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The Lord says many challenging things to His post-exilic people through the prophet Malachi. The book of Malachi is arranged as a series of seven prophetic disputations that each begin with a bitter saying of the people to which the Lord responds. Most of these oracles are searching rebukes of the attitudes and actions of Malachi’s contemporaries. However, before the Lord rebukes the people, He begins by affirming His electing love for them, which is the reason they continue to exist after the judgment of the exile. Before He says, “This is what I have against you,” the Lord first declares, “I love you” (Mal. 1:2).

1. Malachi reveals that God’s electing love is always the starting point.

The people, meanwhile, respond with a rebuff, “How have you loved us?” (Mal. 1:2). This is a question to which the Lord gives a surprising answer. We might have expected the Lord to point to the exodus and conquest of the land of Canaan, where He performed mighty miracles to protect His people and grant them their inheritance. Instead, the Lord points Israel even further back, to the election of their forefather, Jacob, and the contrasting rejection of his brother, Esau (Mal. 1:3). This utterly undeserved love is the reason there is still an Israel after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. Israel had suffered for her sins, to be sure, but she had nonetheless been restored because of the Lord’s great love. Edom, the descendants of Esau, survived the Babylonian period relatively unscathed by aiding the Babylonians (see Obad. 1:10–14). But Edom’s present comfort would soon be destroyed, and her fall would be full and final (Mal. 1:4–5). God’s chosen people might stumble through their sins, but they will not fully fall, for the Lord holds them up out of love (see Ps. 37:23–24).

2. Malachi demonstrates that people are tempted to cynicism when life is hard.

In the book of Malachi, the people’s response to the Lord is deeply cynical from beginning to end. At the beginning, they brush off the Lord’s declaration love for them (Mal. 1:2). At the end, they declare that obeying the Lord is worthless since evildoers prosper and the arrogant are blessed (Mal. 3:15). Where is the supposed justice of God (Mal. 2:17)? This cynical attitude toward the Lord shows up in the people’s half-hearted worship (Mal. 1:12–13), their unfaithfulness to the Israelite wives they had married (Mal. 2:14–16), and their stingy giving (Mal. 3:8–9). Even the priests have been infected with the same attitude (Mal. 2:1–9), allowing the people to offer defective sacrifices and giving biased legal rulings, in return for bribes (Mal. 2:9). Hard times often breed cold hearts toward God, both then and now.

3. Malachi shows that the Lord honors those who honor Him.

Not everyone in Malachi’s day shared this cynical attitude toward the Lord. Some still feared the Lord, and the Lord saw that attitude and kept them as His “treasured possession,” (segullah; Mal. 3:17), the same word used to describe Israel in Exodus 19:6. The Lord would soon appear in His temple to bring the justice for which people were supposedly longing (Mal. 3:1–2). He would separate the righteous from the wicked once for all, and those who feared the Lord would be vindicated as His true people, while the wicked would be judged and destroyed (Mal. 4:1–3). In the meantime, the faithful remnant should remember the law of Moses, God’s standard for holy living, and should look forward to the coming of a new Elijah, the archetypal prophet, to call God’s people to repentance (Mal. 4:4–6). Those who failed to respond to his message would face a judgment curse (herem; Mal. 4:6).

But if we are all sinners who fall far short of keeping the law of Moses, as Paul points out in Romans 3, how can God distinguish between righteous and unrighteous at the final judgment without condemning all of us? How can the Lord save unrighteous Jacob, whom He loves and has chosen? The answer to that question awaits the New Testament, for which Malachi’s prophecy prepares us perfectly.

In Luke 1:17, John the Baptist is identified before his birth as the Elijah who would precede Jesus Christ in His first coming. Significantly, the angel’s message focuses exclusively on the positive side of Malachi’s prophecy, declaring “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” The possibility of the judgment curse is not mentioned because in His first coming, Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost (Matt. 1:21).

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus met with both Moses and Elijah, and talked about His exodus (exodon) from Jerusalem, through which He would bring redemption to His people (Luke 9:31). For those who refuse to accept Christ now, there is another coming to await when Christ will return as the rider on the white horse to bring destruction on the unrepentant (Rev. 19:11–21). But for those whose fear of the Lord is exhibited in faith in Christ, that day will be like the first rays of the rising sun in the springtime, warming the skin pleasantly, not a fiery furnace that consumes everything it contacts (Mal. 4:1–2).

This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.