The opening line is simple, direct and profound: “I have loved you, says Yahweh.”
That should be good news, but there are times when it may be heard with a bit of skepticism or even bitterness. It is a difficult word to hear when someone has just told you in the previous breath that your wife is dead. It can be a bitter pill to swallow when you are crying at your son’s funeral.
Or, in the case of Judah at the time of Nehemiah, it is difficult to hear “God loves you” when you have just sold your child into economic servitude to pay Persian taxes. We might even envision some bitterness as Judah hears that word in the midst of oppression and famine.
Their response to that question may often be our own: “How have you loved us?”
This is an authentic question and it remains even still the dominant question on the lips of sufferers. Tragedy, death and disease generate the question and biblical poets have often expressed the same question from Job to the Psalmists (e.g., Psalms 44, 77, 88). In the midst of the exile, the Psalmist (89:49) asked: “Where is your steadfast love of old which by your faithfulness you swore to David?”
It is a good question and we hope for a good answer. But is Malachi’s response helpful? He speaks of Jacob and Esau, and then of Israel and Edom. What does one have to do with the other? Does it make any sense? How does Malachi’s response answer the heartfelt question?
I think the answer lies in covenantal identity.
“Love” is not, in this text, a sentimental notion of undying affection and feel-goodism. Rather, it is the language of covenant. God chose Israel because God loved Israel (Deuteronomy 7:7-11). It is a family word—a word that describes loyal relationships like parents and children (cf. Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:1; Isaiah 63:7-9). To say that God “loves” Israel is to say that God lives in covenant with Israel.
Vice versa, to say that God hates Esau (Edom) is to say that God has no covenant with Esau like he does with Jacob (Israel). The language of “love” and “hate” here are not about feelings and emotions as much as commitment, loyalty and covenant. This is the language of identity. Israel is the people of God while Edom is not. God is committed to Israel as a people but has made no such commitment to Edom.
This is the language of identity and election. God elected (chose) Israel, not Edom. In this way God “loved” Jacob but “hated” Esau. Since there is no covenant with Edom, God raises up and destroys nations, and does not promise their continued existence.
Edom, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, had aided the Babylonians and took advantage of Judah’s situation (cf. Obadiah; Jeremiah 49:7-22; Lamentations 4:21-22). They stabbed their own brothers in the back. For this wickedness, God wipes the nation from the map. During the 400s, Edom was supplanted by the Nabateans and Edom—as a nation—was lost to history. At the time of Malachi they may have still boasted that they would return to a former glory, but Malachi assures Judah that they will not return.
What is the evidence that God “loved” Israel? They are still there. They are still a people. Their eyes will yet see the difference between Jacob and Esau, between Israel and Edom, as history unfolds. Israel is yet a people of promise but Edom, as a people, has no hope.
Israel is loved because they are God’s chosen (elect) people. Why did God choose them? It was not because they were so righteous, strong or numerous. Jacob was chosen even before birth (Genesis 25:23; cf. Romans 9:11). God chose Jacob out his love rather than because of Jacob’s character, as is obvious from the Genesis story.
The evidence of God’s love in the life of Israel is their covenantal identity. They are God’s people and Yahweh is their God. This is a gracious gift. This is who Israel is, that is, they are God’s beloved.
Whatever else may be happening around them, this is their identity. They are loved. They are chosen. This is the foundation of their relationship with Yahweh. He first loved them before they loved him.
When we are surrounded by tragedy, death and disease, we are tempted to doubt the love of God. And we often do. I have. The word of Yahweh to such doubts is: remember who you are! Remember your identity. You are loved.
While Israel looked back to Abraham and the Exodus to remember that love, Christians look not only to Abraham and the Exodus but also to Jesus who demonstrated God’s love for us. He gives us our identity as God’s beloved.
While I may stand at the coffin of my first wife and doubt the love of God, it is impossible for me to do so when I’m kneeling at the foot of the cross.