Simeon’s Song of Praise, Aert de Gelder, c. 1700-1710 (Wikipedia)
February 2, 2020
We examined Malachi 3:10–20 several months ago. It spoke of the “Day of the Lord”. It was a time of testing for the Jewish people who returned to Jerusalem at the invitation of the Persian king, Cyrus. A theme throughout the prophets is that, although the evil of the enemies of the Jews may be greater in extent, the evil of the Jews is greater in intent. Because they are the chosen people, they will be held to a higher standard as they must fulfill a higher mission. When looking at the “Day of the Lord,” we read today’s passage as well to see where they had failed to live up to their calling. Today we will look again and pay particular attention to how the entire book of Malachi shows the development of the Jewish understanding of the afterlife which we, as Catholic Christians, have inherited.
Malachi wrote between 500 and 450 BC during a time of great distress and disappointment for the people of Jerusalem. Enough Jews had returned to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon to start rebuilding but the results were less than impressive. The temple had been reconstructed, but it was a small structure and the funds to continue were either not forthcoming or stolen. The passage before the one chosen for today reads:
You have wearied the LORD with your words,
yet you say, “How have we wearied him?”
By your saying, “Every evildoer
is good in the sight of the LORD,
And he is pleased with him”;
or else, “Where is the just God?”
In context evildoers mean those who benefited by stealing the funds that were to go to the rebuilding of the temple and city. This got so bad that a court official, Nehemiah, had to be sent to clean it up. This was however in the future. Here and now, they needed to know how could God be just and mighty if he does not care that his people are suffering and he himself is being cheated out of proper worship.
The Lord himself now speaks:
Lo, I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me;
The LORD will appear with him.
And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
This will not be a social visit:
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire,
or like the fuller’s lye.
The images of the “refiner’s fire” and the “fuller’s lye” may not be familiar to us, but they are very specific and important. The refiners here are silversmiths who remove the impurities within the silver. They do not destroy the silver but enhance it. A fuller is a woolworker and to “full,” according to the Merriam Webster dictionary “is to shrink and thicken (woolen cloth) by moistening, heating, and pressing.” Lye is a strong soap that will clean the finished product.
Both of these images show that the LORD will purge the sin from the people by washing and refining. He will remove their imperfections not destroy them.
“Them” refers to the Levites. They are the priestly class responsible for worship in the temple. They “bring offerings to the Lord” and should do so in righteousness (Mal. 3:3). Only then will the LORD be satisfied and the sacrifices will please him as “in Ancient days as in years gone by.” (Mal. 3:4) Malachi has declared that they have not lived up to their responsibilities and so need to refined, cleaned and if necessary purged. It means the Levites in the narrow sense most directly, but a prophet never lets the people off the hook.
The Jews are a priestly people, in a sense all “sons of Levi” and their behavior must live up to their calling. Malachi reminds all the people especially the rich and well connected of their responsibilities:
I will draw near to you for judgment,
and I will be swift to bear witness
Against the sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers,
those who defraud the hired man of his wages,
Against those who defraud widows and orphans;
those who turn aside the stranger,
and those who do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
We also must remember that a key issue here is that the people have in ways not completely detailed been shortchanging the temple duties and responsibilities. Thus the Lord says:
Dare a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me!
And you say, “How do we rob you?”
In tithes and in offerings!
For the prophetic mind, justice to God and justice to our neighbors, particularly the poor and needy, are intimately related.
Bring the whole tithe
into the storehouse,
That there may be food in my house,
and try me in this, says the LORD of host
If they do this, then:
And they shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts,
my own special possession, on the day I take action.
And I will have compassion on them,
as a man has compassion on his son who serves him.
What then does this have to do with the afterlife? Jews at this time would not have had a clear idea of a life after death. This would not develop until a hundred and fifty or so years before Jesus (see the commentary on the November 10, 2019 readings for further discussion). Yet the afterlife and Judgement are connected in the Jewish prophetic mind. God has promised that the just will be rewarded. Yet let us look around. Do we see the good living better than the bad in the world around us? Remember the sentiments to which this passage is responding: “Every evildoer is good in the sight of the LORD.” (Mal. 2:17)
Malachi’s great insight is that justice is not a matter of the experience or destiny of individuals but of the whole people. Proving himself a master sociologist before the science had a name, he recognizes that this is intimately connected to worship. By maintaining worship, a people will maintain their identity. The Jews have certainly shown us this.
This week we commentated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. With that the latest “final solution” to the existence of the Jewish people, Hitler joins the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Seleucids, several Roman emperors and the perpetrators of innumerable western Pogroms on the waste heap of history, but the Jews remain. How can this be? The Jews found ways to worship the LORD even after losing their temple and their country. As long as they praise, they live. To purely secular eyes, this is an inexplicable mystery, to the eyes of faith an inevitable miracle.