The Greatness of God's Electing Love

An oracle: The word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. "I have loved you," says the LORD. "But you ask, 'How have you loved us?' Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" the LORD says. "Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals." Edom may say, "Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins." But this is what the LORD Almighty says: "They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the LORD. You will see it with your own eyes and say, 'Great is the LORD—even beyond the borders of Israel!'" (NIV)

God's Message to Israel After the Exile

Malachi prophesied around 450 BC in Israel. He was one of the last inspired prophets before the 400-year lull in divine revelation between the Old Testament and Jesus Christ. The Israelites had returned from the Babylonian exile. Jerusalem had been rebuilt, and the temple restored.

But the people had not learned their lesson from the exile. They had grown skeptical of God's love (1:2), careless in worship (1:7), indifferent to the truth (2:6–7), disobedient to the covenant (2:10), faithless in their marriages (2:15; 3:5), and stingy in their offerings (3:8).

To this carnal and rebellious people God sent his messenger (Malachi means "my messenger"), and the first message he put on his lips was, "I have loved you, says the Lord!"

Two Reasons Why God Calls His Message a Burden

The first verse reads literally, "The burden [not 'oracle'] of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi." God had given Malachi a burden. The word of the Lord is often called a burden in the Old Testament. Why do you suppose that is?

I think there are at least two reasons.

One is that the word of God is never light and trifling. It is always weighty and serious and heavy. I don't mean dull, or boring, or morose. I mean it is always substantial. There is no mirage in the word of God. It's always meaty—even the milk is meaty. The word of God comes to a prophet as a burden because it is so thick and rich with truth.

The other reason that the word of God is called a burden is because even when it's good news, it will be rejected by many. You remember how Isaiah groaned under the weight of his preaching ministry (in 6:11)? Why? Because even the glorious things that he spoke made the heart of the people fat and their ears heavy and their eyes shut (6:10). And he cried out (in 53:1), "Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" So the word of the Lord is a burden because it meets with opposition. Words designed for life become the aroma of death for those who are perishing.

My understanding of what it means to be a faithful pastor is that I should take up the burden of each text that I preach on, and deliver it to you as my own burden with as much of the spirit and truth of the text as God gives me. So I come this morning with a burden—a burden first because the word of God in this text is weighty and because I know that not all will believe what I say.

A Strange Cloud Approaching the Battlefield of Life

I picture the teaching of this text like a strange cloud coming toward us on the battlefield of life. We are surrounded by enemies and mortally wounded and cringing before the final blow is struck. And we see this cloud approaching us in our misery and hopelessness, and some groan that darkness should be added to all the other dangers of life. But others remember the words of William Cowper's hymn,

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread,
Are big with mercy, and will break,
In blessing on your head.

And the cloud comes over the wounded soldiers of the Lord of hosts, it swallows them up, and lo and behold within the cloud there is light. And slowly the cloud moves with its broken and wounded soldiers through the battle lines of the enemy. And ten or thirty or eighty years later all the soldiers in the cloud arrive safe beyond the battle and beyond the reach of pain. Some of the enemy mock the cloud as it moves. They scoff and say, "It is a dark cloud." Some of their bullets penetrate the cloud and wound the soldiers of the Lord. But not one is ever lost from this cloud. And no matter how rough the terrain or terrible the battle, the soldiers in this cloud survive the conflict and reach the place of peace.

In other words the teaching of this text appears to some as dark and foreboding and unapproachable. But for others it brings a sense of awe and safety. There is a sense of trembling and speechlessness, for this is not like anything we have known. But inside the cloud the sense of peace and safety is as firm as the mighty Everest and as deep as the ocean space and stars.

May the Lord give us grace to see the glory of this teaching and the privilege of entering in.

The Love of God That Makes Us Tremble

Verse 2: "'I have loved you,' says the Lord."

Does that make you tremble? Isaiah says, "This is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word."

Have you learned the love of God in a way that makes you tremble? Malachi's burden in this book is to show us a God whose goodness makes us tremble with reverent fear. For example,

If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts. (1:6)

I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is feared among the nations. (1:14b)

My covenant with him [Levi] was a covenant of life and peace [in other words: just as in 1:2, "I have loved him!"], and I gave them to him that he might fear: and he feared and stood in awe of my name. (2:5)

I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (3:5)

In other words, Malachi's burden in this book is to show us a God who makes us tremble with reverent fear. Therefore when he begins his prophecy to Israel in chapter 1 with the good news, "I have loved you, says the Lord," he unfolds the love of God for us in a way that makes us tremble before the majesty of God.

A Message for the Presumptuous and Careless

I have thought very often over the last seven years at Bethlehem about when it is appropriate to preach and teach concerning the doctrine of God's free and sovereign electing love, and its counterpart in God's passing over others leaving them to sin and condemnation. My general approach has been one of cautious, gradual building, so that during my first five years or so I very seldom made these doctrines the focus of explicit attention. My assumption has been that these things are for the edification of a mature congregation.

But as I meditated on today's text I was corrected, at least in part. Malachi is not speaking to a mature congregation, but to a worldly one. The people had become skeptical, careless, indifferent, disobedient, adulterous, and stingy. To this people Malachi preaches the truth of God's free and sovereign electing love in terms more bold and more unmistakable than anywhere else in the Old Testament.

And so I felt corrected, because these truths are not only designed by God for the comfort and courage of the mature; they are also designed to shock the presumption and the flippancy of careless Christians—Christians whose grasp of the love of God is so shallow that it never makes them tremble but instead can make them careless and casual and even presumptuous in his presence.

So I have been very much emboldened to preach what is here both because many of you are mature in your faith and thinking (1 Corinthians 14:20), and because others may be in the same condition the Israelites were in.

Israel's Question

When God said in verse 2, "I have loved you, says the Lord," the Israelites respond skeptically, "How hast thou loved us?"

Now test yourselves here. How would you answer that question in your own life? How would you describe God's love to you. Is your life and family in such a shambles that you feel as skeptical about it as the Israelites did? Do you want to say, "How hast thou loved me?"

I don't doubt that there is a little of that in all of us. And so it will do us all good to listen to God's answer which is almost never heard today. How hast thou loved us? Answer: "Is not Esau Jacob's brother? says the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau."

God's Answer

Now what sort of answer is this? The descendants of Jacob have asked, "How hast thou loved us?" How is it an answer to say, "Jacob I loved, Esau I hated"? Isn't that just a repetition of what he already said in the first part of verse 2, "I have loved you, says the Lord"?

No it's not, because of the little question, "Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" What does that mean? Why did God ask that? He asked it because he knew that the answer to that question contained the key to the essence of his love.

What is the answer? Was not Esau Jacob's brother? The answer is yes. In fact as every Israelite knew, Esau was not only Jacob's brother, he was his twin brother, conceived in the womb of Rebecca by their father Isaac. Jacob and Esau were not like the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. They had different mothers and one of them wasn't even an Israelitess. But Jacob and Esau were twins. And not only were they twins, Esau was the elder, which means that by all customary rights and privileges he would be the main heir of the father's blessings.

Now what is the point of saying, "Is not Esau Jacob's brother?" The point is this: Based on what you and Esau were in yourselves I could just as easily have chosen Esau as you. Isn't he your brother? Weren't you twins? Isn't he in fact your elder? But I chose you, and passed him by.

What then is God's answer to the question, "How hast thou loved us?" His answer is, I have loved you with free, sovereign, unconditional, electing love; that is how I have loved you.

  • My love for you is electing love because I chose you for myself above your brother Esau.
  • My love for you is unconditional love because I chose you before you had done anything good or evil—before you had met any conditions—while you were still in your mother's womb (Genesis 25:24).
  • My love for you is sovereign love because I was under no constraint to love you; I was not forced or coerced; I was totally in charge when I set my love upon you.
  • And my love for you is free because it's the overflow of my infinite grace that can never be bought.

Now I ask you, if you are a Christian here today, and if you say to God, "How have you loved me?" can you answer the way God answered the Israelites? Do you look at your sister or brother living in sin and tremble that you have been chosen? And that your election is not because of anything in you? And that your faith and hope are owing wholly to God? Do you look at that childhood friend or college roommate who took a turn away from God when you stayed on the path, and tremble at the awesome thought that God chose you?

Four Aspects of God's Hatred of Esau

But what about Esau?

Probably the most striking thing about this text is that in it God chooses to highlight his love for the descendants of Jacob by contrasting it with his hatred for the descendants of Esau, the nation of Edom.

If we ask, what does God mean by saying (in verse 3), "Esau I hated," the answer is spelled out for us in some detail in verses 3 and 4:

I have hated Esau; I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert. If Edom says, We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins, the Lord of hosts says, They may build, but I will tear down, till they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the Lord is angry for ever.

Notice four aspects to God's hate of Esau.

1. God Opposes Them

First, it means that God opposes their prosperity and brings their land under judgment. "I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert."

2. God Will Continue to Oppose Them

Second, it means that God will continue to oppose them when they resist his judgment. His judgment will not suffer resistance. Verse 4: "If Edom says, We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins, the Lord of hosts says, They may build, but I will tear down."

3. They Will Be Given Up to Wickedness

Third, God's hate for Esau means that they will by and large as a nation be given up to wickedness. Verse 4b: " . . . till they are called the wicked country." This is the most devastating of the judgments and the one that makes all the others just. God does not bring judgments on an innocent people. He is just in all his dealings. When he passed over Esau and chose Jacob, there was no decree that an innocent Esau would be judged. Rather what God decreed was to pass Esau by, to withhold his electing love and to give him up to wickedness.

Now there is great mystery here, and I do not claim to solve all the problems that our little minds can think up. There is much we are not yet ready to know. We see through a glass darkly. But this much we are surely to believe: God did not choose the descendants of Esau; rather he passed over them and withheld his electing love; as a result Esau gave rein to wickedness and deserved the indignation of God. Which leads to the fourth aspect of God's hate.

4. God Will Be Angry with Them Forever

Fourth, at the end of verse 4 it means that the Lord is angry, or indignant with them forever.

Why Does God Inspire Malachi to Open This Way?

Why does God inspire Malachi to begin his message to these worldly Israelites, and to us, with such a revelation as this? "I have loved you, says the Lord. How have you loved us? Is not Esau Jacob's brother? Yet I have loved you and hated Esau. How have I loved you? I have loved you with free, sovereign, unconditional, electing love."

That He May Be Feared

"Why do I tell you this?"

  • To humble you.
  • To take away your presumption.
  • To remove every ground of boasting in yourself.
  • To cut the nerve of pride that boasts over Esau as though your salvation were owing to anything in you.
  • To put to naught the cavalier sense of self-reliance that lets you dally in my presence as though you were an equal partner in this affair.
  • To make you tremble with tears of joy that you belong to God.

As the psalmist says, "There is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared!" (Psalm 130:4).

That We May Know He Reigns Over the Whole World

But that is not all. God has another purpose in revealing the greatness of his electing love for Jacob and his judgment upon Esau. He tells us in verse 5:

Your own eyes shall see this [you shall see the terrible judgments on Edom] and you shall say, 'Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!'

In other words, part of what it means to be loved by God is to know that God reigns—that he is great and mighty—even beyond the people called by his name. He reigns in Edom. His purposes are not ultimately frustrated by the wickedness of any people. "Great is the Lord, beyond the border of Israel!" Yes, even in Edom—in Albania.

So let us humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. Let us give him the glory—all the glory—for our salvation. And let us never grow weary in savoring and strengthening and spreading the vision of our God, for "Great is the Lord beyond the walls of this church!"