Rom 9:13, ‘As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated”’
If God is love (1 John 4:8; 16), how is it that He hated Esau? There are several concepts we need to bear in mind in order to understand this correctly.
A. God does not hate as people hate: we must remember that we experience emotions in the context of our fallen humanity. Our feelings are tainted and shaped by sin. Whatever hatred means for God there is no sin involved – no vindictiveness, no self-pity, and no bitterness. God hates in a way that is in harmony with all of His other attributes including love. This is hard for us to grasp, nevertheless we must work from the basis that God is altogether perfect and therefore His hatred is perfect. Furthermore, the Bible uses ‘anthropomorphic’ language such as “the hand of God” – of course God doesn’t have hands as we do, nor does He hate as we do. It is simply a way of conveying ideas so we can understand them.
B. Hatred is used comparatively: Jesus said ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple’ (Luke 14:26). Are we expected to literally hate those closest to us? Of course not, we are to love them! Christ is speaking comparatively meaning that we must love and obey Him supremely. There is a parallel in terms of how God relates to people. The scriptures tell us that He blesses His enemies (Matt 5:44-45), this includes the likes of Cain, Pharaoh, Esau, and even Judas. Over and over again these men were shown kindness and they hardened their hearts. In spite of their wickedness God takes no pleasure in judgement.
C. God hated Esau in a certain sense: This hatred effectively meant that Esau was not included in God’s salvific purposes. As the apostle Paul indicated, the potter has the right to do with the clay as he sees fit. From out of the pool of fallen humanity He chose to save some and passed over others. Why did God savingly love Jacob and not Esau? We don’t know. What we must remember is that divine election does not abrogate human responsibility. Esau was responsible to repent of his sin and to make peace with God and he chose not to do so; God did not force him into rebellion.
All of this is to say: God’s ways are mysterious and past finding out. Let us not judge Him according to our fallen rationale. He does everything according to His own perfect nature and in this we can rest.