The last of the Old Testament’s prophets is Malachi. His message is one of comfort, challenge, and wonderful hope.
Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi, whose name means “my messenger,” was the final prophet of Israel, the last spokesman sent from God to Israel until the time would draw near for the coming of Christ. Malachi represents a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He stands at one end, and John the Baptist, the fore-runner who was sent just before Christ to prepare his way, stands at the other. With the close of the book of Malachi, God’s revelation in the Hebrew scriptures came to an end. Following him would be four hundred years of silence during which no direct word came from the Lord, a silence that would last until the dawn of the gospel age.
The time in which the book of Malachi was written was the last half of the 5th century b.c. It was a period of peace and quiet in the land of Judah, where the Jewish people had been reestablished following their years of punitive exile in Babylon. The temple had been completed in the previous century. The huge task of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and its walls was finished a generation earlier under Nehemiah’s able leadership. Ezra, the great spiritual leader, had led the religious reforms which succeeded in re-establishing the identity of the Jewish people.
But now the great men were all dead and gone. There was stability in the land, but little glory. Miracles were a thing of the past; inspired prophecy soon would be. With the passing of Malachi, the prophets would give way to the rabbis. As a result, the revelation of the word of God would be replaced by endless pages of commentary, interpretation, and human traditions.
Quite often it is during these quiet and comfortable times that apathy sets in and faith declines. Carelessness and indifference to the things of God tend to grow in inverse proportion to hard times. The easier one’s life, the less interest one is in spiritual matters. The greatest tests of faith don’t always come in times of great crisis. Faith is tested more subtly during the ordinary grind of everyday life, when routine in religion tends to wear it down and deaden zeal. Churches are usually full during wars and depressions and after natural disasters; it takes peace and prosperity to empty them. So the book of Malachi is written to people who have become nonchalant about God, turned off with worship, unconvinced about the importance of the life of the Spirit, uninterested in knowing and following God’s will in daily living. In other words, people very much like us.
In light of the lukewarm faith of the people of Malachi’s day and their casual disregard for God, the first word from God through Malachi is quite surprising. The people may not care very much about God, they might not even think about him anymore, but God still thinks and cares about them! God speaks to them from his heart through the prophet. (Forty-seven of this little book’s fifty-five verses are God speaking in the first person to his people.) And amazingly, he begins by reaffirming his relationship with them. The first thing God tells them is that he still loves them. “I have loved you,” says the Lord . . . “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the Lord says. “Yet I have loved Jacob” (Malachi 1:2).
It’s interesting that God chose to mention Jacob there in the opening verses of Malachi. Jacob, the Old Testament patriarch, was not a very fine or noble character. In fact, to tell the truth, he was a scoundrel – dishonest, shifty and self-centered. Jacob was really quite a distasteful fellow, especially when compared to his twin brother Esau. Jacob really only had one thing going for him in life: the fact that God loved him. But what a fact that is! And Jacob, despite all his flaws and failures, loved God in return. Because of that, he became Israel, the father of the people of God, and his name stands for everyone who is chosen and adopted into the family of God. You see, you don’t become a member of God’s family by being good enough. You become a member by being loved enough!
God’s love isn’t based on the merits or intrinsic value of people as we are in ourselves. It’s based on God’s own decision to love, and his unswerving faithfulness to those whom he has chosen to love. “I the Lord do not change,” says Malachi. “So you . . . are not destroyed” (Malachi 3:6). God refuses to give up on us. The reason we haven’t been blotted out of existence long ago is because of his determination to be gracious to us. It’s not that we’re so great; it’s that God is so merciful. Despite all our faults and failures, still God says, “I love you.”
Nevertheless, in spite of his never-failing love (or, more accurately, because of it!), God does not ignore or overlook the sins of those people who are called by his name. Malachi records a series of stinging rebukes issued by the Lord against the people of Israel. And through his prophet God calls for a genuine reformation of his people’s lives. Malachi is a prophet of renewal, calling for renewal. God says this through him:
“. . . You treat my name as if it were not holy. . . . You say, ‘What a heavy load our work is!’ And you turn your nose up as if you hate working for me,” says the Lord who rules over all.
“You bring animals that have been hurt. Or you bring disabled or sick animals. Then you dare to offer them to me as sacrifices! Should I accept them from you?” says the Lord. . . . When you do that, you cheat me. . . .”
“Will people dare to steal from me? But you rob me!
“You ask, ‘How do we rob you?’”
“By holding back your offerings. You . . . steal from me when you do not bring a tenth of everything you produce. So you are under my curse. . . because you are robbing me.”
(Malachi 1:12-14, 3:8-10, NIrV)
While Malachi calls attention in his prophecy to a number of problems in Israel’s society and family life (the breakdown of marriages because of the unfaithfulness of husbands was a special concern), the main issues his book addresses have to do with worship. The principal symptom of the people’s spiritual sickness was their careless and lackadaisical approach to the worship of God. And the principal flaw in their worship was the way they went about giving.
The people of Israel had been “robbing” – God’s own word – him of the tithes and offerings that were due to him. Worshipers in Malachi’s day were apparently coming to the temple with the attitude that anything was good enough for the Lord. They were offering as sacrifices animals that were blind, sick or lame. For some reason they felt like they had to worship (to maintain their reputation in the community, perhaps?), but they weren’t willing for worship to be costly. So they offered God their left-overs and scraps.
According to research polls, today the commonest reason people give for not going to church is, “They’re always asking for money.” My own feeling is that this attitude is a symptom of an unbelieving heart. The mistake church leaders make is not in asking for money; that is clearly consistent with God’s will revealed in scripture. If people are worshiping God from their heart, if they love him and honor him, they’re not only going to want to give God the praises of their lips. They will want to return to God something of the blessings he has bestowed on them. The mistake is in asking unbelievers for money. Of course they will be turned off. They haven’t had their hearts changed, they don’t know the grace of God by experience, they have no motive for a grateful response to the Lord. But to those who have received God’s indescribable gift in Jesus Christ, giving is much more than a duty; it’s a wonderful privilege.
Believers won’t always be able to respond with generous gifts for the kingdom. After all, we can only give as God has enabled us, and it may be that the requests are more than we can meet. But no believer should ever be offended by being asked to respond. Any opportunity to give in Jesus’ name is itself a gift to someone who knows and loves Christ. The New Testament says that giving is a grace. Giving for Christians is not just a grace from us. It is a grace to us. How often do we greet Christian requests for money with half-hearted attention or outright impatience, as if they were a nuisance and an imposition, and we were being gracious just to listen? But it is exactly the opposite! Those who ask in Christ’s name for gifts for Christ’s cause are doing us a favor. The asker should not be ashamed; he is offering a special grace from God. The “asked” ought not to be annoyed at the requests they receive. Each and every request for the gospel is an expression of God’s grace, giving us a chance to glorify him through our response – even if we are unable to respond financially.
In a famous passage in Malachi 3, God offers a challenge: give generously, the full measure of what you ought to give, and see the blessings that will come.
“Bring the entire tenth to the storerooms in my temple. Then there will be plenty of food. Put me to the test,” says the Lord. “Then you will see that I will throw open the windows of heaven. I will pour out so many blessings that you will not have enough room for them.”
So the basic message of Malachi, like that of every true prophet of God, is the call to repentance. We are urged to genuine change, to change our attitude and behavior, to turn away from self-centered, selfish ways of living and put God at the very center of life once more and to prove that in the way we give. God even challenges us to test him by taking his law seriously and offering costly obedience to him. Try it and see if you don’t find yourself living a happier and healthier life.
The last words of this last prophet in the last book of the English Old Testament hold out a wonderful hope for anyone who are looking for God.
The Lord who rules over all says, “I will send my messenger. He will prepare the way for me. Then suddenly the Lord you are looking for will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant will come. He is the one you long for. . . . “
Malachi also reminds us once again that God’s promise of salvation is potentially for everyone, regardless of class or race or nationality. His love knows no boundaries. Anyone who turns to him and calls upon his name will be saved.
“My name will be great among the nations. They will worship me from where the sun rises in the east to where it sets in the west. . . . here is what will happen for you who have respect for me. The sun that brings life will rise. Its rays will bring healing to my people.”
If you think that faith and obedience and costly devotion to God don’t make any real difference in life, you’re wrong. If serving God seems futile to you, just wait and see. Don’t be too quick to give up on God. He will save everyone who loves and serves him. Listen again to Malachi:
“They will belong to me,” says the Lord who rules over all. “They will be my special treasure. . . I will spare them just as loving parents spare their children who serve them. Then once again you will see the difference . . . between those who serve me and those who do not.”
This is what will surely happen. We have God’s word on it!