I have the pleasure of dealing with a lot of people who doubt their Christian faith. No, these are not skeptics of Christianity (although I also deal with plenty of those); these are Christians who want the doubt to stop. I say “pleasure” because these wounds can be healed most of the time, and I am honored to have this role in the lives of many hurting believers.
Many of these doubting Christians are in the throes of uncertainty, struggling to stay above water. They doubt God’s presence, love, existence, and their salvation (among other things). I have one lady who, last year, wrote me about every three days, struggling with the same issue. She believed that God hated her, and she could not be restored. She referred to many passages in support of her anxiety. There was the “sin unto death” passage in 1 John 5:16. And, of course, she referred to the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” one in Matthew 12:31. But often the one that served as an illustration over and over again is found in Hebrews 12:17:
For you know that afterward, when he [Esau] desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
This is truly a difficult passage, especially for those doubting their faith and security in God’s love. Let me try to explain in a way that will hopefully console the spiritually brokenhearted.
Was Esau Prevented from Repenting?
Repentance is the other side of faith. When we come to Christ, we are repenting of many things, including our pride, which has kept us from God from the beginning. We are repenting of our antagonism toward him. Our repentance is illustrated in our bowed knee. In turn, we trust God to forgive us. The scary thing about this passage is that it looks like Esau is trying to turn to God in repentance, but he can’t. I don’t think this is the case.
The question is, What did Esau seek with tears? What is the “it” of Hebrews 12:17 (“he sought for it with tears”)? Many people assume it is repentance. The word order in English leaves the other possibilities obscure. At face value in many translations, it does seem like it is repentance toward God that Esau is seeking. Notice the readings in the following translations:
NAS: 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.
KJV: For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
NKJ: For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.
NLT: You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.
RSV: For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
Each of these translations gives the impression that Esau sought basic repentance. If so, this is cause for great concern, since it would teach that we may be able to turn to God with tears, truly seeking repentance, but be unable to find it. It would teach that there may be people who truly want to turn from their sin, but cannot find God’s mercy. It may teach that you could approach the throne of God requesting the gift of repentance and be turned down. It may teach there is a time in this life when it is just too late, no matter how much you desire to change. That is scary.
Seeking Repentance or Blessing?
However, there is another, and I believe, more faithful way to understand this passage. The pronoun “it” has not one but two possible antecedents. When structured like the translations I cited, the common way to read this in English is to look for the closest possibility as the referent to what Esau sought. And the closest referent to “it” is indeed “repentance.” However, the Greek language follows a different set of rules. Word order is secondary to inflection. The word “it” is a feminine pronoun, which means that the noun it modifies will be feminine too.
In this verse there are two feminine nouns: “repentance” and “blessing.” Therefore, there are two viable options here for what Esau sought with tears. It was either repentance or the blessing. Neither is necessarily preferred based on grammar and syntax, so we must look to the context of the story the author of Hebrews references. So let’s look at the story of Esau.
The Loss of Esau’s Blessing
When we turn back to the narrative in Genesis 27, we see Esau being tricked out of his blessing by Jacob and his mother. After Esau found out he had been tricked and that Isaac had blessed Jacob, he broke down. Notice how the story goes:
And he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and has taken away your blessing.” Then he said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times? He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” And he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” But Isaac replied to Esau, “Behold, I have made him your master, and all his relatives I have given to him as servants; and with grain and new wine I have sustained him. Now as for you then, what can I do, my son?” Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” So Esau lifted his voice and wept. (Genesis 27:35-38, emphasis mine)
Esau did indeed weep and repent. But what did he weep over? It was the loss of his blessing. The context in Genesis is clear. I think we must see the passage in Hebrews through the context of the original storyline. The author of Hebrews is saying that Esau sought his blessing, not repentance, with tears.
The Bible teaches there is never a day before death when repentance is beyond our grasp. That is what I continued to tell the lady I spoke of earlier. Even the thief on the cross found humble repentance in his words to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This is the wonder of our God and the gospel. God’s love makes repentance always acceptable no matter where you find yourself in life. If you seek repentance, you will find it. God’s grace is that radical.