I know we looked at this passage before, but it really bears a closer look. We know that God loved(s) Israel, just like he loves us. So what does it mean when it says he has “hated” Esau? Does God really hate people? Doesn’t he love everyone?
Like most good questions, there’s no simple “yes” or “no.” On the “yes” side we have declarations of God’s universal love, such as the famous John 3:16. The self-proclaimed atheist who announces that he hates God, at least in some sense enjoys the Lord's blessings: the sunshine, air to breathe, food to eat, pleasure in life, etc. And in some sense God gave his Son to that person who hates him. Salvation is offered to everyone, and the Lord turns no one away who receives and believes in Jesus.
But what about the “hatred” he had for Esau? This is where the NIV—quite frankly—is not the best translation out there. Literally, yes, it is “hated”; but this leads to misunderstanding, because when we say we “hate” someone, it usually means we completely despise them, and even desire them harm.
But that’s not what’s meant here at all. Did the Lord just despise the Edomites, wishing them harm? Did he just “have it in” for them because of something that Esau did? As Paul points out, this divine “hatred” started out when they were sharing a womb, neither one having done anything good or bad. So this wasn’t based on anything Esau had done.
This is where I think the NIV (along with most translations) is sort of misleading with its translation here. Yes, literally it’s “hate.” But there’s a good reason why the NET Bible and the NLT both render it as “rejected.” That’s the key. God didn't “hate” Esau or the Edomites in the sense of wanting to do them harm with no basis in their behavior. He doesn’t just arbitrarily punish either people or nations for no reason. We know better than that, or at least we should.
But he did reject them in the sense of choosing Jacob over Esau for his own purposes, to carry out his plan. He chose Jacob/Israel (both the man and the nation) for a unique purpose, and he didn’t choose Esau for this. This isn't commenting on Esau’s personal salvation (although we have good reason to doubt it), nor is Malachi talking about the personal salvation of individual Edomites, although—once again—we might doubt that there were very many among them who had a personal relationship with the Lord.
No, what Malachi was talking about God’s purposes for the nations. And if he chose Israel instead of Esau, why did he do so? Or why didn’t he choose some other group of pagans? Was it because of Israel’s goodness? Um, no. Even if we didn’t have the sordid history of Israel’s repeated failures laid out for us in stark detail, the Lord himself specifically refuted this notion. If Malachi was the only book of the Bible, misinterpretation would be more understandable, but Malachi’s not the only one: We need to interpret hard to understand passages in the light of the easier ones.
The Lord chose Israel to use it to redeem the rest of the world. That’s you and me. We were the spiritual heirs of the Edomites: “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” But at the very beginning of the Covenant with Abraham, the Lord told him that, yes, God would bless him, but also that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through [him].” Abraham was chosen so that through him the Lord could bless the world. And of course the ultimate fulfillment of this was the arrival and work of our Savior.
So now that we’ve gotten past the notion that God arbitrarily hates someone (in the usual sense of the term), how can we apply this? Well, the whole thing that started this line of thought was the cynical, bitter questioning of God’s love for his people. In response the Lord pointed them to the original covenant under which Jacob was chosen and they had already been blessed beyond measure, with much more to come. And he also pointed to how he'd punished and would continue to punish those who attacked his people and who proudly boasted against him. They would eventually see with their own eyes the difference between God’s people and those who aren’t.
In the meantime, we can trust and obey. We might not see—right now—God’s endgame and the final disposition of those who are his people versus those who aren’t. But we will.
Father God, you do all things well. I thank you that although I was a spiritual heir of Esau, excluded from citizenship in Israel and a foreigner to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without you, you’ve brought me who was far away into your presence, brought near by the blood of Christ.