Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 05/11/1997
Malachi 1:1The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi: 2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How hast thou loved us? “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother,” declares the Lord, “Yet I have loved Jacob; 3 But I hated Esau and made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.” 4 Though Edom says, “We have been beaten down, but we will return and build up the ruins,” thus says the Lord of Hosts, “They may build, but I will tear down; and men will call them the wicked territory, and the people toward whom the Lord is indignant forever.” 5 And your eyes will see this, and you will say, “The Lord is magnified beyond the borders of Israel.”
Why are we starting a series on a rather obscure Old Testament prophet, one indeed who manages to be rather hard to follow in his very opening paragraph? Well, we’ve done series on Genesis and Exodus, so if we rope in Malachi we will have the Old Testament surrounded, as it were. Seriously, there is a much better reason than that. Malachi addressed an audience that was blasé, cynical about religion, disillusioned with it, not quite able to take it seriously, and yet who still kept playing the game. Does that sound anything to you like certain segments of the church in our own day? We’re going to spend a few weeks on Malachi because he has a message that we desperately need to hear. The work it will take to put us in a position to hear it will be well worth the trouble.
In order to understand that message we must first understand something of the historical setting in which the book was written. The seven and six hundreds B.C. was the age of the great prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. In 722 the Northern Kingdom had been destroyed by Assyria for its idolatry. Isaiah and Jeremiah now proceed to warn Judah that the same sins will lead her into captivity too, but they promise that unlike the Northern Kingdom, a remnant will return to the land. Furthermore, God will send a Ruler to restore the throne to David: “For unto us a child will be born, unto us a son be given. And the government shall rest upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Other prophecies deal with the rebuilding of the temple. “It will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains and be raised up above the hills, and all nations will stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2). “It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd! And he will perform all my desire.’ And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘’She will be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid’” (Isaiah 44:28). Isaiah’s contemporary Micah echoes these words in his prophecy (3:12-4:2). It is important to note that during all this talk of the rebuilding of the temple, it was still standing! But in 586 BC God’s warnings were finally fulfilled. Jerusalem was sacked, the temple was destroyed, and Judah was carried into captivity in Babylon. This was more devastating to the people than we can probably appreciate. Not only had they lost their homes and their nation its sovereignty, but the very center of their religious life was gone. The place of sacrifice, the focal point of God’s presence and his blessing, one of the central things that gave them their very identity as a people, had been taken away from them. Increasingly the exilic prophets look to the rebuilding of the temple in ways that seem to connect it with the coming of the Messiah. “And my servant David will be king over them . . . and they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob . . . and I will make a covenant of peace with them . . . and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them . . . and the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forever” (Ezekiel 37:24-28).
The first returns from exile began in BC 536, and one of the first priorities was the rebuilding of the temple. Haggai encouraged the project with this promise: “’The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former,’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘and in this place I will give peace’” (Haggai 2:9). The way the people appear to have understood these prophecies was that there was a link between the rebuilding of the temple and the coming of the Messiah. How indeed could God return to his people unless his temple had been prepared? The basic assumption seems to have been, “If we build it, he will come!” The new temple was completed in 516. And—here is the point—nothing happened.
It is now the time of Malachi, the last decades of the four hundreds BC. The temple was finished almost a century ago, and nothing happened. Nobody was willing to say out loud that the Messiah wasn’t coming, but there was a definite feeling of having been let down. As a result, the people had slipped into a state of religious lukewarmness and laxity stemming from an increasing cynicism about the fulfillment of God’s promises. You see Malachi responding to this situation on every page. The people are saying, “How has God loved us?” (vs. 2). Their attitude to worship is “My, how tiresome it is!” (1:13). And they were bringing their lame or sick animals as sacrifices (1:13). They were asking, “Where is the God of justice?” There is really no point in being or doing good, because He does not even notice (2:17). They were skimping on their tithes and offerings (3:8). They were saying, “It is vain to serve God, and what profit is it that we have kept his charge?’ (3:14). At such a time and in such a climate, God raised up his servant Malachi to address such attitudes.
And what was Malachi’s message to such people at such a time? “’I have loved you!’ says the Lord” (1:2). God loves you, you ninnies! His failure to fulfill his prophecies according to your interpretations and your expectations and on your timetable is no evidence against this truth, which is veritably thundered at you by your entire history. So how can you treat Him this way? Therefore repent and return to Him. For He will return as he promised. And on that day only the faithful will be saved. That was the message that Malachi’s generation needed to hear—and I don’t think it would hurt ours to listen to it either!
Grasping two features of Malachi’s writing style will also help us to be able to read him with understanding. The first is that he organizes the whole book as a kind of running disputation between God and the people. “’I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How hast thou loved us?’” (1:2). And then the answer is supplied, and then another round of question and answer begins. We must understand that the people were probably not actually saying out loud the things that Malachi attributes to them. They were still hypocritically maintaining their outward image of piety, which was part of the problem. Rather, by his keen and unnerving insight, Malachi uncovers what they were really thinking, as evidenced by their actions. Thus, a new round of statement and response signals a new division in the text.
The second feature to notice is that beyond this question and answer format, there is really no logical or linear outline of the kind we are used to in most of Paul’s epistles, for example. But throughout all the ongoing dialog, Malachi keeps hitting three points. First is the evidence of God’s love and covenant faithfulness both from Israel’s history and their present. Second is the appropriate response to that evidence: a pure sacrifice, sound teaching, a whole tithe. And finally there is the promise—or threat, depending on that response or lack of it—of the future judgment by Messiah that is indeed coming, in God’s good time—in the fullness of time, as we learn from the New Testament. Malachi will ring the changes on these three points throughout the book.
Now I hope these opening verses will be able to make sense to you. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How hast thou loved us? “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother,” declares the Lord, “Yet I have loved Jacob” (1:2-3). “How have I loved you?” God answers the people’s unspoken question. “Let me count the ways.” He could have referred to his Providence—he was still sending his Rain and Sun to grow their crops; he was still letting them live on his planet, drinking up his water and breathing up his air. What he chooses to focus on is, “How have I loved you? I chose you.” I chose you, that is, in your father Jacob, before you (or he) were born, so there is no way you could have earned it—it has to be chalked up to pure gracious unmerited love, pure and simple. Jacob was chosen and Esau was rejected. Esau’s rejection is stated hyperbolically as “hated” (cf. Gen. 29:30-31) to bring out the main point which is that Jacob’s choosing, his election, is the expression of God’s love for Israel.
God showed his love by choosing you, and look what the results of the choice are. First, you have the Land and you are back in it (and Esau is not—vs. 4). And the Land that you have is not just dirt, but it comes with a purpose to give meaning to your lives. When you understand this, you will say, “The Lord is magnified beyond the borders of Israel.” You are in the Land for the sake of those who are outside it. Don’t forget the original terms of the Abrahamic Covenant: In you, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
Beyond the borders! What a great missionary text this would have been for Judah if she could have received it. And what a great missionary text it still is for the church today. Beyond the borders means for us “outside your walls, outside your safe little world.” This is the ultimate cure for spiritual laxness and apathy: a renewed vision of God’s love leading to a renewed vision for the glory of God going out beyond the borders. Parents: if you want to break your kids out of their apathy and cynicism and set them on fire for the Lord, send them on a short-term mission trip. Better yet, go yourself, and take them with you. And if you can’t go yourself, get involved in helping others to go. Get your eyes up off of yourself and onto God’s love, and then onto the world outside the walls, beyond the borders. Now as then, this is the only cure for spiritual apathy worth taking.
And as long as we are applying this text to ourselves, let us ask, how has God loved us? In the same way, in every way, only much more so. The Old Testament saints looked forward to a promise; we look back to its fulfillment. They did not fully understand what was coming; we have seen and known the wonder and the glory of a suffering and risen Lord. They could not see beyond their own little Land; we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They had never heard the Sermon on the Mount, the parables of the Sower and the Prodigal, the Christmas story, John 3:16; we see through a glass darkly, but the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and in those texts has made the glass ever so much brighter than it was for them. They could only look to the blessing of the nations beyond their borders as a vague and future hope; we have the Great Commission and the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us carry it out. They probably wrinkled their eyebrows at verse 5, while we have the privilege of being its fulfillment. We are the Lord magnified beyond the borders of Israel, and we are the instrument of his being further magnified until he returns.
Therefore, as we read this book, let us examine ourselves. Can you see yourself in the lukewarm people of Malachi’s day? Listen to his message and take it to heart! For how much more should we who have know the Lord about whom they could only speculate live to see Him magnified beyond the borders? How much more should we bring the sacrifice of pure lives, heed sound instruction, and cheerfully bring all our tithes into the storehouse—all out of gratitude to the One who loved us so.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams