"You have said harsh things against me," says the LORD. "Yet you ask, 'What have we said against you?' "You have said, 'It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.'" Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name. "They will be mine," says the LORD Almighty, "in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not." (NIV)
A Message for Two Kinds of People
Today's text is intended for two kinds of people.
On the one hand it is for people who doubt that God is just, or who have already made up their minds that he is not, and who scorn him for ignoring their claims. For these people the text is a warning to humble themselves, to give the matter deeper consideration, and to stand in awe of God's freedom to vindicate the righteous when and where and how he pleases.
On the other hand the text is for people who already fear the Lord and hold his name in highest regard and serve him as a son serves a Father, even when God postpones the settling of accounts. For these people the text is a comfort and encouragement to press on in trust and obedience until the Lord comes to vindicate their cause.
My prayer this morning is that if you belong to the first group, this morning by the time I am through preaching you will belong to the second because God has worked in your heart. And if you belong to the first already, my prayer is that your confidence in the justice and care of God will be made strong for the battles before you this week.
Let me try then to unfold, first, verses 13–15 in order to illustrate the kind of people we should not be, and then, verses 16–18 to illustrate the kind of people we should be, because of the four promises God gives in these verses.
The Kind of People We Should Not Be
In verse 13 God says, "Your words have been stout against me, says the Lord. Yet you say, 'How have we spoken against thee?'" God has been listening to what they have been saying to each other about him. It doesn't say they spoke these stout things to God. It says they spoke them about God. They were talking to each other. That's implied in the Hebrew verb, and you can see it in verses 14 and 15 where they talk about "him," not "you."
A Warning to Us All
This is a warning to us. All of our life is a theater and we are the actors. Every kitchen, every car, every den, every office, every bedroom, every bar is on stage! And God is in the front row of the theater and doesn't miss a single line in the drama of our life—not one! No matter where or when or with whom we speak, God hears our conversations, and he interprets perfectly what they imply about him.
In fact that is all that really matters about our conversations—what they imply about God.
"It Is Vain to Serve God"
When God listened in on these people in verses 13–15, he heard two things: He heard them say that it is pointless to serve God and it is profitable not to.
First, verse 14: "You have said, 'It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?'"
The Words of Lifeless Formalism
There are two problems with what they are saying here. One is that these are the words of lifeless formalism. They were indeed going about in black, fasting and mourning. They were coming to the temple often with their sacrifices. They had some of the forms of worship down pat. But God was displeased. His ear was closed. His blessing was withdrawn. Why?
Look at 2:13. "This again you do. You cover the Lord's altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand." This is what they were complaining about in 3:14—they were mourning and it was doing no good. Why?
One answer was given in 2:14, "Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless." In other words the forms of worship on Sunday contradicted by faithlessness on Monday is unacceptable to God. It is lifeless formalism. And God will not accept it, even when it is full of emotion. They were really weeping at the altar, and God was not moved to pity! Why? Because the form of worship on Sunday was replaced by fornication on Monday.
That means that the test of the authenticity of our Sunday morning and evening worship is not merely the intensity of emotion (as indispensable as that is for genuine worship) but whether we leave the service and walk into a life of sinning.
That's the first thing wrong with what these people say in verse 14—these are the words of lifeless formalism. They are not as pious as they think they are.
"It Is Profitable to Not Serve God"
The other thing wrong with these words is that they seem to assume that God must bless the righteous in some immediate and material way, or else righteousness is in vain. In other words even though they are not truly righteous, even the way they think righteousness should be rewarded is skewed. This is most obvious if we bring verse 15 into the picture.
They are not only saying that it is pointless to serve God (v. 14). They are also saying that it is profitable not to (v. 15): "Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape."
So these people who are talking in verses 14 and 15, when they get together in the restaurant to discuss current affairs and religion, they say that so and so, who never comes to church, has a thriving business; and so and so, who's an atheist, has never had a sick day in his life and he took all his profit on Wall Street the day before the crash. And here's an athlete, who oozes arrogance, and he makes $400,000 a year and scoffs at religion.
So these people conclude that the arrogant are the truly blessed and the corporate swindlers know where real prosperity is to be found. It is profitable not to serve God.
What About Malachi 3:10–12?
Now what's wrong with this? Not only does experience seem to teach this sort of thing, but didn't last week's text set us up for this kind of disillusionment?
Malachi 3:10–12 said that if the people would begin to bring the full tithes into the storehouse, God would open heaven and pour down blessings. So isn't the point that if you do what you are supposed to do, you get blessed in this life and if you don't, you won't? And so if we look around and see wrongdoers prospering, then shouldn't we conclude that they must be the real tithers—the ones God is really pleased with?
Three Things to Notice About That Text
No. Notice from last week's text that the basis of tithing in verse 10 is the personal relationship in verse 7b: "Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts." And tithing is given as one way this personal return to God takes shape. God never meant that the mere outward form of tithing would bring down his blessing, any more than sacrifices or weeping at the altar.
And notice that in last week's text it does not say that no evildoers will prosper. God can bring blight to chastise and warn his people of their evil ways. But this does not mean that blight is what always comes upon disobedience.
And the third thing to notice is that though God promises great blessing to those whose heart leads toward tithing and beyond, he does not tie himself down to any definite time frame for the blessing, nor to any definite proportion of material goods.
The Essence of the Promise
The essence of the promise is that when you become a gracious channel of God's riches rather than a cul-de-sac, God will take care of your needs. It is a practical instance of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6: "Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be yours as well." Or in Matthew 19: there will be rewards 100-fold for everything you give up in the service of Christ.
But you can't press the promise to mean that X amount of material prosperity must follow obedience in X amount of time. Paul said, "I have learned to be content with abundance and want, with plenty and hunger." This didn't mean that he had given up on the promise that God blesses obedience. In fact the gift of contentment in the midst of hardship was a blessing he cherished very highly. But what it did mean was that Paul was willing to leave to God the timing and the proportion of material blessing.
Well that is the second problem with what these people in verses 14 and 15 are saying. The first problem was that they thought they were righteous just because of certain religious forms they practiced. The second problem is that they read that same formalism into God. His blessings must be material and they must be now. Otherwise he is not worth serving.
That then is the kind of people we are not supposed to be.
The Kind of People We Should Be
The second half of the text tells us what kind of people we are supposed to be and gives four promises to encourage us in this way.
What we are supposed to be is described in three ways.
We are to fear the Lord.
Verse 16: "Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another; the Lord heeded and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord."
To fear the Lord is to tremble at the thought of offending him by unbelief and disobedience. It is the feeling that God is not to be trifled with. It is the very opposite of the attitude of the people in verses 13–15 who speak with an incredible swagger: "It doesn't pay to serve God." Those who fear God shudder at the thought of speaking that way about their Majestic Father. Anything that dishonors God is anathema to those who fear God.
2. Esteeming, Honoring, Regarding
We are to esteem or honor or regard his name.
Verse 16 ends, " . . . a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and ([RSV] thought on his name." This is weak. The NASB (esteem his name) and the NIV (honor his name) are better. It's what we are praying for when we say, "Hallowed be thy name."
We are to be the kind of people who hold the name of God in such high regard that we would not presume to trot our little notions against his infinite wisdom. The thought of standing in judgment over his timing or his method of dispensing blessing is unthinkable to those who hallow his name.
We are to be the kind of people who serve God the way a son serves a father.
"Verse 17: "They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him."
Contrast verse 14 with this promise. "You have said, 'It is vain to serve God.'" Verse 14 says it is pointless to serve God. And verse 17 says God will count them his possession and spare them who serve him. What is the difference?
It is the difference between the service of a son and the service of a slave. It's the difference between the younger brother and the elder brother in the parable of the the Prodigal Son. The younger brother, broken and humbled, wanted to serve because he knew that to be at home with the father was the greatest blessing in the world—all his needs would be met. The elder brother had the mindset of a slave—if anybody around here deserves a party, I do. Who has worked harder than anybody to earn such a blessing!
There is a formal, slavish service of God that thinks in terms of what it is contributing to the plantation and what the slave owner owes me. That service is indeed in vain. But there is another kind of service that thinks like a son in the house of his father—here is total security, here is food on the table, here is rest and recreation and love and education and inheritance and the fame and glory of my Father! Why would I want to work anywhere else but here! That is the mindset of the true servant of God.
- Fear God.
- Hallow his name above all names.
- And serve him like a son serves a Majestic Father.
That is the kind of people we are supposed to be.
But what about the problem of justice—the fact that evildoers prosper in this life and those who fear God are not rewarded for the good they do?
The answer is that those who fear God and hallow his name and serve him as their Father believe the four promises of verse 16–18—that God will act to vindicate them and to distinguish right from wrong in his time in the future.
Let me just mention the four promises.
1. God Will Hear Those Who Fear Him
God will hearken and hear the good things that those who fear
God say to each other for the glory of God and the good of man.
Verse 16: "Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another;
the Lord heeded and heard them."
In other words he not only overhears the foolish and arrogant talk of the evildoers, he also hears every good word you have ever spoken and ever will speak. He promises that not one tiny word of goodness will fall to the ground without God's notice. He is just!
2. God Will Remember Those Who Fear Him
God will not only hear them; he will remember them. Verse 16 goes on: "The Lord heeded and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord." This means that God will never forget the good that we have done in his power and for his glory. It may look forgotten and unrewarded now. But God is not unjust (Hebrews 6:10), and every lesson faithfully prepared for those kids, every courtesy on the highway, every smile on the street, every thank you note you ever wrote, every "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"—every fragment of grace in your life is being written in the book of remembrance and will redound to your joy and God's glory forever when the books are opened. God is just.
3. God Will Spare Those Who Fear Him
God will spare those who fear him and live for his glory as a
father spares a son who serves him. Verse 17: "They [i.e., those who
fear and honor God] shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my
special possession on the day when I act and I will spare them as a
man spares his son who serves him."
The good news here is that sons don't have to be perfect to be spared, they just have to serve like sons instead of slaves. They have to enjoy the castle instead of hankering for the bawdy barracks where the slaves live.
Here's where Jesus comes in. How can a holy God spare a sinful son even if the son has repented and come home? The answer: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). God is just. He will spare sinful sons, precisely because he did not spare his only sinless Son.
4. The Righteous and Unrighteous Will Be Distinguished
Finally God promises that all ambiguity between the righteous and the wicked will one day be cleared up. The future judgment holds the key. Verse 18: "Then once more you shall distinguish [literally: see] between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him."
And so I close where I began. Which group are you in? Are you among those who hold back from commitment to God because of suspicion or doubt or even anger? If so, consider the promises of God this morning. He will vindicate his people. All wrongs will be righted. And if you come to him in humble repentance and faith, he will spare you as a man spares his son.