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Background: The book of Malachi contains a series of six speeches in the form of disputations which the prophet has delivered against his listeners. 1. God loves Israel and wished to maintain covenant relations with his people (Mal 1:2-5). 2. For this relationship to continue the priests must offer proper sacrifices at the temple (Mal 1:6-2:9). 3. The people must maintain their marriages as if safeguarding their own lives (Mal 2:10-16). 4. God will send a messenger of righteousness to refine the people (i.e., make them repentant) before He returns in judgment (Mal 2:17-3:7, part of today’s reading). 5. God, through His prophet, exhorts the people to offer tithes that are not fraudulent. If they try this they will find blessing (Mal 3:8-12). 6. Exhortations and warning to remember the covenant (Mal 3:13-24, also part of today’s reading).
Today’s reading consists of most of speech 4 above, to which is added the final verses of speech 6, which are also the final verse of the whole book. In my notes I include comments on 2:17 which opens the fourth disputation.
2:17. You have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Every one who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?”
The fact that the people have to ask “how have we wearied God?” implies either deliberate petulance on their part or it is an effect of their ignorance as a result of the the sins of the priesthood (Mal 2:7-8). More likely both are in play here. Concerning “wearying” the Lord, see Isa 1:14; 43:24; Eph 4:30.
St Jerome: The people, when returned from Babylon, seeing all the nations around, and the Babylonians themselves, serving idols but abounding in wealth, strong in body, possessing all which is accounted good in this world, and themselves, who had the knowledge of God, overwhelmed with want, hunger, servitude, is scandalized and says, “There is no providence in human things; all things are born along by blind chance, and not governed by the judgement of God; nay rather things evil please Him, things good displease Him; or if God does discriminate all things, where is His equitable and just judgement?” Questions of this sort minds which believe not in the world to come, daily raise to God, when they see the wicked in power, the saints in low estate; such as Lazarus, whom we read of in the Gospel, who, before the gate of the rich man in his purple garments, desires to support his hungry soul with the crumbs which are thrown away from the remnants of the table, while the rich mane is of such savagery and cruelty, that he had no pity on his fellow-man to whom the tongues of the dogs shewed pity; not understanding the time of judgement, nor that those are the true goods, which are for ever, say, He is pleased with the evil, and Where is the God of Judgement? (Jerome, Commentary on the Prophet Malachi).
3:1. “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me. It is important to keep in mind that there are two messengers mentioned in this verse. The first will prepare the way before the Lord and he is later identified as being Elijah (Mal 3:23-24, in some translation 4:5-6). The second is the messenger of the covenant, the Lord himself.
Concerning the first messenger he is to prepare the way of the Lord, he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (3:24, 4:6 some translations). He will, in other words, do what the priest of Levi should have done; he will turn many from iniquity (2:6). The priests could never turn the hearts of a father or child to one another for they had destroyed their own relationship with God the Father: A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name (1:6).
3:1 cont. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming. The words seek and delight are biting sarcasm. The priests, rather than seeking the Lord turned aside from him and caused many of the people to stumble (2:8). The people themselves will be accused of turning aside in 3:7, and the last thing people who have turned aside from the Lord want is his coming to them: Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light (Amos 5:18). And recall that in the previous verse (2:17) the people were shown as claiming that God “delights” in everyone who does evil. The people are ill-prepared to either seek or delight in the Lord (see next verse), hence the need for the Messenger to come before him.
In the Gospels this messenger is identified as St John the Baptist who went before the Lord Jesus in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Lk 1:17). See also Lk 1:76, 7:27; Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2.
The Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple. Recall Luke’s account of what immediately precedes the Lord’s cleansing of the Temple: And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes…because you did not know the time of your visitation (See Lk 19:41-44).
3:2 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;
Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? The question is addressed to sinners and has a negative meaning, much like that of Isaiah 53:1~Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? Once again we come up against the need for the messenger who will be called the prophet of the Most High and who will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins (Lk 1:76-77). For If thou, O LORD, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared (Ps 130:3-4).
The Messenger of the Covenant, the Lord himself is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.
Cornelius a Lapide: How can the weakness of man endure such might; his blindness, such light; his frailty such power; his uncleanness, such holiness; the chaff, such a fire? “For he is like a refiner’s fire.” Who would not fail through stupefaction, fear, horror, shrinking reverence from such Majesty? (Commentary on Malachi).
An idea similar to the present verse appears later: For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But the prophet goes on to add: But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise (3:19-20 or 4:1-2 in some translations).
St Jerome: He shall come like a refining fire; “A fire shall burn before him: and a mighty tempest shall be round about him. He shall call heaven from above, and the earth, to judge his people.” streams of fire shall sweep before him, bearing away all sinners. For the Lord is called a fire, and a “consuming fire” (Ps 50:3-4) so as to burn our “wood, hay, stubble” (1 Cor 3:12), and not fire only, but “fuller’s soap.” To those who sin heavily, He is a refining and “consuming fire”, but to those who commit light sins, fuller’s soap, to restore cleanness to it, when washed…The nitrum and the fuller’s soap are penitence (Commentary on Malachi).
3:3 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, till they present right offerings to the LORD.
He will sit. Sitting is the common posture of a judge issuing decrees and sentences. For those who will have it, God’s punishing judgements are intended to purify: I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.” Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness (Isa 1:25-27). And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, `They are my people’; and they will say, `The LORD is my God‘ (Zech 13:9).
He will purify the sons of Lev.This contrasts nicely with the threats of 2:2-3~I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence.
Till they present right offerings to the Lord. The Douay-Rheims has, they shall offer sacrifices to the Lord in justice. The priests had been offering unjust or unrighteous sacrifices (1:6-14).
3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
Pleasing to the Lord. Recalls the Lord’s words from 1:8~When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts.
As in the days of old and as in the former years. An allusion to the covenant with Levi mentioned in 2:4-6.
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 hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
In 2:17 the people were accused of asking “where is God’s justice?” Here we see him promising to I will draw near to you for judgement. In both cases the word for justice/judgement are from the same root, משׁפּט = mishpâṭ, המשׁפט) למשׁפט), thus drawing a connection between the two verses. His justice will manifest his judgement against all covenant breakers.
Sorcerers. Witchcraft, enchanters, all who deal with evil spirits (Ex 22:18).
Adulterers. Condemned in 2:10-16. Another covenant violation (Ex 20:16).
Those who swear falsely (Ex 20:16; Deut 19:16-21).
Those who oppress the hireling in his wages. (Deut 24:14-15).
Those who oppress…the widow and the orphan. (Ex 22:22-24; Deut 24:17-18).
Those who thrust aside the sojourner. (Ex 20:10; 23:12; Deut 26:12-13).
Do not fear me. He will come against all forms of injustice.
3:23 (4:5 some translations) “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
3:24 (4:6 some translations) And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land
See what was written under verse 1 above. The book opened with these words: “I have loved you” (1:2). God’s patience and forbearance in the face of sin is a manifestation of his desire to see people repent. St Peter too had to deal with scoffers who questioned the coming judgement (2 Pet 3:3-4). His response to his readers is to tell them But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Pet 3:8-9). He then goes on to assure them that a judgement will come and that Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation (2 Pet 3:14-15). The faithful wait for the coming judgement, sinners must be brought to fear it by the preaching of repentance. For all its harsh judgements the book of Malachi begins with love and ends with a time of repentance.