I’ve just finished looking at Malachi in my ministry training scheme at my church. Among many things striking in the book is the flagrant sin of those who have returned from exile. The priests are doing the sacrifices all wrong and they’re leading the people astray. But the people at large are no better (not surprising really given the leadership and teaching role of the priests). They too are half-hearted, and both groups are typified by their cynical questioning of God – culminating in 2:17-18 – “How have we wearied God” and “Where is the God of justice?”
How did we get here?
I say flagrant sin, and this is true, but it’s worth spending a bit of time reflecting on how this came about.
If you were an Israelite in exile who despite being in a foreign land had settled with family, a home, job, connections and so on, deciding to leave all this all behind to return to your homeland to start again from scratch wouldn’t have been easy and straightforward. It would have come across (to themselves and others) as a rather risky move. This would have been the case despite their knowledge of the promised blessings of Deuteronomy 30. Furthermore, having seemingly ‘kept their bit of the bargain’ in returning from exile, the remnant would have expected said blessings. The fact they didn’t come helps explain their despondency and the sin that follows.
Please don’t hear me wrong, I’m not saying all the above justifies the sin of the remnant. Their expectations of immediate blessing after returning from exile were incorrect and their response to not receiving the blessings they felt they deserved was correspondingly misguided. Nonetheless, I think giving some context to the sin of the remnant is helpful.
And so God, through his prophet Malachi makes clear how sinful their behaviour is, how unhappy he is with it and how severely he’ll bring judgement as a result.
Must try harder?
An understandable response to this would be to declare that we today mustn’t be half-hearted in our ministry and devotion to God and that we, therefore, must try harder and we need to shape up fast!
While of course, it is right to pray for and pursue greater devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ, I wonder whether such an application fails to capture the full colour of what Malachi is saying to us.
Indeed, we see that both a messenger and Lord is going to come to ‘sort things out.’ He will refine ‘the sons of Levi’ (3:3) so that perfect offerings will be brought. He will also ensure that his Exodus and Deuteronomy promise of a treasured possession (a people for himself) will come to pass with all the blessings alongside (3:17). Indeed, they will ‘go out leaping like calves from the stall.’ (4:2) What is more, his treasured possession will take part in the judgement of the wicked (4:3).
And yet, the people who feared the Lord (3:16) (who I think are a subset of the remnant that returned to Judah from exile) would have been wondering how on earth these blessings were to come about. Just because they feared the Lord, they too would have been aware of their own failure, their own half-heartedness, their own failure to keep the requirements of the covenants cited in Malachi. How on earth was this apparently irreconcilable situation going to be brought around? To put it another way, the conditional covenants between God and his people certainly require total obedience, the people have been disobedient and yet we see in the last two chapters of Malachi promises of covenant blessing. What gives?!
With these questions in mind, the right response of those who feared the Lord in the time of Malachi would have been to faithfully wait for this messenger and Lord who would answer them completely and once for all at some point in the future, well beyond their lifetimes.
How blessed then are we though, people of the New Testament, to have much-added clarity regarding the messenger and Lord! John the Baptist has indeed come and brought about repentance of sins in preparation of Jesus Christ, saviour and Lord of all. And it is in this Lord that we find brilliantly satisfying answers to the questions posed by this book. Through Jesus, we have someone who has perfectly and completely fulfilled all the covenant requirements. And through faith in him, Jesus’ perfection and his perfect performance are imputed to us. Moreover, through Him, we also have someone who has taken the punishment our covenantal disobedience deserves, so we need no longer fear the judgement spoken of in Malachi. Finally, we also have a great present and future hope – we are given a heart of flesh instead of one of stone (Ezekiel 36:26) and so can obey and please God today. Yet, despite this, we know how at best our efforts are half-hearted and with mixed motives. How great then to know that in the future there will be a time when our obedience and worship is perfect!*
In short, we’re missing a great from this great book if all we get from it is ‘be less half-hearted’ and ‘try harder’ Please don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying we need not be obedient, of course we should be! My point more is that Malachi (see particularly 3:13-4:6) is calling us to a faith and continued fear of the Lord Jesus Christ, in his work on our behalf, in his punishment we deserve taken for us, a dependence on him to gradually conform us to his image and trust that one day, half-heartedness will be no more.
What great encouragement we see from Malachi then. And yet, as heartening as it is for those who fear the Lord, it’s sobering to note how the salvation spoken of will come about. Chapter 3 verse 18 tells us that it will come through great division. And so yes, for those on the ‘right side of the line’ there will be wonderful times, but this can only come as those who do not fear the Lord are comprehensively and terrifyingly judged. Observe 4:1-3
For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.
This should at the very least give us pause for thought – we have been saved from judgement and how striking too that we too will do the judging. This judgement should act as an evangelistic incentive. And so for those who do not fear the Lord, we must tell them to turn in fear, lest they be judged (4:6).
In conclusion, I hope to have shown that taking a message away from Malachi akin to ‘be less half-hearted and try harder!’ doesn’t capture it’s full extent. What we really should see from Malachi is ‘we can’t be anything but half-hearted, therefore fear the Lord who can change us and bring to us all the covenant blessings.’ This is really encouraging stuff. And yet, we know too that as such blessing is delivered, terrifying judgement exists alongside it. This should sober us, and act as a great motivation to tell others of both the covenant blessings available through faith and the terrifying destruction that awaits them if they continue to go on not fearing the Lord.
*As a side note, it’s my view that even among churches where the New creation is spoken of frequently, an oft-neglected aspect is that we as God’s loved children will be perfectly obedient to our father. I both don’t think on this element as much I should, and am not as excited about this as I should be. Malachi then provides a timely challenge..