Malachi 3:1-5: Refiner's Fire
Malachi 3:1-5 (The Inclusive Bible)
1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, 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 descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 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 swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, against those who oppress the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
Malachi, a minor prophet called by God to preach reform to the Israelite people in Judah. Malachi most likely originated in the first half of the 6th century BCE. The history of Judah and Israel are central to this passage, as well as the role of the tribe of Levi and their teaching of the Torah. Around 1000 BCE Jerusalem was made the capital of David’s kingdom. The temple was built under Solomon’s rule (David’s son) around 960 BCE, becoming the national and spiritual center of the Jewish people. Around 930 BCE the kingdom of Israel is divided—the southern kingdom becomes known as Judah and the northern kingdom becomes known as Israel. The majority of the Israelites lived in their respective tribal territories within the northern kingdom. In 720 BCE the northern kingdom was invaded and crushed by the Assyrians. The tribes of Israel are scattered and many of the tribes are lost to history. Next, Judah is conquered by Babylon in 586 BCE and the temple was destroyed. Most all Jews living in Judah were exiled in Babylon. Fortunately for Judah, Babylon was attacked by Persia and defeated. As a result, the Judeans were allowed to return home in 538 BCE but were still under Persian rule.
The Persian Empire was lenient regarding religious practices and, therefore, allowed the Jews to continue practicing the tenants of their faith without persecution. The tribe of Levi, who owned no land but who were in charge of caring for the temple, had become rather corrupt in their dealings with the people under their care. For generations, prophets foretold of a Messiah that would come and lead them out from under foreign occupation and into freedom. They waited not-so-patiently for this day to come, but their hope was waning. When Malachi begins to preach to the people, it is at a low point in their history; not dire, but certainly not as hopeful as had been promised by previous prophets.
Malachi’s message is clear. A Messiah will come, but the Messiah that Malachi promises may not match the kind of Messiah for which the people are waiting. Malachi harkens back to the covenant God made with the people long ago, reminding the people that this Messiah is coming to the Temple and coming for a specific purpose; to purify the descendants of Levi. This specificity of this refinement is geared toward the religious leaders of the Jews and not to the general population, which is curious. This assessment of the Levi priests, however, is similar to what we see in the Book of Matthew when Jesus also calls out the Priests (the Sadducees and the Pharisees) for not fulfilling their priestly duties.
The lectionary limited this pericope (a section of biblical text) to verses 1-4, ending with the call to present offerings of righteousness. This section of the passage can be interpreted in at least two ways. First, it was incumbent upon the Levi priests to offer to God all of the karbanot (sacrifices or offerings) made in the temple for every occasion. These offerings were designed to create an opportunity for an individual to “draw near” to God. The most common offerings were burnt offering, peace offering, sin offering, guilt offering, food and drink offerings, and the red heifer. These offerings were made as often as is necessary, or on specific holy days, such as the Day of Atonement. Second, this is a reversal of some of the other latter prophets who claimed that God no longer wanted sacrifices, as in the days of old, but rather a renewed spirit of connection and covenant. Malachi saw the fidelity of the old days and longed for a time when the people took seriously their religious fervor. For Malachi, bringing offerings to the temple was the primary way of holding onto the covenant instigated by God with Abraham.
Without v. 5, however, it is difficult to know where Malachi intends to take this tongue lashing. Malachi is complaining about the same kinds of things that Jesus complains about in the Book of Matthew. Jesus rails against the religious leaders of his day calling them broods of vipers, twice as fit for hell as those they serve. There is a mixed bag of offenders listed in Malachi; sorcerers, adulterers, those who swear falsely, oppressors of all kinds, and those who do not fear God. Malachi is speaking to the whole of the people of Judah, but with a special eye toward the priestly tribe of Levi. Malachi is indicting the priests for engaging in all manner of depravity. Jesus mirrors Malachi’s specific allegations, especially those against oppression of widows, orphans, and the resident aliens.
Might we take from Malachi, and later from Jesus’ own words, that we are also being refined in the refiner’s fire. God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, is continually refining us for the work we are called to in our own time. This call to action isn’t optional, it is mandatory. God is making it clear to the people of Israel that these behaviors set them apart from all others. Jesus echoes this mandate by calling out the religious leaders of his own day and holding them accountable for their behaviors. Jesus, though, goes one step further in calling ALL the people to the same lived experience of caring for the most marginalized in our society, for widows, orphans, and the resident aliens living among us. He charged EVERYONE with living the ancient practice of hospitality, of offering the best you have to offer—in this case, what Jesus offered was a new vision for God’s kingdom. We are now called to be a part of that vision; God’s unfolding kin-dom.
How can we take this passage and apply it to our current circumstances? What might we glean from Malachi that prompts us to listen more, give me, be of greater service? Are we living into who God called us to be? Are we allowing God to refine us daily? My prayer for all of us is that we stop resisting God’s work in us and in the world, and that we learn to love like Jesus.