“Hard & Hopeful Words” (Malachi 3:13-4:6)
13 “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ 14 You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? 15 And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test, and they escape.’”
16 Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. 17 “They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. 18 Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
4 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Malachi 3:13-4:6, ESV
When I was like college, I had a core group of friends that I did almost everything with. We live together in the same dorm, many of us were connected in the same local church as one another and most of us were gathered together in the same College Ministry. To this day those are the friendships that I look back upon fondly because those were the guys that walked with me, and I walked with them, during an important and spiritually formative time of my life.
Most of us were still relatively immature in our faith at that time. We were trying to understand the basics of theology and the Bible, but we were committed to walking together. We spent many of our evenings in our dorm rooms having conversations about these most important things pertaining to life and godliness. This was a special time in my life and the Lord provided a special group of friends for that season.
There are many times that I now think back to the conversations we had about God during that season, especially as college freshman, and I cringe a little bit. Those conversations we had were always well-intentioned but sometimes based on some problematic theological assumptions that all of us shared. As a result, our conversations about God weren’t always very sound. Sometimes we even fed each other’s faulty assumptions as we try to understand theology and wrestle with the application of theology to our lives.
Fortunately, we also had wise mentors who walked with us during this time and helped us understand the Scriptures. Most importantly we were all connected to a local church that preached sermons expositionally from the Bible and opened up for us the word of God every Sunday. Little by little our assumptions were corrected and our conversations about God, I would like to think, became a little less problematic and a little more biblically edifying.
When we turn to our passage this morning notice that the people of God in Malachi’s day are also engaged in a conversation of sorts about God. They too have been speaking with one another about God, but their conversations, as we will discover in a moment, are anything but satisfying. Instead they’re having conversations that are fueled by bitter hearts, shaped by faulty theological assumptions. The conversations are founded more or less on their own experiences, not the Scriptures. To top it all off, it doesn’t seem that anyone in this covenant community is really speaking the word of God into the conversations that they are having.
Remember what one of the problems that Malachi raised earlier, that we studied a few months ago, is that the priests in Malachi’s day had failed to instruct the people of God as they were called to do. It happens all the way back in chapter two. Rather than giving biblical instruction they were giving partial instruction. Basically, they were telling the people of God what they want to hear.
So, Malachi’s audience is having this conversation about God. Speaking to themselves and speaking with one another, but in their conversation the whole counsel of God apparently has no place. Yet by God’s grace and prophetic call, he sent Malachi to interrupt the conversations and to offer precisely what they need, God’s word.
They need know that the conversations they’re having aren’t honoring to God. The God who said, “I have loved you”. They need to know that their faulty theological assumptions are just that, faulty. Remember this isn’t the first time that Malachi’s audience has raised the question about God’s justice. They raise those questions again and they need to know that if they continue down this path they will not stand in the coming day of the Lord. They need what they don’t know that they need. They need the word of God to interrupt their conversations and to give them truth.
Friends, that’s what we need too. The conversations we’re having about God, whether they areabout who God declares us to be, about what God has to say, about the world, or what God has to say about our futures. We need our thoughts and those conversations we are engaged in having about God to be interrupted frequently, shaped prudently, and fine-tune regularly by God’s word to us.
Today’s big idea is this, “Our words about God must be shaped by God’s word to us.”
As we study this passage, we are going to see this worked out in three conversations.
The words of the rebellious.
The words of the righteous.
The words of the promise.
The Words of the Rebellious
Look at me again at verses thirteen through fifteen.
13 “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ 14 You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? 15 And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test, and they escape.’” Malachi 3:13-15, ESV
The first conversation we come across in this passage is a conversation. They are words that are being spoken from an embittered people who no longer see profit in serving the Lord. God calls these hard words, critical words spoken of unbelief, that are spoken within the covenant community among one another. When the people of God respond to this text in a sense they are saying to God, “how have we spoken against you amongst ourselves?”
You see they’re having a conversation. It is explicit one with their words, but it’s also an unspoken one. Remember the way they’re living their lives, as the rest of Malachi prophecy makes clear, also communicates what they think about God. So, let’s look at some of the problems with their conversation that we can see in this text.
First, it is a conversation that’s basically founded on their experience. They’re looking at the world and they see, maybe like some of us see, the presence of evil in the world. They see those without any regard for God not only getting on with life, but they’re actually prospering. These other people put God to the test, and they escape. So, this group of people in versus thirteen through fifteen judges that God is no longer worth it. Why serve him if there’s no reward? Why keep his charge if God’s not a holding up his end of the bargain? Maybe you thought that way before? Maybe you’re thinking that way right now.
We also learn that this conversation is also being shaped by some really bad theology that’s at work in their own hearts. Notice that in verse fourteen there’s this working assumption that God owes me. They remind God how they’ve walked around in mourning. They’ve walked around with this show of grief and repentance for their sin with the expectation that God had better reward us for that. They are not approaching God as worshipers nor are they walking by faith and hanging onto his promises.
They are basically approaching God as consumers. They’ve done their duty; they’ve held up their end of the bargain but, as they judge it, God isn’t holding up his end of the things. Together this combination of uncritical evaluation of their experience, together with faulty theology at work in their hearts, creates this lethal concoction of bitterness and cynicism that fuels the conversation taking place within the covenant community. As you can imagine this is a spiritually toxic combination of ingredients, in a spiritually poisonous environment to be living in.
Think about this for a moment. Think about what’s likely to happen when a group of people who are equally hardened towards God and equally blind towards their sin, as it seems the people in Malachi’s day are, come together and talk to one another. Well they begin to feed each other’s assumptions in a kind of self-reinforcing feedback loop.
Let me give a sort of silly illustration of what’s going on here. If you’re a sports fan and you have a favorite team, you know as I know, that we think unrealistically about our favorite team. If you’re anything like me when the offseason hits and we begin to monitor all the moves our team makes, it’s our default mode to think that every off season trade, every free agent acquisition, every recruit is going to turn into the envy of every team in the league.
With these assumptions in tow we tend to listen and read only those opinions that reinforce our default opinion. We get offended when a pundit speaks a dose of reality into our hopes and dreams for the upcoming season. I know that in the off season I like to be fed an optimistic diet even if that happens to be lightyears from reality. I don’t want people to throw cold water on what I want to think about my team.
In our theology, our opinions about God and ourselves that feed into our conversations are a matter of life and death. We cannot rely on our misinformed thoughts and opinions. We cannot simply surround ourselves with people who tickle our ears with what we want to hear. When the only voices that we are listening to make sense of God ,or our experiences, are the voices in our own head or the voices that tell us what we want to hear because that’s what they want to hear too, then we can convince ourselves of virtually everything together as a community, but it won’t be truth and it may even cost us our souls.
This is similar to John Calvin’s main point in the opening chapter in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Listen to what Calvin says in section two of his work, “Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face. Then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy. This pride is innate in all of us unless, by clear proofs, we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly and impurity.”
Friends, we need what Malachi’s contemporaries needed, the ministry of the word. We need the ministry of the word and the word of God to interrupt the conversations that we are having. To challenge the theological assumptions that we are holding to that might be more at home in the world but are foreign to the world of the Scriptures and the story of redemption. We need the humility to recognize our blind spots and we need the grace to hear God’s word to us rightly. That’s what Malachi’s conversations needed and that’s what we need too.
God is going to correct the faulty theology at work in this first group in a few verses when he speaks directly to them. First, however, Malachi tells us that at the same time that this conversation is going on, there’s another conversation happening too.
The Words of the Righteous
Look with me at verse sixteen.
16 Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. Malachi 3:16, ESV
So, at the same time there is a conversation about the vanity of serving God, there is another more edifying conversation happening among another group of people, those who feared the Lord. Now as far as I can tell this is the first time in Malachi’s prophecy that a righteous group of people is recognized. There are questions in the commentaries about whether this group has been in the background the entire time, kind of listening in on the conversation between Malachi and the rebellious people, or if this is the first sign that a remnant of the people Malachi address were lead to repentance by his preaching.
It’s perhaps impossible to decide one way or another. But it is clear that this group stands apart from the first group because this group fears the Lord. It’s important to remember that this second group are seeing the things that first group sees. They also see evildoers on the surface of things prospering. They’re not blind to the problems of living in this fallen world, but they have a different way of interpreting these observations and experiences.
They are not controlled by their experiences. They have tasted and seen that the Lord is good and as a result they’re not consumers. They love God and esteem his name. They love to think about who he is and communicate that as they live, move and have their being. As a result, even though they don’t have all the answers as to why it is that the wicked are prospering, they trust that a day is coming when God will set things right.
The difference between these two groups isn’t that one is good, and one is bad. The difference is that one group trusts their own assumptions and presuppositions about God and presumably feed each other in the process, but this second group trusts God’s word for the vocabulary and the direction that their conversation takes.
We learn that for this group, the Lord then paid attention and heard them. A book of remembrance was written before God. It was common in the ancient world for kings to keep records of significant decisions or events that were rendered in the history of a nation. The book could be called upon by future generations. This happened in the book of Ezra when the Persian King Darius was called upon to search the records for something that one of his predecessors had decreed in the past.
We also read in the Bible about how God keeps heavenly records. There is this Book of Life, that we read about in the Old Testament and the New Testament, that records the names of who God says, “mine”. Whether this book in Malachi is the Book of Life is unclear, but what is clear is that God is reminding his people, the righteous who live by faith, that he will by no means forget them. God knows those who are his and he hears their conversation and he is eager to let them know that he hears and assure them that they belong to him. God listens and then God speaks of life and promise to them.
The Words of the Promise
Now that the rebellious and the righteous have spoken, it’s time for God to speak. He interrupts both conversations with some sweet words of reassurance and grace, but also words of warning. Words of encouragement for the righteous and words of warning for the rebellious. Both of which revolve around something that God is going to do in the future, in this coming day. Notice that from verse seventeen through the end of Malachi’s prophecy he mentions the day, by my count four times. It’s referred to by Malachi as the day, the day that is coming and as the great and awesome day of the Lord.
He says that for the righteous, those who fear the Lord, the sun of righteousness on this day shall rise with healing in its wings. They will go out leaping like calves from the stall and tread down the wicked as ash under their feet. These are words of promise that is spoken to the righteous that a day is coming when, in the words of Tolkien, everything sad will become untrue.
For those who are sojourning through this world by faith and yet are confronted by the troubling realities of evil, tired of carrying the vestiges of sin in their body, and suffering under the weight of the world, the flesh and the devil; God promises that there will be a day for them. A day typified by healing, joy and consummate glory. The Lord won’t just free them from this present evil age, no God says that they shall be mine and I will gather them to myself as my treasured possession and spare them as a father spares his own son. He will deliver them to Zion for the purpose of belonging securely to the one who calls them his own.
Friends, if you are in Christ, if you are receiving and resting on Christ alone, this is your future! Your sojourn, as confusing as it may seem at times, as tiresome and tear-filled it is, it isn’t aimless, and your exile isn’t final. The Lord has and will deliver you from this body of death and he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus. This is your future.
If you’re anything like me, we know what it’s like to dream about our future. I know that I’m a proactive person and it seems like not a day goes by when I’m not thinking and imagining something about my ideal future. Whether that’s something trite and insignificant or something significant. I know I’m not alone in that. Some of us are dreaming about a lot of things. Some of us are dreaming about the next wrung to climb in our careers. Some of us are dreaming about retirement. Some of us are dreaming about what it would look like to be empty nesters (no judgement). So, what future are you dreaming about?
The Scriptures tell us that the ultimate hope of our future rests not on anything we can achieve for ourselves on this earth. Our ultimate ideal future is wrapped up in what theologians refer to as, the beatific vision. That is when we look upon God in glory as our supreme happiness and joy with resurrected and restored bodies. This is the future we are called to long for. This is the future that the Psalmist longs for in Psalm 27.
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.
Psalm 27:4, ESV
This is the future, for those of us in Christ, that is promised for us when this day of the Lord finally dawns.
Returning to our text, as much as that hope anchors us and gives us joy, Malachi tells us that for another group this same day will result in terrible judgement. It’s like a day burning like an oven. When all of the arrogant and evil doers will be reduced to stubble and set ablaze so that neither root nor branch will remain. It’s a day that will rip open the fault line between those who lived by faith and those who didn’t.
This first group of people that we encounter in Malachi ask what is the profit of keeping his charge? What is the profit of serving God? Malachi’s response is essentially, if you don’t see the profit in being my covenant people now, if you haven’t seen that profit when you look at history and see that I have chosen you to be my people, then ironically there will be a day when you will see. You will see the distinction between the one who serves God and the one who doesn’t. On that day your hearts will be exposed.
This is the day when God himself will stoop down at the end of the age to sort things out and to make things right. For one group of people this results in glorious salvation, better than we can even imagine. But for another group this results in terrible judgement, worse than we can wrap our minds around.
The New Testament tells us that this final and climatic day of the Lord is still on our horizon in redemptive history. We will not know when Christ, in the words of Hebrews, will appear a second time. He will come again not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. There is one thing that we do know, in Christ Jesus this coming day of the Lord will be for us not a day of judgement but a day of salvation. The sun of righteousness that rises with healing in its wings won’t burn hot for us in Christ, it will bring healing and life.
Why is that? Why is it that it is a day of hope for one group and justice for another? For us, the day of the Lord has already in a sense dawned. For the people of God who identify through faith alone with Jesus, justice came early. It was heralded by John the Baptist who fulfills this prophesy of Elijah’s coming. The wrath of God was poured out for you and me on Jesus who was consumed in our place so that we would be spared and delivered when this final and climatic day finally dawns at the end of the age.
In this inner-advent period between Christ’s first coming, when he bore our sin and bore the wrath of God for us, and his second coming, we the people of God united to Christ by faith alone and secured by Christ, we wait. We cling to the promise that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet. We wait and we trust that one day the Lord will do just as he promises. In the words of Peter, “we wait for the day of the Lord that will come like a thief and then then heavens will pass away with a roar and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”
While we wait for that day, we don’t stand idle because we also engage in a conversation of sorts. A conversation with ourselves, a conversation with the world, a conversation with God. Let me offer a few points of application for us to consider as we prepare to close.
What conversations are you currently having about God? Ask yourself that question. Perhaps some of you are engaged in a conversation about God with yourself. You have a story, and it’s an important story, yet are the conclusions you are drawing about God based only on your story and only on your experiences? If that describes you, let me encourage you to let God interrupt the conversation you are having with yourself by hearing his word. Let that word reach down and shape your story and give life to your story and explanations to your story.In my preparation this week, I listened to someone speak on this passage named David Helm and he pointed out that talking to one another about God in the covenant community, which we see that the righteous are especially engaged in doing in our passage, is important for us to do too. It serves as a check to our personal experiences and a check to the bitterness and misinformed theology that we may carry with ourselves into the covenant community.
When we talk with one another about our thoughts and opinions about God, that invites other people in the community to speak into areas of life that we are maybe not thinking as clearly about as we should. So, don’t have a conversation about God that includes just you. Submit your thoughts about God as individuals, and even as pockets of individuals within this community, to the ministry of the word. Let the word of God interrupt whatever conversations you are engaged in having.
Pray, pray, pray. Seek opportunities to speak into other conversations. Since the fall there have been conversations about God that are deeply confused. Outside the church that’s a given, but it also happens inside the church. As much we are convinced and convicted by the truths of the gospel and by the reality that outside of Christ this coming day of the Lord will be terrifying, pray for opportunities to plead with people to repent now.Speak words of grace and promise into those brothers and sisters who need to hear repeatedly who we are and who’s we are. Also, speak words of warning with grace and tact and love and boldness into those who are deeply confused about these things. Whether that’s inside or outside of the visible church.
Live expectantly. In verse four Malachi tells his audience,
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
Malachi 4:4, ESV
One of the ways that we live expectantly for the future day of the Lord is by looking back. Back to the law and the prophets and back to the word of God to be reminded of our future hope. Also, to be reminded of how God calls us as individuals to make our way through this world as the redeemed people of God as we wait for the appearing of our savior. Look to the Scriptures for your hope and look to the Scriptures for your instruction and guidance for how to live in this world as sojourners and exiles.
Live expectantly by letting the word and Scriptures interrupt your conversations. Let those words make sense of your experience and trust that the God who began a good work in you will indeed carry it to completion having secured us to himself through Christ Jesus.
Live expectantly by knowing God is who he says he is and that he will do exactly what he says he will do.