It makes sense that a people who do not care about honoring God with their sacrifices and tithes do not think much about coming judgment. It also makes sense that people who treat worship as an afterthought and have a low view of God do not understand that justice delayed is not justice in doubt. The Israelites dismiss obedience because they see no evidence that it is rewarded or that disobedience is punished. The same people who ask, “Where is the God of justice?” (2:17), now say the arrogant and disobedient are the smart ones because they prosper and get away with everything they do. Coming judgment and future reward are far from the thoughts of God’s people. They live as if the present is all that matters. As they see it, a God who does not reward obedience today is not worthy of being served.
It is Vain to Serve God
God now makes His sixth condemnation of the people. He tells them their words are arrogant – they make accusations against and about Him that are inappropriate for man. Of course the people have no idea what He means so He has to explain.
They say there is no reason to serve God. It is pointless to obey His commands and abide by the ceremonial law because obedience is not rewarded – what profit is it? Those who serve God get no payoff. Even more, the arrogant are blessed. Not only are the doers of wickedness not punished but they actually seem to be in better shape than the obedient. They test God – in this case a bad thing as opposed to when God invited them to test Him with their tithing – and escape. The people’s arrogant words are similar to what they said in 2:17 when they complained that those who do evil are actually good in God’s sight and the God of justice is absent.
By their words the people show they have a man-centered view of God. “God does not reward us for our obedience so we see no reason to obey. God does not respond the way we think He should. He does not reward righteousness or punish wickedness on our timetable. He is not a God in our image – so what is the point of obeying Him?”
They have man-centered perspectives on time, justice, and obedience. They think if God does not answer their immediate needs and expectations He is not worthy of their obedience. If God does not reward and punish now then He apparently does not care. They also think God owes them for their obedience – we obey, He blesses. If He does not bless us for our obedience He is unjust. If He does not punish disobedience as we see fit, He is unjust. And they have a high view of their obedience – we have kept His charge, we have walked in mourning before the Lord of hosts. They have no sense of their unworthiness or sin – in their minds they fulfill all the requirements of the law (as they bring second-rate sacrifices to the temple and refuse to tithe).
[The book of Malachi is a stark illustration of the deceitfulness of sin. Not once have the Israelites understood what God means when He makes an accusation against them. Not only that, they have no idea how badly they worship God and how much they violate His honor and law. They expect God to respond to their cheap sacrifices (1:9), they emotionally entreat God and do not understand why He does not hear them (2:13), and here they claim great obedience and are angry that it is not rewarded. They are completely and tragically blind.]
Thought: Our natural inclination as we listen to the Israelites is to react with disgust and wonder. How can they be this audacious and clueless? How can people have such little self-awareness? Do they honestly think God OWES them something? Do they really question God’s wisdom and actions? Can they really be so self-absorbed as to think that service to God is only worthwhile as long as it benefits them? Can they be so shortsighted as to have no sense of coming judgment for those who disobey God? Do they really think it is okay to become fed up with God because of how their lives are turning out and so give up serving Him entirely?
Their statements are completely out of line and YET – are we not oftentimes guilty of the same things? We probably would never verbalize it as bluntly as they do, but can we not fall into the same kind of thinking? How easy is it to live as if there are no ramifications to our actions? Do we ever become bitter over how our lives have turned out and spiritually throw up our hands and say, “What is the point?” Do we sometimes look at others’ lives and wonder why things are so good for them when we do all that we are supposed to do and go to church and give regularly and yet nothing seems to work out as well for us? Do we ever think about the life we deserve versus the life we have?
A man-centered view of God and His actions is easy to cultivate. All it takes is an unrenewed mind that loses focus on God and redemption. A mind focused on the world and itself becomes enamored with both and starts to believe that it deserves more than it is getting. A mind focused on self ascribes a lot to its own actions and not so much to God’s. The telltale mark of an unrenewed and self-absorbed mind is dissatisfaction with life and people and a sense that, “God never does what I ask or want, so what is the point of living purely and obediently?”
They Will be Mine
Verse 16 is an interesting interlude in the passage. Instead of recording God’s response to the arrogant words of the people, Malachi tells us that people who fear the Lord speak to one another and God hears them. Apparently not all of Israel thinks as the speakers in verses 14-15 do. It is difficult to understand what the significance of them speaking to each other is, but perhaps what Malachi points out is that just like the apostate speakers these people discuss God amongst themselves and do not speak directly to God. In both cases God hears them and responds (we must never forget that our whole lives are in His presence).
God’s response to the people who have the right view of Him is to write their names in a book of remembrance. The ones written in the book fear Him and esteem His name. They are the opposite of those who speak arrogantly. The opposite of a self-centered mind that places demands on God is one that fears Him and esteems Him. The first group focuses on itself – the second focuses on God.
We are to be the kind of people who hold the name of God in such high regard that we would not presume to trot out our little notions against His infinite wisdom. The thought of standing in judgment over His timing or His method of dispensing blessing is unthinkable to those who hallow His name. – John Piper
Those written in the book are Mine and My own possession and will be spared on the great day when God makes all things right. A great day is coming when the God of justice will appear and He will protect those whose names are written in the book. They will be spared as a man spares his own son who serves him.
The ones written in the book will be spared not because of what they do but because of who they are. The God of justice will spare them because they are His sons. And the reason He can spare them is because He will NOT spare HIS Son. The irony of the illustration God uses is that He will be the exception to it. He will spare others as if they are His sons but He will not spare the One who truly IS. And because God will not spare Him, He will be able to justly spare those written in the book.
This shows the foolishness of the arrogant. The ones who demand that God recognize and reward their obedience and practice justice on the disobedient effectively argue to be treated as hired men. They have obeyed and the wages of obedience should be blessing. The danger of this demand is in having it met. To be treated as hired men is NOT to be treated as sons. The son serves out of love and fear and esteems his Father. The hired man serves for his wages and expects the reward to be commensurate with effort. The son enjoys blessings and security far beyond anything he could ask or think. The hired man gets just what he deserves.
Thought: Do we understand that when we complain – either outwardly or in our thoughts – that God does not seem to give us what we want or does not seem to reward our good-faith efforts, that we are really arguing to be treated as workers instead of sons? And do we realize what we’re really asking when we expect life to work in terms of obedience-in and blessing-out? Or perhaps we know better than to think in such a black and white way, but still tend to think, “This is not what I want, nothing is going well, so I am done trying to be faithful. If this is what my life is going to be like, what is the point of obedience?” Do we realize when we think that way that what we are really asking for is to opt out of the sonship program?
In verse 18 God answers the critics who say there is no difference between the righteous and the wicked. He says on the great day it will be very clear who the righteous are versus the unrighteous. There will be no question as to how to distinguish between the one who serves God and one who does not serve Him. It comes down to timing – the arrogant demand justice now, God says justice is in the future. The arrogant assume justice they do not see does not exist. God shows that justice may not be in this life or apparent to man’s eyes but it is sure and complete.
The Day is Coming
Verses 1-3 of Chapter 4 give more details about the coming day. God fully answers the charges of the arrogant and also answers the question of 2:17 – “Where is the God of justice?” He says the wicked will be consumed by the furnace of His wrath to the point where they are left with neither root nor branch. They will be ashes under the soles of the feet of the righteous. They will be chaff that the furnace will set ablaze. The wicked may prosper now and they might seem to test God and escape, but a day is coming when they will meet their end and their actions will be duly punished. Justice delayed is not justice denied.
Not only will the wicked be punished, but the righteous will be richly rewarded. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Instead of a furnace of wrath the righteous will enjoy a warm and glorious sun. This is Messianic imagery (see Luke 1:78 for an allusion to this prophecy). Jesus is the sun providing warmth and light and bringing healing. The world will be healed of sin and every effect of sin. No more darkness, no more danger, no more death.
As a result of the rising of this sun the righteous will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. Like a calf that has been penned and then suddenly set free, so will the righteous be when the great day comes. They will be free of the effects of sin and free of the wicked. They will have so much joy they will dance and skip about. This is the reward for the one who fears God and esteems His name. This is the reward for the one who serves as a son. Unlimited freedom. Unbridled joy.
God thus answers the arrogant completely. Will obedience be rewarded? Absolutely. Will wickedness be punished? Absolutely. Will it happen according to man’s schedule and demands? Absolutely not. Does it pay to demand an immediate return on obedience? No. Does it pay to want a God in our own image? No.
We cannot live only for today. We cannot live only by sight. We cannot look at the world today and those in it and determine what is just and right. Without a sense of eternity nothing in life makes sense. We must always live with an eye on the great day when all things will be made right and justice will be finally served. Who are we living for? What are we living for? When are we living for?
An unrenewed mind not only misunderstands God’s justice but also loses the hope of God’s reward. The danger of an unrenewed mind is a blasphemous and arrogant view of God that makes demands on Him. The tragedy of an unrenewed mind is the loss of joy that comes from hope and trust. The wicked will indeed be punished but even more the righteous will be FREE! The man with a selfish perspective on God loses this vision and thus loses hope and joy.
A note about reconciling the promises of 3:10-12 with the current text. Tithing seems to be a case where God does promise blessing in this life for obedience (otherwise He would not ask Israel to test Him). It does not mean the giver’s life is always prosperous and without pain and it does not mean there is not eternal reward, but there seems to be an element to it that is more immediate. In the same way the curse on the non-giver also seems to be for this world as well as the next. This is a dangerous area to make absolute statements about, but it is worthy to think through as the text detailing ultimate reward and justice immediately follows one that seems to argue for something more current.