The Great Day of the Lord
4:1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules1 that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”2
It would be easy to get the idea that all religions lead to God, but the Old Testament teaches the opposite. No religion can bring us to God, not even the religion of the Old Testament itself. The entire Old Testament was given to show us why we need Jesus and to prepare us for His coming. God destroys all false hopes so that we may find our true hope in His Son, who answers the problem of sin and fulfills the promise of God.
If the Bible were presented as a drama, it would unfold in two parts, like a two-act play. The Old Testament is act one. In real time, it spans about 1,600 years from Abraham to Malachi, and at the end of the first act, we are ready to spill out into the foyer for an intermission, before we come back to see what happens in act two.
Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He spoke the Word of God at the time of Nehemiah when a small community rebuilt Jerusalem. After Malachi, nothing significant happened in God’s story for four hundred years. So as we come to the end of the Old Testament, it’s worth asking: Where do things stand in the relationship between God and His people after all these years? Malachi does not give us an encouraging answer.
The story of act one has been about a problem and a promise. The problem that runs through the Bible story is that men and women are alienated from God, in conflict with one another, and under a curse that hangs over every person born into the world.
Denial, Denial, Denial
Our alienation from God is clear from the pattern that runs throughout the book of Malachi in which God’s people repeatedly resist what He says. Relationships are restored when issues that have caused offense are brought to light and dealt with honestly, so God reaches out to reconcile with His people, but His people were in denial about the problem.
God begins by affirming His love: “I have loved you,” says the LORD (Malachi 1:2). But God’s people fold their arms in defiance: “How have you loved us?” (1:2).
Then God addresses the priests who despise His name, but they say, “How have we despised your name?” (1:6).
Then God raises the issue of tithes. “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me.” But God’s people push back: “How have we robbed you?” (3:8).
Then God accuses His people of speaking about Him harshly. “Your words have been hard against me.” But with feigned innocence they ask, “How have we spoken against you?” (3:13).
This discussion is getting nowhere, and the pattern runs right through the book – denial, denial, denial. When God raises the issue of repentance – “Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of hosts – the response has a note of petulance about it: “How shall we return?” (3:7).
The Old Testament story that began with a man and a woman in fellowship with God ends with men and women alienated from God and unresponsive to His love.
The Pain of a Broken Home
Besides being alienated from God, human beings are also in conflict with each another. In the garden, Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect happiness. God gave them a beautiful relationship, in which their love for each other was a mirror of the love of God for them.
They were at ease together and their trust in each other was complete, but the knowledge of evil changed all that. Adam blamed his wife for what had gone wrong, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on! For the first time, suspicion developed between the man and the woman. The knowledge of evil brought estrangement into their marriage.
No one imagines, on their wedding day, that they will end up in divorce court. But in Malachi’s time, as in ours, marriages were breaking apart: “The LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (2:14).
The story of the Old Testament began with a man and a woman sharing the joy of a perfect life in the garden, and it ends with men and women in the divorce court, unable to sustain a relationship of faithfulness and love.
The estrangement that began with broken trust in one marriage led to a world of conflict in which families, communities, and nations are torn apart.
As if alienation from God and estrangement from one another isn’t enough, a dreadful curse hangs over every person born into the world.
God’s curse on evil permeates the whole book of Malachi: “I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings” (2:2). “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you” (3:9).
The last verse of this last book in the Old Testament ends with a curse: “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (4:6).
So at the end of the Old Testament, no progress has been made in dealing with the problem of alienation from God, conflict between human beings, or the dreadful curse that hangs over the human race. The problems that began in the garden are written all over the book of Malachi, right up to the last word.
The Unfulfilled Promise
The problem of sin pervades the Old Testament, but the heart of the Bible story beats with a promise. When evil entered the world, God promised that someone, born of a woman, would destroy the evil one and all of his works (Genesis 3:15).
So right from the beginning of this great drama, we are looking for a person who will overcome the power of evil and deliver the human race from our alienation with God, our conflict with one another, and from the curse that hangs over us all.
Now at the end of the Old Testament, God sends Malachi to remind His people, not only of the problem, but also of the promise: “The sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2).
The day will come when God’s people will experience the freedom that calves enjoy when they are released. But at the end of the Old Testament, we are still looking for that promise to be fulfilled.
Time for the Intermission
So the great drama of act one is complete, and it is time for the intermission. The relationship with God that began in fellowship has been ruptured. The experience of life that was filled with joy is now stained with tears. The prospect of everlasting life has been eclipsed by a curse that hangs over men and women on account of sin. A great promise has been given, but it has not yet been fulfilled.
So the intermission comes, and we all spill out into the foyer to reflect on the first act. People are talking about what they have seen.
“Some of that was a bit heavy,” says a large man as he lights up his pipe.
“Some of it made me want to cry,” says a lady with a wine glass in her hand.
“I hope that act two has a happier ending than this,” adds a third.
“Well, it must,” says someone else. “All the way through there have been promises and pointers; something good is going to happen.”
“Well, whatever it is, it ain’t happened yet,” says a man who is clearly frustrated. “Nothing has happened in the whole of act one that has dealt with the basic problem.”
“What do you mean nothing has happened?” his wife interjects. “We’ve had the Law, and the sacrifices; we’ve had kings and priests; we’ve seen the cloud of God’s presence in the temple…”
“So what?” snaps the frustrated man. “The main problem isn’t solved. They are alienated from God, they are in conflict with each other, and the curse is still hanging over them.”
The bell rings for the end of the intermission, and they all file back to their seats in the theater for act two.
Don’t Miss Act Two!
When you come to the end of the Old Testament, with all its laws, priests, and sacrifices, you are left asking, “What will it take to end this alienation from God, to change the human heart, and to remove the dreadful curse?”
This is why Jesus Christ came into the world. He came to solve the problem of our alienation from God: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
He came to bring peace and reconciliation to broken human lives. Christ is our peace, “who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
And Christ has set us free from the curse by “becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). The Son of God did what no one else could: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
The story that began in the garden will not end in tears. It will end with more joy than Adam and Eve could ever have imagined, in a new creation populated by all who have been redeemed by Christ. We will be free, not only from the power of sin, but even from its presence. We will see God and enter into life in all its fullness forevermore.
- The Old Testament ends with people still alienated from God. What has been your own experience of this?
- Where have you, personally, felt the effects of the estrangement of the human race from one another?
- How does the end of the Old Testament leave you feeling? Burdened? Sad? Hopeful? Frustrated? Other? Why?
- Can you explain why the religion of the Old Testament was a failure?
- Do you think Jesus is able to reconcile us to God, bring peace and reconciliation in human relationships, and remove the curse? Why or why not?