Malachi Study Part 5 - Terence Swinhoe
An Opening Prayer
Loving Lord, we remember how you gathered your disciples together
and taught them. So we come now, wanting you to teach us too.
Like your disciples may we see your power. And like your disciples,
may we find your Kingdom and follow you, now and forever.
Title of Study 5: ‘RETURNING AND SERVING’
Ever onward! This is our penultimate look at the Book of Malachi – and I haven’t got tennis in mind with today’s title. The reason for that title might become clear later as you proceed. We’ve been hearing God speak through Malachi in a very direct and powerful way to a people whose spiritual vision was fading. Maybe they were in their own kind of lockdown, in some ways – there wasn’t much to shout about in terms of national prosperity. Their spiritual leaders were both careless and complacent, and had lost any real sense of having a special call from God to carry out their work. Morally too, things had sunk low, and what we call ‘social justice’ wasn’t being evenly applied to the more defenceless members of the community. Malachi reminded them that a reckoning lay ahead. One would arrive in the “spirit and power of Elijah” to prepare the way for the Lord himself to come. Malachi himself was a ‘messenger’ (the meaning of the name), and he predicted the coming of other ‘messengers’. We see in Malachi’s predictions both John the Baptist and Jesus himself.
So we turn today in our Bibles and look this time at 3:6 to the end of the chapter. What an important statement that is in 3:6, “I the LORD do not change.” You and I do. Every human being does. Our physical environment changes all the time. Human institutions do as well. Everything is in a state of flux. A Greek philosopher even went so far as to say, “The only constant thing is change.” The modern version of that is, “Constant change is here to stay.” And you’ll remember the words of a very famous hymn, “Change and decay in all around I see.” But the nature of God, or if you like the character or essence of God, does not change. Compare Psalm 102:25–27, “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” If we’re looking for a New Testament confirmation of this, we can go to James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
If something changes, that means it becomes either better or worse than it was before. But God cannot change. He cannot, for example, become more holy or more powerful. He is not less powerful today than in the time of Malachi. And he will not be more powerful a hundred years from now. Nor can his wisdom or justice or mercy increase or decrease. Keep in mind something we’ve mentioned several times as we’ve been going along, which is that God is a covenant- keeping God. In other words, he is a God who keeps his promises – it is something in God’s very nature. That is what God is like. The covenant community of Malachi’s day deserved destruction because of its sinfulness (see 3:7). But God kept his promise to them and despite bringing judgment on them, he did not altogether do away with them. This is pointed out in the second half of 3:6, “So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” God will not change and go back on his promise to them. Nor will he break his promises to us. Malachi is declaring a key doctrine here. I’m in a hymn-quoting mood today: “Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not. / As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.” (I think you’ll know which hymn that one comes from too).
God wants his people to return to him (second part of 3:7), so that his covenant relationship with them may be restored. At which point, of course, Malachi’s hecklers come back into the frame, “How are we to return?” (last part of 3:7). They seem to rejoice in asking as many awkward questions as they can. Malachi takes this one head on and declares that they are robbing God. How come? they ask, yet again.. And the answer is, “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – your whole nation – because you are robbing me.” (3:8 – 9). Around this same time, Nehemiah, who had become governor, had the same grievance against the people. See Nehemiah 13:10 – 13. These tithes and offerings (the literal meaning of tithe is “tenth”) had been prescribed by Moses. Some were offered to God at various festival times. They were also for the use of the tribe of Levi whose special responsibility it was to regulate and offer sacrifices and worship. They were the one tribe which had been given no land, remember, in the sharing out of the territory when Israel came into Canaan. The people of the other tribes were to make offerings to support them, so that they could fulfil their essential rôle on behalf of the community. Holding back the tithe, therefore, meant that they were holding back something from God. Being mean towards God will not bring prosperity. “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty”, says Proverbs 11:24. Your situation will improve, Malachi tells the people, when generous giving begins again. It’s likely that there had been a drought at this time, hence the reference to God opening the floodgates of heaven and “pouring out” blessing ( 3:10). The crop pest of 3:11 (“devourer” in ESV) may well have been the locust (as in NRSV). This is a pest that has caused, and even now is causing, huge damage across the world. God is laying down a challenge – “Give what you should be giving, and you will see that I will prove to be a faithful God by blessing you and your land.” All giving to God should be seen as a giving back to him, a response to what he has first given us. We can never out-give God. A wise commentary adds, “God promises to meet all their needs, but not necessarily all their greeds.“ I need hardly add that Malachi’s message is a long way from what is known as ‘prosperity gospel’ teaching. Unprincipled leaders do exist, who assure those under them that the more they give to their ministry, the more health, wealth and happiness they will get back. Jesus would have nothing to do with any teaching designed to exploit the gullibility (or bank accounts) of others.
We get echoes of Malachi’s message in the New Testament. As Christians, we do not have the Old Testament tithe imposed on us as a legal demand, but generosity in giving is certainly something that we are called upon to practise. Paul and Barnabas, for example, organised a collection for fellow Christians affected by a famine, and there were many who were glad to respond – Acts 11:29–30, “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” Paul also commended the approach shown by the Macedonian Christians, commending them for their “rich generosity”, 2 Corinthians 8:2. It’s worth noting that the Macedonian Christians were anything but a well-off community. The principle that Paul outlined in the same letter still holds true, “Remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (9:6).
In 3:13 – 15 we have the familiar verbal sparring between Malachi and his audience – this is the last such occasion in the book. When Malachi tells them they have “spoken arrogantly” against God, we find that the content of it is along similar lines to what we heard from them in chapter 2, “…It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.” By this stage we’re quite possibly feeling very depressed by the cynical and self-regarding attitude of Malachi’s hearers. If we’re around people who frequently pour out blame towards God and complain of his injustice, it’s not surprising if we feel dragged down spiritually.
It’s a refreshing interlude when Malachi tells us that not everyone in the community at the time was a complainer and a critic of God. There were obviously faithful people who were concerned for God and for his name. As elsewhere in the Old Testament, they are seen as a believing remnant. The community of faith hasn’t completely gone to the dogs after all! “Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard.” (3:16). What a beautiful contrast with so much that has gone before! Those who fear God meet together in fellowship and strengthen one another. And it’s interesting to see that their names are recorded in a book, “A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honoured his name” (last half of 3:16). “Fearing” God and “honouring” him are exactly the things that the unfaithful members were failing to do, as we’ve seen throughout the book. A “book of remembrance” is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament – have a look at Exodus 32:32–33, Psalm 139:16, and Daniel 12:1 for different examples of how this idea appears. It was something that rulers in the Ancient Near East did – see Esther 6:1, for example, regarding the record kept by King Xerxes. Those whose names appear in the “scroll of remembrance” of Malachi 3:16 are “my treasured possession”. God promises that “I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him” (3:17). It’s in terms like these that God always speaks of his covenant people. Malachi obviously speaks of a ‘day of reckoning’ here, when God will divide the righteous from the wicked. And the result will be made clear to everyone, “…you will again see the distinction, between those who serve God and those who do not.” (3:18). No one will be under any illusions. It reminds me somewhat of Jesus’s parable about the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31 – 46), in the sense that a judgment and a ‘separation’ take place.
So, as we near the end of Malachi we are reminded that the theme of judgment is present, as it is throughout the prophetic books. But there is also mercy. It’s what one of Malachi’s predecessors had prayed for: “LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2).
One more study to go. See you there, I hope.
Lord God, the God who has saved us and kept us, we thank you for the everlasting love with which you have loved us. Despite our weakness and unfaithfulness, you always receive us back into fellowship with yourself when we repent and return to you. We ask for grace to help us to give back to you – in money and time, as well as in the offering of ourselves in worship and service. We also give thanks for the faith of prophets such as Malachi, and for their courage and honesty. Protect and strengthen, we pray, those who address the Church of today and call us back to you. For the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.