Nowhere to turn around

“Lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. 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” (Hebrews 12:16-17 NKJV).

I set out to direct our group to a favorite place in Dhaka. We had a new driver, and most of the Banglas with whom I was traveling had not been in Dhaka very much. Therefore I, the foreigner, turned out to be the one who knew the route, or at least that is what we thought. In the few years since I had last been there they have built several new roads and overpasses in the city and it was not long before I realized we were not going the right way. The problem was that there was no place to turn around and retrace our path. We wound up going a few miles into ever-increasing traffic before we could finally get back on course.

That is the situation in which Esau, the elder son of Isaac, found himself. Jacob had bargained him out of his birthright as the older of the twins. Then, when Isaac promised to give Esau the primary blessing, Jacob and his mother conspired to take it also (Genesis 27:1-29). When Isaac and Esau discovered the theft Esau pleaded in tears, “Bless me – me also, O my father!” (v. 34). However Isaac could only reply, “Your brother came with deceit and has taken away your blessing” (v. 35), and, “Indeed I have made him your master, and all his brethren I have given to him as servants; with grain and wine I have sustained him. What shall I do now for you my son?” (v. 37).

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews used this incident to illustrate the importance of our making wise decisions. He pointed out that Esau changed his mind and desired to be restored to his rightful place, but to no avail. In spite of his efforts “he found no place for repentance.”

The word translated “repentance” in Hebrews 12:17 is defined by Bauer’s Lexicon as “a change of mind,” “remorse,” “repentance, turning about, conversion; as a turning away.” In other words Esau found himself going in the wrong direction and with nowhere to turn around. Note that this text does not teach that God will withhold forgiveness from a penitent sinner; rather it warns that a sinner may find himself so badly entangled that he simply cannot bring himself to change – sin has imprisoned him.

Another implication of this story has to do with the dire consequences of sin. If one continues to read the Genesis account of the two brothers (Esau and Jacob) he will find that they are eventually reconciled and come to peace with one another. Though Esau vowed to kill his brother, he did not – in fact he sought to benefit him. Further, God prospered Esau and he became a wealthy man in his own right, even without the extra inheritance to which he had once been entitled.

But although Esau gained other blessings, he never got back the preferred status in the family he had willfully surrendered. It was Jacob, the younger sibling, who received the birthright normally given to the older. Once the bargain was made, it could not be reversed.

Our sins will always leave scars and wounds. Relationships, health, jobs, and possessions may all be lost or damaged because of wrongs we do. If we seek forgiveness from God through obedient faith and repentance, he will give it (1 John 1:9). Of that we are assured. But that does not mean that all the hurt and damage goes away. It does not mean that lost health and wealth will be somehow restored. Some things just cannot be changed.

That is one of many flaws of the reasoning Paul referred to in Romans 6:1, which is still applied by many today. What is so bad about sin, since Jesus provides forgiveness and pardon? Why not sin and enjoy it and depend upon grace? Paul answers that argument definitively, but we also note that the consequences of sin often prohibit enjoyment. Though we may be forgiven spiritually, we and the victims of our wrong-doing will continue to suffer materially from those actions.

When we start down the wrong path, it may be a long ways before we can get turned around.

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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