We all wrestle with the difficult age-old questions, “Why do the wicked prosper?” and “Why do the righteous suffer?” It is especially hard when you have done right and you get penalized, while the guy who did wrong got ahead. You were praying and counting on God’s promises, but things did not turn out the way you had expected. It seems as if God did not even hear your prayers. But the guy who scoffs at God is doing great. You begin to wonder, “Why follow God when all I get is trials? If there is a God of justice in heaven, why doesn’t He do something about all the injustice in the world? Is it worth it to follow the Lord?”
Many of the Jewish people in Malachi’s day were struggling with this problem. They were under the thumb of the Medo-Persian Empire, which was godless and yet prosperous. Many Jews had become disappointed with God. He had not done for them what they had hoped. They grumbled, “If He is the God of justice, why do we see all of this injustice in the world?” Some had even slipped into cynical agnosticism, doubting that a just God even exists. Malachi shows them (and us) what to do when evil seems to be winning:
When evil prevails, we must not challenge, but trust in and obey the God who sends His Messiah to judge the earth.
The chapter break is misplaced here, in that 2:17, the peoples’ complaint, goes with 3:1-6, which is God’s answer.
Their disappointment with God as they saw the trials of His people and the prosperity of the wicked had led many of the Jews to think that morals do not matter. They thought, “There’s no correlation between obedience to God and blessing in this life. So we may as well live for all the good times and good things we can get.”
The prophets had predicted a glorious future for Israel. But here they were, back in the land for over 100 years after the captivity, and things were not all that glorious. Israel was still under foreign domination. She was not the center of the earth, with the nations flocking to Jerusalem with their wealth. The old folks were not sitting in the streets watching the children play securely The land was not yielding abundant produce. Just a hundred years before, Zechariah had prophesied that all of these conditions would come about. But here they were, and none of his prophecies about the glory of Israel had materialized. They weren’t even close!
The rebuilt temple was a disappointment to many. It didn’t compare to the former glory of Solomon’s temple (Ezra 3:12-13). Haggai (2:7-9) had prophesied that the latter glory of this temple would be greater than the former temple, but there was no evidence of that yet. Because of these disappointments with God’s promises, many were voicing their skepticism and even daring to question if a God of justice exists. Some even mocked God, saying that He delights in evil people and calls them good!
I hope that you’ve never said such things, but I know that you have thought such things. We all have. Maybe you’re struggling with these issues now. You thought that when you trusted Christ, He would give you an abundant life and relief from some major problems. Instead, you seem to have more problems than you did before! You didn’t use to struggle against sin, but now it’s a daily battle that you often lose. You didn’t use to worry about pleasing God with your use of time and money, but now you feel guilty for squandering those things. In fact, now you feel guilty about things that you didn’t even know were sin before you became a Christian. You’ve prayed a lot, but rather than getting better, your problems seem to grow worse. You wonder, “What difference does it make if I follow the Lord or not? Where is the God of justice?”
Even if you have not verbalized these thoughts, God knows about them. Malachi says that such words weary the Lord! He is using human language to apply to God, since there is a sense in which Almighty God cannot be weary (Isa. 40:28). But there is another sense in which we can try God’s patience (Isa. 7:13) and “wear Him out,” much like a parent gets weary of hearing his child’s constant complaining. So we need to check our thoughts when they run in this direction. We should pay attention to God’s answer to this difficult problem of what to do when evil prevails.
God has a plan to right every wrong and punish all evildoers. That plan centers in His Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will suddenly come into His temple. “But,” Malachi asks, “are you sure that you want Him to come?” “Who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?” (3:2). It’s easy to say, “Won’t it be great when Jesus comes again?” But if our personal and family lives are not right with God, we will be terrified at Jesus’ coming, because He is holy and He will judge everyone.
Although the coming of the Messiah is sudden, it is not without warning:
Malachi is referring here to Isaiah’s prophecy, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isa. 40:3). This was a prophecy of John the Baptist, the forerunner whose ministry God used to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. John’s father prophesied of him while he was yet a baby, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, …” (Luke 1:76-77). Jesus applied Malachi’s prophecy to John (Matt. 11:10).
Malachi (4:5) predicts that Elijah will come before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. The disciples asked Jesus, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus answered, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him,…” Matthew adds, “Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist” (Matt. 17:10-13).
Thus Malachi’s prophecy has a double fulfillment, as many prophecies do. John the Baptist was the messenger who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, to prepare the way for the Lord’s first coming. Before Jesus’ second coming, there will be two witnesses who powerfully bear witness (Rev. 11:1-12). It is likely that one of these witnesses will be Elijah himself.
The imagery of preparing the way before the Lord came from the custom of clearing the road and preparing a town for the visit of the king. Before the king traveled, he sent out messengers who proclaimed his coming. They didn’t have road crews back then to keep the highways in good shape. So when the townspeople heard that the king was coming, they would go out and fill in the ruts and potholes, and clear away rocks and debris. They got everything ready for the coming of their king.
God in His grace does not come upon us unannounced. If He did, He would often find our lives in shambles. We get sloppy about sin. There are potholes and ruts, with rocks strewn all over the place. So He graciously sends His messenger to proclaim, “The Lord is coming! Get ready! Fill in the potholes of sin! Clear out the rocks of self-centeredness and pride. Repent and bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” (see Matt. 3:2, 8). Although I am a far, far lesser voice than John the Baptist or Elijah, I hope that you will listen when I tell you, “Prepare yourself! Get ready! The King is coming!” As 1 John 3:3 tells us, “Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”
But after the warning of God’s messengers,
When Malachi says (3:1), “The Lord whom you seek” and “the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight,” he is using irony. In effect, he is saying, “You’re asking, ‘Where is the God of justice? We want to see Him.’ So, you’re looking for Him? Let me tell you, He is coming. In fact, He is coming suddenly! But you need to ask, ‘Can I endure the day of His coming? Can I stand when He appears?’ Because when He comes, He is going to clean house on Israel and He is going to judge all the wicked. So if you really seek Him, you’d better get ready to meet Him!”
You may wonder, “How can the Lord’s coming be sudden when it has been announced by His messenger?” Let me answer with an illustration. Some of you recall when Mount St. Helens blew its top in 1980. Geologists knew that something was brewing. They could see the bulge on the side of the mountain and they could measure the increasingly threatening tremors. They warned the local residents to get out of there.
But did they leave? Some did, but others didn’t. There was one old man named Harry Truman who had lived there for decades. When the newscasters interviewed him, he said that the mountain had been there for centuries. He didn’t believe that it would blow up, so he wasn’t going to move. But suddenly, one morning the mountain exploded. Harry Truman and others like him who had ignored the warnings perished. Destruction came on them suddenly.
You are hearing me say now, “The Lord is coming back suddenly to judge the earth. None who ignore this warning will escape!” Do you say to yourself, “Yeah, sure! I know that Jesus is coming, but He hasn’t come for almost 2,000 years. There’s no sense getting all worked up about it. I’ve got time before I need to repent.” But remember, “The Lord of glory always comes as a thief in the night to those who sleep in their sins” (Schmieder, cited by C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Minor Prophets [Eerdmans], p. 458).
Malachi shows us who this coming Messiah is and what He will do, first with regard to His true people, and then with those who claim to be His people, but practice wickedness.
Sometimes critics say that the Bible never claims that Jesus Christ is God. That is utter nonsense! Verse 1 is about as strong a statement on the deity of Christ as anyone could write. The speaker here is “the Lord of hosts,” who says that He is sending His messenger (John the Baptist) “before Me.” Whom did John go before? Jesus! Jesus is one with Me, that is, God!
He is also called here, “the messenger of the covenant.” This phrase occurs only here, but it refers to Jesus, by whose blood the eternal covenant of salvation was ratified and mediated to His people (Heb. 13:20). He is called “the Lord, whom you seek,” who was also identified in 2:17 as “the God of justice.” The Hebrew word for “Lord” is Adon. When used with the article, as it is here, it always refers to God (A. R. Fausset, A Commentary Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments, with Robert Jamieson and David Brown [Eerdmans], pp. 720-721; Walter Kaiser, Malachi, God’s Unchanging Love [Baker], p. 81). (See Exod. 23:17; 34:23; Isa. 1:24; 3:1; 10:16, 33; Dan. 9:17). Also, the text says that the Lord will come into His temple. The temple belongs only to God, not to any man.
Yet at the same time, this messenger who is the Lord is distinguished from the speaker, the Lord of hosts. The language is similar to Psalm 110:1, “The Lord [Yahweh] says to my Lord [Adonai], ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’” Jesus used this psalm to confound His enemies (Matt. 22:42-45). The Messiah is clearly David’s son, and yet David calls Him “Lord.” How can this be?
This is the mystery of the Trinity: God is one God and yet He exists eternally in three persons, each of whom is fully God and yet distinct in personhood. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are eternally God, and yet the Father can send the Son and the Son can send the Spirit. Each is a distinct Person, not just a different manifestation of God. Yet they are not three gods, but one God. In our text, the point is that the messenger of the covenant (Messiah) who comes suddenly into His temple is God.
Note that there is a difference in God’s judgment here. With some, the Lord acts as a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap. The intent of both of these treatments was to purify, not to destroy. But with others, the Lord will draw near for judgment, bear swift witness against them, and (as implied in 3:6 and stated in 4:1) consume them. The difference between the two groups is that the former is the object of God’s unchanging covenant love (3:6, 1:2), whereas the latter is not. The former are Jews who truly believe in God, but need to be cleansed of their sins. The latter are Jews by birth, Jews outwardly, but they do not fear God and so they ought to fear His judgment (see Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6-8).
As with many Old Testament prophecies, these verses blend together the two comings of Jesus Christ. He came the first time to seek and to save the lost by offering Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice of God for sinners (Heb. 10:1-18). He will come the second time to deal out retribution to those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel (2 Thess. 1:8).
All whom He saves, He purifies so that they may present to Him “offerings in righteousness,” that is, the true worship of yielding our lives as living sacrifices to Him (Rom. 12:1-2). We offer to Him the sacrifice of praise and thankfulness, along with doing good and sharing (Heb. 13:15-16).
The purifying process is often painful, as the analogy of fire implies. The Oriental silversmith would heat the silver until the impurities, the dross, bubbled to the surface. He would keep skimming it off until he could see his face clearly reflected in it. Even so, the Lord uses the fires of affliction to produce purity in His people, so that His image is reflected in us (Heb. 12:3-11).
But with others, the purpose of the fire is not to purify, but to destroy (3:5, 6; 4:1). These people wanted God to judge Israel’s pagan neighbors, but they refused to judge their own sins. God gives a representative list of sins, each of which was a breaking of His law and a cause for judgment. “Sorcerers” refers to those who use any sort of occult practices. “Adulterers,” of course, refers to those who are unfaithful to their marriage vows. “Those who swear falsely” covers everything from bending the truth in our personal relationships to perjury under oath in court. “Those who oppress the wage earner, the widow, and the orphan” and “those who turn aside the alien” refer to the wealthy and powerful who take advantage of those weaker than they are. At the bottom of all of these sins is, they do not fear God.
It is of utmost importance that you know for certain that you are in the group that the Lord purifies and refines, not in the group that He consumes in judgment! How can you know? First, is your trust in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross as your only hope for forgiveness of your sins? If it is, then, second, you know that God has changed your heart. You are submitting to the Lord in trials, trusting that He will work these things together for good (Rom. 8:28). You strive to be holy because you fear God (2 Cor. 7:1). You offer to the Lord sacrifices of praise that come out of the gratitude of a heart that He has cleansed. To sum up,
God’s promise to send His Messiah is His answer to those who struggle with the problem of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. He will judge the wicked. The trials of the righteous are His purifying fires, designed to develop His holiness in them for His glory and their good.
But, the remarkable thing about God’s answer is that He did not send His Messiah in the lifetimes of the people in Malachi’s day! It would be over 400 years before John the Baptist began crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord”! Meanwhile, the Jews had to endure four long centuries without a true prophet. They had to endure the oppressive rule of the wicked Antiochus Epiphanes, as well as the Roman occupation. Since Messiah’s first coming, God’s people have endured 20 long centuries of trials, while they watch the wicked prosper. Mockers say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet. 3:4). How should we then live in this evil world? Three brief words of encouragement:
If you find yourself doubting whether God loves you or whether He really will punish the wicked, get alone in His presence. Read Psalm 73, where the author was struggling with the same issue, until he went into the sanctuary of God. There he realized, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). Read Hebrews 12, which assures us that God’s discipline stems from His love for us as His children. His aim is that we might share His holiness and enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:10-11). Trust Him!
The people in Malachi’s day were saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them” (2:17). In other words, morals do not matter, because God doesn’t immediately zap the wicked; in fact, they seem to prosper. We live in a day when even the church is joining the culture in abandoning God’s moral absolutes. But our holy God does not change (3:6)! His moral standards do not shift with the winds of the times. If His Word calls something sin, then it still is sin! When someone breaks God’s moral standards and seems to be doing just fine, don’t be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, he will reap (Gal. 6:7-8).
These people wanted God to zap the prosperous, wicked pagans, but Malachi adroitly shows that by pointing their finger at others, they had three fingers pointing back at themselves! The fact is, we all deserve God’s judgment. If He has shown us mercy, it is the epitome of self-centeredness to say, “Now that I’m saved, God, You can judge all the pagans out there!” It’s as if I had been in a shipwreck and was drowning with many others. God came along and pulled me into the lifeboat. I no sooner get in than I say, “Let’s head for shore. Why are we sitting out here in these waves? I’m cold and want to get dried off. Let’s go!”
When you see evil prevailing and you long for that “new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13), remember God’s reason for delaying judgment: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Ask God to give you His heart of compassion for sinners, so that He can use you to reach out to them with the good news of Messiah’s first coming and the warning of His second coming. When evil prevails, don’t challenge God. Trust Him and obey His Word. In His time, His promise to send His Messiah to judge the earth will be fulfilled.
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