These last sections of Malachi—the last block of God’s argument with his people, and then a few verses of epilogue—tie the book and its themes together, but they work a bit differently than we’ve seen in Malachi to this point. To understand what’s going on here, we need to take a look back. If you were here when we started this, you probably remember that the book begins with God declaring his love for his people in the face of their skepticism. He reasserts that he has chosen Israel, the descendants of Jacob; but they’re doubtful, and we see the expression and results of their doubt all through Malachi. We see their stinginess with God, both in their inadequate sacrifices and in their failure to tithe; we see as well their unwillingness to commit to following him faithfully, which is revealed and reflected in their faithlessness in marriage.
And perhaps most of all, we see their complaints that God is not demonstrating his love for them the way they think he should. A couple weeks ago, we saw the accusation that the God of justice was absent, or had maybe even converted to injustice and decided to favor those who do evil. Here we see the logical conclusion to that: “Why should we serve God? What’s the point? We don’t get anything out of it—he doesn’t give us what we want.” Some of the doubters probably want to believe, but they’re struggling; others are most likely ready to give up; and you can be sure that some aren’t the least bit sincere, just cynically looking for any excuse to ignore God. Whatever their motives, though, this is where they land.
There are a few things to note about this. First off, you can see their focus: “what is the profit?” They’re measuring the faithfulness of God purely in material terms, when (as we’ve seen) that’s not necessarily the main way he blesses us; in a sense, they’re trying to dictate terms to God, which is nothing God’s going to accept. Second, in that respect, there’s an irony here in verse 15; God has just said, “Test my faithfulness, and watch me bless you,” and they say in response, “Blessed are the faithless, blessed are the evildoers, because they test God’s patience and get away with it.” Their sense of their relationship to God is more than a little askew here.
Third, consider the first question in verse 14: “What is the profit of keeping his requirements?” How would they know? They haven’t tried. They haven’t been keeping his requirements in worship, in their giving, in marriage—what exactly do they imagine they’ve done to deserve blessing? If you connect this with the next clause—which asks, what is the profit in going around as mourners, probably referring to formal rituals of penitence and expressions of grief for sin—it seems to me they want to get credit for just doing the stuff. They’re offering sacrifices, they’re giving something, they’re going around in sackcloth and ashes or whatever, and they want that to be good enough to satisfy God, and they’re mad that God isn’t going along with it. The reality is, God is only going to bless us on his own terms, as he sees fit, not on the basis of how we think things ought to go or what we think we deserve.
Interestingly, though, this time God doesn’t argue with his people. Instead, we get something very different in verse 16: we get a response to the prophet’s message. “Those who feared the Lord talked with each other,” and though we’re not told anything more than that, the Lord’s response is telling: “a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and honored his name.” Clearly, these are people who have truly heard what God is saying through his prophet, and they’ve been moved to recognize and repent of their sin; Malachi’s message has gotten through to them, and they’ve been inspired to a proper fear of the Lord.
This is something worth stopping to consider for a minute, because we don’t tend to talk about the fear of the Lord much, and yet it’s one of the key things that’s supposed to mark and define his people; and quite frankly, it’s an entirely appropriate response to some of the things Malachi has said. This is not an unhealthy fear, as if we were afraid God wanted to hurt us or might fail us; fear that God will not be as good as he has always been is not what we’re talking about. This is, rather, the same sort of healthy fear that you might feel standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon: this is something great and glorious and beautiful and far, far bigger than you, and while it bears you no ill will, if you treat it with disrespect, you will probably die.
In the same way, God is so good and holy and beautiful that we in our sin cannot bear the sight of him; nothing unholy and no impurity can survive in his presence—it burns like a moth in a flame. To come into the presence of God is, of necessity, judgment, as everything flammable burns away, and everything impure is refined and purified by fire. We cannot evade our unrighteousness when we look at God, and we can’t control him—not at all. We can’t make him do what we want, or keep him from doing what we do not want, and we cannot ensure that he will only ask us to do what we want to do and feel comfortable doing. As Mr. Beaver says of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, God is good, but he isn’t safe—he isn’t tame, and cannot be tamed. He is wild, unpredictable, utterly beyond us, and completely unrestricted by our sense of the possible; and while he has promised to provide all our needs, that doesn’t mean he’ll give us everything we think we need, nor does it mean he’ll let us keep those things we’re sure we can’t live without. As such, whoever commits to serve the Lord without being afraid of what they’re getting into clearly has no idea what they’re getting into.
And yet, those who fear the Lord are those who, in the end, have nothing to fear. Earlier, Malachi asked, “Who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Here, he answers that question: those who fear the Lord and serve him, whom the Lord allows to stand. For them, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings—for in truth, the refining fire of God, our God who is a consuming fire, is his healing work in our lives; it’s painful, yes, but that pain is sin leaving the body. When at last he has fully purified us, when the light of his righteousness has fully risen upon us, we will finally be free from the blighting power of sin and death, and we will be released in his joy and his peace.