Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: September 15, 2005, p. 491.
1. The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.
There are several things that need to be noted about the superscription to the book of Malachi besides its identification of Malachi as the writer. Most important is the reference to Malachi’s prophecies as the “burden of the word of the Lord.” That they are the word of the Lord, the inspired and infallible word of God, is beyond doubt in light of the quotations in Romans 9:13 and other passages. That they were and are a burden we shall see.
In identifying Himself as the author of these prophecies, God uses the name Jehovah (LORD), reminding Judah and us of His covenant faithfulness. That is significant when we remember that there is no further positive word from God, other than the repetition of this name, from Malachi 1:2 through Malachi 3:1. Till then, under rebuke and judgment, that name and the divine faithfulness of which it speaks are the only evidence of God’s favor.
The name Jehovah is the most important name of God in the book of Malachi for the same reason. It is found 45 times in Malachi and very often in the form “LORD of Hosts” (23 times), a name that emphasizes God’s sovereignty as the God of the covenant. In contrast, the name God is found only seven times in the book.
It is God’s great and unchangeable faithfulness as Jehovah that preserves Israel and the church in spite of the sins of His people, and it is that same faithfulness that sends one who will “purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness” (Malachi 3:3). That faithfulness of Jehovah is expressed most clearly in Malachi 3:6: “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.”
Here, however, God’s word through Malachi is described in Malachi 1:1 as a burden. This description of God’s word, also found in Isaiah 13:1,Nahum 1:1, and Habakkuk 1:1, reminds us of three things. It reminds us of the calling Malachi had to bring that word. He had to receive it, carry it to the people, and deliver it to them, as any burden is carried. But the word “burden” also reminds us of the seriousness or weight of the word that Malachi brings and of our own obligation to hear it. As God’s word it is heavy indeed and may never be ignored. Finally, the description of God’s word through Malachi as a burden shows us why that word would be so heavy, that is, it would be a word of judgment and rebuke, the kind of word that everyone who brings God’s word experiences as burdensome and difficult (cf. Jer. 20:9 and II Cor. 2:16). It is this third thing especially that is being emphasized here and in the other passages that speak of God’s word as a burden.
That word comes “through Malachi.” The name Malachi, as we have already indicated, is the personal name of the prophet who was called to bring God’s word to God’s people in those and these troubled times. That this is his personal name does not mean, however, that the meaning of the name can be ignored. In light of the book’s emphasis on the messenger of the covenant (Malachi 3:1), it cannot be without significance that Malachi’s own name means “My messenger” or “My angel” (messenger and angel are the same word, the word “malach” in Hebrew).
Though Malachi looks forward to and prophesies of the coming of the great Messenger, he himself is also such a messenger. The connection between them is not just that the one (Malachi) foretold the coming of the other (Christ), but that Malachi was commissioned by Christ and spoke under the inspiration of the Spirit of Christ (I Pet. 1:10, 11), so that the word he spoke was really Christ’s own word to His church, the word of the Messenger of the covenant.
That is always the relationship between the prophets and Christ in the Old Testament and between Christ and His ministers in the New. They are not only those who speak of Christ, but they are the ones through whom Christ Himself speaks to His church (John 10:27; Eph. 2:17). One of the words for a preacher in the New Testament reminds us of this, and when used of a minister of the gospel is very similar to Malachi’s own name. The word usually translated “preacher” refers to the minister of the gospel as a “herald,” or messenger of Christ, by whom Christ speaks and makes Himself known.
This may never be forgotten. When it is forgotten by the church, then the preaching of the gospel is despised and seen as nothing different from other forms of teaching and speaking, and is soon replaced, as it is today, by all sorts of frivolity and foolishness. When this is forgotten by the preachers themselves, then they, no longer seeing themselves merely as bearers of God’s message to His people, begin to bring their own wisdom and to speak their own words, none of which have any saving power or value.
This word of God is addressed to Israel, not just to Judah. God never recognized the division between the two kingdoms, just as He does not recognize the divisions that come between Christians today, but views and addresses His church as one. Not only that, but God by His word continued to gather a remnant out of the kingdom of the Ten Tribes. He had done that in the days of Jeroboam, in the time of Hezekiah, and continued to do it until the gospel was taken from Israel and given to the Gentiles (cf. Luke 2:36).
It ought to be noted here, too, that in addressingIsrael God makes it clear that the foolish and wicked notions of British Israelitism, which find the lost ten tribes in Britain and America, are not to be tolerated. The destiny of those lost ten tribes and of whatever remains of them has now been merged with the destiny of Judah and is not to be found in the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
2. I have loved you, saith the LORD, Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? Saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob,
3. And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.
4. Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places: thus saith the LORD of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the LORD hath indignation forever.
In these verses God begins the prophecy of Malachi by speaking of His eternal love for His people, and does so because His love had been called into question by the people. This love of God the people had questioned because they had not received the temporal blessings He promised them. To this, Malachi 3:10, 11 alludes. The people had experienced drought, enemies, poor harvests, and many other troubles and had seen this as an evidence that God’s love for them had failed.
The truth is, of course, that not only are temporal benefits in themselves not the equivalent of God’s blessing or proof of His love—it is only a carnal and covetous people that can think so—but the problem was in their own sinfulness. They had no right to expect anything from God when they were hard-hearted, formal in their worship, and did not even acknowledge God’s mercies with tithes and offerings. They expected the most from God for the least amount of effort or expense, and when God in anger gave them nothing, instead of questioning themselves they questioned God’s love.
This is the usual way with an unredeemed heart. The ungodly world, which does not even acknowledge its obligation to be thankful to God, always questions God’s love and mercy when God sends His judgments on the world. It insists that He cannot possibly be a God of love and mercy when He sends hurricanes, disease, famine, and other judgments.
The apostate church does the same. Never does she question herself and her own wicked ways, but she tells lies about God’s love when she herself comes under God’s judgments or when she sees those judgments in the world around her. She says, in the face of disaster and trouble, that God does not send such things, but rather the devil, and that to believe that these things come from God is inconsistent with the love of God.
We see the same inclination in ourselves. When God sends trials, all of which are designed to purify us and deliver us from our sins, we almost always begin to doubt God’s love and to think in our hearts that He does not love us, instead of humbling ourselves before Him, examining ourselves, acknowledging our sinfulness and repenting. We do not mean by this, of course, that every trial comes as a result of some particular sin, but only that trials come because we are sinners, and that God uses them to deliver us from our sins and purify us, and that when afflicted we must profit from our afflictions by self-examination and repentance.
In the face of such denials of His love, God speaks of His eternal and unchangeable love for Jacob. The Jews would have understood that in referring to Jacob, God was referring not only to the man himself but to the nation that traced its ancestry to him, the nation of Israel. They would have known this from the prophecies of Isaiah, who often calls the whole nation “Jacob” (Is. 44:1, 8, 43:1).
God does not, however, speak through Malachi of the love He bore for Israel at the time of Malachi’s prophecy, but of His past love for Jacob: “I have loved you, saith the LORD.” Reformed believers have always understood the past tense in such statements to refer to eternity(compare Num. 23:21). When God says, “I have loved you,” he refers not just to time past, but to eternity past, and therefore to His eternal love, the love that is revealed in election.
The proof for this is found in Romans 9, where Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, quotes from this passage and identifies God’s past love for His people as God’s election of them in Christ. There the apostle makes reference to the birth of Jacob and Esau and to the word of God concerning them, “The elder shall serve the younger,” and tells us that this was said in order that “the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth,” and proves his point by quoting from Malachi 1:2, 3: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated.”
We may never forget that election is the eternal love of God for some. As difficult as that doctrine may be, the fact that it is love and not bare choosing makes it of great comfort for those who know themselves to be the objects of election. That it is eternal love answers all the questioning of God’s people and shows that whatever their outward circumstances might be, it cannot ever be that God’s love for them has lessened or failed.