Chill the champagne for when you’ve read this: we’ve done the OT! Sadly it’s downhill from here on as we tackle what my OT tutor at college used to call ‘The Appendix’. But first, what about Malachi? His name means ‘My messenger’ and it may be that 3:1, rather than being a prediction of John the Baptist, he sees himself in this role. He provides the final warning before the God whom the people say they want to meet actually turns up, but with judgement.
The OT ends with a whimper, not a bang, as Malachi, who appears to have ministered after Haggai and Zechariah, paints a picture of a nation in the doldrums. The building work may have been completed, but the hearts of the people and their leaders alike are far from God. In a series of condemning paragraphs the prophet challenges the people because they are casting doubt on God’s love for them, offering blemished sacrifices, getting divorced, dealing unjustly, holding back tithes, and speaking arrogantly about God. The priests particularly are condemned for their slipshod ministry and lack of reverence. It is a hugely disappointing picture after the high hopes for renewal expressed by earlier prophets. Has the nation really come to this?
The purple passage, much loved by Diocesan Stewardship Advisors, is the bit about tithing in chapter 3, but this particular failing has to be set in the bigger context of a nation whose hearts are far from God and whose behaviour shows it clearly. It isn’t surprising that money, which Jesus clearly warned us about as a rival god, is just one symptom of a deeply sick society, as it often is of a deeply sick church.
And yet this book is not one of blanket condemnation with no hope: there are clear pointers to courses of action which will bring health and renewal. Fear God’s name (1:14), teach knowledge (2:7), stay faithful in marriage (2:16), tithe properly: all these are ways out of this mess the nation is in. Common sense really: God has identified exactly what you are doing wrong, so just stop it!
But human effort alone is not going to save things. The other famous passage is 3:1-4, seen as having been fulfilled in John the Baptist and Jesus. After a herald proclaiming his coming, the Messiah will come to purify the nation’s leaders in a process described in terms of metal refining, where impurities are burnt up leaving only the precious metal. Those who are faithful to God (3:16ff) will be loved and treasured by him, while those who are not are ripe for a good burning. A key, and very challenging verse, is 3:18: ‘You will see again the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’ The OT ends with a reminder that there is a black and white distinction between God’s people and those who are not, a theme which continues through the teaching of Jesus but with which we are most uncomfortable nowadays. Our job meanwhile, like that of all the prophets, is to call people to a knowledge and a recognition of who God is, what he demands of us, and how we may be purified to live and worship in holiness.