The book of Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. It is certainly not the least book however as it contains warnings in it that are just as pertinent today as they were 2,400 years ago when they were written.
Unlike the other prophets, we know nothing about Malachi, not his lineage, nor where he lived, not who his contemporaries were. For that matter, scholars aren’t even certain if he was a real person at all. The name Malachi means, “my messenger” and it has been suggested by some that rather the writer of this book simply identifies himself as a messenger of God rather than by name. In either case, this is a message from God and it is a solemn one at that.
The book of Malachi is likely the last message the Israelites received from God before John the Baptist arrived on the scene. The setting is a post-exile Jerusalem. In 586 BC the last of the Israelites are carried off to Babylon. In 539 BC Cyrus issues a decree that they may return to their homeland. In all around 50,000 return with Zerubabbel. This may sound like a large group, but there were likely millions who were carried off. Even when Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt they numbered ten times as many as what returned to Jerusalem.
This may seem like an inconsequential thing but the small number of Israelites who return characterizes the apathy of the people we will see. The land they are returning to is THE PROMISED LAND and it is central to the covenant they have with God. Worship at the temple was the cornerstone of Jewish religion and even today there is a large number of Jews who are waiting to reclaim the Temple Mount and rebuild their fallen temple.
To contrast the apathy of the Israelites in this day, the fervor of today’s Jews is immense. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, every day 100 Jews from the former Soviet states cross the border into Israel, a place that is in constant turmoil and is no larger than the state of New Jersey. That’s 36,000 Jews every year and in 539 BC they could find only 50,000 when they were all immersed in the incredible idolatry of Babylon.
For decades the people who returned to Jerusalem live without even a wall around their city nor a temple. It is only when Ezra and Nehemiah come in separate instances that the walls and the temple are complete. This is the setting for the book of Malachi.
The people are small in number. None are alive who can remember the glory days of their nation but they still have their writings to remind them. Likewise today, Christianity, at least in the United States, seems to be longing for its glory days as we have seen church attendance dwindling.
The people of Malachi’s day have become frustrated. The promises God made to them seem to be nothing more than a dream. They do not hold nearly the amount of land that they once did nor what they had been promised. There are enemies on every side of them. And worst of all, the Messiah they had been promised who would overthrow their enemies and establish a great kingdom of peace was nowhere to be found.
Today we face many of the same struggles. Even with the Holy Spirit we struggle daily with issues of sin. Our enemies are all around us, in the government, in the courts, and living next door to us. And Jesus said he was coming soon with his reward and it’s been 2,000 years of waiting.
The people are frustrated and have lost heart. We have become frustrated and have lost heart. Worst of all, this frustration has carried over into the Israelites worship and it has carried over into our worship as well.
Malachi 1:1 “An oracle: The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.”
Malachi begins by stating that this is an oracle of the Lord. However, this doesn’t convey the seriousness of the situation. An oracle we can take as any announcement that a prophet has to say. However, the word actually used carries the tone that this is a burden. What the prophet has to say is a burden, probably both for him to have to proclaim it and for the people to have to hear.
Prophets usually weren’t well received. Disciples in the book of Acts ask the Israelites, “Was there ever a prophet you did not persecute?” This message will probably not be well received either.
The rest of the book takes an interesting literary structure. It almost seems like it is a question and answer time with God but before anyone can ask God a question he responds with the answer to their often foolish question.
2 “I have loved you deeply,” says the LORD. But you retort, “Really? How have you loved us? “And the LORD replies, “I showed my love for you by loving your ancestor Jacob. Yet Esau was Jacob’s brother, 3 and I hated Esau and devastated his hill country. I turned Esau’s inheritance into a desert for jackals.” 4 And Esau’s descendants in Edom may say, “We have been shattered, but we will rebuild the ruins. “But this is what the LORD Almighty says: “They may try to rebuild, but I will demolish them again! Their country will be known as ‘The Land of Wickedness,’ and their people will be called ‘The People with Whom the LORD Is Forever Angry.’ 5 When you see the destruction for yourselves, you will say, ‘Truly, the LORD’s great power reaches far beyond our borders!'”
How many times have you heard a child say to a parent, “If you really love me, you’ll buy me this.” The Israelites were questioning God’s love for them because things weren’t going as they had hoped. How often do we do the same thing? God, if you really loved me, you’d let me get a new job. God, if you really loved me, you’d cure me of this illness. And sometimes God responds by answering our prayer the way we ask. Sometimes it isn’t in his will and he has another purpose. Do we question God’s love then?
The Israelites were in a bad position because they were surrounded by enemies. Their prayers for the Messiah to come seemed to go unanswered. And they questioned God’s love for them. They paid no attention to scripture that told them they were being punished for their sins. Moses told the people exactly what would happen if they disobeyed God but the people didn’t realize that part of their own misery was punishment.
God tells the Israelites about his love for Jacob (whose name was then changed to Israel) and how he hated Esau. This is held as a contrast. We may be uncomfortable with the concept of God hating anyone in today’s politically correct world. However, this is the wording. Let me assure you that God will not stand at Judgment Day and throw open the gates of heaven and say, “I can’t stay mad at all of you. I love you all, so everyone is welcome to come in.” It just isn’t going to happen.
Nevertheless, this is an illustration of how God chose to bless the line of Jacob and yet Esau’s line saw disaster. Israel could look at their history and see how many times God had proven his love and blessed them. They could also look at the disaster that fell on the Edomites, the atheistic descendants of Esau.
When we begin to question God’s love for us we need to look at our history and remember all of the things that God has done for us. Like the Israelites, we all have numerous instances in which we can recall that God was specifically at work in our lives.
6 The LORD Almighty says to the priests: “A son honors his father, and a servant respects his master. I am your father and master, but where are the honor and respect I deserve? You have despised my name! “But you ask, ‘How have we ever despised your name?’ 7 “You have despised my name by offering defiled sacrifices on my altar. “Then you ask, ‘How have we defiled the sacrifices?’ “You defile them by saying the altar of the LORD deserves no respect.
Do we show God the respect that he is worthy of? Our country still reveres the name of the Lord enough to refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain on broadcast television but this is about as much respect as God gets. Sure, we’re probably not going to be heard taking the Lord’s name in vain when we leave the church today but we show little more reverence. Was it difficult to drag yourself out of bed this morning? Are you going to make a dash out the door after the service to beat the rush at the diner? Is one hour, two hours too much of your precious time that church is a burden for you?
Maybe this isn’t the case for you. Maybe you really want to be here and not just because this is where your friends are at or because you’ve done so for decades. Maybe you really want to be here to hear God’s word proclaimed and you want to worship God. If this is true for you, I’d say you’re in the minority. For most people if you don’t show up to talk to your friends church is a burden. There are many better things to be doing on a Sunday morning. Two hours out of the 168 we get each week is an awful lot for a lot of people. Add in an hour on Sunday evening and then a midweek meeting and you’ve doubled your time to 4 hours a week! This is highly obtrusive to our schedules if that is what God wants, he’s asking way too much.
The Israelites didn’t have trouble with how they spent their time concerning God. It was how they valued their possessions in comparison to God. God had clearly asked for unblemished sacrifices. It was the practice that was set up from the very beginning. The unblemished lamb pointed to the sinless savior who would be sacrificed once and for all. But the Israelites weren’t willing to make the sacrifice God required and the Lord told them that they held no respect.
8 When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong? And isn’t it wrong to offer animals that are crippled and diseased? Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the LORD Almighty. 9 “Go ahead, beg God to be merciful to you! But when you bring that kind of offering, why should he show you any favor at all?” asks the LORD Almighty. 10 “I wish that someone among you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! I am not at all pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will not accept your offerings. 11 But my name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night. All around the world they offer sweet incense and pure offerings in honor of my name. For my name is great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty. 12 “But you dishonor my name with your actions. By bringing contemptible food, you are saying it’s all right to defile the Lord’s table. 13 You say, ‘It’s too hard to serve the LORD,’ and you turn up your noses at his commands,” says the LORD Almighty. “Think of it! Animals that are stolen and mutilated, crippled and sick – presented as offerings! Should I accept from you such offerings as these?” asks the LORD. 14 “Cursed is the cheat who promises to give a fine ram from his flock but then sacrifices a defective one to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the LORD Almighty, “and my name is feared among the nations!
This is about half hearted worship. God is plenty mad about the people’s attitude toward him. The people are going through the motions, bringing worthless sacrifices, hoping nobody will notice. The people believe that the ritual is what is bringing their salvation.
Let me assure you that ritual saved no man, no woman, no child. There are no sacred rituals, none that will get us into heaven, none that not doing will keep us out of heaven. The Old Testament saints were saved not because they presented a sacrifice. They were saved because they believed God would send a savior to forgive them of their sins. And because of this faith, they worshipped God in the manner which he had prescribed.
We like the concept of a loving and forgiving God. Certainly scripture gives us many pictures of God’s love and forgiveness. But we serve a God who is capable of great anger also and I believe he is quite mad at this point. The people aren’t giving God what they should.
If we owe the IRS $2,000 in taxes, would they let us alone if we sent them a check for fifty bucks? If we were expected to work forty hours a week, how long would the supervisor keep their mouth shut if we only came to work for thirty hours a week?
In both cases, the consequences wouldn’t be pleasant and they would be swift. Revelation describes a similar setting with a group of people who half been half hearted in their worship. Revelation 3:15-16 describes the church of Laodicea. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other! So because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” A better word for spit is actually vomit. This group of believers leaves such a bad taste that it makes our Lord want to vomit. I believe this is similar to the half hearted worship that Malachi faces in his day.
“It is too hard to serve the Lord,” echoes the cries of the people today. There’s too much persecution. There are too many temptations. There’s too many other things that need my attention. So we go about serving the Lord in our own way, half hearted, and we hope that no one will notice.
We aren’t fooling anyone. We’re certainly not pulling the wool over God’s eyes. God declares that “Cursed is the cheat who promises to give a fine ram from his flock but then sacrifices a defective one to the Lord.” God deserves better and we need to give him better.
“I wish that someone among you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! I am not at all pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will not accept your offerings.”
I have prayed this prayer before. There are many churches that are nothing more than country clubs. There are many churches that are dead in their worship. Worse yet, there are many churches have a bad name in the community and give God a bad name. I pray that this isn’t the case at this church, because if it is, I’m praying God shuts us down. It would be far better for the true believers to disperse among other solid churches than to have a church that continually presents a bad witness of Jesus Christ and offers God nothing other than pointless repetition in its worship.
This is a decision that I can’t make. It has to be made by everyone in this room. Should we just shut the doors because all we have to offer God is our worthless sacrifices? Is this nothing more than a social club are we assembled to worship Almighty God when we walk through the doors. If we are here for any reason other than to worship God and present our best to him, he’s not going to accept it. We might as well close the doors.
Fortunately, just like we’ll see in Malachi, there is a remnant. God is merciful because of the remnant that remains. I can’t tell you the hearts of everyone here. I can’t judge the spiritual condition of the church. But I know that there is at least a remnant of true believers still here. And for now, God will be patient with the rest. But we need to bringing our best to God.