I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed…Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. …”you have said harsh things against me, “says the Lord. “Yet you ask,’What have we said against you?’ “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evil doers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.'”
Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked….When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny….Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. “They will be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.
How easy it is to forget that while we may hide our inmost thoughts and motives from even our dearest friends, we cannot hide a single, fleeting notion from our holy, almighty and just God. How foolish we are, reckoning that because we fool some of the people, for some of the time, that somehow God – who made the mind, in all its complexity, and who alone understands the human heart because He formed it – is deceived by our lip-service and nominal obedience.
In the book of the prophet Malachi, God challenges his people, stripping away their defensive arguments, to reveal the truth of their hearts, the things they really believe about Him and about themselves. They have fallen into the classic misunderstanding which continues to dog humanity in its dealings with divinity – that somehow they can and must earn favour by going through certain prescribed motions. The absurdity of the notion, that these little rituals of sacrifice/cleansing and fasting, by insignificant mortals, can in some way alter the attitude of an eternal, unimaginably holy and powerful God, just keeps slipping away from us and we assume that our performances put God in our debt! It is beyond ridiculous, and it also betrays a complete failure to understand the character of God, and our own utter helplessness.
It is God’s favour to us – undeserved, boundless and eternal – which calls forth from us a response of worship and obedience to his revealed will. The prophet is speaking on behalf of God, beseeching them to repent of their superficial religiosity, and instead to embrace obedience from the heart, not in order to earn favour, but in order to appropriately respond to what they have received. Ingratitude, rejection of God’s love, of His rightful place as Lord, all speak of hearts which are full of pride and self-reliance. Earnest – if flawed – obedience; the desire to keep on pursuing holiness by all the means of grace at our disposal, speak of hearts which are humble, realistic, and dependent on God.
The same rituals which were dismissed as bearing no fruit by the merely religious, could be a source of encouragement, a form of true worship by those whose hearts were changed. In our day, the so-called ‘duties’ of a believer – bible reading and prayer; attendance at church and active membership in a congregation; faithful giving of time, talents and money are all means by which we may choose to be blessed if we bring the attitude of a redeemed sinner to them, instead of a self-serving, self-reliant critic of God.
Let us be on guard against this attitude of entitlement – God owes us nothing, but has given us everything we need for this life and the next. Those who try to earn salvation by their deeds; or who reject the idea of God altogether and choose to live without him, will have their reward in this life, but will have no part in the treasure-house of God when He comes to gather it for eternity. May we be faithful in proclaiming this truth to those who do not know it, and meantime live humbly depending upon His grace to us, and not our worthiness to receive it..