Judgment Begins at God’s House: A Theology of Malachi (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

House Visit

The people blame their problems on God’s lack of interest in their well-being (1:2; 2:17; 3:13-15). On their part, they profess to seek and delight in him (3:1).21 They even challenge God to make his presence known among them (2:17). In response, God announces a “house visit” (3:1-5). First, God will send his “messenger” to “prepare the way before [him]” (3:1), whom he later identifies as “Elijah the prophet” (4:5).22 Then the Lord himself will “suddenly come to his temple, even the Messenger of the covenant.”23 Furthermore, the prophet identifies this visitation as the “Day of the Lord” (3:1; 4:1, 5), a period of eschatological intrusion into human history.24 There are strong reasons for interpreting this visitation as the coming of Jesus the Messiah,25 which will prove to be a blessing for the righteous (3:3-4, 17; 4:2) but a curse for the wicked (3:5; 4:1, 3).26 This imminent divine visitation calls for serious self-examination: “but who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?” (3:2).

Payday Someday

Malachi’s contemporaries had complained that God fails to reward the righteous and punish the wicked (1:2-5; 2:17; 3:13-15). The Lord’s personal “house visit” will put that complaint to rest. The result will be a final separation between the righteous and the wicked (3:18) by means of purging (3:2-5) and by means of punishment (4:1, 3), and a restoration of true religion (4:6).

1. Sons of Levi Purged

Employing the imagery of a “refiner’s fire” and a “launderer’s soap,” the Lord promises to purge and purify the “sons of Levi.” This process will reveal the true quality of those who reverence God, esteem His name,27 and demon­strate love for true brethren.28 God shall record their names in the “Book of Remembrance” (3:16; see Exod. 32:32; Isa. 4:3; Dan. 12:1; Rev. 20:12-15), and he will treat them as his prized possession29 and precious children (3:17). The process will also entail the separation and removal of the wicked from the community of Israel (3:5, 18), as the dross is separated from the silver and gold (3:3). The initial fulfillment of this promise occurred at Christ’s first coming when he removed the “dead branches” from the community of Israel (Matt. 3:7-10; 21:43; Rom. 11:17-21) and reconstituted a new Israel made up of believers who would worship God in spirit and truth (Jer. 31:31-34; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; John 4:23-24; Rom. 2:28-29; Gal. 3:29; 6:16). Its final fulfillment awaits Christ’s return (Rom. 11:15, 23-32).

2. Prideful Wicked Punished

The prideful wicked30 will eventually get the justice they demand (2:17; 3:5). If they continue to despise and profane God’s name (1:6-8, 12-13), the Lord will pay them back with the same treatment (2:3, 9). Indeed, the same fire that purifies the righteous will completely31 consume the wicked like “stubble” (4:1). This prophecy found an initial fulfillment in A.D. 70 (Luke 19:43-44; 21:20-24) and will find final fulfillment at the Lord’s Second Coming when the righteous tread the wicked under foot (Gen. 3:15; Ps. 58:10-11; Isa. 26:5-6; Rom. 16:20; Rev. 14:19-20).

3. True Religion Restored

The final result of the Lord’s visit will be the restoration of true religion. A purged priesthood will offer worship that is acceptable to the Lord (3:2-4). Moreover, the hearts of the fathers will be turned towards the children, and the hearts of the children towards their fathers (4:6). This is not so much a prediction of improved family relations.32 Rather, it is a promise that God will work in the heart of Abraham’s descendants, so that their religious affections will correspond to those of their forefathers.33 In this way, God’s impending curse on the land will be mitigated (4:1-2, 6),34 and his immutable saving purposes for Israel will be realized (3:6). As Michael Barrett aptly remarks, “God had a purpose for the sons of Jacob that the sins of Jacob’s sons in Malachi’s day could not frustrate.”35

Notes

21 The prophet’s sarcasm, “the Lord, whom you seek … the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight” (emphasis added) is likely based on the people’s empty claims. Redditt completely misses the sarcasm and uses this verse to posit a second redactor and a second audience since the original audience could scarcely have sought and delighted in God (848).

22 The Gospels link Malachi’s “messenger” who “prepares the way” with Isaiah’s “voice crying in the wilderness (40:3; cf. Mark 1:2, 3) and identify this individual as John the Baptist (Matt. 11:10; 17:10-13; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 7:26-27), who came in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). However, there are also indications that John the Baptist may not have exhausted the fulfillment of this prophecy (Matt. 17:11; John 1:21-25).

23 Commentators debate whether this is the Old (Mosaic) or New covenant in view. But if one understands the New Covenant to be the outgrowth and fulfillment of the Old Covenant (Matt. 5:17-19), then the strong dichotomy disappears. In a sense, the New Covenant is God’s reformulation and reconstitution of the former covenant on the basis of a better Mediator (Heb. 1:4; 7:22), a better sacrifice (9:23; 12:24), better promises (Heb. 8:6; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40), and a better commitment on the part of God’s people (Heb. 6:9; 10:39; cf. Ezek. 32:39-40).

24 Barrett’s definition of “the Day of the Lord” is most helpful: “By simple definition, the Day of the Lord is the period in which God directly interrupts the affairs of time either for the judgment of the wicked or the blessing of the righteous. The Day of the Lord is when eternity breaks into time” (39).

25 Terry Rude lists six reasons why “messenger of the covenant” is a reference to the coming of Jesus Christ: (1) He is identified as הָאָד֣וֹן, which with the article is reserved for deity. (2) Since the NT writers identify the messenger who prepares the way as John the Baptist (Matt. 11:10; Mark 1:2-3), then “the Lord” must be Christ. (3) The one whom the Jews professed to “seek” and “delight in” was the Messiah. (4) Since the temple belonged to the messenger of the covenant, then he must be God. (5) By using the pronoun “me” (v. 1) Yahweh identifies himself as the messenger of the covenant. (6) “Messenger of the covenant” could be translated “angel of the covenant,” and is roughly equivalent to “the angel of Yahweh” (Gen. 22:11-12; Exod. 3:2, 4, 14-15; 2 Sam. 24:16; Zech. 1:12). “Malachi’s Messenger Motif,” Biblical Viewpoint 32 (Nov. 1998): 30.

26 Obviously, Christ’s first coming only partially fulfilled this prophecy. The final fulfillment will occur at his Second Coming (cf. Matt. 13:24-43, 47-50; 24:1-25:46).

27 That is, they “fear [לְיִרְאֵ֣י] the Lord” and “esteem [וּלְחֹשְׁבֵ֖י] His name” (v. 16b).

28 The reference to the God-fearers “speaking to one another” (v. 16a) signifies more than mere communication. Since they are commended, it seems best to understand it along the lines of true brethren meeting together in order to stimulate one another to love and good works in response to Malachi’s preaching (cf. Heb. 10:24-25).

29 The Hebrew סְגֻלָּ֑ה refers to royal treasure (1 Chron. 29:3; Eccl. 2:8) and was a common applied to Israel as God’s possession (Exod. 19:5; Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Ps. 135:4).

30 The wicked are described as זֵדִ֑ים (“proud,” 3:15; 4:1), which is related to the noun זָדוֹן (“arrogance”), and is used for those who openly oppose those who do the will of God (Pss. 19:14; 119:51, 69, 78, 122; Jer. 43:2).

31 The language is all-inclusive: “all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly…. [God] will leave them neither root nor branch” (emphasis added; 4:1). According to Feinberg, the expression “root and branch” refers to the two extremities of a tree and is a proverbial expression for totality (p. 266).

32 In reality, Christ’s coming sometimes results in greater domestic tension (Matt. 10:34-36; 13:12).

33 This interpretation is warranted for the following reasons: (1) The father-children motif has already been used in Malachi to refer to ancestor-descendants (2:4, 8, 10; 3:3, 6, 7). (2) God has already commended “the fathers” as those who genuinely served him, in contrast with the “sons” (2:4-8). (3) The angel of the Lord provided Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father, with an inspired interpretation of the verse, not only identifying Zacharias’ own son as the coming “Elijah” (Luke 1:13-17a), but also specifying what John would do: “‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” (4) John the Baptist’s public ministry bore this out as he called the nation of Israel, including the spiritual leaders, to bring forth fruits of repentance and thereby demonstrate a vital connection to their father Abraham (Matt. 3:6-9). See John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, trans. John Owen (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 4:630-31.

34 The sun could be a curse (Josh. 10:12-13; Ps. 121:6) or a blessing, as a source of life (Ps. 84:11). I take the solar healing alluded to in 4:2a as applying to the land that had been scorched (4:1). The return of verdant pastures from the sun’s life-giving rays would give God’s people reason to “go out and grow like stall-fed calves” (4:2b).

35 The Message of Malachi,” 41.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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