Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: March 15, 2007, p 282.
The Sixth Disputation: Chapters 3:13-4:3
13. Your words have been stout against me, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, What have we spoken so much against thee?
This last main section of the prophecy of Malachi is more general than what precedes. Its purpose is to make a distinction between God’s people in Israel and the unrepentant wicked. It speaks, therefore, of the spiritual difference between these two groups, of how that difference is manifest in the conduct of each, and of how each group will be blessed or cursed by God.
This distinction between two groups in Judah is, however, to be traced back ultimately to God’s eternal decree of election and reprobation as that is set forth in chapter 1. It is not just due to the fact that one group was repentant, loved the name of the Lord, and obeyed Him, while the other group was hard-hearted, unrepentant, and sneered at God’s Word. That would mean that the difference is one of works. Instead, the difference lies in the fact that God eternally and exclusively loved Jacob and hated Esau.
That love of God for Jacob did not include all of his descendants. There were many in Judah who were spiritual Edomites. They behaved like Esau, and were counted by God as his descendants, not as Jacob’s. They would, then, be dealt with by God as Esau was. For them there would be no place of repentance (Heb. 12:17). They would be rejected by God (Heb. 12:17) and would be far off from the blessings of His covenant (Gen. 27:39). What they built, God would tear down, and they would be called “The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the LORD hath indignation forever” (Mal. 1:4). So it is with all those who prove themselves the spiritual descendants of Esau, though they be born in the lines and families of God’s people and of His covenant.
In this opening verse of the section, God speaks again of their stubborn impenitence. Always they resisted His Word. Never did they see themselves as the object of God’s rebukes and threats. Endlessly they excused themselves. And even when God through Malachi rebuked them for this stubborn impenitence, they refused to see that they had done any wrong.
Nor is it ever any different. It is not only the heathen who are guilty of impenitence, but always there are those in the church who, with a comforting sense of their own importance and righteousness, never see themselves as the sinners described and admonished in the Word of God. Though they will make a vague and general confession of sin and acknowledge the truth of total depravity, they forever excuse themselves. When the admonitions of the Word are preached, they always think of someone else. When their sins are pointed out, they have a thousand arguments and always point the finger at others. When their children are accused of wrong-doing, they refuse to believe that their children could be guilty. No specific sins are ever confessed by them to God or to others. They do not know what it is to mourn for one’s sins and to humble oneself before God. And if God presumes to judge them for their hard-heartedness, then immediately they are filled with complaints about Him, doubting His goodness and mercy, complaining of His injustice, and using that as a further excuse for their wickedness. How very near these sins are to all of us! If it were not for the work of the Messenger of the covenant and of His Spirit, there would be no one at all who does not come under the condemnation of these words of God through Malachi.
These Israelites were exactly like their fathers, and so are all who follow in their footsteps. God, through Ezekiel, had spoken against them long before this by saying to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33:30-32):
Also, thou son of man, the children of thy people still are talking against thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the LORD.
And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.
And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.
The Jews of Malachi’s day, Malachi says, resisted God with their words. Those words are recorded in the last part of verse 13 and in verses 14 and 15. Those words included words that expressed their doubt concerning the applicability of God’s Word to them. They included charges against God Himself and excuses for sin, but all those words were only the outward manifestation of hard, unregenerated hearts. In that, too, there is a warning for us. Such words of excuse, of doubt, of complaint, the evidences of hardhearted and stubborn impenitence, ought never be found in the mouths of God’s children.
Not only that, but their words had been spoken against the LORD, the God of the covenant, the God who had established His everlasting covenant with their fathers and who had repeatedly told them that covenant people must fulfill their obligations in the covenant and show by obedience, humility, and repentance that they are friends of the living God. This they had not done.
The word “stout” suggests that they had, at least in their own minds and hearts, “overruled” God and His Word. In truth they could not do that any more than they could rob God. This overruling of God must not be understood, then, in the sense suggested by one commentator who asks:
Can people actually overrule God? Of course they can. God has chosen to restrain his own actual sovereignty so as to give to human beings autonomy, which they must use for or against God.¹
That is simply a denial of God’s sovereignty and goes hand in hand with the wicked notion that salvation and damnation depend on the will of the sinner and not on the eternal, unchangeable, and sovereign will of God.
That their words “overruled” God means that they justified themselves at God’s expense and that, as far as they were concerned personally, the words God had spoken were defeated and gone. What a striking description of a very common sin! By excuses, by accusing others, by misinterpreting and misapplying the Word of God, by stubbornness, by disobedience, we “overrule” God’s words to us, put them away from us, and set ourselves in His place as though we were rulers and lawgivers in our own right.
14. Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts?
In these words, which God quotes from the mouths of the people themselves, the real reason for their hard-heartedness and impenitence comes out. It was, as is forever the case, the result of their covetousness. If there was no material profit in the service of God, they were not interested. They had tried the service of God and found it, in their estimation, profitless, and so they had abandoned it.
Like these covetous Jews are all the people, leaders, and followers who preach a health and wealth gospel, a “name it and claim it” gospel, and who are interested in the things of God only for what they can get out of it. They include those who seem to think that the name of Jesus is a kind of magic cure for all their earthly ills and who turn to Him only in their need for help with family troubles, sickness, and other trials. Included too are all those whose sole interest is enriching themselves, even if it is at the expense of the widows and the poor.
Nor are those who sell religious junk without blame. The books, the trinkets, the superficial piety they sell make merchandise of the gospel and are an abomination in their shallowness and silliness. WWJD bracelets, miracle anointing oil, genuine pewter pocket tokens, and a thousand other such things are not only as silly and superficial as the relics of Roman Catholicism but become a substitute for God’s Word, for the true worship of His Name, and for repentance and holiness.
Nor are these sins that far from us. When we turn to God only in our need, as though He exists only to give us what we ask, we are equally guilty. When we are disappointed that our efforts and service do not bring us praise and are not noticed, we are no different than these Jews. When we are discouraged because our service of God brings no earthly advantage or profit, we fall under the condemnation of this word.
When these people said: “It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts?” they meant what many mean today: “No one notices what we have done. No one praises us for our obedience. God doesn’t love us in spite of the fact that we have served Him. The proof is in the troubles He sends us. He cannot be a just and righteous God. What is the matter with Him anyway?”
The truth is that there is no profit in the service of God, not in the strict sense of that word: nothing earned, nothing ever merited. What we do receive from Him is always more grace, and all of it undeserved. Even the reward promised in His Word to His people is only grace upon grace. Yet that grace in its abundance and blessing puts the lie to those who think that the service of God is vain. It is the way of everlasting peace, eternal wealth, and reward beyond what we would ever ask or think.
15. And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered.
Verse 15 continues their haughty complaint. The Jews were suggesting that the heathen, who did not serve God, were happier than they were, though idolaters; that the prosperity of these heathen was proof that it was of no account to fear and obey God; that God was building the heathen up while tearing Judah down. The proof of it all, according to these Jews, was that the heathen escaped any punishment for their wickedness.
This, too, is often suggested today, though perhaps not in such blatant terms. When theologians speak of a love and grace of God for all, when they promote universalism in any form as many do, they are saying that there is no real profit in the service and worship of God. God loves everyone anyway. Nor do those who listen to such theologians miss the point of what they say. Their actions speak of the fact that they have understood the “gospel” that is preached today to mean that they can continue in their wickedness and unbelief. After all, God loves them no matter what. So it is that the urgency and seriousness of the gospel are destroyed.
Moore sums it up thus:
This atrocious insinuation, that God favored evil-doers, was the highest insult they could have uttered, and was that which, as it were, drove God to inflict His judgments upon them.²
Those judgments are not actually mentioned until Malachi 4:1. God pauses before speaking of those judgments to describe the attitude of His redeemed people and of the blessings that they would enjoy in verses 16 and 17 of chapter 3.
¹ Douglas Stuart, Malachi, in Thomas Edward McComiskey, An Exegetical and Expository Commentary on the Minor Prophets, vol. 3, p. 1376.
² T.V. Moore, A Commentary on Haggai and Malachi, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974, p. 165.