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After giving us the message from God that we will be blessed if we “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse,” the prophet records the popular objection that he faced in his day. Malachi 3:13-15 says,
13 “Your words have been arrogant against Me,” says the Lord. “Yet you say, ‘What have we spoken against Thee?’ 14 “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the Lord of hosts? 15 So now we call the arrogant blessed; not only are the doers of wickedness built up, but they also test God and escape’.”
God knows the hearts of men and hears the complaints that they do not dare to speak aloud. Here God reveals the real underlying motive for the lawlessness in that day—and in our own time as well.
The carnal objection to obeying God’s law is this: “It is vain to serve God.” In other words, they say it is useless to serve God. There is no profit in it, they say. Lawless people are prosperous. When these “arrogant” people test God, they find that crime pays, for God does not penalize them, nor does He bring them into account for their sins.
Men do not understand the love, patience, and mercy of God. Because God does not strike them dead when they rob or abuse their neighbors, they lose confidence that God is indeed a righteous judge. They think that He is indifferent. They think He refuses to judge the cause of the afflicted. Hence, it is more profitable to afflict than to be afflicted.
Most people do not understand that the same God who gave the law is also a God of love and mercy. Strangely enough, there are others who reject the Lawgiver because they think He is ruthless, vengeful, and without mercy. Neither view is correct.
The God who gave the Law to Moses is a God of justice and is also a God of Love and mercy. Yet if we look at God’s priorities, we find that “mercy is positioned above justice” (James 2:13, literal transl.). God is just, but more importantly, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
It is His very love that restrains Him from destroying the lawless ones. This is true both before the cross and after. Further, God’s merciful and loving nature does not change (Mal. 3:6), regardless of what men may do. Even so, there is a day of justice coming, when all shall be raised to give an account of themselves.
If God had sent angels to stand over us with a whip to enforce obedience, men would obey, but they would be trained only to fear God. God is looking for something better, for His goal is to bring all of creation into agreement with His will. He knows that only a few in this present age are motivated by love to follow after God. This is what distinguishes the overcomers from ordinary people—and even from ordinary believers.
So the prophet leaves the people’s objection unanswered and turns instead to those who stand apart from the crowd. Mal. 3:16 says,
16 Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name.
Just as the Lord could “hear” the heart of lawless men, so also does He “hear” the heart of those who agree with Him and bear witness to His nature and character as expressed in the divine law. These are said to fear the Lord, but their fear is not a negative or destructive fear, but rather reflects their respect and awe of Him.
These lawful ones do not need an angel hovering over them to enforce compliance to His will. They obey, not because they will be punished for disobedience, but because they agree with the way of life that God advocates in the law. God takes note of such people and writes “a book of remembrance for them.”
These obedient ones are not concerned with how profitable or unprofitable such a life may be. They follow Jesus’ command in Matt. 6:33,
33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.
This heavenly book pictures God remembering them in times of discouragement when they may think that God has forgotten them. While others flow with the main traffic on the highway of the world, these follow the more difficult road less traveled, knowing that this is pleasing to God.
Mal. 3:17 continues,
17 “And they will be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “on the day that I prepare My own possession [segullah], and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.”
This is a reference to an earlier day when God called Israel out of Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai. At that time, the whole nation was given opportunity to be God’s peculiar possession [segullah], as we read in Exodus 19:5, 6,
5 “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession [segullah] among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.
Israel as a whole had failed to keep their covenant with God, and because this reward was conditional upon obedience, most Israelites were excluded from being segullah. So also Paul tells us in Rom. 11:7,
7 What then? That which Israel is seeking for, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest [Israelites] were hardened.
Paul cites the distinction between Israel as a nation and the remnant of grace, who, in the time of Elijah, numbered only 7,000. He says that only the 7,000 were “chosen” in the sight of God, even though virtually all of them probably thought of themselves as “God’s chosen people.” Whereas God made faith the basis of their “chosen” status, the carnal Israelites thought their genealogical connection to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob made them chosen.
Malachi makes it clear that there is a distinction between “those who feared the Lord” and those who said “It is vain to serve God.” Only the chosen few are written in God’s book of remembrance, and God claims these as His own possession. Mal. 3:18 concludes with some instruction,
18 So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.
This is a specific command that we are to “distinguish” between these two groups, insofar as labeling men “chosen” or not. Those who teach that all genealogical Israelites are chosen, whether or not they qualify by God’s standard of measure, are violating this instruction.
There are no chosen people apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Further, their faith in Jesus must also be real. To be real and believable, it must bear fruit as evidence of faith, as James 2:17, 18 says,
17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
In the early days of the church, all believers in Christ were assumed to be “chosen.” Those were the days when the Christians were a tiny minority among the Jews and a much smaller minority in the larger world. Hence, it appeared as if these were all part of the “remnant of grace” and the New Testament equivalent of the 7,000 in Elijah’s day.
However, as time passed, and as the leaven of Pentecost began to become evident, Paul found himself having to fight corruption in the church. The Corinthians church had moral problems (1 Cor. 5:1), false Christians (2 Cor. 11:26), and those who attempted to reunite the Christians with Judaism and place them under the authority of the earthly Jerusalem (Gal. 5:1).
These were the beginnings of another distinction, for not only were Christians distinct from non-believing Jews, but now Christians were becoming distinct from overcomers. As time passed, it became increasingly clear that not all believers were overcomers. The overcomers were a small but obedient remnant of grace within the church, even as they were in Israel in earlier times.
These overcomers are called “the remnant of grace” on account of the fact that God has called and predestined them (as with Jacob) before they were born (Rom. 9:11). The evidence of their chosen status is whether or not they bear fruit. Obedience, or lawfulness, is this evidence.
We are to “distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” because we are to view others as God views them. This distinction is evident by the fruit that each person bears (Matt. 7:20), but at the present time very few seem able to discern men’s fruit.
This lack of discernment will end when the time of harvest arrives. Jesus’ parable in Matt. 13:24-30 tells us that the tares and the wheat will be distinguishable at the end of the age, when the angels are sent to remove the tares and then harvest the wheat field. The tares are first bundled and cast into the fire before the wheat is gathered into His “barn” (Matt. 13:30).
Mal. 4:1 sets forth this same theme, saying,
1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
In other words, the “arrogant” ones who said, “It is vain to serve God,” claiming that “not only are the doers of wickedness built up, but they also test God and escape,” will not escape divine judgment at the time of the harvest. All sin will be judged, unless it has been put under the blood of Jesus Christ.
In Jesus’ parable in Matt. 13:30, the “tares” (pretending to be wheat, but manifested by their fruitlessness) are said to be burned. The metaphor follows the normal farming practice of the day, which everyone understood. The fire of God is His law, and all sin will be judged by the law according to men’s works or “deeds” (Rev. 20:13).
This is not a prophecy about torturing sinners in a literal fire, but is about judging all men by the “fiery law” of God, as Moses called it in Deut. 33:2 KJV. Neither is this a prophecy about the incineration and annihilation of the wicked, as others have taught, for that is not true divine justice. Justice is not done until full restitution has been paid to all the victims of injustice.
Annihilation fails to do justice to the victims. At best, it only prevents them from doing further injustice to others. But God reconciles and restores creation. This is not possible if most of it is annihilated. The purpose of the law is to teach men the righteous ways of God. Isaiah 26:9 says, “For when the earth experiences Thy judgments, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.”
Jesus spoke of a day when some would receive a beating, either with few or with many stripes (Luke 12:47-49). Verse 49 equates this to a “fire.” But such beatings are limited to 40 lashes (Deut. 25:3), and the purpose of such beatings are to bring correction. Prov. 23:13, 14 says,
13 Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you beat him with the rod, he will not die. 14 You shall beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from Sheol.
When men commit certain crimes that are impossible to rectify through restitution, the law’s sentence is the death penalty (when the victim decides not to forgive). The death penalty is insufficient, for it is only a type of imprisonment until God Himself can judge the case at the Great White Throne.
If the death penalty were sufficient, then there would be no reason to raise sinners from the dead and bring them to trial at the end of the age. The death penalty was instituted on account of the weakness of men’s earthly courts to handle such cases.
But God Himself is able to judge these difficult cases, and because all sinners will bow their knees and confess Jesus Christ as Lord in that day, God will have legal cause to show them mercy and to begin their time of obedience training in the so-called “lake of fire.”
Mal. 4:2 continues,
2 But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.
These “who fear My name” are the segullah, God’s peculiar treasure, His appropriated property, who will not have to endure any judgment. The blessing of God will rise upon them like “the sun of righteousness.”
The metaphor is of the sun rising in the morning after a long night. The first beams of light often appear as “wings” on the dawn, and these are pictured as “healing” rays, or beams.
In those days, animals were kept overnight in a stall on one end of the house a few feet below the floor of the living room. They were released at dawn and could often be seen skipping and leaping when freed each day. This is the word picture that Malachi paints to describe the righteous when the dawn of the Kingdom arrives.
Hosea 6:2, 3 shows us that this is also a messianic prophecy,
2 He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day that we may live before Him. 3 So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn….
By combining the revelation of Hosea and Malachi, we see that the righteous will be released from the night of death. The dawn is resurrection, at which time these righteous will be released as calves from the stall. This is what Malachi means when he speaks of “healing” in the wings, the first beams of light at dawn. It is healing from death itself.
Mal. 4:3 continues,
3 “And you will tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the Lord of hosts.
This word picture is not to be taken literally, as if these righteous people will be skipping about like calves while trampling on the ashes of a lot of dead people. If the fire that has burned the wicked is the “fiery law,” and the law prescribes precise restitution or beatings for each sin, then the “ashes” are also to be understood in the same vein.
The goal of history is to put all things under the feet of Christ, so “that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:27, 28). To subject all things to Christ does not mean to annihilate them, but to save them, as verse 22 tells us,
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.
As we have already shown, the baptism of fire was meant to purify souls of sin and the sons of Levi as a refiner’s fire. It is associated with Pentecost, because the wheat offering was bread that was baked (Lev. 23:17). Hence, the ashes show the eradication of sin in the lives of the sinners, as the fire of God writes the law in their hearts.