Monday, February 25, 2008

Where is the God of Justice?

When Malachi wrote (ca. 400 BCE), the people of Judah have returned from exile in Babylon. They are living in the land. The Temple has been rebuilt, but the vision of the prophets of a restoration and renewal of creation accompanied with God-given prosperity has not happened yet.[1] This renewal was part of the prophets’ rhetoric encouraging the exiles to return to Judah. The re-established community of Jews had expected that renewal to accompany their return. Malachi is explaining why it has not happened yet. They still are not following the covenant. They don’t have faith. They aren’t trusting God.

Observing what’s going on in the world around them, the people are discouraged because it appears that the righteous are suffering and the wicked are prospering. Where is God who should be dealing with the wicked?

Mal. 2:17: You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, "How have we wearied him?" By saying, "Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them." Or by asking, "Where is the God of justice?"

The response from God is:“Trust me. I will act. Have faith. Hold firm despite what you see going on. Keep the commandments. Don’t believe the lie that there is no benefit to it. Don’t believe the lie that there is no distinction between the righteous and the wicked. Return to the covenant and I will act. Keep your end of the agreement (something that you haven’t done throughout our relationship) and I will keep my end of the agreement.”

The people are described as robbing God when they do not keep up their end of the agreement.
Of what is God robbed? (3:8) Their faith. The prophet reports the words of the people that indicate they are losing faith in God based on what they see as injustice allowed to go unpunished in the world. The renewal of creation promised by the prophets was not connected with their return from exile as originally hoped. Why keep the covenant? It is all in vain.

Mal. 3:13-15:13"Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, 'How have we spoken against you?' 14You 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? 15And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.' "

The prophet answers by recasting the hoped-for restoration into a still-future time, contingent on their repentance and return to the covenant. If they repent, God will act and renew the creation as promised in the earlier prophets. It has not happened because their disobedience has brought them under a curse that prevents them from receiving the benefits of the covenant, similar to the blessings and curses promised by Lev. 26 and Deut. 28 as consequences for obeying or disobeying the covenant.

Mal. 3:6-12: 6"For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. 7From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, 'How shall we return?' 8Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, 'How have we robbed you?' In your tithes and contributions.[2] 9You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. 11I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. 12Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

References to “the day of his coming” (3:2), God’s judgment on sinners (3:5), his renewal of fallen creation (3:10-12), and the preservation of a righteous remnant (3:16-17) are indicators that the broader context of this passage refers to the eschatological “day of the LORD” spoken of by the prophets.

God will act when the day of the LORD comes and the righteous will receive their reward, and they will have the answer to their question, “Where is the God of Justice?”

Mal. 3:16-4:3: 16Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. 17"They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. 18Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. 4:1"For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

Mal. 3:1 and 4:5 are used in the NT to describe John the Baptist’s role in preparing the way for Christ. The judgment of the Lord described in 3:2-5 is often applied to Christ’s Second Coming.

New Testament preaching to the Jews indicates that Malachi’s message (in the eyes of the early church) had failed to bring about the proper repentance. Note the similarities between Mal. 3:7 and Acts 7:51-53.

Mal 3:7: From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, 'How shall we return?'

Acts 7:51-53: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."

Malachi presents God as somewhat withdrawn from the daily affairs of humanity because of Israel’s continual disobedience to the covenant. The promises of earthly blessing and renewal are ultimately relegated to the eschatological day of the LORD, and the repentance of Israel is offered as a state of affairs which will hasten the day of the LORD’s coming and the ultimate realization of those promises.

[1] The passages that include the themes of the “day of the LORD” and/or the renewal of creation include Isaiah 2, 11, 35, 49, and 66; Ezekiel 36 and 47; and Joel 1-3.

[2] “Tithes and contributions” in this verse represents keeping the covenant even in the small details. It is very likely a direct allusion to Nehemiah 13:4-14 where Nehemiah describes an incident involving negligence in collecting tithes of grain, wine, and oil for the Temple. In context, the passage in Malachi is about obedience to the covenant and faith in God despite the worldly injustice the people complained about, not specifically about tithes and offerings. It would be possible to use tithing in a religious context today as a contemporary example of an issue requiring faith and trust in God. Rhetorically, the preacher would be importing the same symbolism as employed by the prophet to achieve the same ultimate goal – repentance leading to obedience and greater faith in God. New Testament passages on giving do not bring in the strict tithe principle from the Law. Rather, the requirements for giving are simply that the believers give cheerfully and generously by their own free will (see 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9, esp. 9:5-15). Paul encourages giving by promising that God will supply physical and spiritual needs with all sufficiency for those who give generously.

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