Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: Novermber 1, 2005, p. 55.
2. I have loved you, saith the LORD, Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? Saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob,
3. And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.
4. Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places: thus saith the LORD of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the LORD hath indignation forever.
As we have seen in the previous article, it is the eternal character of God’s love that is being emphasized in these verses. For God to say to Judah that He had loved them in time past would be no reassurance to them. It is only because He loved them from eternity that His love is proved unchangeable and abiding in spite of what outward circumstances might make them think.
God shows the eternal and unconditional character of His love for Jacob and Israel when He speaks of His hatred for Esau. The point here is the same as in Romans 9, that God’s love for Jacob and hatred for Esau had nothing to do with what they were or would be, but was entirely according to the good pleasure of His own will (cf. Eph. 1:5). He did not love Jacob because Jacob was holier than Esau or had any primacy as far as descent or family was concerned, but He loved Jacob simply because He was pleased to do so.
Thus the reminder here in Malachi that Esau was Jacob’s brother. In every earthly and outward respect they were equal, and therefore God’s love for Jacob can only have been free and gracious and unconditional. Paul makes this same point in Romans 9:6-13. In order to prove that the difference between the true seed of Abraham and those who are only fleshly descendants of Abraham is all grace, Paul first brings up the example of Isaac and Ishmael who were both physical descendants of Abraham, but of whom only Isaac was counted as the seed of Abraham by God.
Since, however, it would be possible to object that there was a real outward difference between Isaac and Ishmael in that they were half-brothers who had different mothers, Paul adds the example of Jacob and Esau, who were not only full brothers, but twins, and whose place in relation to God’s covenant and love was revealed before they were born. That example proves, Paul says, that salvation, the calling of some and not others, is according to God’s own purpose in election.
That free and eternal love of God for Jacob appears all the more wonderful when contrasted with God’s free and eternal hatred of Esau. In speaking of that hatred, God speaks of what is sometimes called reprobation, the opposite of election and the eternal decree of God concerning the damnation of some. When God says “I hated Esau,” He is saying that from eternity He hated and rejected Esau, just as from eternity He loved and chose Jacob.
There is much opposition to this doctrine, and almost every commentator rejects the idea of eternal reprobation here. Laetsch speaks of the “horrible doctrine of an eternal decree of reprobation” and says that God’s hatred for Esau means only that He loved Esau less than Jacob.¹ Pusey says that God could not have hated Esau before he sinned and that Jacob’s election and Esau’s rejection have to do only with temporal things.² Others here and in Romans 9:10-13 speak of a national election and reprobation, insisting that God is only loving and choosing Israel as a nation and hating and rejecting Edom as a nation.
All these efforts to avoid the doctrine of reprobation, the most hated doctrine in Scripture, must fail. They must fail because the rest of Scripture teaches the doctrine (I Pet. 2:8;Jude 4). But they must also fail because they do not do justice to what Malachi says here.
If Malachi is speaking only of nations, then why does he not use the names of the nations, rather than the names of the two brothers themselves? It cannot be denied, of course, that God is speaking through Malachi of His dealings with the two nations. That is clear from verses 4 and 5, but those two nations include not only many other individuals, but the two brothers as well. One cannot choose a nation or reject a nation without choosing and rejecting certain individuals. Not only that, but God’s dealings with the two nations are specifically traced back to His attitude toward Jacob and toward Esau: “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau.”
To speak of a lesser love of God for Esau and for Edom is nothing but sophistry. While it is true that the word “hate” is sometimes used in Scripture to mean “love less” (Luke 14:26), it cannot mean that here. For one thing, God not only reveals His attitude toward Esau, but He also reveals what the result of that attitude would be. He would lay Esau waste, and thwart every effort of Esau and Edom to prosper (v. 4). Indeed, as a result of God’s hatred for Edom, Edom would be called “The people against whom the LORD hath indignation forever” (v. 4). That is strange love, even if it is a lesser love than God’s love for Jacob.
What is more, if God is saying that He loves Esau less than Jacob, then there is no comfort in God’s love for Jacob, especially when Jacob sees how that lesser love for Esau is revealed—in laying Esau’s mountains and heritage waste and overthrowing his every effort to rebuild and reestablish himself. Israel would have reason then to say, “That’s exactly what we were getting at. That’s the kind of love God shows. That’s the kind of love He showed for us.” Israel’s words, “Wherein hast thou loved us?” would become not a wicked complaint, but the truth!
That this love and hatred involves more than temporal and earthly prosperity is also clear. It involved more than that in the original case ofJacob and Esau. Already then it involved the promise of Christ, a place in God’s covenant, and all the spiritual blessings and privileges that Israel enjoyed in the Old Testament (Rom. 9:4, 5).Romans 9 shows that the calling and salvation of some and not others was at stake. Being or not being a child of God (v. 8), being counted for the seed (v. 8), and being graciously called (v. 11) were and are at issue, all of which are traced back to and rooted in God’s love and hatred. The very name, Jehovah, used here in verse 2, shows that God’s covenant love and covenant relationship to His people are at stake in God’s love for some and hatred of others.
Especially in speaking of the results of God’s hatred for Esau, it is easy to miss the fact that all of this has spiritual overtones and eternal consequences. It is certainly the case that this Word of God was fulfilled in the destruction of Edom as a nation. At about the time of Malachi, the territory of the Edomites to the south and east of the Dead Sea was conquered and taken over by the Nabateans, and the existence of Edom as an independent nation ended.
We must remember, however, that the temporal blessings and judgments of the Old Testament are always pictures of spiritual things. Temporal things in themselves do not necessarily represent the blessing or the disfavor of God. If that were so, then the wicked would often have more of God’s blessing than His own people, and His own people would have no comfort in their trials and troubles. Nevertheless, we can clearly see the destructive power of God’s wrath in the judgments He sends on the earth and be warned by them, whether we are believers or unbelievers, whether we are touched by them or only see them at a distance.
Here, then, the laying waste of Edom prefigures the destruction of this present world under the judgment of God and the destruction with it of all the hopes and works of the ungodly. What they have in this world will be laid waste by God, all that they build will be overthrown, and they will be left forever impoverished.
This is reflected in the names that Edom receives as a result of God’s judgments. The first name, “Border of wickedness,” identifies Edom as the wicked world. Edom receives this name from those who witness its judgments, but those who give them this name do so because they see that Edom lies beyond the grace and mercy of God. It is a land outside the boundaries and borders of His love and saving purpose. “Border of wickedness” has the same idea, therefore, as “the world” when that name is used in Scripture to refer to the unrepentant and unbelieving world of the ungodly, the world that perishes, and for which Jesus does not even pray (John 17:9).
The name “People against whom the LORD hath indignation for ever” describes God’s unchangeable and everlasting wrath against Esau and Edom, the opposite of His unchangeable and everlasting love for His people. That wrath, as is always the case, is shown in all His dealings with them, even when He sends earthly prosperity and peace. Even then He is angry with them (Ps. 73:18-20).
Both that wrath and its revelation in Edom’s ruin are the outworking of God’s eternal hatred and decree of reprobation. That in no wise absolves Edom of its guilt or makes God the author of sin, but it does show that all things proceed from God’s eternal decree and that He is indeed sovereign in all His works and ways.
This revelation of God’s eternal purpose in reprobation is all for the purpose of displaying the character of His love for His people. In this respect election and reprobation are not equal, but reprobation serves election. Those who understood this then and understand it now will be comforted, not frightened. That this eternal and unchangeable love of God for some, revealed against the frightening backdrop of his eternal hatred for others, is questioned and doubted should not surprise us. It is as characteristic of a faithless church now as then to question and doubt the character of God Himself and to begin to tell lies about Him that are designed to excuse and cover her unfaithfulness and wickedness. Nevertheless, the emphasis is and must be on the eternal, and therefore unconditional and unchangeable, love of God for His people through all circumstances and in all times. That is the gospel!
¹ Theo. Laetsch, Bible Commentary on the Minor Prophets, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970, p. 512.
² E. B. Pusey, The Minor Prophets, A Commentary, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977, vol. III, p. 465.