Did Esau want to Repent of selling His Birthright?

‘Some object to the idea that repentance from sin is man’s choice which they are capable of making because the Bible says, “Esau, who for one morsal of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:16-17). Does that mean that Esau wanted to repent of selling his birthright but he couldn’t? The answer is no. If Esau had tears over selling his birthright, it is clear that he already repented of selling it.

This passage means that Esau sought his father with tears to repent of the pronounced blessing which Jacob stole, but his father did not repent. He sought repentance from his father with tears. But despite the pleading and tears of Esau, Jacob his father did not change his mind about rejecting him from inheriting the blessing which Jacob had stolen. It is not Esau who is doing the repenting. It is Esau who sought repentance from his father.

It was not over the selling of the birthright that Esau repented, but over the loss of the blessing which Esau sought his father to repent of. There are two different events mentioned in Genesis and in Hebrews regarding this. The one was the birthright, the other was the blessing. After Esau sold his birthright to Jacob his brother, Jacob also stole Esau’s blessing from his father Isaac. The birthright and the blessing were two different things.

The birthright, or “the right of the first born,” was a “double portion” of the father’s goods (Deut. 21:17). But the blessing was a pronouncement of blessing from the father (Gen. 27:1-41). Notice the distinction between the birthright and the blessing, “Esau, who for one morsal of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:16-17). Albert Barnes said, “The ‘blessing’ here referred to was not that of the birth-right, which he knew he could not regain, but that pronounced by the father Isaac on him whom he regarded as his first-born son…” [1]

It was the loss of the blessing, not the birthright, which gave Esau tears. This is what Genesis records, “And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, bless me, even me also, O my father” (Gen. 27:34). “Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?” (Gen. 27:36) “And Esau said unto his father, hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept” (Gen. 27:38). Esau sought repentance from his father with tears, but the answer he received was, “thy brother came with subtlety and hath taken away thy blessing” (Gen. 27:35). In this way, “he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:17). It was his father which he “sought” to repent “with tears.”

Clearly, the repentance mentioned is not in reference to the selling of the birthright, which Esau lost by choice, but in reference to receiving the blessing from his father, which Jacob stole by trickery. And the “tears” of Esau mentioned in Hebrews is in reference to the blessing not the birthright. Genesis does not record Esau weeping over the loss of his birthright which he willingly sold, but it does record Esau weeping over the loss of his blessing which was taken against his will.

Since repentance is a change of mind about a choice which you have made, Esau could not repent of losing his blessing because he never chose to lose his blessing. He could only repent of selling his birthright because that was his choice. Whether Esau ever repented of selling his birthright, the Scriptures do not say either in Genesis or anywhere else. But we do know that Isaac did not repent of giving the blessing to Jacob, even though Esau sought him with tears to repent. It is not that Esau could not repent of selling his birthright, but that Esau could not persuade his father to repent about the stolen blessing given to Jacob.

Adam Clarke said about the repentance mentioned in Hebrews 12:17 that “the word does not refer here to Esau at all, but to his father, whom Esau could not, with all his tears and entreaties, persuade to reverse what he had done.” [2] Albert Barnes said, “Way to change his mind,’ That is, no place for repentance ‘in the mind of Isaac,’ or no way to change his mind. It does not mean that Esau earnestly sought to repent and could not, but that when once the blessing had passed the lips of his father, he found it impossible to change it.” [3]

The whole point of this passage in Hebrews is that we must be careful and take heed, to “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness spring up and trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsal of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 14:14-17).

The usage of the story of Esau, when looked at in context, is to illustrate how we must not forfeit our own blessing to indulge our flesh because there will come a day when we may seek that blessing from God and cannot persuade Him to give it, just as Esau sold his birthright to indulge his flesh and then afterwards could not persuade his father to give him the blessing. It is not a perfect analogy, since Esau choosing to indulge his flesh was not directly associated with the loss of his father’s blessing, since the birthright was sold by choice and the blessing was stolen by deception. Still, the point the writer of Hebrews is making is that we can lose our blessing by indulging our flesh, and a day will come when God’s mind will not be changed.

This passage does not teach that repentance is not within man’s control. And to use it to teach that man’s repentance is without the realm of his control is to misuse and misunderstand this passage entirely. It would contradict all the many other passages in the Bible which clearly teach that repentance is in fact within man’s power.’

Source: Jesse Morrell, “Repentance, Impenitence, Faith & Unbelief Are Free Will Choices of Men” (biblicaltruthresources).

Footnotes:

[1] Albert Barnes (Commentary on Hebrews 12:17).

[2] Adam Clarke (Commentary on Hebrews 12:17).

[3] Albert Barnes (Commentary on Hebrews 12:17).

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