Sermon preached on Malachi 3:13-4:3 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/18/2011 in Novato, CA.
“A Book of Remembrance Was Written”
It’s a common frustration, even among those in the Christian church. For some people, their religion just doesn’t produce what they expect it to produce. They go to church. They throw some money in the plate when it goes by. They donate their time to worthy causes. They generally lead a pretty decent life from the world’s perspective. And yet their faith and relationship with God doesn’t yield what they expect it to. They find their life full of problems. Strained relationships. Troubles at work. Health challenges. They feel burnt out. They feel far from God, like being in a desert: dry and weary. They don’t see how their religion makes any difference. They begin to tire of it all. They’ve heard lofty ideas about what a relationship with God is supposed to bring, but they don’t seem to experience it. Not only is their life a mess, but they certainly don’t have the peace and joy that a Christian is supposedly supposed to have. They find themselves instead as someone who struggles to control their anger and they feel bitter about so many things. They’ve grown impatient in it all. They probably ask, how is this worth it? Does God even care? What good is my religion with a life like this? They look around and see many people who don’t go to church and they think their life looks better off than theirs. And so their anger turns towards God. They start to speak in harsh terms against him. Either directly or indirectly, they start slandering God and their religion. They claim it to be useless and worthless. Well, that is the spirit addressed in this passage for today. It was a spirit present in the church at Malachi’s day. And it’s a spirit that can be present in the church today. This passage addresses that spirit. Not only is it an unrighteous attitude, it something that is not good for anyone – it eats away at one’s heart. And so this passage instead gets us to address the heart of such frustrations with a God who greatly loves and treasures his people.
Let’s begin today then with verses 13-15. Here we see that wrong spirit among the people. Verse 13, God says, that their words had been harsh. Harsh against God. The people show they understand what he’s getting at, by their question: “What have we spoken against you?” To speak against someone is describing slander. You see, that’s what the people addressed in verses 13-15 had been doing. Harshly slandering God. Murmuring against God and putting him to the test. This is somewhat similar to what was addressed in 2:17. There the people had scoffed against God with their words. They had said things like, “Where is the God of justice?” They mocked him in their statements. Here this is something similar. But, here it’s put more in the form of a harsh complaint. A complaint that draws into question the value of their religion.
You see, God tells them what their harsh words were, in verses 14 and 15. Verse 14, they say their religion has been useless. They say there has been no profit in it. In other words, they don’t see any benefit in their relationship with God. In fact, in verse 15 they say the opposite has been the case. They say this: not only have they not benefited from their religion as they thought they should, the unreligious have done better than they have. They said the proud people are the ones blessed. That the wicked ones are the ones exalted. That those who tempt and test God get away with it. So the bottom line is that they were saying this in their complaint: following God’s ways doesn’t benefit me; if anything it hurts me.
But they aren’t just thinking this secretly in their mind. Evidently they are vocalizing it. Maybe some of it is directed toward God in some sort of blasphemous prayer. But probably most of it is spoken to others. They likely grumble and complain to one another. The irony here is that they say others test God and get away with it. But their complaints represent a testing of God. Just remember back earlier in Israel’s history. We mentioned this briefly last week too. In the time of the wilderness wandering, the people were constantly complaining about God to one another and to Moses. For example, when they’d run out of food or water, so they would say things like, why did God bring us out of Egypt? What benefit is it that he brought us out of Egypt? Wouldn’t it have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the desert? Their words were essentially the same as what we have here. They criticize God for not providing for them the way they expect. They start making demands of God, essentially. The Bible is clear, that these words in the wilderness represented sinful testing of God. Psalm 106:14, Hebrews 3:9, and 1 Corinthians 10:9 are just a few passages that give that assessment; that these words tested God. They were complaining that their relationship with God was not only was worthless, but even detrimental to their well being. They tested the goodness and provision of God through these comments. Well, Israel in Malachi’s day had done something similar with their harsh words. They were harshly criticizing God. Likely they did this both directly, and especially to one another. In this they sinfully tested God with their harsh words.
Two things stand out to me by way of assessment here. Two things that make their harsh words so wrong. First, this shows trouble with their spiritual discernment. This is something we’ve seen all along in the book of Malachi. The people are not able to spiritually discern their state before God. Not only are they oblivious to the fact that they’ve uttered these harsh words. That’s why in verse 13 they have to ask God how they’ve spoken harshly against them. But especially notice how they justify themselves in their harsh words. In verse 14 they claim to be serving God. They claim to be obedient to God’s ordinances. They say that they have been mourning before God – think of the book of Lamentations – it’s likely them saying they’ve done the whole repentance thing. They go on in verse 15 to distinguish themselves from the proud, and wicked, and the tempters of God. And so they may have justified themselves like this before God, but the book of Malachi paints a different picture. Malachi paints a people that are repeatedly blind to the sin and perverted religious worship that they’ve been doing. Like the Pharisee in John 9:40 who incorrectly said he had spiritual sight when really he was blind to his sin; so too with these people addressed in Malachi. Just think through the picture Malachi has painted. A people who is repeatedly challenged by some sin and in turn they ask a question that shows they have been oblivious to that sin. Just like here in verse 13. Or here they say they have been serving God and keeping his ordinances. And yet Malachi chapter 1 recorded how they brought blemished and sick offerings to God in their worship – something forbidden by the law. And then in Malachi chapter 2, God condemned them for marrying unbelieving foreigners and for divorcing their wives without biblical cause. In chapter 3, God had accused them of robbing God by not faithfully bring the tithes and offerings that they were supposed to bring according to the law. All violations of God’s ordinances.
And so they thought they were so religious. They thought they were so godly. They were shocked and upset that their religion didn’t seem to result in blessings. That’s why they had the harsh words. But my first assessment of those words is that their premise was unfounded. They hadn’t followed God’s ways. God did indeed hold out blessings for following him. But their obedience had been partial and lacking at best. And their worship had been perverted. They should not have been surprised that their religion had seemed worthless, because they hadn’t been truly following God’s way for their life. People in the church today can have this same problem, they complain about the fruits of their religion, when really they need to look inward for their problems, and not blame God. That they have a defective faith; a counterfeit religion, just like many of Malachi’s day. And so this is my first assessment on their harsh words.
My second assessment on their words, is that even if we grant them in part the point of verse 14, they have missed the bigger picture. Verse 14 acknowledges that sometimes in this life those who are clearly not following God seem to often have success. They can seem to get away with their evils. They use this reality to speak harshly against God. You see, in one sense, the Bible presents the truth of retributive justice. That that wicked will be punished by God and that the righteous will be blessed by God. This is true. But the Bible also paints us the picture that retributive justice cannot be understood simplistically. That God doesn’t always immediately in this life punish the wicked and doesn’t always immediately bless the righteous. At least not from our limited human vision and perspective. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes show us that especially. Rather, God has a bigger perspective and plan and purpose in which retributive justice does work itself out. To our limited human vision, it can falsely appear to us that wickedness pays off better than godliness, but the Bible helps us to see that this is not ultimately the case. This passage goes on to make that case. That’s the point of the rest of this passage. That those who fear God will be saved and blessed ultimately. And that the wicked will face final judgment in that great and terrible day of the Lord.
And so their harsh words fail here then in this sense also. In their simplistic understanding of retributive justice they criticize God of fault. Realize that other men of God have asked this question and received answers on this. Others have asked these kinds of questions in an appropriate way. The problem with them was their harsh words. They took their lack of understanding of God’s ways and used them as an excuse to slander God. To accuse him of injustice. This too was wrong of them. And so indeed, they had harshly slandered God, speaking evil of him.
In the midst of their harsh words, Malachi then turns to address some different words. Verse 16. “Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard.” Some take these people in verse 16 who feared the LORD as a subset of the people mentioned in verses 13-15. As a subset of the people who had previously spoken harshly. That’s possible. But likely it is better to understand that these God-fearers are actually a remnant among Israel distinct from the people mentioned in verses 15-16. All through the ages, we see a remnant among God’s people who remained faithful amidst widespread perversion. That’s who it seems is addressed in verse 16. A remnant among God’s people who still feared the LORD. Their words are held in contrast to the people’s harsh words. While most people were harshly complaining to one another about God, these God-fearers spoke different words to each other. They spoke words that were evidently pleasing to God. We know this because it says God listened to them and heard them. And that God then had this scroll written in remembrance of them and their good words.
I would love to know what were the words that these God-fearers were saying. We are not told. But surely we are not told because it’s less important what they were specifically saying as how they were saying it. Whatever they were saying to each other, it was not from an attitude of harsh complaint against God. It was from an attitude that feared God. You see, you can ask God about why your religion seems ineffective, if done reverently in the fear of God. You can ask God about why the wicked seem to prosper and why the righteous seem to suffer, if done reverently in the fear of God. That reverence start and ends with faith. It believes and trusts that God is righteous and in control. It believes that God will not let the wicked go unpunished. It trusts that God has a good plan for his people. It humbly acknowledges that you are a sinner and need his grace. It does not point fault at God, but humbly asks for wisdom and help. We can bring all our honest questions and concerns to God when we humbly fear him and meditate on his great name.
And so I love how God says that a book of remembrance was written then for the sake of those who fear the LORD. In other words, God won’t forget. This is his Outlook Reminder, so to speak. He won’t forget his people, even as he won’t forget the wicked. He has not forgotten them, and he will not overlook them. No, rather, they are recorded in a book of remembrance. And so for those who fear him, he will remember to save them. That’s the point of verses 16 and 17. They will be mine, he says! His jewels! Literally, his special possession. His treasured possession, a people for his own! Surely every human belongs to him, but those who fear him are his special possession. On the great and terrible day of the Lord, he saves them from judgment and destruction. He saves them as his sons, it says. He will be our God, and we will be his people. That’s his promise. He won’t forget. He will remember his people. He will remember to show them mercy and grace.
That’s is what Jesus came to bring. In remembrance of his mercy, God sent Jesus to be born of the Virgin Mary. To live a life of perfect righteousness. To earn all God’s blessings. I remembrance of his mercy, Jesus suffered the cursed death of the cross. He did that in the place of his people. That all who fear God can call upon the name of the Lord to be saved. For all of us, in our best days, have to acknowledge that we have sinned and fallen short of God. Even if we come to fear him, we realize that we have a life history of sins that need to be punished. In fact the right fear of God should spark fear on the sinner because of these sins. But the Christian does not need to fear God on that. No, the Christian has found forgiveness for their sins in Christ. We repent and believe in the gospel and are saved. We still have a reverent fear of God. But we don’t fear final judgment. Rather, we know we’ll be saved. And so I urge you today. If you have not put your faith in Christ, do so today. As a starting fear of God, realize sin means divine judgment – what’s recorded in chapter 4, verses 1-3. That there will be a great and terrible day of the Lord. In such fear, then flee to Christ and find forgiveness because of the cross. Rest in him, and you will be saved.
Many have gone to church all their life and still have need of this conversion. That was the problem with many at Malachi’s day. They were in the church and thought they were all perfect and in the right. They didn’t have a right appraisal of themselves. They were blind to their sin and never came to God in a right fear. Instead they presumptuously criticized God harshly. A person who fears the almighty God ought never to harshly criticize God! So my call for each of us today is to seek some biblical reflection. Examine yourself. Ask even now for God to give you spiritual clarity to examine your life. Are you in the faith? Have you really feared God and trusted in Christ? Or have you been self-justifying yourself and just going through the religious motions? Has your religion been worthless because you didn’t really see your need for God’s grace? If so, turn today and be saved. Call upon him and be saved. If you do, Malachi reminds us here today of God’s grace. That God will say to you then today, “You are mine! You are my son who I will save. You are my jewel; my treasured possession!” What wonderful words to hear from God.
You see, we need this spiritual discernment. I mentioned the problem of their lacking spiritual discernment. God turns to address this in verse 18. There is coming a time when their spiritual vision will have a renewed clarity. The people were having trouble properly distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked. On the one hand, the overtly wicked seemed to prosper to them. This made them not understand how to distinguish between the outcome for the righteous and the wicked. On the other hand, they failed to recognize their own pride and wickedness before God. Well, God says in verse 18 that he will ultimately make the distinction very clear to all. That would be on the great and terrible day of the Lord. That is when the faithful will be saved. That is when they will be remembered and saved out of the coming destruction. On the contrary, that is also the day when the wicked will face utter destruction. Notice the same labels in 4:1 appear which were used earlier in verse 15. The proud and the wicked will indeed be judged. That day will leave them burned up. They will be trampled on by the God fearers, as mere ashes on the souls of their feet. On the other hand, God says that for those who fear him, he will come with healing for them on that day. Verse 2 beautifully describes this healing. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing on his wings. So, do you see then how clearly the distinctions will be? On that day, all will know which camp each person falls into.
And yet who would want to wait until then for such clarity? You see, this shows our need for spiritual discernment right here and now. And so we can either be like the Pharisee in John 9 that wrongly thinks his spiritual eyesight is perfect. Or we can cry out to the Lord for greater clarity. We can cry out, “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from your law.” We don’t want to wait until the end to finally recognize that your Christians life has been a fraud – trying to live looking like a Christian when really you haven’t known the grace of God. And so let us regularly cry out for sight from above.
The apostle Peter put it this way in 1 Peter 5:6. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” That’s a great summary verse to drive home everything we’ve talked about today. You see, those who harshly complain against God have not humbled themselves before God. They are actually the proud who exalt themselves above God. It takes a lot of pride and arrogance to think you can speak harshly to the God of the universe. On the other hand, we’ve seen how we should come instead reverently before God. We should come as those who fear God. And if that’s our attitude, that means we do what Peter says. We humble ourselves before God and ask for his help. Help even to see things aright. Help in the midst of world where the wicked seem to prosper. Help even when your life is full of trials. We come in humility. He is the almighty King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And yet he also loves us, and so today’s passage greatly encourages those who come humbly before God. That he calls you his own. He lifts you up in due time.
I suspect this is a harder thing for our culture today. In years gone by, people seemed to respect authority so much more. In our own country that does not seem to be the case. It’s said that children seem to disrespect parents more today. Husbands often report that their wives disrespect them. Or look at our politics. From both sides of the political aisle, people can speak pretty nastily about the leaders in government. Often harsh words dominate in politics instead of humble appeals to those in power. Well, if that’s how we treat our fellow man, is it any surprise that we can end up treating God the same way? Instead of humble appeal, we can speak about him or to him, with harsh words. The unbelieving world may do this. But we in the church have to be on guard against this as well.
Let us see that we ought not to talk about our God in this way; let alone to talk to him in this way. Let us look to be renewed today in humility toward God. To exalt him as God. To be renewed in reverence and fear of God. He is God. We are his creatures – those who he has shown such grace and mercy. When we perceive troubles with our faith, let us first look inwardly. And then let us look to trust him. Let us come humbly before him, calling upon him for help, and forgiveness, and grace. He will indeed lift us up in his perfect timing. Praise be to God who has saved us through his son Jesus Christ, and works this wonderful humility in us. Praise to him who says to us – You are mine, my jewels, my treasured possession! He does not say that to the world. He says that to us. Amen!
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.