“[See to it] that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.”
The focus of this post will be on the last phrase, that Esau “found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.” I wish to discuss two common, insufficient interpretations of this passage. I was unable to find a sample in any of the Hebrews commentaries I own (thankfully), but I hope I can do my best to represent the views well. Either way, I am sure at some point in your walk you have heard one or both of them. I hope that in the end we can walk away from this short study with some interpretive skills. I hope we learn the folly of reading our systematic theology into texts, and that of jumping to conclusions too quickly when a verse sounds like another doctrine.
Calvinist bend: Esau’s “Total Inability” to repent
First, you may have heard this verse taken in a Calvinistic sense. It is true biblically that faith (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29) and repentance (2 Tim. 2:25-26) are gifts of God and that no man would never repent if God did not intervene within their hearts. This is the Calvinist view of Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace. So when a Calvinist comes across this passage and reads that Esau was unable to find repentance they think, “Aha! Yet another verse to keep under our belt!”
This train of thought sees his seeking with tears as man’s greatest religious efforts being unable to conjure up faith and repentance. It takes this verse as agreeing with the (correct) doctrine of Calvinism that man can never repent on his own. Esau took great pains to come to saving faith—and may have even displayed a kind of repentance—but because God did not act in his heart, he never quite had true, biblical repentance. Basically, “Esau tried and tried to repent, but could not do so.”
No going back: Esau was beyond the point of repentance
Second, you may have heard this taken in a point of no return sense. They take Esau’s inability to find repentance as his being so far off the deep end that he could never be saved. The author of Hebrews has already mentioned that when one is enlightened and seems to be saved, but later falls away, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:4-6, see also 2 Pet. 2:20-22). They take the reference to repentance here in the same way. Esau had the blessing of being of the seed of Abraham and of Isaac. When his father died everything would have been his. However, in the heat of the moment he rejected these blessings, spiritual and eternal, for a small meal to satisfy his physical and temporal needs. So because Esau was part of God’s people—or so it seemed—but he fell away and rejected God’s purposes for him, he can never truly repent again, even with tears.
Corrections: What Esau really sought with tears
The problem with both of these interpretations is that neither begins by looking at the story in Genesis itself. Upon doing so, rather than trying to reason how Esau cannot repent although he wants to, we discover that it is instead his father Isaac’s repentance that is on the author of Hebrew’s mind. Although the account of Esau selling his birthright for a meal is found in Genesis 25, the event the author of Hebrews mentions is found later, in Chapter 27. It is there that we see Esau seeking repentance with tears and being unable to receive it.
Isaac is about to die and wants to bless his firstborn. He sends Esau out to catch and cook his favorite meal. Rebekah overheard and sent in Jacob dressed as Esau with a meal she herself cooked. After eating the meal and falling for their trick, Isaac gives to Jacob the blessing that he was going to give to Esau, thinking it was him. After Jacob leaves, Esau rushes in with the meal, only to find out that the blessing had already been given and the deal has already been settled. Esau’s response to the bad news is that, “he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry” (Gen. 27:34), and later, that he “lifted his voice and wept” (Gen. 27:38). The crying out and weeping here must be what the author of Hebrews meant by “he sought it with tears.” And what was he seeking by these tears? “God have mercy on me, a sinner”? No! It was, “Bless me, even me also, O my father” (Gen. 27:34). He was not looking for salvation, like the two views we looked at say. He desired that his (earthly) father would turn back on what he said to Jacob and give the blessing to him instead. Isaac could not repent and take back the blessing he had given to Jacob, as the wording of his response to Esau implies.
This helps clear up other quirks with the above interpretations. For example, how can the meaning be that we cannot repent no matter how hard we try when the author just placed the responsibility to repent in their hands (“See to it”). Also, even though it is true that at some point people will not repent, and that no man can repent unless God draws him, it is also true, however, that God does receive those who do repent! All who come to Christ, He will certainly not cast out (John 6:37). A person who wants to repents simply does not fit the two above interpretations. When one repents it is precisely because God is drawing them; when one repents, they clearly are not hardened beyond the point of repentance.
Therefore, the repentance in mind is not Esau’s own, as the two interpretations above imply, but his father Isaac’s. The seeking with tears is not some extravegant human effort to be saved, but a reference to the real tears that Esau shed when he begged for his father’s blessing. This portion of the letter is a call to action, not a declaration of the impossibility thereof. The message the author is trying to get across to his readers is that we, if we are immoral like Esau, will not inherit God’s far better blessings through Christ. It is a call to persevere in the faith, which Esau did not do. It is a call to not give up God’s eternal blessings for the temporal comforts of this life.