Hebrews 12:16, 17
FrontLine • May/June 2008
Perhaps you, as I, have had a Christian friend who became convinced that he or she was under condemnation, an apostate denied any opportunity to repent. My friend and I had shared fellowship and ministry for years, but a variety of trials left him utterly defeated, despite the encouragement of a godly wife and a vibrant church family. He desired restoration but was convinced that his had never been a saving faith and that he had sinned his way into such disfavor with God that God had irrevocably decreed him lost.
Someone in such a state or even contemplating the possibility can easily be terrified at the words of Hebrews 12:17, where Esau “found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.” At first reading, Esau seems sincerely intent upon repentance yet shut out from it. Perhaps John Bunyan had this passage in mind when he wrote the vignette of the man in the iron cage shown to Christian and Hopeful at the Interpreter’s House. Sorrowing, the man explains his condition: “God hath denied me repentance.”
Does the Bible teach that God denies repentance to some who desire it? Hebrews 6:4–8 teaches that some cannot repent, and in Isaiah 6:9, 10 God even expresses His own determination that some will not repent, but the subjects of these passages manifest no desire to repent. Does Hebrews 12:17, though, present Esau as a man trying to repent but finding repentance denied him? Careful interpretation demands that we consider the immediate context, attend to grammatical details, and consult the text’s background in Genesis.
Verse 16 refers to Esau’s carnality, manifested preeminently by selling his birthright for nothing more than a meal. Years later, when Isaac pronounced the patriarchal blessings, Esau reaped what he had sown, and the special blessing intended for him went to Jacob instead. Referring to this event, our passage says, “Afterward, when he would have inherited [the Greek text clearly means desired to inherit] the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.”
What is the antecedent of the pronoun “it”? What did Esau seek? The English text presents three possibilities: “place,” “repentance,” or “blessing.” The first two differ little in meaning, since seeking a place (i.e., opportunity or possibility) of repentance is to seek repentance. But seeking to repent differs greatly from seeking material blessing. The Greek text sheds only a bit of light: gender difference prevents the pronoun from referring to “place.” What was it, then, that Esau sought: repentance or blessing?
The Genesis account (27:30–38) is clear. When Esau learned that Jacob had stolen the blessing, “he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father.” When Isaac explains that Jacob has already gotten the blessing, Esau shows no inclination toward repentance. Instead, he misrepresents Jacob as taking away his birthright, conveniently forgetting that he had willingly sold it. And when Isaac explains that no blessing remains for Esau, he pleads, “Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept.” But his tears lament his loss, not his sins.
Still, Hebrews does speak of an unavailable repentance; how does that idea fit the picture? Perhaps the writer intends it to explain the absence of any blessing for Esau, implying that, had he repented, God would have moved Isaac to bless him too. On this view, the verse states that Esau was unable to repent, but it does not explain why. That God denied Esau repentance is an inference from the text, not a statement of the text.
Most likely, though, the repentance referred to is not Esau’s at all. The Greek word metanoia signifies a change of mind. What Esau sought without finding was not a change in his own disposition toward his sins but rather a change in Isaac’s mind about the blessing. This view merges Isaac’s repentance and Esau’s blessing into a single idea as two sides of one coin. It also combines Esau’s seeking but not finding, which on the previous interpretation had two different objects (he sought the blessing but did not find repentance from sin). The pronoun “it” can now refer to “repentance” after all; just as in Genesis, Esau begs for a change in Isaac’s mind about the blessing while remaining oblivious to his own sins. So our verse simply says that, no matter how tearfully he begged, carnal Esau found no possibility that Isaac would change his mind about the blessing he had pronounced.
Among the other warnings in Hebrews, Esau’s example indeed teaches that submitting to fleshly urges rather than the Word of God brings irreversible tragedy. Esau is not, however, portrayed as a man who sees his sins and wishes to repent but finds God’s ear closed to his pleas. The Greek text of Hebrews 12:17, interpreted in light of the Genesis account, reveals no such desire.
My depressed friend, though, did manifest spiritual desire, and the day came when God restored his spiritual vitality. He was no Esau, nor is anyone who would gladly leave his sins for the Savior. As Jesus said in John 6:37, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
Dr. Randy Leedy teaches Greek at Bob Jones University Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2008. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)