The question Malachi poses is valid for each occasion on which the Lord visits men individually or collectively. “Who can stand?” The question is rhetorical. Scripture knows the answer only too well. “But who can endure the day of his coming?” The tone is ominous and the conclusion devastating. No one can stand, or endure the Lord’s coming inspection. His justice is something we must face but it causes super-terrifying fear when we recognize that we must fall guilty into the hands of the living God. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
The Lord will testify against all wickedness and our part in it in terms of our having committed sin or having complied with evil. We shall be judged singly for our own breach of the divine law, either in action or attitude, deed or desire. We shall be assessed for our assent to social sins against which we did not protest, and which we did not seek to rectify, according to our opportunity or ability however limited. The two tables of the law will be placed before the eye of the soul and we shall register our infringements of the moral law in relation to God and man.
The list of sins against which the prophet inveighs is partial but fundamental to fallen human character (v5). Sorcery means to submit to demonic control and to call upon evil supernatural powers to gain fulfilment of evil desires. It is to endeavour to gain ends by enchantments and spells. We are all enchanted by our own perverse inclinations and seek to satisfy our wills rather than to serve the Lord’s will. There are flagrant and sinister manifestations of the dark arts that cause us to recoil, but there are dark ways and concealed craft in every heart that are akin to sorcery – the pursuit of perceived advantages without reference to God and reliance on his guidance. Adultery covers marital and spiritual infidelity. The treacherous heart is firmly lodged in every human being. We are wanderers through weakness and self will. Our lives leave a trail of broken promises and commitments. As God is ever reliable he detests our lack of reliability towards him and others. Perjury under oath is a serious crime with injurious consequences, especially if it amounts to false testimony against another. But human nature lies constantly to itself, others, and to God. Dishonesty and deceit is a constant stream that flows from the heart, consciously and subconsciously. Crime is only our true character appearing on the surface and beneath it is a foulness that is frightening and unfathomable.
The law is so penetrating. Even when it tackles various types of wrongdoing, or addresses sin in general terms that seem to exclude ourselves explicitly, it very soon homes in on our hearts accusingly. Our sense of decency dissolves when we discern the spirituality of the law. We realize that action is small evidence of our corruption. The heart stores up and pores over a universe of depravity and defilement that only God can weigh and the load of iniquity sinks us into hell. The next three sins on Malachi’s list aim principally at the rich and powerful in society, those who have influence over the wellbeing of others, the makers of policy and shapers of practice. They are aimed at the moral leaders and monetary manipulators of a nation.
Fraudulence against labourers is a more serious crime against God and man than many admit (Adam and Eve were co-labourers with God and amply provided for beyond their strict deserts by any calculation). Who can assess a fair wage? How is it gauged? Both need and generosity will come into consideration. Workers have duty and dignity. Israel had God-given ceilings for wealth (honest gain and the provisions of the Year of Jubilee) and safety nets for welfare (care for the poor as observed by Boaz). Justice prohibited greed and provided for acts of compassion. The King was to oversee and act for the wellbeing of his subjects spiritually and socially. The elite classes and the common citizenry had responsibilities to each other. However a fallen race provides severely limited opportunity for any indulgence of idealism, and self interest will always prevail between the now contending sectors of the human community.
The point is that the ruling class with all its advantages was taking advantage of the less advantaged and dependent (cf. Amos 5: 11ff and the many other strong denunciations offered by the prophets). Minimal wages were awarded, withheld, or delayed. Widows and orphans, anyone in penury, were oppressed (e.g. slum landlords on various continents today charge exorbitant rents to those afflicted with the suffering and shame of poverty). Resident aliens (those without rights and dependent on goodwill) were not treated humanely. On all sides there were laws to be upheld and love of neighbour to be exercised in ways that were appropriate to circumstances. In the Lord’s eyes those without affluence or influence are to be considered kindly. Those with distinguishing differences are to be integrated into the just ways of a society that insists on fairness. Who better to learn and exhibit these divine instructions than the people of Israel who had been involved in grave offences against the law given for their moral benefit, or had been victims themselves of immoral cruelty (Egypt was no vacation resort).
The wonderful thing about any warning of judgment is that it contained the clues of a divinely given alternative – the promise of a saving act imposed upon a chosen remnant. Judgment is necessary purgation. But God also performs a salvific purification of his true people. “I the Lord do not change” avers Malachi. The people of righteousness will be accepted as in former days. Their offerings to God – of praise and reconciliation – are rendered through the validity of a purification to be wrought on their behalf by One who will cause them to stand and endure through the Great Ordeal because he will have diverted it away from them and directed it toward himself. There is a covenant that keeps the believer safe. Its messenger is the voluntary means of our deliverance. He is both Prophet and Priest. He announces and accomplishes a perfect atonement for those who have affronted a holy God. He makes amendment for our offences. Through his disposition of mercy we are not destroyed.