In the preceding message the prophet challenged the people to be faithful to the LORD in their personal stewardship and obedience. This included far more than bringing a simple tithe--it included the total commitment of the people to serve the LORD with all they had. The prophet held out the promise of God to them that their land would flourish if they were faithful, that all the nations would call them blessed, for the land would be a delightful land.
But the people Malachi addressed still had an attitude; they still thought God was not administering things correctly. And so the prophet warmed them about this, and reminded them that the day of divine vengeance was coming.
The prophet immediately addressed the problem of those people who criticized the faith (and therefore the LORD) because it was not what they expected or thought it should be. The LORD says through Malachi, “Your words have been insolent against me.” The people that the prophet addressed here were skeptics; they had their doubts about the validity of the faith. But then they were not committed to the LORD; they had false and selfish expectations. They were expecting an immediate payoff, rewards or benefits for becoming part of the congregation and living under the Law. They thought that God owed them something for their presence. They probably were not true believers; but if they were believers, their whole approach to the worship and service of the LORD was mercenary--they wanted to know what was in it for them. The great saints of the ages who endured all kinds of suffering and deprivation never said such impudent things. But these people revealed extensive impiety in their words, their attitudes, and their method of spreading their discontent (“they said” indicates they were saying this to each other, complaining among themselves).
These “make-believers” had done what the LORD said to do in a way--test him and see if he was faithful--but they concluded that he was not. Their insolent words formulated three claims. The first is the dramatic statement that it is vain to serve the LORD. The word “vain” means “emptiness, vanity” or “to a false purpose” (found in the ten commandments); their statement claims that all service of the LORD is without value or worth on any level.
This is followed up with the claim that there is no profit in keeping God’s Law. There was no reward or benefit in it for them, no pay, no return on their investment. They are like some moderns who give to the LORD only because they expect to get double or triple their money back, a special reward. They expected their “cut” in much the same way as a gangster would want his share.
In fact, they were truly surprised that there was no pay off since they had even gone about mourning. They apparently went through the motions of appearing to have grief and sorrow for the sin of their nation. But it was false; they did it expecting some reward from God, as if they were professional mourners. But God always inspects the hearts of the mourners, or worshipers, to see if they are genuine--and if they are doing it for a reward or recognition it is not.
But the most impudent statements they made concerns the justice of God. They claimed that the reality was just the opposite of what was said in verse 10--they claimed that it was the arrogant who were “blessed” by God, that the wicked prospered, and that even those who put God to the test escaped. In other words, God was either too weak to stop them, or was not interested in clamping down on the wicked or in making a distinction between the righteous and the wicked, or good and evil. God had promised to bless those who obeyed, but now he was blessing those who were wicked--so they said. These are amazingly sharp words against God; they show a severely unspiritual attitude, probably that of unbelievers (since the rest of the book seems to assume they are the wicked.
He remembers those who fear him (v. 16). At the same time (“then”) there were the righteous believers who spoke to one another, but their conversation was very different. They are known as people who “fear” the LORD. This word in the Bible is a word that describes faithful worshipers. It includes both the idea of being drawn near to something amazing or overwhelming in adoration and wonder, and also that of shrinking back in a healthy respect or fear. This may be illustrated by anything that fills people with wonder and fear. Here the object is the LORD. The devout love and adore the LORD because of power and his glory--but they treat him with reverential fear that leads to obedience. After all, he is still the sovereign judge of the whole world (it is a good study to see in the Bible what results whenever the fear of the LORD is mentioned).
The LORD heard what these folks were saying, heard their words of faith and reverence, in contrast to what the insolent people were saying. And so the text says that God recorded this on a “scroll of remembrance.” This is a highly figurative description, an implied comparison, for divine omniscience does not need to keep written records (any more than God needs to keep our tears in his bottle [Ps. 56:8]). God does not forget his own. But the ideas of God remembering and not forgetting are very human descriptions (anthropomorphisms) and need explanation. He knows everything instantly--he never forgets anything. But the point of the Hebrew word “remembrance” goes beyond simple recall to mean “act on the basis of what one remembers.” If God remembers us it means he will do something on the basis of the covenant he has with us--he will act on what he “remembers.” In this passage God will not only secure the believers as his own people but also spare them from the judgment.
The next line repeats that these people are those who fear the LORD, and who think on his name. The “name” of the LORD refers to his nature, his character--the attributes of God (power, glory, wisdom, love, mercy, righteousness, goodness, eternality, omniscience, omnipresence, infinity and so on). And the verb “think” is an active word (in the Bible it can mean “reckon, think, plan, devise”); here it would have the connotation of regarding or meditating on the nature of the LORD. This was what built their pious devotion to the LORD. It is like taking inventory on what God is like, or reckoning how those attributes work out in real life. The implication is that true believers value God as their prized possession.
He will spare his possession (v. 17). God announces that these people shall be his, his own possession (see Exod. 19:5), and this will be important in the day that God will do all these things. Accordingly, when the Day of Judgment comes, God will remember (= save) his own people, that is, spare them from the judgment. The security of the believers is based on this: that they belong to God.
He will enable them to discern (v. 18). When he does judge, then everyone will see the real difference between the righteous and the wicked. The skeptics claimed that there was no difference--because they had false expectations of a simple pay off. But in the eternal plan the benefit of faith is much greater than a few rewards now.
Everyone will discern between the one who is saved and the one who is not; and they will realize the importance of fearing and serving the LORD.
The wicked will be burnt up (4:1). The announcement picks up the theme of the day of the LORD, a theme that prophets in each of the last few centuries of the monarchy stressed. The day of the LORD can refer to any divine intervention to judge and to bless; but the great day of the LORD refers to the second coming (as the study of the minor prophets and the New Testament fulfillment will show) when the Lord Jesus will come to judge the world and establish a universal reign of righteousness. All prophetic oracles about the day find their fulfillment in the coming of Christ; and any immediate and partial fulfillments over the ages merely foreshadow the great coming redemption.
The motif of burning is used by Malachi, and later used by John the Baptist when he declared that the wicked would be burned with unquenchable chaff (as the Lord’s baptism by fire would signify). Those judged are the proud and the wicked. The word “proud” must not be trivialized, as in taking pride in one’s work. It refers to people who think they do not need God, who live independently of God and any faith. But their good works, whatever good works they have, will not be good enough to enable them to escape the judgment fire.
The prophets sometime linked this judgment of fire (what John calls the baptism of fire) with the final great war that will be raging at the time the Lord descends to the Mount of Olives (see Zech. 14). The furnace may in fact be a description of some kind of nuclear holocaust that will bring human history to a close, and be the means of removing the wicked from the earth. After all, it will be as in the days of Noah, when the righteous survive the judgment and are left (the wicked are taken away), and begin a new age with the worship of the LORD.
Those who fear the LORD will have a glorious deliverance (4:2-3). The contrast is now made with the true believers. “You who fear my name” refers to true believers who faithfully worship the LORD and seek to keep his commandments. The word “fear” is now used a third time for true believers, those with reverential fear--drawing near to the sovereign Lord with adoration and devotion, but shrinking back in a healthy fear or respect. Once again the object of this fear is the LORD’s (i.e., Yahweh’s) “name” (the character of God; see passages like Isaiah 9:6). Thus, to worship the “name of the LORD” is to worship the LORD in all his glory, power, and majesty, all that he is and all that he does. So these are the devout believers who are faithful to the LORD.
What do they have to look forward to? The coming of the Messiah and all the changes that will bring. To them the “sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” This is an implied comparison: the coming Messiah is like the rising sun, whose rays, like wings, bring light and life to the world. But this “sun” is qualified with a genitive--”sun of righteousness.” This could be attributive, a righteous sun, which is certainly true of the Lord. But it is more likely that the expression was meant to say that this “sun” would produce righteousness throughout the world, as the Messianic promises of Isaiah foretold. Zecharias, the father of John the Baptist, referred to the Messiah as the “sunrise” (dayspring from on high) in his great song (Luke 1:76-79).
The great release from the bondage of the world, sin and oppression will cause the righteous to celebrate enthusiastically. Another image is used, an implied comparison followed up by an explanatory simile: “you shall go forth and gambol (skip) as calves from the stall.” Calves that have been penned up closely for winter months will skip in their running when they are set free from the stalls. So the righteous when they are finally set free from all the effects of the curse will leap for joy in great celebration.
But they will also trample the wicked oppressors underfoot. Isaiah 63:1-6 portrays Christ as trodding them underfoot as in a winepress of his wrath; but here the prophet sees the righteous sharing in that great victory (for it was promised that the human race would destroy the seed of the Serpent in Genesis 3:15; see Rom. 16:20)--not that we will actually do anything to banish evil, but it will appear that way when we accompany Christ in his victorious conquest as youthful warriors as numerous as the dew of heaven (Ps. 110). The verse here simply says that the wicked will be ashes under the feet of the righteous. Perhaps the battle is already over, and the symbolism of treading on the ashes indicates sharing in the conquest.
Instruction: Obey the Word of God (v. 4). Malachi calls on the righteous to “remember”--act on what they remember--the Law of Moses. (One may note that if the liberal critical view were correct that the Pentateuch was written and edited during the exile, this post-exilic author would not have been so dishonest as to call it the Law of Moses). The Law of Moses, given at Horeb/Sinai, was the foundation of Scripture--everything was based on that. People could not disobey the Law and claim to be faithful. We of course have much more Scripture; but Jesus said he did not come to annul or destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. So we interpret the Law through the fulfillment of Christ, and learn that the spirit of the Law is profitable for instruction in righteousness, as the apostle says.
So in principle we may say that we who are looking for the second coming of Jesus the Messiah should be living soberly and obediently. The apostle says that whoever has this hope purifies himself. To live daily in the expectancy of the second, watching and waiting, means that we will be ready.
Promise: Elijah will come and unite the people in the covenant (vv. 5, 6). Now Malachi announces that God is sending Elijah the prophet before that great and terrible day of the LORD.
At the beginning of chapter 3 God said, “I am sending my messenger”; and now in similar words he says, “I am sending Elijah the prophet.” Malachi does not say that these two are one and the same, although if we only had this book we might say they could be the same person because of parallel constructions. We know from the New Testament that the messenger of Malachi 3:1 is John the Baptist. But is John also Elijah?
In the Gospels John the Baptist came preaching repentance in the desert, preparing people for the coming of the Lord. Luke 1:17 says that he came in the spirit and power of Elijah. In the Old Testament Elijah, you may recall, never died, but was taken up in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). But before he left he gave his mantel to Elisha, so that Elisha could have a double portion of the power of Elijah. Elijah was the first full prophet (although Abraham is called a prophet, and Samuel and David are called prophets). He stands at the head of a long list of prophets, so that all the prophets coming after him have something of the spirit and power of Elijah--but they were not Elijah the Tishbite.
When John was asked who he was, he stated very clearly, “I am not Elijah” (John 1:21, 23). Now in Matthew 11:13 Jesus said, “If you receive it”--this was Elijah who was to come. There is a contingency here. John may have come in the spirit and power of Elijah--but he was not Elijah, and he did not do what Malachi 4 said, turn the people right just before the great and terrible day of judgment. “If you receive it” may very well refer to receiving the message of the kingdom, that is, receiving Christ. But we know that Jesus came to his own, but his own received him not, but to as many as received him he gave the authority to be the sons of God (John 1:11, 12). Jesus may have meant that had the people received the Messiah, John would have fit the requirements. But of course they did not, and the Scripture was clear that they would not; but Jesus’ offer of himself to his people was still a legitimate offer, even if he knew they would reject him.
Then at the Transfiguration (see Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:11), Jesus announced that Elijah does come, and restores all things. But then he added that Elijah already came. So here we have another example of the already--not yet theme of prophecy. John came in the spirit of Elijah, and people killed him. But Elijah must yet come.
Most commentators identify one of the two witnesses in Revelation 12 as Elijah--either the real Elijah (otherwise, why did he not die?) or one like John who came in the spirit of Elijah. That chapter goes on to say that these witnesses have the power to shut up heaven so it will not rain--exactly what Elijah did at the beginning of his ministry.
But when this “Elijah” comes at the end of the age, he will bring about true repentance and change in the nation so that they will be ready for the coming of the Lord. The imagery of turning the hearts of fathers and children to each other is a spiritual change, the hearts referring to their wills; as they turn their hearts, it will be in obedience to the Law, and so they will be in fact turning their hearts to the Lord.
People everywhere must turn their hearts to the Lord, or when he comes he will smite them with the curse (kherem). This word for “curse” literally mean “banned, devoted”--it is off limits. In holy war, things would be put under this “ban”; that meant they belonged to the Lord, to be used by him or to be destroyed, but no human could have them (see the sin of Achan in Joshua, and the sin of Saul in 1 Samuel--they preserved banned things that should have been destroyed). So Malachi is thinking in terms of holy war, that when the Lord comes he will utterly destroy the world and its inhabitants, but will spare his people.
If people do not think God is ruling in fairness today, and they choose to rebel against him for that reason, they will have a sad future awakening. When the LORD comes, he will separate the righteous from the wicked, and it will be such a dramatic moment as the world and all in it are .
But before he comes he will send guides to bring about harmony and righteousness in the families, the key to the nation. The Word of God is full of instructions to watch and pray for his appearance. And the New Testament continues the theme. The faithful must work to bring people to repentance and to a proper spiritual level. And God is preparing his messenger. Many will come in the spirit and power of Elijah over the ages; but after they are long gone, and just at the eve of the coming, an Elijah will appear and draw people back together, and back to God.
Those living in the hope of the second coming will have to be prepared for it, but they will also be doing the work of the prophets, warming people that of the evil devastation to follow.