Humans have amazing potential. We were created to partner with God in the dynamic development of creation itself. Our dignity far exceeds our finitude and fallibility. We are God’s royal entourage crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8).
This potential for dynamic partnership with God, alas, also has the potential to frustrate, grieve and tire God.
Malachi approaches post-exilic Judah with a startling message: “You have wearied Yahweh with your words.” Judah responds by throwing the same word back to Malachi: “How have we wearied him?” The key term is “wearied” (yaga’). Its fundamental meaning is to work oneself to exhaustion, or–as we might say in an English idiom–”to work oneself to death.” Consequently, “weariness” is the result of toil, labor or effort.
In Malachi the tone is negative. Yahweh is wearied, that is, Yahweh is frustrated with the fruits of his efforts in the life of Judah. He tires of how Judah responds to him. His patience is gone.
Malachi may use this term against the backdrop of one of Isaiah’s great polemics against Israel in Isaiah 43. Though Israel was created and nurtured by Yahweh through the Exodus and his gifts to them in the wilderness, Israel grew “weary” of Yahweh (43:22) and thereby they “wearied” Yahweh (43:24). Specifically, Yahweh announces through the mouth of Isaiah: ”You have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities.” God was wearied by the sins of his people.
Malachi has the same message but he specifically links God’s frustration with Judah’s “words.” What words? Malachi is specific.
- “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of Yahweh, and he delights in them.”
- “Where is the God of justice?”
The two statements are deeply interconnected. If Yahweh delights in evil, then Yahweh is unjust. If God is just, why are evildoers apparently treated so benevolently? To affirm that God delights in injustice stands in stark contrast with the prophetic message that God delights (same word as in Malachi) in “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness” (hesed; Jeremiah 9:24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 7:18).
We might wonder what would occasion such thoughts and questions from post-exilic Judah. We have several hints already in Malachi’s oracle. Judah feels unloved in the face of their dire circumstances (1:2). Some, perhaps the powerful, have employed violence against their own community (husbands divorcing wives and others sacrificing animals they obtained through violence).
But I don’t think God minds the oppressed and victims asking questions. Is Yahweh wearied by a divorcee who cries out against the injustice of divorce and wonders where the God of justice is? That does not seem to be the point here. Indeed, Israel’s sages, poets and prophets have as many similar questions such as, “Why do the wicked prosper?” (Psalm 73; Jeremiah 12; Job 21).
The problem is not so much the question but the attitude that lies behind the question. This attitude is expressed in the complaint that “God delights in evil.” This wearies God. Perhaps it is not so much the victims of injustice who complain but the “sons of Levi” and leaders of Judah who rail against God. They wonder why Judah has not returned to its former glory. They wonder why the Persians reign in splendor and wealth while Judah languishes as a backwater province. They see the riches of the nations who do not worship Yahweh and wonder whether the worship of Yahweh is profitable (cf. 3:13).
We should take our cue from this particular message of Malachi as to the point of the questions. God is interested in justice but the kind of justice he will administer is exactly the kind of justice for which Judah has no heart. Judah’s religious leaders need purifying and the evil in Judah needs judgment. Malachi identifies the evil in a classic summary of injustice in 3:5.
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
This description bears directly on the social issues of justice within the post-exilic community. These injustices were perpetrated by those in power and their supporters. They failed to pay just wages (cf. Deuteronomy 24:14-15), victimized the helpless (cf. Deuteronomy 24:17-18), arranged for false witnesses in court (Deuteronomy 19:16-21), divorced their wives unjustly (cf. how Jesus interprets the Torah in Matthew 5:27-30) and found solace in sorcerers (Leviticus 20:27) rather than Yahweh. They have not practiced Torah-righteousness.
It would be a mistake to think that this list is eclectic, that is, a disconnected list of sins. It is better to ask to the question: why this list? What holds this list together? How does it reflect the circumstances in which Malachi is prophesying? The particulars in the list function as part of a system which emboldens the powerful and marginalizes the weak. Leaders look to sorcerers as counselors rather than the Torah. Powerful men divorce their wives. The legal system steals from the widow and fatherless as they are supported by perjurers in court. The economic system does not pay a livable wage. The alien is discounted as nothing. The system works for the powerful; they like the status quo though they hunger for more. Malachi is not simply judging isolated sins but confronts the systemic problems within Judah’s society. The system wearies God.
It is not necessarily the victims of this social oppression in Judah who weary God through their lament but the oppressors who lament that God delights in the Persians more than he does in Judah. Malachi, however, identifies the problem in Judah. It is their social oppression; Judah does not practice justice and righteousness.
So, what will God do? “Behold” (as in 1:13 and 2:3) identify Yahweh’s message–”watch this!” Yahweh will send a messenger to prepare for Yahweh’s coming to the temple. In this coming, God will purify a people for himself, especially the sons of Levi, and will also judge the oppressors. Some will be judged (and thus excluded) and others will be refined for future service. That is the essence of Malachi’s message.
But about whom is Malachi speaking. At one level, I think Malachi is speaking of the whole prophetic tradition (himself included as a primary representative). It is important to remember that Malachi’s name means “my messenger.” The prophets served the function of purifying and judging the covenant people. They functioned like prosecutors as they announced God’s lawsuits against his people (cf. Micah 6:1-8), and by this purified a people for service to God and the nations. They put the people of God on trial (Malachi 3:5). They prepared the people for God’s “coming” to his temple, which God sometimes does in judgment (Psalm 50) as well as grace. Malachi, as other prophets, prepared the people for the coming of Yahweh to the temple. In this way, the people would bring “offerings in righteousness to the Lord,” that is, righteous and just people would worship Yahweh in the temple.
At another level, however, there does appear to be something more expected in Malachi than simply just another prophet and continued temple service. This hint is confirmed by the ending of Malachi which expects the coming of Elijah (4:5). Malachi’s language will be “filled full” when Elijah arrives who is another prophet in a long line of prophets that announces judgment against Israel and prepares for the coming of God to his temple (cf. Matthew 11:1-15). I will wait till the exposition of that text to say more about that “fulfilling.”
Despite a future orientation and the expectant, hopeful waiting for Day of the Lord, Malachi assures the people that his own presence (as the presence of prophets before him) is a call from God to practice again Torah-righteousness (cf. Malachi 4:4). God is not insensitive to injustice nor does he delight in evil. To the contrary, Yahweh will judge injustice and refine his people for the practice of righteousness.
That message is a perennial one in prophetic literature (Micah 6:8), in the ministry of Jesus (Luke 4:18-19), and in the proclamation of the early church (cf. James 5:4-6).
Yahweh hates injustice and delights in “steadfast love, justice and righteousness.” The God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, still does.