Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: ~ Deuteronomy 29:18, 32:32
Yet I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me? ~ Jeremiah 2:21
But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned. He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. ~ Hebrews 6:8, Revelation 22:11-12
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. ~ Romans 3:23, Hebrews 4:1
Exposition of Hebrews, by John Owen. An excerpt from the text.
Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. 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. ~ Hebrews 12:15-17
From a prescription of necessary duties, the apostle proceedeth to give caution and warning against sundry sins and evils that are contrary unto them, and such as, if admitted, would prove ruinous unto their profession. And concerning these he gives his caution not directly unto individual persons, but unto the whole church, or society of professors, with respect unto their mutual duty among themselves.
Hebrews 12:15. — ᾿επισκοποῦντες μή τις ὑστερῶν ἀπὸ τῆς χάριτος τοῦ θεοῦμή τις ῥίζα πικρίας ἄνω φύουσα ἐνοχλῇ, καὶ διὰ ταύτης μιανθῶσι πολλοί.
᾿επισκοποῦντες. Vulg., “contemplantes.” The Rhemists more properly, “looking diligently.” Syr., והֲוַיְתיּן זְהִרִין, “and be ye watchful,” “take ye, heed.” “Prospicientes,” “superintendentes,” “using diligent inspection and oversight.”
΄ή τις ὑστερῶν, “ne quis desit gratiae Dei.” Rhem., “lest any man be wanting to the grace of God;” which mistake in the translation some expositors of the Roman church make use of to prove that all the efficacy of divine grace depends on the use of our free-will in compliance with it. Syr., “lest a man” (any man) “be found among you דּהסִיר מֵן טַיְבוּתָא דַּאלָהָא” “destitute or forsaken of the grace of God.” “Ne quis deficiat a gratia Dei;” “come behind,” “come short,” or “fail.” We put “fall from” in the margin; which the word doth not signify.
῾ρίζα πικρίας, “radix amaritudinis,” “radix amara;” that is, וְלַעֲנָה שֹׁרֶשׁ פֹּרֶה ראֹשׁ, Deuteronomy 29:17, “a root that beareth gall” (or “poison”) “and wormwood.”
Hebrews 12:15. — Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble [you], and thereby many be defiled.
What is required of us in our own persons was before prescribed in positive duties; here is declared what is our work and duty towards others, with respect unto sins contrary to those duties. For this and the ensuing instructions concern the body of the church, or society of the faithful, as unto what is mutually required of them and amongst them. And although the practice be always lost in the world, the rule abides for ever.
There are two things in the words:
1. A duty enjoined, “Looking diligently.”
2. A double evil cautioned against, to be prevented by the exercise of that duty:
(1.) “Any man’s failing of the grace of God: “ wherein we must inquire,
[1.] What is meant by “the grace of God;”
[2.] How any man may “fail” of it.
(2.) A “root of bitterness springing up,” etc: and hereof we must inquire,
[1.] What is this “root of bitterness;”
[2.] What is the progress of the evil contained in it; as,
1st. It “springeth up;”
2dly. It “troubles all;”
3dly. It “defiles many.”
And there is a progress in evil intimated, from the less to the greater. It is a less evil for any one to “fail of the grace of God” in his own person, (though the greatest of evils unto himself,) than to be a “root of bitterness to trouble and defile others” also. And the apostle would have us obstare principiis, to hinder the entrance of this evil, and so effectually to prevent its progress.
1. The duty prescribed is, to “look diligently” after this matter. The word is only twice used in the Scripture, here and 1 Peter 5:2. And in that place of Peter it denotes the discharge of the office-duty of the elders of the church, in their care and oversight of the flock. Here it respects the common charitative duty of all believers, as they are called unto it by occasions and circumstances. So there are sundry other duties, which are given in charge unto the officers or guides of the church, to be authoritatively attended unto, and discharged by virtue of their office, which yet, being in themselves of a moral nature, are incumbent on all believers in a way of love or charity. But this looking diligently unto the good of others, and to prevent their evil, is not here prescribed as a moral duty, whereunto we are obliged by the light of nature and royal law of love, but as that which is also an especial institution of Christ, to be observed in his church. The Lord Christ hath ordained, that the members of the same church or society should mutually watch over one another, and the whole body over all the members, unto their edification. This therefore is here prescribed unto these Hebrews; and that the practice of it is so much lost as it is, is the shame and almost ruin of Christianity.
The word signifies a careful inspection unto a certain end. And hereof there are two parts: first, The promotion of spiritual good; secondly, The prevention of all that is spiritually or morally evil. Hereunto it is peculiarly applied by the apostle in this place. And he instanceth in four things in this and the following verse:
(1.) Failing of the grace of God;
(2.) The springing up of a bitter root;
(4.) Profaneness: wherein he compriseth the principal sins of the flesh and of the spirit which professed Christians are in danger of.
And he doth it in a regular gradation, from the lowest declension from grace unto the highest contempt and defiance of it; as we shall see in the opening of the words.
2. (1.) The first evil to be obviated by this church- inspection, is failing of the grace of God: “Lest any man fail of the grace of God.”
[1.] By the “grace of God,” God’s gracious favor and acceptance in Christ, as it is proposed and declared by the gospel, is intended. Herein all spiritual mercies and privileges, in adoption, justification, sanctification, and consolation, do consist. For these things proceeding from the love, grace, and goodness of God in Christ, and being effects thereof, are called “the grace of God.” The attaining and participation of these things, is that which in the faith and profession of the gospel men aim at and design; without which both the one and the other are in vain.
[2.] This grace, under all their profession of the gospel, men may “fail of;” which is the evil cautioned against. The word ὑστερέω, signifies sometimes “to want, or be deficient in any kind,” Matthew 19:20; Luke 15:14; Luke 22:35: sometimes “to come behind,” 1 Corinthians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 11:5 : sometimes “to be destitute,” Hebrews 11:37: sometimes “to fail or come short of,” as Romans 3:23; Hebrews 4:1. See the exposition of that place. It nowhere signifies to fall from: so that the inquiries of men about falling from grace, as unto these words, are impertinent. Wherefore, to “fail of grace,” is to come short of it, not to obtain it, though we seem to be in the way thereunto. See Romans 11:7; Romans 9:30-31. So also to “fall from grace,” Galatians 5:4, is nothing but not to obtain justification by the faith of Christ.
This, therefore, is that which the apostle intimates, namely, that there were, at least there might be, in the church, some or many, who, under the profession of the truth of the gospel, yet, through their sloth, negligence, formality, unbelief, or some other vicious habits of their minds, might not attain unto the grace and favor of God, exhibited therein unto sincere believers. For this comes not to pass without their own guilt. And the mind of the Holy Ghost in the words may be comprised in the ensuing observations.
Obs. 1. The grace, love, and good-will of God, in the adoption, justification, sanctification, and glorification of believers, is proposed unto all in the gospel, as that which may infallibly be attained in the due use of the means thereunto appointed; namely, sincere faith in Christ Jesus.
Obs. 2. The outward profession of the gospel, with the performance of the duties and enjoyment of the privileges thereunto belonging, will not of themselves instate any man in the grace of God, or an assured interest therein— Men deceive themselves when they rest in these things. And multitudes do so; yea, the most are angry if they are told that there is any more required of them.
Obs. 3. There is no man who, under the profession of the gospel, comes short of obtaining the grace and favor of God, but it is by reason of himself and his own sin. — The proposal of it, on the terms expressed in the gospel, is sure, and none shall ever fail of it who embrace it on these terms. This is included in the word, which hath a charge in it of a vicious deficiency in seeking after this grace.
Obs. 4. Negligence and sloth, missing of opportunities, and love of sin, all proceeding from unbelief, are the only causes why men under the profession of the gospel, do fail of the grace of God.
Now this is the first thing which the apostle enjoins believers to exercise their church-inspection about, namely, lest there should be amongst them unsound professors; such as, through their negligence, carelessness, and fostering the love of some sin, or of the world, were not like to attain unto the grace of God, on the terms of the gospel. These they were to consider in all their circumstances and temptations, to instruct, exhort, warn, and admonish, that they might be brought unto sincerity in faith and obedience. This was their charitative episcopacy; this was the duty, this was the practice of the members of churches of old: and it is not to be admired if many churches now come short of them in faith and holiness, seeing the very duties whereby they might be preserved and promoted are lost or despised. Whatever is pretended to the contrary, if any one should endeavor the reduction of some such known duties into the practice of churches, he would be laughed to scorn.
This is the first and the least degree of men’s miscarriage under the profession of the gospel; yet is it that from whence all the rest of the evils mentioned do arise and proceed. For of this sort of men it is, — from them that fail of the grace of God under the profession of the gospel, as unto a real interest therein, — that those who fall into the ensuing crimes do come.
(2.) The next evil cautioned against, is the “springing up of the root of bitterness.” And we must inquire,
[1.] What is this “root of bitterness;
[2.] How it ‘springeth up;”
[3.] How it “troubles” all;
[4.] How it “defileth many:” which is the progress here assigned unto it by the apostle.
[1.] As to the first, all agree that the apostle hath respect unto the words of Moses, Deuteronomy 29:18, “Lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood.” Gall, or hemlock, was a poisonous weed in the eastern countries, as Hosea 10:4; and these names are applied unto poisonous sins, Amos 6:12; Deuteronomy 32:32. Now it is evident, that, in the words of Moses, by this “root,” a person, or persons inclining to apostasy and departure from God are intended. So the foregoing words do make it manifest, “Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations;” that is,
“Lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood.”
‘Be it one or more, “man or woman, family or tribe,” that is thus affected, it is a “root of bitterness” among you.’Hence it is evident what or who it is that the apostle intendeth. It is not any evil in the abstract, any heresy or sin, but persons guilty of this evil, which he intends. And this is that which in another place he expresseth by “an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God;” which he cautioneth these Hebrews to exercise their mutual inspection about, as he doth in this place, Hebrews 3:12-15. See the exposition. Wherefore this “root of bitterness,” is persons in the church whose hearts are inclined and disposed unto apostasy from the gospel, on one pretense or another, with a return either to Judaism or sensuality of life, as the following instances do also intimate. And this exactly answers the sin condemned in Moses, of a “heart turning away from the LORD our God.” And it is evident that there were many such at that time among the professing Hebrews.
And this evil is called a “root of bitterness:”
(1st.) Because at the beginning it is hidden in the hearts of men, where it cannot be discovered. So speaks Moses, “Whose heart turneth away.” So it is with roots, until they discover themselves by springing up.
(2dly.) Because from hence, from this “evil heart of unbelief,” doth the whole evil of apostasy in every way proceed, as fruit from its proper root. And
2dly. It is called a root of “bitterness,” because of its noxious and poisonous qualities in them in whom it is, and unto others also.
[2.] Towards the completing of the evil intended, it is said that this root “springeth up.” This is the natural way whereby a root discovers itself, both where it is and of what nature. Generally, when men’s hearts are inclined unto apostasy from the gospel, as then to Judaism, and now to Popery, they conceal it for a season, like a root in the earth; but as they have opportunity they begin to discover what is within. And several ways they do so. Commonly they begin the discovery of themselves in the neglect of church assemblies and duties, as the apostle declares, Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 10:25; thence they proceed to perverse disputings, and contentions against the truth, 1 Timothy 6:5; and so go on to manifest themselves in practices, as occasions, opportunities, and advantages are ministered. This root will not always lie covered, this evil heart will manifest itself: which is the springing up which is here intended.
[3.] The first effect hereof in the church is trouble springing up; “do trouble you.” It doth so, it will do so, in and upon its springing up. The word is nowhere used in the Scripture but in this place. It is “to give trouble by bringing things into disorder, tumult, and confusion.” And a threefold trouble is, or may be, given unto the church by this means:
1st. A trouble of sorrow and grief, for the evil, sin, and eternal ruin, of those who have been united with them in the same society of the profession of the gospel It is no small trouble, unto them who have the bowels of Christian compassion, to see men willfully ruining their own souls, as they do in this case, Hebrews 10:26-29.
2dly. When those in whom this root is are either confident or many, they will trouble the church, disorder it, and cast things into confusion, by wrangling disputes, speaking perverse things, endeavoring to draw disciples, to corrupt and deceive; as is the way and manner of all apostates.
3dly. They trouble the church, by bringing an evil report upon it, for divisions, contentions, and instability; ofttimes also, by one means or another, exposing it to external trouble and persecution. This is the first effect which the springing up of this root of bitterness in churches, or among professors of the gospel, doth produce; it troubleth them. And herein the apostle includeth an argument unto the diligent inspection which he exhorts unto, namely, the prevention of this trouble in the church.
[4.] The last effect of it, the utmost of its progress, is, that “many be defiled” by it. “And thereby,” — by this root, so springing up, and bearing this fruit of trouble. A dangerous thing it is to have such things fall out in churches; namely, that there be amongst them a man or woman, a family or tribe, few or more, that on any pretences incline unto a departure from the truth of the gospel. It seldom stops with themselves. The ignorance, negligence, darkness, but especially the want of experience of the power of the truth of the gospel, are easily imposed on by them, and thereby they are defiled. And thus it often falls out, not with one or two, but with “many.” Ofttimes whole churches have been ruined by this means; yea, hereby a fatal apostasy was introduced in all the visible churches of the world.
There is no difficulty in the expression of the apostle, of their being “defiled;” as though it were not proper to be defiled by a root springing up. For the apostle doth not speak of the manner of its operation and infection, but of the effect it produceth; and this is, that men who have been cleansed by baptism, and the profession of the truth, should be again contaminated with abominable errors, or filthy lusts, as it is fully declared, 2 Peter 2:18-22. And we may observe, —
Obs. 5. That the root of apostasy from God and the profession of the gospel may abide invisibly in professing churches — So our apostle declares it at large, 2 Timothy 2:16-21; with the reason of it. And we may hence infer,
1. That we ought not to be surprised when any such root discovereth itself by springing up; it is no more but what we are warned of.
2. That in such a season it is divine election that secures true believers from apostasy and defilement, 2 Timothy 2:19, Matthew 24:24.
Obs. 6. Spiritual evils in churches are progressive. — From small, imperceptible beginnings, they will grow and increase to the worst of evils, 2 Timothy 2:17; 2 Timothy 3:13. And it will hence follow, that it is the duty of churches to watch against the first risings and entrances of such evils amongst them; which is here given them in charge.
Obs. 7. It is the duty of churches, what in them lies, to prevent their own trouble, as well as the ruin of others.
Obs. 8. There is a latent disposition in negligent professors to receive infection by spiritual defilements, if they are not watched against, — “Many will be defiled.”
Obs. 9. That church-inspection is a blessed ordinance and duty, which is designed by Christ himself as a means to prevent these contagious evils in churches. — And the neglect of it is that which hath covered some of them with all manner of defilements.
΄ή τις πόρνος ἢ βέβηλος ὡς ᾿ησαῦ, ὅς ἀντὶ βρώσεως μιᾶς ἀπέδοτο τὰ πρωτοτόκια αὑτοῦ· ἴστε γὰρ ὅτι καὶ μετέπειτα θέλων κληρονομῆσαι τὴν εὐλογίαν ἀπεδοκιμάσθη· μετανοίας γὰγ τόπον οὐχ εὗρε, καίπερ μετὰ δακρύων ἐκζητήσας αὐτήν.
΄ή τις πόρνος. Syr., “lest any man should be found among you who is a fornicator.” ῎η βέζηλος. Syr., ורְפֵא, and “fainting,” or a backslider. ᾿αντὶ βρώσεως μιᾶς. Vulg., “propter unam escam.” Rhem., “one dish of meat.” Bez., “uno edulio;” “one morsel,” something to be eaten at once. We say, “one morsel of meat;” but it was “broth,” which is no less “edulium” than meat.”
῎ιστε γάρ. Vulg., “scitote enim.” “For know ye,” imperatively. “For ye do know.” Syr., יָרְעִין אַנְתּוּן, “you are knowing of it.”
Hebrews 12:16-17. — Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know 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.
The apostle proceeds to give other instances of such evils as whereby Christian societies would be corrupted, and way made for total apostasy; which were to be diligently heeded and carefully watched against. And the end hereof is, that either such evils may be prevented, or those who are guilty of them be recovered, (the difficulty whereof in the latter instance is declared), or be cast out of the church, that it be not defiled; which are the ends of this inspection.
He puts together “fornication” and “profaneness;” and that probably for these three reasons:
1. Because they are, as it were, the heads of the two sorts of sins that men may be guilty of, namely, sins of the flesh, and sins of the mind, Ephesians 2:3.
2. Because they usually go together. Fornicators, — that is, those who are habitually so, — do always grow profane; and profane persons, of all other sins, are apt to set light by fornication. These things are written with the beams of the sun in the days wherein we live.
3. They are the especial sins whose relinquishment by sincere repentance is most rare. Few fornicators or profane persons do ever come to repentance.
It is one of these alone, namely, profaneness, whereof we have an instance in Esau. The Scripture mentioneth nothing of his fornication. His taking of wives from among the Hittites, — who seem to have been proud, evil, idolatrous persons, in that they were “a grief of mind,” or a bitter provocation, “unto Isaac and to Rebekah,” Genesis 26:34-35, —
cannot be called fornication, as the sense of the word was then restrained, when the evil of polygamy was not known.
There is in the words,
1. The evils to be watched against, in the way and manner before declared.
2. An effectual motive to abstain from the latter of them, taken from the example of one who was guilty of it, and the success of that guilt; which was Esau.
3. In that example we may observe,
(1.) That he is charged with this sin of profaneness;
(2.) The way whereby he manifested himself so to be, or wherein his profaneness did consist;
(3.) The issue of it;
(4.) His vain attempt to recover himself from that condition whereinto he was cast by his profaneness: all which must be opened.
1. The first evil mentioned is “fornication.” But the caution is given, as unto the church, with respect unto persons in the first place: “That there be no fornicator.” Reference is had unto the former charge: ‘Look ye to it diligently, that there be no fornicator in your society. Take care that no persons fall into that sin; or if they do, let them be removed from among you. The sin is evil unto them, but the communion of their persons is evil unto you.’ Now, because the apostle placeth this evil, with that which follows, at the door of final apostasy, and doth more than intimate the difficulty, if not the moral impossibility, of the recovery of those who are guilty of them, we must inquire into the nature of it, and thereon its danger. And, —
(1.) This sin is most directly and particularly opposite unto that holiness which he is exhorting them unto, as that without which they shall not see the LORD. And some do judge, that by “holiness” in that place, the contrary habit unto fornication is intended. However, this is peculiarly opposite unto gospel holiness and sanctification, as the apostle declares, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. And it is that sin which men who are forsaking the profession of holiness do usually fall into, as experience testifieth.
(2.) Though here and elsewhere the sin of fornication be severely interdicted, yet in this place the apostle doth not intend every such person as may, through temptation, be surprised into that sin, nor will one fact give this denomination; but those who live in this sin, who are fornicators habitually, — such as are placed at the head of them that shall never inherit the kingdom of God, 1 Corinthians 6:9. Such are to be excluded out of the church, as a certain pledge and token of their exclusion out of heaven. It is no wonder, therefore, if the apostle intimates a great difficulty of the recovery of such.
(3.) Under this name of “fornicator,” or fornication, all sins of the same kind are intended. For the Scripture calls all conjunction with women, not in lawful marriage, by the name of fornication, 1 Corinthians 5:9-12; Ephesians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:10. So that by “fornicators,” whoremongers and adulterers, as it is expressed, Hebrews 13:4, or all such as sin against their own bodies, be it in or out of the state of wedlock, be it with single or married persons, are intended. Wherefore the warning doth not respect the practice of the Gentiles at that time, wherein the fornication of single persons was lightly set by; nor the licentiousness of the Jews, who thought it no sin to accompany with a heathen, at least if she were not in wedlock; but it is general, as unto all who are so guilty of uncleanness as to come under this denomination.
(4.) This is a sin, which when men are habitually given up unto, they are never, or very rarely, recovered from it. When any sensual lust hath obtained a habitual predominancy in any, it doth contract so intimate a league with the flesh, as it is hardly eradicated. Such sins do usually keep men secure unto the future judgment,. Hence God, for the punishment of idolatry, gave some up unto uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, Romans 1:24-26, namely, that by them they might be secured unto that eternal vengeance which they had deserved.
(5.) There is no sort of sinners that would be so scandalous unto churches, should they be tolerated in them, as fornicators. And therefore the Pagans endeavoured, in the utmost of their malice and false accusations, to fasten the charge of adulteries, incests, promiscuous lusts and uncleanness, on Christians in their assemblies. For they knew full well, that let them pretend what else they pleased, if they could fix this stain upon them, they would be the common hatred and scorn of mankind. For the higher men’s pretences are unto God and religion, if they issue in such vile lusts, they are the more contemptible, and the more to be abhorred. Whereas, therefore, the church doth make a peculiar profession of a separation and dedication unto God, in holiness, purity of heart and life, nothing can be a greater reproach unto it than that fornicators should be found in its communion. And the carelessness of the visible church herein for some ages, suffering licentiousness of life in the lusts of the flesh to diffuse itself greatly amongst its members, being promoted in the clergy by an interdiction of lawful marriage unto them, proved its ruin. And, —
Obs. 1. That church which tolerates in its communion men living in such gross sins as fornication, is utterly, as unto its discipline, departed from the rule of the gospel. And it is also hence evident, that, —
Obs. 2. Apostatizing professors are prone to sins of uncleanness. — For being overcome of the flesh, and brought into bondage, as 2 Peter 2:19, they are slaves and debtors unto it, to serve it in the lusts of uncleanness.
2. The second evil to be watched against is “profaneness;” or that there be no profane person among them. For it is persons that are firstly intended, as is evident in the instance of Esau. To be “profane,” may be taken passively or actively. In the first sense, it is a person or place separated and cast out from the society of things sacred. So holy things are said to be profaned, when men take off the veneration that is due unto them, and expose them to common use or contempt. “To profane,” is to violate, to corrupt, to prostitute to common use, things sacred and holy, either in their nature or by divine institution. “Profane” actively, is one that despiseth, sets light by, or contemneth sacred things. Such as mock at religion, or who lightly regard its promises and threatenings, who despise or neglect its worship, who speak irreverently of its concerns, we call profane persons; and such they are, and such the world is filled withal at this day.
This profaneness is the last step of entrance into final apostasy. When men, from professors of religion, become despisers of and scoffers at it, their state is dangerous, if not irrecoverable.
3. An instance of this evil is given us in Esau: “A profane person, as Esau.” ‘That is,’say some, ‘he was the type of a profane person; it doth not appear that he was such himself.’But the apostle calls him expressly, a “profane person,” and declares how he evidenced himself so to be, or wherein his profaneness did consist. And the truth is, there are very few in the Scripture concerning whom more evidences are given of their being reprobates. And this should warn all men not to trust unto the outward privileges of the church. He was the first-born of Isaac, circumcised according to the law of that ordinance, and partaker in all the worship of God in that holy family; yet an outcast from the covenant of grace and the promise thereof.
4. The way whereby he exerted and manifested his profaneness is declared: “Who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.” Many expositors, in the consideration of the sin of Esau, as it is recorded, Genesis 25:29-34, reflect on many crimes in him, especially intemperance and gluttony; as far as I can see, without cause. His desire of food from his own brother, when he was hungry and faint, might be harmless. But he fell into his sin on the occasion that then fell out; which the apostle here reports as unto the matter of fact, and chargeth on profaneness. The matter of fact is known, and we must inquire wherein his profaneness acted itself. And it did so, —
(1.) In a readiness to part with his birthright, with whatsoever was contained in it and annexed unto it. Though I suppose he was then very young, for the story is added immediately after these words, “And the boys grew,” verse 27; yet being bred in the family of Isaac, he could not but know what did belong to that birthright, and what was annexed unto it by divine institution. And whereas, as we shall see, this had something in it that was sacred, the undervaluing it was a high profaneness; we must inquire hereon, what this birthright was, and how he sold it, and wherein he manifested himself to be profane thereby. He sold τὰ πρωτοτόκια αὑτοῦ, “suum jus primogeniti,” Bez;. “his right of the first-born.” “Jus primogeniturae suae, “the right of his own primogeniture;” the things belonging unto him as the first-born.
It is evident in the Scripture, that there were many rights and privileges of primogeniture in the church; some of them arising from the light of nature, and so common amongst all mankind; and some of them of divine institution.
Among these, the Jews, many of them, do reckon the priesthood; and they are followed herein by most of our expositors. But I am much mistaken if, by “the priesthood of the first-born,” the Jews intend any thing but their dedication unto God by virtue of the law of the sanctification of every male that opened the womb, Exodus 13:2; Exodus 22:29; Exodus 34:19 : whence they were changed for the Levites, who were taken into the sacred office, Numbers 8:16-18. The priesthood, therefore, being settled in that tribe, which God took in exchange for the first-born, who were dedicated by the law of opening the womb, they called their state a priesthood. But it doth not appear that there was any ordinary office of the priesthood until the institution of that of Aaron, to be typical of the priesthood of Christ; only there was one person before extraordinarily called unto that office, unto the same purpose, namely, Melchizedek. But the reader, if he please, may consult our Exercitations on the Priesthood of Christ, prefixed unto the second volume of this Exposition, where these things are handled at large, Exercitations 25-34., I shall not therefore admit this among the privileges of the birthright, and can give arguments sufficient to disprove it. But this is not a place to insist on these things.
A double portion of the paternal inheritance was ascertained unto the first- born by the law, Deuteronomy 21:17. And this was but the determination of the light of nature unto a certain measure; for a natural reason is given for it: “He is the beginning of his strength: the right of the first-born is his.” So when Reuben forfeited his birthright, the double portion was given unto Joseph and his sons, 1 Chronicles 5:1. This right, therefore, was certainly sold, what lay in him, by Esau.
There was also in it a right of rule and government, ever the rest of the children of the family; which was transferred to Judah on the forfeiture made by Reuben, 1 Chronicles 5:2. And therefore when Isaac had transferred the birthright and blessing unto Jacob, he tells Esau, “I have made him thy lord, and all his brethren have I given to him for servants,” Genesis 27:37.
These things did ordinarily, yea constantly, belong unto the firstborn. [But moreover, there was a blessing that from Abraham ran in the patriarchal line, which was communicated from father unto son, containing an enclosure of all church privileges, and the preservation of the promised Seed. This, I confess, was distinct from the birthright, and so it was distinguished by Esau, who in his complaint of his brother, cried out,
“He hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing,” Genesis 27:36.
But although it was not annexed inseparably unto the birthright, yet there was a just expectation that it should be conveyed according to the primogeniture. Hence not only Esau calls it his blessing, “He hath taken away my blessing,” verse 36, but Isaac calls it so too, “He hath taken away thy blessing,” verse 35. It was not his by divine destination, as appeared in the issue; nor had he made it his by obtaining an especial interest in the promise by faith, for he had it not; but in the ordinary course it was to be his, and in the purpose of his father it was his, and so in his own expectation: but God cut off the line of succession herein, and gave it unto Jacob.
Now, as Jacob, in his whole design, aimed not at personal riches and power, wherein he was contented to see his brother far exceed him, as he did; but at an inheritance of the patriarchal blessing, wherein the promised Seed and the church-state were contained, whereinto the birthright was an outward entrance, a sign and pledge of it: so Esau, by selling his birthright, did virtually renounce his right unto the blessing, which he thought annexed thereunto.
(2.) But it may be inquired how he sold this birthright, or how he could sell that which was not in his own power. The word is ἀπέδοτο, “he gave away,” or “he gave up;” but whereas he did it on a price which he esteemed a valuable consideration for it, and did make an express bargain about it, the sense intended in the word is, that he sold it, as it is expressed, Genesis 25:33.
He could not by any contract change the course of nature, that he who was the first-born should really not be so; but it was his right by virtue thereof that he parted withal. Now, although this was not absolute, or immediately vested in him, seeing the father, yet living, might on just causes disinherit the first-born, as Jacob did Reuben; yet he had a right unto it, “jus ad rein,” and an assured interest in it, as unto his father’s affections. This he renounced; and hereby also he virtually parted with the blessing. But this he directly apprehended not. Wherefore although he never sought the recovery of the birthright, whose renunciation he had confirmed with an oath, yet he hoped that he might retain the blessing still.
(3.) It is evident how in all this action he carried it profanely. For,
[1.] He discovered an easiness and readiness to part with his birthright, and all that was annexed thereunto by divine institution. Had he placed his principal interest therein, had he considered aright the privilege of it, had he by faith entertained the promise that went along with it, he would not have been so facile, nor so easily surprised into a renouncing of it. But being a man given wholly to his pleasures, and the love of present things, he seems scarce ever to have entertained serious thoughts about what it was significant of, in things spiritual and heavenly.
[2.] In that he did it on so slight an occasion, and valued it at so small a rate as one “mess of pottage,” or one “morsel of meat;” that is, of what was to be eaten.
[3.] In that, without further deliberation, he confirmed the sale with a solemn oath; whereby he discovered the highest contempt of what he had parted withal.
[4.] In his regardlessness of what he had done, after the power of his present temptation was over: for it is said, “He did eat and drink, and rose up and went his way,” as a man utterly unconcerned in what he had done; whereon the Holy Ghost adds this censure, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” He did not only sell it, but despised it, Genesis 25:31-34.
This was the profaneness of Esau. And we may observe, that, —
Obs. 3. Evil examples proposed in Scripture-light, divested of all colors and pretences, laid open in their roots and causes, are effcacious warnings unto believers to abstain from all occasions leading unto the like evils, and much more from the evils themselves. — To this end is the sin of Esau here called over.
Obs. 4. Where there is in any a latent predominant principle of profaneness, a sudden temptation or trial will let it out unto the greatest evils, as it was with Esau; and we see it daily verified to amazement.
Obs. 5. This principle of profaneness, in preferring the morsels of this world before the birthright privileges of the church, is that which at this day threatens the present ruin of religion. — What is it that makes so many forsake their profession in a time of trial or persecution? It is because they will not be hungry for the gospel; they will have their morsels, which they prefer before the truth and privileges thereof. What makes the profession of religion in some nations to totter at this day? Is it not because of the morsels of outward peace, with, it may be, dignities and preferments that lie on the other side, and some present hunger or supposed want of earthly things, that they may fall into? Let men pretend what they please, it is from a spirit of profaneness that they forsake the privileges and assemblies of the church for any outward advantage; and what will be their success…
For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: ~ James 1:11 a-d