Does God Ever Hate Anyone?
A Study in the Minor Prophets: Malachi
December 1, 2002 - "How could God hate anyone?" This angry question came to me as I was a young Christian reading the book of Malachi. It seemed to me that Malachi presented God as being totally arbitrary and capricious in the fact that He loved Jacob but hated Esau. Such a characterization was completely foreign to the God I knew through Jesus Christ. That difficulty drove me to study the book. After searching, I discovered just how Malachi was using the words "love" and "hate."
by Richard O. Rigsby
Who was Malachi? Of that prophet little is known except his name. In fact, even his name might not be known. The word "Malachi" means "my messenger," and some suggest that it is not a name at all but simply a title. In early times some of the Jews suggested that the person referred to as "my messenger" was actually Ezra. Others, noticing that the word for "messenger" also means "angel," believed that Malachi was an incarnate angel. The word "Malachi" is actually used in Malachi 3:1, where it is translated "my messenger."
In any case, he may be described as a vigorous, clear-cut personality who strongly opposed anyone who treated the Temple and the things of God with indifference.
He was offended by carelessness in worship; he wanted to restore the genuine worship of God based on a true relationship with Him; he was passionate to guarantee justice. Boldly and unflinchingly Malachi faced the issues of the day. He was a fearless reformer who spoke directly to sinners without hesitation or embarrassment.
The book of Malachi is different from other books of prophecy, for it gives not sermons per se but a series of arguments. Malachi's messages cause his audience to respond in the form of questions, excuses and objections. The dialogues generally have four parts:
First, Malachi issues a claim from God. Second, the audience objects to the claim. Third, the evidence proves the claim. And fourth, the truth of the claim is applied in a concluding promise, threat or encouragement. This pattern is well illustrated in the first dialogue.
First, the claim was issued in Yahweh's startling statement: "I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated" (Malachi 1:2-3, NIV).
In English, "love" and "hate" are primarily words of emotion. The Hebrew words so translated in this passage have a meaning different from what we might expect, however.
When they are used in juxtaposition, as they are in this passage, a vital point must not be overlooked: The Hebrew verb translated "love" means having a positive relationship in which the parties have the benefit of all the decisions, actions, attitudes, thoughts, responses and feelings that accompany such a relationship. The Hebrew word for "hate" indicates a nonrelationship (or a negative relationship) with none of the decisions, actions, attitudes, thoughts, responses and feelings that accompany a positive relationship.
The statement might be paraphrased and explained thus: "I offered Jacob a positive relationship with Me and he accepted it, so he enjoys everything that the relationship implies; I offered the same positive relationship to Esau, but he rejected it, so he can expect nothing that is brought by a positive relationship."
Second, the people immediately objected to the claim, asking, "How has God loved us?" Third, Malachi presented the proof of God's love for Jacob. Fourth, the truth of the claim is seen in God's promise.
How is Malachi's ministry to be dated? This is a vital question if we are to understand the context of his message. Malachi definitely preached after the return to Judah from Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C. Further, the Temple was already rebuilt and rededicated by 516 B.C. Little is known of the time immediately following those events. However, there are indications that the people gradually became spiritually apathetic and increasingly skeptical and godless.
Ezra, the masterful scribe, returned in 458 B.C. and attempted to lead the people back to the Scriptures, but revival was not immediately forthcoming.
Nehemiah, an officer in the Persian court, was charged to go to Jerusalem in 445 B.C. to serve as governor and to rebuild the walls, which were still in ruins. In spite of vicious opposition from Judah's enemies, the walls were completed in record time. In accomplishing this, Nehemiah welded the people into a strong, loyal group who held him in high esteem and stood ready to obey his commands. This enabled him to effect sweeping reforms. In 432 B.C. Nehemiah was recalled to the Persian court until his return to Judah in 420 for a second term of office.
On his return he found that the sins that he had attempted to suppress during his first administration had revived. Old Testament scholar Charles L. Feinberg, in his book "The Minor Prophets," made the following cogent observations: "The sins of Israel that provoked Nehemiah were the same that stirred up Malachi. The failures were: (1) the defilement of the priesthood; (2) foreign marriages with divorce of their [Hebrew] wives; and (3) neglect of tithe and offerings. The prophet also indicates the outlook of the godly remnant in the nation." Based on these parallels, it is most likely that the events of the book of Malachi take place during the interim between Nehemiah's two terms of office.
The times were indeed desperate. The community was suffering a serious economic depression. Their crops had been decimated by pestilence. The priests were so immoral and corrupt that their skepticism was spreading to the entire population. The people complained against God, bemoaned their dismal plight—even refused to pay their tithes and offerings. Worship had degenerated into indecent and empty formalism.
Moreover, rather than remaining a separate people, they were intermarrying with their pagan Gentile neighbors. The politicians were corrupt. Their corrupt political practices were affecting the entire community. The people were disposed to question the authority and the method of God. God's love was being doubted and God's truth was being questioned. These dire conditions called for a fearless spokesman for God. This spokesman was Malachi!
What response did Malachi receive as God's messenger? When Malachi accused the priests of despising the Lord, the priests denied it vigorously, making them candidates for the Lord's punishment. When Malachi presented to the people a catalog of their sins, including treachery between brothers, the dissolution of marriages, and insincere religion, the people offered objections or rationalizations for their actions.
Following a parenthetical interruption that includes a prediction of the "my messenger" of Malachi 3:1 (whom the New Testament identifies as John the Baptist), the list of sins concluded with Malachi accusing the people of robbing God. After declaring judgment on their sins, Malachi moved on to speak of ultimate judgment in the Day of the Lord. Malachi's book closes with a prediction that Elijah will come prior to the Day of the Lord.
Our situation today has much in common with that of Malachi's time. Malachi proclaimed that God wants marriages to be pure and peaceful, and that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:11-16). What a necessary message to a world where family values have eroded drastically and divorce is prevalent.
Malachi emphasized that insincere "worship" is an insult to God, that God's people should be zealous for the honor of His sanctuary, that sinners do not appease God by sacrifices. Today's worship—often trivial and apathetic—needs to be weighed on the scales that Malachi furnishes.
Malachi provided a vital reminder when he emphasized that spiritual leaders need to maintain God's standards in their own lives.
Malachi accused the people of robbing God of tithes and offerings. Although we are under grace, not law, we should be no less responsible than the people of Malachi's day for our money stewardship.
Malachi's message elicited excuses and objections from his hearers, and the same may be true of his readers today. The message that the Prophet Malachi so forcefully brought to his generation 2,400 years ago needs to be proclaimed in our own day with equal intensity and authority!