“Home at last,” he thought as he pushed open the door, his stomach growling. The ache inside reminded him that he hadn’t eaten anything all day. He’d skipped breakfast so that he could get in a little hunting before heading out to the field to help his father. Neither of them had gotten any lunch; they’d been too busy chasing down the cattle that had wandered out of the broken fence. Then they’d of course had to mend it, and they’d only just finished. Esau’s stomach growled again as a delicious fragrance filled his nostrils. “Jacob’s cooking again,” he mused. His twin brother was worthless when it came to doing a hard day’s work in the field, but his cooking almost made Esau forget how irritating his brother was. Almost.
“Hey, brother. Can I have some soup? I’m starving.”
“On one condition,” Jacob responded, a twinkle in his eye.
Esau groaned. “What? I do your chores? I’ve been doing them since we could walk.”
“No, not chores. I was thinking something a bit more…substantial,” Jacob responded.
“Well, what is it?” Esau growled. He hated how his brother was always trying to get the upper hand. He knew he couldn’t best Esau with brute strength, so he tried to dominate him through manipulation.
“Your birthright. You give it to me, and I’ll let you have a bowl of hot soup. You look like you could use it.”
Esau’s stomach growled again and thought to himself, What good will my birthright do me if I starve to death before I inherit a thing? “Fine,” he answered. “You can have it. Just give me some food!”
“First, you have to swear that you will give it to me.”
Rage boiling inside of him, Esau glared at his brother and uttered the words: “I swear it.”
With that, Jacob ladled a bowl full of his culinary delight and handed it to his brother who ate greedily.
Esau’s hasty decision would follow him the rest of his life. He had given up his right as firstborn to inherit a double portion of his father’s estate, and he’d done it for a bowl of soup. Moses, the author of this account found in Genesis 25, tells us that Esau despised his birthright. He hated it. He had no use for it whatsoever. You can predict the end of Esau’s short-sighted deal with his brother: regret.
Genesis leaves the birthright account here, but, as is often the case, the Bible is its own best commentary. The epistle of Hebrews gives us a bit more insight into Esau’s heart, teaching that Esau eventually wanted to take the birthright back, but it was too late. None of that comes as a surprise. He got exactly what he deserved for making such a foolhardy trade. However, the commentary doesn’t stop there. The author gives insight we wouldn’t come up with on our own:
For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears. (Heb. 12:17)
There it is. He found no place for repentance.
The way this verse reads makes it sound like he really wanted to repent, but God wouldn’t let him. However, that would mean that God was at odds with Himself, and that can’t happen. Consider this. Repentance of sin happens for only one reason: the work of the Holy Spirit. Without that mediating effort on the part of God Himself, none of us would ever turn from our sins. We’d never repent because we like our sin. That’s why we do it. We regret it, sure. We don’t like the consequences, so we may show remorse. But true, genuine repentance is always a work of God Himself in a person’s heart. Therefore, for Esau to have that work going on in his heart only to have God prohibit his repentance is to make God contradict Himself, which is impossible. So if this verse can’t mean that, what does it mean? Here’s an alternative to consider:
Repentance is a gift, not a right.
Scripture makes it plain that rebellion against God deserves nothing short of eternal damnation and separation from Him (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, we have no right to expect repentance as a guarantee. It’s not. Hell is. Setting our face against God to go our own way, with the expectation that we could one day return in repentance as the lost son did, is the height of hubris. Esau believed this way, thinking that he could have his birthright and eat it too. But, as Esau learned, God will not be presumed upon.
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul tells his protégé to deal gently with adversaries, so that “perhaps God may grant them repentance” (2:25). Again Scripture teaches that repentance is a gift. Paul knew better than anyone that opponents to the Gospel had no right to expect grace from God; yet, he also knew how precious that grace is and desired that these adversaries might want it for themselves. It’s still grace, though. A gift, not a right.
Maybe you’re wondering what to do with this as a believer? I’m sure you’ve already thought about the promise of God’s forgiveness found in 1 John 1:9. Here God emphatically promises that He will forgive any sins that we confess. However, both John and the author of Hebrews would want you to remember that a Christian who sins habitually, persistently, and presumptuously is really no Christian, and thus can’t claim this promise as their own. Consider these passages:
No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:6-8)
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on [the testimony of] two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY." And again, "THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE." It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31)
A true believer who has received the gift of repentance will savor it, not squander it. First John 1:9 will anchor his soul because it will remind him of the overwhelming gift of grace he enjoys. A heart genuinely changed by Christ will never throw this promise around as a license to sin.
Second, remembering that repentance is a gift ought to instruct our prayers for the lost and wayward, giving biblical verbiage to our requests for a loved one to turn from their prodigal living and toward God. Ask the Granter of Repentance that He would grant this gift to them. Ask that they would have hands open to receive it; and remember that to anyone who wants the gift of repentance it will be given. Esau wanted the birthright, but he didn’t want repentance.
We often think of repentance as part of the equation that we control. But even turning away from our sin is a gift of God. Sometimes it’s a painful one, but it’s a gift nonetheless.