Malachi 1 as a Threat to Unconditional Election?

This is a follow-up blog to my recent one concerning Romans 9 (found here). Witherington, Achtemeier, and other Arminians would not be satisfied with the conclusions of the blog and would undoubtedly seek to render them nullified. The strongest of exegetical arrows within the Arminian quiver aimed at Romans 9 is associated with Paul’s quotation of Malachi 1:2-3 (“Jacob I loved and Esau I hated.”) Witherington notes that “As the OT context of the saying ‘Jacob I loved and Esau I hated’ (Mal. 1:2-3) shows, the subject there is two nations, not two individuals, and, as we have said, even when individuals are in the picture, it is not their eternal destiny that is spoken of. The quoted verse, then, may speak of God’s elective purposes, but the concern is with roles they are to play in history, not their personal eternal destiny.” So the charge is “Paul is concerned with temporal blessings or historical purposes within Romans 9 evidenced by his quotation of Malachi 1:2-3. Paul is being consistent with the OT and not misinterpreting it. Unconditional election isn’t there.” To me, if this is true, it is the best argument for their view. Unfortunately, I do not think this is the case. The purpose of this blog is to seek to understand Malachi 1 and how Paul uses it within his argument in Romans 9 to better ground the standard, Reformed view (unconditional election to Salvation). This will be a long-winded blog but, I promise, it will be worth it. Once again, onward we go.

What is going on during the time of Malachi and in the book that bears his name?

Although the Jews had been allowed to return from exile and rebuild the temple, several discouraging factors brought about a general religious malaise: (1) Their land remained but a small province in the backwaters of the Persian empire, (2) the glorious future announced by the prophets (including the other postexilic prophets, Haggai and Zechariah) had not (yet) been realized, and (3) their God had not (yet) come to his temple (3:1) with majesty and power (as celebrated in Ps 68) to exalt his kingdom in the sight of the nations. Doubting God’s covenant love (1:2) and no longer trusting his justice (2:17; 3:14–15), the Jews of the restored community began to lose hope. So their worship degenerated into a listless perpetuation of mere forms, and they no longer took the law seriously. Yahweh proclaimed his covenant fidelity and love yet demanded honor, respect, and faithfulness. Without repentance and proper worship, God would be unleashed upon his people in all the curse-giving power and judgment. The Great King, who is and will always be faithful to his covenant, will come not only to judge his people, but also to bless and restore them. The situation is both tense and bleak during Malachi’s time of prophetic witness.

In the book, six charges or disputations are raised against Yahweh and evidence is presented in a confrontational mood: a dispute about God’s love (1:2-5), a dispute about God’s honor and fear (1:6-2:9), a dispute about faithfulness (2:10-16), a dispute about God’s justice (2:17-3:5), a dispute about repentance (3:6-12), and a dispute about speaking against God (3:6-12). Within the first disputation, the text says “”I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob  but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” Circumstances led Israel to doubt Yahweh’s love. Unlike preexilic Israel, whose abundance had enticed them to forget God, the people of Judah had allowed their difficulties to steal their sense of God’s loving presence. This impoverishment leads to their moral decay and divine rebuke.

Yahweh proclaims his covenantal love for the Jewish people by giving them a living example of his love- his election or choice of Jacob over Esau. The emphasis in the text is on action-not affection. This is hard for 21st century Americans who typically think our definitions of words must match those found within Scripture. Or, we think that one meaning fits every context or that certain words only mean one thing. Despite this assumption, it is fitting to note that Scripture talks about different types of love throughout its pages: God’s intra-Trinitarian love, God’s love displayed in providential care, God’s yearning, warning, and invitation to all human beings as he invites and commands them to repent and believe. God’s special love toward the elect and God’s conditional love toward his covenant people as he speaks in the language of discipline (See D.A. Carsons book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God found here for free as a pdf). The love mentioned here is not the same love mentioned in John 3:16. We know this because of how it is used elsewhere. The word (אהב) is a covenant word, an election word. God chose Israel because he loved her (Deut. 7:6-8). This word is frequent throughout the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 4:37; 5:10; 6:5; 7:8; 10:12; 11:1, etc.). The word for love refers to the Lord’s election of Israel for a special and exclusive relationship, redeeming them from bondage in Egypt and from exile in Babylon, and continually acting in faithfulness to that relationship. Although God has affections for Israel, the focus here is on action. The juxtaposition basically means “Jacob I have chosen. Esau I have not chosen or rejected.” The point is not that God loved Jacob more than Esau but that he loved him rather than Esau.

God answers the Jew’s snarky comeback (“How have you loved us?”) by his affirmation of God’s election of Jacob and its current implications during their time- he judged the land of the Edomites (descendents of Esau) with the invasion and devastation by the Nabatean Arabs in the late sixth century. Even if they rebuild, God will never let them prosper again (vs. 4). Whereas Judah’s devastation by the Babylonians had been a temporary situation, Edom would never return to their land. Any hopes that they might do so are futile. God is against them.

Why use Jacob and Esau?

Why on earth would the writer of Malachi appeal to Jacob to comfort the people of Israel? He would do so to bring hope during a hopeless time. Times look hard and you are actively spurning my love, but remember my covenantal election of Jacob! Charles Spurgeon once rejoiced that “I’m so glad that God chose me before the foundation of the world, because he never would have chosen me after I was born!” The same is true of Jacob. We know it is unconditional because there is nothing within the life of Jacob that would give any reason for God to choose him. Joachim J. Krause in a paper entitled “Tradition, History, and Our Story: Some Observations on Jacob and Esau in the Books of Obadiah and Malachi” points to the character and life of Jacob as lacking any moral or meritorious grounds for election. He says within the Genesis narrative:

Jacob is a shrewd trickster. The beloved patriarch, renamed “Israel” and the father of a chosen people, has a reputation for cheating. His clever tactics to outwit his elder brother Esau provide stories told and retold time and again in the gates of Israel. Through all the variations the crucial theme of these stories remains as clear as it is stirring: twins are born as first sons of a couple. While still in the womb they seem to wrestle with each other for the right of the first-born, an issue which proves to be far from settled by the order of their birth. Jacob constantly competes with his elder brother Esau. In his struggle he resorts to means which indeed earn him the proverbial fame as a trickster, but do not quite make for an impeccable record. Seemingly taking advantage of Esau’s hour of need, Jacob manages to buy his birthright from him for the price of a pot of lentils, and in order to gain the blessing of the aged father which is meant to bestow the father’s status on the firstborn, Jacob pretends to be Esau to the blinded Isaac. Amazingly, then, the shrew trickster is deemed worthy by divine ordinance  of the status for which he strove. Yahweh himself subscribes to the role reversal and has the second-comer Jacob supplant his brother Esau.

Malachi interprets the choosing of Jacob over Esau as an inscrutable act of divine election. He uses the narrative of Jacob and Esau for pastoral comfort to a community who is questioning God’s love. He is using historical persons to comfort those with a dark history. This is key-if he is using them in this specific way, this would nullify the Arminian charge that Malachi 1 is specifically, merely, or only about nations. Even if Jacob and Esau are being used nationally within Malachi 1, why the difference between them? John Murray in his Romans commentary was right to prophetically ask:

Why was there this differentiation between Israel and Edom? It was because there was a differentiation between Jacob and Esau. It would be indefensible to dissociate the fortunes of the respective peoples from the differentiation in the individuals as it would be to dissociate the differentiation of the individuals from the destinies of the nations proceeding from them. So the question cannot be dismissed: what is the character of the differentiation as it affects the individuals, Jacob and Esau?

It would seem the Malachi 1 isn’t helping the Arminian viewpoint as much as it would seem.

How is Paul using Malachi 1?

Paul is comparing the situations of Malachi’s day with his own. D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale in their Commentary on the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament write:

In the context of Malachi, Israel lives under straitened conditions in the early Second Temple period, in which the Lord seems distant and indifferent to the conduct of his people (3:8-15). The opening words of the oracle thus constitute a rebuke to the nation: “I have loved you,’ says the LORD” (1:1). The Lord answers Israel’s unbelieving response, “How have you loved us?” by pointing to Esau. Although Esau is Jacob’s brother (and therefore in no way differs from him), the Lord has loved Jacob and hated Esau. As in Rom. 9, God’s love is here defined by its freedom. The evidence for the Lord’s love for Israel lies in the return from exile and the rebuilding that has already taken place. The Lord has brought Esau’s land to ruin, as he has done with Israel. Yet no matter how resolutely Edom determines to rebuild its ruins, the Lord will tear them down (1:3-5). Matters are obviously different for God’s people. Israel, blind to the evidence all about it of the Lord’s love, seeing only the unrequited conduct of the wicked and the righteous, lives in unthankfulness, indifference, and disobedience (1:6-14). The prophetic announcement “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated” is intended to open Israel’s eyes. Paul’s appeal to the text implies that the pattern has been repeated in his day. God in freedom has set his love on some within Israel, but not on others. And yet, faintly, the passage also brings a reminder of God’s love for all Israel, which has its beginnings in “Jacob” and the word spoken before his birth. Paul later names the nation according to its beginnings as he speaks of its final salvation (Rom. 11:26-27). The reminder of God’s love for Jacob casts a shadow, faint though it may be, of the salvation of Israel to come.

The arguments within the two passages are strikingly similar. John Piper remarks:

This interpretation [Arminian] ignores the type of argument in Malachi 1. Malachi 1 is making a similar argument to Paul’s in Romans 1. God’s love or choice for Jacob/Israel is not grounded in Jacob’s or Israel’s superiority over Esau/Edom. Rather Yahweh asks rhetorically: Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” The implication of this question is that there was no basis in human distinctives for Yahweh to love Jacob and hate Esau. His choice was made solely on the basis of free grace.

If this is true, Paul is upholding the context of the OT passage and applying it accordingly within his discussion of unconditional election in Romans 9.

Thomas Schreiner’s Important Regardless

Even if the aboved discussion is not convincing and one still thinks the Old Testament context of Malachi constrains the Apostle’s use of it within the New Testament, Thomas Schreiner rightly says:

…even if for the sake of argument Paul uses the quotation of Malachi 1:3 in a salvific way when the original context is about temporal destines, the NT writers often use the OT in ways that do not intend to provide the meaning of the Old Testament in its historical context. The significance of the OT may be applied to new situations in the life of the church. In any case it would not be surprising if Paul used Esau as an illustration of an unsaved person (Rom. 9:11-13) since the writer of Hebrews seems to use him as an example of a person (Heb. 12:16) who was unsaved. And even if Esau were saved, the author of Hebrews is using his renunciation of the birthright as an illustration to warn the church about the danger of apostasy from salvation. In other words, if for the sake of argument we grant that Esau was saved, then the author of Hebrews employs his rejection of temporal blessings as an illustration of the danger of forsaking eternal salvation…it  would not be at all surprising if Paul draws the same conclusion in Romans 9.

For this reason and those mentioned above, Romans 9 should be interpreted as a discussion concerning unconditional election to salvation. Thanks for hanging with me folks.

  • Beale, G. K., and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic ;, 2007.
  • Murray, John. The Epistle to the Romans; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, And Notes.. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.
  • Olson, Roger E.. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
  • Piper, John. The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983. Print.
  • Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed.  Moisés Silva, vol. 6. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
  • Schreiner, Thomas R., and Bruce A. Ware. Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000.
  • Witherington, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004
  • ESV/NIV Study Bibles

One response to “Malachi 1 as a Threat to Unconditional Election?

  1. Pingback: What is Paul Doing in Romans 9? « Austin's Blog·

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