Malachi Study Part 6 - Terence Swinhoe
An Opening Prayer
We thank you for the gift of your holy word.
May it be a lantern to our feet, a light to our paths,
and a strength to our lives. Take us and use us
To love and serve all people
in the power of the Holy Spirit
and in the name of your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Title of Study 6: ‘RISE AND SHINE’
Welcome back – and congratulations. You’ve made it to the last lap! Let’s get straight to it.
Today we are going to look at the final chapter of Malachi’s prophecy, chapter 4. So that’s where we now turn in our Bibles. This is the last chapter of the last Old Testament prophet. Last time we saw that Malachi had serious charges to bring against the ungodly. But at the same time he held out God’s promise to vindicate the righteous. He begins chapter 4 with a statement that “the day is coming” (4:1). A similar phrase about this “day of the LORD”” can be found in Joel 2:1 and 2:11, and in Amos 5:18 and 5:20, also Zechariah 14:1, and elsewhere in the prophetic books. It’s a common theme among them. And they speak of it as a cataclysmic event, when God would indeed act to carry out the warning of judgment he had spoken against the wicked, but would then also assure the righteous that they would be saved. Malachi uses very vivid imagery to convey all this … “it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble.”
We find this kind of language echoed in the New Testament, in the preaching of John the Baptist, where he spoke of the Messiah coming after him as “gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). John was, as we saw earlier in our studies, the one who followed Malachi. There was a long gap of some 400 years after Malachi, and then the voice of the Old Testament prophets was revived in John. Thus it was with John that the line of those prophets came to an end.
According to Malachi, God’s work of judgment would be very thorough. He then introduces a great contrast when he moves on to talk about “you who revere my name” in 4:2. What a different outcome this time! What different news for those who fear God! It comes as a great relief to our spirits when we read in the same verse, “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays” (“healing in its wings” in ESV and NRSV). Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, used this powerful image in a verse of what he called his “Hymn For Christmas Day” of 1739, better known to us by its later title, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. I think of other Bible verses which proclaim this glorious vision, such as Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” That verse in turn has been echoed in our own day in a song by Graham Kendrick:
“Arise, shine, your light has come,
The glory of the Lord has risen on you!
Arise, shine, your light has come,
Jesus the Light of the world has come.”
We rejoiced to see so much sunshine during the early parts of the lockdown. How would it have been if we’d had to endure weeks of dull and wet weather just as the restrictions on our movements were beginning? That sunshine did lift our spirits, despite the serious situation we were facing. Sunshine chases away the dull, grey clouds in the same way that God makes the gloom of sorrow and oppression disappear. In the Gospel of Luke the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, prophesied that John would be the one to point the way to this new great reality, with its promise of:
“the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace” (1:78–79)
Fulfilment of this prophecy came, of course, in Jesus Christ. For Christians he sums up all that Malachi and other prophets looked forward to. We know him as the light of the world. The beginning of the Gospel of John proclaims him in that way, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:4–5).
We go now to the remaining verses of Malachi. I wonder how we feel about being told to “go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act, says the LORD Almighty” (4:2 – 3). That’s a pretty triumphant picture. It reminds me of one of Paul’s closing comments to his readers in Romans 16:20, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”
Malachi returns to “the law of my servant Moses” in verse 4. In the earlier parts of the book, Malachi had to point out that it was “the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel” that the people had been so openly flouting. (‘Horeb’ is the mountain designated in the Book of Deuteronomy as the place where Moses gave the Law to Israel, so it’s another name for ‘Mount Sinai’). Right near the end of the book, Malachi wants the people to “remember” this law. I think Malachi knew how prone people are to forgetfulness! It’s a bit like the conclusion to the Book of Ecclesiastes … “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (12:13). It’s small wonder that Malachi has this parting advice to “remember”. Earlier he’d had to bring to their attention the numerous ways in which they’d set aside and ignored God’s law. There had been failure to recognise God’s love, failure to honour God’s name, failure to show reverence towards him in the offerings being made, and failure to honour their covenant with the one true God by marrying into the worship of other gods. Malachi himself clearly had great respect for the Law of Moses as revealed in the first five books of the Bible. Maybe we’d better remind ourselves here that God’s laws and commandments are, in fact, pretty important! Jesus reminds us, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17).
In Deuteronomy 18:15 we have Moses prophesying to the people that another like himself would one day arise, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.” Who better to be the one to fill this role in Malachi’s eyes than Elijah? Malachi had raised issues regarding marriage. And didn’t Elijah similarly clash with King Ahab over his disastrous marriage to Jezebel and her Baal religion? (1 Kings 16:30–33). Malachi had also very likely referred to a drought in the land, and promised that God would open “the floodgates of heaven” and “pour out” blessings on Israel if only they would honour him in their tithes and offerings. And hadn’t Elijah too declared to Ahab that there would be a drought in the land ? (1 Kings 17:1). These similarities lend support to the idea that Malachi would look to Elijah as the fulfilment of Moses’ prophecy. And, of course, when we come to the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36), all three writers record that Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Jesus on the mountain. There they were together – Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets). Jesus is the summing up of the Law and the Prophets.
In Malachi 4:5 Elijah the great prophet is mentioned by name, and this links back to the “messenger” of 3:1. God declares through Malachi that Elijah will be sent before “that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” Elijah was a unique prophet, taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. We mentioned in Study 4 that the return of Elijah is a popular Jewish belief. He is an important figure in Jewish tradition. I suggested when we looked at Malachi 3:1 (also in Study 4) that John the Baptist was the one who fulfilled the prophecy of the first “messenger” mentioned there, based mainly on the authority of Jesus himself who in Matthew 11:13 spoke of John as “the Elijah who was to come”. John himself of course, when asked, denied that he was Elijah (John 1:21). It’s likely that what he was denying was that he was actually Elijah in person, or that he had a spectacular and miraculous ministry like Elijah’s. For John, that would be something he knew would be true of Jesus and not of himself. Jesus wasn’t saying that John was going to be a literal reincarnation of Elijah. It’s interesting to note in passing that reincarnation is a popular theme today in various belief systems. Jesus’s point was that John would minister “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (as was prophesied of him by the Angel Gabriel in Luke 1:17). It is also said in Malachi 4:6 that the coming of this Elijah-like messenger will “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.” This again finds mention in the Angel Gabriel’s prediction about John in Luke 1:17, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
This turning of hearts of parents to children, and hearts of children to parents, must be more than mending family quarrels or estrangements. It’s estrangement from God that is meant here. The “fathers” would be the ancestors of Israel, the godly forefathers of the nation. The “children” would be the backsliding people of Malachi’s time and after. This was the bond of union that needed mending. The last verse of Malachi (4:6) ends with the words “total destruction” (“decree of utter destruction” in ESV, or the single word “curse” in NRSV). Many commentators have noted that the last word in the Old Testament is a curse. But the Elijah-like figure to come was sent to prepare the way, so that those who responded to the message he brought and who repented, would not be struck by this curse or destruction. They would find blessing! We find all this in our New Testament, where we find Jesus, whose mission was and is to give eternal life to those who believe in him. John was ready to step into the background when Jesus appeared – “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30).
And so we complete our study of this fascinating last book of our Old Testament. Yes, it is complex in places – and yes, there is a lot of background to explore in order to understand it properly. After Malachi we turn the page and find ourselves in the New Testament, where we meet the long hoped for Messiah, the Christ, and we find his blessing. I hope these studies in the Book of Malachi have been useful and relevant. I hope you’ve found that it’s not simply stuck away somewhere at the back end of the Old Testament, but that it actually still speaks today. Thank you for joining me!
One extra thing I hope you will take away with you is that the Old Testament is more than a book for another people of another time. Here’s what one Christian biblical commentator says: “The Old Testament is not something that we try to accommodate ourselves to, as though it were an alien book, belonging to someone else and only ours at second hand. It is our book … We are the inheritors of the promises of God. The Old Testament is not an alien country. It is not somebody else’s property. It is our property.” Amen to that.
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul.
And forget not all his benefits.
O God of love and thought and speech,
we thank you for making us in your own image
so that we too may love and think and speak.
May we learn to hear your voice and respond.
Help us so to know your word that we may understand it,
And so to love it that we may obey it.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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