The language in our passages this morning is jarring to our ears. What’s this talk about God hating? The Bible tells us that God is love; it tells us that his love for the world is so great that he came down in Jesus to die and rise again for us. So where does this statement come from, “Esau I have hated,” and how does that square?
This is one of those places where we run up against the fact that every age and culture uses words differently; this is actually treaty language. Back then, when kings made alliances with each other, they would declare, “I love you, and I hate your enemies.” It’s a statement of choice—I have chosen to be on your side, and to stand against those who attack you—but they wanted to make that statement as strong, as powerful, as permanent, and as absolute as possible; so they used the language of love and hate.
Here in Malachi, to be sure, there’s more going on; this goes all the way back to the birth of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25. If you remember the story, God had made a promise to Abraham that he would use Abraham’s family to redeem the world. Jacob and Esau were his twin grandsons; Esau was the older, but God chose the younger one to be the greater, from whose descendants would come the people of Israel, and ultimately the Son of God.
That by itself didn’t necessarily mean that God had rejected Esau; as far as we know, Esau didn’t know anything about this, and if he’d chosen to follow God, he could have been blessed as well. But he didn’t. Instead, he rejected God, and went his own way, ending up rather a brute and a bully. To be sure, Jacob was no prize either—he was a charmer, a con man, a liar and a swindler; but for everything he did wrong, he did continue to honor and worship the one true God as his God.
As you can imagine, the sibling rivalry between these two was epic. In fact, it may have been the worst in history, because it didn’t die with them; it didn’t even die with their children or grandchildren. Instead, it continued for centuries. Jacob’s descendants became the nation of Israel; for hundreds and hundreds of years, their very worst and most consistent enemy was the nation of Edom—the descendants of Esau. They had other enemies, but with those other enemies, there were periods of peace, and even alliances against greater threats—but never with Edom; Edom was always implacably dedicated to the destruction, the annihilation of the people of God.
And so God declares, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated,” expressing his absolute unswerving faithfulness to the people of Israel whom he had chosen—and this despite the fact that they had not been faithful to him. There had been times they were no better than Edom. They’d been so bad, God had allowed them to be conquered and dragged off into exile. He could have washed his hands of them, let Edom destroy them as the kings of Edom wanted so badly to do, and started over. But he didn’t—because God had chosen Jacob, he had chosen his people Israel, and he had promised that he would use them to bless the whole world; and so he remained faithful to them despite everything.
When all was said and done, it would be Edom that would come to an end, not Israel—and so it was—and it would be Israel through whom God would complete his plan of redemption—and so it was. Because it wasn’t about Israel being good enough, as it isn’t about us being good enough; because in the end, what it’s all about is the unending, unbreakable, unstoppable love and mercy of God, which we have seen most fully in Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord.