A Study of Romans 9:10-13

We now approach what has often been considered a locus classicus, one of the main passages that prove the truth of predestination. I refer, of course, to Romans 9:10-13, “And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth) it was said unto her, the elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”

Let us note, first of all, that this passage, in which the apostle adduces the example of Jacob and Esau, is in more than one respect an advance over the preceding part of this chapter:

first of all, because he refers to the deepest cause and ground of the distinction between Jacob and Esau. This ground is to be found in God’s free and sovereign predestination. This was not mentioned in the preceding verses. There the apostle had merely stated that not all the children of the flesh are also children of the promise, without pointing to the determining cause of the distinction between the two-fold seed.

In our text, however, the apostle traces this distinction to its ultimate cause: God’s purpose according to election must stand and must become plainly manifest.

Secondly, it brings out more sharply than the preceding verses the fact that not the natural birth from Abraham determines who shall be children of the promise. Jacob and Esau were children of the same parents, which was not true with respect to Isaac, on the one hand, and Ishmael and the children of Keturah, on the other.

The latter were, indeed, children of Abraham; but Sarah, the mother of the promise, was not their mother; and therefore it might be argued that the promise pertained to Isaac in distinction from his half-brothers because he, after all, was the only true, natural seed of Abraham. But this argument would not apply to the example of Jacob and Esau: they were children of the same parents.

In the third place, the example is still more forcible because Jacob and Esau were twin brothers as far as their origin was concerned, there was no natural difference between the two.

In the fourth place, all the more striking this illustration proves to be when we consider that from a natural point of view Esau certainly should have the pre-eminence over Jacob: for the former was the first-born, and, therefore, possessed the birth-right. This is emphasized in the text when it recalls the Word of God to Rebecca that the elder shall serve the younger.

In the fifth place, note that it is also emphasized in the text that the distinction between the two brothers was not based upon any work on their part, for they had done neither good or evil.

Finally, the text states that the cause of the distinction between the two brothers is in the purpose of God, for the purpose according to election must stand. And all this is emphasized by the quotation which the apostle makes from Malachi 1:2-4: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”

Now, let us consider the text a little more in detail.

The Word of God, “the elder shall serve the younger,” was spoken to Rebecca. She had gone to inquire of Jehovah, for she was pregnant, and she perceived that her condition was strange and extraordinary. For the children struggled within her. Feeling, perhaps, that this strange phenomenon might be a sign from the Lord, she was persuaded to seek the light of divine revelation. And the Lord answered her inquiry as follows, “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels and the one people shall be stronger than the other people and the elder shall serve the younger.” Genesis 25:23.

The last clause only is quoted by the apostle Paul in our text. And the meaning of this is plainly that the blessing of the covenant, that usually was bestowed on the first-born, in this case should be for the younger son not Esau, the first-born, but Jacob would inherit the promise.

In passing let me remark that the name Jacob is indeed a very good name. You could never call your child Esau, but to call him Jacob would be perfectly proper. The name does not mean, as many explain, ”deceiver,” but means literally, ”heel-holder,” and refers to the fact that Jacob laid his hand upon the heel of his twin brother Esau in the womb.

It is true that there is a carnal element in the name because Jacob before his conversion at Peniel, where ”by his strength he had power with God” and conquered by weeping and supplication, Hosea 12:3,4.

Yet, fundamentally, his holding of the heel of Esau in the womb was a sign, in fact, maybe more than a sign, maybe it was an unconscious urge to conquer his profane brother and be the first-born, heir of the promise and of the covenant of God. The name Jacob, therefore, fundamentally refers to the zeal for God’s covenant and kingdom. Principally, Jacob may be compared to “the violent,” that take the kingdom of heaven by force, of which Jesus speaks in distinction from the weak and miserable generation of His time, according to Matthew 11:12-19.

You remember the passage. The men of His generation the Savior compares to ”children sitting in the markets and calling unto their fellows, And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced we have mourned unto you, and ye have not wept.”

John the Baptist preached the kingdom of heaven neither eating nor drinking, and before him they piped and when John would not dance, they said that he had a devil. Before Jesus, however, who came eating and drinking, they mourned, and when He would not weep, they accused Him of being a glutton and a winebibber. Always, whether John or Jesus preached, they found an excuse not to enter the kingdom of heaven.

In sharp distinction from these stand the “violent,” who take the kingdom of heaven by force. Whether John or Jesus preaches it, they want to enter in. To these ”violent” or spiritually strong, Jacob belonged. That is the significance of his having his brother by the heel in the womb. Jacob, therefore, is a good name.

But this by way of a digression.

Now let us return to the text.

What was God’s purpose in revealing to Rebecca before the children were born that not both of her sons, neither the elder of the two, but only the younger should inherit the promise?

The answer is found in the words of our text: ” … that the purpose of God according to election might stand.”

Now, God’s purpose is that which He eternally determines from before the foundation of the world according to His sovereign good pleasure. In this case, the purpose of God concerns the realization of the promise, the bestowal of the covenant blessing. This purpose is realized according to election, that is, it is not on all, not even on all the natural seed of Abraham, that God purposes to bestow the blessing of the promise.

On the contrary, His predestinating purpose distinguishes and makes separation even between the natural descendants of the father of believers. Only on His own elect, whom He has sovereignly known from before the foundation of the world, He purposes to bestow the covenant blessing. What this purpose of God according to election with respect to Jacob and Esau signifies is also expressed in Malachi 1:2-4. The apostle quotes from this passage when he writes: ”As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”

Curious are the attempts that have been made by those who shrink from the truth of God’s sovereign predestination to distort this significant expression. Not only are there who would fain weaken the sense and read: “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I loved less”; but the words are even changed into their very opposite, and interpreted as if the apostle had written “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I loved also.” How far either of these interpretations is from the truth is evident, when we read these words in their context as they occur in Malachi 1:2-4. There we read: “I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet we say. Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness. 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.”

Surely, in the light of these words it cannot be maintained that the quotation from them which occurs in the words of our text signifies that God loved Esau, too, or merely that He loved him less than Jacob. The text as it occurs in Romans 9 can only have reference to the love and hatred of God’s sovereign and eternal good pleasure: and it may be paraphrased as follows: Jacob have I eternally accepted in love; Esau have I eternally rejected as the object of my sovereign hatred.

But it has also been objected that this election is not personal, but national. Also this objection, however, is quite void of force. In the first place, we may reply that even if this were the case, and the expression “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” were to be applied to the nations of Edom and Israel, this application would not alter the case in the least.

Is not a nation composed of the sum total of its individual members?

And is it not true, therefore, that what is applicable to the nation, in this case, is no less to be applied to the individuals that constitute the nation?

Even if we could adopt this interpretation, the fact would remain that the persons of Edom and the Edomites, as they are included in the nation of Edom, are the objects of God’s sovereign displeasure, and are excluded from the promise of the covenant by the determining purpose of God.

Secondly, is it not quite evident that even this interpretation would not at all exclude, but include the persons of Jacob and Esau?

And that is applicable to the nations that sprang from them is of equal force with reference to their persons. But, besides, how contrary to the entire context is such an interpretation of this passage. The apostle refers to Jacob and Esau as an illustration of the fact that not all the descendants of Abraham are children of the promise. He is not writing of nations and national distinctions, but of individual children of Abraham and of the evident truth that not all the natural seed, not all the individual descendants of the father of believers, are included in the promise. The entire context shows plainly that the apostle is speaking of the distinction God’s sovereign purpose according to election makes between persons of the same origin.

Still more curious is the explanation of Barth. Predestination according to him does not refer to any quantitative distinction between persons, but merely to a qualitative difference. Esau and Jacob are types of the church. Esau is the church visible on earth, as it is known to us. As such the church is reprobate, carnal, under the judgment and under the wrath of God. Jacob, however, is the church from God’s viewpoint, elect and hidden in God’s counsel, and the object of the love of God. Jacob and Esau, therefore, refer really to the same persons. Jacob is Esau from the point of view of this present time. Esau is Jacob from the point of view of election. It is only by faith and through the revelation of God in what Barth calls the “eternal moment” that Esau apprehends that God loves him in His eternal counsel as Jacob.

All these objections and interpretations cannot stand for one moment in the light of the clear statement of the text that it refers not to nations, to the nations of Israel and Edom, or to certain typical persons, but to the concrete, historical persons of Jacob and Esau. And, therefore, there can be no dispute about the fact that the words, ”Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” refer to the twin brothers personally.

Hence, we must come to the conclusion that the Word of God in our text, just as in numerous other places, teaches the doctrine of personal election and reprobation. This doctrine of personal election does not merely mean that God chose and ordained an arbitrary number of persons unto salvation and eternal life, so that it would have made no difference had He chosen a greater or smaller number.

There never is anything arbitrary in the work of God. All His work is characterized by infinite wisdom and intelligent purpose. God chose not an arbitrary number, but He ordained a Church, an organic whole, the body of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in order that the riches of glory, of His Son, might shine forth in that Church as a whole, each individual member in his own way and in his own place serving that one purpose, and that so the glory of God might become manifest in the vessels of mercy afore prepared unto glory.

Nor is there any arbitrariness in the counsel of reprobation or in the number of the reprobate for even as the chaff must serve the wheat, so the reprobate must be subservient to the realization and the glorification of the elect Church of Christ. But the truth of personal election does signify that God sovereignly determined just how many and who were to have a place in that glorified Church, as well as the very place each of them should occupy in glory, and with equal sovereignty determined how many and who should have no place in that Church, but be vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. For salvation is not of man it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. And no flesh must ever glory in his presence.

By Herman Hoeksema

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