When Marla and I lived in Dallas, we enjoyed going to a place that featured live bluegrass music. One of the bands played a song that went, “You done stomped on my heart and squashed that sucker flat. You kinda, sorta, stomped on my aorta.” The audience would go wild whenever the band got to that line. Apparently a lot of people identified with the words!
Listen to any country music station for a few minutes, and you’ll hear someone singing the blues of unrequited love. While we may chuckle at such songs, anyone who has been hurt in a romance knows that it is a painful experience.
I doubt that Malachi sang country music, but he preached about unrequited love: God’s unrequited love for Israel. We know nothing about this prophet personally. His name means, “My messenger.” He prophesied during or shortly after the ministry of Nehemiah, around 420 B.C. He was the last of God’s prophets for 400 years, until John the Baptist came on the scene as predicted by Malachi (3:1; 4:5). He preached against many of the same sins that Nehemiah did: Corruption of the priesthood (Mal. 1:6-2:9; Neh. 13:7-9); marriage to heathen wives (Mal. 2:10-12; Neh. 13:23-28); social wrongs (Mal. 3:5; Neh. 5:1-13); and the neglect of paying tithes (Mal. 3:8-10; Neh. 13:10-14). But his overall theme, which opens the book, is the indifference of God’s people to His great love for them.
To understand Malachi’s message, we need to see that these people were not openly rebellious against God. They were back in the land after the Babylonian captivity. Some of them may have worked with Nehemiah on rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. They were offering sacrifices at the rebuilt temple. They were outwardly following the Law of Moses and the prescribed rituals. If you had asked how they were doing spiritually, they would have said, “Fine!”
But that was not God’s evaluation! Through Malachi, God confronts His people with their apathy toward His great love. No less than 47 out of 55 verses are spoken directly by God, the highest percentage in any of the prophetic books. The response of the people is either astonishment or cynicism. In effect, they say, “You’ve got to be kidding! No way!” Malachi reveals their blindness to their own indifference with a series of questions which they ask in response to his indictments:
1:2: “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have You loved us?’”
1:6: “‘… O priests who despise My name.’ But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’”
1:7: “‘You are presenting defiled food upon My altar.’ But you say, ‘How have we defiled You?’”
2:13-14: “… He no longer regards [your] offering. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’”
2:17: You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, ‘How have we wearied Him?’”
3:7: “‘Return to Me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’”
3:8: “‘Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me!’ But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’”
3:13: “‘Your words have been arrogant against Me,’ says the Lord. Yet you say, ‘What have we spoken against You?’”
Israel was like an insensitive wife who is oblivious to the frustration and unhappiness of her husband. If you had asked Israel about her relationship with the Lord, she would have answered, “Everything’s good!” But if you had asked her mate, the Lord, He would have said, “It’s lousy! My wife is oblivious to My love. I could drop out of sight and Israel wouldn’t miss Me!” God’s evaluation of the marriage was the correct one, of course.
After the introduction stating the theme (1:1-5), Malachi falls into two sections: The indifference of the priests to God’s love (1:6-2:9); and, the indifference of the people to God’s love (2:10-4:3; see outline at the end of this message). The book concludes with a warning from God (4:4-6). It is significant that the final word of the Old Testament is, “curse.” Malachi is the only prophetic book to end on a threat of judgment rather than hope. That which began with a blessing in the Garden of Eden ended with the threat of a curse because of sin. But the New Testament reveals God’s gracious solution, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to bear the curse of our sins.
With that as an overview of the book, let’s focus on the introduction, where the Lord indicts His people for their indifference to His love for them (1:1-5). It has been observed that the opposite of love is often not hatred; it is apathy. I hope that no one here hates God, but some of you may have grown indifferent towards God. You may be going through all the motions of being “a good Christian.” You go to church, you’re outwardly moral, maybe you even tithe. Like a functional marriage, you have a functional relationship with God, but the passion has leaked out over the years. Perhaps you’ve gone through some difficult trials and you’ve wondered, “If God really loves me, then why is this happening to me? Why do I suffer while people who don’t even believe in Christ prosper?”
Malachi’s audience was there. The Lord tells them, “I have loved you” (the tense of the Hebrew verb means, “I have loved you in the past and I continue to love you”). Their reply is shocking: “How have You loved us?” They were so focused on their problems that they were oblivious to God’s great covenant love towards them. It’s as if God says, “I love you,” and they respond, “Ho hum!” God’s answer (please note: I did not make this up—it is God’s answer) shows us how to overcome our apathy to His love:
To overcome indifference towards God’s love, consider the wonder of His sovereign election of His people.
Before we look at our text, let me say, I realize that the doctrine of God’s sovereign election causes many to struggle. We had a mass exodus here last year over this issue. At least two popular books have been written in the last several years attacking this doctrine, which is often labeled “Calvinism.” But I came to understand the doctrine of election long before I read Calvin or any theologians, simply by wrestling through Paul’s argument in Romans 9. Not only Paul, but also Jesus, plainly taught this doctrine (e.g., John 6:36ff.; Luke 10:21-22). It is all through the Bible.
I have read books and articles attacking this doctrine. In my opinion, the authors invariably try to fit God into their own logic, rather than submitting to what Scripture plainly states. Some dodge it, saying, “It’s just a divisive theological issue that has no practical value.” But God would not have mentioned it so often in Scripture if it were not useful for our growth. This doctrine affects how you view God, man, sin, and salvation. So even though it is difficult, don’t dodge it! Wrestle with it, asking God to give you a submissive heart to understand His Word. Those who deny it invariably pull God down and exalt proud sinners by making man’s “free will” sovereign. God’s Word exalts God and humbles proud sinners by making God sovereign. With submissive hearts, let’s consider how
Our text and its context suggest three reasons that we grow indifferent to God’s love:
“The oracle [lit., “burden”] of the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.” Burden (see Zech. 9:1; 12:1) points to a message that weighs heavily on its bearer. It is not to be trifled with or ignored. A man does not play when he has a burden on his back. A man who bears the burden of the word of the Lord means business because he is pleading with souls in light of God’s coming judgment and eternity beyond.
This burden was to Israel, a people familiar with the things of God. Therein lies the danger! They were born into the covenant community. Their whole lives from infancy on were centered on their religion. Perhaps, like me, you were raised in the church. It’s easy for us to shrug our shoulders at the gospel, because we’ve heard it from day one. We hear, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” and we nod, “That’s nice (yawn)! Hey, did you hear about last night’s ball game?” We need to remember the urgency of the message that God has entrusted to us!
This was the perspective of Malachi’s readers. As they looked at their circumstances, things were not going as they expected, so they grew discouraged. They had been back in the land for about 125 years. The temple had been rebuilt for about 100 years. Nehemiah had recently led the people in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. But there were only about 100,000 Jews back in the land. They didn’t have an army to protect themselves from hostile neighbors. They were still under the thumb of the Persian king and his appointed governor. Their farms were not producing well because of drought (3:10-11). Many of them were probably thinking, “If this is the Promised Land, I’d hate to see the unpromised land!”
In contrast to their difficult circumstances, they had the messages of the prophets. They all predicted a golden era for Israel when the land would yield abundant produce, the people would dwell securely under the reign of Messiah, and other nations would flock to Jerusalem as the center of the earth (Isa. 49:19-23; 54:1-3; Jer. 23:5-6; Ezek. 25-30; Zech. 8:1-8, 12-15, 20-23). But none of this was happening. Then along comes Malachi and says, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your lives!” And they say, “Come on! How does God love us?”
Like Israel, we will grow indifferent to God’s great love for us if we focus on our difficult circumstances rather than on God’s purpose for history. If we focus on our problems, they will consume us. If we think about God’s purpose to extend His kingdom over all the earth, and the fact that He has saved us to be a part of that great purpose, we will gain the perspective that we need. That’s why Paul, in spite of his many trials, could joyfully say that he lived by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself up for him (Gal. 2:20).
So, we grow indifferent when we forget the urgency of God’s message and when we focus on our circumstances rather than on God’s purpose to glorify Himself through the gospel.
I draw this point from the whole book. As I said, these people had not turned defiantly against God. They were worshiping at the temple. They offered sacrifices. They went through all of the rituals prescribed by Moses. But they had drifted into routine religion instead of maintaining a vital personal relationship with a loving God. They followed God’s program, but they had lost touch with His person. Their religious observance blinded them to their true condition, so that when God confronted them through Malachi, they responded, “How has God loved us?”
I say from personal experience, it’s easy to drift into a routine relationship with God, just as it’s easy to become routine in marriage. You have a nice, functional marriage, but the passion of love has leaked out.
Years ago, one morning I had kissed all of the kids good-bye for the day. I turned to Marla and asked, “Did I kiss you yet?” She was busy cleaning up the kitchen from breakfast. She said, “I don’t remember for sure, but I think so.” I probably had kissed her out of habit. That’s a good habit! But when she said that she didn’t remember, I said, “Well, if you don’t remember, then let’s make it memorable!” I gave her a kiss that she would not soon forget! That’s reality, not ritual! I recently heard a guy on the radio say that he likes to make his good-bye kisses with his wife last for at least ten seconds. That’s my kind of guy! We all need to do that with God! Here He tells us how:
I’ve only got a few minutes to take you through some difficult matters. Please submit your heart to God’s Word as I try to explain it here through four statements:
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau,…” (1:2-3a). He is speaking here of the nations that descended from these brothers, Israel and Edom. In His sovereign plan, God chose Abraham out of all the people on earth. Then God chose Abraham’s son Isaac over his other son, Ishmael. Then God chose Isaac’s son, Jacob, over his elder twin brother, Esau. God determined that the people descended from Jacob, the Jews, would be His chosen people. He loved them in a special way that He did not love other nations (Deut. 4:37; 7:6-8).
You may say, “That’s not fair to everyone who was not born a Jew! That’s not fair to the Arabs, the Chinese, the Indians, or the Europeans!” But as far as I can tell, God didn’t take a Gallup Poll to determine whether we like His plan! He is the Sovereign of the universe, and He is free to act as He determines. If God had consulted first with me, I would have said, “Lord, Your plan isn’t fair and it isn’t practical. How can the Japanese or the Indonesians or the North American Indians get to Jerusalem to worship at the temple? In fact, Lord, they’re probably never going to hear about the Law of Moses or the promise of Messiah way over there.” But for some reason, God didn’t consult with me!
In my opinion, those who fight against the doctrine of election are chafing against God’s right to be God. He is the Potter; we are the clay. If the Potter says, “I love Jacob, but hate Esau,” what is that to the clay? You can soften it by saying that “hate” means “love less” (Gen. 29:30-31; Luke 14:26) if you like, but the fact remains, God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. As Paul points out when he cited this text, God did not base His choice on anything that He foresaw in either man. Rather, God did it so that His purpose according to election might stand (Rom. 9:11).
Those who try to dodge the implication of this say that God chose Israel as a nation for service, not salvation. But in Romans 9, where the Holy Spirit expands on this text, it is clear that Paul is talking about individuals and about eternal salvation (see James White, The Potter’s Freedom [Calvary Press], pp. 203-227). God not only chose Israel as a nation to serve Him; He also chose individuals to save as a display of His sovereign grace and love (Eph. 1:4-6).
If you want to grade on a curve, Esau was a better man than Jacob. Jacob was a deceiver who conned their dad out of the family blessing. Esau got angry about that, but he got over it and later forgave Jacob. But both men were sinners. God chose Jacob and rejected Esau, and as Paul makes clear, God did that before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad. God’s choice wasn’t based on anything in them, but only on His choice.
I know, you’re thinking, “But that’s not fair!” Paul knew that you would think that, and so he deals with that objection in Romans 9:14-18, where he argues that God is free to show mercy to whom He desires and to harden whom He desires. God was perfectly just to condemn all of the fallen angels who sinned without offering them a way of salvation. God would be perfectly just in condemning the entire human race, because we all have sinned. He does not owe mercy to anyone.
I know, you’re still thinking, “But if God only shows mercy to some, and if no one can come to Him unless He shows them mercy, then how can He hold the others accountable?” Again, Paul anticipated your question. He answers it by saying, in effect, “You don’t have a right to ask the Sovereign of the universe that question, so shut up!” (See Rom. 9:19-24.) That’s why I said earlier, those who oppose this doctrine need to submit to God’s Word. It’s not primarily a matter of understanding as much as a matter of submitting to God as Sovereign.
God is saying to Israel, “The reason you’re back in the land after the captivity, but Edom is desolate and forsaken, is that you’re My chosen people. I caused their land to be desolate because I am indignant toward them forever. They may try to rebuild, but I will tear it down.” In other words, there was a great difference between Israel and Edom, and the difference had nothing to do with anything in Israel or Edom. It had to do with God’s sovereign love for Israel and His rejection of the Edomites.
My great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. I’ve often thought, “What if I had been born 400 years ago, before the Europeans came to North America?” I never would have heard the gospel! Was God unjust to leave my ancestors without the gospel? Of course not! They were sinners who justly deserved God’s judgment. God did not owe them mercy. The only thing that makes me differ from them or from the person born today in a Muslim country is that God chose to show me grace. If you are indifferent towards God’s love, think about where you would be without it! You’d be lost, without God and without hope in this world!
“The Lord be magnified beyond the border of Israel” (1:5). According to C. F. Keil (who knew Hebrew far better than I ever will), the preposition does not mean “beyond,” but “over or above” (Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], “The Twelve Minor Prophets,” p. 432). It stands in contrast with verse 4, where Edom is called “the border of wickedness.” God’s people should be bordered with the sounds of His praise. We exist to exalt His name because of His sovereign love toward us who deserved His wrath. Scripture is clear that sometimes God is glorified through His judgment of the wicked, such as Edom, which was destroyed by the Nabatean Arabs sometime before 400 B.C. At other times, God is glorified by pouring out His undeserved favor on a nation, such as Israel.
For reasons I cannot explain, God poured out His grace on America, where in spite of our many horrible sins, the gospel has been widely proclaimed since our nation’s founding. If you know Christ as Savior and Lord, He saved you so that you would proclaim His excellencies among the nations (1 Pet. 2:9-10). His purpose is that His name will be great among the nations (Mal. 1:11).
Suppose that a boy desperately wants to play baseball, but he isn’t good enough to get picked for the team. But one day his big brother is the captain and he picks his younger brother to play on the team, not because he’s the best player, but simply because he loves him.
How will the younger brother respond? He will want to play his best because of his older brother’s loving choice of him. He will know that his brother has a purpose for him on the team, and so he will do all that he can to fulfill that purpose.
If your heart is indifferent to God’s love, consider the wonder that He chose you in love and that He has a purpose for you to fulfill in His great plan of glorifying His name among the nations. Make certain about His calling and choosing you, so that you will not stumble (2 Pet. 1:10). If you are not sure whether He has chosen you, as a sinner cry out to Him for mercy. Come to Jesus for eternal life. He said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Pastor Steven J. Cole
Theme: The indifference of Israel toward God’s electing love.
Introduction: The indifference of the nation in the fact of God’s love: “How does God love us?” (1:1-5)
1. The indifference of the priests to God’s love (1:6-2:9).
A. Despising the Lord in the offerings (1:6-14).
B. Disciplined by the Lord for despising their duties (2:1-9).
2. The indifference of the people to God’s love (2:10-4:3).
A. Indifference in marriage (2:10-16).
1) Treachery of marrying foreign wives (2:10-12).
2) Treachery of divorcing their wives (2:13-16).
B. Indifference in morals (2:17-3:6).
1) Perverting right and wrong (2:17).
2) God’s solution: His messenger & His Messiah (3:1-5).
3) God’s standard: His unchanging nature (3:6).
C. Indifference in money (3:7-12).
1) The general indictment and appeal: Return to Me (3:7).
2) The specific indictment and solution: Robbing God (3:8-10).
3) The promised blessing for obedience (3:11-12).
C. Indifference in mentality: “Why serve God?” (Loss of eternal perspective) (3:13-4:3).
1) Two contemporary perspectives (3:13-18):
a) The majority view: “Why serve God?” (3:13-15).
b) The minority view: “It’s worth it to serve God.” (3:16-18).
2) God’s eternal perspective: The Day of the Lord (4:1-3).
a) Judgment on the wicked (4:1).
b) Blessings on the righteous (4:2-3).
Conclusion: God’s final warning and prediction (4:4-6):
*Obey the Law (4:4).
*Elijah to come and restore (4:5-6).