And lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.
~ 2 Corinthians 12:21
But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;
~ Ephesians 5:3
Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.
~ Revelation 2:20-23
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
~ Revelation 21:8
Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
~ Luke 13:4-5
And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
~ Matthew 7:23
A Commentary of Hebrews 12:16-17, by John Owen.
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; Eph 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 endeavored, 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, we shall see in the next verse.