“Because I, the Lord, have not changed, you descendants of Jacob have not been destroyed.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What are some of the things we are taught to think about the God of the Old Testament nowadays? Best selling author and one of the infamous “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins puts it best in his book, The God Delusion, on page 51: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Ouch, right?
Dawkins is rather given to hyperbole in his prose when talking about religion, but his perspective is one that is shared by not a few folks who have spent much time thinking about the issue. And, a cursory reading of the text will walk you through quite a few passages that are pretty hard to deal with in terms of the image of God they seem to convey to us. There’s just one problem: That’s not the whole picture.
There’s a reason I spend so much time talking about the context of various verses and about the importance of getting God’s character right if we are going to understand the text properly. And fortunately, His character is shaped by more than just those hard passages. His character is shaped by verses like this one.
Malachi wrote his prophecy over 100 years after the people of Israel had been freed from captivity in Babylon, later Persia. They had rebuilt the city of Jerusalem and its walls and the temple. They had reestablished temple worship and were settling into a new pattern of life on this side of the the exile.
You would think they would have stayed on the straight and narrow pretty well after all they went through, but you might be surprised. While they certainly dealt with their proclivity for idol worship, in their efforts to make keeping the law a foundational feature of their character, they forgot that God wasn’t just after their behavior. He was after their heart.
The problem was: They weren’t giving Him that. They were going through the motions on the outside, but the underbelly of their culture was beginning to rot again. Unrighteousness and injustice were growing and flourishing. It was bad enough that here God was yet again, promising judgment if they didn’t get back on the right track.
And while we might look at this and be tempted to say, “Aha! I knew it! God is just a judgmental, angry, jerk.” Look at things from His side of the equation for a moment. Think about how long He had borne with the unfaithfulness of His people. Think about how many second chances He had given them. Think about the fact that He had preserved them as a nation through the chaotic waters of the ancient near east when most of their neighbors had long since vanished to foreign conquest. And here they were making the same mistakes they had made before.
In His frustration, through Malachi, God finally exclaims what we see here: Because I have not changed, you have not been destroyed. What does this exclamation reflect? Frustration, yes. But what else? How about patience? How about grace? How about forgiveness? How about tolerance of their incorrigible spiritual infidelity? How about a love for them that’s willing to bear all things? How about the heartache of a God who doesn’t want to see them have to face the full consequences of their actions?
But wait, that God sounds a whole lot different from the one Dawkins described. Yet He says it is His long-term commitment to this character–“Because I have not changed”–that keeps them from having to face the music. So, is Malachi right, or is Dawkins right? If Dawkins was right at any point along the way, when did God change to become this other God? Well, given the number of opportunities God had to wreck havoc over our unfaithfulness and unrighteousness, it seems like this character revealed here goes back an awfully long way.
There’s the Flood, sure, but we dealt with that last Monday here. If you go back before that you find Adam and Eve blowing things up in the beginning and His faithfulness on display in the aftermath (we talked about that here). So really, this character Malachi describes has been God from the beginning. And if He’s been the same going that far back, there’s a good argument to be made, particularly in light of the cross, that He’s still the same God today. He’s not happy with our sin like He wasn’t then, but boy does He give us a lot of grace because of His fierce commitment to being in a relationship with us. Sounds like this is a God who’s worth our time and devotion.