belong to hate as it is exercised by us sinful men. In God’s hate there is no malice, malignancy, vindictiveness, unholy rancour or bitterness. The kind of hate thus characterized is condemned in Scripture and it would be blasphemy to predicate the same of God” (2:22)
Ligon Duncan reminds us that this text is a fact, “Jacob have I loved. Esau have I hated.” It’s a fact, and so we are responsible to believe the fact, “Jacob have I loved. Esau have I hated.” No use to talk about various theories by which you may explain it away. Here it is, “Jacob have I loved. Esau have I hated.”
So in Romans 9:13, Paul’s use of Malachi “gets right to the heart of the critical question, “why do some receive God’s blessing (salvation) while some receive his curse (damnation)?” The reason lies in God’s mysterious purposes in election, and not because of something good or bad God foresees within the creature.” (Riddlebarger)
This text should not be explained away or softened or glanced over; for to do so would be to miss the great teaching contained within. We must instead embrace and faithfully preach and teach the words of God even when they are difficult for us. When we understand Romans 9:13 within its context in the overall book, and within the context of God’s covenantal dealings with all people, it becomes a clear statement about the fact of God’s election of some to salvation and his choice to pass over others. This is difficult, to be sure, but it is biblical fact and we must treat it as such.
Soli Deo Gloria