Malachi Study Part 4 - Terence Swinhoe

An Opening Prayer

O Lord, may your ancient Scriptures come alive within us. 
As we open our Bibles today, open our hearts to your words of truth. 
Help us to make them the very fabric of our lives. 
May your Word come alive within our spirits as it heals, teaches, inspires, restores and cleanses our hearts.
Lord, bring your truth to life within our lives.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Title of Study 4: ‘CLEANING UP’

Thank you for joining today’s study, which takes us into the second half of the series. Let’s take a deep breath and recap! We’ve seen in earlier studies how direct and focused a prophet Malachi is. We’ve noticed the characteristic style of the book – he has some sharp exchanges with those who keep questioning his message. We’ve called them his ‘hecklers’. There is a special concern for reverence for God in Malachi. He’s disturbed by the careless attitude with which Israel comes to God to complain of his supposed lack of love for them, and by their forgetfulness of his covenant. Malachi’s spotlight falls especially on the priests. They were community leaders, and yet they were doing little other than leading the people astray. Malachi isn’t afraid to tell Israel that there will be days ahead when all nations will come to worship the one true God, and that the Gentiles’ offerings of worship will be purer than the defiled ones being used by Israel at present. And last time we saw that Israel was being unfaithful to God by marrying foreign wives, an act which could lead them into worshipping foreign gods. Divorce also was becoming widespread. For Malachi both of those things were covenant-breaking acts.

Today we’re going to study 2:17– 3:5 . Hope you’ve got your Bible open! We saw in the very first study that there is nothing in Malachi about the call to be a prophet. In the books of great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, we are given deep insight into how they were called. Nevertheless we can be assured that Malachi was very conscious that he was being used by God. The King James Version of 1:1 reads, “The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.” Many newer versions have ‘oracle’ rather than ‘burden’, but perhaps the KJV rendering helps us to remember that the prophets felt a ‘burden’ from God that they just had to deliver to their hearers. It wasn’t a matter of choice! So Malachi continues in the same vein in which his prophecies began when he says, “You have wearied the LORD with your words.” A prophet has something to say and has to say it, and 2:17 is a good example. God is tired of your falsehood, he says. If you are going to speak of or to God, it had better be the truth! Using a popular figure of speech, Malachi is telling the people that God is fed up with listening to what they have been saying about him. Biblical language sometimes resorts to these human analogies that drive the point home. “God has had it up to here with you”, is a suggestion by one commentator!

The people are shocked by this suggestion. “How have we wearied him?” they ask. We’re back to those questions and answers! This is the style of the book. These are persistent hecklers! Malachi tells them why God is wearied by their words, “By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them’ or ‘Where is the God of justice?’” This retort is similar to the kind of ‘murmuring’ by Israel during their earliest history when they were journeying through the desert under the leadership of Moses. Time and again they accused Moses of leading them wrongly, or complained that God had only led them into the desert to let them die there. “There’s no justice. Why doesn’t God use his judgment against the heathen? Why should we bother to be good? If he is a just God, why doesn’t he sort them out? ? Evil people seem to be getting away with it!” Those were the thoughts of their hearts. The people’s judgment and discernment have become completely distorted. They accuse a good God of favouring evil. They accuse a just God of unfairness. They think other nations need to be sorted out first. In so doing they show their own unrighteousness. God is wearied by it and through Malachi he lets them know it.

In effect, they are saying that God has a management problem. They think that he is running things wrongly, that he is favouring the ungodly and letting the wicked prosper. It has echoes in some of the Psalms – e.g. Psalm 73:3–5 , “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.” They don’t realise how wrong they are in questioning God’s justice. It’s a cry still heard today. “If God was really a loving God, he wouldn’t let this or that happen.” People try to get God into a Catch 22. “He loves us, but doesn’t have the power to act against all the wrongs we’re suffering.” Or else, “He is powerful enough to change things, but isn’t loving enough to want to do it.” It’s a perilous thing to trust in your own righteousness and complain to God that he is unjust. And it’s also perilous to then ask God to give you your just deserts. He might just do so – and it might not be what you were expecting! I think of that famous prayer beginning, “We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness…”

Who are the “messengers” in chapter 3? What follows is what I believe to be a reasonable interpretation. We saw in the first study that ‘Malachi’ means ‘my messenger’. But when we get to “my messenger” in the first few words of 3:1 (i.e. 3:1a), that isn’t a reference to the prophet Malachi. “My messenger” is going to be sent by me, says God, and he’s going to be one "who will prepare the way before me”. That last phrase has strong echoes of the first chapters of the New Testament. Jesus knew the Book of Malachi pretty well, and quotes from it in Matthew 11:10, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Jesus made this quotation whilst speaking to the crowd about John the Baptist. John (imprisoned by Herod in a fortress on the shore of the Dead Sea) had sent some of his own disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2). In the course of his words to the crowd Jesus calls John “the Elijah who was to come” (11:13). There was a Jewish belief that Elijah himself would return before the Messiah was revealed. (Remember the empty chair that is still put out at the Passover celebration?). Before he was even born, John the Baptist had been foretold as one who would “go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), and John did indeed come as the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. So here in 3:1a we have the announcement by God through the prophet Malachi that John will be the messenger who will come to prepare the way for the Lord. This section of the Book of Malachi is often read on one of the Sundays in Advent, when we focus on John the Baptist, a key figure in the preparation for the arrival of Jesus. Malachi, as we’ve noted, is the last Old Testament prophet, and God did not speak again through a prophet until some 400 years or so after Malachi. He did so when John emerged. John was very much in the same mould as the Old Testament prophets – very direct and uncompromising! It was John whom God chose to be truly the last of the line to announce the Messiah’s arrival. John is the ‘bridge’ out of the Old Testament and into the New.

Let’s now look at the second part of 3:1 (i.e. 3:1b). I think there are two phrases here referring to the same person – “the LORD you are seeking”, and “the messenger of the covenant”. They refer not to a human but a divine figure, the Lord himself. The messenger spoken of this time is the Lord Jesus. The way for him will have been prepared by John. Jesus will then come and bring in the Kingdom that John had announced. He will bring both justice (the focus of complaints in Malachi’s time, 2:17), and also judgment (3:5). As Christians we acknowledge Jesus as the one sent by God to establish the covenant of peace between God and man. Jesus is “the messenger of the covenant”. We are told that when the Lord does come, it’s going to be a purifying, refining experience. We learn in 3:1b that “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” This recalls Jesus “coming to his temple” and purifying it, refining it, cleansing it, an event which caused such a huge stir in the Gospels. I’m reminded of a worship song:

“Purify my heart,
Let me be as gold and precious silver.
Purify my heart,
Let me be as gold, pure gold.

Refiner's fire,
My heart's one desire
Is to be holy;
Set apart for You, Lord.
I choose to be holy;
Set apart for You, my Master,
Ready to do Your will.

Purify my heart,
Cleanse me from within
And make me holy.
Purify my heart,
Cleanse me from my sin, deep within.”

It is not first of all the nations who will be judged! First and foremost, God wants his people to be holy and obedient, and that is where the process of purification and refining is going to begin. When we sing the worship song I’ve just referred to, we are acknowledging that God is going to begin with us. At the back end of the 1960s a comedy film was made entitled “Start The Revolution Without Me”. At the time, Christians picked up on the title to point out that the Christian approach to life is “Start The Revolution Within Me”. In other words, the change needs to begin with me first. It won’t by any means be necessarily comfortable. “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness” (3:2 – 3). For silver to be refined, it had to be put into a crucible, in intense heat, and the impurities had to be burned away and skimmed off. The launderer spoken of here would have been a bleacher of cloth, and the ‘soap’ used would have been extremely strong, so that every stain on the cloth can be vigorously scrubbed away. Very strong illustrations! In similar vein John the Baptist announced that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11).

It was mentioned in an earlier study that Malachi is a prophet very concerned with right worship and right sacrifice. But we also see in 3:5 that alongside this he has a strong ethical and social concern. He echoes God’s condemnation of sorcerers – those who cast spells, use magic charms, make incantations and by doing so try to influence the course of events and of other people’s lives. It isn’t something that was confined to ancient societies. It’s a modern industry! People are still drawn to it and are fascinated by it today. One of Judah’s worst kings, Manasseh, was criticised strongly for such practices – see 2 Chronicles 33:6–7. Malachi equally conveys God’s strong condemnation of adultery and perjury (lying under oath). He is also concerned for the right treatment of labourers. Pay them a fair wage! Also, widows and orphans are special objects of God’s concern and must not be oppressed. See Exodus 22:21, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” As for foreigners or sojourners, they should be treated fairly since they were in an especially vulnerable position. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:10). After all, the Israelites themselves had been slaves in a foreign land. They ought to know the pain and rejection of being mistreated as foreigners.

Do some of the moral issues raised by Malachi ring a bell for us in 2020?

We are going to finish chapter 3 next time, and look finally at chapter 4 after that. I hope you can join me for those.

Closing Prayer

Almighty God and heavenly Father, we continue to give you thanks

for the words of these ancient Scriptures which we read and find speaking to us today. Thank you for the Holy Spirit, who is the interpreter of that word

and who can give us true understanding. We confess, O God, that we

have sometimes harboured wrong thoughts about you in our hearts,

as did the people in Malachi’s time. Reveal to us afresh, we pray, your

justice, your mercy and your faithful covenant love. We are conscious

that we need your cleansing, that we need pure hearts and minds

with which to serve you and worship you. Grant us these, we pray

and keep us close to you as we go through our everyday lives.

May we be ready to offer to others the love, grace and mercy

that you have shown to us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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