Malachi 3:13-18: Fearing God
Topic: Default Passage: Malachi 3:13–18
Malachi 3:13-18: Fearing God
Our Scripture reading this morning comes from Malachi 3:13-18. It says,
13 “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ 14 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? 15 And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
16 Then 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. 18 Then 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.
May God bless the reading of his Word.
In the early 1930s, British journalist, agnostic, and avowed Communist sympathizer, Malcolm Muggeridge, moved to Moscow to experience first-hand what he thought would be the glories of Communism, even going so far as to call that political-economic system, “the future,” saying, “We have seen the future and it works.” But not long after his arrival in country, not long after seeing the economic disaster in Russia and the mountains of dead who had either starved or been brutally murdered, savagely, and systematically destroyed by the chosen few who stood to gain from this system, Muggeridge quickly disavowed his naïve enthusiasm. Disillusioned and overwhelmed by feelings of misplaced hope, staring into a now meaningless existence, he left Russia. And on the banks of a remote African beach years later, he determined to end his existence in suicide. Muggeridge waded out into the depths, intent on swimming into that watery abyss until exhaustion would overtake him. And just when he reached the point of utter exhaustion, as he began to drown, he realized how desperately he wanted to live. In later life he became a Protestant Christian, then later a Catholic, writing extensively on moral and ethical issues.
While some of us may have never gotten, or never need to get, to such a point of hopeless desperation as Muggeridge did off the shores of that African beach, God would have you know the meaningless existence that awaits those who place their hope in anything other than God himself. But to the natural man, hope in God seems like a vain and pointless thing, something altogether counter-intuitive, a swimming against the tide, if you will. “Wouldn’t it be easier if we all just went with the flow. After all, going with the flow seems prosperous,” one might say. We see Israel beholden to this sort of pragmatic thinking in today’s text. With Muggeridge they might say, “We have seen the future and it works.” The wicked prosper. Until it does not work; until they do not prosper. Until we see the disaster of living in God’s world in anything other than God’s way. Muggeridge eventually saw this, realizing the vanity of such thinking. He went on to say, “Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.” So, the question for us this morning is will we be found among the wicked, those swimming with the stream, who find the service of God a vain, profitless thing, or will we be found among the righteous, those swimming against the stream, who fear the LORD and esteem his name. Whatever or whomever else you decide to pursue, this question of what you will do with God must be pursued, for he pursued his people unto death and this one, singular thing has eternal importance.
Which brings us to the main idea of our text: Those found faithful to the LORD fear and esteem him, granting them victory over the world’s bondage and sparing them the coming judgment reserved for the wicked.
Back in ch1, vv1-5, God reminded his people that he had sovereignly elected them to be his. They had returned from Persian exile about 100 years before, still under Persian rule, with their land reduced to a mere fraction of its former glory. As a result, they had forgotten God’s love, because their sinfulness had caused them to experience God’s judgment. So, God called them in vv6-14 of ch1 to give him their best, for he is worthy. Instead, they brought God their worst, offering sacrifices that were blind, lame, and sick. And so, God cursed the priests in ch2, vv1-9 for allowing this, chastising them for their failure to give honor to God by guarding knowledge and seeking his instruction. And as the priests had gone, so had gone the people. One unfaithfulness led to another. Which led to a practical outworking of unfaithfulness to God in ch 2, vv10-16, manifested in unfaithfulness in marriage. Now the inevitability of this happening was no wonder, for God’s messengers had failed to honor God and lead the people in the way they should go. So, God promised in ch 2, v17 through ch 3, v5 to send his own messenger to both purify his people through trial and vindicate his people through judgment of sinfulness. Then in ch 3, vv6-12, God addressed another practical outworking of unfaithfulness. Not only had they demonstrated unfaithfulness in what they offered God, and how they treated their marriages, but also in terms of how they both viewed and used their finances. So, he cursed the self-indulgence of his people but blessed those who faithfully used the resources entrusted to them in ways that honored him. Which brings us to our passage today, where we will see where all this unfaithfulness ultimately manifests: in a lack of fear, or reverence, for God.
I. People with Selfish Expectations will be Frustrated with God, 13-15
A. They speak against God, 13
From the very beginning of the book of Malachi, God’s people questioned God’s faithfulness as to whether or not he truly loved them. He proves that love in election, in choosing them to be his people. Then after questioning God’s faithfulness, they go on throughout the book to question their own unfaithfulness, as if to say, “The problem has not been with us, God, it’s been with you. We’re happy with the decisions we’ve made. Why can’t you, God, be happy for us. So, we’ve been unfaithful with our sacrifices? So, we’ve been unfaithful with our marriages? So, we’ve been unfaithful with our finances. Aren’t you supposed to be merciful, God?” They fail to see the hellishness of the life they’ve created for themselves.
Which leads to v13, “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’” Six times before now, they have questioned God in this book, failing to understand their sin. Now they question him a seventh time, bringing to completion their perfect disobedience. They spoke against God again and again, continually denying him his rightful place as God, bewilderingly questioning him as to his right to judge their sin. If God does not have the right to judge sin, then who does? —For aside from God, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But they see God as someone to be criticized and find fault with rather than the Creator God to be worshipped and obeyed. “God should bend to our will and our way rather than ours to his,” they might say; which unwittingly puts them in the place of God. But their motives prove purely mercenary. “What’s in it for us? If we follow God’s will and God’s way, there must be a payoff, and it must be immediate.” But they deny having such a negative attitude. We see how deluded we can become when we complicate our life by our sin. Pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “The saintly life is always a very simple life, it is the ungodly whose lives are complicated. Sin always brings complications. It did at the very beginning, when man sinned and lied to cover his sin; and the moment men and women come back to God and live godly lives, their lives conform to a very simple pattern.” Stuck in the muck and mire of their sin, they have complicated everything. And they murmur against God, thinking their complaint against him went unheard. But not so. He sees them when they’re sleeping. He knows when they’re awake. He knows they’ve been bad. They should’ve been good for God’s sake. But, instead…
B. They believe service to God to be futile, 14-15
“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?’” In saying that it is vain to serve God, they—in effect—reverse the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, and thereby play the fool. In Ecclesiastes 1:2, we read, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” And the Preacher spends a couple of chapters in Ecclesiastes unpacking what a vain life looks like, pursuing everything under the sun—other than God—from human-centered wisdom, to women, wine, wealth, well-being, and work, only to find that a life free from vanity—a life free from futility—can only be found by fearing God and keeping his commandments. But they have played the fool, like so many before and so many after them, saying it is vain to serve God. “What’s the point? I want to do what I want to do. There’s no profit in keeping his charge, or walking in his way, or even in being sorrowful over our sin,” they say. When we walk by sight, rather than by faith, we can only see what’s immediately before us. Like a child who can see no benefit in investing the money his grandparents give him, instead immediately spending it on his pleasures, so too do those walking by sight see no benefit in investing in eternity by living in God’s world by God’s way.
But they see no benefit in keeping his way, keeping his charge, or walking in mourning before him. They ignore the need to rightly grieve over their sin. They show most, if not all of the signs of the popular grief model of Kübler-Ross—a common understanding of how people deal with grief and mourning. They show all signs but acceptance. They will not accept that they have sinned. Instead, they show signs of denial, signs of anger, signs of bargaining, and even signs of depression, but they will not accept just how far short they have fallen. Brothers and sisters, it is only when we accept that we sin that we will feel any compunction to confess our sin and be cleansed from all unrighteousness.
Unfortunately, they have not accepted their sin. Instead, they say this: “And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.” So, they go so far as to say that those who live in opposition to God’s will are both blessed and prosperous, with no consequences levied for their behavior. Arrogance becomes a blessed thing, a lifestyle worthy of pursuit. Self-importance and self-focus pay, so they say. Ages before the advent of gathering followers and subscribers in online forums, human nature pursued self-aggrandizement in similar, albeit more primitive ways. In like fashion, they say evildoing becomes prosperous. “It's good to be bad.” But God had already pronounced woe, or ruin, on such thinking in Isaiah 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” If that is not a commentary on our day and age, I don’t know what is. How often do you hear people calling evil things good things and calling good things evil things?
Affliction and distress—or woe—come as natural consequences to such foolish declarations. Now that’s not to say that life will be free from anguish and distress if one lives a life pleasing to God. But we do read in 1 Peter 3:17 that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.” And the reason it’s better, the passage says, is multitudinous: ultimately you will (1) love life, (2) see good days, and (3) pursue peace, for the Lord both sees and hears you, and will ultimately deliver you from evil. But not so for the wicked. In vv13-15 we see people with selfish expectations will be frustrated with God.
II. People who Fear God will be Spared Judgment, 16-18
A. The LORD remembers those who honor him, 16
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another.” Let me pause there for a second. I want you to notice the need for community in this verse. Surely, God speaks through his word, through prayer, and through creation. But he often speaks in community, in the gathering of his saints, those who revere him, who bear witness to his word, who pray, who sing, who worship together, who confess their sins to one another. It says, “they spoke with one another.” Now at a minimum that happens at our Sunday gathering, where we sing, pray, and listen to the word together. But that barely scratches the surface. It often happens in the conversations after church. It often happens in the prayer meeting and community groups, not to mention the other more informal gatherings where we speak to one another throughout the week. So, if you’re only scratching the surface, I would encourage you to move out into the depths beyond the Sunday service. For Christians are a communal people who gather, who speak, who listen. And look at the result as v16 continues.
It says, “The LORD paid attention and heard them.” Again, permit me to pause. Surely, God listens to individual prayers. The Bible is replete with such examples. But there’s something powerful in the gathering of believers together that “whatever you bind on earth—as we read in Matthew 18—shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” Sin, by its nature breeds chaos and disagreement. Confession of sin leads to cooperation, such that God pays attention and hears.
“And a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.” Notice that God keeps a formal record—a book of remembrance—documenting the righteous deeds of those who both fear and esteem him. Elsewhere in scripture we see the same. For instance, in Daniel 12:1 and Revelation 20:12, books will be opened, where the dead will be judged according to their actions. One commentor states, “Although God will not remember our sins”—for all those in Christ, according to Isaiah 43:25—“he will remember our righteous acts, including our speech, as well as our tears”—as we see in Psalm 56:8.
But I want you to notice God’s careful attention here. He sees. He hears. He cares. This has been a theme throughout the book of Malachi, where God sees, and ultimately judges the behavior of both those who fear him and those who do not. He pays attention. And he expects us to pay attention as well. In fact, he condemns those who do not pay attention to him in Zechariah 1:4. Are you paying attention to God? And if so, then how so? Can you imagine being physically separated from a spouse or some other loved one for an extended period? What would you do during those times to maintain connection? Wouldn’t you use every means necessary, be it phone calls, video calls, letters, or emails, to stay in touch? And wouldn’t you contact them as often as you possibly could out of your love for them? The same goes for God.
Currently, we endure physical separation from his presence—even spiritual separation in some sense because of our sin. But we too have means of connection. We have his Word, we have his ear, we have his Spirit, and we have his people. In other words, we have the Bible, prayer, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of the church. Do you have a desire to know God more by connecting with him through the means he has provided? Or is he more akin to that troublesome relative that you have reach out to periodically, whom you probably have to see at some point in the year, more out of appeasement than love? Are you paying attention to God?
And do you realize he pays attention to you? Now that causes me to be both grateful and shameful. Grateful, because I know he cares. He cared enough to send his son to pay my debt of sin. He cares enough to listen, and answer, my prayers and speak to me in his Word. And he cares enough to have me rise again, after death, as Christ rose, to be with him in eternity. Shameful though because I know he sees sin: my sin that needs atoning. And yet, still grateful, for God says repeatedly throughout Scripture that he will remember his people’s sin no more. Thank you, Jesus. And so, as v16 says, we esteem him. We see in v16 that the LORD remembers those who fear him.
B. The LORD treasures and preserves his people, 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.” What a metaphor. He calls his people his treasured possession. Back in 2010, a millionaire antiques dealer by the name of Forrest Fenn buried another treasured possession, a chest full of gold coins worth a couple of million dollars in the Rocky Mountains, with subtle clues written in a 24-line poem as to where to find it. Over the years, thousands searched for it. Five people even died trying to find it, including the pastor of a church, before it was found in 2020. While all deaths have a certain tragedy to them, I find this pastor’s death particularly tragic, as he should have already possessed the greatest treasure, spiritually speaking, in being a part of the Kingdom of God. But not only should he have possessed the greatest treasure, but—if he had indeed put his faith and trust in Christ—he would also be considered a treasured possession.
God loves his people, so much so that he pursues his treasure to death. As one of my favorite hymns so eloquently puts it, “He left his father’s throne above, so free, so infinite his grace; emptied himself of all but love; and bled for Adam’s helpless race: ’tis mercy all, immense and free; for, O…my God, it found out me.” And because of this sacrifice, God now spares us the judgment we so rightly deserve. Rebels become children. Refuse becomes treasure. We see in v16 that the LORD remembers those who fear him. We see in v17 that the LORD treasures and preserves his people.
C. The LORD gives discernment to his people, 18
He says, “Then 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.” Now this harkens back to v14 where some said it was vain to serve God. Now we see the utter foolishness of such a claim play out. Distinctions between followers of God and followers of the self, or the crowd, or any human-centered scheme will be evident and discernible to the one who follows God. What is that distinction? Let me state in the negative first. The distinction is not sinfulness. Both the righteous and the wicked are sinful. The distinction is what is done with their sin. By the work of the Holy Spirit, the righteous comes to hate their sin, confess their sin, repent of their sin, and declare their unending need for Jesus to atone for their sin. The wicked, on the other hand, embrace their sin, minimize their sin, ignore their sin, and enjoy their sin. You shall see a distinction between the righteous and the wicked: it’s what’s done for their sin. It comes down to who pays for their sin: the righteous, Jesus pays; the wicked, they pay.
Now this is not the first time that such a distinction was made. We see it in Exodus 11:7 where God made a distinction between Egypt and Israel. We see it throughout scripture. And we will see such a distinction once more in the final judgment spoken of in Matthew 25, where God will gather all the nations before him, separating people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And those who found it vain to serve God will be forever granted their wish to be departed from him, except it will not be a pleasant departure free from judgment. The righteous judge must judge rightly, sending the accursed into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
There’s no middle ground, or third group, or sub-distinction made for the relatively harmless people who think their ignorance or neglect of God to be but a small thing. There is but one distinction: (1) those found righteous, those swimming against the stream, covered by the shed blood of Christ who have repented of their sins and sought to live in God’s world, by God’s way, trusting not in a righteousness of their own, but solely in the imputed, or credited, righteousness of Christ, who will receive eternal life, or (2) those found wicked, those swimming with the stream, who lived in their own way, even if it wasn’t all that bad comparatively speaking, who did not see any need to serve God, or walk in his way, or mourn over their sin before him, who trusted in their own supposed, imperfect righteousness, or in the supposed, imperfect righteousness of any other, other than Christ, who will receive eternal punishment. All of us will one day see this distinction realized. It will not be in some sort of man-made earthly utopia, like the one Malcolm Muggeridge had pinned all of his hopes to when he moved to Russia in the 1930s. It will be in the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, where the dwelling place of God will be with man, where he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. All of history moves towards this singular point. Therefore, we have hope: fearing the LORD, faithfully following and esteeming him, freed from the world’s bondage, and spared the judgment to come. When Jesus comes, will he find faith on the earth?
Faith requires that I hate my sin. Faith requires that I confess my sin. Faith requires that I repent of my sin. Faith requires that I declare my unending need for Jesus to atone for my sin. So, as I come to the Lord’s table, as you come to the Lord’s table, we confess, we repent, we declare our unending need for Jesus to atone for our sin.