Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: May 15, 2005, p. 374.
16. Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name.
As God had shown Elijah that there is always a remnant, when Elijah thought he was the only one left who feared God, so He speaks of that remnant here also through Malachi. That there was such a remnant in the closing days of the Old Testament suggests that there will be a remnant also in the last days before Christ’s return, when the church is scattered and it seems as though there is no longer faith upon the earth (Luke. 18:8).
The word “then” has the force of “but” or “in contrast,” for the character and attitude of those who are described in this and the following verse is spiritually the opposite of those described in the previous verses. As one commentator suggests, however, the word also implies that these faithful deliberately and consciously spoke to one another as a witness against the scepticism and unbelief of the majority.
It is well worth noting that twice in the verse the faithful are described as those who feared the LORD. It was in this especially that they were different from the rest. Surely the whole nation, with few exceptions, claimed to know and honor God, but what was lacking was the awe and reverence that comes from a real spiritual and personal knowledge—what is so often referred to in Scripture as “fear.”
Among those who make a show of religion and piety and who claim to love and serve God, this is what is most often missing. This lack of fear becomes evident, as it did with the majority of the Jews, in a lack also of carefulness in worship, in quickness to doubt God and even to accuse Him of evil, and in a refusal to pay any heed to what He says. If there is one thing, therefore, that is obviously missing in the prayers, the worship, the obedience of church members today, it is this fear.
This fear is not a terror of God—not a slavish or guilty fear—but a fear that knows from experience both the majesty of God and His lovingkindness, and while trembling before Him nevertheless fears to be separated or alienated from Him. It is a fear that produces holiness of life, reverence, true piety, and a deep consciousness of the amazing love of God.
The faithful are also described as those who thought upon His name. That, too, indicates that they knew His majesty and glory and could not possibly join with the ungodly in speaking evil of Him and of His works. God’s name, of course, includes not only the titles by which He is addressed but, as the Westminster Larger Catechism points out, everything by which He reveals Himself, His attributes, works, ordinances, and Word. These faithful few knew His name and did not misinterpret His dealings with Judah. Nor will anyone who knows His name—really knows it—ever think wrongly of Him, whatever his outward circumstances may be.
That these faithful spoke often to one another is in contrast to the speech of the ungodly, who were questioning among themselves all that God had revealed of Himself. Though the passage does not tell us what they said, there can be no doubt that they spoke, as God’s people always do, of His covenant faithfulness, of His unchangeableness as the only reason for Judah’s continued existence, of their own sins and of the sins of the nation, which deserved all of and more than the judgments God had sent, and of their desire to be faithful to God and to keep His law.
That God hears their speech is of great comfort, for the world and the false church will not hear. No matter what the faithful church says of God, the world turns a deaf ear and the apostate church mocks. But God hears and remembers and counts their words of great value. There are two possible explanations of the “book of remembrance” to which Malachi refers. The first says that this book of remembrance was a book that the people themselves wrote recording their desire to be faithful to God and to keep His covenant.
In that case Nehemiah 9 andNehemiah 10 may very well record the substance of all that they said to one another and refer to this book, for Nehemiah was a contemporary of Malachi, as we have seen. Not only do those chapters record Nehemiah’s prayer on behalf of the people, but at the end of the chapter the word of God speaks of a written covenant that was made by those of the leaders and people who were still faithful. It is an attractive idea and not impossible that the book of remembrance of which Malachi speaks is the same as the written and signed covenant of which we read in Nehemiah 9:38-10:39. The book of remembrance, then, would be a written covenant of the same sort as that which was drawn up in the days of Josiah (II Kings 23:3).
The other interpretation is that the book is the book of life or the “books” of judgment mentioned in Daniel 7:10 andRevelation 20:12, or some other book written by God Himself, perhaps a figurative book in which God remembered the fear and obedience of the remnant.
This book cannot, however, be the book of life, since that “book” was written before the foundations of the world and will never have anything added to it. Nor is it written as God’s response to the obedience of His people, but according to the eternal good pleasure of His own will.
That it is a book of judgment in which the obedience of His people is recorded is possible, and so is the similar idea that it is simply a figurative way of saying, “Jehovah remembers.” This is Calvin’s explanation and the explanation we prefer. Calvin says:
Our Prophet wished to show, that God attended; and hence he uses three forms of speaking. One word would have been enough, but he adds two more; and this is particularly emphatical, that there was a book of remembrance written. His purpose then was by this multiplicity of words to give greater encouragement to the faithful, that they might be convinced that their reward would be certain as soon as they devoted themselves to God, for God would not be blind to their piety.¹
17. And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.
That the book of remembrance just described is the book in which God records the faithfulness of His people is clear from this verse, for this verse describes the reason for the writing and keeping of that book. It is that they may be God’s in the day when He makes up His jewels and that they may be spared in the judgment. That it is a book, though not a literal book, shows that they are God’s possession (the word “jewels” is literally “possession”) and shows that they are His dear children.
The day referred to is evidently the day of judgment, since the prophet speaks of the faithful being spared. It is the day so often referred to in Scripture as the “day of the LORD.” But what a wonderfully comforting description of that day is given! For God’s own it is the day that He makes up His possession and takes His people as His own, that is, takes them into His presence and into His heavenly house to live with Him there forever. It is the day in which the tabernacle of God is with men and He dwells with them and is their God (Rev. 21:3).
That they are His possession must be taken in the sense of something very valuable and especially prized. From that point of view the KJV, by its translation “jewels,” exactly catches the sense of the word. And so once again God uses the name Jehovah of hosts to speak both of their place as His covenant people and of the fact that among all the “hosts” of which He is Lord, they are most valued.
That God makes up His possession in that day refers to His taking His people as His own, but also to the fact that “in that great day of final adjustment … God shall make up His own peculiar people from the assembled millions of the earth.”² He will finally gather them in one in Christ for the greater glory of His great name (Eph. 1:10).
That does not imply that they are not His here and now. They most certainly are His by election, by the blood of atonement, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But the Word of God clearly refers to the day when God’s covenant with His people will be lifted up to a new and greater level of blessedness. Then they will be His in ways that can only now be imagined.
In that day, too, God will spare them from wrath and judgment. When the ungodly and impenitent are sent away into everlasting fire, His people shall receive eternal life. When the wicked are banished from God’s presence, His people shall see His face. The judgments that fall on the world will not fall on them.
That is true not because of anything in them, but because of the work of the Messenger of the covenant. The Lord remembers them for His sake and for the sake of His work in them. They are His possession by right of purchase and price paid. They are a valuable possession because He is in them by His Spirit. They are spared because He was not spared (Rom. 8:32). They are God’s because the Messenger is God’s messenger and His work God’s own redemptive work.
18. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.
This concluding verse of chapter 3 (though not the concluding verse of the section) answers the evil slanders of those who suggested that there was no profit in serving God and no difference between God’s people and the heathen. God teaches them that, though that difference may not always be evident in this life, it will be evident in the day of judgment. “Then” refers back to the day of verse 17, the day of judgment, but suggests also that now it “does not yet appear what we shall be.” Now we cannot always clearly see ourselves as the righteous, nor can the ungodly, who sneer at the claims of God’s people and accuse them of thinking they are better than others when they refer to themselves as God’s children.
Now, both because of our sinfulness and because the work of grace is unfinished, there is not always a clear distinction between those who are righteous and those who are wicked. Now, because God’s work of grace begins in the heart and because there are many hypocrites, we cannot always tell who serves Jehovah and who does not serve Him. But it will not always be so. As Calvin says:
Ye shall see how much the good differ from the evil; God indeed spares the wicked, but he will at length rise to judgment, and come armed suddenly upon them, and then ye shall know that all the deeds of men are noticed by him, and that wickedness shall not go unpunished, though God for a time delays his vengeance.³
Then, too, as the Belgic Confession says:
. . . the faithful and elect shall be crowned with glory and honor; and the Son of God will confess their names before God His Father, and His elect angels; all tears shall be wiped from their eyes; and their cause, which is now condemned by many judges and magistrates as heretical and impious, will be known to be the cause of the Son of God. And for a gracious reward, the Lord will cause them to possess such a glory as never entered into the heart of man to conceive (Art. 37).
¹ Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, trans. John Owen, vol. 5, Zechariah and Malachi. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950, p. 603.
² T.V. Moore, A Commentary on Haggai and Malachi, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974, p. 167.
³ John Calvin, Commentaries on Zechariah and Malachi, p. 612.