As any perceptive reader knows, the more one reads a particular author with appreciation, the more one tends to think as the author thinks. Can we apply this adage to the reading of the Bible? It would be presumptuous to believe that we can think as God thinks. Nevertheless, reading the Bible should at least affect the way we think. In fact reading the Bible will often radically affect the way we think. Reading the Bible, for instance, can move us from thinking about the purpose of life as self serving to the purpose of life as self giving. When we, as readers of the Bible, adapt our lives to the teachings of the Bible, we have only begun to think as the Author thinks.
All of the preceding is written to underscore the importance of the preacher first reading, and then prayerfully studying, and only then prayerfully proclaiming a message from the Bible. Reading and rereading the book of Malachi for example is essential to preparing sermons from the book of Malachi. Letting the author Malachi affect our thinking (or, to use the modern idiom, “get us into Malachi”) is invaluable for preparation of strong, relevant biblical sermons. Repeated reading lets the concerns of Malachi become our concerns applied to our day. Repeated reading of Malachi helps prevent the imposing of sermon ‘ideas’ that are not supported by the text, and therefore, are not strong, relevant, biblical sermons.
The first step, then, in preparing to preach from the book of Malachi is to read the book of Malachi. Since there are only fifty-seven verses in the four chapters of the book of Malachi, plan to read the book at least thirty times. Read from your favorite version of the Bible four or five times. Next read from other versions a few times each. Finally, read from your favorite version several more times.
This reading is, of course, to be an intensive study. A superficial perusal of words will not suffice. The kind of reading of Scripture needed for sermon preparation is the kind that asks questions, synthesizes material, integrates information, and seeks insights.
What kinds of questions should be asked? Questions such as: What is an oracle? (Mal. 1:1); What does the name Malachi mean? (Mal. 1:1); Why would God’s love be questioned? (Mal. 1:2); Why was God’s love for Jacob compared to God’s love for Esau? (Mal. 1:2); Did God really hate Esau? (Mal. 1:2). Almost every verse will leave the careful reader with questions such as these. Continued careful reading will provide many answers.
What is the process for synthesizing material? Fortunately, there is no one specific way. As an example, the material referring to Jacob and Esau calls for reference to their stories in Gen. 26:19f. Malachi presumes upon the knowledge of those who heard him and does not iterate these stories. The Jacob and Esau material, then, needs to be studied in relation to what Malachi had to say about them. And what of God’s ‘hate’ for Esau. How can this be reconciled with the biblical concept of a God of love? Is it possible to accept the translation “love less” in the place of “hate”? (“Yet I have loved Jacob but I have loved Esau less. . . .”) Such material needs to be synthesized for effective sermon preparation.
What kinds of information need to be integrated? As an example, Old Testament history needs to be consulted. When did Malachi prophesy? Is there any significance in knowing the time in which he spoke? (There is.) Is there any significance to his name, and does knowing the meaning of his name help me in understanding and interpreting the book of Malachi? (Yes to both.)
One of the basic, oft repeated, and most common mistakes made in preaching is the neglect of careful reading of Scripture. The ‘preacher’ who is not immersed in the Word of God usually reads ideas into Scripture rather than being fed with ideas from Scripture. The result, predictably, is an anemic, shallow, biblically inaccurate, albeit well-intentioned harangue about something that is bothering the ‘preacher’ at the moment. The best thing that can be said about such ‘preachers’ is that they are more concerned about whether their sermon idea will ‘preach’ than they are about whether their sermon idea is true. How do we seek insights? This process is largely a result of the inquiring, synthesizing, and integrating we have already done. An insight is a penetrating mental vision or discernment that causes us to say, “Oh, now I see!” This “I see” may mean either that we understand information however it is being communicated, or, better, may mean “I see” how the information relates to me or to some aspect of my life. Such insight often leaves us eager to share it with someone else. In our situation, it is hoped that such insights may bring us to an eagerness to preach. What insights may we glean from the book of Malachi?
Preaching the Purpose With Purpose
Insights for preaching from Malachi may come from perceiving the purpose or the occasion for the writing of the book. Preceding articles have already dealt with this issue, as well as the attendant question of whether Malachi is written in prose or poetry. There is general agreement that Malachi was written to assure the people of Israel that God still loved them and was keeping His covenant with them (Mal. 1:2-5).1 A sermon could be built, then, around the purpose of the book of Malachi; that is, a sermon that reassures that God loves His children even after He may have disciplined them because His children were not faithful. Thus, the purpose of the book of Malachi not only gives us a sermon idea, but also narrows its focus for us. Mal. 1:2-5 is reassurance for those that God has chosen and therefore reside in his love. The Hebrew word for “love” here is used in a covenant sense and therefore applies to those whom He has chosen. Care in sermon preparation must also be taken to relate this situation to an awesome situation. God’s reassurance is that He will, indeed, fulfill His covenant through those He loves, despite the fact that their lack of faith would have justified the termination of the covenant relationship. A sermon, then, that reassures us that God loves us when we have the blues because we did not get our way in some mundane matter does not do justice to this text. The sermon developed from this text should be directed to those who moved outside of God’s will, and now are or should be penitently seeking to return to God’s will for their lives. A sermon on God’s Reassuring Love could be built this way:
God’s Reassuring Love Malachi 1:2-5
I. God’s reassuring love is ours even when we doubt Him, 1:2-3
II. God’s reassuring love is not for those who reject Him, 1:4
III. God’s reassuring love brings us to a new appreciation of Him, 1:5
Continuing the theme found in the purpose of the book of Malachi, we find next that God’s Reassuring Love calls for His children to honor and obey Him (1:6-2:9). A key word in this text is “fear” (1:6, 14, 2:5 twice). This word is also translated as “respect.” The word refers to something we do rather than just something we feel. The child of God who “fears” the Lord is a child who will keep the law of God and abide in ethical conduct. (See Ps. 119, Amos 5:21-14, and Mie. 6:6-8 as cross references.) This rather lengthy text cites numerous examples of disrespect or lack of “fear” before God. Each of these acts of disobedience led to some dire consequence each of which is cited along with the description of the acts of disobedience. In verse Mal. 1:2-5 God indicated that He is ready to keep His part of the covenant. In Mal. 1:6-2:9 God reminds us that covenants work with both parties actively fulfilling their covenantal responsibilities. Thus, a sermon from Mal. 1:6-2:9 could be developed in this way:
God’s Reassuring Love Calls for Honor Malachi 1:6-2:9
I. God’s Reassuring Love calls for us to honor Him with our lives (1:6-14)
- We must honor Him with our offerings, 1:6-9
- We must honor Him in the service we render to Him, 1:10-14
II. God’s Reassuring Love calls for His “priests” to honor Him with exemplary lives, 2:1-9
The next section, Mal. 2:10-16, is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to translate. This passage is also one of the most significant passages in the book of Malachi. Continuing the theme of God’s Reassuring Love, we find that God so loved the Israelites that He called them to abandon their lack of faith. This breach of faith is cited especially in idolatry (Mal. 2:11-12), and in marriage vows (Mal. 2:13-16). A sermon on this passage could be divided into emphasis on the negative and emphasis on the positive under the general title “God’s Reassuring Love Builds Our Faith.” A suggested outline would be:
God’s Reassuring Love Builds Our Faith Malachi 2:10-16
I. God’s Reassuring Love condemns faithlessness, 2:10-l6a
II. God’s Reassuring Love calls for faithfulness, 2.16b
The next pericope to be considered is Mal. 2:17-3:5. This passage contains an astounding indictment as well as an astounding promise. The indictment is found in Mal. 2:17a “You have wearied the Lord with your words” (NASB). The basis for this indictment is found in the remainder of Mal. 2:17. The astounding promise is found in Mal. 3:1 — a messenger will come first and then the Lord Himself will appear. Mal. 3:2-5 employs several analogies as to the impact of the Lord’s coming, especially for those who have wearied the Lord!
This pericope seems to lean a lot on other scriptures. Thus, there are several possible cross references. The emphasis on the ‘weariness’ of the Lord is also found in Isa. 43:24b. The question of the justice or judgment of God (Mal. 2:12; 3:2-5) is a reflection of Job 21:7-25, Ps. 73, Hab. 1:13, and Isa. 5:18-20. Mal. 3:1 reminds us of Isa. 40:3. It is left to the reader as to how these cross references may or may not be utilized in a sermon. Consider, then, this sermon possibility:
God’s Reassuring Love Demonstrated by His Judgments Malachi 2:17-3:5
I. God’s Reassuring Love is demonstrated in His judgment of sin, 2:17
II. God’s Reassuring Love is demonstrated in sending a Savior, 3:1
III. God’s Reassuring Love is demonstrated in judgment on those who reject Him, 3:5
Mal. 3:6-12 follows Mal. 2:17-3:5 very closely. In fact, it is tempting to include Mal. 3:6-12 with the previous verses. However, many commentators see a division at Mal. 3:6, and, if we are honest, most preachers would find Mal. 2:17-3:12 more text than they can preach in one sermon.
The key idea in this section seems to be repentance, with special emphasis on tithing. At first glance, the two ideas seem to be remotely connected. This section is introduced by the basic assertion that God does not change. Evidently the “sons of Jacob” decided that God changed His mind and will not return as promised in the prophecies of Ezekiel and Haggai. God indicates that He has not returned because the people have not repented. This lack of repentance is obvious in light of the fact that the people are robbing God by withholding their tithes. God invites the people to return to His ways and see how God will open the storehouse of blessings.
Perhaps, this section would be better organized in a homily rather than a rhetorical structure:
God’s Reassuring Love Calls Us to Return to Him
God hates our sin, but still loves us. He wants us to grow by patiently obeying His will and not by impatiently trying to dictate His schedule to Him. Lest there be any doubt of God’s wisdom, God invites His people to test Him in the area of tithing and see that the windows of heaven will open to us. (See Isa. 59:1-2 as a cross reference, and Ps. 95:8-11 as a possible illustration for this sermon.) Mal. 3:13-4:3 also are strongly related to the previous verses. The form is similar to the two previous pericopes. There is a basic premise (the people speak against God, Mal. 3:13a), and a counter argument from the people (the people want proof for this accusation, Mal. 3:14b). The proof is offered in Mal. 3:14-15 (notice the negative beatitudes in v. 15). Those who love God are described in Mal. 3:16-17. The separation of the righteous and the wicked is coming, Mal. 3:18-4:3.
The final sermon suggestion is full of hope. Again, a homily rather than rhetorical outline is suggested.
God’s Reassuring Love Sees Us Through to Eternity
God has always insisted that when He is obeyed, blessings are the result; when He is disobeyed curses are the consequence. The “murmurings” against God (Mal. 3:13) are reflections of the way of life of those who do the murmuring (Mal. 3:14-15). This way of life is unacceptable to God. On the other hand, a “book of remembrance” is kept for those who speak reverently of God. The eternal destiny of those who revere God is in stark contrast with those who do not respect God (Mal. 3:18-4:3).
As a change of pace, consider these sermon starters:
- Malachi 1:1 “The Blessed Burden”
The blessed burden of a word from God
The blessed burden of a messenger of God
The blessed burden that needs to be carried to the world
- Malachi 1:8 “Will He be Pleased with Thee”
Foolish persons seek to please themselves
The wise person seeks to please God (illustration: John 12:42)
- Malachi 2:17 “An Astounding Question”
The question may be asked in distress or in doubting
The question will be answered by the Lord and distress and doubt will be removed
- Malachi 4:2 “The Sun of Righteousness”
The sun is like medicine — too little or too much can hurt you
The Sun of Righteousness is the everlasting cure-all