"Jacob Have I Loved, Esau Have I Hated" Malachi 1:2–3 in Romans 9–11
Has God Rejected His People?
In Romans, Paul says that he has received apostleship in order to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of the nations, including the church in Rome (Romans 1:1–4; see also Romans 16:25–27). As he takes the gospel to the nations, he is convinced that “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8–9). But among the joy of the gospel going to the nations, there is a source of great pain for Paul. Many of his fellow Israelites have rejected the gospel. This raises a central question regarding God’s truthfulness and his promises to the patriarchs—how has God been faithful to his promises to Abraham if Abraham’s children are rejecting the promised Messiah?
Paul wrestles with this question (and several others) in Romans 9–11. While this text has garnered much attention over the centuries and is the source of significant theological debate, we cannot answer every question (nor do we want to!) here. We will limit our discussion to Paul’s use of Malachi 1:2–3 in Romans 9:13.
In Romans 9:13, Paul quotes Malachi 1:2–3, writing, “As it is written, ‘Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.’” Why does Malachi 1:2–3 come to mind and how does it influence his argument in Romans 9–11? Here are three thoughts:
1. Paul finds himself in a similar situation as Malachi
2. Paul sees Jacob and Esau reflected in his own story
3. Paul sees the Lord's name being great “beyond the borders of Israel”
A Similar Situation
Malachi wrote in a time when God was fulfilling his promises. Israel was back in the land and the temple had been rebuilt, just as God had promised. But although they were back in the land, they were still under Persian rule and a Davidic king was not on the throne in Israel. Although the temple was back up and running, it did not compare with the glory of Solomon’s temple and the presence of God had not returned as when Solomon dedicated the first temple. There were signs of God’s faithfulness, but Israel struggled to see how God had loved them as he promised. So they began to ask some questions about God’s love and faithfulness.
Paul finds himself in a similar situation as outlined above. God was fulfilling his promises. The Messiah had come to Israel, established a new covenant with them, poured out his Spirit upon them, and was blessing all nations through Abraham, just as he had promised. Although sent to Israel, much of Israel had rejected Jesus as their Messiah. So they (including Paul) began to ask questions that sound a lot like Israel in the time of Malachi, “How have you loved us in Christ?”
Paul seeks to answer questions, like:
“Has the word of God failed?” (Romans 9:6)
“Is there injustice in God’s part?” (Romans 9:14)
“Has God rejected his people?” (Romans 11:1)
In seeking to answer these questions, Paul finds the story of two brothers helpful just as Malachi did.
Brothers According to the Flesh
God’s promise to Abraham and his children is at the heart of any question related to God’s faithfulness to Israel and upholding his word to them. So Paul has spent a good portion of his time in Romans 1–8 showing how Gentile Christians who believe in the Jewish Messiah are children of Abraham by faith. Thus, God has been faithful to his word to Abraham to bless all nations through him (see Genesis 12:1–3). But what about the children of Abraham according to the flesh? Paul is quick to point out that from the beginning of Abraham’s children, the promises of God continued through some of Abraham’s children according to the flesh but not all. Hence, the covenant promises continued through Isaac (not Ishmael) and Jacob (not Esau). Why does Paul use these stories?
I think Paul sees himself as Jacob and unbelieving Israel as Esau. Later, when Paul asks the question, “Has God rejected his people?” (Romans 11:1), Paul is quick to answer in the negative because he himself is an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. If Paul, an Israelite, has believed, then God has not rejected all of Israel. The promises continue through some of Israel, like Paul (and other Israelites who believe), but not others (those who reject Jesus as the Messiah). Paul sees himself as Jacob, Israel as Esau. If this is the case, then Paul would also hold out hope for reconciliation between himself and his brothers according to the flesh, just as Jacob and Esau were reconciled to one another (Genesis 33). And this is precisely Paul’s argument as he continues in Romans 11. Those who have now believed are there to bring all Israel (whatever that might mean) back to God if they too believe in the gospel that has the power to save from the wrath of God.
One way to think about Romans 9–11 is simply to see these chapters as a microcosm for Israel of what Romans 1–8 is for all nations. The wrath of God is revealed against all unrighteousness, including Israel, but the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to save, including those in Israel who are currently under God’s wrath. A vessel of wrath can become a vessel of mercy through the power of the gospel. But it seems that Paul could have made this argument without citing Malachi 1:2–3. He could’ve just referenced the story of Jacob and Esau and left it at that. Why include Malachi? Because God’s name has been made great beyond the borders of Israel.
Beyond the Borders of Israel
Immediately following Malachi’s assessment of Jacob and Esau, Malachi writes, “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel!” (Malachi 1:5). Although the immediate context is God’s greatness because of his just judgment on Edom, the whole of Malachi has a more hopeful view for the nations. Later in Malachi 1 the name of the Lord is made great not because of God’s wrath but because of the nations’ worship. Malachi writes,
“For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 1:11; see also 1:14; 3:12).
For that to happen, however, the Lord has to deal with Israel first. The messenger of the covenant will come to purify Israel (Malachi 3:1–5), leaving a faithful remnant. Paul may see the fulfillment of Malachi’s promises in John the Baptist and Jesus’ ministries. Israel has been refined, leaving a remnant that believes in the message of the gospel. Now Paul’s hope is that those who have not believed will be saved through the gospel proclaimed by Paul, their brother according to the flesh, and believing Gentiles, the children of Abraham by faith.
Then Malachi’s words could hold true, “All nations will call you [Israel] blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 3:12).
 A helpful companion in thinking through this difficult portion of Scripture has been the unpublished dissertation of Thomas Dixon, “Wrath in Romans 9–11: God’s Punishment or the Salvation of All Israel?” especially chapter 3, “Wrath and Mercy: Israel in Romans 9–11.” I hope this gets published and made available to the public soon!