Teaching series from Hebrews

Esau's Free Choice

Hebrews 12:14-17

Teaching t05006


One of the unique features of human beings is our ability to learn vicariously. This means we don't have to learn everything "the hard way;" we have the capacity to watch others and learn by their choices and the outcomes of those choices. Because of this capacity, much of the Bible's instruction comes to us through real-life models. And God's Word, as the master teacher, provides us with both HEROES & GOATS. HEROES are models who show us what godly attitudes, values and choices look like--and what they lead to (chapter 11). GOATS are antithetical models who show us what ungodly attitudes, values and choices look like--and what they lead to. In Heb. 12:15-17, we are reminded of such a GOAT--Esau.

Read vs 15-17. This is an alarming passage! What was it about this man that he could seek repentance, even with tears, and yet still be rejected? Today we study the sobering story of Esau's free choice. It teaches something that I admit I don't like, but which we need to understand and accept if we are to mature and live effective lives. Let's take a closer look at this event . . . 

The Story (Gen. 25:24-34)

We pick up the story around 2006 BC as Rebekah, Isaac's wife, is having her first birth . . . 

Read vs 24-26. She had fraternal twin brothers: Esau and Jacob. Because Esau was born first, he had the birthright. In those days, the father usually passed on the entire estate to his eldest son rather than dividing it up equally among his children as is more customary today. In this case, Esau's birthright consisted of more than some money, property and possessions. It also consisted of a promise made by God to Esau's grandfather, Abraham. This promise, known as the Abrahamic Covenant, involved the privilege of being used by God in a special way to fulfill God's purpose for humanity. Certain descendants of Abraham would form a nation through which God would give the Bible and his Messiah to the world.

Read vs 27,28. You can see how different these two men were. Esau was a "man's man"--hairy, an expert hunter, and his father's favorite. Jacob was smooth-skinned, "a peaceful man, living in the tents" (where the women and children spent their time). He excelled in cooking, and was his mother's favorite.

Now we come to the event referred to in Heb. 12 (read vs 29-34). The thing that gets me is the commentary in vs 34b. Heb. 12:16 goes even further and calls it an immoral and godless choice. Esau didn't exactly make a good deal, but it seems like the one who should be condemned is Jacob for exploiting and manipulating his brother! What Jacob did was wrong, and God teaches him a lesson about this later on--but what Esau did was far worse. Why? Let's take a closer look . . . 

Analysis of Esau's Choice

Let's analyze Esau's choice, first by examining the values it exemplifies and contrasting it to the values esteemed by the Bible. When analyzed in this light, the Bible's verdict on his decision becomes clearer.

Esau's decision was made on the basis of his physical need (hunger), rather than on the basis of his spiritual need (to play a role in God's plan). This is in direct contrast to Jesus' decision. When he was much more hungry, he turned down the opportunity to eat because it meant trading away his role in God's plan.

His decision prioritized instant gratification (a full belly) over future fulfillment (becoming the father of the twelve tribes of Israel much later in his life).

Esau chose for a temporary effect (he was soon hungry again) over against an eternal effect (God's plan has eternal implications for other people).

The point is that his decision was wrong because it reflected an ungodly (and therefore immoral) value system. Even more than if you were asked, "Trade me your child for this bowl of soup," it wouldn't have mattered if he got two bowls of soup, or two years worth of soup for that matter. His birthright was so much more important than soup that no amount of soup could make up for it.

Now let's examine the way Esau made his choice.

He was under duress. Esau was hungry - very hungry! He didn't have the luxury of being at ease, in his study, after a good meal and a night's sleep. He had to make this decision under a lot of pressure.

Nevertheless, he was impulsive. Do you think he took even five minutes to think this over and weigh out the implications? No - he lunged.

And he was dishonest. Do you think he was literally going to die unless he ate the soup right then? He doesn't act like a man on the verge of death (ate & drank himself; rose & went on his way). Esau lied to himself in order to justify his decision. He could have trusted God to provide a meal for him.

But now we come to the most sobering aspect of Esau's choice--the results. What happened as a result of his choice to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup?

Let's not forget that he got to eat the soup. If Esau were here, I'm sure he'd remind us of this! And he'd probably say it was good soup--and he got bread and drink with it, too!

But he lost his birthright. His choice was irreversible in this respect. Evidently, Esau figured he could reverse this decision, but God held him responsible for his choice and worked providentially to allow Esau to reap this consequence in his life. We read the dramatic and heart-rending account of this in Gen. 27. Many years later, as Isaac lay blind and on his death bed, Jacob disguised himself as Esau and Isaac discharged his birthright to him. Verbal oaths, like signed contracts, were binding. Read vs 30-40.

This explains Heb. 12:17. The "repentance" that Esau sought but could not get was for Isaac to change his mind and give him the birthright. It wasn't that God wouldn't let Esau repent to him and be forgiven. In fact, there is good evidence that Esau did come to saving faith in God, and that we will see him in heaven. But God wouldn't let him reverse the effects of this decision to trade away his birthright--and that was significant enough to alter the rest of his life and his impact on history (FATHER OF 12 TRIBES; ANCESTOR OF MESSIAH).


What lessons can we learn from this tragic story? I see several that are taught throughout the Bible . . . 

Free will, responsibility, and consequences are inextricably connected. Esau had the freedom to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup, but God held him responsible for his choice and allowed (insisted) his choice to have real consequences.

God has given us the ability to choose freely--to make unprogrammed, non-determined decisions that really impact the universe. That's great news, one of the best things about being human. But along with it comes two other things that I don't like as well. I am fully responsible for my choices (not God or other people), and the destructive consequences flow from my poor decisions affect me and others, often in ways far greater than I would have imagined (RIPPLES FROM A PEBBLE HITTING POND).

"Why didn't God create Adam with free will, but make sure he didn't choose to eat the fruit?" This is a contradiction in terms. "Why do I have to be adversely affected by Adam's wrong choice?" Because this is the significance of free choice; it has real consequences. We like it when others' choices benefit us (INHERITANCE), but we scream "FOUL!!" when their choices affect us adversely.

This is part of the fabric of reality which God has designed, and it works this way whether we like it or not. One of the most basic aspects of wisdom and maturity, therefore, is to understand and accept this fact. The essence of immaturity is to insist on the freedom to make your own choices without also accepting responsibility for those choices and the consequences that flow from them. This is why wise parents start to teach this to their children at a very early age (NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL CONSEQUENCES AS TRAINING FOR THE REAL WORLD).

Some decisions have irreversible consequences. That was certainly the case with Esau's decision. Later, he realized it was a poor choice and did everything he could to reverse its consequences, but he was unable to do this. He had to live with his decision.

Existentialists acknowledge this truth, but lament that we cannot know the consequences of life's most important decisions in advance. This is what turns life into a cruel joke. But Christianity disagrees. Through his Word, God has told us what life's most important decisions are and (at least generally) what the consequences are that flow from those decisions. FOR EXAMPLE:

You can choose to be forgiven by God and spend eternity with him. By receiving Christ, you make an irreversible decision. But by the same token, if you do not receive Christ by the time you die or he returns, you have also made an irreversible decision - to spend eternity under his judgment and alienated from him. This is the author's application of Esau's free choice (vs 15,25; see also 9:27). Some complain that this is a scare tactic designed to pressure people. It certainly can be used that way, but that doesn't make such a warning illegitimate. If I knew that your house was on fire, and if I knew the only safe escape, and if I knew you had only 15 minutes to get out, would it be a scare tactic to warn you of this and urge you to escape??

God's grace does not cancel out this truth. Grace is the greatest news there is, but some Christians have a confused understanding of God's grace as it bears on this area of life.

Try this "True-False" quiz to check your own understanding.

"God will never reject me no matter what I do." TRUE (Rom. 8:1)
"God will always spare me from the consequences of my wrong decisions." FALSE (Lk. 15:31; POOR MARRIAGE CHOICE >> MARITAL PAIN; HABITUAL DRUG USE >> LONG-TERM VULNERABILITY TO TEMPTATION; LOST YEARS)

"God will continue to initiate training and discipline in my life regardless of my response." TRUE (Heb. 12:6)
"God will eventually make me mature regardless of my response to his discipline and training." FALSE (Heb. 12:12,13; BROKEN BONE)

"God will still have a role for my life even after years of disregarding his will." TRUE (ESAU)
"God's role for my life will never be diminished by my disregard of his will." FALSE (ESAU; 1 Cor. 9:27; SMALLER DIAMOND)

"God is willing and able to work for good even from my wrong choices." TRUE (Rom. 8:28; PETER'S DENIAL)
"God will bring as much good from my wrong choices as from my choices to obey his will." FALSE (PUT OFF GROWTH BECAUSE OF BUSYNESS >> LOST GROWTH & EFFECT ON OTHERS)


Life is made up of a series of moments that can never be lived again, and the choices we make today will affect us and others in the future--advancing God's purpose or hindering it. One day we will see the full significance of our choices, but today we can only see this in part. Such a realization should make us thankful for God's grace, and it should motivate us to learn God's will and follow it even when this is costly.