By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau (Heb. 11:20).
Things are not always what they appear to be. Sometimes events we do not believe to be blessings from God actually turn out to be, and often the way God chooses to bring about His blessings is anything but predictable. In Hebrews 11:20, Isaac pronounces “blessings” on Jacob and Esau. We are immediately struck with a sense of irony, if not bewilderment, at this language. For we know that Esau is the rejected son who does not inherit the blessing from Isaac—Jacob does. So, in what way was Esau blessed by Isaac?
When we examine the Old Testament chapter to which the author of Hebrews is referring (Gen. 27), we find Isaac on his deathbed, his eyes old and dim with age. His wife, Rebekah, has conspired against him with a plan to ensure that Isaac does not bestow his patriarchal blessing upon Esau. From a natural point of view, Esau should have received the blessing. He was the oldest son, and the normal course of the world would expect that the oldest son should receive the blessing and carry on the family name, business, property, etc. But God’s ways are often different, and as the familiar story goes, God had rejected Esau and chosen Jacob even before the twin boys wrestled their way out of the womb (Gen. 25:23). Though Esau was older, in God’s sovereign and electing purposes, Jacob was the chosen, favored one and thus “the older shall serve the younger.”
By the time we find Isaac on his deathbed in Genesis 27, it would seem that he has forgotten what God promised, for he calls for Esau with the apparent intent of bestowing upon him the blessing that God had said would fall on Jacob. Lest we be too hard on Rebekah, it would appear that her conspiracy was an attempt (however ill-conceived) to ensure that Isaac, in his failing state, did not mistakenly bless the wrong son. Thus, in a nearly comical display of costuming, she has Jacob dress up like Esau and attempt to fool Isaac into giving Jacob Esau’s blessing. Where would the long history of church plays and Sunday school lessons be without this comedic episode?
Because God is sovereign and gracious, the plan works, in spite of Rebekah and Jacob’s treachery and Isaac’s forgetfulness. It really is hard to believe that this dysfunctional family is the “chosen people.” A father who forgets the words of God, a wife and son who conspire to fool her husband and his dad, and another son who is willing to reject God and kill his brother. This is the family of God? Yes it is, and in spite of its many blemishes and imperfections, God still bestows his blessing upon them—even Esau. However, we should be clear that “blessing” here is not to be understood in the sense of salvation but in the general sense of “promise.” Through Isaac, God was promising both to Jacob and to Esau future things: in the case of Jacob, God bestowed the covenant promise descending from Abraham that would lead to Christ; in the case of Esau, the promise was bestowed of what his life would be like “away from the dew of heaven on high” (Gen. 27:39).
Thus, to be clear, Esau is rejected from being Isaac’s heir. He also would appear to be rejected from the hope of heaven (Rom. 9:10–13). Yet Esau would still live to see old age. From him would descend a nation (the Edomites). Esau would even live to see a day in which he and Jacob would enjoy the gift of brotherly reconciliation (Gen. 33), though there would certainly be longstanding tensions between their descendants. God’s promises are a sure and reliable thing—the most reliable thing in this world.
It was on these promises of God that the people of God were to depend in Hebrews 11, and the same promises that we are to depend on today. Hebrews 11, as is clearly displayed in the family of Isaac, is not a portrait of really great people. To the contrary, it holds out hope that God might not only bless but even use a rather imperfect family in His sovereign plan to bring His Son into the world and to save an undeserving people for Himself. Hebrews 11 catalogs a family of faith—a broken one. But the promises of God are unbroken and unbreakable. What He speaks, He brings to pass; what He promises, He delivers. The family of Isaac, broken as it was, would still live to tell of the ways in which God had fulfilled His word and saved a people for Himself.
We stand on their shoulders as the broken yet hopeful people of God. With them, we too can acknowledge that we are an imperfect people with imperfect families. Our faith waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. But our God is faithful and His Word is reliable. As He has fulfilled His promises to His people in the past (often by overruling their best-made plans), so He continues to rule over us even now by His Word and Spirit. God wrote the story of His covenant people with an end in view—an eschatological promise that would find its fulfillment only in Christ. Apart from us, the people of old listed in Hebrews 11 do not embrace the perfected realization of God’s covenant promises, but apart from them neither do we (v. 40). In a beautiful sense, we are a part of that same covenant family to which God made and continues to keep His promises. An imperfect family we certainly are, but we are the family of God nonetheless, and our great privilege is to trust God at His Word and follow Him as we make our way through this world to our everlasting inheritance—our future blessing.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on faith and was previously published November 23, 2018. Previous post. Next post.