The Toughest Line is Scripture

Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.

Romans 9:1–13 (ESV)

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 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 offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

One of the great things about Paul’s writing is the way he wears his heart on his sleeve. He loves his countrymen and their rejection of Christ breaks his heart.

Remember, Paul had been in the middle of waging war against Christianity when the Lord jumped in and saved him. Jesus could have smacked him half-way across the galaxy, but instead chose to give Paul a dramatic, yet loving, wake-up call.

The irony of this weighs on Paul. That’s why he says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.” Paul is so rattled by God saving him but not many of his kinsmen that he wants to trade places with them.

The second paragraph has a “thinking out loud” feel to it, as if Paul is trying to reconcile all this in his own mind and is just talking it through. These things always seem to boil down to God’s sovereignty, and Paul highlights that with one of the toughest lines in scripture—Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. This line appears twice (in Malachi 1:2–3 and Romans 9:13) so it must be important. Sure, it’s God’s universe and He can do anything he wants with it, but that still leads to some troubling questions.

Fortunately, Paul is going to tackle that next.

One of the keys to understanding scripture is facing up to the hard questions. If something troubles you, latch onto it. Let it trouble you. Don’t let go until it’s resolved. Attack it. Study it. Ask you pastor about it. You may learn things beyond your wildest dreams.

But know also that some things will remain unresolved. They may trouble you for years—or for life.

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Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.