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The Day of the Lord: Terror or Triumph?

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1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

In the Hebrew Bible, there is no fourth chapter of Malachi as we find in our English Bibles. These six verses are verses 19-24 of chapter three in the Hebrew text, signifying that today’s passage is not to be divided too severely from what precedes it. Last week we saw that God promises to make a clear distinction between the righteous and the wicked. That distinction is hinted at in Malachi 3:17. There God said that in the day when he makes up his treasured possession, he would select “those who feared the LORD.” He would “spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.”

In this passage we find out more detail about that day. It is called “the great and awesome day of the LORD” in Malachi 4:5. On this day God will make the distinction between the righteous and the wicked quite clear. So let’s look first at what the day of the Lord will be like for the wicked and then contrast that with what the day of the Lord will be like for the righteous. Then we will see God’s pathway to righteousness so that we can be spared from the terror of that day.


Just a quick read over verse 1 gives the impression that the day of the Lord is no cake walk. It is described in the symbols of an intense furnace consuming entirely everything that is put inside it. The dread of the day of the Lord is consistently taught throughout Scripture.

The day of the Lord in the Old Testament

Isaiah describes that day as a time to wail because of the destruction that comes from God’s hand (Isa 13:6). Jeremiah calls it “a day of vengeance” for the Lord so that he may “avenge himself on his foes” (Jer 46:10). The prophet Amos says that the day of the Lord is not a day to be desired because it is a day of “darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (Amos 5:20).

But perhaps the most alarming description of the day of the Lord comes from the prophet Zephaniah:

‎The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. (Zeph 1:14-18)

The day of the Lord in the New Testament

The picture doesn’t get any brighter in the New Testament. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are to carry out church discipline on an unrepentant sinner in hopes that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5). So the day is viewed as one from which a person needs to be spared. Peter says that the day of the Lord “will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved” (2 Pet 3:10).

A day of judgment on the wicked

So the Bible is clear and consistent that a day is coming—the day of the Lord—which will serve as Judgment Day. We are not far from the vivid picture of hell that we find so often in the New Testament. Jesus refers to it as the “hell of fire” (Matt 5:22; 18:9). And Revelation calls it “the lake of fire” (Rev 20:15).

This is one of the hardest pills to swallow in the Christian faith. The idea that God would, as Malachi suggests, turn some people into stubble in a burning oven, setting them ablaze and leaving them no root or branch, is just too much to accept for many people. Especially when their only crime is said to be that they were not saved or born again. How can God be loving and consign someone to the literal fires of an eternal hell while letting another off the hook simply because he became a Christian?

The symbol of fire in judgment

First of all, we should observe that the descriptions of hell (and heaven, for that matter) in the Bible are symbols and metaphors. This should be quite obvious in our text. The day of the Lord is said to be burning “like an oven.” It is a figure of speech.

Of course this does not mean that heaven and hell are themselves metaphors; only that descriptions of them have to be given by comparison. We need to ask what the metaphor is intended to communicate. For one, the symbol of fire signifies disintegration, a theme that is being emphasized here. In Malachi 3:15 the people of Israel complained that evildoers were prospering. This refers to the legacy of the wicked living on in their descendents. But God says that on the day of the Lord everything the wicked has built will disintegrate. It will be torn down.

The symbol of fire also signifies the completeness of God’s judgment on the wicked. There will be no escaping the “fire” of God’s judgment. The wicked will be “stubble.” Like dry grass in a forest fire, so the wicked will be completely judged by the Lord.

If I hear my oldest son and my daughter playing and then all of a sudden I hear my daughter start crying, I know what is next. Sure enough, I hear them arguing, accusing each other of not playing by the rules. They both come to me for judgment. It is not always easy to decide as they plead their case. I try to discern who was in the wrong. But I was not there. Who needs to be corrected? Which of them, if either, was innocent in the matter? I may never know.

But on the day of the Lord, God will not be fooled. The fire of his judgment will not miss any stubble.

The fairness of God’s judgment

The fact that fire is a metaphor for God’s judgment and not intended to be taken literally does not diminish the seriousness of what is being described here. But it should help get us past the caricature of God as a masochist. His judgment will fit the crime. It will not be cruel and unusual punishment.

The issue is really over the fairness of God’s judgment, not the form of God’s judgment. If the wicked deserve the judgment of God, then we should have no problem accepting the fact that whatever form that judgment comes in will be right. Furthermore, the judgment of God will in no way compromise the fact that God is abundantly merciful. In fact, the Bible nowhere indicates that God sends someone to hell against their wishes. On the contrary, as Tim Keller has observed, “No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.”[1] Those who suffer in hell forever are there by their own choice.


The emphasis in this passage, however, is not on the fate of the wicked on the day of the Lord, but rather on the fortune of the righteous on that day. What will it take to be part of those who escape the just judgment of God?

“But for you who fear my name”

Again we see that the righteous are described as those who fear the Lord (those “who fear my name,” v. 2). This is an important point. The righteous are not primarily described as those who obey God’s laws or who live the best moral lives. Their righteousness is not seen in how they perform God’s commands but rather on how they relate to God himself.

The sun of righteousness

Things turn out differently on the day of the Lord for those who fear God. For them, God says, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (v. 2). Here is another metaphor, and not an easy one to interpret. The King James Version follows the ancient interpretation of the metaphor by capitalizing the word sun and personalizing its work: “healing in his wings.” In this view, the “sun of righteousness” is a reference to Jesus in his role as Savior for the God-fearers. This interpretation seems plausible.

But I think it more accurately describes what God has come to give for the benefit of the God-fearers. The emphasis is on the word righteousness with the word sun giving it definition and description (i.e. “a sun of righteousness” as in the phrase “mountain of dirt,” which describes a large pile of soil). God has come with righteousness. Its presence shines like the sun, making it apparent to all. Describing this righteousness as a sun also continues the imagery of fire. This “sun of righteousness” consumes the wicked but provides healing for those who fear the Lord.[2]

The healing of righteousness

Things turn out differently for the God-fearers on the day of the Lord but not because they are intrinsically superior to the arrogant evildoers. This verse explicitly says that those who fear the Lord are in need of healing from the sun of righteousness. We may assume that apart from this healing, these God-fearers would experience the same fate as the wicked on that day.

In other words, the difference between the righteous and the wicked is not an intrinsic righteousness of the former. The righteousness they possess is not their own. It is a foreign righteousness that causes their “healing” in the most comprehensive sense of the word. This is what distinguishes them from the wicked who will be consumed by God’s judgment on that day. The Apostle Paul’s hope was to “be found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9).

The Bible declares that there is no one who is righteous (Rom 3:10). So the distinction between the righteous and the wicked is that the former have been declared righteous through faith in Jesus Christ. But they will never in this life actually be righteous. Christians are, as Martin Luther said, simultaneously justified and sinful.

This is the good news of the gospel! It does not take our own righteousness to escape the judgment of God that is coming. We cannot save ourselves! We ought to give up trying and rest in the healing available to us in the righteousness of Jesus.

“You shall go out leaping like calves”

The promise of the gospel is described for us in two ways in verses 2-3. First, the gospel promises joy, vigor, and life. “You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” This is a vivid picture for us of the ecstasy of new life in Christ. There we find total and complete healing.

The thousand wounds that were inflicted upon them by the evildoers will be covered by new flesh; the “disaster” and “trouble” that were caused by their sins will be removed, and they will be reconciled; their whole existence will be radically changed and will be characterized by “abundant peace” and real “life.”[3]

All tears will be gone and we will frolic in the sunshine of Christ’s righteousness.

Treading on ashes

Second, the gospel promises victory. “And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts” (v. 3). The symbolism here points us to the triumph of God’s justice. The righteous are not just rescued; they are victorious. The emphasis of this verse is not on our triumph over the wicked. We are not given permission here to wage war against those who do not believe. The point is that we will enjoy the benefits of God’s conquest. When he acts on that day, he will triumph over evil and we will approve of his righteous judgment.


We can see clearly now the distinction between the righteous and the wicked. So does God give us any instruction for escaping the day of the Lord so that we might experience the delight of that day instead? He does. The Book of Malachi closes with two guides we must listen to.

Remember the law

First, we read in verse 4, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” God has not left his people without a guide. He points them back to his law that he gave them some 1000 years prior. This law will not lead them astray. There is a righteousness to be found in obeying what God has commanded.

The coming of Elijah

But the guidance of the law had not been enough for this people. Throughout Malachi we have seen that God found fault with his people in spite of their attempts to conform to his rules. The law is not enough for us either. It will always condemn. Yet God is gracious. He promised to send another guide. “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (v. 5).

The promise to send “Elijah” does not have to refer to the same historical person in the Old Testament. The mention of his name here signifies “the succession of prophetic covenant mediators of which Elijah is considered the preeminent symbol.”[4] Elijah was famous for calling the nation of Israel back into covenant with God at a time when seemingly no one was listening. In other words, God promised to send another guide for his people, not to replace the law of Moses but to call his people back to the covenant relationship for which the law was originally given.

It is this call to covenant faithfulness that is in view in verse 6. “He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” Elijah’s task would be to direct the people (the children) back to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the fathers). It would be an important task. Without it God would “come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” In other words, apart from Elijah’s work, no one would escape the judgment of the day of the Lord.

Listening to Elijah

It is imperative, then, that we do not fail to listen to “Elijah” when he comes. So who is he?

According to the New Testament, John the Baptist was Elijah (Matt 11:13-14). He had come as God’s messenger, to prepare the way before the Lord would come to bring justice to the earth. What did John have to say?

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)


The Old Testament therefore concludes with the plea that we dare not ignore John’s message. Jesus is the light who has come into the world with the sun of righteousness for all who will receive him. He is the pathway, the only pathway, to righteousness and hence to endless delight in the day of the Lord.

[1] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 78.

[2] Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed., D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 250.

[3] Pieter A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 330.

[4] E. Ray Clendenen, “Malachi,” in Richard A. Taylor and E. Ray Clendenen, Haggai, Malachi, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2004), 459-60.

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