Malachi 2:17-3:5


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STUDIES IN MALACHI No. 8
Malachi 2:17-3:5
March 9, 2003

Text Comment

We have come to Malachi’s fourth disputation, the fourth of six. The failure of the people identified in this disputation is that of doubting the Lord’s justice. The Lord’s reply is a promise of a divine messenger to cleanse his people, to restore true worship and to enact justice. And, as always, judgment will begin with the household of God. Some ideas that we have already encountered in Malachi we encounter again in this disputation: for example the need for the reform of the priesthood and the purification of Israel’s worship. The outline of the disputation follows that of the previous ones: the prophet’s assertion, the people’s question, the response, and then the implication or explanation.

2:17 “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord” is ironic. It is not likely that anyone was actually saying or even thinking this. But you get the point. There was a lot happening that wasn’t good and the Lord didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. Since evil was prevailing in Israel, God couldn’t be much bothered by it, could he? [Stuart, 1348]

“Where is the God of justice?” is more straightforward. These sorts of expressions are, of course, not limited to Malachi. God’s people have often wondered where the Lord was and why he didn’t intervene to put things right.

3:1 The Lord now answers the frustrations expressed in 2:17. He says that he will respond and address the injustices that plague his people.

Now this statement in 3:1 is a very important messianic prophecy. The Lord (Yahweh) says that he will send “my messenger” to prepare the way before himself. Now, “my messenger” is the same word as “Malachi” in 1:1. Perhaps we are being told that Malachi’s ministry foreshadowed that of this coming messenger who would prepare the way of the Lord.

The parallelism in 3:1 indicates that “the Lord you are seeking” and “the messenger of the covenant whom you desire” are the same. But that figure is distinguished from “my messenger” at the beginning of the verse. We have two figures here, an interpretation confirmed in 4:5 and then in the New Testament where we learn that John the Baptist was the messenger the Lord sent ahead of “the messenger of the covenant.”

However, the ministry of this “coming messenger” that is described in 3:2-5, that is, the ministry of the “Lord who will suddenly come” who is “the messenger of the covenant” is clearly the ministry of a divine figure. He does the things that only the Lord has the power and the authority to do. What is more, in both 3:1 and 3:5 there seems to be an identification between the messenger of the covenant and the Lord Almighty. In 3:1 we have the messenger of the covenant “coming” and in 3:5 “I,” that is, the Lord, “coming.” He is both the sender and the sent. [Stuart, 1347] The messiah is a divine figure.

In sum, the verse says that God is going to send someone to prepare people for the sudden arrival of the individual whom people are longing for and that this individual is both the Lord and the messenger of the covenant. “Throughout recorded history all cultures have employed the commonsense method of sending messengers to prepare people for the arrival of an important person…” [Stuart, 1352]

3:2 The “day of the Lord” is a concept that is found frequently in the OT prophets. It refers broadly to a time when the Lord will appear as a conquering Judge to punish the wicked and vindicate the righteous. It is a day that ushers in a new era of blessing. In the NT all references to the “day of the Lord” are to the second coming of the Lord Jesus, which, of course, will fulfill and complete all the expectations for the “day of the Lord” in the OT prophets. Here Malachi uses simply “the day of his coming,” but in 4:5 he uses the more precise phrase “the day of the Lord.”

But here, as elsewhere in the prophets, there is a surprising reversal. The assumption of the people was that the day of the Lord would be a great day for them. They would be delivered from their enemies and granted prosperity. But here Malachi asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming?” The day of the Lord in the prophets is sometimes presented as a time of the deliverance of God’s people, and sometimes as a time of judgment for God’s people. It depends, of course, on whether the people being addressed are living in faithfulness to the Lord or not. For those who have kept the covenant the day of the Lord will be welcome deliverance. For those who have broken it, it will be judgment and curse.

“Refiner’s fire” refers to the use of fire to purify metal, to separate the dross or slag from the pure metal. It was an image Malachi drew from the everyday life of Israel. The prophets often use this image to describe either the Lord’s elimination of the impure from his people or his purifying of them. “Launderer’s soap” was a form of lye used to soak the dirt out of clothes. Both fire and lye are agents by which what deserves to remain is separated from what does not.

3:4 Again, like the refiner and the fuller he will separate from the Levites those who are covenant breakers and purify those who have kept the covenant. And the result will be a renewed and reformed worship. Worship is chosen as the object of reformation because it has already been mentioned as something in the life of God’s people in that day that had become corrupt, because it is so much an indicator of the spiritual condition of God’s people, and because it is the engine of everything holy and good in the life of God’s people. Fix that and you fix much!

3:5 There has been a question as to whether this disputation ends as 3:5 or 3:6. But it seems clear now that 3:5 is its conclusion. The evidence for this is that 3:5 seems to mirror 2:17 – 3:2 and form a kind of inclusio with it. You’ll notice, for example, that both 2:17-3:2 and 3:5 have a promise of coming judgment (both have the word “judgment” and the word “come”) and both have the same “says the Lord Almighty.”

Malachi isn’t only interested in questions of right worship. Those questions always go together with right living. As so often in the prophets the sins of worship and of life go together and so does the reformation of worship and life. V. 5 rounds out the disputation by cataloging some of the sins that had caused the people to say that “the Lord likes evil-doers.” These are clearly sins that were commonplace in Malachi’s time. Seven violations of the covenant law are mentioned, violations that will bring the covenant curses down upon Israel if she does not repent and return to the Lord in faithfulness. Seven sins indicates well enough that the covenant was being broken.

1. Sorcery was a pagan practice forbidden in the law and that represented a pagan view both of God and of his way of directing his people. The fact that it had reappeared in Israel is some measure of the degeneracy of the people several generations after the reformation under Haggai and Zechariah.
2. Adultery was as common in those days as it is in ours.
3. Perjury overturned justice in court and violated an oath made to God.
4. Defrauding laborers of their wages was done by paying less than the agreed amount to those who couldn’t seek redress, or paying them later than agreed upon, or taking undue advantage of a buyer’s marker for labor.
5. Widows and the fatherless were particularly vulnerable members of the society and easily exploited. But, in Deuteronomy, we are reminded that the Lord “defends the cause of the orphan and widow” [10:18] and expects his people to do the same. This amounts to a failure to care for the poor.
6. Mistreating aliens, another instance of taking advantage of the vulnerable in society, was a sin forbidden in the covenant law precisely because it suggested a lack of understanding of and appreciation for what the Lord had done for Israel, who were at one times aliens in a foreign land and had been delivered from oppression by the grace and power of God.
7. “Do not fear God” is probably a summary of all of the above. Fearing God and keeping his commandments amount to the same thing in Deuteronomy, though specifically the obedience comes out of the reverence that God’s people have and feel for the Lord.

In all these ways, and, no doubt, many others, the people are showing contempt for God and for the covenant he made with them. They don’t fear God and they don’t really believe in him or they would live much differently. That is Malachi’s point.

Now, what we have here we have in other OT prophecies as well. The people want the day of the Lord to come. They are expecting that good things will happen when that day dawns. So it is natural that Malachi should say in 3:1 that the people are “seeking” the coming of the Lord and that they “desire” the messenger of the covenant. The same thing happened before, if you remember.

In the prophet Amos’ day, in the 8th century B.C., four hundred years before Malachi, Israel was longing for and crying out for the day of the Lord, sure that when God intervened he would deal mercilessly with Israel’s enemies and pour out blessings upon his people. But Amos told them that the day of the Lord would in fact be a catastrophe for them, not salvation and vindication.

“Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled
from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his
hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light – pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness.” [5:18-20]

As God’s people so easily do, in Amos’ day and in Malachi’s day they had forgotten that the Lord’s favor is reserved not for those who belong to the people of God in some external way, but for those who love and serve him in faithfulness. That is Malachi’s main point here. This disputation is a warning against a false presumption. The problem is not that God is failing to vindicate his people, the problem is that there is nothing for God to vindicate in their life and behavior. They deserve his judgment not his blessing.

But I want us also to take note of an important lesson in this text.

I am speaking about the delay in the exercise of God’s judgment that is suggested in 3:1-5. In 2:17 the people want God to come and put things right. And in 3:1 he says that he shall. And he did. But, the fact is, John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus were not born for more than 4 centuries after Malachi uttered this prophecy. And only a few were really waiting for them any longer when they arrived. The rest had grown tired. But not Simeon, not Anna, who were both, the Scripture says, “waiting for the consolation of Israel.”

When Simeon lived Abraham had been dead nearly 2000 years, Moses 1,400. The great prophets, whose predictions of the coming of the Messiah had for so long stirred the blood of believers, lay centuries in the past. And the last of the prophets, Malachi had lived more than four centuries before. Simeon’s ancestors had lived, generation after generation, in hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord, but all of them had died in disappointment. And now Simeon himself was old. No doubt, being a mere man, he too had given up hope that God’s promise would be fulfilled in his lifetime. And, then, suddenly, the Lord came into the temple and Simeon saw him with his own eyes. We can only dimly imagine what that must have meant to that good old man who had waited so long. But we hear the longing of the ages fulfilled in Simeon’s famous words: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” “It was worth all the waiting to see this,” that is what Simeon meant.

There is a great deal of this in the Bible. God responds to the outcry of his people with the promise of his intervention and then does not intervene for a long time, centuries in come cases. We are well used to this reality in the New Testament. “Behold I am coming quickly,” the Lord tells us at the end of Revelation, but it is now 2,000 years ago that he said that, as much time as separated Abraham from the birth of the Messiah.

Of course, what happens on the grand scale of the history of the world and the kingdom of God happens also on the scale of the individual human life. We wait and wait sometimes for the promise of God to be fulfilled and, sometimes, we wait for all our lives and never see them fulfilled. Over and again we are told in the Bible that we will have to wait for what we hope for from God’s hand, we will have to wait for our day of the Lord.
God withholding himself and not coming immediately to his people’s aid is a common theme in the Psalms.

“Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”
[27:14]

“As the eyes of the slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes
of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord
our God, till he shows us his mercy.” [123:2]

And when we read the Psalms and the rest of the Bible we learn what sort of things we must wait for, things the Lord has promised but does not give us as soon as we would like. We must wait for the sanctification of our hearts and lives, a blessing that would make life so much richer and easier for us. There are special burdens that each must bear and we have cried out for the Lord to lift them from us and he has made us wait, sometimes for many years. And we wait for the Lord himself, that he would draw near as he has sometimes done and give us such a sense of his love and joy in our salvation that all our doubts would be swept away, all our trials made small, all our longings fulfilled. And when we remember that, among the things we must wait for are victory over sin and purity of heart and the vindication of Jesus Christ in the world, we realize that we must wait all our lives long and will die still waiting for many things, the most important and precious and wonderful things.

And we learn from the necessity of waiting that the immediate satisfaction of desire does not produce a gracious and a holy life. To produce stronger faith, faith must be tested and exercised. It would weaken faith if we did not have to wait. For if we always got what we wanted when we wanted it, even as Christians, we would not be living by faith but by sight. God intends our life in this world to be the school of faith. And that is why our lives take the shape they do and that is why we have to do so much waiting.

This fundamental requirement of waiting upon the Lord, related as it is to faith as the principle of the Christian life, is why spiritual writers see in this patient waiting of Christians for the fulfillment of God’s promises a main difference between real Christians and unbelieving people. The unbeliever is all for the present; he wants his good now and is uninterested in the promise of it eventually. He doesn’t believe enough in the Word of God to be comforted by such a promise. Whereas a Christian will wait and continue to wait in confident hope even though all appearances are contrary to what he is longing for. [Sibbes, Works, i, 251]

Now, of course, let’s get our term rightly defined. The word used most often in the Bible for waiting of this kind is a very energetic word. It evokes the image not of a man sitting quietly reading his newspaper at a bus stop, but of a man pacing the floor of a hospital waiting room, looking at the clock, as he awaits a report from the surgeon as to the health and safety of his wife. A waiting Christian is not a still and inactive Christian. He is waiting while he works and prays, waiting while he worships and serves, waiting while he trusts and obeys.

And he has his reasons, reasons enough.

1. First, the Lord has never disappointed his people yet. It may have been 450 years between Mal. 3:1 and the birth of John the Baptist and the birth some months later of the messenger of the covenant, but those stupendous things happened just as Malachi said they would. Simeon would hold the Christ-child in his arms. And it may have been a long time before the Lord judged his people for their unbelief, but he did so; and when he did so in A.D. 70 he made a thorough job of it. And I know that many of you have waited for the Lord to bring some particular help or comfort or provision to you and, after a long time, the Son of Righteousness arose with healing in his wings. He has never failed his people yet and he will not fail those who wait upon him.
2. Another reason to wait is that God has his reasons for making us wait. It may have been 4 and ½ centuries between Mal. 3:1 and the births of John and Jesus, but Paul reminds us that those things happened “when the time had fully come,” that is, when the time was right. We would not have wanted those stupendous events to have come too soon or too late, but only when the time had fully come. And what is true on the scale of the history of the world is true and must be true of our own individual lives.

Say not my soul, ‘From whence
Can God relieve my care?’
Remember that Omnipotence
Has servants everywhere.

God’s help is always sure,
His method seldom guessed;
Delay will make our pleasure pure,
Surprise will give it zest.

His wisdom is sublime,
His heart profoundly kind;
God never is before his time,
And never is behind.

Be comforted at heart,
Thou art not left alone;
Now thou the Lord’s companion art,
Soon thou shalt share his throne.
[Thomas Lynch 1855]

3. We also ought to be willing to wait because we reap so many benefits in waiting. It may have been 4 and ½ centuries between Mal. 3:1 and the arrival of the messengers, but none of the revival and reformation under Ezra and Nehemiah would have taken place had they come at once. When we wait all manner of holy things ensue. Our own sin and weakness is exposed. What high views of ourselves we would entertain if we always got what we wanted! Try treating a child that way and see what misery comes of it, what self-centeredness and pride. He teaches us in making us wait how dependent we are on him. When we read in Thomas Boston’s immortal Memoirs that, at the end of the great man’s life, he was still waiting urgently upon the Lord to take away some of his pet sins, we learn something of what sin is and what God’s forgiveness must be. Waiting teaches us to pray and to pray as we should, and on and on. You will find it an unalterable rule in the kingdom of God that those who go down the furthest and up the highest in the things of God, in holiness and goodness and love, in fruitfulness and faithfulness, were all made to wait for the Lord and in that waiting were tested, tried, educated, and matured.
4. And, then, we ought to wait so as to increase our joy. There may have been 4 and ½ centuries between Mal. 3:1 and the births of John and Jesus, but the joy of Christmas was deepened by every one of those long years of waiting. Whence came the joy of that man whom the Lord healed at the pool if not from the 38 years of being an invalid. Whence came Hannah’s joy in having a son if not from the years of barrenness. And what was it that so enlarged Simeon’s heart that he told the Lord he was altogether ready to die, but that he had waited so long for the consolation of Israel. And when you and I finally open our eyes on heaven we will feel such a joy in our hearts that we will say with Samuel Rutherford, “it were a well-spent journey though seven deaths lay between.” You may think, “I would rejoice to have my good things right now.” But, then, you have not yet received them and cannot really say.

Remember how the writer of Psalm 73 describes the wicked. “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man…” He means that there are lots of folk who don’t have to wait and don’t seem to be waiting for anything.

But then come those terrible words: “they have their reward.” Would you rather have all you want now and nothing later, or wait for joy and peace and love that last forever? That is the only alternative. Those who wait on the Lord shall not be disappointed!