WHOSE REPENTANCE IS IN HEBREWS 12:17?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Hebrews 12:17 is an obscure verse indeed. Notice: “ 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.” Whose repentance is under discussion here—Esau’s, as commonly assumed? Or, is there is a helpful verse elsewhere in Scripture… one that leads us to some other conclusion?
The writer of Hebrews is quoting Genesis chapter 27. In an earlier chapter—specifically, 25:27-24—unbelieving Esau foolishly sold his birthright to get a bowl of his twin brother Jacob’s vegetable soup. The birthright, a position with spiritual significance, was thus transferred to Jacob. Here in chapter 27 now, Jacob has sneakily obtained Esau’s blessing from their father Isaac. Esau comes in and Isaac informs him of the bad news.
Genesis chapter 27: “ And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father.  And he said, Thy brother came with subtilty, and hath taken away thy blessing.  And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing. And he said, Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?  And Isaac answered and said unto Esau, Behold, I have made him thy lord, and all his brethren have I given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him: and what shall I do now unto thee, my son?  And Esau said unto his father, Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept.”
Did you notice Esau’s weeping at the close of verse 38? These are his “tears” spoken of in Hebrews 12:17. That crying was designed to lead someone to repentance, to a change in mind. (Contrary to popular belief, repent does not mean to feel sorrow for sin or to turn from sin. It means to think differently—namely, to stop viewing a situation one way and start looking at it another way. The word in Greek is “metanoeo”—comprised of meta [“afterward”] and noeo [“to exercise the mind”]. Repentance thus means “to think differently or afterwards; reconsider.”)
What would Esau have to change his mind about? In the context of Genesis, it does not make sense to make Hebrews’ repentance apply to Esau. Genesis has Esau trying to cause his father Isaac to change his mind about blessing Jacob. To wit, Esau wants Isaac to reconsider and rescind the blessing he just bestowed upon Jacob. Unfortunately for Esau, Isaac’s actions are irrevocable. However, Esau gets emotional and tries to manipulate Isaac into feeling sorry for him. Esau cries and cries, moaning and groaning, shrieking: a great emotional upheaval, great disappointment and devastation, consumes Esau. He cries, not to change his own mind, but to change his father Isaac’s mind. Of course, it does not work. There can be no reversal. Isaac cannot take back his promise. Jacob will be blessed and that is just all there is to it.
Read the verse again—this time, with my comments in brackets. “For ye know how that afterward, when he [Esau] would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected [Isaac had already blessed Jacob; there was no blessing for Isaac to give to Esau so Isaac declined to bless Esau]: for he [Esau] found no place of [Isaac’s] repentance, though he [Esau] sought it carefully with tears.” Friend, do you see how clear the verse is when we use Genesis for comparison? Comparing Scripture with Scripture is how we Berean Bible students handle abstruse verses!