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Romans 9: Prophecy

We’re picking up right where we left off, with Jacob and Esau, but we find Paul developing in a little bit different direction. Instead of another story, he quotes the first two substantial verses in the first chapter of the prophetic book of Malachi. If Paul merely wanted to proof text to make the point that Jacob had special treatment as the son who received the blessing and Esau was rejected, then he could have merely quoted some similar verses in Genesis to convey the point. Or he could have just said it flat out without actually quoting any Scriptures because for the Jews, it is such a “duh” idea. It is something they wouldn’t have really considered disagreeing with. Of course Jacob was loved, he was Israel who we are descended from. Of course Esau was hated, look at his people! But I think Paul is doing more than using Scripture to prove a point. He is drawing attention to the prophecy of Malachi because of its present pertinence to Israel in light of the present Messiah.

I think we have to do a very brief, simple, narrow, and selective interpretation of Malachi first to bring out some of its themes. The verses Paul mentions are basically the introduction to Malachi and play a key role in its interpretation. Malachi speaks of God’s explanation of how he loved Israel. He did so by choosing Jacob and not Esau although they were both brothers. And the people of Esau, the Edomites, became the enemies of Israel and God cursed them and fated everything they did in the land to destruction. At these words, because Edom is the enemy of Israel, the Israelite people would agree with the words of the prophet and rejoice at how he spoke of their vindication through the judgment of their enemies.

After getting the Israelites’ nods and applause, Malachi proceeds to pronounce judgment on Israel and warns of future judgment if they do not repent. Within that pronouncement, he implicitly and explicitly threatens the Israelites with no longer being God’s chosen people and demonstrates how they have in many ways become enemies of God. In this way, the few verses at the beginning of this short book that Paul quotes become a metaphor that is weaved throughout Malachi. Although Esau and Edom are not mentioned again in the book, their mention forms the backdrop on which the rest of the words of the prophecy are to be read.

Malachi talks about ways that the Israelite sacrifices have profaned God and shown contempt for his name. Then, though God through choosing Jacob blessed Israel, He threatens them with cursing them and even cursing their blessings if they’re hearts are not set on Him and they don’t exemplify their reverence with right action toward Him. This threat of a curse is the “rebuking” of the descendants of Israel. Interestingly, and I think quite accurately, the Septuagint translates “rebuke” with an interpretation of what this means, using instead “cut off.” Later he says of Judah’s sin of marrying foreigners who follow foreign gods, that whoever does so, though he offers sacrifices, should he be cut off from the tents of Jacob. Cut off and separated from God’s people and His blessing, like Esau the hated one.

In Malachi, in addition to direct expressions of the idea of being cut off from the people of YHWH, is a theme that essentially has the same results. Malachi, like so many prophets, draws a sharp contrast between the wicked and the righteous. One is in right standing before God, and one is not. It’s fascinating to me the way YHWH talks about those who are disobeying Him. He talks about the temple as if it may as well be closed down. He talks about blessings being annulled and overridden by curses. He talks about Israel being despised and humiliated in front of all the other nations. He talks about not accepting their sacrifices. He talks about the wicked as not being spared. And He is talking about the Jewish people, to the Jewish people. Malachi uses examples, apocalyptic language, and metaphor to illustrate just how pointless it is to be a descendant of Israel and not live to honor YHWH. One who does this receives none of the blessings of a righteous, set apart relationship with YHWH and receives all of the curses of the Edomites. These wicked may as well not have a covenant relationship with the Lord. It’s a de facto cutting off of the wicked; in relation to YHWH, they will be like the Edomites, having blood descendance to Isaac, but outside of the true line of descent.

Malachi also does something that Paul loves to do. He explains how all of this prophetic warning, present and future curses, and present and future judgment is a part of God’s fidelity to His covenant. He states that he made a covenant with Levi, and His admonition, an admonishment of both word and action, is done that the covenant may continue. YHWH says that his humiliation of Israel is done because of their violations of the covenant. With Judah, God’s primary concern is their “broken faith” which is a profaning of the covenant. God’s covenant relationship response to this is to judge by cutting the wicked off from Jacob. A significant part of God’s constant faithfulness to the covenant is judgment and curses upon the covenant breakers. Israel is breaking the covenant in their treatment of the law, half-hearted and contemptible sacrifices which destroy the temple, keeping their resources from the temple, becoming united with those that follow other gods, and their treatment of the oppressed. They were in constant transgression of the central aspects of their covenant relationship and God would not be faithful to the covenant if He did not respond to their departure from the covenant with threats of removal from the covenant.

*Inhale*

At this point, I think the parallels to Paul in Romans 9 are obvious. Israel is in danger of becoming like Edom if they do not accept the terms of this new covenant. Israel will be cut off if they continue in their unbelief. With the coming of Jesus Messiah comes a new covenant with new terms, now not a covenant relationship through law, temple, and sacrifice, but offered by the grace of God and entered through by the faith of those who would trust in Jesus as Lord. Incarnate God coming to Earth as the Messiah also becomes an act of judgment. Jesus divides the true people of God from the supposed people of God. He is the divider of the wicked and righteous and the delineator of the people of Jacob and the people of Esau. It is, in an “already but not yet” sense, the day of the Lord Malachi is referring to that involves a punishment of the wicked and a contrasting grateful, righteous, and rightness of relationship to God of True Israel. In referencing Malachi, Paul shows that God is not doing something unexpected or unlike Him in His new inclusion of Gentiles and potential exclusion of Jews. This is a part of what He’s always been doing and is a fulfillment of what He’s promised to do.

I think this way of reading the text does more to bring us closer to Paul’s intended meaning. Certainly it is more rich with meaning than how Paul’s quotation of “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” is often interpreted. The point of Paul quoting these words is not that he is trying to prove the truth that God makes arbitrary decisions about who He is going to hate and who He’s going to love, because He’s God and He does what He wants. I think even a cursory understanding of Malachi and a context of what Paul quotes actually takes us away from that interpretation. Maybe you disagree. That’s fair. Maybe I’m wrong. A strong possibility. But these are my thoughts. 🙂

*Anyone want to go through this and cite verses for me? Hahaha.

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  1. March 29, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Baller. Sometimes I call Malachi “the Italian prophet Malachi (Ma – law – chee).” It’s a cheesy church joke.

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