Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The Hebrew Bible regards these verses as the continuation of Malachi 3, so that the audience may learn all about what happens on the great day of the Lord to “the righteous and the wicked” and “one who serves God and one who does not” (Malachi 3:18).

Malachi 4:2
You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. Photo by Taylor Cogdell on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

November 17, 2019

First Reading
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Commentary on Malachi 4:1-2a

The Hebrew Bible regards these verses as the continuation of Malachi 3, so that the audience may learn all about what happens on the great day of the Lord to “the righteous and the wicked” and “one who serves God and one who does not” (Malachi 3:18).

A day of reckoning is coming, when the people of God, who fear the Lord, will receive healing from above (verse 20 in the Hebrew Bible; 4:2 in English Bibles). The Old Testament in the Christian tradition presents the passage as the beginning of a new chapter. The prophet has something new to say.

Some English Bibles signal this new beginning with an unassuming word like “See” (NRSV) or “Surely” (NIV). The Hebrew text prefaces it with two little words commonly known as particles. These grammatical bits, tiny in size, perform a remarkable feat that grabs and directs attention to their surroundings. Some scholars construe the first Hebrew particle ki in verse 1 as a “causative” that announces the reason for the prophet’s conviction about God’s justice that punishes the wicked and saves the righteous. Others find a case of an “asseverative” ki, which signals that the prophet underscores the point he is about to make. The second particle—the “presentative” hinneh—is designed to call attention to what follows. The prophet refreshes the attention of the audience.

With this stimulating introduction, the prophet (re)introduces the majestic topic of the day of the Lord. It is already on the way (see Malachi 3:2, 17). The day of the Lord, a theme that Malachi inherits from earlier prophets including Amos and Zephaniah, will make all the difference in the world. It will reveal the hidden and take the complacent by surprise.

The prophet’s vision has to do with the future, for neither past disappointments nor present difficulties will determine what is to come. Malachi’s mode resonates with the prophet of Isaiah 43, who says, “Do not remember the former things …” (Malachi 3:18-19). Unmoored from the strain of what has been, Malachi charts the path of hope.

Most translations of Malachi 4:1 use the progressive tense to depict something imminent. It is not yet here; however, one can already feel the heat or warmth of the day that is approaching. The prophet poetically juxtaposes the growing glow of the sun with the blazing kiln. The latter turns into ashes “all the arrogant and all evildoers,” whom the Hebrew text depicts with an image of a tumultuous horde engaged in many forms of depravities. They serve as “stubble” that fuels the burning. The accompanying modifier, “all,” leaves none out in this process of purification.

The furnace implements such a thorough cleansing that it leaves neither root nor branch (Malachi 4:1b). Elsewhere in the Bible, these essential parts, when left behind, inspire the prospect of a plant returning to life after disasters (see Isaiah 11:1; Job 14:7). The burning in Malachi 4:1 has a remarkably different outcome. One may compare it with the image of the refining fire that purifies the Levites, for those charged with worship will be restored to serve in their role properly (3:2b-3). By contrast, none of the wicked elements in 4:1 will survive the coming of the day of the Lord.

The great day of the Lord spells good news for those who “revere” God’s name (Malachi 4:2; see also Malachi 3:16). The NRSV’s choice of word “revere” for the fear of God’s name is an insightful one. It translates a common Hebrew lexical item that means “fear.” In the English language, the word can have a negatively debilitating implication. There is another kind of fear, which arises out of utmost care. Children may fear their parents, not out of horror of punishment but out of respect. Spouses may fear one another out of love. Those who honor God fear out of reverence for the divine name.

A name has a mysterious quality, as Shakespeare famously observed and said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, / By any other word would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2). Fortuitous as it may seem, the name represents the very being of the person along with everything associated with it. God’s name is how one experiences a tangible representation of the ineffable God, whose identity always eludes human comprehension.

For those who hold God in reverence, a new world is in store; the prophet portrays it in the image of the rising sun (Malachi 4:2a). In Malachi’s vision, the sun—all life forms yearn its life-giving force—comes with a modifier and becomes the sun of righteousness. The specifying note of righteousness recalls Proverbs 4:18, which compares the sun to the life of the righteous. Just as the sun starts with a dim light of the dawn and grows brighter and brighter, so the righteous do. In Malachi 4:2a, the sun of righteousness spreads its blessings on everyone whom its light rises and touches. The Talmudic sage beautifully imagines that this sun of righteousness grants warmth to the poor on Sabbath (Taanith 8b).

The sun of righteousness is further compared to a bird that bears “healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2a). The promise of healing hints at a world that is wounded. God will provide the needed cure, achieving what the ancient rabbis called tiqqun ha-olam (“repair of the world”). The image of the wings signals that airborne amelioration will be available abroad. All who honor God’s name will benefit from it.

The absolute certainty of the prophecy is sponsored by the word of “the LORD of hosts” (Yahweh Sabaoth), the divine appellative that signifies the God who reigns. Malachi uses it more often than any other Minor Prophet except Zechariah. The construction of the new world of righteousness and healing will not come true by human endeavors. Such an idea of the kingdom of God that humans are to build is alien to the Bible, which knows only the kingdom that God brings in God’s time (as also mentioned in the gospel lesson of Luke 21:5-19). Standing on the divine message, God’s messenger, Malachi (whose name means “my messenger”), is on the lookout for God’s action (see also Malachi 3:17).