I was talking to someone the other day. He was distraught and depressed about his faith. Though he had experienced a dramatic conversion a few years back, the last year has been full of trials and temptations which lead him back into a lifestyle which he thought was in his rear-view mirror. Along with his return to some former habits, he has entered into a nightmare of doubt. His primary doubt comes from his ability to return to the Lord, having, according to him, “rejected the gift of God” and “returning to his own vomit.”
While the issues are complex and I do not wish to enter into a dialogue about this person’s spiritual state, I do want to mention a verse that has put him in a spiritually catatonic state. He believes that like it was with Esau, it is too late for him. He believes that the repentance that he seeks has been removed from the table. In other words, he believes that there is a time when repentance is no longer possible.
Here is the verse he referred to in support of this pain:
“For you know that even afterward, when he [Esau] desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.” (NAS)
The impression is that Esau rejected the blessing of God through his birthright (which is true). When he later realized how fool-hearted this was and turned to God for repentance of his sin, he was rejected. It was just too late. I don’t believe this is the case. Let me explain.
The question is What did Esau seek with tears? What is the “it” of Heb. 12:17 (“he sought for it with tears”)? Many people assume that it is repentance. While the translation I used (NAS) leaves the question open for interpretation, the word order in English leaves the other possibilities obscure. But, at face value in the reading of most translations, it does seem like it is repentance that Esau is seeking. Notice the readings in these other translations:
KJV: For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
ESV: For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
NKJ: For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.
NLT: You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.
RSV: For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
All of these translations at least give the impression that what Esau sought for was basic repentance. If this were the case, this is a cause for great concern since it would teach that we may be able to turn to God with tears, truly seeking repentance, but be unable to find it. It would teach that there may be people who truly want to turn from their sin, but cannot find the ability to repent. It may teach that there exists the possibility for you to approach the throne of God requesting the gift of repentance and be turned down. It may teach that there is a time in this life when it is just too late, no matter how much you desire to change. That is scary.
However, there is another, and I believe, more faithful way to understand this passage. You see the pronoun “it” has not one but two possible anticedents. When structured like the translations above, the common way to read this in English is to look for the closest possibility as the referent to what Esau sought. That is just the way the English language works. And the closest referent to “it” is indeed “repentance.” However, the Greek language goes by a different set of rules. Word order is secondary to inflection. The word “it” is a feminine pronoun. This means that the noun which it modifies will be feminine too. In this verse there are two feminine nouns: “repentance” and “blessing.” Therefore, there are two viable options here for what Esau sought with tears. It was either repentance or the blessing. Neither is necessarily preferred based on grammar and syntax, therefore we must look to the context of the story the author of Hebrews is alluding to. So let’s look at the context of the story of Esau.
When we turn back to the narrative in Genesis 27, we see Esau being tricked out of his blessing by both Jacob and his mother. After Esau found out he had been tricked and that Isaac had blessed Jacob rather than himself, he broke down. Notice how the story goes:
And he [Isaac] said [to Esau], “Your brother came deceitfully and has taken away your blessing.” 36 Then he said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times? He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” And he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 But Isaac replied to Esau, “Behold, I have made him your master, and all his relatives I have given to him as servants; and with grain and new wine I have sustained him. Now as for you then, what can I do, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” So Esau lifted his voice and wept. (NAU, emphasis mine).
You see that Esau did indeed weep. He did indeed repent. But what was it he repented and wept over? It was the loss of his blessing. The context in Genesis is clear. I think we must see the passage in Hebrews through the context of the original storyline. The author of Hebrews is saying that Esau sought his blessing with tears, not repentance.
I think some of these translations do a good job of bringing out this nuance:
TNIV: Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.
NJB: As you know, when he wanted to obtain the blessing afterward, he was rejected and, though he pleaded for it with tears, he could find no way of reversing the decision.
NRS: You know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears.
NAB: For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit his father’s blessing, he was rejected because he found no opportunity to change his mind, even though he sought the blessing with tears.
NET: For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears.
It is unfortunate when Bible translations seek to leave the options open in situations such as this. This is one of those places where I believe translation philosophy militates against the clearer meaning of the text. I understand the reasoning in many cases, but here, the casualties are plenty as the implications are severe. Normally we would seek to leave ambiguity where it truly exists. I get that. But can we really say that this passage presents us with such a dilemma? Its it really ambiguous enough to leave the English word order in such a misleading way? I think that this is only a difficult passage because of the (albiet) intentional ambiguity left in the text by many modern translations.
I believe that the Bible teaches that there is never a day when repentance is beyond our grasp. Even the thief on the cross was able to find humble repentance in his words “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is the wonder of our God and the Gospel message. God’s love makes repentance always acceptable no matter where you find yourself in life. If you seek repentance, you will find it. God’s grace is that radical.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.