This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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1The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi.2“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob3but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”4If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’ ”5Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!”
The first verse of the book does more than give information about its human author. Each word supports the divine origin and authority of the entire message. The word translated “oracle” frequently heads prophetic passages (e.g., Isa. 13:1; 15:1; 17:1) and means literally “burden” (Num. 4:47; 11:11), conveying a sense of urgency. This burden is further defined as a word from the Lord (cf. 2 Pet. 1:21) spoken by a human messenger. This word is the powerful proclamation of the King, effective in history to shape all events according to his will (Isa. 55:11; Jer. 1:9–10; 23:29). This word is addressed to Israel, even though in Malachi’s day only the Judahite community remained. The postexilic community is heir to all God’s promises to Israel.
The first word God speaks through Malachi does not expose Israel’s sin (unlike Isa. 1:2–3; Jer. 2:1–3; Ezek. 2:3–4) but rather declares his love (ʼhb) for them. This word expresses both deep affection and loyalty in all types of human relationship (marriage, Gen. 24:67; parents and children, Gen. 25:28; close friends, 1 Sam. 20:17). It also recalls the Lord’s ancient promises of love for Israel in the Pentateuch; God loved the earliest generations of Israelites and chose them (Deut. 4:37; 10:15), showing his love by blessing and multiplying them (Deut. 7:13). This love is sovereign and unconditional, existing for no reason beyond God’s loving, faithful character. The perfect form of the verb expresses God’s love as a total, complete act. God begins this book of disputations by declaring his unchanging and enduring love for his people.
The word translated “how” sometimes refers to the external evidence that some action has happened or will have happened (Gen. 15:8; Ex. 33:16). Malachi’s audience sees no visible evidence of the Lord’s love for them. They feel entirely unloved—and, as we will see, this feeling was not totally without justification. But Malachi exposes their darkest suspicions about God in order to subvert those doubts.
Unmerited, Unchanging Love
Malachi challenges the people’s claim of being unloved by returning them to the beginning of their history. Although the story of Jacob and Esau is complex (Genesis 25–36), and Esau appears spiritually insensitive on a number of occasions (25:29–34; 26:34–35; 28:6–9), Genesis shows that God’s favor rested on Jacob before either boy was even born (25:23; cf. Rom. 9:10–13). Although their initial condition was the same, although the parties in question were equal (brothers), the Lord set his love on Jacob, not Esau, for no reason intrinsic to themselves. Because this love was unmerited, it is unchanging. From before their ancestor’s birth, God has loved Israel. The imperfect form of the verb ending Malachi 1:2 implies God’s ongoing love for Jacob, while the perfect verb beginning verse 3 shows his settled and unchanging opposition to Esau.
Just as God’s love implies both affection and loyalty, so hatred in the OT implies loathing and disgust (Ps. 119:163; Eccles. 2:18) as well as rejection and opposition (Ps. 26:5; Isa. 66:5; a wife less loved is “hated,” Deut. 21:15). Israel may see no evidence of the Lord’s love for her, but there was already abundant evidence of his hatred of Edom, as God made its hill country desolate. In the OT, mountains are often a symbol of fertility (Deut. 33:15; Pss. 50:10; 72:3) and strength and stability (Ps. 46:2; Isa. 54:10), yet this most solid and impressive aspect of Edom was withered, so that nothing could grow. In addition, Edom is disinherited; its inheritance (cf. Deut. 32:8–9) is given over to scavengers. The imagery of unclean animals living in a once-inhabited city or land is found elsewhere as an outcome of God’s judgment (Ps. 44:19; Isa. 13:22; 34:13; Jer. 9:11; 10:22; 49:33). This image would have had sinister connotations for ancient Israelites, as if Edom had been given over to a dark spiritual power.
It may seem strange or even offensive for God to prove his love for one nation by widespread destruction of another nation. But the Babylonian captivity was so traumatic and horrific a violation of God’s people that Edom’s joy at Israel’s destruction (Ps. 137:7) and its exploitation of Israel’s vulnerability for its own gain (Ezek. 35:15; Obad. 10) echo across the pages of the OT prophets as profoundly perverse. (It is roughly equivalent to celebrating the rape of a family member.) God’s judgment of Edom would not have been perceived as excessive.
In seeking to convince his people of his abiding love for them, the Lord stifles a potential objection. While the Judahite economy was depressed in Malachi’s day, Edom’s fortunes looked to be on the rise (“we will rebuild”) — it expected to recover as a nation. The Lord does not regard their capacity to rebuild as wishful thinking, but instead works out his hatred for Edom by destroying whatever progress they make. That Edom will be called “the wicked country” means that God will seal them in their sin in so public and obvious a way that no one will wonder why God judged this people.
Thirteen contributors explain the shorter Prophetic Books of the Old Testament—Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—with biblical insight and pastoral wisdom, showing readers the hope that is offered even amidst judgment.
The Effect of Sin
Edom’s spiritual fate is described in two phrases: “wicked country” (lit., “wicked border”) and “the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.” These two phrases describe both territory and people, cause and effect in God’s eternal judgment. The word for anger is parallel with “curse” in Numbers 23:7 and with God’s “burning anger” in Psalm 69:24 and Zechariah 1:12. Edom forever lies under God’s just and passionate anger because of its sin.
The final verse of the passage concludes the description of God working out his hatred of Edom by turning to the way in which he works out his love for Israel. One might have expected God to assure Israel that it (in contrast to Edom) would be built up and would prosper, or that it would never be taken advantage of again. Instead, God’s people are caught up in God’s self-exaltation beyond their own borders.
This short verse is deceptively simple and highly significant. That Israel will “see” reverses their earlier skepticism about God’s love, when they claimed to have seen no evidence of that love (v. 2b). Now they will speak otherwise, visibly convinced. But their speech entirely concerns God and his glory, not themselves. God’s greatness often is seen in his intervention on Israel’s behalf (Pss. 92:5; 126:2–3) or on behalf of individuals within Israel (Pss. 35:17; 40:17; 86:11). To speak of God’s greatness is to imply his glory (cf. Isa. 42:21) and exaltation (Ps. 99:2). In this brief phrase Malachi captures Israel’s future astonishment at the Lord’s visible glory as he works out justice in the earth.
The worldwide implications of this exaltation should not be missed—God’s greatness will be known “beyond” (lit. “above”) the borders of Israel. The Lord’s greatness is centered within the borders of his covenant people but is not limited to there. This is how God executes his love for his deeply discouraged and wronged people—he works out justice in the earth, to his great glory.
This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel–Malachi: Volume 7 edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr, and Jay Sklar.
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