The Coming Activity of God (Malachi 3:1-6)
The question, ‘Where is the God of Justice?’ (Malachi 2:17) was obviously a two-edged one, but it is questionable whether the people of Judah wanted God to be too just, except in terms of their viewpoint. Their expectations and requirements were all one way. What they wanted was for God to fulfil His promises towards them. What they did not want was for God to be just by expecting the fulfilment of His covenant from them. They felt, rather foolishly, that they were in fact doing enough.
But Malachi now assures them that the God of Justice will indeed act, and then they had better beware.
‘Behold, I send my messenger,
And he will prepare the way before me,
And the Lord, whom you seek,
Will suddenly come to his temple;
And the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire,
Behold, he comes, says YHWH of hosts.’
He assures them that God is indeed coming in justice and will in fact send His messenger who will prepare His way before Him. Such a preparation of the way for the coming of YHWH had already been declared as necessary in Isaiah 40:3-5 by ‘the voice of one who cries’. And in Malachi 4:5-6 Malachi reveals that it will be by another Elijah, and that his purpose will be to ‘turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers’. Here therefore we have another indication of the disunity that there was in the community, something which must certainly be sorted out before YHWH comes in accordance with His promises. Thus does he make clear that before YHWH fulfils His promises there must be a great sorting out and a great reconciliation and revival among the people.
And then the Sovereign Lord Himself (adonai), ‘Whom they are seeking’ when they ask where the God of Justice is, will suddenly come to His Temple, even He Who is ‘the Messenger (Angel) of the covenant’, ‘Whom they are desiring’. The idea behind the messenger of the covenant’ is probably the Angel of YHWH Who is regularly involved when God’s deliverance is in question. When YHWH acts invisibly He ‘sends His Angel before Him’ (Exodus 3:2; Exodus 14:19; Exodus 23:20; Exodus 23:23; Exodus 33:2; Numbers 20:16; Judges 2:1; Judges 5:23; Judges 6:11-22; Judges 13:3-21; 2 Kings 19:35; Isaiah 37:36; Isaiah 63:9; Zechariah 1:12), and in Zechariah 3:1; Zechariah 3:5 He is closely involved in the assessing of and cleansing of God’s people in the person of their High Priest.
‘Behold, he comes, says YHWH of hosts.’ As so often YHWH speaks of the coming One as ‘He’ not ‘I’. (As is the case with the Angel of YHWH). But the promise is that He is surely coming, and they therefore need to be ready for His coming and for His own ‘great and terrible Day’ (Malachi 4:5). Note the emphasis on the unexpectedness and suddenness of His coming.
So the promise is firstly of the initial coming of the preparer of the way (whose details are given in Malachi 4:5-6; Luke 1:15-17; Matthew 3:3 and parallels), and then of the coming of the Sovereign Lord Himself, that is, the Messenger (Angel) of the Covenant. That the Lord Jesus Christ did come in the fullness of time is what the Gospels are all about, and in them He is clearly revealed as the Sovereign Lord and the Messenger of the Covenant. And that He suddenly came to His Temple occurred twice, once at the commencement of His ministry (John 2:13-17) and once at the end (Mark 11:11; Mark 11:15-17 and parallels).
‘But who can abide the day of his coming?
And who will stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire,
And like fuller’s soap,
And he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
And he will purify the sons of Levi,
And refine them as gold and silver,
And they will offer to YHWH offerings in righteousness.’
He reminds them Who it is Who is coming. He is the Righteous One. And thus the question arises as to who will be able to bear His coming? Who will be able to remain on their feet when He comes? For He is like a refiner’s fire and a launderer’s cleansing fluid. The refiner of silver especially had the most difficult of tasks, for if he did not get it right the silver would lose its lustre. Thus the picture of the refining of silver is of the skill and care with which the divine Refiner will work. The vivid picture of the heated flames that smelt the gold and silver, and the chemicals used by launderer’s to cleanse garments, demonstrate the intensity of what is to happen (see Jeremiah 2:22). People’s hearts are to be thoroughly searched out, the dross removed, and the hearts cleansed. This picture of refining fire is often previously used by the prophets, compare Isaiah 48:10; Jeremiah 6:29-30; Ezekiel 22:17-22; Zechariah 13:9, while the idea of God seen as fire occurs throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus 3:2; Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:12; Ezekiel 1:27). As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29).
And when He comes He will purify ‘the sons of Levi’. Note the wider term (not the sons of Zadok) for he is not thinking of the priests, but has in mind his words in Malachi 2:4-6 concerning the righteous preachers who will arise who will have the law of truth in their mouths, and no unrighteousness on their lips, and who will turn many from iniquity, the true heirs of Levi. And these He will refine as gold and silver, so that they will offer to YHWH offerings of righteousness (righteous offerings).
That there is a deliberate contrast between the righteous offerings mentioned here and the unrighteous offerings of the priests and laity mentioned earlier is undoubted. But as he has brought out in Malachi 1:12 they will also be a different kind of offering. They will be the offerings of prayer in His Name as incense (Psalms 141:2), the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving (Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 2:5), and the offering of their lives as a living sacrifice which is holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2) through the sacrifice of the One Who would offer Himself up for them once and for all.
There can be no doubt that in the coming of Jesus and His effectiveness in changing the hearts of men such a refining process did take place, and those whom He refined then went out refining others until His Name was made great among the Gentiles, and the offerings of praise and thanksgiving rose from all parts of the world (Malachi 1:12).
‘The sons of Levi.’ If we contrast this with the ‘sons of Belial’ we will see that the term can mean those who follow in the ways of Levi. It does not require that they be strictly Levites. Indeed it must be doubted if anyone today could genuinely identify themselves as sons of Levi with any authenticity, and there would have been few if any in Jesus’ day. The ‘sons of Levi’ were those who heaved like the ideal Levi.
‘Then will the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant to YHWH,
As in the days of old, and as in ancient years.’
And once this happens the offering of the people of God will be acceptable and pleasant to YHWH, as they were in the best days of the days gone by. ‘Judah and Jerusalem’ indicates the whole true people of God. The early church in Acts 1-12 was of course largely composed of people from Judah and Jerusalem, and all others who joined with them by becoming ‘proselytes’ would be seen as one with them. Thus there are no grounds for denying that the early church is in mind here.
‘And I will come near to you to judgment,
And I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers,
And against the adulterers, and against the false swearers,
And against those that oppress the hireling in his wages,
The widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the sojourner from his right,
And fear not me, says YHWH of hosts.
For I, YHWH, change not,
Therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.’
But the One Who comes to refine will also act swiftly to judge those who fail to respond. This will include those involved in the occult, adulterers who take other men’s wives, those who give false testimony, those who underpay their workers, or treat badly the widows and the fatherless (those who have no one to defend them), and those who are unjust towards immigrants. That this swift judgment came on Jerusalem and Judah in 70 AD at the hands of the Romans is unquestionable.
So there is a clear division between those who respond to the refining process and those who do not. For the former salvation, for the latter judgment. And this is because YHWH is unchanging. He continually shows mercy towards the repentant and continually brings judgment on the unrepentant. And it is because they are a special people to Him and because He has remembered His promises that He is yet offering the opportunity of repentance to them so that they are not consumed as Edom had been (Malachi 1:2-5). The question is as to whether they will demonstrate that they are true ‘sons of Levi’ or not.
YHWH Brings A Further Charge Against His People. They Have Failed in Their Offering Of Tithes (Malachi 3:7-12).
There were no doubt some who could still feel pretty pleased with themselves. They could insist that they had not brought defective offerings (Malachi 1:7-14), that they had not married foreign wives who introduced idolatry (Malachi 2:10-11), that they had not divorced their wives (Malachi 2:14-16), that they had not been complacent about the sins of Israel (Malachi 2:17). So now Malachi brings another test of their genuineness in worship. Have they contributed their full required amount in tithes? Tithes were like taxes. Unless you were very godly you paid as little as possible. There were always possible ways of manipulating situations that could result in a reducing of the tithes needing to be paid, especially at a time when the Levites were not particularly active to monitor them. And the non-arrival of the tithes (which is a small and struggling community would not be plentiful, could affect the worship at God’s House because the Levites had to give attention to their own survival (compare Nehemiah 13:10).
‘From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my ordinances,
And have not kept them.
Return unto me, and I will return unto you,
Says YHWH of hosts.
But you say,
In what shall we return?
Will a man violently rob God?
Yet you violently rob me.
But you say, In what have we robbed you?
In tithes and offerings.
You are cursed with the curse,
For you rob me, even this whole nation.’
Having laid out many of his accusations against the priests and the people Malachi now calls for repentance. From the days of their fathers to the present they have turned aside from God’s ordinances, and have not kept them. Now he calls on them to return to God, and then, he says, God promises that He will return to them.
Do we sometimes wonder why God is not as active in our day as we would like? Here is His answer. It is because His people have turned aside from His ordinances. It is because they are not fully obeying Him and are not genuinely dedicated to Him. It is because they are withholding themselves from God. And the solution is simple. ‘Return to Me, and I will return to you.’
But these people of God would not have it that they were not obeying God’s ordinances. ‘In what shall we return?’ They asked God. YHWH, through the prophet, comes back with a rhetorical question in return. ‘Will a man violently rob God? And yet you violently rob Me.’ This immediately brought an indignant reply. ‘In what have we robbed you?’ The idea was preposterous. They were not Temple robbers. Who would be foolish enough to rob the One Who knows everything that a man does?
God’s answer comes firm and sure. ‘In tithes and offerings.’ Let them just think back over how they have behaved in respect of His tithes and offerings. They have calculated, they have stinted, they have wrangled, they have interpreted ‘leniently’, they have avoided paying and giving to the full extent that they knew in their hearts, once they thought about it, that they should have done. Thus they are guilty of having robbed God. There would be very few if any who could deny the charge.
The ‘tithe’ or ‘tenth’ was what they should have been offering to God out of all their produce. It had been a continual requirement since the time of Moses. And it should have been of their very best, because it was made to God. Every third year the tithe would be set aside for the needs of the poor, so that food would always be available for those in genuine need (Deuteronomy 14:28-29), and the remainder of the time the tithe went to the Levites, and of that a tenth went to the priests (Leviticus 27; Numbers 18). No doubt many had argued to themselves that as not many Levites had returned full tithes need not be paid, and they had in fact carried that argument into effect so efficiently that the Levites hardly received any at all (Nehemiah 13:10).
The word ‘offerings’ covers the other offerings that should be made including such as the firstfruits and wave offerings, and other contributions due to the Temple. It should be noted what a turn around this was requiring in their hearts. From being those who offered blemished sacrifices, and begrudged tithes and offerings, they were to become wholehearted worshippers of, and givers to, God. The searching of heart would unquestionably result in religious revival.
‘Bring you the whole tithe into the store-house,
That there may be food in my house,
And prove me now herewith,
Says YHWH of hosts,
If I will not open you the sluicegates of heaven,
And pour you out a blessing,
That there will not be room enough to receive it.’
God now returns with His offer. Let them bring the WHOLE tithe into the store house so that the Levites and priests could be amply fed, and let them prove whether in return He would be faithful or not. This would, of course, produce a total revolution in their thinking. Once they began being honest about their tithes, and began to consider what was truly required, it would develop a healthy attitude of mind (calculating tithes was not mechanical, quality as well as quantity had to be considered, as they considered what they would give to God) and it would bring to mind a host of other ways in which they were not being faithful to the covenant. And the aim was that those matters would be sorted out as well.
But the very change in the attitude of their hearts would result in God responding and blessing their harvests. For once they had begun to worship Him truly and fully from their hearts His promise was that He would ensure sufficient rain to produce abundant fruitfulness. Palestine was almost totally dependent on rain for its productivity. When the rains came then life was good. The land was productive, and the harvests produced were plentiful (there was never any doubt about the sun). But when the rains were withheld the land suffered, and the harvests were poor. The sun beat down and the earth was scorched. Unlike in Egypt and in Babylonia there were not sufficient quantities of water in their rivers to irrigate the land.
‘The sluicegates of Heaven.’ They did not, of course, literally believe that there were sluicegates in Heaven. They knew perfectly well that the rain came from the clouds. It is simply a picturesque way of describing plentifulness of rain.
And what would be the final result? Their storehouses would prove too small. They would have such abundant harvests that they would be unable to store them. To people struggling as they were in difficult circumstances it must have sounded like a dream come true.
The implication is quite clear. Those who would enjoy the blessing of God must themselves ensure that they are generous and genuine towards God. This was not a promise of great prosperity. It was a promise of good returns for honest toil. It was an assurance that God would be with them and would bless them. It was a call for a total change of heart. To see it as a kind of mercenary bargain is to miss the whole point.
‘And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes,
And he will not destroy the fruits of your ground,
Nor will your vine cast its fruit,
Before the time in the field,
Says YHWH of hosts.
And all nations will call you happy,
For you will be a delightsome land,
Says YHWH of hosts.’
And how would all this happen? It would happen because of the activity of God. He would deal with all who would ‘devour’ the crops, whether humans, beasts or insects (including fruit pests and locusts), preventing them from attacking the harvest. He would ensure that the fruit of the vine remained in place, and did not fall to the ground until harvest time, a result which would denote trees destitute of water.
And the result would be that all the nations around would call them ‘happy’ and their land a ‘land of delight’, because it would be such a wonderful and fruitful land. And this was the promise and guarantee of YHWH of hosts.
YHWH’s Final Charge Against His People, That They Have Spoken Against Him (Malachi 3:13 to Malachi 4:3).
In this section YHWH finalises His list of complaints by distinguishing between the majority who have spoken against Him, and the minority Who have constantly spoken lovingly of Him, whose names are written in His Book of Remembrance, and He contrasts what the end will be of both groups.
‘Your words have been stout against me,
Yet you say,
What have we said to one another against you?
You have said,
It is vain to serve God,
And what profit is it that we have kept his charge,
And that we have walked mournfully before YHWH of hosts?’
YHWH now accuses Israel of speaking strongly against Him. Their response is to ask, how they have so spoken against Him. YHWH’s reply is that it is because they have said that it is vain to serve God and to keep His charge and to humiliate themselves before Him, because He simply does not respond. Note their emphasis on what they have done. They have slaved for Him, they have kept his stern charge, they have even dressed in black and made a great show of mourning over their sins. And they ask themselves what they have gained by their actions. The reply that they themselves provide is ‘nothing’, and that is because after all their arduous effort they cannot see that they have gained any benefit at all. To them their religion had been hard work, and they had expected to get a reward for it. Now they are wondering whether it is all worth while, whether to give it up and find a more convenient religion. Other gods did not make these high demands. They had reached a low ebb.
What a contrast these people were with those who ‘feared YHWH’ and spoke lovingly of Him among themselves. And they did this, not because of what they had gained from Him or hoped to gain from Him, but because they loved Him and worshipped Him as Who He was. They honoured Him and His Name. Herein lies the difference between true worshippers, and those who only worship Him for what they can get out of Him.
‘And now we call the proud happy,
Yes, those who work wickedness are built up,
Yes, they challenge God, and escape.
We have already seen in Malachi 2:17 that there were many who were grumbling that God only seemed to do good to those who did what was evil. The grumble now continues as they declare that it was the proud and arrogant who were happy, it was those who worked wickedness who were built up, it was those who tested God out who escaped from problems and difficulties. And it did not seem right or fair to them. Those being described probably included some members of the community and also some of those among whom they lived, who had been settled there before they arrived. But their words remind us of the Psalmist in Psalms 73. He also was puzzled as to why the wicked flourished. But the difference in his case was that he went on to discover the answer when he ‘considered their end’, and he then went on to praise God.
But these people did not see beyond their criticisms. They stopped short at criticising and blaming God, and were deciding whether after all it was worth following Him when He was not fitting into their conceptions about what He ought to do. To them serving God was a kind of bargain. They did right by Him, and He did right by them. And it was His side of it that appeared to be failing. But, of course, as we have seen they only thought that they were doing right by Him because of their stereotyped ideas. As Malachi has brought out, they were in fact not doing right by Him at all.
Then those who feared YHWH spoke one with another,
And YHWH listened, and heard,
And a book of remembrance was written before him,
For those who feared YHWH,
And that thought on his name.’
But the true believers, those who really did ‘fear YHWH’, talked with one another about Him in glowing terms, and YHWH listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who feared YHWH and called on His Name. Of course they did not realise that what they were saying was being recorded. They did it because they loved Him. But it is an indication to us of how God hears how we pray and how we talk with each other, and it reminds us of the joy we bring to Him when we do it aright.
Many cities in those days kept a book of those who had done great deeds on behalf of the city, and many kings had spies who kept a record of people’s conversations. Some also had ‘books of days’ in which daily events were recorded. This book was a combination of both in the best of senses.
The idea that God keeps a record of the conversations of His people brings new light to the words of Jesus, ‘him who confesses me before men, him will I confess before My Father in heaven’.
‘And they will be mine,
Says YHWH of hosts,
In the day that I make,
They will be a special treasure (my own possession),
And I will spare them,
As a man spares his own son who serves him.’
And because these believers had their thoughts filled with God and His goodness He affirms that they will be His ‘in the Day that He makes’ (compare Malachi 4:3), the Day that He has prepared for His final judgments. They will be His own ‘special possession’. This was the term used of a king’s private treasures, as against what was put in the public treasury. It was also the term used of Israel when God was making His promises to them before the Sinai covenant (Exodus 19:5) and setting them apart as His holy nation. Here then were the true Israel within Israel of whom Paul spoke (Romans 9:6), the true nation. And they will be YHWH’s own treasured possession.
And He will see them as His only son (compare Exodus 4:22). And He assures them that He will behave towards them as a man behaves towards his only son, even when he has been caught in some fault. He will ‘spare’ them. He knows that they are not without fault, and He may chasten them. But He will not count it against them in that Day because they have served Him from their hearts.
‘In the day that I make.’ Compare Malachi 4:3 where the same expression is used of the day when the unrighteous will be trodden underfoot as ashes. This is the Day of YHWH, the Day when ‘the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Matthew 13:43) and the Day in which ‘all who cause men to stumble and all who do iniquity, will be cast into the furnace of fire’ (Matthew 13:42).
‘Then will you return and discern,
Between the righteous and the wicked,
Between him who serves God,
And him who serves him not.’
Malachi takes over the ideas being expressed and sums up the situation. Then in that Day (the Day when He makes His judgments and makes these believers His own special possession) He will return and will judge between the righteous and the wicked, and between him who serves God and him who does not. We have these ideas filled out in the parables of Jesus, both those in Matthew 13, and those which regularly speak of the activities of servants who are waiting for their Master or their Lord. The idea is of that great Day when all are called to account.
‘The righteous and the wicked.’ The righteous are those who are responsive to God and who love His word. They live in accordance with His covenant and seek to please Him in all that they do. They are yielded to His service in their daily lives. They are walking in the narrow way that leads to life. The wicked would not necessarily be seen as wicked by men. But they are those who do not treat too seriously God and His commandments. They do not want to be bound too strictly by the covenant. They have no desire to walk in His ways, except outwardly. Their aim is to please themselves. They want little to do with God, apart from when He can be useful to them. Then they wonder why He does not answer them. They walk in the wide way that is trodden by the majority. They live lives free of all restrictions, or alternately live them in order to put God in their debt, and their way leads to destruction.
‘ For, behold, the day comes,
It burns as a furnace,
And all the proud,
And all who work wickedness,
Will be stubble,
And the day which comes will burn them up,
Says YHWH of hosts,
That it shall leave them neither root nor branch.’
But the Day is coming. And when it comes it will burn like a furnace, and this time not a refining furnace, but a destructive one. And all the proud and arrogant (compare Malachi 3:15) and all who work wickedness (compare Malachi 2:17) will be as the stubble which is destined to be burned once the fields are harvested. The Day that is coming will burn them up and consume them. The fires of God will burn and the stubble will be totally consumed. And the proud and those who disobey His word will be left with nothing, neither root nor branch. The whole will have been burned up. This is the guarantee of YHWH of hosts.
We can compare here the words of Jesus, ‘this is how it will beat the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the unrighteous from the righteous, and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 13:49-50).
Here is the answer to all the grumblers. This is what will happen to the arrogant and the proud, and to all who set themselves against God, whether openly or simply by apathy. But the point being made is that they need to take heed lest they form a part of it. God’s love for them is revealed in that He is yet giving them an opportunity to come out from their folly and become true believers (Malachi 1:2-5). God’s sternness in that if they do not repent thane they will face the fires of judgment.
But to you who fear my name,
Will the sun of righteousness arise with healing in its wings,
And you will go forth,
And gambol as calves of the stall.
But in what contrast are those who ‘fear His Name’. On them will the sun of righteousness arise with healing in its wings. God’s righteousness will shine down on them like the rays of the noonday sun, and they will be fully restored. And they will be so full of spiritual life that they will, as it were, go out and gambol in the fields like calves newly released from their stalls.
This idea of the righteousness of God effective and powerful in the lives of men and women comes largely from Isaiah, where the righteousness of God parallels the idea of His salvation and deliverance, and speaks of an active righteousness that works in men’s lives, covering them with His righteousness and producing righteousness within them. Consider as a parallel Isaiah 45:8, ‘Drop down, O you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth open, that they may bring forth salvation, and let her cause righteousness to spring up together; I the Lord have created it.’ See also Isaiah 46:13; Isaiah 51:5; Isaiah 56:1; Isaiah 59:17; Isaiah 61:10.
And in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ the sun of righteousness walked the earth and we saw the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). As He Himself declared, ‘I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in me should not dwell in darkness.’ Light had come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19), and that is why many did not come, and do not come today.
‘And you will tread down the wicked,
For they will be ashes under the soles of your feet,
In the day that I make,
Says YHWH of hosts.’
In that Day of God’s making, the righteous will triumph and the sinful and disobedient will be trodden underfoot like ashes, because they are as stubble burned to ashes in the fields. The thought is not one of vindictiveness. The point is that the righteous will walk the fields in which the stubble has been burned in preparation for the future good times. It is a picture of the future blessing of the righteous when the wicked are no more. Then the poor and the lowly who have followed Christ will, as it were, walk in fruitful fields, while the proud and the disobedient will simply be the dust.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Malachi 3". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Easter