A Book of Endings

For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal 1:11). These are thought-provoking visions of the coming kingdom age but, if we were to read on, would we notice the “but” at the beginning of verse 12? Verse 11 is surrounded by and contrasted with the actions
of a profane and evil nation.

Whilst there is some conjecture over the exact timing of the book of Malachi and also whether or not Malachi was an individual or a title given to some other writer, it is clear that this was a prophecy given to Israel after the exile in Babylon. Malachi’s placement in the canon of Scripture as the last book of the Old Testament is no accident; it is a book of endings!

Malachi is often called the prophet for the end of the age and indeed he was, in a sense. He was one of the last inspired prophets before the 400-year silence of divine revelation between the Old and New Testaments. But Israel in Malachi’s day still had over 500 years before the destruction of AD70. For more than the last 100 years they would be occupied by the Romans who would eventually destroy them.

The Burden of the Word

The Israelites had returned from Babylonian exile. Jerusalem had been rebuilt and the Temple restored. Their way of life was relatively peaceful and all things seemed to continue as they were. But the people had not learned lessons from their exile. They had grown sceptical of God’s love (Mal 1:2), careless in worship (v7), indifferent to the truth (2:6,7), disobedient to the covenant (2:10), faithless in their marriages (2:15; 3:5) and stingy in their offerings (3:8).

To this rebellious people God sent His messenger, and the first message put on his lips was, “I have loved you, says the Lord”. It is ironic that the prophet had to tell Israel that He loved them; they didn’t know! The first verse reads literally, “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi.” God had given Malachi a “burden.” Why is the word of Yahweh so often called a burden?

We should firstly note that the Word of God is never light and trifling. It is always weighty and serious, never dull or boring. There is no mirage in the Word of God. Malachi uses terms that are bolder than anywhere else in the Old Testament.

The Word of God is sometimes called a burden because even when it is good news, it will be rejected by many; it meets with opposition. Words designed for life become the aroma of death for those who are perishing and do not want to change.

Malachi was not speaking to a mature congregation of believers, but to a worldly one. To this sceptical, careless, adulterous people Malachi preached the truth of God’s free, sovereign, electing love. Those truths are not only designed by God for the comfort and courage of the mature; they are designed to arrest the attention of careless believers. Our worship should never be able to be described as careless, indifferent and presumptuous, should it?

When God said, “I have loved you” (1:2), the Israelites responded sceptically, “How hast thou loved us?” Let us test ourselves here. How would you describe God’s love to you? Is your life in such a rut that you sometimes think that God has forgotten you? Is your family in such disarray that you feel as sceptical about it as the Israelites did? Do you want to say, “How hast thou loved me?”

I do not doubt that there is a little of that in all of us. It does us good to listen to God’s answer, which is almost never heard today. In answer to the question, “Wherein hast thou loved us?” God replied, “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? … Yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau.”

A Love that Elects

What sort of answer is that? Isn’t that just a repetition of what He has already said in the first part of verse 2, “I have loved you, says the Lord” No, it is not, because of the little question, “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Why did God ask that? He knew that the answer to that question contained the key to the essence of His love of Israel. God’s answer reveals that He has loved you with free, sovereign, unconditional and electing love:

  • God’s love for Israel is an electing love because He chose Israel for Himself above the older brother Esau
  • God’s love for Israel is an unconditional love because He chose Jacob before he had done anything good or evil – before he had met any conditions – while he was still in his mother’s womb (Gen 25:24)
  • God’s love for Israel is sovereign love because He was under no constraint to love Jacob and was totally in charge when He set His love upon him
  • And God’s love for Israel is free because His infinite grace can never be bought

As a believer, if we were to be so bold as to say to God, “How have you loved me?” could we be confident that He would answer the way He answered the Israelites?

We may look at a relative in the world and wonder why we have been called instead of them: appreciating that our election is not because of anything intrinsically
meritorious in us and that our faith and hope we owe wholly to God? Do we look at a friend we grew up with, went to Sunday School with, who took a turn away
from God when we stayed on the path and tremble at the awesome thought that God called me? Do we ever look at a workmate that is to all intents and purposes
a good living Christian person and think, why do I have the hope of life eternal and that person does not?

By grace we have all been baptised into Christ and therefore we are heirs to the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as is so clearly explained in Galatians 3. The words of Malachi can therefore challenge us just as much as the Jews all those centuries ago. So how do you and I live before God? As a privileged and chosen people, are we any better than the Jews of Malachi’s day?

A Careless Worship

As a further indictment, the priests despised the name of God in the way they handled the sacrifices in the Temple (1:8,13-14). They were offering the lame and sick and Yahweh said that was unacceptable (v13). In fact, it would result in them being cursed (v14). Malachi leaves us in no doubt about the origin of such careless worship: it was the failure to see and feel the greatness of God.

The very first thing God said in this book in verse 2 is, “I have loved you …” They responded in their careless, off-handed way, “How hast thou loved us?” And what does God say? He does not say to them, “I forgave you. I cared for you. I have been patient with you. I have provided for you; I have protected you,” although all of that was true!

In dealing with the problem of careless worship God reveals that His love is not just kind and tender, but awesome in its electing freedom. There is in God’s love, fundamentally, a great and awesome sovereignty.

The problem is that we can often fall into the trap of thinking about the love of God on our terms, losing sight of the fact that we are not like God at all! And God does the same thing when speaking of His fatherhood: “If then I am a father, where is my honour?” (v6). God could again draw attention to the gentle and tender dimensions of His fatherhood, but He does here just what He did in the case of His love: He focuses attention on the majesty of His fatherhood, and asks not, “Where is your affection?” but, “Where is my honour?”

Careless worship leads a person to be bored with God and excited with the world. If we do not see the greatness of God, then all the things that money can buy become exciting. If we cannot see the sun, we will be impressed with a street light. If we have never felt thunder and lightning, we will be impressed with fireworks. In like manner, if we turn our back on the greatness and majesty of God, we will fall in love with a world of man-made gadgets; a world of shadows,
short-lived pleasures and emptiness.

“What a weariness this is, you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 1:13, RSV). Israel was bored with God and when we become so blind that the Maker of galaxies, ruler of nations, who knows all things becomes boring, then only one thing is left: the love of the world. The heart is always restless; it must
have its treasure – if not in heaven, then on the earth. Is it not true?

What is the essence of careless worship? It is worthless religious activity. To be more precise: it is religious activity that illustrates how little a person values and honours God. Worship for us is never like that though! Is it?

What points can we remember from last Sunday’s exhortation? More importantly, how have those points changed our walk before God this past week? How often do we attend memorial meetings week by week and we hear countless words from speaker after speaker without making any changes? If exhortations are not being taken in and acted upon, could that be, for us, a worthless religious activity?

A Spirit to Excel

Finally, we ask, what is the opposite of careless worship? We could define excellence in worship as those thoughts, attitudes, words and feelings that honour the
God we worship.

  • The nature of true worship involves two things:
  • It expresses the feeling of God’s value and greatness to us
  • It seeks to maintain in brethren and sisters the same sense of God’s immense worth and beauty

Or, to put it another way, true worship:

  • Comes from a heart where Yahweh is treasured above all human interests and values
  • Aims to inspire the same ‘Yahweh-centred’ passion in the hearts of our brethren and sisters

What, then, is excellence in worship? It encompasses excellence in the music of worship and the structure of worship. It encompasses appropriate dress for worship, posture, prayer and preaching. It ensures that all is done to the “glory of God”.

True worship is conscientious spirituality. Worship that starts with Yahweh comes from a feeling of the greatness of God, and that seeks humbly to express and inspire that same devotion to Yahweh, free from distractions and inattention.

May Yahweh teach us how to o er acceptable worship. May He open our eyes to His greatness and let us make sure that we do not offer to Him the ‘leftovers’ of our lives.

Let us worship our Father in spirit and in truth, for He seeketh such to worship Him.