We've touched briefly on this passage and alluded to it a few times in class, particularly its relationship to the statement earlier in Hebrews 6:4-8 about how it is impossible to restore Christians who apostatize back to repentance again. The question then becomes, does this entail that there are situations in which people have a genuine desire to repent, but are not allowed to (either by God or by the people of God)? This would be a scary situation, obviously, as many believers would become terrified that in spite of their desires to repent, that God will not accept it. This could easily lead to unhealthy spiritual paralyzation . Is this what Hebrews 12:17 is saying was the case with Esau?
I don't think so. Look at the context again: "See that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no 'root of bitterness' springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance (literally, "no place") to repent, though he sought it with tears." This last phrase is the crucial one. I have often (unconsciously) interpreted it in the past as saying that Esau could not repent, though he sought repentance with tears. I think many read it this way. However, notice that all the text says is that Esau sought "it" with tears (this is faithful to the Greek, which is likewise ambiguous). So understanding this text centers around identifying what "it" was that Esau sought in vain. The word "it" in Greek is feminine singular, and there are two feminine singular nouns earlier in the verse which "it" could be referring to. The first is, indeed, "repentance." However, the other possibility is "the blessing." This is a reference to his birthright (in v. 16) which Esau had previously sold. Notice that plugging this in for "it" would change radically the thrust of the last phrase: "For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought to gain back his birthright with tears."
This makes much more sense to me of the passage, for several reasons. First, the phrase "he found no place for repentance" doesn't sound like a description of something that was impossible for Esau to do, but rather describing that in spite of his pursuit to gain back his birthright in tears, he nonetheless did not do so in repentance; his heart was hardened and he was not repentant in spirit--that is, he found "no place" for repentance in his pursuit to reacquire what he really wanted. That is, there was no God-centered sorrow over sin and over having transgressed against the Lord, but merely a despising of the consequences of his action. Second, this lines up very well with Paul's distinction in 2 Corinthians 7:10-13 between a "godly sorrow" that leads to salvation with regret, and a "wordly sorrow" that only produces death and loss. So Paul has categories for tears that do not include repentance. And lastly, we know of so many other people in Scripture (Peter! David!) who committed similar acts of disobedience and sin, but who did repent afterwards.
Therefore, this warning in Hebrews 12:12-17 refers not to the impossibility of repenting after sin or to the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit mentioned in the gospels, but rather that turning away from God will lead to destruction if there is not repentance, as Esau himself demonstrates.