Imagine with me a battlefield scene among ancient warriors. Both sides are lined up with their infantry, archers, horses, spears, shields, and swords. It will be a bloody fight. Hand to hand combat at its worst. Many men will die. Behind the two armies, in full armor, sitting on beautifully strong black stallions, are the respected kings of the brave warriors. Before the battle begins, in a final effort to avoid bloodshed, each king sends a lone rider to the middle of the battle field for one last act of diplomacy. Each rider has a message for the other king. Each rider holds the fate of thousands of soldiers. Both sides completely understand the universal rule of warfare: Don’t shoot the messenger! It doesn’t matter if the message carried by the messenger is positive or negative. It doesn’t matter if the outcome, and receptiveness, of the message is good or bad. Under no circumstance do you shoot the messenger.
Over time that phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger,” was applied to people who carry a message of bad news from one person to another. For example, someone might say, “Look, don’t get mad at me, I’m just the messenger, but I have been told to inform you to have your desk cleaned out by the end of the day. You are being terminated.” Don’t shoot the messenger means to not get angry with, or punish someone, who is simply delivering undesirable news when they are not the person responsible for the bad news.
An Introduction to Malachi
As we begin our study of the prophecy of Malachi, I can’t help but think this is how the prophet must have felt. “Don’t be mad at me,” Malachi must have said, “I’m just the messenger.” You see this in the opening verse of his prophecy. “An oracle: the word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi” (Malachi 1:1). The King James Version of the Bible reads, “The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.” The Hebrew word translated “oracle” or “burden” is massa, and refers to a heavy load carried by a donkey (see Exodus 23:5). Over time the word came to be used in reference to a prophetic utterance describing a threat or punishment on the nation of Israel. Malachi is saying, “What I am about to tell you is not good news. I am warning you: Don’t get upset with me. The word of the Lord is a heavy burden I must share. Don’t shoot the messenger.” God’s word is a burden because it is not to be taken lightly and because it demands obedience.
Malachi makes it clear that what he is about to share is from God, not himself. Notice that the word “LORD” is all capitalized. This means the Hebrew word being used is the word God used in Exodus 3:14. This is God’s personal name, Yahweh or Jehovah. Just like Exodus when Moses asked God for His name, the society Malachi was prophesying to was a culture that believed in many different gods. This belief had infected Judaism in what is known as syncretism. Malachi was saying that his burdensome message was from the One true living God.
This specific message, from a specific God, was to His specific people, “Israel.” Malachi’s message was not to individuals, but to the corporate people of God. In fact, most of the prophecies in the Bible (most of the Bible itself) is written to people, not individuals. This is a truth that must not be overlooked nor forgotten. The corporate nature of following God is just as important, if not more important, then the individual nature of conversion. We dilute (and pollute) the Word of God when we individualize it! The power of God’s Word is that it is powerful enough to change cultures; to change the very direction of humankind.
In this very first verse we learn that what follows is a burdensome word from God Himself to the corporate people of God. God’s chosen vessel to deliver His word is “Malachi.” The name “Malachi” means “messenger.” The phrase, “through Malachi” literally reads, “by the hand of His messenger.” This Word of the Lord is so heavy and troublesome the prophet may not have used his real name in revealing it!
There is an important principle here that cannot be overlooked. Speaking truth to people is a necessity, even if the people don’t want to hear it. However, speaking truth to God’s people is even more important, and it can also be extremely dangerous. It’s easy to stand up and arrogantly tell the world they are going to hell. But it is difficult, and dangerous, to look church people in the eye and tell them they need to repent. It is easy to point out the sins of others, but it is hard to confess our own sins. It is easy to condemn the actions of others while justifying our own actions.
A Heavy Burden
Why is this “word of the Lord” so burdensome to Malachi? First and foremost, because it is a word of judgement, calling people to repentance. Malachi’s prophecy was written sometime between 450 and 420 B.C. That’s 2400 plus years ago! The people had resettled in Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon; the Temple had been rebuilt through the work of Nehemiah (Malachi 1:10); and there was no king in Israel, but there was a Persian governor (Malachi 1:8). The people were blessed, but they had drifted away from the One who had blessed them. The people, God’s people, had fallen into moral degradation. Adultery was flourishing. Divorce was rampant. Among God’s people there were falsehoods, fraud, and sorcery. And, get this, it wasn’t just the people of God caught up in all these things, it was the priests of God, the religious leaders, who were the guiltiest! Furthermore, God’s Word had been replaced by traditionalism, laying the ground work for both Pharisaism and Sadduceeism. Malachi was a call for the people of God to return to God before the Messiah comes. Likewise, for us today, Malachi is a call for the church to return to God before Jesus returns.
Secondly, Malachi’s “word of the Lord” is troubling because it is a word of criticism against what worship had become. Malachi’s harshest words, as we shall see, are against the religious leaders (the priests) who had allowed worship to become all show and no substance. The people were worshiping regularly, but God says their worship was detestable to Him. Why? Because they were not giving God their best! They were simply going through the motions of worship so they could get on with the rest of their week. Malachi knew the greatest sin of God’s people is the sin against God. Furthermore, because their worship was weak, the teaching of God Word had all but vanished from the pulpits. You cannot separate corporate worship from the faithful teaching of God’s Word. Jesus said to worship Him in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). True worship engages both our emotions and our intellect.
This word from Malachi is still burdensome today because it goes straight to the heart of what is wrong with evangelical Christianity in the United States today! We have churches on every corner but our culture has almost degraded to a point of no return. We live in a society that is more secular than spiritual, even though the vast majority of people claim to be followers of Jesus. Our churches have great music, but sermons have become more self-help and less Spirit-anointed. Something just doesn’t add up! How can we have more churches than ever, but also more immorality, more violence, and more poverty than ever? The problem is not out there, but in here. Peter wrote, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God…” (1 Peter 4:17).
Third, God’s Word was burdensome to Malachi because it will be the last “word of the Lord” for more than 400 years. God’s people had become comfortable, complacent, and apathetic. Malachi was trying to wake them up and get them ready for the coming of the Lord. But after Malachi’s voice, God goes silent for four centuries. After Malachi, there are no more prophets until John the Baptist. John the Baptist picks up where Malachi left off. Indeed, John the Baptist is the Malachi of the New Testament.
While Malachi’s prophecy is burdensome, it is not without hope. God is a God of both justice and grace. The hope of Malachi is found in three things. First, there is hope in the love of God. In Malachi 1:2, God proclaims, “I have loved you…” In spite of Israel’s many rebellions and multitudes of sins, God has always loved them and He will always love them. Likewise God’s love for us is a never ending love. There is nothing we can do that can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:39). That means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more then He already does and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less then He already does. In fact, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). You may feel like no one loves you and everyone has given up on you, but God loves you and He will never leave you nor forsake you. God has not, and will not, give up on you. You can find strength, encouragement, rest, and hope in the simple fact that God loves you.
Second, Malachi’s prophecy is one of hope because of the greatness of God. Even when things seem chaotic and the world seems out of control, Malachi says, “Great is the LORD—even beyond the borders of Israel” (Malachi 1:5). Even when God’s people have strayed from Him and our worship is detestable to Him, God says, “My name will be great among the nations…and my name is to be feared among the nations” (Malachi 2:11 and 14). If in our worship we are quiet, Jesus said, “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). The early church sang: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father” (Philippians 2:9-11). At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter who stands, and who doesn’t stand, for the national anthem. What matters is whether or not you have bowed in repentance before the great name of God. What matters is if you have experienced the grace of God found through faith in Jesus Christ.
Third, Malachi is a prophecy of hope because of the Messenger of God. Malachi’s name means messenger. Malachi’s message is a message from God. Malachi prophesies that John the Baptist will be a messenger that will come before the ultimate Messenger, Jesus Christ. Through Malachi, God said, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, who you desire…” (Malachi 3:1).
In Mark 12:1-12, Jesus tells a parable that was ultimately about Himself. In the parable, a man plants a large vineyard with a winepress and a watchtower. He then rents the vineyard to some farmers and goes away on a long journey. At harvest time he sends a servant to the farmers to collect rent. The farmers don’t shoot the messenger, this time, but they do beat him up, and run him off, without paying. He sends another messenger and they beat him up. He sends several more messengers. Some they beat up and some they killed. Finally, he sends his son, but the farmers killed him as well. Jesus then asked, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Mark 12:9). Interestingly enough, in the same way Malachi’s prophecy was to the people of God and the leaders of God’s people, so was Jesus’ parables. And just like Malachi’s prophecy, the people did not listen to Jesus either. Here is the point: When we reject God’s Word, when we reject Jesus, we are shooting the Messenger.
What, then, are we to do?
Through Malachi, God says, “I the LORD do not change…return to me and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Malachi 3:6-7). There are three things God is asking us to do: Listen. Repent. Return. Listen to God’s Word. Receive His message, no matter how much it may hurt or trouble you. Repent of your sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. Return to God. Recommit your life to Him. These three things are not just for us as individuals, but also for us as His church. As the people of God, we need to listen to His voice. What is God telling us, as a church, to do and not do, to be and not be? We need to repent for going through the motions of corporate worship and not given God our very best. We need to return to the unique calling and vision He has for us to be a conscious of the community. To be a voice for the voiceless. To enable people to experience authentic relationships with God and each other by building an Acts 2 biblical community.
Don’t shoot the messenger!