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It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.
Mercy and Compassion
Of all the passages in the Bible, I think this is one of the most frustrating; therefore, it’s also one of the most avoided and explained away. I mean, all this business about loving Jacob and hating Esau, what’s that suppose to mean? If we take it at face value, it suggests something about God that most Christian don’t want to believe. You see, most American believers assume that God’s will is a lot like a free market economy. If you work hard and do all the stuff you’re suppose to do, you like, like accept all you’re supposed to accept and give all you’re suppose to give, God will reward you with grace and salvation. In the end, you get what you pay for, right? But if God loves some and hates others “before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call)”, man, that can’t be right. Our whole salvation system collapses. And so this is a passage to avoid and ignore. And if that’s not possible, we soften it by including a little foreknowledge, that’s not mentioned by Paul, to justify saying that both Esau and Jacob actually got what they deserved.
But before we either turn the page or spin Paul’s words so that they say what we want them to say, let’s pause intentionally and remember that after he wrote about love and hate, Paul anticipated our problem and said, “Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” In other words, God’s ultimate will is always mercy and compassion: not mercy and misery or condemnation and compassion, but rather mercy and compassion. Which means that how God regarded Jacob and Esau was all about God accomplishing his will. In other words, because God chose to love Jacob, Esau and his descendants ultimately received mercy and compassion. And this is something we need to remember, when we assume that we can control God’s grace and excludes folks whom we don’t like from his gift of salvation.