"I have loved you," says the Lord. "But you ask, 'How have You loved us?' Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?" declares the Lord. “Yet I loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” (Malachi 1:2–3)
In my (limited) experience, this passage has mostly been bandied about in the discussion of election and predestination, but I think something much different is going on here. I think this passage is telling us something about the magnificent grace of our God. Let me explain by going all the way back to Jacob’s origin story.
Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Jacob’s mother, was alarmed that the twins were struggling with each other within her womb. When she asked the Lord about this, he responded, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). When the twins were born, the second came out grasping the heel of the first and was so named Jacob, the “heel grabber.” This second-born son was given a quite unflattering name that highlighted the darkest part of his nature—he was a trickster, a deceiver, a heel grabber.
As Jacob grew older he didn’t outgrow his name. We learn that he tricked his twin his brother, Esau, out of his birthright, which is the inheritance that would be necessary to take care of his family once his father died (Genesis 25:27–33). Of course, we can forgive Jacob for this exploitation, for Esau should have known better than to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup.
Jacob’s next deception, though, is more difficult to overlook. As his aging father prepared to bless Esau as the firstborn, Jacob and his mother devised a plan to steal Esau’s blessing. Jacob indeed succeeded, but the cost was high—he was forced to flee Canaan. And yet, on the way to stay with his uncle Laban in Haran, Yahweh meets Jacob in a dream and assures him, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen 28:15).
Jacob lands in his uncle’s home in Haran, where he ends up marrying Laban’s two daughters and eventually stealing away in the middle of the night with them. After fleeing Haran, Jacob again meets God. This time the two engage in an epic wrestling match that ends with the angel changing Jacob’s name to Israel “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (Gen 32:28).
Now we think that surely Jacob will be different, that the heel-grabber-turned-God-wrestler will no longer lie and deceive. In the next chapter, Genesis 33, Jacob meet Esau for the first time after Jacob fled Canaan. The tension rises as we anticipate this meeting between brothers, one of whom had seen God not once, but twice. The meeting goes well, and Esau wants to travel together with Jacob. And once again Jacob deceives his brother: “‘Let my lord go ahead of his servant. I will continue on slowly, at a pace suited to the livestock and the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.’…That day Esau started on his way back to Seir, but Jacob went to Succoth” (Gen 33:14, 16–17).
If we keep reading Jacob’s story, we’ll learn that he added mistreatment of his sons and wives to his mistreatment of his father and brother, but we will stop here to return to Malachi. Why does Jacob’s story matter? Why is it significant to Malachi that Jacob was, all in all, an awful person? Because Jacob, like the Israelites, didn’t do anything to earn God’s love or favor; God simply gave it.
My first child, Ari Zechariah, was born in October of last year. As those of you who are parents can attest, many things in my life changed (such as the amount of sleep I got!). Several of my friends assured me that my relationship with God would change dramatically when I experienced the love of a father from a father’s perspective. I remained skeptical. Surely I understood what it means to be loved by God! I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I look at my son I’m amazed at my love for him. He hasn’t done anything good or bad, and yet I love him as fully as a human father can love. He can’t do anything good to make me love him more, and he can’t do anything bad to make me love him less. And that’s what this passage is really getting at—God’s great love.
Now, returning to Malachi, we see that Israel hasn’t responded well to God. They’ve committed idolatry, social injustice, and religious ritualism, yet God here reminds them that He loved them before, during, and after their sin. They can’t do anything to make Him love them less, and they can’t do anything to make Him love them more.
God’s message to us today is the same. His love is great and, in return, let us embrace the love we don’t deserve and love our Father “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).