1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 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. 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, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 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.
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 hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. – Malachi 3:1-5 ESV
The Israelites had dared to question the justice of God. They had willingly violated His commands and had suffered no consequences. So, in their minds, He was either impotent or indifferent to their behavior. But they were in for a rude awakening. Just because God had not yet punished them for their sins did not mean He was powerless to do so. He was the very same God who had sent them into exile 70 years earlier for having committed many of the very same sins against Him. He was gracious and merciful, but He was also righteous and just and determined to hold His people to their covenant commitments. God could not and would not leave their sins unpunished.
These verses deal with the present spiritual condition of the people of Israel by pointing to a future judgment to come. Through His messenger, Malachi, God warns of another messenger who will appear on the scene in the future, declaring the coming of the Lord.
“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” – Malachi 3:1 NLT
The God they seem to believe was distant and disinterested was going to show up in their city and make an appearance in the temple.
“Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple.” – Malachi 3:1 NLT
The Lord was going to make His presence known in the very place where they were offering blemished and unworthy offerings to Him. Malachi warns the people that the day was coming when Yahweh would make a personal appearance in His holy temple. And it’s important to note that the people of Israel had expressed their sorrow and confusion over His seeming absence and silence when they had offered their sacrifices to Him.
You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. – Malachi 2:13 ESV
God would not always remain silent or hidden. He would one day respond to their sins and reveal Himself in all His might and power. But God states that His appearance will be preceded by “my messenger” (malʾakhi). While this is a variation of the prophet’s name, it does not refer to Malachi. Verse 5 of chapter 4 reveals this messenger’s identity.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” – Malachi 4:5 ESV
Malachi is recording a prophetic pronouncement from God that has a now-not-yet aspect to it. The reference to this future messenger and his designation as Elijah are all cleared up by a series of statements made by Jesus concerning John the Baptist.
“This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’” – Matthew 11:10 ESV
And Jesus went on to explain that John the Baptist was the “Elijah” of whom the prophets spoke.
“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” – Matthew 11:13-14 ESV
In a later exchange with His disciples, Jesus further clarified John the Baptist’s role as the “messenger” of God who would prepare the way for His coming.
And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. – Matthew 17:10-13 ESV
And even before John the Baptist’s birth, an angel of the Lord had appeared to Zechariah the priest, declaring that his barren wife would bear him a son.
“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him 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.” – Luke 1:16-17 ESV
The people of Israel longed for a divine “messenger” who would appear on the scene and reestablish the glory days of Israel. They were familiar with all the prophetic passages that spoke of a coming one who would be a son of David and set up His kingdom on earth. They dreamed of the day when this mighty warrior-king would make his appearance and put Israel back on the geopolitical map. They had no king and were living in the shadows of their more powerful pagan neighbors. So, they would have understood Malachi’s mention of “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight” as a reference to this long-hoped-for Messiah or savior.
And while God assures them that the Messiah is coming, He warns that His appearance will not be quite as joyful for them as they had hoped.
“But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord.” – Malachi 3:2-3 NLT
Their idea of the messenger of the covenant was a deliverer who would fulfill all of the blessings that God had promised as part of His covenant commitment. But they failed to remember that the covenant was bi-lateral in nature. God’s blessings were contingent upon their obedience.
“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV
But as Malachi has already pointed out, they had not kept their part of the agreement. Like their ancestors, they had continued to disregard God’s laws and dishonor His holiness by bowing down to false gods. So, when this messenger of the covenant appears, He will come to purify and cleanse the people. He will be like a refining fire that purges all the dross from the gold so that what remains is pure and undefiled. This agent of God will perform a miraculous cleansing of God’s people so that they are able to come before Him in sinless purity.
“Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past.” – Malachi 3:4 NLT
God will do for them what they were incapable of doing for themselves. He will purify and cleanse their hearts. The prophet Ezekiel spoke of this coming day of the Lord and the miraculous life-altering ministry of the Messiah.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 ESV
In order for cleansing to take place, judgment will have to be leveled against all those who stand before God as impure and defiled by their sins. That is why God warns that, in the future, when the Messiah comes, He will “draw near to you for judgment” (Malachi 3:5 ESV). This cannot be speaking of Jesus’ first coming because Jesus clearly stated, “I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47 ESV). But at His second coming, Jesus will come as judge. In His righteousness, He will expose all sin and deal a blow to Satan and his demons.
In the present, Malachi is warning the Israelites that their sins are offensive to a holy God. And in the future, those sins will be exposed and dealt with. In order for cleansing to take place, all their sins will need to be revealed, confessed, and burned away. God wanted His people to understand that their current sins will one day face a future judgment. Their unrighteousness was a problem that needed to be addressed. They couldn’t ignore it or continue to justify it. Because God’s judgment of sin is inevitable and inescapable.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.