Nehemiah first came to Jerusalem in around 445 BC. While there he led the Jews to rebuild the holy city, starting with its fallen walls. He also implemented several religious reforms, and held the people accountable for their actions. Under his headship, the Jewish remnant enjoyed over a decade of revival and renaissance. But in 433 BC, about 12 years after his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah returned to Persia and left his kinsman to continue without him.
It is uncertain how long Nehemiah stayed in Persia before returning to Jerusalem a second time. Historical records indicate that King Artaxerxes ruled until 423 BC, at which time Nehemiah may have been released from his royal service. Following this theory, the logical conclusion is that Nehemiah traveled back to Jerusalem upon his “retirement” from the king’s administration. If so, he would have been away from Judah for almost 10 years.
During Nehemiah’s absence, the Hebrew children quickly reverted to their previously sinful ways. The miraculous works that God had done through them were all but forgotten. The promises that they’d made to Him and to one another were widely disregarded. The covenant that they’d written and sealed as a congregation was badly broken. In Nehemiah’s presence the people had reached a spiritual mountaintop, but in his absence they descended into a pit of disobedience and unfaithfulness.
During this decade of severe moral decline, a prophet known as Malachi rose up and spoke out against the Jewish remnant. He boldly confronted them with their sinfulness and warned them of God’s impending judgment. Malachi also foretold the coming of the Messiah, who would be heralded by a forerunner similar to “Elijah”. Malachi was the final Old Testament prophet, and following his oracle God remained largely silent for the next 400 years.
Malachi’s literary style is marked by a series of declarations followed by sarcastic questions. The text reads like a sassy mouthed kid talking back to his parents! In most instances, a response is given to silence the disrespect and to reaffirm the original statement. These questions usually begin with the words, “But you say…”. There are 7 separate occurrences of this pattern in Malachi’s short book.
We will use these “But you say…” questions as the framework for today’s message. Each of them uniquely reveals an area of doubt that the people held toward God. These doubts contributed to the spiritual decline. Perhaps by identifying them, we can guard against a similar outcome in our lives.
I. THE PEOPLE QUESTION GOD'S LOVE - Malachi 1:2-5
The book opens with God declaring His love for the Jews. Not only does He love them presently, but He has always loved them throughout history. After all that the LORD had done for his children, it is hard to believe they’d ask God to justify his love. But they did, asking Him to prove that He truly loved them.
As descendants of Jacob (Israel), the Jews were (and are) God’s chosen people - unlike the descendants of Esau who had been rejected by God. The Edomites would never be allowed to rebuild, yet God’s children had just finished rebuilding. What more proof of God's love did they need?
II. THE PRIESTS QUESTION GOD'S WORTHINESS - Malachi 1:6-10
God provided two illustrations - a father and son, and a master and servant. Using these examples, God declared that the priests lacked respect and reverence for Him. The priests were serving defiled food on the altar. In other words, the were knowingly offering tainted an unacceptable sacrifices to God.
God asked if they would offer such second-rate gifts to their governor. Most certainly they wouldn’t. He concluded that He rather not receive any sacrifices at all than these profane and useless ones. Their lackluster offerings revealed that they didn't believe God was worthy of their best.
III. THE PEOPLE QUESTION GOD'S FAVOR - Malachi 2:13-14
The people were grieving because God had rejected their offerings. While God continued to love them, He did not approve of their behavior. The people asked, "Why won't you receive our gifts?" This question wasn’t posed as a sincere attempt to discover their sinfulness, but rather as a challenge to God to accept their sinful behavior as it was.
The LORD leveled two related charges upon the people. First, they were continuing to engage in mixed marriages which inevitably led to worshiping foreign gods. Second, they were dealing treacherously which their wives which was leading to widespread divorce.
IV. THE PEOPLE QUESTION GOD'S JUSTICE - Malachi 2:17
The Lord was tired of the peoples’ talk. It was nothing but whining, complaints, grumbling, gossip, lies, idle chatter, slander, and so on. He had grown weary of hearing it. The people asked, “What did we say?”. Surely they knew that their speech was inappropriate and unacceptable, but they remained unrepentant.
The people were promoting that false idea that God accepts and even delights in evil doers. In other words, "sin all you want - God is okay with it." This flawed philosophy contradicts the LORD’s perfect justice.
V. THE PEOPLE QUESTIONED GOD'S FAITHFULNESS - Malachi 3:7
God urged the Jews to turn back to Him, and promised that if they would do so He would likewise return to them. The context of their reply indicates that the people were not really concerned about returning. Rather, they were insinuating that they couldn’t return because they had never left. They were accusing God of leaving them - saying "it was all His fault".
God chose not even to respond to their ridiculous accusation. They had the gall to question His faithfulness, while they themselves had been so unfaithful? God would not even dignify their suggestion - His silence is all the answer that was needed.
VI. THE PEOPLE QUESTIONED GOD'S PROVISION - Malachi 3:8-10
God declared that the people were stealing from Him - they were taking that which is God’s and keeping it for themselves. The people again challenged God to justify His statement. Obviously they did not understand that all things belong to God, and that we are all mere stewards of His possessions.
The people were not giving their full tithe and other offerings as instructed by the word of God. As such, they were cursed. God challenged them to give the entire tithe and see the bountiful blessing that would come as a result.
VII. THE PEOPLE CHALLENGED GOD'S ADVANTAGE - Malachi 3:13-15
The people were making statements that were directly against God. These were not challenges to His character, but rather direct assaults on His divine Person. God called out their arrogance and they responded, “What did we say?”. Apparently, they didn’t think that their comments were offensive, or more likely they didn’t care.
The people looked at their circumstances and reasoned among themselves that it was of no benefit or advantage to serve God. This thinking proved to be the final straw. In the next few verses God acknowledged a small, faithful remnant who did not share this same sentiment, promised that they would be saved, and then became silent.
The book of Malachi highlights the childish and insolent behavior of the children of God. Not only had they become disobedient, but they were also rude and disrespectful. Is it any wonder why God became so fed up with their behavior? He did not have to tolerate this mistreatment from His own people. He was their Creator, not the other way around...
The had Jews questioned God’s love for them, God’s worthiness to receive their best offerings, God’s disfavor for their rampant unrighteousness, God’s just nature, God’s faithfulness to them, God’s provision for them, and what advantage it was to serve Him. Their doubtful attitudes had become so vile and distasteful that they were an affront to God.
This detestable behavior wasn’t that of the lost and wicked pagans - sadly, it was the behavior of the church. God’s own people railed against Him, charging Him with all sorts of indiscretions. And so, completely disgusted by them, God simply stopped speaking. His silence would last for the next 4 centuries, until the birth of John the Baptist.
Let me close with a frightening observation - all too often, the behavior of the modern church is just as objectionable as the Jew’s was in the days of Malachi. And should God choose to go silent again, I believe it would be accompanied by the removal of the Holy Spirit and would mark the beginning of the tribulation. We, as God's children, need to revere our Father as we should.