“So you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We left things yesterday in an uncomfortable place. Israel in the days of Malachi was in an uncomfortable place. When the people of God are asking whether or not it is really worthwhile to be the people of God, things aren’t good. And for us who seek to follow Jesus today, even knowing what we know from the Scriptures, we sometimes wonder the same thing. Today we get a resolution of sorts. It may not be all we think we want, but it is what God gives and so let’s talk about why it should be enough.
The classic version of the problem of evil asks how that blight can exist in a world created by a God who is good. There is another version of this that is more specific. It is more specific to those folks who give a sincere effort to following Jesus. It goes something like this: Why do the wicked prosper while the faithful perish?
Another version of this more specific face of the problem of evil is what the people of Israel were asking here: What’s the difference between the one who endeavors to follow God and the one who gives that no attention at all? Or perhaps more simply, what is the difference between the wicked and the righteous? This has a corollary to it: Does it matter which path we choose?
That’s really what the people were struggling with in Israel. That’s what was at the root of the mistrust and cynicism that were resulting in worship practices that were offensive to God. They had watched pagan nations thrive over and over again. They were a people committed to God and were living at the behest of a nation that wasn’t. What was the difference, really, between them and their overlords?
Here at the end of the chapter, and nearly the end of the book, God gives His answer: You’re going to be able to tell the difference.
That’s it? That’s all God had to say to this tension the people were dealing with? They were struggling with whether or not it was worthwhile to keep following Him and all He could say was they’ll be able to tell the difference between the righteous and the wicked?
And there are two responses to the tension you may be feeling now that will ease it a bit. The first offers some clarity. What God is saying here is that it will become clear who is righteous and who is wicked, who is following Him and who is not.
Okay, well, why does that matter?
Think about it. The heart of Israel’s struggle—and perhaps yours as well—is that it really doesn’t matter whether someone is serving God or not. If you think about it, that deceit lies at the heart of the world’s current embrace of tolerance. It doesn’t matter what you believe because they’re all basically different versions of the same thing. No one belief is any more correct or in error than any other.
What God was saying to the people of Israel here is that there is a difference and that one day (for them) that difference would become clear. The righteous and the wicked are not the same.
Let me make this more personal: The efforts you give toward looking more like Jesus aren’t wasted. Ever. Every single decision you make is rendering you more or less reflective of the God who created you and loves you passionately. Eventually that reflection is going to become more clear than it seems to you to be right now. It’s like your life is one of those performance art paintings where the artist puts a whole lot of paint on the canvas without it looking like much of anything. But then, at the last second, a couple of final brushstrokes and a bit of a shift in perspective reveals the incredible work of art that has been developing pixel by pixel the whole time.
Okay, but how do we know this? This leads us to the second response and a place where we are in a better position than Malachi’s audience was. We know this because the story isn’t over. That was hard for them to realize because they were living it. Day by day, they weren’t seeing the difference like parents don’t notice their kids growing the way other folks do because they see them every day and the difference from one day to the next isn’t easy to perceive from an insiders vantage point.
What we know, though, is that their story wasn’t over. Jesus hadn’t come yet. He would indeed make it clear who was who. The work of His Spirit would reveal character in a way that couldn’t (and can’t) be denied. Where they were struggling to see what God was doing, we who look on from the hindsight of 2,500 years, can see the full picture. God wasn’t done. The story wasn’t over.
Here’s the connection, friends: God isn’t done. The story isn’t over. Where you are struggling with this same tension in your own life, remember the story isn’t over. God isn’t done. He’s still at work and that work will finally reveal who’s who to the eternal glory of the righteous and the eternal shame of the wicked; to the eternal life of those who follow Him and the eternal death of those who don’t. It will become clear. Your efforts are not in vain. Keep at it and the worth of your work will show itself.