Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

The delighted response of God (Mal. 3:13-18)

The prophet says that the Lord hearkened and heard the small groups as they met to think about him. The verb translated ‘hearkened’ would have been used of an animal that hears a sudden noise that intrigues it. We have all seen dogs and cats lift up their ears as their hearing picks up a distinct and different sound. When we apply this to God, it is a word picture that informs us of his delight in hearing words that are totally different from the complaining words of the majority. Of all the multitude of words that ascend into the ears of God, the ones of which he takes special notice are those of his fearing people. He does this every time they meet to think about his name.

The idea behind the word translated ‘heard’ is that of a mother bending down to listen to the words of her child. What comes from the child’s mouth might not be intelligent or profound, but the words will be an expression of trust. This is what the Lord does when his people express their confidence in him in difficult times. He bends down to listen to every word, and each word fills him with delight.

The Lord does more than listen with delight. Malachi informs his audience that the Lord is determined to bless his trusting people. He uses an illustration taken from the custom of the Persian kings. Whenever a person did something for the king, the action was recorded in a special book. The reason why it was recorded was not merely one of recognition; in addition there was the intention of the king to reward the person at a suitable time. This reward would be given according to the riches of the king and not according to the status of the person. It is a marvellous picture of the Lord’s intention to bless abundantly his faithful people. Each time of fellowship was recorded in heaven with the aim of bestowing spiritual blessings upon them in the future. This does not mean that obedience merits grace, but it does mean that there is a clear link between our delight in God and in his determination to bless us.

Regarding ourselves, it is wonderful to know that there is a register in heaven that records our little expressions of devotion, and to know that the Lord is waiting for the suitable moment when he will bestow his blessings upon us.

In this life, many blessings come our way because of the register in heaven. Yet there is one great blessing in which all his people are going to share, and it will be experienced at the judgement seat. Believers have different experiences of God’s mercy as they live for him day by day, but nothing in this life comes close to the marvellous prediction that the prophet makes in these verses.

God will make a distinction between his people and others on that day. He says that his people will be his jewels when he puts together his diadem on the final day. They will be put on public display, glorified in a manner suitable for a royal occasion. The King will collect them and arrange them in beautiful harmony and they will glisten in the light of his splendour. All of them will be perfect and will possess greater understanding that they had in this world. Yet they will be doing the same activity there as they did here, talking about the greatness and the grace of God.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Godly Remnant (Malachi 3:13-18)

We have seen that this prophetic book is largely a collection of interactions between the Lord and the Israelites. They have complained against his providences, although as Malachi points out, these troubles came because they were not honouring the Lord as they should have done with their sacrifices and tithing. In verses 13 to 15, we see a repeated complaint that the people had. They accused the Lord of failing to bless his people, despite their perceived outward adherence to his commandments. Their eyes looked only on external matters, and therefore they noticed that they were worse off than those who did not acknowledge God.

Thankfully, there were those among the Israelites who were different from the formalists, and they are described in verses 16 to 18. They feared the Lord and had fellowship together. Of them, the Lord had no complaint, indeed he took great delight in them and made great promises to them.

Two details are mentioned about these people. One concerns their inner life and the other their outward conduct. Their inner quality was that they feared God and thought about his name.  To fear God is to reverence him out of love to his unique and exalted character. A person that fears God obeys his commandments and confesses his faults unto the Lord.

These believers also meditate on the name of the Lord. ‘Name’ was often used as a substitute for ‘character’. When we apply it to the Lord, it refers to his attributes, abilities and aims. True believers love to talk about the Lord and his purposes and promises, whether to them personally or to the people of God in general. Circumstances are viewed from the point of view of his providence, they see his hand in all that takes place. Disappointments are his appointments. In Malachi’s day, the remnant was totally different from other religious people: the devout considered what was happening and thoughtfully considered why they were being chastised as a people, unlike the merely religious who accused God of being against them.

The outward feature that is recommended is their practice of meeting to speak with one another. No doubt these times of fellowship were like coals in a fire: each coal retained its heat because it was found among other burning coals. Their fellowship was edifying, encouraging and energising. It was edifying because they thought of God, it was encouraging because they applied what they knew of God to the current situation, and it was energising because it gave them strength to continue serving him. These three features are reasons why we must have fellowship with one another in our day as well.

It is also important to note that they met often with one another. The frequency gives insight into their desire for fellowship as well as their awareness of the duty of engaging in it. Duty would cause them to meet regularly, desire would lead them to meet often. This is the secret of Christian bonding and Christian love. It is impossible to grow in brotherly love if we do not meet together often.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Tithing (Malachi 3:6-12)

Malachi, in his book, is pointing out spiritual defects in the lives of the people of his day. Here he comes to deal with the matter of tithing. Because they had not tithed according to God’s instructions, they were revealing that their hearts had departed from God. This practice had been going on for a long time, from the days of their fathers, which may be a reference to those who returned from the exile or to those who lived before the exile. The people probably did not give the issue much thought. But God did; he regarded their failure as robbery.

In general, the tithe was used for the running of the public aspects of God’s worship: the upkeep of the temple, the daily sustenance of the priests, the care of the poor. The tithe was not limited to money but included a tenth of variety of things. Failing to give as God required was the equivalent of plunder.

This is an astounding assessment. For a thief to rob a weak person’s money is understandable even although it is a cruel crime; for him to try and rob the most powerful person in the country is an act of folly as well as a crime because he should know that he will be caught and punished. In robbing God, the Israelites were displaying folly as well as sin because they should have realised how easy it was for God to detect their sin and punish them for it.

Their failure is astounding in another way as well. In addition to it being an expression of folly, it was also an expression of ingratitude. They were refusing to give to the God who had been so good to them as a people throughout their history from the Exodus onwards. He had faithfully kept his promises to them, therefore they should have fulfilled their commitment to him.

Jesus endorses the practice of paying tithes in Luke 11:42 when he was condemning the Pharisees for their religious failures: ‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.’ Again, he shows there is a connection between tithing and religious dedication.

The Lord through Malachi issues a call to repentance, for his people to put things right. They are to bring the tithes to the temple (the storehouse). If they did, then the Lord would send them rain, with the result being an abundant harvest. He would also ensure that their crops and vines would be protected from marauding animals and armies. The Lord even insists that they test him in this regard to see whether or not he will keep his promise.

How long would the Lord continue to give this blessing? The answer is as long as the people kept on tithing. The phrase ‘until there not be room to receive it’ is literally ‘until there is a failure of sufficiency’. It could mean that God would give so much that there would not be enough room for it or it could mean that God would keep giving until the heavenly source ran dry (an impossibility, of course). In any case, it means that continual obedience to God will result in continual blessing from God.

Some people read this verse as if it were mainly a promise of spiritual revival. That is probably an application of it, but it is not the initial point of the verse. The verse is dealing with God’s response to the obedience of his people. It is similar to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that if we seek first the kingdom of God, he will provide us with our food and our clothing, he will ensure that we have the good things of this life that we need.

The prophet also says that other people would see the difference. The surrounding countries would realise that the Lord had blessed them. I suppose an application of this is that non-Christians should observe that the needs of believers are met by God even in difficult circumstances. Private giving eventually results in a public witness to the goodness of God.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The effects of the coming of Jesus (Malachi 3:1-7)

Although the people imagined that they were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, the reality would be far different. His arrival would cause great changes to take place.  The day of his coming does not refer to the first or to the second comings of Jesus but to both and also to the period in between them. Malachi says that the arrival of the Messenger will result in three effects: purification of the sons of Levi, acceptable worship, and acts of judgement. As is often the case with Old Testament prophecy, we should recognise that divine predictions are given within the limitations of Old Testament circumstances and may contain elements that go far beyond a literal interpretation.

When the Messiah comes he will get rid of the dross and the dirt that marked the lives of the people. A refiner burned the dross out of a metal and soap was used for taking dirty marks of clothes. In particular, the priests would be purified and would be qualified to worship before God. They would only offer suitable sacrifices, which would make the offerings of the people acceptable, as they had been before they began to give to God the worst of their animals. If the people refused to repent and change their ways and begin to live according to God’s law, they would be judged (v. 5).

Jesus will do this throughout the period covered by his two comings. When he came first, he came to Israel. He taught them about the covenants and called them to repentance. It was predicted of him by John that he would baptise with the Spirit and with fire, and on the Day of Pentecost he sent the purifying Spirit to the people of Israel as they gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast. The mission of Jesus to bless the literal Israel continued for many years until they experienced his judgement when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. So the fulfilment of this prediction was not found in the people of Israel. Therefore, the fulfilment must be found in the spiritual Israel, God’s people from the nations.

Jesus purifies each person who trusts in him. The process begins with regeneration when the Spirit creates spiritual life in an impure heart. It continues throughout the believer’s life through the divine work of sanctification, which can include times of affliction that are used to burn off the remaining dross in the believer’s life. It will be completed by Jesus when he presents each of his people faultless and pure in the presence of God.

Jesus is also creating a community who worship God as he desires. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, believers worship by the Spirit of God and rejoice in Christ Jesus. Instead of the earthly city of Jerusalem being the location of worship, it now takes place in the heavenly Jerusalem. This worship created by Jesus is marked by unity and permanence. Instead of being performed by a special class of people, all God’s children are priests who offer up spiritual sacrifices.

In addition, the coming of the Messenger means that we are living in the period in which the judgement will take place. At present, the work of purification is proceeding, the worship of God is being restored, and we are waiting for the final judgement to take place. When that time will be, we cannot say, except to note that it will come swiftly. Initially the swiftness may be connected to literal Israel’s refusal to benefit from the presence of the Messiah when Jesus sent the Spirit as the Spirit of fire. Yet, as Peter says, we are hastening the day of God when the final judgement will occur.

The reasons for divine judgement are stated in verse 5. They must have been practised in the days of Malachi and were the causes of divine blessing being withheld. Yet it is also obvious that these practices are common in our society: witchcraft, immorality, indifference to truth, financial oppression, lack of care of the needy, including widows, children and refugees. God takes note of these things, and when a society is guilty of them he will withhold his temporal blessings from them.

The lesson is, the Messenger has come, but are we listening to him?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Messenger of the Covenant (Malachi 3:1-5)

In verse 1, God is speaking as we can see from the last phrase ‘says the Lord of hosts’. Yet he also describes the coming One as the Lord, which means that in this verse we have one divine person speaking about another divine person. Since the one that is to come is Jesus, the Son, it is likely that the speaker in verse 1 is the Father.

Not only is Jesus divine, he is also called ‘the messenger of the covenant’.  The term ‘messenger’ means delegate or representative. When Jesus arrives, he is going to teach Israel about the covenant, which is a reference to the way that God deals with sinners.

The Saviour, when he came, gave instructions about the covenant ways of God. As far as the people in general were concerned, he pointed out to them how they had failed to keep their covenant commitments, how they had broken God’s law. Yet he also referred often to the promises made to Abraham; for example, when the centurion revealed that he had faith, Jesus spoke about the great number that would come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which was a reference to the covenant God made with Abraham. Further, he spoke with his disciples in the upper room about the fulfilment of the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah in which the inner heart of his people would be changed.

The teaching of the divine Messenger was clearly different from that of the previous prophets. One obvious difference was the fullness with which Jesus taught. Not only was the teaching of Jesus fuller than the messages of the prophets, it was also different in that he was the subject of his own teaching. They spoke about him, he spoke of himself.

Malachi states that the Messenger will come to his temple. Twice Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem and discovered inappropriate practices taking place. On each occasion he cleared the temple of those who sold animals and other products and overthrow the tables of the moneychangers. The situations he found indicate that nothing had improved since the days of Malachi four hundred years previously.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

God’s Solution (Malachi 2:17–3:5)

In this section, Malachi begins by pointing out to the Israelites that their words are burdensome to the Lord. He specifies these words as deductions that the people were making concerning God’s providence. They had looked around, observed that evil people were prospering, and concluded that the Lord must approve of them and was not interested in justice. It is not clear if the workers of evil refer to foreign nations who were enjoying prosperity despite worshipping idols or if the term describes people in Israel who openly flouted God’s law. In any case, the people assumed that the reason for their own problems was not connected to their own attitudes but to God’s failures.

Of course, a dangerous situation is reached for a people when the Lord becomes weary of them. A similar situation is described in Isaiah 43:23-24: ‘You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honoured me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense. You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities.’

Not everybody had this attitude as can be seen in those mentioned in 3:16 who feared the Lord and thought upon his name.  These people were a cause of joy to the Lord, unlike the people in general who were complaining wrongly about the Lord’s dealing in providence. The second group failed to realise that the reason they were not being blessed by God was connected to their disobedience to his will which was expressed in their shallow worship, sinful religious leaders, and sinful actions concerning their wives.

Nevertheless the Lord has a word for them. He himself is going to come suddenly to his temple. His coming will not be immediately but suddenly. The Lord assures them that he will come, but he does not tell them when he will arrive. Yet he gives one sign: his messenger will be sent to prepare the way before him.

The description of the messenger in verse 1 is fulfilled in John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. Mark links this verse with verses from Isaiah 40 in order to describe John’s role (Mark 1:2-3). Therefore John the Baptist was the sign that the Lord was about to come to his temple. It is obvious from the Gospels that many people were wondering about this possibility. What would it mean? We will see tomorrow what Malachi had to say about it.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Disloyal hearts and divided homes (Malachi 2:10-16)

Malachi now addresses the people in general and repeats part of what he had said in the previous chapter about worship. He reminds them that they were failing to honour God as their Father and their Creator. In the previous chapter, God’s complaint was about the quality of their sacrifices; in this chapter his complaint is about their inclusiveness of false religion into God’s worship.

The way that this had taken place was through marriage to non-Israelite women. The problem is not that they married these women, but that these women had retained their pagan faith. They were not like Ruth who left the gods of Moab and turned to follow the God of Israel. These women are called daughters of a ‘foreign god’. We can read about this situation in Ezra 9 and 10.

Yet the people still worshipped in an emotional manner: ‘You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favour from your hand.’ They sensed that something was wrong, but they were not willing to put the matter right. This was not the prayer of repentance but the cries of regret.

It is not clear if there is a connection between the marriages with pagan wives and the divorces that Malachi mentions. Some think that many men had divorced their Israelite wives in order to marry the foreign women. In any case, it is clear that they had divorced their wives for no valid reason.

Malachi makes it clear that their treatment of their wives prevented the men from giving acceptable worship. This is still the case today. For example, Peter says in 1 Peter 3:7: ‘Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.’

This chapter reminds us that all of religion is a matter of the heart. This is the case when we are speaking about our relationship with God, with our fellow worshippers, and with our spouses. Love is central to the Christian faith.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

God Addresses the Religious Leaders (Malachi 2:1-10)

In Malachi 2, the prophet addresses three further themes about which God had complaints regarding his people. First, he speaks to the priests and criticises the way that they led or did not lead the people; second, he addresses the people in general and points out the way they were committing spiritual adultery in their worship; third, he focuses on family life and rebukes the men in particular for failing to live up to the marriage commitment.

The priests were a privileged group among the people. Their tribe, the tribe of Levi, had been selected by God to function in the work of his temple whether as priests or Levites. Their major concern was with the worship of God. In the previous chapter, the Lord had rebuked them for treating the sacrifices with disdain; in this chapter he rebukes them for failing to teach the people how to live for God.

There had to be right doctrine: they each needed a heart that would honour the name of God (v. 2). In their teaching, they should have informed the people about God’s character, commandments, purposes, promises and warnings.

There was a real danger: the curse of God on them and their families (vv. 2-3). The Lord says that he will take the parts of the sacrificed animals that were sent to the dung heap and wipe these remains on the faces of the priests before sending them as part of the waste to the dung heap. It is a warning of public humiliation. They were treating God with contempt, and he would treat them with contempt.

They had righteous predecessors: Malachi gives a description of previous priests. He is not referring to Levi, the son of Jacob, who does not seem to have functioned as a priest in a special sense. Rather he is referring to the tribe of that name. It was Aaron and his descendants who were to have this role and among them there had been godly priests such as Aaron, Phinehas, Eliezar and others. The character of a servant of God is given in verses 5-9. Each fears God, is faithful to God (he communicated the message), enjoys fellowship with God (peace and life), and turns people from sin.

They needed a repentant demeanour. Instead of being proud of their behaviour, these religious leaders were called to repent. This is an example of the gracious patience of God, but there will come a time when he will cease to be patient with them. The teaching of the priests, instead of enabling God’s people to walk surely and safely, caused them to stumble and fall. They were selective in what they taught; perhaps they played to the gallery or were tolerant with regard to those who could give them a financial reward. Whatever it was, they failed to teach the whole counsel of God, and because of this sin the Lord was threatening to remove them.

It is easy to see a parallel between these priests and ministers. We should pray that the marks that are mentioned in this passage would be true of all ministers known to us.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Biblical worship (Malachi 1:6-14)

It is easy to spot wrong kinds of worship. But what are the expressions of acceptable worship? Here are six features.

First, our worship should be comprehensive. This is what Paul teaches in Romans 12:1-2: ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ We cannot keep a moment of time or a single activity for ourselves. This has to be our attitude, one of total devotion and commitment to the Lord who has done so much for us.

Secondly, our worship is an expression of confidence in God. This is how Paul describes worship in Philippians 3:3: ‘For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.’ He mentions three details of our worship: it is Spirit-led, it is Christ-centred, and it is a rejection of human abilities. This is the wonder of Christian worship: God is not only the object of worship, he is also the enabler of worship. By the Holy Spirit cleansing our hearts by confession of sin, applying the promises of the Word, and instructing us in the great doctrines of the faith, we are enabled to boast in Jesus Christ and all that he has done, is doing, and will do for us. 

Thirdly, our worship is celestial. The writer to the Hebrews describes it in this way: ‘But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,  and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,  and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (Heb. 12:22-24). People talk about worship gatherings. No visible gathering on earth can compare with this assembly. Yet it is our privilege to join it each time we meet together for worship. Of course, this great reality is far beyond our ability to understand. But the weakness of our minds should not diminish the rejoicing of our hearts.

Fourthly, our worship should be costly. We recall the incident when Jesus was watching people putting their offerings into the treasury. Rich persons made a great display of giving according to their ability. Then a poor widow came along and threw in a couple of coins, not worth very much. Yet the assessment of Jesus was that she had put in the most because she had put in all that she had. He told his disciples: ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’ (Mark 12:43-44). It is a rather frightening thought that Jesus watches us as we give and assesses what we give.

Fifthly, worship of God has a corporate emphasis. Obviously, there is an aspect of worship that is private, another aspect that is connected to our homes, and other aspects that are displayed in other areas of life. Yet these other expressions of worship cannot excuse us from not meeting with other believers to worship God. It is not an expression of Christian liberty for a person to go for a walk because they can sense God in the countryside rather than go to church and worship with his people. The word that describes that choice is disobedience.

Sixthly, our worship should be consistent. By this, I mean that we should always be worshipping.  Everything that we do is covered by Hebrews 12:28-29: ‘Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,  for our God is a consuming fire.’ This attitude will keep us from becoming like the people in Israel in Malachi’s day.  As Jesus assured us, ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you’ (Matt. 6:33).

Friday, 22 March 2013

Focus of true worship (Malachi :6-14)

In their worship, the people of Israel were not honouring God. But how should we worship him? Here are four guidelines. First, we honour God by celebrating his great attributes, actions and aims. His attributes are his characteristics such as the omnis of God: omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience. There are also other attributes such as his love, justice, mercy and holiness. His actions are all found within his providence which is being worked out continually, and his aims are revealed to us in the Bible. Worship is not about us, and only involves us as we are the recipients of his attributes in action as well as his aims for us.

Second, there are three ways in which God can be worshipped: we can worship him for his exalted state as the Trinity of divine Persons; we can worship him as the Creator; and we can worship as the Saviour. Because the Israelites forgot what God had done for them, they failed to honour him, and so were bored in their times of worship. If that is where we are, what we need is a fresh glimpse of the greatness and the grace of God.

Third, as we think of this sad situation in a people who had known the Lord’s restoring grace in recent years, we realise that what matters is the state of the heart. Past recovery from a period of divine chastisement, which was what had happened to Israel, is no guarantee that our hearts will remain constant and warm towards the Lord, even although the restored rituals may be continuing. The fact is that, when we worship, the Lord looks on our hearts.

Fourth, we should remember that despite the failings of some, the Lord would not be without worship: ‘For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts’ (Mal. 1:11). It is possible that this refers to the groups of Jews who had not returned to Palestine but who continued their form of worship in synagogues where they lived throughout the world. Yet it is more likely that it refers to the ingathering of the Gentiles once the gospel of Jesus would be brought to them. I suppose the conversion between Jesus and the woman of Samaria is an application of or commentary on this verse. The day was yet to come when worship would not be connected to a particular place nor require certain rituals. Instead people all over the world would worship God from their hearts.

Since this prophecy in verse 11 concerns ourselves, and indeed we are a fulfilment of it, we should ask ourselves what our worship should be like. So we will look at some details of it tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Features of their wrong worship (Malachi 1:6-114)

Malachi had reminded his listeners that they had forgotten that the Lord had loved them in special ways. Now he moves on to show that they had failed to worship God in an appropriate way. The order of his topics highlights the obvious: it is impossible to worship God if we question his love and fail to take note of the evidences of his love.

This failure was especially evidenced by the priests (vv. 6-11), which is why Malachi speaks of them first, but he also refers to the people in general (vv. 12-14). What was happening was that the priests and people were giving to God the worst animals rather than the best animals as sacrifices. Not only did they not offer the best, they were bored with the activity (v. 13). It is not difficult to see that there is a connection between the two: we will be bored with worship if we are not giving our best. The giving must precede the enjoyment.

Malachi informs us that their worship was flippant. They had forgotten who their God was and who they were. The Lord reminds them in verse 6 as to who he is: he is their Father and Master, which means that they belonged to his family and were his servants. Just as a father expects his children to respect him, so the Lord expected Israel to respect him. And just as a master expects his servants to obey him, so the Lord expected Israel to obey his commandments regarding worship. It is impossible to obey God if there is no respect for God. Obedience comes out of reverence and fear.

Malachi further says that their worship was familiar. We are used to the saying, ‘Familiarity breeds contempt.’ They had become used to what they were doing, it had descended into a matter of routine. They knew they should worship God, but it was merely an external activity.

Malachi also says that their worship was selfish. They offered what cost them little, and even the priests would not open a door without expecting money as a reward. Their estimation of worship was what they got out of it, not what they put into it.

Sadly their worship was a failure. In all their activities, they did not meet with God. He refused to accept their worship, and refused to bestow upon them any spiritual blessings from their worship. This failure is seen in Malachi’s ironic suggestion in verse 9: ‘And now entreat the favour of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favour to any of you? says the LORD of hosts.’  When they entreat the favour of God through such inappropriate worship, he will not pay any attention to them.

Tomorrow we will look at aspects of true worship.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Responsive Love of God (Malachi 1:5)

The Lord is fully aware that the people are questioning his commitment to them. Nevertheless he approaches them in a tender and compassionate manner and reminds them that he loves them. While we know that the Lord is not a human and not possessed of human weaknesses, we are still to recall that he is often a disappointed Lover. What does a Lover want from the object of his affections? He wants love in return, and this reciprocal love had been denied to God. Many times the Lord complains of this lack of loving response, with perhaps the most moving being his messages through the prophet Hosea, vividly illustrated by Hosea’s problems with his wife Gomer. TV Moore describes God’s approach here as follows: ‘It is like the language of a weeping parent, who seeks to woo back a prodigal child, by recalling to his memory the love that has been lavished upon him.’

This love of God is obviously marked by compassion and commitment. It is marked by compassion because the Lord regrets that their disobedience has deprived them of his great blessings. And it is marked by commitment because he has not cast them away, but has returned to them again and again with offers of restoration.

This love of God had also been marked by chastisement. This is the reason why things were not going well with them. They had questioned the faithfulness of God to his covenant promises and concluded his disloyalty was the root of the problems they faced. In reality, the root of the problems was their unfaithfulness to him, and for that they were punished by him. But this chastisement had taken place in order to restore them.

Another feature of God’s amazing love here is its condescension. In response to their insensitive and ignorant response to his overture of love, he proceeds to answer their question. God’s answer informs us that his people were guilty of a bad memory: they forgot their history and they forgot his power. Regarding their response to their history, Moore comments: ‘They refuse to look at the tokens of love strewn all along their history, and dwell in obstinate ingratitude on the evils that their own sin has entailed upon them.’ They had great moments to recall: the call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the provision of Canaan, the presence of the Temple, the restoration from Babylon and many others. Yet they had forgotten how good the Lord had been throughout their history, how patient he had been, how forgiving he had been when they had repented.

What is the lesson of these verses for us? Simply, it is that if we are the Lord’s people, the Lord deals with us in grace and providence in the way that we do not deserve because of our sins. Instead, he deals with us in love, a love that chose us, that shows compassion and commitment to us, that chastises us when we need it, that condescends to comfort us, and that controls every moment of history for our benefit. The people in Malachi’s day had forgotten this wonderful reality and their religious life became a mess.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The God of special love (Malachi:1-5)

Many find fault with the doctrine of election, but what they cannot deny is that it is found in the Bible, as here when God says that he loved Jacob and hated Esau. True, the doctrine can be handled wrongfully, and in such a way great damage can be done. This doctrine is revealed in order to stimulate our worship of God and to provide spiritual comfort for us. It is a matter of great adoration that God makes loving choices.

This eternal choice of God has many aspects to it. First, it is unconditional (God did not consult with others whom he should choose); second, it is unchanging (God will not reject those whom he has chosen); and third, it is undeserved (the objects of his choice had no merit).  

Yet we are to remember that it is not the only kind of love that God has. In addition to this expression of love, there are also other manifestations of his love. For example, there is the universal love that he bears to all people in a general sense. It is wrong to assume that because electing love is true, God does not have a genuine love for the world. The fact that we cannot reconcile them does not mean that they do not exist. 

Further, election is not a barrier to conversion. Some people deduce from election that it is possible to want to be converted but God will refuse that desire. That is nonsense. Election is a secret, and no-one knows that they are among the elect until they believe in Jesus. If a person wants to be saved, he or she should ask Jesus to save them, and he will.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Problems with Spiritual Recovery (Malachi 1:1-5)

The period in which Malachi lived and ministered is roughly the same time as Nehemiah was working to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. Therefore, it is useful for us to read the books of Nehemiah and Malachi together because they will give us a bigger picture of the problems that each faced and the messages that God sent to his people at that time.

The provision of a politician (Nehemiah) and a prophet (Malachi) is also a reminder to us of God’s grace to his people in that he caters for all that is necessary for spiritual restoration to occur. This grace of God is further enhanced when we realise that there had been another attempt at restoration a couple of decades before through the work of Ezra and Zechariah the prophet.

Malachi describes his message as a burden given to him by the Lord. In calling it a burden, the prophet is saying that he did not find his message an easy thing to bear. Just as we are aware when we are carrying a load, so Malachi was aware of this weight on his heart. His message was not detached from him.

It is evident from the book of Malachi that the people were questioning God’s commitment to them. This expression of unbelief may have been due to the two failed attempts at restoration in their land after the Exile (first under Zerubbabel a century before and more recently under Ezra). Both these attempts had begun well, contained mountain-top experiences, but had eventually declined. The people may have asked, ‘Why did God not restore us to the heights that our forefathers knew during the reigns of David and Solomon, especially since many of the prophets predicted that he would?’ In any case, disillusionment had crept in to the thinking of the people of God. It is usually true that disillusionment and doubt go hand-in-hand.

Perhaps the problem was connected to what has been called the second or third generation factor. God does something special for one generation but the next generations fail to build on it. If this was the problem, it would have been enhanced by the fact that these Israelites had known more than one occasion when God had done something special. What are the signs of this factor?

I would suggest that what has been called ‘dead orthodoxy’, where there is a focus on correct doctrine and little else. Obviously correct doctrine is essential, but it is not the only essential. We have only to think of the church in Ephesus described in Revelation 2, with all its orthodoxy, but with little love for God.

A second feature of this generational factor is a sense of stability, and we can see this in the people of Malachi’s day. They had been given political stability by the Persian Empire, they had been given religious stability by the re-introduction of the temple worship in Jerusalem, and they had material stability because of the improved government structures of the time.

Yet despite possessing correct doctrine and pleasant stability, their zeal for God had declined. The leaders regarded the public worship of God as boring (ch. 1) and the people refused to pay their tithes and offerings to God (ch. 3). Their hearts were not warm towards God.

God’s first response through Malachi, and we will see further divine responses later on, is to remind his people of his sovereignty, and that in two areas. The first area concerns God’s special love for his people in contrast to his rejection of others; the second area concerns how this discriminating love works itself out in providence. We will look at some aspects of this tomorrow.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

God Sings a Song to a Sorrowful People (Hosea 14)

In Hosea 14 we have a final sermon from the prophet. The sermon contains a call to repentance (vv. 1-3) and a promise of restoration (vv. 4-9). In his call to repentance, Hosea, as a true shepherd of souls, spells out in simple terms the requirements of God. Their repentance should include desire for forgiveness, acknowledgement of wrong decisions and desires (such as thinking that Assyria would have helped them) and resolve to serve God. Such heartfelt repentance is present because they realise the compassionate nature of God. When that happens, gratitude for divine forgiveness leads to loyalty.

The description of divine restoration is very encouraging. By using different images the Lord describes the extent and the experience of the recovery. He describes them in the form of a song, so we here we have an example of the Lord singing over his people (Zeph. 3:17), a reminder to us that our repentance is pleasing to the Lord.

The song is in two parts. In verses 4-7 God sings about restored Israel and in verse 8 he sings to his repentant people. He promises to heal Israel of their sinful tendencies and replace those diseases with ongoing divine refreshment (the dew). The effect will be humility (Israel is likened to a lily, a flower which droops its head) and purity (the lily is white in colour). At the same time, Israel will become stable (like a cedar) and fruitful (like an olive tree). Israel will become a place where people go for protection (like a shade) – in her past she had imagined that Assyria would protect her, now God makes Israel a place where his protection is extended to others. Israel’s growth will on-going and will spread like a vine.

In verse 8, the Lord turns and sings to Israel. He reveals his heart and implores Israel not to bring idols into his presence. In the past, Israel had tried to mix the worship of God and the worship of idols, but here the God who loves his people promises that if they refuse to get involved with idols then he will answer their prayers, take care of them and give them spiritual fruits at all times.

Hosea gives his final word in verse 9 and summarises the message of his book. He has mentioned two paths and the consequences of walking along each. Those who are wise will choose the ways of the Lord; those who are foolish will find his ways to be paths of divine judgement for them. That same set of options faces us all.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

How the Mighty Have Fallen (Hosea 13)

Chapter 13 begins with a reference to some  great days of the past when other nations feared the northern kingdom of Israel and trembled when they spoke. This is probably a reference to the prosperous period of the reign of Jeroboam II. But things have now changed, and they have become weak, like the morning mist or like chaff in the wind or like smoke from a fire, ready to disappear. The reason for their weakness was their practice of idolatry (vv. 1-3).

In verse 4, the Lord speaks again of what he did for them at the onset of their national life when he delivered the people from Egypt and cared for them as they travelled through the desert. Then they had a special relationship with him. He then brought them into the Promised Land, but once there they became independent and proud and forgot about their God (vv. 4-6).

Therefore the Lord would no longer look after Israel. Instead he would turn against them and here he uses the imagery of fierce beasts (a lion, a leopard, a mother bear) to illustrate the absence of mercy in his dealings with them. Israel would be completely destroyed as a nation (vv. 7-8).

Their kings, whom they had imagined would help them, would not be able to do so. They had chosen to be like the nations when they selected Saul as king, not realising that he had been sent by God as an expression of his wrath. Although some subsequent kings had been powerful, recent ones were weak. Israel would disappear (God uses two powerful illustrations to describe what will happen: Israel would become like a child who refused to be born and it would suffer death). There would be no compassion for them and Assyria would destroy their capital city, Samaria (vv. 9-16).

Yet this announcement of judgement contains words of hope. When the Lord describes Israel as succumbing to the power of the grave, he asks a question: 'Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death?' The answer to this question remained obscure until Paul mentions it in 1 Corinthians 15 in his great chapter on the resurrection. The full answer to this question from the heart of God includes far more than national restoration of Israel. Through Jesus, all consequences of death will be removed for those who trust in the  Lord. When the resurrection takes place, then it will be asked with wonder, 'O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?'

Friday, 15 March 2013

Losing out (Hosea 12)

The Lord continues to assess the state of his people, Israel. They were pleased with their decision to depend on Assyria (it is the east wind referred to in verse 1); they also continued to engage in acts of deceit and violence. Verse 7 describes the dishonesty of the merchants and verse 11 refers to the idolatrous practices of the people. The people are informed again as to why the Lord will bring severe judgement on them. Time has moved on a bit from the message of the previous chapter because now the Lord also has a controversy with Judah (v. 2).

As in the previous chapter, the Lord goes back to the early days in Israel's history, this time to the experience of Jacob when he had to flee to the east because of the way he had deceived his brother. Even when he returned from there he was still using deceptive methods until the Lord met with him at Bethel and changed his outlook by wrestling with him there. The obvious application for Israel is that they should imitate their deceptive ancestor and repent and submit to the Lord and his ways (vv. 3-6).

In verses 9-14, the Lord informs the Israelites that he will make them once again a homeless people like they were in the desert. He highlights the sins of idolatry that was practised in Gilgal. It was an expression of deceit, and deceit gets people nowhere (as, in verse 12, Jacob discovered while working for Laban in order to get his wife).

Although the Lord had been good to their forefathers at the Exodus, the Israelites were determined to forsake him. Therefore it was inevitable that judgement would come. Repentance which could have averted it was not present. If they had repented, who knows what blessings they would have received from God?

Thursday, 14 March 2013

God's Thoughts of Love (Hosea 11)

The chapter begins with the Lord recalling the origins of his relationship with Israel at the time of the Exodus: 'When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.' Yet even back then the Israelites had shown a tendency towards idolatry (for example, the golden calf). Nevertheless the Lord was patient with them like a father with little children. He gave them his laws to guide them and healed them from judgement. The law was designed to help them how to live in a right way and to discover the means by which they would enjoy the Lord's kindness (vv. 1-4).

Still the Lord would not withdraw his decision to send them into exile in Assyria. Because they had departed from the Lord, he would allow their enemies to conquer them. The fact that they had not repented of their idolatry meant that judgement would come  on them (vv. 5-7).

We are not to imagine that the Lord was acting indifferently when he made this divine decision. Verse 8 gives an amazing insight into the heart of God: 'How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.' Because he loved them, he could not totally destroy them as he had done with the cities near Sodom and Gomorrah.

So when he punished them with exile in Assyria, it would not be the end of them. The Lord, unlike earthly rulers, would restrain his wrath. They would yet return from exile, although when that time would come, they would come trembling with humility because they would be very much aware of the roar of the Lion (vv. 9-11). This is a reminder that humility and spiritual restoration go together. The promise here would have been fulfilled when some of the northern tribes returned at the end of the exile of Judah in Babylon.

Meanwhile, at this time, the southern kingdom was still walking with God, but it was only a matter of time before it too would depart from God. Despite all he had done for them, they would refuse to remain loyal to God.

In contrast to these unfaithful children, Matthew takes up verse 1 in his gospel and applies it to Jesus when his parents took him from there after the death of Herod (Matt. 2). At first glance we may wonder how Matthew could use this verse and apply it to Jesus. The explanation is that Jesus, unlike the Israelites who came from Egypt, was the real Israelite who served God with his whole heart. When God called him, he obeyed completely.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Reasons for Judgement (Hosea 10)

The details in this chapter continue the prophet’s condemnation of the sinful practices of the Israelites and his warning of imminent divine judgement on them when the Lord would bring the Assyrians against them.

Israel had prospered in some ways (she is likened to a luxuriant vine yielding a lot of fruit in verse 1). This prosperity may have been economic or otherwise. Yet instead of thanking God for this prosperity, Israel had increased her pagan practices and erected more altars and religious pillars. It is amazing how prosperity and superstition can go together.

The chapter makes clear that the Lord will destroy their religious structures and their political system (the monarchy in Samaria). Here we have a reminder that the Bible interprets history from God’s perspective. No doubt, many other contemporary reasons could be given to explain Assyria’s defeat of Israel such as more resources, a bigger army, or wiser rulers. God’s explanation is simpler and starker – Israel was destroyed because she had abandoned her commitment to God (v. 10).

In the past God had called Israel to a life of fruitful service. She could have been a nation marked by righteousness and covenant loyalty (v. 12). Instead she had produced sinful practices and depended on her military strength to preserve her (v. 13). But since God was not going to help her, she would be easily destroyed by a very cruel enemy and her false gods at Bethel and her king in Samaria would not prevent it (vv. 14-15).

The message of this chapter is that we should not provoke the Lord nor mistake his patience as a sign that he somehow approves of wrong ways. It reminds us that his professing people are called to live faithfully for him, and if they do they will receive his blessing. But if they do not live in such a way, he will show his displeasure, and if they persist, his judgements will be severe. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Conversations can be serious (9:10-17)

In these verses we have two conversations between God and his servant Hosea about the situation in Israel (or one conversation in two parts). The first conversation is detailed in verses 10-14 (God speaks in verses 10-13 and Hosea responds in verse 14); the second conversation is detailed in verses 15-17 (God speaks in verses 15 and 16 and Hosea responds in verse 17). Right away we can see that one of the strengths of Hosea’s character was his fellowship with God. We can also see that the Lord shared his thoughts with his servant (which he now does with us in the Bible).

Conversation 1 begins with God recalling the onset of his relationship with the Israelites. He found it to be a pleasant, enjoyable experience, similar to someone finding refreshing grapes in a desert or tasty figs on a fig tree. Yet their delight in God did not last long because within a short time they committed idolatry at Baal-peor. Instead of becoming like God they became like the idols (v. 10). I wonder what the Lord recalls about the days of our first love with him.

The sins of Israel will bring about their demise as a nation. All their attainments would disappear like a bird in flight. They would vanish as a nation and soon no-one would be able to point to an Israelite child. This would happen when the Lord withdrew his protection and they would be conquered by their enemies. Despite living in a beautiful place (like a palm in a meadow), they would lose their location and national identity through the slaughter of war (vv. 11-13). Divine providence can be very difficult to bear when it includes specific judgment for sins.

In verse 14, Hosea responds and says that he agrees with the divine purpose of bringing judgement on his people. No doubt, he found this hard but he was aware of their persistent rebellion. And he was also aware, through previous prophecies depicted by the names of his children (Hos. 1), that judgement was the road to future restoration.

The second conversation begins with the Lord referring to what the Israelites do in Gilgal, where a pagan temple had been built (Hos. 4:15; 12:11). When the Israelites began to worship there, their action brought about a change in the Lord’s affection for them – indeed he says that he began to hate them, which means he now regarded them in the way he had regarded Esau. Instead of working for them, he would now work against them and not display any signs of love. Their history was about to come to an end because they had departed from God (vv. 15-16).

Hosea responds in verse 17. His words reveal that he understood the situation: ‘My God will reject them because they have not listened to him; they shall be wanderers among the nations.’

The love that God ceased to have for Israel should not be confused with his saving love for those who trust in Jesus. Rather the kind of love highlighted here is connected to the relationship Israel as a nation had with God. As long as they remained faithful to him they would experience expressions of his love revealed in what he promised them when he made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai. That covenant also included dire threats if they would be unfaithful. They did, and most of the northern tribes disappeared among the nations. In this sad event, we can see how God works in providence to keep his threats as well as, at other times, working to keep his promises.

Monday, 11 March 2013

What to Do with Name-calling? (Hosea 9:1-9)

Several commentators suggest that this short sermon by Hosea was delivered at a religious feast held at harvest time, perhaps during a period when the threatened aggression from Assyria seemed to have diminished. The problem was that the feast was actually a pagan festival connected to the worship of Baal. Initially Israel had a harvest gathering at the annual Feast of Tabernacles, but after the division of the country the northern kingdom began its own version and it had degenerated eventually into a mixture of what had happened at the Feast of Tabernacles and what occurred at harvest feasts connected to Baal.

Nevertheless the people enjoyed their festival. No doubt they were astonished when Hosea began his sermon by calling them to cease rejoicing (v. 1), yet his focus was not only on their present behaviour but also on what their rejected Lord would do shortly. They had committed idolatry (spiritual adultery), therefore they would be taken into exile, away from the land and its harvests (vv. 2-3). In their new location they would be unable to participate in the genuine feasts that occurred in Jerusalem because they would be so far away – Egypt depicts those places (vv. 4-6). The prophet informed his listeners that this ultimate judgement on them as a nation was very near (v. 7a).

When they heard this prediction, the people responded by saying that Hosea was a fool, that his words indicated he hated them, evidence that he was a great sinner (v. 7b). Instead of responding with repentance, they resorted to name-calling and insults. They did this for at least two reasons. One was that there seemed to be no threat from outside the country and the other was that they assumed that God approved of the way they practised their religious festival.

In contrast, Hosea knew different. Perhaps he did not say verses 8 and 9 to the people but wrote them alongside their assessment to show that he was not deflected from his calling by their wrong opinions of him. Hosea knew that he had been called by God to be a watchman for Israel, to warn them of real dangers. Yet he found himself facing continual danger (snare) and strong opposition (hatred) from the Israelites. But he knew the truth of the situation: Israel was guilty of terrible sins and God was about to punish them.

In a sense we live in a similar situation. The social climate advocates religious pluralism and expresses optimism about the future despite what the Bible says about losing God’s blessing for sinful behaviour. Christians know that such behaviour is a rejection of the gospel and that eventually the Lord will judge. They may have to put up with name-calling or worse. Yet like Hosea, they should remember who they are and continue to serve God. 

Sunday, 10 March 2013

A Divine Complaint (Hosea 8)

In this chapter the Lord speaks personally about the ways his people have departed from him and broken the covenant made between them an Mount Sinai. He calls on his servant to warn them of looming danger. A trumpet was blown when an enemy was about to attack (v. 1) and a fierce enemy, likened to a vulture, was hovering above them. The enemy was the empire of Assyria. Since it is described as a vulture, and a vulture feeds on dead carrion, the illustration suggests that Israel was very near her demise as a nation.

Although the Israelites imagined that they were still serving the Lord (v. 2), in reality they had turned away from him. This means that their choices had blinded them to the truth about themselves. So the Lord lists some of the ways in which they have left him. First, they had a royal line that was not of the house of David (v. 4); second, they engaged in idolatry (vv. 5-6); third, they had appealed to Assyria for help (v. 9); and fourth, they had no interest in keeping the Lord’s commandments (v. 12).

Israel would reap what it had sown (v. 7), and it would be a destructive harvest (like the effects of a whirlwind). Eventually the Lord would judge them with another captivity (going back to Egypt in verse 13 is a picture of this prospect). Their recollection of what had happened there to their ancestors should have led them to repentance. Going back to Egypt would be like going back to the time before the Lord had made the covenant with them to bless them as a nation at Mount Sinai.

The basic sin of Israel was that he had forgotten his Maker (which may refer to God’s formation of them as a nation rather than his role as Creator). They showed this memory fault by their priorities, which was to build palaces which could not help them. Judah also had forgotten his God and had resorted to relying on military strongholds. Whoever these strongholds could protect from, they could not protect Judah from God’s forces (v. 14).

What does this historical period have to say to us? It tells us that the way for God’s people to prevent divine judgement is to obey God’s requirements from the heart.  

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Keep the Covenant or Else (Hosea 6:7–7:16)

In this section of his book Hosea gives more details about the sins of his people that angered God. We may wonder why such details from long ago are recorded in the Bible. After all, the circumstances described no longer exist. The main reason why they are included is that they reveal truths about God, and they tell us that, while circumstances change, he does not.

In 6:7, God accuses the people of Israel of covenant-breaking and says that they behaved as Adam did in the Garden of Eden when he broke the covenant made with him by God. Theologically, the covenant with Adam is called the covenant of works and in it God promised spiritual blessings as long as Adam was obedient. The covenant that Israel broke was the covenant made with them at Mt. Sinai and it too promised spiritual blessings as long as they were obedient.

Hosea then describes some of the sins that were being committed in Israel: violence by priests and people (6:8-9), idolatry (6:10), refusal to repent (7:1, 10), drunkenness (7:5, political intrigue (7:6-7), alliance with foreign powers instead of depending on God (7:11), lack of prayer (7:7, 14), and forgetfulness of God’s goodness (7:15). All these were evidence that they had broken the covenant made with the Lord.

What can we learn about God from this passage? One clear detail is that he hates sin and when it is practised by his people he will punish them for it (7:2). A second detail is that the Lord is in complete control of all things (providence) and can use any of them to affect his backsliding people in any way he wishes (7:12, 16). A third detail is that God wants his backsliding people to return to him immediately and experience his restoring grace (7:13). A fourth detail is that God will eventually restore the fortunes of his people (the harvest in 6:11 is probably a reference to the exile in Babylon, but while it was an act of divine judgement it was also the beginning of spiritual recovery).

An obvious application for us is that we must retain our devotion to God’s requirements. At the same time, we have to recognise the inevitable presence of sin and therefore we need to have an ongoing attitude of repentance. And we have to maintain regular contact with God through prayer and through his Word and not resort to finding help from other sources as we walk the spiritual path.