The Tears of Esau

by Glenn Conjurske

“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.” (Heb. 12:16-17).

This scripture has given a great deal of trouble to many souls. Yet it is unfortunate that the most of those who ought to be troubled by it are not troubled at all, while others are led to fear that there is no repentance for them, though in fact they may have actually repented already. Still others are kept from repenting by the supposition that it will avail them nothing, for they have sold their birthright as Esau did, and there is no retrieving it.

Such thoughts come from the adversary, and not from the Savior who said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28), and “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). The devil speaks to discourage. God speaks to encourage and draw. The solemn warnings of God are designed to move men to repentance, and it is the adversary of souls who uses them to drive men to despair. Even the Lord’s solemn pronouncements of judgement are spoken to move men to repentance, as is perfectly plain in the case of the men of Nineveh. There was no offer of mercy to them, but only a solemn pronouncement of impending judgement: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4). Yet the very fact that God sent them a prophet to announce the determined judgement was proof enough that he desired their repentance and salvation. He could have destroyed them without warning. The “forty days” which he gave them was further proof that he desired to spare them. “Forty” in Scripture is the number of testing or probation, and its use here indicates that though the judgement was determined, it could yet be revoked. And though the Ninevites could not have understood this, they could understand that those forty days were days of grace and opportunity. They laid hold of their opportunity, and repented, and their repentance availed before God, as it always does. The “forty days” which God gave to them were nothing other than “space to repent.” (Rev. 2:21). They were nothing other than the “place of repentance” which Esau found not, nor would the Ninevites have found it had they waited until the forty-first day. But it is an undoubted fact that those forty days were given them that they might repent, and God himself lays down the principle that even when he has decreed judgement, he will withhold the execution of that judgement if men repent. “At what instant I shall speak,” he says, “concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.” (Jer. 18:7-8).

The fact is, there is a gospel. I believe in that gospel, and the very foundation of the proclamation of that gospel is a “place of repentance.” If there were no place of repentance for profane Esaus, who have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage, the gospel were no more than a dead letter, and who could be saved? How many among the saved on earth today were not once as profane as Esau? The unavailing tears of Esau are not meant to discourage men from repenting, but to move them to repent while they can.

What, then, shall we make of the solemn fact that Esau “found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.” Surely there is a solemn message in this which is not to be explained away by the mere fact that there is a gospel. Gospel or no gospel, there is a time coming when there will be “no place of repentance”—-when it will be said, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still,” and he that is profane, profane still—-when all those who have all their lives chosen the mess of pottage before the birthright blessing will be held to their choice by the God who is not mocked.

The question is, When is that time? In the first place, it will come most assuredly at the death of the individual or the coming of Christ. The unavailing tears of Esau, and his unavailing pleading for the blessing, do not have their counterpart in the tears and cries of the sincere penitent in this life, but exemplify rather that time “when once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are. Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.” (Luke 13:25-28). When God has shut the door, as he did when Noah had entered into the ark, the tears and cries of those outside will no longer avail. Therefore he says, in the verse immediately preceding those just quoted, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” This is the counterpart of Esau’s unavailing pleading for the blessing, which, till then, he had despised.

But does that time ever come, when the door is irrevocably shut, during this life? I will neither affirm nor deny it. I am certain that real repentance and faith will avail before God, though they come at a man’s last gasp. The thief on the cross was certainly saved, though he repented as his life’s blood flowed from his veins. God will surely accept a death-bed repentance, if man can render it, but in the very nature of the case this will be a difficult thing. The repentance which God requires of a man is that he give up his sins and his own way, and how can a dying man sincerely do this? I will not say it is impossible, but in the nature of the case it must be very difficult. In the nature of the case it must be a very hard thing for a man sincerely and voluntarily to repent of his sins while those sins (which he has long held and hugged) are being wrenched from his grasp, whether he will or no. This is like a man breaking up with the flame of his heart, when she had broken up with him yesterday. He may be sincere in this, but most likely if she were reconciled to him tomorrow, he would be reconciled to her likewise. “Can a dying man,” says Jeremy Taylor, “to any real effect resolve to be chaste?” Can the bum, who is dying in the street, resolve to any real purpose to quit stealing and get a job? Can he resolve not to have an expensive funeral?

A dying man will of course grasp at eternal life, as a drowning man will grasp at a straw, but there is no repentance in this, any more than there was in the tears and cries of Esau. He wanted the blessing, but so far was he from repenting of having sold it, that he actually laid the blame for that on Jacob, though it was unquestionably his own choice and act. So also every dying man (who is not utterly destitute of any sense of God) desires eternal life, and may seek it carefully with tears when death stares him in the face. He may repent with all his powers. But what is such repentance worth? The good behavior of the arrested criminal is no indication whatever of what his behavior would be if he yet had his liberty. Of what worth can it be for a rebel to surrender after he has been captured? What confidence is to be placed in such a surrender? Usually, none. This is proved by the fact that when dying men recover, their repentance usually expires as quickly as it was born. “The danger past, and God forgotten,” an old proverb says. It is easy enough for a man to part with his sins when they are being wrenched from his hand unavoidably, but it is not so easy for him sincerely to do so. If the only reason a man parts with his sins is that he knows he cannot hold them any longer, what repentance is there in this? It is only what we call “sour grapes.” The fox would surely have eaten the grapes if he could have reached them, but because he could not, they must be sour. Thus do dying men denounce their sins.

Yet the glorious gospel of Christ still stands, and so long as an hour of the “forty days” remains, the “place of repentance” may yet be found. We rightly question the sincerity of the man who waits till the eleventh hour of the fortieth day to repent, yet a man can repent even then—-if he can truly count the cost, actually sorrow after a godly sort, and in reality relinquish sin as such. The dying thief condemned himself, justified God, confessed Christ, and reproved his fellow-sinner while his life ebbed away—-and found mercy. Sam Hadley really repented with death staring him in the face. His whole subsequent life was proof of the reality of it. He describes his repentance thus:

“I had pawned everything or sold everything that would buy a drink. I could not sleep a wink. I had not eaten for days, and for the four nights preceding I had suffered with delirium tremens from midnight until morning. …

“I was sitting on a whiskey barrel for perhaps two hours, when all of a sudden I seemed to feel some great and mighty presence. I did not know then what it was. I learned afterwards that it was Jesus, the sinner’s Friend. Dear reader, never until my dying day will I forget the sight presented to my horrified gaze. My sins appeared to creep along the wall in letters of fire. I turned and looked in another direction, and there I saw them again.

“I have always believed I got a view of eternity right there in that gin-mill. I believe I saw what every poor lost sinner will see when he stands unrepentant and unforgiven at the bar of God. It filled me with an unspeakable terror. I supposed I was dying and this was a premonition. I believe others in the saloon thought that I was dying, but I cared very little then what people thought of me. I got down from the whiskey barrel with but one desire, and that was to fly from the place.

“A saloon is an awful place to die in if one has had a praying mother. I walked up to the bar and pounded it with my fist until I made the glasses rattle. Those near by who were drinking looked on with scornful curiosity. I said:

“`Boys, listen to me! I am dying, but I will die in the street before I will ever take another drink’—-and I felt as though this would happen before morning.

“A voice said to me: `If you want to keep that promise, go and have yourself locked up.’ There was no place on earth I dreaded more than a police station, for I was living in daily dread of arrest; but I went to the police station in East One Hundred and Twenty-sixth street, near Lexington avenue, and asked the captain to lock me up.

“`Why do you want to be locked up?’ asked he as I gave an assumed name.

“`Because,’ said I, `I want to be placed somewhere so I can die before I can get another drink of whiskey.’ They locked me up in a narrow cell, No. 10, in the back corridor.”

Yet the reader may observe that though death was upon them, both Sam Hadley and the thief on the cross were yet in a position where they could make a valid choice against sin. The further the work of death has progressed in the mortal frame—-the more a man is actually incapacitated from committing sin—-the less likely that he will be able to make such a choice. And beyond that, as sure as God lives, man will die. The last moment of opportunity will slip forever beyond his reach. God will shut the door, and then the unavailing tears of Esau will flow from every eye. “The Lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 24:50-51).

Esau’s selling of his birthright is representative of the life choice of those whose lives revolve around the mess of pottage, the piece of ground, the five yoke of oxen, the wife, the eating and drinking, the buying and selling, the building and planting. The unavailing tears of Esau are the final result of such a life. God forbid that they should move the impenitent to remain impenitent still—-the profane to yet pursue their pleasures and mammon—-or the penitent to despair of the mercy of God. Let the tears of Esau rather move men to seek the Lord while he may be found, to repent while a “place of repentance” may yet be found, and to shed their tears while those tears will yet avail.

Glenn Conjurske