“‘I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the hired worker, the widow, and the fatherless; and against those who deny justice to the resident alien. They do not fear me,’ says the Lord of Armies.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What kinds of things beat near to the heart of God? That’s a much bigger question than it might sound at first hearing. At least, it’s a much bigger question if it matters to you at all to care about the same kinds of things God cares about. It is certainly a subject that has been the focus of much tension in the church over the years. Whole religious movements within the church have been built around one person or another’s idea of what matters most to God. Well, while that question doesn’t have anything like a quick, easy answer, verses like this one in Malachi give us a pretty good clue of at least one thing that really matters to Him.
Here at the beginning of chapter 3, God has shifted from confronting the people and the priests about their unfaithful, cynical attitudes and the worship practices that have come out of this to promising judgment if they continue in this trend. As we have seen over the past few days, the people needed to understand that, based on their current moral trajectory, His coming was not going to be the happy reunion they were expecting it to be. When He came, His first order of business would be to cleanse them of their sins so they would be right with Him once again. That process would be neither easy nor pain-free.
What we see here is how the process would begin. You see, if He is going to bring us to the point of repentance, the first thing He has to do is to convince us of our sinfulness in the first place. Indeed, no one repents of sin she doesn’t believe she’s committed. When He comes, then, He will come as judge for our sin, but He will also come as the chief witness against the accused (that is, us). Yet how can that be? Because although He is the one who brings judgment for our sins, He is also the one chiefly offended by them.
And just what kinds of sins are so bothersome that He will bear witness against us? Given the kinds of things Malachi has been talking about, we might expect to see a list of religious offenses here. And yet, what do we see? God will bear witness against sorcerers. So Harry Potter has to go? No, that’s not what this is talking about. The focus here on is folks who think they can gain some kind of control over God’s world or even God Himself by doing or saying the right thing. His ire is aimed at those who think they can gain power for themselves through various rituals and incantations. All such efforts are inherently demonic and represent direct attempts to wrest control of the world from God’s hands. They are overt challenges to His sovereignty and authority and He won’t tolerate them.
God will also bear witness against adulterers. Messing around with marital unfaithfulness really is a serious thing. It is serious enough to attract the direct judgment of God. It is a sin against your spouse and against God Himself, the One who is the ultimate party of all covenants. The marriage covenant is a sign of His own covenant faithfulness to us. When we violate that, we send the message to the world around us that God Himself isn’t trustworthy. How many children have been driven from a willingness to trust in Jesus because of the divorce of their parents?
He will testify against those who swear falsely. This echoes of the ninth commandment. It is not simply that God will stand against any and every attempt to lie on our part (He will). The real focus here is on lying in a legal setting where such a lie can result in the unjust assignment of guilt to an innocent person. Where our dishonest word result in someone paying the price for crimes they didn’t commit, we are committing a great injustice. It is one God won’t tolerate.
In the last category, God will witness against those who have taken advantage of the vulnerable. There are those individuals in any society or culture who are at risk of being exploited or going without needs met because of the brokenness of the system and not any direct fault of their own. God has a special concern for these folks who happen to be a pretty consistently identified group in any culture. People who take part in the abuse or exploitation they receive will be judged for such actions.
So, here’s a question you may have wondered about before: How does someone fall into one of these sinful behaviors? What lies at the heart of what would have someone wind up in a place of being involved in sorcery or adultery or dishonesty or exploitation of the vulnerable? The last part of the verse here gives us the answer: They don’t fear the Lord anymore.
Think about it. Why did you do what your parents told you when you were growing up? Because you respected them and because you feared the consequences of disobedience. The same thing goes for God. We will be willing to violate His character and commands when we no longer respect His authority or fear the consequences of doing so. This is why there are so many admonitions to fear the Lord in the Scriptures.
So then, what is the conclusion here? What do we do with this? Is the point simply to tell us all the things we are doing wrong? Is this simply to give us a list of don’ts to avoid if we are going to stay out of the judgment crosshairs of God? Well, in a sense, yes, it is. But that’s not the whole of it by any stretch. There are three points that get us closer to the goal here. I’ll finish with two today and we’ll talk about the third tomorrow.
The first point is this: Did you notice how the list of offenses here was really focused on issues of justice? As I mentioned before, this seems a little unexpected given that Malachi’s focus has been primarily on religious faults up to this point. Remember what James would later write about religion, though? True religion is found in avoiding sin, yes, but also in “looking after orphans and widows in their distress.” When we get religion wrong, we get matters of justice wrong as well. There is a direct connection from one to the other. When we get religion wrong, we are getting the character of God wrong, and when we get the character of God wrong, justice will necessarily fly out the window.
The second point is this: God is accusing here. But there is no one to stand or speak for the accused. That seems awfully unjust of God, doesn’t it? And if He is just as He claims, how can this be allowed to stand? Well, the story here isn’t over. God is indeed just and there would yet be someone to speak for the accused…if the accused is willing to accept His help. You see, what passages like this one do is to point us firmly in the direction of Jesus. Our only hope in the face of the awesome justice of our God is One who can stand in the gap and take the punishment on our behalf. We are reminded here, in other words, just how much we need a Savior.
This, then, just aims us at the third point which we will talk about tomorrow morning. See you then.