Could you make this plainer to me? I have often read of how Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Hebrews 12:17 says Esau found no place of repentance ‘though he sought it carefully with tears.’ Does this mean that God can reject our repentance, or maybe Esau did not fully repent?”
There is no question but that God wants us to repent from our wrongdoing. In fact, through His Prophets he pleaded with the people to repent and turn from their wicked ways, so that they would not have to suffer the penalty of their transgressions, so that iniquity would not “be their ruin” (Jer. 26:3; Ezek. 14:6; 18:31). The Bible tells us that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). He would not be consistent if He rejected one who truly repented.
Why was it that Esau “found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears”?
Since we have only a limited amount of information from which to judge, and we know that God is just, we may conclude that 1) Esau’s repentance was not a complete repentance, as you suggest, or 2) Esau’s repentance was not genuine, or 3) it was not according to God’s terms.
True repentance is not merely regret for one’s conduct but a complete turning from sin and toward God. It involves a right about face, a willingness to change one’s direction and pursue a totally different course of action (conduct). As Peter said on the day of Pentecost, “Repent…and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19).
True repentance includes the blotting out of one’s sins. The prophet Ezekiel tells us that God blots out the sins of one who turns from them and does that which is right. “If the wicked…walk in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his sins that he hath committed shall e mentioned unto him” (Ezek. 33:15-16).
What Do We Know about Esau?
Did he meet God’s conditions for repentance?
1: Esau is called a “profane” person (Heb. 12:16).
The basic meaning of the original word translated “profane” is “outside the temple,” “removed from the sacred, unconsecrated” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance). It has been translated as “godless,” “irreligious,” “irreverent,” “careless about God.” The word seems very appropriate in describing the character of Esau. He did as he pleased, and made no effort to frame his life to the Divine pattern.
2: Esau “despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34).
The word translated “despise” means “to disesteem:–despise, disdain, contemn, think to scorn” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance). This suggests that he did not take seriously the birthright or the loss of it–very possibly because he did not really believe that he could lose it. The double portion was his because he was the eldest son, a fact nothing could change. When he made the exchange with Jacob, he very likely did not think it was anything “for real.”
Esau was not seeking a place in the Divine plan, and did not see the opportunity that lay in his path for the taking. Little did he realize that this was no ordinary inheritance, or that in that inheritance lay the destiny of the nation. Esau could have been an instrument in God’s hand, but he did not seek God or try to work with God. And by giving away the inheritance he forfeited what he could have had.
Esau’s “repentance” very possibly means that he changed his mind about forfeiting the inheritance when he found he could not recover the loss. The word translated “repentance” (metanoia) has two meanings. Both involve a change of one’s mind, but one definition implies guilt, as turning from one’s sin, a “reformation”; the other means the “reversal of a decision.” It seems likely that Esau’s repentance was of the latter type, especially in view of the fact that God did not accept Esau’s repentance. The word from which metanoia is derived (metanoeo) means “to think differently afterwards; to reconsider.” By seeking “repentance” Esau indicated that he now saw the value of wheat he had thoughtlessly given away and wished to reverse the decision and claim the inheritance. When he found that the loss was irretrievable (the integrity of the system had to be maintained by the bestower) he was grief-stricken.
Esau in making the decision to sell his birthright did so of his own free will. Jacob and Esau as individuals were both free to choose their own course of action; but God, by His Divine foreknowledge, revealed in advance that Jacob would be favored above Esau. As the apostle Paul wrote, “It was said unto her [Rebecca, before the children were even born], The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom. 9:12-13).
It appears that Esau’s “tears” were not for his sinfulness but for his material loss, the realization that he had forfeited something of value which he could not recover. We have no evidence that he repented from his wrong course and made a right-about-face in his life.
The Bible record shows that Esau was of an earthy, carnal character, without spiritual insights. Esau was a man of the flesh, a slave to his appetites, a stranger to God’s will. One law binding upon the God-fearing people of that time was that they not marry people from the idolatrous nations around them. Contrary to this law, Esau took two wives from the Canaanites (Hittites), which, we read, “were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah” (Gen. 26:34-35).
Someone has commented that Esau acted flippantly toward his sacred rights; he did not take seriously his spiritual opportunities. It is written of the wayward Israelites that they “despised the pleasant land” (Ps. 106:24). This seems to have been Esau’s attitude toward the birthright. Only when he realized that he could not recover that which he had so lightly rejected was he sorrowful. By not appreciating God’s goodness, he showed himself unworthy of greater blessings.
Had Esau shown that he sincerely repented and wished to change his manner of life, God would have forgiven him; but even then he would have had to live with the consequences of his irresponsible conduct. God does not undo the wrong, He does not remove the present consequences of our transgressions, even when we turn and repent.
There is a lesson here for us: to appreciate our God-given opportunities, to esteem them for their true worth, and show our gratitude by a life of obedience to God. If we do not do this, our bitter tears of remorse will not avail to recover what we have lost.