The prophet Malachi had to deal with a different kind of situation now, people who were wondering why God was not doing something to correct the sins and the corruption in the land. The only answer that they could come up with was that God was not just, that he was unwilling to judge sin. The prophet came down hard on this kind of shallow thinking; he made it very clear that if they really wanted the justice of God to be meted out, no one could stand! The individual who understands doctrine will always desire divine grace over divine justice. And we who live in the New Testament age understand this very well: what the justice of God demanded for our sins, the grace of God provided in the death of Christ on our behalf. And now that we are in Christ by faith, there is no condemnation for us.
In this next prophetic message the promise of coming justice, or judgment, is tied to the coming of the Messiah. And so here we get into Malachi’s “eschatology” (the word means the study of last things). In preparation for that we need to think about a couple of things, just to make sure we understand how the prophets wrote. Most informed Christians know that the word “Messiah” (Hebrew mashiakh, pronounced mah-SHE-ack) means “anointed one,” i.e., the anointed king who is to come, Immanuel. The word was translated into Greek with Christos. Every king who came to the thrown of David was “anointed” and so a messiah; but as time passed the prophets began to write of the great coming king, THE Messiah. And his kingdom, or the age that he would usher in, is called the Messianic Age. This Messianic hope was the desire of the nation, as Malachi 3:1 says.
Israel’s prophets looked forward to that golden age when the Messiah would come and judge the wicked and reward the righteous by setting up his universal reign of righteousness and peace. They knew the facts about the Messiah, but they did not have the time sequence of the events of the Messiah. In fact, they did not know that there was going to be a second coming of the Messiah--it appeared that there would be only one. And yet, when they spoke of the coming of Messiah, it seemed confusing--he would suffer and die, but reign gloriously. Peter says that they could not put this together. But with the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of his return, the Old Testament passages began to make very good sense. However, the teacher of the Bible has to explain this occasionally, especially in a passage like ours where it moves from first to second coming with no indication. Bible teachers at times illustrate it with mountain ranges: one can stand and look at a mountain peak, and yet there may be another peak directly behind it with a great valley in between them, but he cannot see the second peak as distinct from the first. This was the view of the prophets--it looked like one coming, but when that coming occurred, one could see a huge value lying before the second peak.
In the prophecy we have before us the prophet will also employ his prophetic name. That name, “Malachi” (Hebrew mal’aki, pronounced mal-ah-KEY), means “my messenger.” The prophet was the LORD’s messenger. And we have seen that the priests were the LORD’s messengers. Now we will see the word used twice, once for John the Baptist and once for Jesus.
The passage opens with a short exchange between the people and the prophet, something that had occurred frequently enough in life for Malachi to make it a sample of the weakness of their faith. There were those who came to the conclusion that people who did wickedly were good in the eyes of the LORD, that he was pleased with them. They must have concluded since God is a righteous God he should have done something to judge the sinners, but since he did not he must have been approving what they were doing. Or, they could word it another way, “Where is the God of justice?” Why was God not doing anything about the sin in the land?
Malachi told his people immediately that their challenges and questions wearied God. This figure of speech is “anthropomorphism,” i.e., using human language that we understand to explain God’s reaction to their endless challenges. As a human would get tired of endless argument and challenge, God was tired, fed up as it were, with these people. They did not think they had wearied God, but they had.
There are a number of reasons why God would delay judgment, apart from the fact that he is slow to anger. God often postponed judgments to give people a better chance to put their houses in order, meaning, to repent and prepare spiritually. We also read in the Bible that our Lord has other sheep to bring from other sheep folds, and he must bring them. Thus, judgment is delayed. But also, in the divine plan of redemption, the Messiah had to come and pay for the sins of the world so that judgment would be poured out on him on behalf of people. Thus, he would not come to judge in the days of Malachi, but in his own time.
But the prophet told his audience that their request was presumptuous--if they really wanted the justice of God then they too would be in trouble. No one could stand under divine justice. But the Judge would come some day.
The entire section through the judgment of verse 5 could be made two separate points; but it seems better to make verse 1 a separate point of the coming, and then the next sections what it means.
Verse 1 has two figures, two people in mind. The first figure will prove to be John the Baptist and the second the Messiah. The LORD announces,
“Behold, I am about to send my messenger who will prepare the way before me.”
The grammatical formula “Behold” plus the participle--almost “here I am sending”-- is a way to express the imminent future. It is what God is about to do--even though 400 years off. In Matthew 11 Jesus made it clear that this was a prophecy of John the Baptist. As the messenger of the LORD, John was to prepare the way before the coming of the LORD. That was to involve a spiritual preparation. Isaiah 40 also prophesies that John will be a voice in the desert preparing the way of the LORD--every valley shall be filled, and the crooked places made straight, so that the LORD may have direct access. The imagery of building a super highway refers to spiritual preparation--the crooked places in the heart had to be straight, and the things missing had to be supplied, so that people would receive the Messiah. John came preaching repentance to prepare people for the Messiah, the Lamb of God.
Jesus does something very significant in his use of Malachi. He changes the pronouns from “my face” to “your face.” In Malachi the LORD was speaking, saying “I ( the LORD) am sending my messenger before my ( the LORD’s) face.” Since Jesus was now in mortal flesh, he wanted to make clear that if John who introduced him and preached repentance was this forerunner in Malachi, then he, Jesus, was the LORD. It was a clear claim of deity.
The second figure in this prophecy is also a messenger, but he is called the messenger of the covenant, that is, the one who was going to bring in the covenant. This would refer to the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, and Isaiah 54. Two things are said about this messenger. First, he is the one that they all strongly desired--he is the Messiah, the king, that people had been longing for. Second, he would come to his temple. Now in the Old Testament the temple is called “the house of the LORD (Yahweh)”; it is God’s house. But here this messenger will come to “his temple.” He is the LORD, meaning, Yahweh of the Old Testament, God in the flesh. And so the second messenger is Jesus himself, the Messiah of Israel.
“Suddenly” he will come. This does not mean quickly, but surprisingly. And yet, the prophecy of Daniel 9 helped the diligent students of the Bible to determine pretty much the time of the appearance of Messiah on earth. And even then his appearance took people by surprise. But when he entered into the temple and cleansed it, then this part of this prophecy found its full meaning.
Note, then, that we have God the sender, and God, the one being sent. We can read this from the New Testament and note the hint of the trinity, as in other Old Testament passages. But in the Old Testament times it would have been somewhat confusing; they would not have thought of Messiah as divine, but certainly pre-existent (according to Daniel 7:14ff.), for he was in heaven and given the kingdom before he appeared on earth. And even though he was born in Bethlehem, his goings were from everlasting (Micah 5:2). The people could not think that he was God, and so concluded he was the first creation of God and would come to earth in some way. But with the full revelation of the New Testament we know that Jesus is indeed God, the second person of the trinity, and we can now understand so many Old Testament passages that spoke of this, but needed confirmation by further revelation. In Christ we have that full revelation--God the Father sent God the Son into the world, and he, God the Son, came to his temple.
This section starts with the rhetorical question, “Who can endure the day of his coming?” The meaning is that no one could survive divine judgment. The reason is that his coming will be like a laundryman’s soap and a refiner’s fire. This did not happen when Jesus was here on earth. His first coming was to establish who he is and to pay for the sins of the world and gain victory over the grave; his second coming will be with fire, judgment, and will bring to fulfillment all things. John the Baptist already made this clear in Matthew 3, the baptism of Jesus. He announced that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit and with fire. In the context “fire” is mentioned twice, in the sense of judgment--it is an unquenchable fire that will burn up the chaff. The baptism (identification with) the Spirit was established in the first coming; but the second coming will be with judgment by fire. When Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Luke 4, he read the prophecy about his ministry, but he stopped half way through the passage and said that what he had read was fulfilled in their presence. But the next line, which he did not read, announced the time of God’s wrath. That would be fulfilled in the second coming.
The first focus of the judgment will be on purifying the Levites so that he will have righteous servants to lead the worship. It is a common theme in biblical prophecy that the LORD will cleanse Israel from its sin so that those still alive after the wrath on earth will come to faith in the Messiah and will once again be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. This is the major theme in the Book of Zechariah, especially in chapter 3, which tells how the LORD will clean up the priesthood by the sacrifice of the Messiah (using the images of the Branch and the Stone). The divine judgments at the end of the age, many of which are detailed in the Book of Revelation, will be designed to bring Israel to its knees and to its Messiah. The reference in Malachi is not to any time that the LORD purifies his people--it is the coming day of judgment.
Then, in verse 5, we see that the coming judgment will be swift against the great sins of the people. God will be the witness and the judge that these crimes have been committed: sorcery, adultery, perjury, defrauding workers, oppressing the widows and the orphans, and depriving foreigners of justice. The judgment is not simply for these sins, but for people who did not fear the LORD. The expression “fear me” means to worship and obey the LORD. The judgment will fall on unbelievers, people who have no reverential fear of the LORD, no matter who they are; and that judgment will be for their sins.
The sins that the prophet listed here covered a wide array of crimes, from the gross violations of the moral code to the breakdown of social justice. Not caring for the poor and needy and the foreigner were serious matters in Israel; James reminds us that this is at the heart of pure religion. And so Malachi’s messages continue to convict the so-called good people of his day, the people who thought God should come and judge the world, uncovering their failure to do works of righteousness.
This section of the message on the faithfulness of God begins with a firm doctrinal statement: God does not change. The statement forms a transition from the last section where people thought that God was no longer judging sin, to this section, which shows that he does. But the people of God should find this statement so comforting, because in spite of their failures God does not change--if he did, they would be consumed on the spot. The point is that God is faithful to the covenants that he makes. Those who belong to him will not be judged; even if they prove to be unfaithful, he remains faithful because he cannot deny himself--as the apostle says.
God then reminds the people that they have failed time and time again, ever since the time of their forefathers. But he has always been there to call them to repentance so that they could enjoy the blessings of God. Here again he calls for them to return, so that he might return to them. The verb “return” in Hebrew is often a call for repentance, to turn back from sins. Then God will turn back from the course of action that he has begun--punishment for their sins.
Once again Malachi’s audience was indignant: “How are we to return?” They did not see that they had any need to repent. What should they turn from? And so Malachi pulls out another indictment against them, robbing God. Their ingratitude showed their unfaithfulness to God at the very foundation of the faith--stewardship--they owed their lives to God.
The people had not been paying their tithes, and so the whole land was under a curse, an actual dry spell where nothing was growing. First, we need to consider what their tithing was all about. Many people today claim to be tithers, and by that they mean they give 10% to the Lord. I suppose churches would be delighted to get at least that. But in the Old Testament the system of tithes and offerings was far more complex. The Israelite under the Law had to bring first the priest’s due (either 2% or 10%). Then he brought the basic tithe, 10%. But he was also required to pay a second tithe (another 10%) that was to go to Jerusalem and its needs--it could be spent in Jerusalem on the three annual pilgrimages, somewhat of a pilgrimage budget. If they could not go to the holy city, they had to send the money. And then, every other year there was a third tithe, which went to the poor. So the basic tithing was probably over 22% any given year, possibly 27%.
Now this did not count the offerings, the animals that were to be brought to the three festivals. It did not include the extra money to be paid for sin and trespass offerings, which could be high, based on the sin. The tithing system also called for the people to have a Sabbath year, one seventh of their income over a seven year period would be given up, as well as a forty-ninth of it over a forty-nine year period if they kept the Jubilee. Then they were to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to glean; they were to give to charity; and they were to take care of the widow, orphan, poor and the stranger. On top of all that, they could at any time offer a free will thank offering--more animals and gifts. So then, if someone today wants to live under the Law of Israel in this respect, the amount would exceed 40% a year.
In the New Testament the outlook is totally different. Everything belongs to God, and we give proportionately as a token of our acknowledgment of this truth as the Lord prospers. It is not how much we should give, but how much we should keep and what we should do with it. Our time, our possessions, our abilities--all part of the stewardship--are gifts from God. We live in the light of the spirit of the Law, not the letter. And yet we still try to get by with the simple interpretation of a tithe, something that was not even allowed in Israel.
But the principle found in this passage applies today. If we refuse to show our loyalty and faithfulness to God in even such a simple thing as giving a token of our time, talents, and treasures in gratitude to him, then he may very well hinder his greatest blessings from being given to us.
Malachi calls for the people to test God’s faithfulness. Give, and see how God will take care of you. This is not like the modern prosperity preachers in television, who treat giving like a sure thing on the stock market; the blessing of God may not mean that you will get back your money with a tidy increase. People were to give by faith out of gratitude, not as a way of manipulating God to give it back with interest.
But the law of Israel promised blessing for obedience and curse for disobedience (see Leviticus 26). If they were disobedient, God would withhold the rain--and that is what has happened here. They were to pray for rain, but they were to be faithful as well, if they wanted God to provide for their livelihood in the land. It was no simple cash investment; it was a call for obedient, faithful living--tithing was but one evidence of their commitment to the LORD. If they persisted in disobedience (all the kinds he has addressed), there could even be pests in the land. But God would keep that away if they lived obediently. It would not matter if they gave money, thinking God would give them an increase; if they were divorcing their spouses, marrying pagans, not teaching the word right, ruining worship, or treating poor people with contempt, then tithing would not bring a blessing. The modern orientation is selfish and self-centered, to get money back. But the biblical picture is sacrificial giving, helping people in need, and trusting that God will take care of your needs. This is giving by faith.
And if people who claim to be believers are not doing what verse 5 said, helping people in need, championing justice for the oppressed and the stranger, then they had better think twice about calling for the God of justice to step in. Malachi calls people to order their lives aright in view of the coming of the LORD--which for him was the first coming, but or us it is now the second.