In the wake of natural disasters, personal tragedies, and the many injustices in our world, the people’s question in Malachi’s day is one that many might ask today – Where is the God of justice? Too easily though, our concern is that he should sort things out for us, whereas these verses remind us that his primary concern is to sort things out for him (which actually will of course be best for us too). Justice won’t be quite the comforting and comfortable experience we imagine, for it begins with God’s people.
v.17 God is wearied and irritated because of the implied criticism in their questions: that God is not just, and that God does not care.
v.1 This verse speaks of two different messengers. One who will prepare the way before him, whom the New Testament clearly identifies as John the Baptist (Matt.11:10, Mark 1:2-3). The other is the “messenger of the covenant”, who is rather the Lord himself, and who the NT identifies as Jesus, whose coming John heralded and who came to inaugurate the new covenant.
His coming might be what they desire, but their delight will be shortlived because they have misunderstood why he is coming – not in the first place to sort out their enemies, but to sort them out. He comes both to purify and to judge.
There is a beautiful aspect to this picture of a refiner refining silver. The metal would be heated until it was molten, and all the impurities would rise to the surface and then be blown off with bellows or burnt off. And the refiner would know the process was complete when he could look at the surface of the metal and see his own reflection. So God longs to see his image displayed in us. But there is an uncomfortable side to the picture too, for he refines us through fire. Given our natural state, “who can endure the day of his coming?” The focus of his attention will be the priests (“the Levites” v.3), because his concern is for right worship (cf. 1:11).
A NT perspective on this is that through his death Jesus has purified a people for himself who can now worship God acceptably – through Christ we are now “a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (1 Peter 2:5). But his priority for now remains the purifying of his people – “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God” (1 Peter 4:17), refining us not least through the fire of “all kinds of trials” ( see 1 Peter 1:6,7).
As a refiners fire, whilst purifying the silver, will burn up the dross, so for some his coming will mean judgment – those who show by their life that they do not fear God. This seems to refer primarily to the judgment that is happening now (cf. 1 Peter 4:17), and it was clear too in the ministry of Jesus, not least in his coming to the temple (eg. Mark 11:12-21). Malachi will speak later of a final judgment to come, when the refiners fire has become a furnace that will burn up every evildoer (4:1).
If we were tempted to ask today – where is the God of justice? – what answer could we give from this passage?