STUDIES IN MALACHI No. 3
January 26, 2003
Malachi, we have said, is a summons to repentance and revival. In six disputations, the prophet summons the people to forsake their spiritual doldrums and half-hearted commitment to the Lord and return to an active faith and the practice of devotion to God. As one commentator says, “His teaching, both negative and positive, strikes at the heart of easy-going, nominal Christianity, as it did at that of Judaism.” [Baldwin, 218] Malachi urges upon us a life that, far from a mere going-through-the-motions, is actually and practically a matter of “walking with the Lord.” [2:6] We have said that Malachi is all about preparing ourselves for God’s blessing by presenting to him the kind of hearts and lives he delights to bless. [Jack Collins] It is a six-fold wake-up call to renewed covenant fidelity. [Hugenberger, 5]
v.1 The word the NIV translates “oracle” is in the OT a virtual synonym for the phrase “the word of the Lord,” but the word, interestingly, has overtones of “burden” or “compulsion.” That is, the word has come to the prophet and he experiences it as an obligation he must discharge, he feels himself under a constraint to repeat what has been said to him. Like Jeremiah, who said that the word of the Lord was like a “fire in his bones,” [20:9], Malachi feels the burden of his message.
Malachi is definitely “the word of the Lord,” or divine revelation. Nearly half of the remaining 54 verses of the book include some phrase like “says the Lord,” or “the Lord says,” or “this is what the Lord Almighty says,” or, especially, “says the Lord Almighty.” [Hugenberger, 9]
Now, interestingly, the name “Malachi” is the same word in Hebrew as “My messenger.” You have it as “my messenger” in 3:1. The latter seems to be something of a play on the prophet’s name.
Note the address: “to Israel.” Israel is the covenant name of God’s people. Other names will be used in the book: Judah (2:11; 3:4), Jacob (1:2; 2:12, 3:6)
v.2 I am no Hebrew scholar, so I merely report to you the interesting fact that most of the English translations of the Bible print vv. 2-5 as prose while most biblical scholarship thinks its poetry (note the characteristic parallelism of Hebrew poetry).
Now we said last time that the covenant that God made with Israel is the foundation of Malachi’s preaching. Israel is jeopardizing their covenant relationship with the Lord and Malachi is urging her to return to faithfulness to the covenant lest the curses of the covenant befall her. So, it is natural that he begins with the covenant and God’s choice of Israel to be his partner.
Now, perhaps its not so difficult to understand why the people of God should have come to doubt God’s love for them or, at any rate, to be unimpressed with it. If God loved Israel so much and so well why was the country and its capital in ruins? Why had it been reduced to a tiny client state of some great pagan imperial power? Why were his people finding life so difficult and prosperity so hard to come by? We already said that it is not necessary to hold that Israel actually said these precise words to Malachi, but it is not hard to believe that Malachi may have heard their like from hecklers as he preached in the streets.
v.3 Now two things need to be said about Edom. First, in the Bible, Edom, though a little country, was often used as a synecdoche [the figure of speech that puts a part for the whole] for all the enemies of Israel because she was “the earliest, latest, closest, and most consistently hostile of all Israel’s enemies.” [Stuart, 1281] At no point in Israel’s history was Edom an ally, as were, at one time or another, most of the other nations round about. As Israel weakened through the 7th century B.C., Edom encroached more and more on Judean territory. Recently an Edomite shrine or worship center was discovered in what was then southern Judea. The shrine seems to have been in use from about 595 to 575 B.C. That is, just before and after the destruction of Jerusalem, there were enough Edomites in southern Judea to justify a worship center. If God loves us, the Jews may often have asked in the years leading up to the Babylonian invasion and the years after, how come the Edomites are taking over our country? [Stuart, 1288]
Second, Edom survived the Babylonian invasion of the Levant that left Judah desolate. In fact several of the prophets complain of Edom’s rejoicing over Israel’s fall and of her taking advantage of Israel’s calamity to enlarge her own territory and exact revenge on Judah. So the calamity that has befallen Edom now, according to v. 3, must refer to later troubles during the time of Malachi. We know that Edom was gradually overrun by the Nabateans and by the middle/later 5th century had become a non-nation. The Nabateans were semi-nomads and allowed the cities of Edom to go to ruin and their grazing herds ate up much of the plant life and so destroyed what had been arable land. This was nothing the Persian government would have concerned itself with, so Edom had no protection. [Stuart, 1289]
v.4 If the Edomites think that they will be able to recover, they are mistaken. God’s judgment will rest upon them and he will frustrate whatever efforts they make. Edom, though spared destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, was far worse off in the middle/later 5th century B.C. than Israel. Israel had been destroyed, sent into exile, but had returned and rebuilt in the years since their return.
v.5 This indicates that in Malachi’s time the Edomites had not yet been thoroughly destroyed. Judah will yet witness Israel’s destruction. Other ANE nations thought their gods to be of local influence only and could only project their power into those areas where they were worshipped. Israel’s God was the one true and living God who reigned over all the world and all the nations of the world, both to build up and to tear down.
Now, what we have in vv. 2 and 3 is divine election lying at the bottom of God’s covenant with his people. God chose Israel and not Edom, as he chose Jacob, the younger of the twin brothers, and not Esau.
Now, it is true that we are talking here about nations and not individuals, head for head. It is no more true that all Edomites were lost than it is true that all Israelites were saved.
It is also true that the “love…hate” language here should be taken in its covenantal meaning. We should not interpret it, especially when used of God, in terms of human psychology as if we are talking about a vindictive spirit or personal animosity.
Interestingly, in Deuteronomy 23:7, Israel is expressly forbidden to hate the Edomite, “for he is your brother,” we read. In a context such as this one, the terms should be read as the equivalent of to choose and to reject. And such was, of course, what God did. He chose Israel and rejected Edom.
All of that being said, however, as the Apostle Paul clearly sees, when he cites this very text in Romans 9:13, we do have sovereign election here, the principle of it is stated clearly here. Even if, at this point, we are speaking of the election of a nation, that election has in view the election of individuals. God does exercise a discrimination between human beings, choosing some and rejecting others. Paul goes on to say, as do many other biblical writers, that within this more general election is found a specific and personal election. It wasn’t just with a view to nations chosen for their place in the history of salvation that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. His election at that point and at many subsequent points would be of specific individuals and because of that election they would be saved and for want of it others would not. It is true that some Gentiles in the ancient epoch were saved and many Israelites were not but that too, as Paul teaches, was according to God’s election. And the Apostle goes on to say in many places, it is according to that same election, that same choice, that divine grace seeks out and finds each individual who is drawn to faith in Jesus Christ and obtains eternal life. In other words, election is a principle of God’s dealing with human beings and here, certainly, it bears on the greatest question of all: how a man or woman, boy or girl, comes to know the Lord and obtain his salvation. That is what Malachi is talking about; that is what he is interested in.
Even at this more general level, of two nations, one favored and one rejected, Israel and Edom, we have a discrimination on God’s part that results in salvation for some and not for others. Few in Edom were saved, many in Israel were saved. And, if the prophets make anything clear, that difference has nothing to do with Israel being more worthy of salvation than the other nations. As Paul says, God’s choice of Jacob and rejection of Esau, announced long before the twins had done anything good or bad, was in order that salvation might be of God’s doing and not of our works, by his calling and not by our deserving. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,” says the Lord. “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” That is Paul’s take on our text here.
Now, I believe in divine election. I believe that such a choice, such an act of specific discrimination on God’s part lies at the bottom of the salvation of everyone who ever has been saved, is saved, or will be saved. I believe it for many reasons.
1. First, I believe it because it is so clearly, so comprehensively, and so emphatically taught in the Bible. The fact of the matter is that if words mean anything a sovereign election to salvation is taught in Holy Scripture hundreds of times. Paul teaches it so bluntly that he anticipates the common objections that will be raised against it: that it seems to make God unfair because in choosing only some he treats people differently and that election nullifies the human will because it places the decision with God and not with us. Only a doctrine of sovereign election, of God choosing those who will be saved, is subject to those objections. And Paul admitted his doctrine was subject to them.
“He chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless in his sight…” Eph. 1:4
“For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, and…and whom he predestined those he also called, and whom he called, those he also justified, and those he justified, those he also glorified.” Rom. 8:29,30
“You did not choose me, but I chose you, that you should go and bear fruit.” John 15:16
“For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God. The Lord has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, above all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.” Deut. 7:6
“As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Acts 13:48
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” John 10:28-30
And believe me, we are just getting started. There are hundreds more texts where those came from. It is precisely because election lies in the bedrock of divine revelation and of salvation as it is revealed in the Bible that times without number saints who have come to see this doctrine have likened it to an opening of their eyes upon a new world. The Bible, they say, sprang to life and they saw many things in the light of this doctrine, things that were clearly present in the Bible’s teaching, but which had been invisible to them before.
That was Charles Spurgeon’s own testimony.
“When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me. I do not think the young convert is at first aware of this. I can recall the very day and hour when first I received those truths in my own soul – when they were, as John Bunyan says, burnt into my heart as with a hot iron, and I can recollect how I felt that I had grown on a sudden from babe into a man – that I had made progress in Scriptural knowledge, through having found, once for all, the clue to the truth of God.” [Autobiography, i, 164-165]
2. I also believe in divine election as the fundamental explanation of anyone’s salvation because the church has believed it. I know full well that not all Christian teachers have taught this divine election and many Christians have not believed it. The semi-Pelagians after Augustine’s time and the Arminians after the Reformation, but I don’t hesitate to say that the church’s greatest minds, her doctors through the ages, have been virtually unanimous in teaching this doctrine of sovereign grace. Augustine, Aquinas, the magisterial reformers – Luther, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger – , those who later sought, unsuccessfully to bring reformation to the Roman Catholic church, such as Blaise Pascal, the Puritans (from the great scholars such as Owen to the pastors such as John Bunyan), most of the Great Awakening Men – Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, Richard Cecil, Augustus Toplady – , the great missionaries – Livingstone, Carey, Martyn, Morrison, Paton, and William Burns, and great preachers such as Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd Jones. Many of these men did not at first believe in sovereign grace, but they came under the spell of the Bible’s teaching and their own experience and could no longer deny it. I read the Bible, I look at this list of men and great minds and great hearts, and I confess that I will need much more than the arguments I have so far heard from the other side to persuade me that my salvation did not originate in and did not come to me because of the sovereign grace of God.
3. I also believe in divine election because of my own experience. I know myself too well. I know the hardness of my own heart and I know my proclivity to sin and my bent toward the flesh and the world. I know how hard it is for me to believe, even as a Christian! I know full well that I would not have become a Christian or have remained a Christian were it not for God, for the drawing of the Spirit of God and the immutability of God’s love. Every Christian knows this. Every Christian who prays for an unsaved loved one knows this. He or she turns to God and asks him to save that man or that woman, that boy or that girl. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of praying is the law of believing. You can tell what a Christian really knows and really believes by what he says to God in prayer. And when Christians pray, and especially when they pray for the salvation of others, they all believe in sovereign grace and election. That is also true when Christians sing. Charles Wesley, when debating the point, would deny divine election. But when singing of his own salvation, he would write a verse like this:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night,
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light,
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
That’s all I want to say about my salvation or the salvation of anyone. It was God’s gift and God’s doing and God’s work. I know it was and I know it is.
4. I also believe in divine election because of the witness of history. The fact is God has separated between nations and between human beings. That fact is writ large over the history of the world. Whole civilizations rose and fall with no word of salvation in Christ. Other nations and peoples received that word. And among those who heard the good news, many of the most unlikely people believed and many whom we might well have expected to believe did not. And it remains the same today. Why one believes and another does not has nothing to do with how bright or savvy or good or bad a person is, but only with whether or not the Holy Spirit is sent into his or her heart.
The great example of the coming of salvation to a person in the NT is the conversion of the Apostle Paul. And here was a man who was not looking to believe in Christ, found the very idea disgusting and impossible, and then, a moment later, flat on his face in the dust of the road, found himself addressing Jesus Christ himself as “Lord.” If we are taught anything in that history it is that salvation is of the Lord. He chooses its objects and then accomplishes his gracious purposes in them. Why one and not another? “For so it seemed good in your sight, O Lord.”
5. I also believe in divine election because the alternative is impossibly repulsive to me.
I don’t mean merely that it places the destiny of mankind in man’s own hands. That seems to me an altogether silly and absurd view and impossible to square either with Holy Scripture or the facts of the world. I do find that view demeaning of God and unworthy of the salvation Christ obtained for his people. But, more than that, I mean that if salvation, mine and yours, does not originate in the mind and the heart of God, then the outcome of this life, the destiny of all human beings is all just some terrible accident. Not only am I the captain of my fate after all, those without Christ really are just truly luckless and unfortunate. They are no worse nor better than I – I know that – so the fact that I am saved and they are not saved must be chalked up to….NOTHING!
That is a horrible thing to contemplate and makes something of this world utterly different than what the Bible teaches me to believe. Now there is no hand at the helm in matters of the greatest importance. There is no sacred, holy, righteous purpose being fulfilled. There is no infinite wisdom that lies behind the difficult things that I cannot understand – why some are saved and others are not. I see the reality of that everywhere I look in this world – people I know and love who do not and will not believe in Christ – but do I have to believe that this reality is purposeless, under no one’s control, serving no infinitely wise and holy purpose and leading to no result that was in view from the very beginning of the world?
I can’t answer the many questions that force themselves upon the mind and the heart in the face of God’s election. I feel the force of those objections, the very objections Paul teaches me to expect to feel in my heart. But I also want to know and the Bible assures me that I can know that the Almighty God can answer all those questions with an answer that is entirely sufficient, for wisdom, for righteousness, for love, for mercy, for justice. If he requires us to trust him for that, well, I can do that, for he is, after all, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of his love and goodness I can have no doubt whatsoever.
Remember, it is this doctrine of radical grace, of salvation rooted in the love and gracious choice of God that separates our thinking from that of the world and other faiths. Pagans had some idea of God’s sovereignty, but they removed the moral sphere from its control. Take, for example, Cicero [De Nat. Deorum, iii, 36]:
“For gold, land, and all the blessings of life we have to return thanks to God; but no one ever returned thanks to God for virtue.”
Well, Christians do! And Christians know they must return thanks to God especially for virtue! But it wasn’t only pagans who made that mistake. It was precisely this mistake that Judaism made. Here is one rabbi:
“Neither evil nor good comes from God; but are the results of our deeds.” [Midrash Rabbah]
And another [Megilla 25a]:
“All is in the hands of God except the fear of God.”
Christianity as defined in the Bible and experienced in the soul of believers is nothing so much as the categorical denial of those sentiments. For faith, for repentance, for every grace by which we come to know Christ, love him, and trust in him, and continue to do so, we have God to thank, who loved us and chose us for this grace before the world was made.
Now, Malachi’s message to his contemporaries and to us is precisely this: in a time of trouble and difficulty, this is where we must begin: with the love and the choice of God. If we know this, we know all that we need to know. When the world seems to be going on in complete indifference to the gospel or people of God, when wickedness seems to abound in every direction, when the church herself seems weak and unimpressive, we lift our hearts to God and know him again as the sovereign ruler of the world, who holds the nations in his hand, and before whom, as Isaiah reminds us, all the nations are as nothing, and like a drop in the bucket. And this God, this mighty Lord, this universal sovereign, loves us with an everlasting love.
“If [this] God be for us, who can be against us?” That is the point Malachi makes at the outset of his prophecy. He is saying the same thing Zechariah, his near contemporary said when he wrote, “…for whoever touches you touches the apple of [God’s] eye.” [2:8] If we know this, then we can be sure that God will not fail to care for us and bless us, as he has promised in his word, no matter the difficulties we face. And so, our task becomes to be faithful to him and to his covenant come wind, come weather. Nothing else matters. He is the Lord, his will will be done. Our enemies cannot prevail, our Edoms can do us no harm, with the Lord on our side. Let us then live for him and walk with him in the covenant he has so graciously made with us, let us rest in his love, in the confidence that if we have troubles they have been appointed for our good by a God who loves us and if we have blessings they have come from his hand.