STUDIES IN MALACHI No. 1
January 12, 2003
Tonight we begin a series of studies in the last book of the Old Testament, the Prophecy of Malachi. Malachi is one of what are called the “Minor Prophets,” minor only in the sense that their books are shorter than those of the major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It was the Latin writers who spoke of them as the Minor Prophets, the Jewish and Greek writers spoke of them simply as The Twelve Prophets. There are, of course, twelve of these small books from Hosea to Malachi. They were in Jewish thought linked together as a division of the Scripture and referred to as “The Twelve.” In a Jewish writing dated approximately 200 years before Christ there is a reference to “the Twelve Prophets,” (Ecclesiasticus 49:10), almost certainly indicating that before that time the twelve minor prophets were considered, if not actually gathered into, a single volume. I chose Malachi for several reasons.
1. For the last while we have been studying NT books, 1 Corinthians and Hebrews, morning and evening on the Lord’s Day. It was time to go back to the Old Testament.
2. The minor prophets are for many of us terra incognita, unknown territory, and I want to overcome your sense that the message of these prophets is inaccessible, inscrutable, or too far removed from the issues of your own lives. I love to help you see how down-to-earth, how practical, how helpful, how relevant the prophets are. They were, after all, just the best preachers of their time.
3. In fact, the prophets as a class speak as directly and helpfully to our own life situation as any biblical authors.
4. Malachi, in particular, has a message that speaks directly to our time and circumstances as American evangelicals and as members of Faith Presbyterian Church.
5. What is more, the book is very simple in its arrangement and I hope that, if you take a few notes, you will feel at home in Malachi for the rest of your lives and often find yourself going there for a spiritual shot-in-the-arm.
6. As I am going to say later, Malachi is all about “preparing ourselves for God’s blessing by presenting to him the kind of lives he delights [to bless].” [Jack Collins, Syllabus, 57] We ought all to be aspiring to do that and Malachi will tell us how. In particular it will tell us what baskets we ought to be putting our eggs in if we would bring the blessings of the Lord down upon our heads.
I want to begin, this evening, by putting the book in its historic context. The first eleven chapters of the Bible provide us with the primitive history of mankind. Then, in the rest of Genesis, the focus narrows on God’s chosen covenant partner, Abraham, and his seed. Central to the covenant God made with Abraham is the promise of land, the land of Canaan, though Abraham is told that it will be centuries before his heirs take possession of the Promised Land. By the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, Abraham’s family has become a nation. That nation, Israel, God’s chosen people, was delivered from bondage in Egypt and brought into the wilderness where, because of her rebellion, she wandered 40 years. After the death of Moses, Joshua, his successor, finally led Israel into the Promised Land where she would dwell for the next 7 centuries or more in her entirety, and a further century and a half as a remnant. Joshua was succeeded by the Judges, a series of charismatic leaders who ruled Israel or a portion of Israel over the next 400 years, the last and greatest of whom was Samuel. It was Samuel who anointed both the first and the second king of the nation of Israel, Saul and then David. Those two, together with David’s son, Solomon, reigned over the nation as a whole, all 12 tribes. But after the death of Solomon, the kingdom was torn in two, divine judgment on Solomon for the sins that marked the latter half of his reign. From that point onward there were two kingdoms, the northern one consisting of the 10 northern tribes, ordinarily referred to as Israel, with Samaria as its capital, and the southern one, called Judah after the most prominent of the two southern tribes, the other being Benjamin.
The northern kingdom was apostate from the very beginning, at least its official position was that of spiritual rebellion against the Lord and his covenant. False and idolatrous worship was introduced by the first king and never eradicated. There were pious folk among its population, but they were few in number and completely marginalized in their influence. Even the succession of great prophets that were sent to Israel did not succeed in summoning her to repentance. That succession included such luminaries as Elijah and Elisha, Jonah, Hosea, and Amos, as well as other men, including some whose names we know, who never wrote books of the Bible.
At some point in the 7th or 8th century B.C., Israel, the northern kingdom, passed the spiritual point of no return. The hammer blow of divine judgment fell upon her, wielded by the Assyrian empire, in 721 B.C. The population of Israel was removed from the land and scattered among the other subject people’s of the empire and Israel as a political entity ceased to exist. There were some few folk, from the ten northern tribes, who had already moved south or who somehow escaped the deportation, so you might find a few folk, like the prophetess Anna, who met the infant Jesus in the temple, who hailed from Asher, one of the northern tribes. But, by and large, the Jews, as a people known to human history since before Christ and up to the present day, descend from the southern kingdom and the northern tribes have simply disappeared, their distinct identity having been dissolved by thorough mixture with the Gentile world. Indeed, it is very doubtful than any Jew, nowadays, could safely claim knowledge of his or her ancestry in any of the northern tribes. A Jew is, for all intents and purposes, a descendant of the people who formed the southern kingdom.
The southern two tribes, usually referred to as Judah, from the beginning of their separate history after the reign of Solomon, experienced an alternation of good and bad kings and of more or less faithful and unfaithful national life as the people of God. Good kings such as Asa, Hezekiah and Josiah enacted spiritual reforms and bad kings such as Ahaz and Manasseh undid those reforms and accommodated Judah’s life and worship to the customs and the convictions of the peoples round about. A succession of bad kings, beginning with and following upon the long 55 year reign of Manasseh, led finally to Judah’s judgment at the hands of the Babylonians. The judgment fell in successive stages, but finally and catastrophically in 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed, the nation’s political, religious, social, and economic leadership was deported to Babylon and only peasants left to work the land on behalf of the conquerors. This “exile” was the curse for covenantal unfaithfulness that had long before been promised in the law of God, just as prosperity in the land was the blessing promised for covenantal faithfulness. Jeremiah, whose prophetic ministry spanned the last years of Judah’s independent existence and the first few years of the exile, had prophesied that Judah would remain in exile for 70 years.
In fact, God was better than his word. It was barely 50 years after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586, 60 from an earlier deportation in 597, and still less than 70 from the token first deportation in 605 when the Jews, in 538 B.C. were granted permission to return to Judea and Jerusalem.
Things would, of course, never be the same as once they were. Judah was no longer a great nation and would never be again. She was ruled as a small client kingdom by a mighty empire – she was just one of 120 provinces of the vast Persian empire – and, from the viewpoint of the imperial court, Judea was no more, no less than scores of other client states that existed to pay taxes into the imperial treasury. The stage of world politics was dominated by great empires and would be for centuries to come. The fate of Judah would be determined at the whim of great empires for whom Jerusalem was nothing more than a small spot on the map. She was to be for a long time a small piece of flotsam caught up from time to time in the maelstrom of Ancient Near Eastern political and military movements. And so it would be until her national life ended completely in A.D. 70 when the Romans, tired of dealing with rebellions fed by nationalistic aspirations among the Jews, subdued the nation by military action, destroyed Jerusalem, and dissolved Judea completely into the administrative structure of the empire.
So it was a small company that returned to Judah from Babylon after the exile and it was to very diminished circumstances that they returned. The city of Jerusalem itself was still largely in ruins from its destruction 50 years before. The walls of the city were broken down. The country was poor. Her territory was reduced to the City of Jerusalem itself and its environs, approximately 20 miles by 25 miles. The population probably did not number more than 150,000 people. [Stuart, 1253] But a new beginning was made. The ministry of the two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, which began shortly after the exiles returned from Babylon (Haggai’s ministry, so far as it is reported in his book, was in 520 B.C.; Zechariah’s about the same time) encouraged them. By 516 B.C. a new temple had been built, even if it did not compare with Solomon’s temple. But the City of Jerusalem remained a ruin, inhabited only here and there by squatters. Agriculture did not rebound quickly and many of the people remained poor. The taxes, tolls, and tributes that had to be paid to the Persian imperial treasury ensured that economic activity would remain sluggish.
The returning exiles may have expected that once back in the Promised Land God would immediately establish the glory of his kingdom as in former days, but those hopes soon faded. Only a few of the folk who had been exiled returned and those who did found that the people then living in the land were neither happy to see them nor willing to let them rebuild their country. They frustrated every effort to recreate the country that had been destroyed decades before by the Babylonians. Discouragement quickly set in. But Haggai and Zechariah’s ministry produced “a revival of sorts” [Collins, 56]. Both Haggai and Zechariah spoke of the Messiah’s coming and of the establishment of his kingdom, but decades had now passed and the Messiah had still not come. By Malachi’s time the new enthusiasm and hopefulness had faded. The people were past believing that God was going to do anything grand on their behalf. It was now a time of spiritual discouragement, of complaining, of growing indifference to God’s law, of perfunctory worship. Spiritual doldrums had set in.
So the situation Malachi faced was the same situation faced by Ezra, when he came to Jerusalem in 458 B.C., eighty years after the first return of exiles from Babylon, and by Nehemiah when he came to Jerusalem in 445 B.C. Precisely how Malachi fits into the Ezra/Nehemiah chronology we cannot tell, but it seems to have been about the same time.
One indication of this is that the concerns raised by Ezra and Nehemiah in their work of reformation are some of the same that are mentioned by Malachi: spiritually mixed marriages, the neglect of tithing, disregard for keeping the Sabbath, the corruption of the priesthood, and social injustice. [Collins, 56] You find the same subjects in Malachi that you find in Ezra and Nehemiah. Jack Collins and some other scholars I have read suggest that it is most likely that Malachi preached before the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, preparing the way for them, preparing the hearts of the people to receive them and to embrace them when they were enacted. [Stuart, 1253]
Now let’s consider as we begin the obvious fact that the historical setting of Malachi confirms and that is reconfirmed wherever we read in the Bible and by our own observation and experience as Christians. You can put this point in various ways.
1. For example, we can observe, as the Bible teaches us to observe, that in the history of the kingdom of God there are long stretches in which very little happens. The 400 some years that Israel spent in Egypt are passed over virtually without comment in the Bible. The 400 years during which the Judges ruled over Israel begin and end with the people in very much the same situation. There have been ups and downs along the way, as, no doubt, there were in Egypt, but the situation as a whole remains the same. After the exile, this would be true again. For most of 500 years the people of God, the church of God, occupies a tiny backwater of the Ancient Near Eastern imperial world and the spiritual condition of the people waxes and wanes within a set of circumstances that changes little for centuries. I do not mean to say, of course, that the Lord was doing nothing during those long stretches of history. During those generations his elect came into possession of his salvation and their eternal life, and history was being prepared both in general and in detail for major events that were eventually to come to pass. For example, by all accounts in one very important particular Judaism was never the same after the exile: I mean, she never flirted with idolatry, the worship of images and pagan worship in general. The exile wrung that out of her system for good. But, notwithstanding, we must not lose sight of the practically important fact that there were 700 years between the messianic prophecies of Isaiah and Micah and their fulfillment in the coming of Christ. There would be more than 400 years between Malachi’s prophecy of the coming of the Lord and of his predecessor, John the Baptist, and the fulfillment of those prophecies. And through all of those years, the circumstances of God’s people remained at a relatively low ebb.
If one has a biblical mind about the life of the church in the world, one thing he or she will know and expect is that there will be long stretches when little happens. Days of small things will be more the rule than the exception. We might well have thought that the return from the exile would herald a new golden age for Israel. But it did not. It ushered in another day of small things and that day was to last for five centuries or more. [Don’t mistake me, over time great things, very great things have come to pass; the little community around Jerusalem has become one-third of the world’s population of 6 billion souls. But for large tracts of time there is little obvious advance.]
This is a very important recognition, because without it Christians are much more subject to the temptation to be dishonest about their faith and their spiritual situation. The fact is there is much in the Bible’s teaching of our faith and its description of it that is grand, sweeping, utterly convincing, and very appealing. Miracles, great spiritual movements, the kingdom of God sweeping all before itself in its march through history, the church taking on the world and besting it, and so on. All of that is there without doubt. And we want the same to be so in our time, in our life, in our experience. We want miracles and we want the gospel to sweep the unbelieving world before itself as it takes hold of the hearts of vast multitudes of people. We want the Exodus and the Conquest, we want to see Jericho’s walls fall before us, we want David and Solomon’s empire, we want the Assyrian army to fall by the hundreds of thousands, we want Pentecost and evangelism that gathers in the elect by the thousands at one stroke.
But, much of the time in the history of the kingdom of God it is not like that, it was not like that. And when we fail to recognize this and accept this as the fact that it is, we end up with Benny Hinn who finds the ordinary situation of Christians in this world entirely too uninteresting and so seeks to persuade us that we can have the Exodus, Jericho, and Pentecost all the time. And, as some of us saw who watched the expose of his ministry several weeks ago on television, there are large numbers of Christians who are prepared to believe him, no doubt because they so much want him to be telling them the truth. But it is not the truth, nobody seems really to be healed miraculously at his meetings, and though immense sums of money are given to his ministry, no one can find out where that money goes.
But Malachi reminds us that the advance of the kingdom of God usually takes place at a very pedestrian pace, even omnipotence works gradually. For hundreds of years, sometimes, it is hard to tell if it is moving forward or backward, all things considered. Such has often been the case in the history of the church and, I would think, such is the case presently in the history of the church in North America. In our day of marketing hype, no one wants to admit this, but the fact is the evangelical Christian church is not growing significantly if at all in the United States and hasn’t been for some years. What is more, its spiritual condition, in many respects seems worse now than it was some years ago. I don’t say that all things are worse; some are better, but all in all it does not appear that the people of God today are more devout or more obedient to God than was the previous generation of the church. What Malachi reminds us is that there is nothing unusual about the church’s condition, about years passing in which the church seems simply to back and fill and not move forward in any decisive way. It has very often been the story.
2. You can put the basic lesson of Malachi’s historical situation in another way. We can say that it reminds us that very often God’s people must be called back to faithfulness to him. It is fact of the church’s existence in the world that her faith remains at full flood only for a time, that it wanes, and that it must be re-animated by the Spirit of God.
The exiles who returned to Jerusalem after 538 did so under strong spiritual conviction. They wanted to return to the Promised Land. They felt that because they were the people of God they belonged there. They wanted to see God’s church and kingdom restored and were willing to make great personal sacrifice on behalf of that restoration. Shortly after, in the teeth of the discouragements they encountered when back in the land, their faith began to flag and a creeping worldliness began to sap the life out of their devotion to the Lord. They were renewed in faith, hope, and love under the ministry of Haggai and Zechariah. But, now, some decades later, they were in the doldrums again. Along comes Malachi, Ezra and Nehemiah – sent by the Lord – to reinvigorate their faith.
There is a constant, regular need for spiritual renewal in the church of God. We know it is so in our own lives, individually. We know how often and how much we wax and wane in our devotion to the Lord, our communion with him in the Word of God and in prayer, in our service of his name and cause. We know how our joy in the Lord comes and goes and our sense of his nearness and working in our lives. Asked if he had any complaint against the Lord Jesus Christ, a noted Highland preacher of old replied, “Yes, that he comes so seldom and stays so short a time.” [Banner of Truth 397 (Oct. 1996) 1]
And, what is true of the individual believer’s life is also true of the life of the church as a whole. Her zeal flags and then she rests in doldrums for a time and then needs to be reawakened. And this cycle continues even in a day of small things. I think it is true of the life of individual congregations, no matter what is happening in the Christian world at large. I certainly have been able to tell, others also I’m sure, that there have been times when this congregation has been thriving spiritually, at least relatively speaking, and times when it has grown dull. It would frankly surprise me, knowing what I know of the teaching of the Bible, if that were not the case. Malachi is all about revival: the need for it, the means to seek it, the likely consequences of the Spirit of God bringing it.
You need revival, I certainly do; we all do together, the church does in the United States and in the entire world. So, we have every reason to take heed to Malachi’s message.