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Escaping the day of the Lord.
Within God’s unflinching and terrifying word of judgment there is a word of divine grace.
For thirty-eight chapters, the Old Testament recounts the sprawling story of how the Lord Jehovah patiently intervenes on behalf of his chosen people. From Eden to exile, God’s people are dealt hand after hand of undiluted mercy and compassion. They are continually given not what they deserve but the exact opposite (a.k.a. grace). And all of this is so that the Lord might wonderfully and remarkably evince the type of God he is. He’s not like other gods. He has no parallel. He has no rival. Whereas other deities might be adored as unflinching and imposing figures worthy of veneration, they are as nothing when standing next to Yahweh. All of which brings us to the thirty-ninth, and last, chapter of the Old Testament story. In Malachi 4, the prophet continues his diatribe against the priests and people of God for the ways in which they egregiously mishandled the Word of God, embracing formality and iniquity instead of upholding the authority and purity of Yahweh’s commands. In so doing, they jeopardized all of God’s covenant people, putting them at risk of being cursed forever:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Mal. 4:5–6)
It’s worth noting, I think, that the very last word in the very last verse of the Old Testament is the word “curse.” This, to be sure, is an ominous and gloomy note on which to end the historical record of God’s people. There’s nothing happy here. After all those thousands of years of renewal and rebellion and back again, this book of God ends with a decidedly menacing thud. This ending is, in a way, anticlimactic, perhaps even disillusioning. But, even so, it serves as a blunt reminder that God’s people had thoroughly rejected God’s Word, which just means that they had chosen this option. By deciding to mingle their allegiance to Yahweh with allegiances to other, lesser gods, they had decided to go the way of curses. We need not belabor ourselves in recounting that troubled history, seeing as it is the revealed story of the entire Old Testament. Suffice it to say, the very ones whom God had designated to be his vessels of blessing to the nations were those who had grown to spit and snub and slight every last one of God’s words.
This “thud” of an ending, then, isn’t so surprising, even if it is off-putting and disconcerting. God had continually warned his people that if they relented from following his words and ways, and rebelled, there would be a price to pay. Here, Malachi proceeds to elaborate on what that price was: “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1). These vivid words describe a future day in which the flames of judgment will consume “the proud” like “stubble.” This, of course, is a continuation of what the prophet alluded to at the end of chapter 3, where he spoke of a day when the righteous and the wicked will be perfectly “discerned” (Mal. 3:17–18). These remarks are, of course, referring to that coming Day of the Lord, the End of Days when the “Lord of hosts” himself will return for the second time to establish his kingdom on the earth.
On “that day,” according to Malachi, a scalding fire will burn up the unrighteous, and all those who are too full of pride to bow in the presence of this awesome King. Indeed, it’s significant to note that first among the list of those set to be judged are “the proud,” once again indicating that which God hates most (Prov. 6:16–17; Ezek. 21:26; Amos 6:8; James 4:6). The Lord Jehovah loathes the notion which men everywhere embrace that they are not in need of his favor or his influence. He is revulsed by the idea that we do not need him. And such is how “the proud” and “the wicked” carry themselves (Mal. 3:15). They live according to their own wit and wisdom. They set their own course and, for a while, all seems well. They are exalted as those who are worthy of our emulation and embrace. But then, suddenly, “that day” dawns, and all that appeared sturdy and stable is reduced to nothing but “stubble.”
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch . . . And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts. (Mal. 4:1, 3)
Those who were revered will be exposed, and all that will remain is the chaff of all their supposed successes. “The ‘set-up’ things of an apostate age shall be stubble in the day of God,” G. Campbell Morgan comments, “stubble when the Sun of righteousness is shining” (122–23). Nothing of substance will abide that fire, not even “root nor branch.” Every trophy of their prideful resistance to the Lord’s words and wisdom will be consumed, with the only thing left being the ashes that remain when the fire is put out. It is a foreboding message, to be sure, one of imminent and dire judgment. The purpose, though, is to upset the comfort and relative ease in which God’s people found in and of themselves. “The prophets,” writes Joel D. Barker, “employ the specter of the Day of the Lord to offer both warning and hope, announcing both disaster and salvation” (132). That callous and cozy religion that masqueraded as the faith of God was squarely in the viewfinder of God’s judgment. What else would shock folks in that state other than the assured oracle that a day of reckoning was on the horizon?
God, you see, is after his people’s attention because he is after their heart. The prophecy of Malachi is a prophecy of judgment that’s tinged with hope. That hope is found in the assuring word that the Lord Jehovah is impervious to change (Mal. 3:6). His disposition towards those he loves does not vacillate or change, notwithstanding our passing failures. “God,” affirms Rev. Alexander Maclaren, “does not turn from His love, nor cancel His promises, nor alter His purposes of mercy because of our sins” (6:1.353). “Notwithstanding all the varied and varying conditions of humanity,” continues Morgan, in a similar vane, “love underlies all the Divine dealings, and love still marks the attitude of God to His people despite their failures, their rebellion, alas! alas! so often evident” (76). To such who have failed and fallen, the words of the Lord resound, “Return unto me, and I will return unto you” (Mal. 3:7). And even here, as the finality of this burning judgment is declared, relief is offered if the people remember and return (Mal. 4:4, 6).
You see, within this unflinching and terrifying word of judgment, there is, likewise, a word of divine grace. Ere that “great and dreadful day of the Lord” dawns, there remains the opportunity for one and all to turn their hearts back to the Lord. And in that turning, the utterly certain destruction of “root and branch” is alleviated. In that turning, there is found safety and preservation from the day of the Lord’s wrath in the Lord himself. This ominous message concerning the coming “Day of the Lord” is accompanied by a message of escape, which has been providentially provided by the Lord Jehovah. “Yahweh,” Barker continues, “offers escape from the Day of the Lord for those who call upon his name” (139). The only means of escape on “that day” is the faith that’s born out of repentance. Such is why the harbingers of “that day” arrive annunciating that very message (Mark 1:4, 15).
This leads us to make a startling conclusion. Namely, that in the same day in which the prideful are burnt up like straw, the humble are made whole. Malachi suggests that everyone’s experience of “that day” will vary widely. “The proud” and “the wicked” will see “that day” as nothing but an encroaching fire, blistering and burning every last badge of success. However, those that “fear” the Lord will have a very different experience. “But unto you,” the prophet announces, “that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall” (Mal. 4:2). As the Lord covers the earth in righteous, so, too, will he cover his own with the divine remedy for their sins, which is found in him alone. And as the “Sun of righteousness” dawns, so, too, will dawn a new creation.
The image, here, is of the first light of spring after a long, dark winter. Those rays which descend upon the chilled earth bring warmth to what was frozen and life to that which was dead. Such is the picture Malachi employs when he refers to the faithful as the “calves of the stall” who spring from their enclosures to frolic in the new day. Such is what those who fear the name of Yahweh are freed to do when “that day comes.” Such, too, is the beloved hope of the gospel of God.
All of Scripture is the revelation of God’s redemptive purposes, the way in which sinning man can avoid the “curse.” God’s Word is the remarkable announcement that the final word of the Old Testament doesn’t have to be your “final word.” Why? Because the Old Testament is not God’s final word to sinning men. There’s another testament! And in that other testament of God’s redemptive purposes, we are introduced to the One who came to take the curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God’s “last word on the subject of sin” (Capon, 32). In and because of him, the incarnate Word of the Father, we can approach “that day” without fear or trembling. He takes the judgment for us in and on himself, liberating us to pray, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20–21). There is a day of reckoning coming. But, thanks be to God, the Judge himself has made a way for us to escape it.
Joel D. Barker, “Day of the Lord,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).
G. Campbell Morgan, Wherein Have We Robbed God? Malachi’s Message to the Men of To-day (New York: Revell, 1898).