In the final conversation between Malachi and Judah, God has a concern or two about Judah’s worship and their conception of him, and Judah has a final shot across the bow of God’s character and behavior. Judah has taken stock of the world around them, tried to relate that to God, and the two just are not jiving. Though some of Judah’s complaints have been ours from time to time, we need to be careful as we learn from God’s answer.
“Your words have been hard against me.” (vs 13)
There is nothing very nuanced about this claim – Judah has said some things about God that are hard to take, or as another translation puts it, they are “terrible” things to say. God’s answer to their “how” is devastating.
“You have said, 'It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape’.” (vs 14-15)
To say that it is vain to serve God would, of course, be a very hard thing to say to God. What they mean by “vain” is not, “arrogant,” but something that is futile, vapid, empty, or meaningless. We can hear their words as, “it is meaningless to serve God!” So what brings a person to this fairly radical conclusion?
As it turns out, Judah concluded their relationship with God was meaningless because their idea of a meaningful relationship was all wrong. In other words, they approached their relationship with God with the wrong set of expectations, and when they were (naturally) not met, they concluded the relationship was a joke. We easily do the same thing, and not just with God. If we enter a relationship with the wrong expectations, we become disillusioned when they are not met. And when this happens, who is to blame? So what were Judah’s false expectations about a relationship with God?
First of all, they expected “profit.” Again, this word is pretty straightforward – it means the gain from labor. They somehow expected that when they did their part in serving God and being good little Judeans, God would be compelled to do his part and reward them with financial and material blessings. To be blunt, this is a selfish way of approaching our faith and it treats God as if we are lords of the universe, and not Him. He is not at our beck and call.
Secondly, they expected that external acts of worship were true religion. They complained that “keeping his charge” and “mourning” were not producing the expected results. They were going through the motions expecting them to be a kind of talisman, a kind of magical incantation that would fulfill their spiritual requirements. But even Christ is clear on this problem: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me” (Matthew 15:8). True and acceptable worship is a natural and inevitable expression of what is in our hearts, not the other way around.
And third, they expected God would kill all the bad guys. They were angry that “evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and escape.” It is natural for us, in the certian seasons of our lives, to express this very thing to God. We are sometimes angry that evil people seem to be getting away with it. God’s answer, however, reminds us of a couple of very important realities. First of all, God sees all things and there really are moral distinctions with God (vs. 18). And as a result, they day is coming when the final line will be drawn in the sand and evildoers will be done away with (4:1-2).
But ultimately, God’s answer to these frustrations and accusations from Judah is his plan of reconciliation through his son, Jesus Christ. Malachi’s final prophecy about Elijah and his ministry of reconciliation is picked up in the Gospels as applying to John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.
God’s plan for broken and sinful humanity right now is to send his Son to live God’s life among us, to willingly die on a cross to atone for our sins, and to rise from the grave to give us hope for life eternal. And may I say, thank God!