Though Malachi characterizes Judah’s words against Yahweh as “harsh,” we might find ourselves rather sympathetic with them. It does appear that evil often wins and that abusers go unpunished. We might wonder whether, in fact, evildoers are “blessed.” Or that God is indifferent, or that faith is worth the journey.
Malachi, however, is quick to reorient our vision. He counsels that we should view the present circumstances–even if they are overwhelmingly negative–through a different lens. Focusing on the present reality can be overwhelming but an eschatological lens provides another vantage point from which to see the world. Malachi points us to the looming horizon of the eschatological day of Yahweh.
A day is coming, Malachi announces, when “all the arrogant and all evildoers” will burn as stubble. He calls it the “great and awesome day of the Yahweh” (4:5). It is a day of judgment for evil itself–both those who arrogantly accuse God of blessing the wicked and those who actually practice evil. Malachi uses two metaphors to describe this destruction: fire and trampling. When they are burned up, the righteous will walk on their ashes. This image is not so much a picture of arrogant superiority but rather the reality that righteousness will shine in that new world while wickedness will disappear like ashes.
Yahweh envisions a new world. It is a world where the “sun of righteousness” shines in the darkness of a broken and depraved world. It will illuminate the earth and burn away its evil. Though it burns away the evil, the sunshine will heal the broken world and the righteous will leap for joy as they explore the new reality before them (as calves do when released from their stalls).
While some see a Messianic reference in the “sun of righteousness” that ties this to Jesus (possibly Luke 1:78 alludes to this text), the text is probably a more general reference to the divine act where God will burn away the evil from his earth and a new dawn of righteousness will appear when God renews heaven and earth. This is foreshadowed in Jesus and the Lord of righteousness will certainly accomplish this when he comes again. Most explicit, however, is the contrast between the present wicked world where the “arrogant and evildoers” leave the earth in darkness and the coming reality where the “sun of righteousness” will burn away evil even as it illuminates the earth. The day is coming when God will destroy the wicked and heal the righteous.
In light of this coming day, Malachi exhorts Judah to remember the Torah of Moses. This is the path of righteousness. Throughout his oracle, Malachi has alluded to and reminded his audience of Torah ethics (e.g., Malachi 3:5). This righteousness–the practice of the Torah–will fill the earth. The Torah, enacted in the lives and hearts of God’s people, will illuminate the darkness and transform the world, and this will be led by the Messiah himself.
This Torah-righteousness, however, is not self-actualization, and neither is the rise of the “sun of righteousness” produced by human obedience. Rather, God will inaugurate this transformation by sending Elijah before the great, eschatological day of judgment.
This is a missional act on the part of God. He intends to “turn the hearts” of Israel from evil to righteousness. The prophet Elijah will announce the coming day and call for a repentance (a turning) which will avert the land from “utter destruction.” Elijah will precede the day of Yahweh, the day of judgment.
Reading this text through a Christian lens, the Gospel writers all identified John the Baptist as this Elijah. He appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a “baptism of repentance” and calling Israel to repentance to avoid the coming wrath of God (cf. Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:2-8; Luke 3:1-17). Jesus identified John the Baptist as Elijah who prepared the way for his own coming and for the coming of the day of Yahweh (Matthew 17:9-13).
The arrival of the Messiah is not the “day of Yahweh.” Rather, the Messiah himself heralded a message of repentance: “Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). The good news is that the kingdom is coming. The “sun of righteousness” will yet dawn upon the earth. One day God will clear the brush and purge the earth with fire so that it might become a home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13) where the “sun of righteousness” will bring healing and renewal.
Lord, come quickly!