What does it mean when the Bible says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13)?
Can God really hate people? (We know it is righteous to hate sin.) If so, how is that hatred righteous (as it must be for God to be God)? And what specifically did it mean when Paul quoted the Old Testament prophet Malachi in Romans 9?
Commentator William G. T. Shedd offers a very helpful explanation:
…the word “hate” is here used in the Hebrew sense, of “loving less,” or “showing less favor towards.”…It is employed comparatively, and not positively, Gen. 29:30, 31, 33; Mat. 6:24; Luke 14:26; John 12:25. In the classical and usual sense, God, as holy, hated both Jacob and Esau, because both were the sinful children of Adam, and were alike “children of wrath,” Eph. 2:3. Had the divine purpose been determined by this species of hatred, Jacob would not have been elected any more than Esau. But, since the election and rejection were not founded on any moral trait or conduct of Jacob and Esau, either holy or sinful, the love and hatred here alluded to cannot be God’s feeling toward holiness and sin. The “love,” here, is the exercise of compassion, and the “hatred” is the non-exercise of compassion.…
Calvin…thus explains [loved] and [hated]: “I choose the one, and rejected the other; and I was thus led by my mercy alone, and by no worthiness as to works.” This showing of compassion, and refraining from showing it, related primarily to the birthright and its privileges: to the theocratic election and reprobation. But as Jacob and Esau were typical persons, the same definition of the terms “love” and “hate” applies to the spiritual election and reprobation of individuals, in the two classes represented by them. When God “loves” a man with electing love, he manifests and extends compassion toward him; and at the same time he hates his iniquity. And when God “hates” a man with reprobating hatred, he does not manifest and extend compassion toward him; and at the same time he hates his iniquity.