Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are reading the sixth, and final, disputation which covers Malachi 3:13-4:3. In Malachi, God consistently speaks in first person to the people, a fact made more significant knowing Malachi is the last of the writing prophets. God is the dominant speaker in the first, second, fifth, and sixth disputations.
The sixth disputation demonstrates that the spirit of cynicism has taken deep root in the community. The people dare to criticize God. However, for the first time in the book, we learn there is also a righteous minority who remain faithful to Yahweh. The bulk of the disputation describes how the coming Day of the Lord will be a vastly different experience for the righteous and the unrighteous.
Once again, Malachi introduces the disputation using his standard formula of hypothetical dialogue between God and the general population. God makes an accusation and the people give a smug response. In this case, God accuses them of speaking “harsh words” against him. The people, always speaking with one voice, ask, “How have we spoken against you?” (3:13). The rejoinder’s tone could either reflect intentional denial of God’s words or sincere surprise at the accusation. Either way, the prophet’s job is to show them that their indifference to God and his decrees is equally as offensive as rejecting him and criticizing him aloud.
Malachi’s generation is filled with doubt. From their vantage point, obedience has gotten them nowhere and makes no difference in the quality of their lives. They question what they “profit by keeping his command” (3:14). They wonder how they benefit by “going about as mourners before the Lord of hosts?” (3:14). Mourning seems like an odd choice for them to pick in describing the futility of following God’s statutes. However, following the Torah’s prescription for mourning rituals gives Israelites the opportunity to put on visible pious airs. They were permitted to lament loudly for at least seven days. Jewish mourning customs in biblical times included tearing clothes, growing beards, shaving hair, and rubbing ashes on their heads. Malachi’s contemporaries complain that the even the performance of mourning wins them no divine sympathy (2:13).
To follow the statutes and decrees of the Torah to their full extent is a demanding and time-consuming commitment. Inevitably, everyone in the community varies in their observance of Sabbath, Temple offerings, dietary restrictions, and household codes. We know from Malachi’s previous disputations, the general populace is skimping on the tithe, marrying pagans, committing adultery, lying, and oppressing the weak. Despite those habitual sins, they do not see themselves as transgressors. They begrudge their neighbors and fellow Israelites who ignore the covenant obligations even more without consequence (3:15). Those making intentional sacrifices to follow God’s laws wonder if it is worth it. God’s message to them throughout Malachi has basically been that the majority are not as blameless as they think.
The sixth disputation does not specify the transgressions the people have in mind when they accuse God of blessing the arrogant and prospering the evildoers. However, it is easy to imagine certain scenarios that would spread cynicism. For example, if a merchant sells his wares on Sabbath, he profits from the lack of competition. As a result, the people grumble against God. Shallowly, they conclude that faithfulness gains them nothing and only puts them at a disadvantage compared to the faithless (3:15).
I am not picking the example of Sabbath breaking arbitrarily. We know from Nehemiah that in the restored community, people were profaning the Sabbath routinely. Nehemiah reports, “In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens that they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, and I warned them at that time against selling food” (Neh. 13:15). If not everyone in the community is committed to hallowing the Sabbath and refraining from work and commerce, the inevitable result is that the Sabbath breakers profit by monopolizing the markets on that day.
Even if the people are justified in their complaints about the worst offenders getting away with their law breaking, the glaring problem with the people’s mindset is that rather than delighting in God and his ways, they intend for the relationship to benefit them materially. They desire external reward (money, political favor, crops) for their external service (empty religious performance). It was a selfish approach to a life designed for inward faithfulness, love, and reverence toward God. When they mock God for abandoning his law of retribution, they are essentially accusing God of being idle which comes dangerously close to blasphemy.
Despite the aura of spiritual apathy, God has identified in Malachi’s generation a minority of Israelites who revere him. Malachi describes a scenario where a righteous remnant come together and uplift the name of God. We do not know what they say but God is pleased. Malachi says, “those who revered the Lord spoke with one another” and “the Lord took note and listened” (3:16). These faithful followers want to clear themselves of any guilt by association with their compatriots.
Malachi says, “a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name” (3:16). Possibly, Malachi is describing a covenant renewal ceremony in which he took part. In that case, the God-fearers may have initiated the making of an actual scroll with a list of the names of the righteous, a permanent record that not every Israelite in the restored community had fallen away. God heard their edifying speech. Even though we do not know what they said, God was pleased with their reverence of his name and their apparent commitment to live a life of obedience.
The Hebrew scriptures likely developed the concept of a book of remembrance based off the habit of ancient kings who kept records of everything that happened in their royal courts (Est. 6:1). There are several references in the scriptures to records of the righteous and unrighteous, and even their deeds. The first mention of God keeping track of humans in a book was when God told Moses he would blot out the names of those who sinned against him (Ex. 32:33). Centuries later, Daniel described the resurrection of the dead as a roll call based on the names written in God’s book (Dan. 12:1). In the Psalms, David described God’s book as a prescient recording of life events before someone was born (Ps. 139:16). Revelation described a final judgement of the dead using multiple books which include names and past deeds (Rev. 20:12-15). On Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Jews greet each other with Gmar chatima tova which means “a good final sealing.” The belief is that God decides on Yom Kippur whose names are sealed in the Book of Life.
The tradition of a Book of Life exposes the belief that a day is coming that God will balance the scales of justice between the faithful and unfaithful. He will declare the faithful his “treasured possession” and he will “spare them as parents spare their children who serve them” (3:17). “Treasured possession” is a throwback expression, evoking the events of Mount Sinai when God chose Israel out of all the other nations. God promised that if the former slaves obeyed his voice and kept his covenant, they would be his “treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5).
By juxtaposing the reaction of the righteous to the tone of the unrighteous, Malachi shows they can no longer accuse God of withholding punishment. Malachi says, “once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him” (3:18).
In chapter four, the Day of the Lord language takes over with God’s wrath symbolized by fire. Malachi is the only prophet to heavily emphasize the role of fire in God’s final act. This may reflect the Jews cultural contact with Persian belief systems during the exile. In ancient Persian religion, fire was a sacred manifestation of the Persian god Ahura Mazda. Ancient Persians even built fire temples with a continuous flame, never to be extinguished. Malachi assures the true believers that God will protect them from incineration on the day of reckoning. The evildoers will perish like “stubble” in a burning oven (4:1). God will permit nothing to survive of the unrighteous, “neither root nor branch” (4:2). The chance has passed to be purified by the silversmith’s refiner’s fire (3:3).
Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, also described the Day of the Lord as a fiery furnace. After several parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to treasure in a field, a fine pearl, or a fish-laden net, Jesus warned that at the end of the age, “the angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:50).
After a year of studying the minor prophets, you know by now that the Day of the Lord has meant various things to various prophets. Like turning a kaleidoscope, the prophets glimpse different facets of coming divine interventions in the world: a return of the line of David, ingathering of the exiles, a glorious rebuilt temple, vengeance on Israel’s enemies, an abundance of crops, and exaltation among the nations. The fulfillment of each of these visions occurs in various stages of Israel’s story but they are all lumped together as one Great Day of the Lord. Some have already been fulfilled with the Assyrian, Babylonian, or possibly Roman attacks. Some were fulfilled with the decree of Cyrus and the restoration of the Second Temple. For Christians, some point to the first coming of Jesus and his mission to suffer and die on our behalf. While others point to his return to rule and reign over the earth and make all things new.
Malachi adds a new facet to the prophetic kaleidoscope by describing the redemptive characteristics of the day for true believers. On the Great Day of the Lord, a fellowship of the righteous, a cleansed nation, is all that remains. With them, God will launch a restart plan. This is a new twist on a prophetic motif of retribution. In earlier prophets, the focus was often on Israel prevailing over her historic enemies like the Edomites or Babylonians or Assyrians. In Malachi, when the chaff is separated from the grain, it happens within the nation of Israel. The Day of the Lord is an internal judgement.
God promises, “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (4:2). The “sun of righteousness” is not a messianic title. The sun’s wings are another word for sun rays. With its warm rays appearing just over the horizon, the sun is healing personified. The people will be free from sickness and sadness. In Isaiah’s vision of the restoration era, he also used the sun as a metaphor for the start of a new day. Isaiah wrote, “the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of seven days, on the day when the Lord binds up the injuries of his people and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow” (Isa. 30:26).
Free of burdens and light with joy, God promises, “you shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (4:2). Malachi describes the calves as freely grazing under the warmth of the sun. In the joys of freedom and peace, they leap. A beautiful future awaits those who fear the name of the Lord. With the picture of grass, sunshine and frolicking calves, I cannot help but see in between the lines Jesus’s invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
The exhortation climaxes with the reminder that the playful calves trample the ashes of the wicked who doubted the God. God says, “you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet” (4:3).
The Day of the Lord is a two-sided coin. Judgement for one will be salvation for the other. Put differently, one can chose from two fates: the consuming fire of a burning oven or the gentle warmth of the rising sun. Because God has fashioned a humanity free to choose or reject their creator, their fate is in their hands. They can choose to revere, honor and obey God. Or they can chose the temporal comforts of the world and whatever myths they find most appealing.
Join me next week for last three verses in Malachi which are essentially the prophet’s epilogue. However, there is too much there with the prediction of the coming Elijah to include in today’s episode so I want to give those verses their full due next week.
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