Election: Romans 9, Part 1 (“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”)

(Rom 9:1-4a)  I speak the truth in Christ–I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit– 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.

When Paul refers to fellow Jews as “brothers,” he invokes a term that’s much more intense than for us. Brothers grew up in the same room, learned the same trade, and lived in adjacent houses (rooms, we’d say) until they died. It’s a term of great intimacy.

Paul’s concern is for his fellow Jews. Why? Because they (as a community) rejected Jesus.

(Rom 9:4b-5)  Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Paul celebrates all that God has done from them. “Divine glory” refers to the very presence of God in the tabernacle and later the Temple of Solomon. The “covenants” speaks to God’s covenant with Abraham and with Moses. The “promises” are not only the Messianic prophecies but the promises God made to set things right when the Jews finally return from exile.

Notice that Paul does not look down on the temple worship, which was ongoing when Romans was written. He sees it as a blessing from God.

(Rom 9:6)  It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.

What “word”? Well, of course, the many promises God made through Moses and the prophets to set things right. But Paul clearly believes that the “setting right” is to be done through faith in Jesus, and a lack of faith means that those who don’t believe won’t enjoy the blessings of the promises in the word.

To deal with the fact that the Jews (as a whole, that is, as a community) rejected Jesus as the Messiah, denying Israel the promises of the Old Testament, Paul points out that the true Israel is not determined by human ancestry. “Israel” in the prophets must be defined some other way.

(Rom 9:7)  Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”

The quote is from Gen 21:12, and refers to God’s statement that his promise will be fulfilled through Isaac, not Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael. Plainly, it’s not enough to be descended from Abraham to receive to God’s promises.

(Rom 9:8-9)  In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. 9 For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

Being the recipient of God’s promise makes one a child of Abraham, without regard to human lineage.

(Rom 9:10-13)  Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls–she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Paul points out that in Gen 25:23, God told Rebekah that Jacob would serve Esau. He then quotes Mal 1:2-3. Notice this critical point of Paul’s argument. Esau himself never served Jacob. And God blessed Esau with great wealth and a large family (Gen 36) — hardly what we’d call “hatred.” He died a prosperous man in good relationship with Jacob.

(Gen 36:6-7)  Esau took his wives and sons and daughters and all the members of his household, as well as his livestock and all his other animals and all the goods he had acquired in Canaan, and moved to a land some distance from his brother Jacob. 7 Their possessions were too great for them to remain together; the land where they were staying could not support them both because of their livestock.

Rather, both passages speak of the nations descended from the two men: Israel and Edom. Both passages are actually quite plain —

(Gen 25:22-23)  The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.

23 The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

(Mal 1:2-4a)  “I have loved you,” says the LORD. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the LORD says. “Yet I have loved Jacob, 3 but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.”

4 Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.”

And so, as Paul knew his Tanakh (Jewish term for the Old Testament) much better than we do, we may safely figure that Paul knew precisely what he was talking about — God’s election of nations — which, of course, is precisely the subject Paul has in mind: how can Israel (the nation) be God’s elect and yet be rejected for lack of faith?

The statements Paul quotes are true as to the nations but not as to individuals. Some Jews accepted Jesus. Not all Jews were served by Edomites. God didn’t bring curses on all in Esau’s family. Esau himself was blessed by God.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Election: Romans 9, Part 1 (“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”)

  1. Randall says:

    Interesting post but it differs little form the "theology" which the CofC has put out since, I suspect, the 1930s when Foy E. Wallace Jr. had his take no prisoners fight with the premillenialists. When it takes several substantial posts to provide the (proper?) background for saying that a passage of scripture doesn't really mean what it sounds like it means, careful readers of the text may begin to wonder why all that was necessary.

    All of us that have faith may be regarded as Abraham's children, but we are not Jews nor children of Israel. In scripture I don't recall Israel ever referring to anything other than Israel. (Yes, I am familiar with the disputed translation the NIV gives to one of the last verses of Galatians – verse 16 – and note that it differs from all the translation of that verse in all the other standard translations.)

    If the promises God made to Israel are not to be understood for their plain sense meaning to Israel, that is, that they really apply to the church in a different age rather than to Israel; then how much confidence can the church have that promises made to the church can be accepted for their plain sense meaning to the church? Perhaps they actually apply to some other people of God that are not yet identified. Some are most disappointed in this type of treatment of the text. Furthermore, Paul continues his discussion of Israel through chapter 11 and concludes it with the suggestion that Israel will accept their messiah and be grafted back into their own olive tree – when the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled and thus all Israel will be saved; and Paul then praises God for his plan and his unfathomable ways.

    I would challenge every blogger to read Romans 9-11 as a whole and note Paul's assertion that a hardening has come upon Israel and that they are our enemies from the standpoint of the gospel, but from the standpoint of God's choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable and mercy will be shown to them. This passage does NOT say the church is the new Israel! and it does NOT say that God is only talking about nations rather than individuals – not to mention that nations are made up of individuals. If anyone should apply this type of understanding of scripture to a passage like Acts 2:38 (or most of the NT, except for the Revelation) we would be at a complete loss as to understand their reasoning.

    As was mentioned in a previous comment, the reference to Jacob and Esau in its OT context may well refer to nations rather than individuals. But Paul does not use the text in that way here; and Paul frequently uses quotes the OT to make a point that has little to do with the original context. Here in Romans 9 he mentions a long string of individuals and the reference to Esau no more refers only to the nation of Edom than the reference to Pharaoh refers to the nation of Egypt rather than to Pharaoh himself. I doubt many in the CofC have read enough of Piper to be familiar with Piper's discussion of Romans 9, but they would be wise to read and at least consider it for a moment.

    The NT also has more to say about Esau than we find in this post. Though God may have blessed him with great wealth it would appear that he did not bless him with salvation nor true repentance. Hagar and Ismael were also blessed by God in many ways, but they were never chosen the way Issac was.

  2. Zach Cox says:


    I was just getting ready to tell you how much I appreciate your setting the current passages in context when I read Randall's criticism of your doing just that. It seems that he would rather you construct a theology from a proof text rather than allowing a narrative of theology to inform your reading of a given verse. This is not surprising because he believes that's what Paul does by simply grabbing random verses from the OT to make a point, rather than considering their actual context. In fact, this would be my biggest criticism of Randall's reading of Paul. Paul, more than anyone, is always aware of the larger context of his quotes and doesn't use the text flippantly for illustrative purposes. I would recommed Richard Hays' Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul be read for a deeper appreciation of Paul's reading of Scripture.

  3. Zach Cox says:


    Romans 2 seems to label Christian Gentiles as Jews.

  4. Randall says:

    I wonder if you could agree that God's choice of Jacob over Esau did not depend in the least on the behavior or character of the unborn twins?

    And as F.F. Bruce writes, the text goes on to imply that when some receive light light and others do not divine election may be discerned, operating antecedently to the will or activity of those who are its objects.

  5. Joe Hegyi III says:

    Why would God's use of a person or a nation in his plans depend on their character? He's not talking salvation but how they would be used in his overarching plan, much like Pharaoh or Cyrus. Neither was elected for either salvation or damnation but for usefulness in God's plan.

  6. Guy says:


    Isn't Joe onto something? i've always wondered why people seem to take completely for granted that "elect = saved" when that doesn't seem clear to me at all.


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