“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.”
The final book of the Hebrew scriptures is Chronicles. It ends with the words of Cyrus, king of Persia, who sent the following proclamation throughout all his kingdom:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.’”
The proclamation represents the end of the Jewish exile from their homeland, but more than that it is express permission to rebuild the House of God in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586BC. Just as their forefathers had been delivered from captivity in Egypt, surely God was now about to deliver them again, restoring them to the promised land, and finally making good on all the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the promise given to David that, “I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens” (Psalm 89:28-29).
However, there is a big problem. Once back in the land, it is the same old story. Although there are faithful worshippers of Yahweh, who strive to walk before him in holiness and righteousness, the nation as a whole once again fails to obey God and keep his commandments. And so once again, as if the chastisement of being cast out of the land had never happened, God sends prophets to warn his people of the consequences of remaining unrepentant in their sin. In the Christian Bible, the last of these prophets is Malachi. His name means “My Messenger” and he comes with a message about three other messengers.
The priests, says God through Malachi, are themselves meant to be messengers of Yahweh, standing in awe of his name, instructing the people, walking with God in peace and uprightness, and turning many from iniquity (2:5-7). And yet the message these messengers give the people about God and holiness are false. They offer lame sacrifices and despise the table of Yahweh (1:6-14); they have turned aside from the way (2:8); they have caused many to stumble by their instruction (2:8); they have corrupted the covenant of Levi (2:8).
The result of the faithless priests is a faithless people. They are faithless to one another (2:10); they are faithless to Yahweh, worshipping other gods (2:11); they are faithless to their wives (2:14-16); they are a land of sorcerers, adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who oppress the hired worker, the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner in the land, and those who rob God through their paltry “tithes” (3:5-10).
The message of “My Messenger” is clear: the physical captivity of Babylon may have ended, but the spiritual captivity continues. And so a new and much greater exodus is needed, one that delivers not just from a foreign land, or from physical enemies, but one which can deal with the ultimate problem of sin once and for all.
And so “My Messenger” tells the false messengers of Judah that he will send them two true messengers. The first is one who will prepare the way. This is an echo of Isaiah 40:
“A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:3-5).
That messenger is of course John the Baptist. Yet whilst the exact meaning of “the way of Yahweh”, “the highway for our God” and the “glory of Yahweh” might not have been clear to Isaiah’s hearers, Malachi makes it clear that it means another messenger, but not just any messenger: the messenger, none other than Yahweh himself, Immanuel, who would dwell amongst them:
“And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”
And yet Malachi poses them a question: When The Messenger appears, don’t suppose that he shall come to vindicate Israel. He will come to purify and cleanse those who repent and believe, and to condemn those who refuse. On which side would they stand?