Overview of Malachi
Malachi, along with Haggai and Zechariah, is a prophet to Israel after the people return from the Babylonian exile. The exact dates of his prophecies are unknown, but he probably speaks to the people some time around 450 to 420 BC. He may be a contemporary of Nehemiah.
By the time Malachi speaks the temple has been rebuilt and the sacrificial system re-instituted. The people have been back in the land for potentially up to 100 years. It has been long enough that they are now falling back into the very sins that caused Jerusalem to be destroyed.
The book is set up as a conversation between God and the people. God speaks and the people respond – oftentimes with questions. God actually handles both sides of the conversation, but He speaks the people’s thoughts in the form of questions to Himself.
The overarching message of the book is the importance of a right view of God. Israel has fallen out of correct worship and service because it no longer views God correctly. God repeatedly reminds the people of His power and majesty throughout the conversation – telling them they have forgotten who He is. He refers to Himself almost exclusively as the Lord of Hosts (“the Lord of armies” – a name used to denote power – used more in Malachi than in any other OT book) when He addresses them. He wants to remind them that ALL things are under His power and He deserves their worship and their whole tithe and the best of all they have. Approaching the Creator and Sustainer of the universe lackadaisically or with disdain shows a distinct lack of awareness of who and what God is.
A key verse to show how the Israelites approach God is 1:13 – “My, how tiresome it is!” This refers to the people’s attitude toward the worship and sacrificial system. A summary verse for how God responds to the people is 1:11 – “For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord of hosts. The people are bored with worshiping a God whose name will be great among the nations. They have no idea how dangerously their perspective of God falls short.
Malachi has much to say to us today. Our view of God dictates our attitude toward our time, priorities, giving, eternity, and sin. In the end, Malachi forces us to confront potentially the most important question of our lives – what do we think of God? What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy; 6.)
God begins His conversation with the people of Israel with a statement. He says to them, “I have loved you.” Before He says anything about their behavior or disobedience or lackluster worship He establishes the basis for all of His words and actions. He loves Israel – and His love is ongoing and eternal. By saying, “I have loved you” versus “I loved you,” He makes it clear that His love is from the past and is ongoing – it has no end. He has loved them in the past and loves them now and will always love them. God loves Israel – just like He told Abraham that He would.
The response of the people is telling. Instead of glorying in God’s love or praising Him for it – they question its existence. They ask, “How have You loved us?” “What basis do You have for saying that You love us?” The conditions in the country are not good. Though they have been in the land for almost a century the people are still trying to rebuild from the devastation of Babylon. Their standard of living is likely lower than the Jews remaining in exile. They look at God through the lens of their circumstances. They hear God’s profession of love and effectively say, “Look around – how can You say You love us?”
Thought: It’s easy to be shocked by Israel’s response. The people hear a wonderful and praiseworthy statement from God and react skeptically. How can they respond this way? They seem to be ungrateful and horribly self-absorbed. Yet how many times do we effectively do the same thing? How often do we become bitter over discouraging circumstances in our lives? How often do we become angry with the injustice that sentences us to less than we deserve? When we do this, don’t we say to God – whether we realize it or not – “How have You loved us?” All bitterness and disgust and anger are ultimately directed at a sovereign God. When we rebel against our circumstances or measure God based on them we doubt His love for us.
God’s response to Israel’s question is not at all what we expect. He uses an illustration that at first seems not to be encouraging in the least. He asks Israel a question – “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? And then makes a statement – “Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau.” He goes on to explain that Edom – the country of Esau’s descendants – will be destroyed and will remain destroyed. Even if the people of Edom decide to rebuild after they are ruined they will not be successful. God is against them and will not allow their country to be restored. As a matter of fact, in the end men will call them the wicked territory, and the people toward whom the Lord is indignant forever. Edom has no hope – their country is doomed. God is against them FOREVER.
On first reading it appears that God is reassuring Israel by telling them, “It could be a lot worse.” His explanation seems to say, “If I did not love you I would hate you like I hate Edom. And look at how bad things are for them. You have been allowed to rebuild – they have not and never will be. You cannot doubt My love for you because even as bad as things are, they would be much worse if you were like Edom – who I hate.” Not overly encouraging. Kind of like saying, “The grass is even browner for the countries I hate.”
A closer reading shows God’s answer to be much more. He is not merely telling Israel to compare their circumstances to the Edomites and be thankful. He is explaining to them the meaning of sovereign love. They should not doubt His love for them because it is a love based on His own choice. God does not love them because of their obedience (see 3:7) or because of their name or because of anything about them at all. He loves them because He chooses to. He loves them based on Himself. He chose to love Jacob over Esau when both boys were still in the womb. Jacob did not earn God’s love – God chose to love him.
When God asks them, “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?”, He makes it plain to them that He could have chosen Esau just as easily as He chose Jacob. The boys were twins. They were both the sons of Isaac – himself the son of promise. There was no covenant reason to choose Jacob. Even more, Esau was technically older – by all rights he SHOULD have been chosen. Yet God chose Jacob and his children – the Israelites.
So what does this mean to the people doubting God’s love? He loves them freely – He loves them without respect to their behavior. They have earned nothing and so cannot forfeit anything. His love for them is unconditional because no condition warranted it. They cannot doubt God’s love because it is based on Himself and He cannot change (consequently, when they doubt God’s love they call into question His nature – they doubt whether He is what He says He is). Their circumstances and actions have no bearing on His love – consequently it is never in doubt. They cannot look at themselves and their lives and say God does not love them – He chose them and can do nothing other than love them.
By contrast God describes His treatment of Edom. He opposes them, He actively works against them, He gives them over to wickedness (men will call them the wicked territory) and He will remain opposed to them FOREVER. Edom has no hope because Esau was not chosen. God wants Israel to understand the fate of the one He does not love. Do they realize what they are saying when they question God’s love? Do they understand what it means to be outside of the covenant love of God? Do they have any idea of the weight of their complaint? Should they not rather rejoice over their status as God’s chosen people?
He finishes in verse 5 with a proclamation. He tells them when they see the fate of Edom they will say, “The Lord be magnified beyond the border of Israel!” God is over Israel and He is over Edom and He is ultimately over all the earth. No wickedness or circumstance can thwart His will. When Israel finally realizes its privileged status as God’s covenant people and what that means about those who are rejected, it will praise God for His sovereignty.
This is the first message from God about His power and majesty and authority. The people discount Him now, but there will come a day when they fully realize His sovereignty and proclaim it in praise. This is the God whose love they doubt.
God loves us because He chooses to. He loves us because He IS love – it is His very nature (I Jn 4:8). His love is active (I Jn 4:9). His love is not responsive but aggressive – He loved us first (I Jn 4:19). We have no reason to boast because we have done nothing to warrant His love (Eph 2:8-9). Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom 8:31-39). He loves us based on Himself – not our performance. We have immense freedom because God’s favor and love are not based on us.
Our response to God’s love should be joy, humility, obedience, and awe – and loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. To doubt His love because of our circumstances is to question His nature – to question His word. That’s why it is so important to KNOW God. When we know Him we know He loves us and works for us even in the midst of horrific times that seem to cry out that He has forgotten or abandoned us.
When we understand His love it changes our perspectives on Him and on life. As believers we no longer worry about earning His favor. We get away from a performance-oriented relationship with Him. We understand the gospel better. We want to obey – both out of thankfulness and out of trust (we no longer see His commandments as burdensome but as friendly signposts from a heavenly Father who is seeking to love me through each directive, so that I might experience His very fullness forever (Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians; 35)). The more we understand His love the more we want to be like Him and the more we hunger and thirst for righteousness.
These reasons are why Paul prayed that the Ephesians would comprehend the love of Christ. Obedience and sanctification are vain pursuits apart from understanding God’s love for us. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19)