This text outlines God’s fourth condemnation of the people. God tells the Israelites they dishonor Him with how they speak about Him and with their perverted view of evil and justice. The people not only have a lackluster view of worship and faithfulness, they have a lackluster perspective on judgment. Since evil does not appear to be punished, the people assume it will not be; and since God does not seem to be active, they assume He is no longer relevant. God tells them they are greatly mistaken and a day of reckoning is coming. And on that great day it will be His Messiah that judges and refines the people and restores them to their God.
Malachi tells the people they have wearied the Lord with their words. They say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them,” or “Where is the God of justice?” They look around and see that the evil prosper, the rich take advantage of the poor, the priests themselves do not care about worship or justice, and no one suffers as a result. From this empirical evidence they conclude that God is fine with those who do evil and is no longer concerned about justice.
These cries could take several forms. The people could be disgusted. They look around at the wicked prospering and they react with disgust and basically say, “God does not care – being righteous is worthless (3:14) and wickedness works – so where is God?” Or they are mocking and dismissive – “Where is God? Where is the God of justice? Apparently He is not around or does not care because we are doing anything we want and nothing happens! Wickedness does not matter! Righteousness does not matter! What matters is what works!” Their cries could also be similar to the cry of Habakkuk in 1:2 where he wondered where God was in the midst of the people’s wickedness. Since this last option is a cry of faith it seems the least likely.
Regardless of the attitude that produces these comments, the people show they have no sense of a God of judgment. They live with no sense of urgency and no awareness of a day of reckoning. Their small God does not care about righteousness or integrity in everyday interactions, and does not hold them accountable for injustice. God is out of sight and out of mind.
Thought: It’s easy to live this way, isn’t it? Even as Christians, it’s easy to be lulled to sleep by the mercy and patience of God. Nothing happens to lots of evil people and – frankly – nothing has happened to me even with some of the things I’ve done, so maybe I don’t need to really worry about it. It’s how children think and act. I remember when my kids were young being amazed at some of the things they did that they had to know would eventually get discovered and bring down punishment. They would deliberately choose not to think because any thought at all would’ve made it obvious that things weren’t going to end well. The thought of certain punishment was pushed aside for the expediency of what felt good or what made life easier right then. The easy right now was much more important than the difficult later. Or they convinced themselves that if they didn’t think about it, discipline wouldn’t come. And that’s exactly what we do! Judgment that is not in front of me does not affect me. The ramifications of my sin are so far in the future that I do not think about them – and what I do not think about does not matter. We rarely live with the sense of urgency that a short life and certain judgment require. And we too often live as if what we do is not noticed.
In short, God tells them they are horribly mistaken. He cares so much about their unrighteousness that He is going to send the Messiah to purify, judge, and restore them. They may think He does not notice their behavior but the Day of Judgment is coming in the person of the Son. God takes their sin and injustice and casual attitude about Him VERY seriously – so seriously He will send His Son to deal with them directly.
Verse 1 of Chapter 3 actually mentions three people. God says He is going to send My messenger (the word “Malachi” means “my messenger” in Hebrew – it could be that God is intentionally using a play on words to show that Malachi is the first step in announcing the coming of the Messiah – a foreshadowing of John the Baptist), and he will clear the way before Me. This is a reference to John the Baptist – also referred to in 4:5-6 and quoted in Matthew 11:10 – as the one who will announce the coming of the Messiah. The second person mentioned is Yahweh. Malachi says the speaker of this verse is the Lord of hosts. The third person is the Lord (note that it is not written in caps – this is not the word for Yahweh) whom you seek and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight. These are references to the Messiah – Jesus. Note that the Messiah is divine and equal to God. God says His messenger will clear the way before Me – meaning Jesus – yet the speaker is Yahweh. Jesus and Yahweh are one Being. He also says the One coming will come to His temple – only God can call the temple His own. God will send His Son as Messiah to address the people’s wickedness.
God describes the Messiah as the one whom you seek and in whom you delight. The people long for the coming of the Messiah. His coming has been prophesied since the fall of man. Every woman who gives birth to a son hopes he is the one. Yet God says the Messiah will suddenly come to His temple. Suddenness denotes judgment. The people long for His coming but they do not realize He comes to refine and to judge. As Amos told the Israelites of his day – the coming day of the Lord is not a time to look forward to for the sinner (Amos 5:18-20).
Refine and Purify
Verses 2-4 show He comes first to purify and refine. For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. His purpose in coming is to restore the people back to God. He is a messenger of the covenant because He will bring the people back to its protection and blessings. He will restore their worship to its God-glorifying past – Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Yahweh longs for the days when the people glorified Him and He was pleased with their worship – unlike the present days when He only wishes they would shut the doors of the temple (1:10). He will send the Messiah to restore those days. The mission of the Messiah is foremost a mission of love.
But notice the tenor of that love. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? Refining and purifying are tough on the objects refined and purified. Going through fire is no fun – having all the dirt scrubbed away by lye soap is no fun. That the Messiah comes to restore is a great thing but the process of restoration is gut-wrenching. Refining may be born out of love but it is an extremely tough love.
The images used for the purifying work of the Messiah, the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap, stress both its thoroughness and its severity. The heat of the refiner’s fire was intense in order to separate the dross from the molten pure metal. Similarly, the fuller washed clothes using strong lye soap, after which the clothes would be placed on rocks and beaten with sticks. If sinners prefer the Lord’s cleansing work to His judgment, this is the price that must be paid. – ESV Study Bible
The wonderful thing about refining and purifying, however, is that they do not consume and destroy. Fire can destroy indiscriminately but the refiner’s fire is controlled and only burns away what is impure and worthless. The fullers’ soap scrubs away the dirt and the stains but it does not destroy the garment. God will do whatever is necessary to restore His people to holiness – and that fact should cause His people to fear – but they can be confident that in the end they are RESTORED and not DESTROYED.
Thought: These are words for the believer. Our God will do anything to ensure our holiness and His glory. He will put us through any trial, any difficulty, any hardship – but it is always to bring us closer to Him and make us more useful for His kingdom. As God’s children we can be sure that His purpose is never to destroy. He longs for His people to be holy and to worship and glorify Him (remember that verse 4 states the purpose of refining Israel – it is for worship). As hard and horrible and terrible as the experiences can be, we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. God wants all His children to become conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:28-29). The trials of life have purpose. And though fire is fire and it is hard sometimes to remember that the fire we are in will not consume – it is in fact for our ultimate good if we are called according to His purpose.
It does say FIRE. And therefore purity and holiness will always be dreadful things. There will always be a proper “fear and trembling” in the process of becoming pure. We learn it from the time we are little children: never play with fire! And it’s a good lesson! Therefore, Christianity is never a play thing. And the passion for purity is never flippant. He is like fire and fire is serious. You don’t fool around with it. But it does say He is like a REFINER’S fire. And therefore this is not merely a word of warning, but a tremendous word of hope. The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction. – John Piper
God refines His children but He judges sinners. In verse 5 He uses very different language to describe His treatment of those who are not His. He will be a swift witness (swift again denoting judgment) against them. The people listed here will not be refined – they will be destroyed. Part of the process for refining and purifying Israel will be to burn away the people of verse 5.
The people judged are sorcerers, adulterers, liars, and those who are unjust to the poor and helpless and ignore the immigrant (interesting that God uses half the list to condemn those who are not just to the disadvantaged in society – God repeatedly stresses throughout His word that justice and provision for the poor and helpless are HUGELY important to Him). He sums all of these people up with one description at the end of the verse – they do not fear Me. The source of all sin is really one thing – God is small or nonexistent. A small God is not feared and not worthy of obedience. No thought of judgment for the one whose God is a god of convenience and afterthought. And yet for these people the fire of God is all consuming.
Verse 5 really answers the question of 2:17. Where is the God of justice? He is coming and He will destroy those who are not His. Sin does not go unpunished and God DOES notice all. His children will be refined but sinners will be destroyed.
God responds in verse 1 as if what He describes is about to happen and will directly answer the people’s lackluster attitude toward His justice. But the coming of the Messiah is FOUR HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW. God says in verse 1, “Behold, I am going to send…” – this means, “Look! I am going to send the Messiah! This is the answer to your question!” But the answer is four centuries in the future. This comes up repeatedly in the Bible but it is worth noting again – God’s timing is not our timing. Four hundred years is not a long time to One for whom a thousand years is as one day and one day as a thousand years (II Peter 3:8).
God told Habakkuk to wait for the appointed time for the fulfillment of God’s plan and said though it would tarry it would not delay (Habakkuk 2:3). This seeming contradiction points to God’s perspective and our perspective. What is delay for us is simply waiting on the appointed time for God. Everything happens when it is supposed to happen – thus it does not delay. As humans we must ever remember that an eternal God does not always respond to our desire for urgency. Just like a six-year-old who cannot understand why a car trip takes so long, we must remember that we are not driving and must trust the perspective of the One who is.
Conclusion and Thoughts
God is never absent and never unobservant. The people of Israel assume He does not care or is not around because the wicked prosper and the unjust are unpunished. The same temptation is there for us as we witness a world that thumbs its nose at God seemingly without ramification. But God is always there and nothing escapes His notice. As believers we must never lose hope in the ultimate victory of righteousness and ultimate justice for the world. And we must never give in to the temptation to live as if a Day of Reckoning will not come.
God is Father or Judge. There is nothing in between. Either God comes to refine or He comes to judge. Those under His mercy through the work of His Son are refined and those under His wrath because of their rejection of His Son are judged. The Son divides them. Both refining and judgment involve fire – one purifies, one consumes.
God can be trusted. As His children we can trust our Father in heaven. When God puts us through the refiner’s fire and washes us with fullers’ soap it is tempting to react with bitterness or discouragement over the hardships we are in. But we must remember that all refinement and purification are for the betterment of the objects refined and purified. When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold (Job 23:10). Trials without trust are what sinners endure. Trials with joy and the companionship of a Savior are for the people of God who trust His omnipotent purposes.
The living promise of eternal rewards causes you to greatly rejoice even though right now you are going through various trials. These trials, however, are ultimately good things for they show the proven character of your faith (faith that God’s power works through to keep you in His kingdom). Your faith is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold – and since it is much more valuable than gold, which only has value in this life, it is even more important that it be purified. After your faith is proved genuine through the purification of trials you will share in the praise and glory and honor of Jesus Christ when He is revealed in the last time. I Peter 1:6-7