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*13 *“Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord.
But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ *14 *You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God.
What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?
*15 *And now we call the arrogant blessed.
Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’
*16 *Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another.
The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.
*17 *“They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.
*18 *Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
What is the distinction between a righteous person and a wicked person?
Is it easy or difficult to distinguish between the two?
Our passage today addresses these questions because the people of Israel are ready to give up their faith in God.
They are convinced that it is worthless to serve God.
But Malachi shows us an alternative to their worthless religion.
And that is where the true distinction between the righteous and the wicked may be found.
Verse 13 begins with yet another accusation of God levied against the people of Israel.
It appears that the attitude of the people toward God has deteriorated.
Previously (Mal 2:17) God said that they had wearied him with their questions because they were not listening to his answers.
But now they have become much more antagonistic and aggressive.
“Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD.”
Translated another way, “You have criticized me sharply” (NET).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that the way to combat evil thoughts most effectively is by refusing to verbalize them.[1]
So he made a rule in his community saying that one was prohibited from talking about another unless that person was himself in the conversation.
Here the Hebrew suggests that the people have been speaking against God to each other.[2] Their criticism was spreading throughout the community in the form of malicious gossip.
What were they saying to one another?
!! Two complaints
There were two related complaints that they were making against God.
One complaint is found in verse 15: “Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.”
It is the same complaint they made in Malachi 2:17, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.”
Their complaint is that the irreligious are the ones who prosper in this life.
This is not an insignificant complaint.
The “arrogant” are those whose pride is “exaggerated to include defiance and rebelliousness.”[3]
These are the irreligious, the kind of people who blatantly stand against the authority of God, shaking their fist at him and challenging him to show them up.
And while we’ve all heard stories about such people and how God supposedly had vengeance on them, the truth is that many people like this do appear to “prosper” and do appear to escape the test of his wrath.
On the other hand, the people also complain that “It is vain to serve God” (v.
They have not seen any profit from their religious devotion.
And so they have concluded that “the arrogant” are “blessed” (v.
!! The flaw in the logic
The people were correct in assuming that worship of God would bring blessing and prosperity.
God himself said so in the previous passage.
If they would bring “the full tithe” in worship, God said he would “open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Mal 3:10).
They were right to expect a tangible blessing from God as they carried out their religion.
God did not disagree with their expectations.
They were also correct that their service to God was worthless.
God himself said so when he wished that their religious activity would be shut down entirely rather than letting them continue to “kindle fire on [his] altar in vain” (Mal 1:10).
Throughout the Bible God is clear that there is no magical nature to religious activity.
It is not sacrifices and burnt offerings that he is after.
This is where the flaw in their reasoning resided.
The problem was not in the promise of God to bless his worshipers, nor in the value of external forms of their worship.
Where these people went wrong was in assuming that “that their merely outward worship, which was bad enough according to what has already been affirmed, is the genuine worship which God must acknowledge and reward.”[4]
!! Wrong worship
Where these people went wrong is the same place we all go wrong.
It is the problem of religion.
We instinctively believe that God is served by a purely external form of worship.
But God says that such acts are worthless, no matter how “good” at it we may be.
The people of Israel were good at “keeping his charge” (v.
14) which means they were intent on following God’s commandments.
Even with the economic struggles they were facing under the rule of foreign government, they did not give up all vestiges of external obedience.
They were also good at “walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts.”
This refers to the custom of donning dark clothing to signify their awareness of their sinfulness and a willingness to evidence repentance.
But all of this was worthless in God’s sight.
Such remains the danger for all of us.
It is far too easy for us to put confidence in our external performances, assuming that such activity gives us some merit before the Lord.
But God does not need your good deeds or your confessions during communion.
Our propensity toward such religion can even be apparent in the way we feel guilty for failing in some performance.
We think we are far from God because we don’t pray enough or read the Bible enough or go to church enough.
I am not saying that worship is worthless but that /wrong /worship is worthless.
As one commentator notes, “So-called good works that do not arise from genuine faith and gratitude to God are simply ‘hot checks’ drawn on an empty bank account.
They may provide a temporary sense of self-satisfaction, but God recognizes their true value—zero, and he will eventually bring to justice anyone who tries to live on them.”[5]
So what is it that differentiates worship that God accepts from worship that God rejects?
I’m using the word /worship/ though in our text the actual word is /service/.
In verse 14 we hear the complaint of the religious who have decided that “it is vain to serve God.”
And they were right: /their /service was in vain.
But there is a way to serve God that is not only right but also required.
For according to verse 18 the righteous are those who serve God and the wicked are those who do not serve him.
It is critical that we know how to worship God in a way that is not in vain.
!! Three groups of people
Notice that there are three groups of people represented in our text.
The speakers in verses 14 and 15 I have been calling the “religious.”
They serve God, but it is in vain.
There are also the “arrogant,” whom the religious in our text admire.
The arrogant are the irreligious, those who are deliberately hostile to God and refuse to serve him.
But in verse 18 these two groups—the religious and the arrogant—are grouped together as “the wicked” and are described as those who do not serve God.
But there is a third group, called the “righteous” in verse 18 and described as those who /do /serve God.
Who are the kinds of people in this group?
Verse 16 calls them “those who feared the LORD.”
They are implied in Malachi 3:5 where sinners are noted to be those who do not fear God.
But here they are especially separated from the religious who are complaining that their worship of God is not getting them anywhere.
But “those who feared the LORD spoke with one another” and God took notice of them.
These must be a remnant within Israel who are performing the external duties along with the religious but whose worship is favored by God.
So what else is different about these God-fearers?
!! Listening in on the God-fearers
We find one difference in their conversation.
They, too, are involved in “gossip” as we see them speaking with one another (v.
But there is something different about what they are saying about God and their words seem to grasp God’s attention and bring his favor.
We are not told explicitly what they were saying to one another, though given God’s response, it must have been a contrast to what was being said in verses 14-15.
At the end of verse 16 we see that rather than criticizing God as the religious were doing, these “feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”
To “esteem” something is to hold it in high regard.
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