Criswell Theological Review 2.1 (1987) 39-61
[Copyright © 1987 by
digitally prepared for use at
THE SUBTLE CRISES
OF SECULARISM: PREACHING
THE BURDEN OF
C. RICHARD WELLS
The path from the "then" of biblical exegesis to the "now" of
biblical preaching always proceeds between borders. On one side
are the times, on the other, timeless principles. The contemporary
preacher must negotiate the path so as to bring the truly universal
teaching of Scripture to bear on conditions similar in some significant
ways to those addressed in Scripture. The path is strewn with debris
from earlier (and sometimes careless) travellers. And we must be sure
we actually remain on the path, lest we find ourselves digressing along
an overgrown trail that leads to a place where nobody lives.
Our plan for this article is to point out some of the significant
landmarks that lie on the path from the prophet Malachi to a genera-
tion approaching the last decade of a phenomenal century. We will
work in two ways. First, we will attempt to mark the path in broad
outline. We will suggest: (a) parallels between the conditions of Mala-
chi's age and those of our own; and (b) major theological themes
addressed to Malachi's audience; and, by application, to us. Second,
we will attempt to develop a preaching program from Malachi.
I. A Practical Theology of Malachi
Malachi and the Malaise of
Most scholars agree that Malachi was written sometime during
the last half of the 5th century B.C. The reader will find extensive
introductory material elsewhere in this Review. The critical point here
is that Malachi's prophecy appears within a strategic nexus of social
and religious realities.
40 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
The Social Realities. Just as there were three deportations to
with a group of exiles in 536 B.C. After some delay (cf. Haggai and
the people completed the
458 B.C., Ezra the Scribe returned with a second group, and labored to
restore the knowledge of the Law (Ezra , 25-26). In 455 B.C.,
Nehemiah came with a third group. Under his twelve-year governor-
inaugurated (Neh 5:1-13; 13:7-27). If we assume that Malachi dates
period following Nehemiah's brief return to
then the setting for his ministry is about one century after the end of
During this century of gradual return to the land, several impor-
tant changes occurred in the political
power in the
in August, 490 B.C. Ten years later they defeated the Spartans at
Thermophylae and briefly occupied
navy defeated at
point on, the Persian government became less and less efficient, and
more corrupt and weak, an unnerving experience for
Second, the people who filled the void left by the deportations
continually frustrated the returning exiles. They evidently taxed the
Jews (Neh 5:4), a burden that lay on top of that imposed by
itself. Some had to borrow money just to buy food and pay taxes
(Neh 5:14-15). These neighbors accused them to the central govern-
so that it had to be done in shifts, with half the men working and half
standing guard (Neh -18).
The pragmatic realities which awaited the exiles may have proved
distressing than the political. The situation in
bleak. The extensive ruins (Neh ), and the inferiority of the
project compared to those of the more glorious past (Ezra ; Hag
2:3), diminished whatever initial enthusiasm may have existed. And
the prospects for a better life seemed no better now. Small wonder
accustomed to life there, many knew no other life, and some had
The Religious Realities. The greatest difficulty for
however, in what the Exile and subsequent events did to her identity.
The shattering experience of the Exile raised many questions about
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 41
new way. In the Exile,
in the face of catastrophe. Now she wondered about the presence of
God in the face of life!
Furthermore, the Exile had the advantage of being a trauma.
Traumata summon the reserves of the human spirit. They tend to
purify, to strengthen, even to ennoble. The post-Exile was not trauma;
use the popular description of
aise." As G. A. Smith put it, the Jews of Malachi's age were "denied
the stimulus, the purgation, the glory of a great persecution." Instead,
they were "severely left to themselves and to the petty hostilities of
Theologically and pragmatically, these were hard realities. After
all, the Jews had returned. They had returned to Yahweh from their
They had returned to
returned to re-institute the true worship of the true God. It is in this
context of "obedience" that the crisis of God's presence develops.
Once again, Smith is helpful:
[The Jews] entered the period, it is true, with some sense of their
distinction. In exile they had suffered God's anger, and had been purged
by it. But out of discipline often springs pride. . . . The tide of hope,
which rose to flood with [the completion of the
away, and left God's people struggling, like any ordinary tribe of peas-
ants, with bad seasons and the cruelty of their envious neighbors. Their
pride was set on edge. . . . 2
This generation had done the "right things," but God had not re-
ponded in kind.
Malachi and the Crisis in
T. V. Moore pointed out in the last century that whereas "before
the captivity the besetting sins of the Jews were idolatry and supersti-
tion," after the Exile "they were prone to the other extremes of
atheism and Epicureanism."3
tinctiveness. Out of disappointment and difficulty, she had lost any
sense of the nearness, the power, the glory, the relevance of God. The
irony is that she had thus become essentially pagan--"secularized,"
A. Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets (2 vols;
Doran, n.d.) 2.342.
2 Ibid., 2.342-43.
V. Moore, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (1856,
of Truth, 1979) 350.
42 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
we might say. In her complaint that her faith did not get her any
advantages, she abdicated her faith. She joined secular culture, then
complained that God did not care! R. Braun puts it finely: "through
[Malachi] God spoke his word to a people sadly disappointed with
the course of events in their time and sorely tempted to give up their
religion as an irrelevant relic from the past."4
The Subtle Crisis of Secularism. Malachi's opening word re-
flects the extraordinary seriousness of this
den") is rare in the prophets: "It never occurs in the title except when
it is evidently grave and full of weight and labor."5 The "burden"
Malachi" (1:1). The prophet lays before
crisis6 which involves at least three elements.
First, it constitutes a subtle accomodation to the prevailing cul-
ture. G. Campbell Morgan points out in his fine little devotional
commentary that the character of the people was bound up in their
continued defense "wherein?" "Wherein hast Thou loved us," they
asked (1:2), or "despised Thy name" (1:6) and so forth (1:7; ; 3:7;
They have been boasting themselves in their knowledge of truth, re-
sponding to that knowledge mechanically, technically; . . . and, when the
prophet tells them what God thinks of them they, with astonishment and
impertinence, look into his face and say, "We don't see this at all!"7
Malachi is a prophet for our age. Certainly Christians suffer
terrible persecution in many parts of the world. But in most of
tend to accept dominant cultural values uncritically. Their commit-
ments frequently amount to little more than window dressing. Con-
temporary artist Steve Taylor puts this form of Christianity in the
mouth of his "Christian" politician who proudly declares:
4 R. Braun, "Malachi-A Catechism for Times of Disappointment," Currents in
5 Thus Jerome on Hab 1:1. Cited in C. F. Keil, The Twelve Minor Prophets
(2 vols.; 1868, reprinted; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 2.3. All Scripture quotations
are NIV unless otherwise indicated.
Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (
Campbell Morgan, Malachi's Message for Today (reprinted;
Baker, 1972) 30-31.
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 43
I'm devout, I'm sincere, and I'm proud to say,
That it's had exactly no effect on who I am today!8
D. R. Davies has put it more strongly. The sin of our age he
is the enthronement of Man at the centre of life, being and
thought.9 Modern culture seems (quite unconsciously) to assume that
it is within modern man's capacity to erect what is, in effect, a
Christian civilization on a basis of secular belief."10 The real tragedy,
however, is that
Church members are only a degree less secularized in their conscious-
ness than the public that is completely divorced from the Church.
Theoretical appreciation of belief in another world is, of course, stronger
in the Church than in the world. But it is not by any means a dynamic
disturbance in the life of the believer.11
danger is universal.
The Relation between Faith and Life. Second, the crisis in
Malachi involves the relation that exists between true faith and real
life. It is a crisis of relevance, that is, of the role God plays in the task
living. Malachi indicts
lifestyles betray a cozy belief that what one did with God on the
Sabbath and what did Sunday through Friday had very little to do
with each other.
Christian psychologist Newton Maloney observes that this sort of
belief permeates contemporary society. He cites the influential "role"
theory of T. R. Sabin who hypothesizes that each individual moves in
five different environments, which together constitute a pattern of
roles leading to identity.12 The five environments are: (1) physical
(including the body and natural environment); (2) situational (one's
cultural life, including work, play and the like); (3) interpersonal (the
people with whom one interacts); (4) idealistic (one's goals, ambi-
tions, values and so forth); and (5) transcendental (one's experience
9 D.R. Davies, The Sin of Our Age (New York: Macmillan, 1947) 23.
10 Ibid 12.5
12 T. R. Sabin, "A Role Theory Perspective for Community Psychology: The
of Social Identity," Community Psychology and Mental Health (ed. D. Adel-
B. L. Kalis;
44 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
of or with God, or the supernatural). Maloney illustrates the
a combination of one's status in all life roles
thoughts, words, feelings, and actions leading to status and satisfaction
to status and satisfaction
Physical Situational Interpersonal Ideal Transcendental13
Maloney goes on to point out that while Sabin is right to include God
in human identity, he is wrong to make God just one more among
Malachi would emphatically agree. God will not be one among
equals. One may live as though God were irrelevant, but God is still
relevant! Disaster follows the relegation of God to the periphery of
life. The priests may forsake the covenant of Levi, perhaps thinking
they will be more in tune with the times (2:7-8), but it explodes
before their eyes: "So I have caused you to be despised and humili-
ated before all the people"(2:9). And those who accept the pagan
view of marriage and sexuality uncritically () produce innumer-
able sorrows (), destroy family life (), and degrade themselves
("so guard yourself in your spirit," ; ).
Perhaps we may borrow again from Davies. He points to three
remarkable paradoxes that have ensued from the coronation of man:
(1) The "abolition of other-worldliness" has failed to produce a better
world here and now; (2) The "dissolution of the spirit" of man has
failed to produce a better knowledge of humanity; and (3) The
anthropocentric faith has actually resulted in "the degradation of the
human person."15 Accomodation is a subtle crisis, but a real one. In
trying to be relevant to culture, we make God irrelevant. But God will
never be irrelevant. He is eternally contemporary.
13 H. N. Maloney, "Introduction," Wholeness and Holiness (ed. H. N. Maloney;
14 Ibid., 25.
15 Davies, Sin, 58-123.
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 45
The Meaning and Value of Covenant. Third, the crisis in Mala-
chi centers on the meaning and value of covenant. The word for
"covenant" (berit) occurs six times in the prophecy (2:4; 2:5; 2:8; ;
; 3:1), but the idea permeates the book.16 And it has immense
It is of course well-established that various legal, contractual
agreements were known in the ancient world, and that many of the
essential features of these covenants appear in various biblical con-
texts.17 However, the biblical covenant is not merely a legal device. In
G. Quell's words, it "is a legal transaction for which there is no
analogy in the circle of experience"18 precisely because it is not,
strictly speaking, legal. It is personal and relational, as well as regula-
tive, judicial, normative, and obligatory. Quell seems to struggle put-
ting its exact character into words. He calls it "a regulated form of a
fellowship between God and man or man and God" (and, at times,
man and man as well).19 He also describes it as "a medium in man's
relation to God which is designed to promote reflection"20
These and similar definitions yield three distinctive features of
berit. First, covenant is a personal relationship: "The Presence of
YHVH is built into the structure" of covenant.21 Second, the covenant
is a committed relationship. This explains why berit and hesed ("loyal
love") are so closely linked, even equated (cf. Deut 7:9). Covenant is
not mere friendliness, compassion, mercy, or benevolence. It is com-
mitted relationship.22 Third, covenant is a responsible relationship,
that is, a relationship which has a norm by which it can be evaluated.
The contemporary implications of these three features of covenant
could be guessed by making a simple comparison. Think, for example,
of the modern notion of "relationship," recurring so frequently in the
media. Now think of Malachi's powerful contention that marriage is a
"covenant" ()--a "personal, committed, responsible relationship!"
16 For example, 1:2 reminds of God's covenant faithfulness; -12 renews the
covenant promises for renewed faithfulness; the hortatory summary of 4:4 is a charge
to return to the Law around which the covenant was established (cf. Exod 19:5; Exod
7-8). S. L. McKinzie and H. N. Wallace ("Covenant Themes in Malachi," CBQ 45
549) suggest the possibility of interpreting the entire book around the concept.
17 G. E. Mendenhall, "Covenant," IDB 714-21.
18 G. Quell and J. Behm, "diati<qhmi, diaqh<kh," TDNT 2 (1964) 110.
19 Ibid., 109.
20 Ibid., n. 25. The thought is borrowed from J. Wellhausen.
21 J. Jocz, The Covenant: A
Theology of Human Destiny (
mans, 1968) 51.
E. Jacob (Theology of the Old Testament [
1958] 104- 7) for an excellent discussion of this point.
46 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
These implications profoundly shape our applications of the messages
of this book, to which we now turn.
II. A Preaching Program from Malachi
Malachi's prophecy might be summarized as a call to distinctive
and discerning godliness. His message might therefore be themati-
cized as follows: "Do not exchange treasures for trifles, your birthright
for a bowl of soup." This is a crisis of relevance. "Do not suppose,"
the prophet declares, "that a bankrupt and skeptical culture can give
you something God cannot."
Following E. Clendenen's fine structural analysis,23 we may struc-
ture a preaching program developing this central theme from the
specific "problems" pinpointed by Malachi. Taking 1:1-5 as a sum-
mary introduction, each of the problems which appear subsequently
can be thought of as resultant, or consequent, or perhaps concomitant
"crises of secularism." We might envision a preaching program, there-
fore, which grows out of six crises:
1. The Crisis of Identity (1:1-5)
2. The Crisis of Commitment (1:6-9; 2:1-5)
3. The Crisis of Responsibility (-14; 2:6-9)
4. The Crisis of Marriage (-16)
5. The Crisis of Lifestyle (-3:5)
6. The Crisis of Hope (3:6-4:6)
We will take up each of these sections individually. Rather than
simply outline possible sermons, we will suggest a preaching thesis for
each section, while developing some potential homiletical themes.
The Subtle Crisis of Identity (1:1-5)
The opening section of chap. one documents the subtle decline of
tacit juxtaposition of
"Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins" (v 4); but
once said that religion is harmful because it keeps people from facing
their problems wholeheartedly and head on.25 Religion was to him
more pathetic than wrong. We can sense something of that here. Both
23 Cf. his article in this volume of the Review.
24 For a fine discussion of this curious structure, see C. D. Isbell, Malachi: A Study
Guide Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) 33-36.
25 S. Freud, The Future of an Illusion (Garden City: Doubleday, 1927) 67-68.
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 47
dignity of consistency! Perhaps the only real difference between pure
secularism and apathetic religionism is that one overtly emphasizes
human ability while the other covertly emphasizes God's inability.
These verses point to a sense of God's love as the true character
the love of God constitutes the central argument of, and key to, the
prophecy: "God has, and continues, to love us, and no amount of
doubting, objecting, or arguing will remove this fact."26
The loss of the experiential knowledge of the love of God is
really a loss of identity as the people of God. Psychologically speak-
ing, identity is the operative assumption about who one is. As parents
of adolescents know well, identity is a profound accomplishment,
affecting virtually everything that follows. The prophet's opening
thrust, therefore, speaks to all of life: Build your lives on the supreme
fact that God always love you.
J. A. T. Robinson's startling Honest to God of 1963 shows how
critical this foundation is. Robinson, an English bishop, acknowledged
that in many discussions "between a Christian and a humanist, I catch
myself realizing that most of my sympathies are on the humanist's
side."27 He suggested that both an existentialist like Camus and a
thinking Christian share in, and speak to, a humanity "for whom the
consolation of religion, the deus ex machina, the god-hypothesis, are
dead beyond recall."28 In a bold move, Robinson concluded that the
Christian is one who, in that milieu, can still be open to the "divine"
agape "of the universe."29 The Christian determines to love selflessly
simply because love is the ultimate reality.
Robinson was not naive. He knew the implications of these re-
interpretations: "It will condition everything,"30 he declared; and, it
did. A decade later, J. I. Packer wrote a rebuttal. Two trends, he said,
characterize modern Christian minds: (1) That "They have been con-
formed to the modern spirit;" and (2) That "They have been confused
by the modern scepticism." Packer noted that a century ago C. H.
Spurgeon "described the wobblings he then saw among Baptists on
Scripture, atonement and human destiny as 'the down-grade.'" Could
he survey Protestant thinking about God at the present time, Packer
said, "I guess he would speak of 'the nose-dive!' "31 We are courting
26 W. Kaiser, Malachi: God's Unchanging Love (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) 13.
27 J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (London: SCM, 1963) 8.
28 Ibid., 129.
29 Ibid., 130.
30 Ibid., 133.
48 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
disaster, for knowing God is the "most practical project anyone can
engage in." Packer's conclusion offers a fit illustration for the situation
As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesman to fly him to
put him down without explanation in
one who knew nothing of English or
are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing
about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a
strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant
business, for those who do not know about God.32
The Subtle Crisis of Commitment (1:6-9; 2:1-5)
The word "relationship" activates the popular imagination. There
are "open" relationships, "distressed" relationships, "creative," "grow-
ing," and "stagnant" relationships. There is relationship "enhance-
ment," "theory," and "therapy." A dictionary kind of definition
probably expresses the contemporary understanding as well as
any thing--a relationship is just an emotional connection between
As vital as relationships are to human life, Malachi insists that
they are not truly satisfying unless they are qualified in some impor-
tant ways. He frequently uses the concept of covenant to express
these qualifications. As we noted earlier, covenant relationship exists
only in terms of commitment and responsibility. In a very general
way, and without pressing the point, this section from 1:6-2:9 ad-
dresses these two dimensions in order.
"Commitment" is the focal point of Malachi's first indictment
am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is
the respect due me?" (1:6) Interestingly, Malachi charges the people
through the priests. One might have expected them to sustain their
commitment even in troubled times. More importantly, one might
expect that priests need not be reminded of the basic imperative of
obedience. Indeed, this irony yields the point of the section. Obedi-
ence is the primary demand of God on his people. God surely desires
our love; but, first he demands our respect!
Commitment elevates relationships above the merely emotional.
First, commitment acknowledges what is due. Second, commitment
involves the whole self. That is the difference between "interest" and
"commitment." One may nurse an interest in the theological concept
of God's "fatherhood." But commitment makes God "my father."
32 Ibid., 14.
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 49
These people retain an attachment to the philosophical system of
Yahweh-religion, but they do "not lay it to heart to give glory to my
name" (2:2). Third, commitment performs. Her inferior and half-
exercises prove that
lence (or lack of it) reflects basic commitment.33
Finally, and perhaps the most sobering thought of all, basic
commitments ultimately constitute character. There are several hints
of this truth.34 But 2:5 is explicit: "My covenant was with him, a
covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for
reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name." In
leaving the commitment to God, the priest left the covenant by which
"life and salvation were guaranteed and granted to him."35 We all
ultimately become our commitments.
The Subtle Crisis of Responsibility (-14; 2:6-9)
Like the obverse and reverse of a coin, commitment and respon-
sibility surround, define and qualify relationships. Commitment is
the subjective, personal dimension of relationships, while responsi-
bilty is the objective, interpersonal dimension. The peculiar subtlety
of this third crisis seems to emerge from Malachi's remarkable use of
irony. The prophet appears to give two clear
distinctiveness while pointing to broad applications of this loss for
The first irony consists of a contrast between the worship of
"My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting
of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to
my name, because my name will be great among the nations," says the
Lord Almighty ().
The precise meaning of this verse is disputed. However, unless we
see a reference to overt universalism,36 it makes little difference
33 A fascinating illustration of this elemental truth comes from the best selling
of American business by T. J. Peters and R. H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of
Excellence (New York: Warner, 1982). The authors note that the truly "excellent
have incorporated "the values and practices of . . . great leaders" (p. 26,
added). They succeed because they "are so effective in engendering . . . .com-
34 Cf. 1:10, "I am not pleased with you;" 2:2, "I will curse your blessings" (which
priests treasured as symbols of status and position).
35 Keil, "Malachi," 2.445.
36 Cf. G. A. Smith, Prophets, 359-60.
50 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
homiletically whether it refers futuristically to the church's worship,37
to the presence of genuine belief among some Gentiles,38 or to the
unintended worship of God in pagan forms.39 In any of these cases,
consciousness of the whole world with the knowledge of God lan-
guish in bored semi-consciousness.
There is something profoundly contemporary and convicting
about this scenario. God is God whether anyone believes it or not. But
somehow the loss of wonder and awe at the knowledge of this God
assumes tragic proportions. God has placed in human hands the
responsibility of making himself known. When those people lose the
sense of God's power and nearness, the tragedy is irredeemable.
Malachi's point here is disturbing: God expects his people to impact
culture, not invest in it.
A second irony develops around the priest's specific responsibili-
the people of
truth, live the truth and impart the truth (2:7). But Malachi suggests
not only that the priests failed with their responsibilities, but that they
failed in a particularly unsettling way:
"But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused
many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi," says the
Lord Almighty. "So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated
before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have
shown partiality in matters of the Law" (2:8-9).
Perhaps the meaning of this judgment lies in this. In difficult times, the
priests had responded to the questions and doubts of the people not
with courage, hope and confidence in the veracity of God; but with
compromise and neglect. Like parents trying to be "buddies” to their
children, like churches that soft-pedal the gospel, like countless Chris-
tians who compromise their positions, the priests tried to be "rele-
vant." The irony, of course, is that the plan backfires (2:9). Not many
people have the stomach for someone who accommodates, who rides
the fence of commitment, who refuses to stand up for fear of being
counted. The only position of influence is still distinctive, committed
37 J. Packard, "The Book of Malachi," Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (re-
J. P. Lange; 12 vols.;
38 H. Wolf, Haggai, Malachi: Rededication and Renewal (Chicago: Moody, 1976)
72-74. J. Swetnam ("Malachi 1, 11: An Interpretation," CBQ 31  200-9) offers a
variation that the reference is to actual cultus in the synagogue.
39 E. Cashdan, "Malachi," The Twelve Prophets (ed. A. Cohen; London/Jeru-
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 51
It is an inescapable fact. A position of influence carries a pre-
sumption of responsibility. This is what makes covenant relationships
so significant. Committed, responsible relationships have the potential
for lasting, godly influence.
Subtle Crisis of Marriage (-16)
This dynamic interplay of commitment and responsibility takes
on visible form as Malachi's prophecy shifts from principle to practice
in the second movement (-3:6). Two problems dominate the
movement--marriage (-16) and lifestyle (-3:6).
It is tempting to ask why Malachi chose marriage as the starting
point for application. We are not told, of course. The law prohibited
religious intermarriage (cf. Deut 7:3), and Nehemiah sternly rebuked
the practice (Neh -27). But there is evidence that Malachi began
with marriage simply because that relationship is the crux for all
others. The home was (and is) the center of human development.
From a sociological point of view, it serves five vital functions, in all
First, the family serves to regulate sexual activity. The sexual
drive demands careful regulation, else a society is thrown into indis-
criminate sexual activity, high incidences of illegitimate birth, and
dehumanization of women as sexual objects. Every culture recognizes
the need to sanction the sexual life of its members and assure respon-
sible parents for its children.
Second, the family serves as the agency of reproduction. All
societies must replenish members who die. Families are thus crucial to
the very survival of the race.
Third, the family socializes the members of a culture. The family
transmits to its children the goals, values, norms, obligations, expecta-
tions, rules, rights, and so on, which characterize life in a given
Fourth, the family provides the most basic and primary form of
companionship and love, which are needed by all persons. Ideally,
husband, wife and children all find their love needs met in the family
Fifth, the family gives the members of society their identity.
Religious, social, ethnic, and national identity are conferred, first of
all, in and by the family.
40 S. A. Grunlan, Marriage
and the Family: A Christian Perspective (
J. D. Unwin's classic study Sex and Culture (
1934) dramatically illustrates. His massive investigation of the correlation
marital/sexual practice and cultural achievement led him to conclude that:
52 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
A crisis involving marriage and the family is therefore a cultural
crisis of the first order. Social life quite simply cannot survive without
For the people of God, however, the crisis threatens the survival
of their culture, not generic society. The Jews have accommodated
the prevailing cultural view of marriage. And Malachi warns that
such compromise impacts their religion, their relationships, and their
responsibility. His point might be made this way: One's view of
marriage (including sex and the family) is not neutral, it determines
the kind of life and society we will have. We may develop preaching
themes around this idea by examining the prophet's diagnosis and his
The Prevailing View of Marriage. In the ancient Near East, as
in every other culture, marriage was a civil or legal affair. But every
society sanctions and approves marriage at another level. Indeed, the
legal restrictions usually reflect, over time, this more primary view of
The Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian cultures surrounding post-
Exilic Judaism countenanced all manner of divorce and remarriage,41
so long as the legal requirements were observed. For these societies,
marriage was a powerful socio-economic institution. Marriages were
frequently arranged or terminated on the basis of economic considera-
tions. Divorces could be granted for numerous reasons, especially
childlessness; but, in all cases the marriage involved carefully detailed
written contracts, and carefully specified legal divorce proceedings
The contemporary view of marriage differs only in particulars.
Tim Stafford has recently exposed the dominant sexual ethos of our
American culture. He calls it the "Ethic of Intimacy." It is, he says,
both a rejection of the out-and-out hedonism of the Playboy philoso-
phy, and a narcissistic attempt at "caring" without long-term commit-
ment. The interesting thing about the Ethic of
on to say, is that it devalues marriage precisely because it elevates this
vague, compatible relationship of intimacy above everything else.42
Under the Ethic of Intimacy, a married man or woman could hardly
"The greatest energy has been displayed by those societies which have reduced their
sexual opportunity to a minimum by the adoption of absolute monogamy" (p. 431).
41 For a good discussion of these practices, see G. A. Barton, "Marriage," Encyclo-
pedia of Religion and Ethics (1921).
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 53
be faulted for seeking a divorce if the "relationship" proved incom-
patible or unsatisfying, or if the spouse were making demands on
one's personal autonomy.
In the case of ancient
suffered at the hands of the prevailing cultural view. The Israelite may
have sought an exciting foreign wife, or maybe just a wife who could
have children. A contemporary American (maybe a Christian) might
be seeking a happy relationship. But in either case, marriage de-
generates into a convenience.
The Prophetic Message about Marriage. Malachi countered
with three powerful assertions. This subtle crisis of marriage has far-
reaching implications for religion, for relationships, and for responsi-
bility. Put another way, marriage is a covenant43 with God, with each
other, and with our children (and thus the whole world).
First, Malachi stresses that marriage involves a Covenant with
God. The language takes marriage back to creation and to the "cove-
nant of our fathers" (). The exogamous44
marriages of these
ites were contracted with the daughter of a foreign god" ().45
calls this "a detestable thing" ().
the sanctuary the Lord loves" ().
Malachi stresses the fact that marriage is not a solitary affair. The
relationship of marriage is uniquely intimate, so that each partner is
profoundly affected by the other as a person. Two persons join
together their personalities melding into one.46 To deny God's in-
volvement in, and authority over, that kind of relationship, amounts
43 See our discussion above on the meaning and value of covenant.
"Exogamy" refers to marriage outside one's group; in this case,
45 J. M. P. Smith (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Malachi
ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912] 49) notes that the phrase may mean only that
"an alliance has practically been made between Judah and some people that does not
worship Yahweh through the common celebration of such marriages." The sin may not
have been marriage to overt idolators, just alliance with idolatry through marriage.
46 Numerous NT passages reflect this dynamic quality of marriage. Consider, e.g.,
1 Cor 6:15-18 where Paul warns that sexual sin not only violates the "one flesh" prin-
it constitutes the only sin against one's own "body" which here likely means "the
where faith lives and where man surrenders to God's lordship" (
"sw?ma," TDNT 7  1066). Cf. also Eph 5:32 where Paul labels the husband-wife,
Christ-church analogy a mega musterion. Throughout the Bible, marriage appears
a “social and relational unit of two people who belong to each other in such a way that
without each other they are less than themselves; the unity cannot be broken without
damage to both parents in it" (O. R. Johnston, Who Needs the Family? [Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979] 64).
54 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
to high treason against him. This same sort of thinking clearly under-
lies Paul's prohibition against mixed marriage in 2 Cor 6:14-18. This
constitutes a critical point for contemporary Christians. Our view of
sex, marriage and family must never be detached from our commit-
ment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Christian lives are literally at stake.
Second, Malachi emphasizes that marriage involves a covenant
with each other: "The Lord is acting as the witness between you
and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with
her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage cove-
nant" (). The starting point for any understanding of the Jewish
marriage ideal, according to E. Stauffer, is "the original order of
creation" which casts marriage as "the original form of human fellow-
ship."47 This explains Jesus' own insistence on the inviolability of
marriage, and his observation that "hardness of heart" (Matt 19:8,
sklerokardian) alone accounts for the miseries of divorce. Malachi has
virtually a NT perspective here.
The contemporary value of the prophet's message lies in two
clear principles. First, owing to the very nature of covenant, marriage
demands commitment before intimacy. Someone has well said that
people in our world marry because they "love"; while, biblically,
people ought to love because they are married! Second, when put in
its proper context, marriage offers people God's highest and most
fulfilling kind of life. The idea pervading so much of the history and
literature of marriage seems to suggest that marriage is somehow
necessary, but that it somehow prevents our enjoying life fully.48
Again, Malachi refutes the notion. The wife you are casting away, he
declares, is "your partner" (). The word indicates one who shares
a task, a common life. The Jews were exchanging God's pattern for
life for pleasure, or convenience, or economic considerations. It is a
profound danger for our world-that we may forsake the joy and
beauty of lifelong commitment, growing fellowship, the traditions of
home and family, for the dubious thrills of cheap pleasures and
Finally, Malachi declares that marriage involves a covenant with
our children and thus with the whole world. In , a notoriously
difficult Hebrew passage, the prophet links the practices of the Jews
47 E. Stauffer, "game<w, ga<moj," TDNT 1 (1964) 649.
48 Citations could be multiplied. Shakespeare's (All's Well That Ends Well [New
Haven: Yale, 1926] Act II, scene iii, line 315) parasitic Parolles, e.g., counsels young
Bertram to forsake his (arranged) marriage: "A young man married is a man that
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 55
with "godly offspring."49 Whatever the interpretation, two vital points
are made. First, raising godly children is commended. There is
an implicit warning here against false goals for our children. God
does not commend the desire for "talented," "successful," "educated,"
handsome," "beautiful," or "athletic" children, but, for godly child-
ren. Second, godly children are clearly seen as the products of godly
marriages. Couples who "stay together for the sake of the children"
have it all wrong. Families build on the actual marriage relationship.
The quality of that relationship is what establishes the quality of the
family itself. It is pointless to talk of building good, strong families
apart from healthy marriages.
Subtle Crisis of Lifestyle (-3:6)
The fifth of the crises of secularism emerges out of an astonishing
set of ironies. It begins with Malachi's typical question-answer format
which exposes the unbelief of God's people (). God is wearied by
the incessant drone of charges against His justice. At least two impli-
cations derive from these questions.
First, the Jews linked the presence of God with circumstances.
The silly conclusion of Russian cosmonauts in the early sixties that
they had searched the heavens and found no God may be less cul-
pable than this conclusion: "The circumstances are not what we want,
so where is God?" C. S. Lewis once remarked that God is never
localized in circumstances, anymore than Shakespeare is localized in
Falstaff or MacBeth.50 The nearness of God, he said, is after all a
matter of who one is.51
Second, the Jews implied that God failed to make a proper
distinction between the "good" and the "bad." As R. Bailey points out,
the Jews really hinted at two accusations. On the one hand, they
suggested that God no longer took note of "good people." On the
other hand, they implied that they themselves were exempt from
49 There seem to be three broad categories of interpretation: (1) The passage
refers to an exception involving Abraham's ("the one") marriage to Hagar. "He did that
to raise up godly children, you are doing it for lust or convenience"; (2) The passage
refers to the example of Adam and his wife (cf. AV, NIV). "God could have created
more than one (wife for Adam), but he made only one in order to provide optimal
conditions for raising godly children"; and (3) The passage refers to an treacherous
exchange which these Jews attempt to justify, perhaps claiming their wives are barren,
or that marriage is "not a moral or religious issue" (cf. NASV). "How will you raise
godly children if you destroy their homes?"
50 C. S. Lewis, "The Seeing Eye," Christian Reflections (ed. W. Hooper; Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967) 167.
51 Ibid., 170.
56 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
judgment (and thus deserving of blessing) because they were chosen,
and had already endured their "hell" in Exile.52 But the "benefits" of
being "good" had failed to materialize. Now, like atheists who swear
there is no God, agnostics who are unsure, or deists who regard the
whole matter as irrelevant, the chosen of God ask, "Where is the God
of justice?" ().
It is a tragicomic feature of human nature that people should
actually demand justice. Hardly anyone really wants justice. The
bitter irony of that reality explodes' out of Malachi's answer:
"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before
me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the
messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the Lord
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he
appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap (3:1-2).
Through his prophet, “God Himself takes up the challenge, ‘Where is
the God.'"53 The Lord “whom you seek," he declares, the messenger
of the covenant,54 "in whom you delight,"55 that one is coming, and
"who can endure?"
The people do not realize what they have asked! "This judgment
is threatened," says Keil, “against those who wanted the judgment of
God to come."56 It is, once more, a disturbing thesis: God is not
coming, first of all, to demolish the strongholds of secular culture, but
to expose the pockets of secularism in the sanctuary of God. Like a
fuller employed full-time to wash stains out of the vestments of a
a smelter hired to refine the metal used for
Lord will remove the profane impurities from
The graphic metaphors drive home the point which, according to
D. Johnson, Peter later utilized in his "Theology of Suffering" (1 Pet
-19). The judgment Malachi announces reminds God's people of
of "our identity as the
glorious presence."59 The judgment of eternal salvation ultimately
52 R. W. Bailey, God's Questions and Answers (New York: Seabury, 1977) 67.
53 J. J. Perowne, Malachi (Cambridge: University Press, 1893) 28.
54 Probably a reference to the Lord himself. Cf. Packard, "Malachi," 7.19.
55 Baldwin, Malachi, 243, says this is "probably ironical."
56 Keil, "Malachi," 461.
57 The words for "launderer's soap" bear this peculiar sense. Cf. Isbell, Malachi, 60.
58 For the nuances of the different words for "refine" here, see Wolf, Mala-
59 D. Johnson, "Fire in God's House: Imagery from Malachi 3 in Peter's Theology
of Suffering (I Pet -19)," 29 (1986) 293-94.
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 57
falls on unbelief, but the judgment of present purification "begins
with us" (1 Pet ).
The ironies of this passage reach a climax in 3:5. The people
question God's presence; Malachi says he is coming. The people de-
mand justice; God promises it--to them! And here, God answers the
charge that he cannot, or does not distinguish good and evil. The
people mocked God with the charge that "all who do evil are good in
the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them" (). Malachi
counters with staggering irony: "Those of you who do 'good' (with
half-hearted ceremonies!) are evil in my sight." He warns that:
"I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against
sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of
their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive
aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the Lord Almighty (3:5).
William Wordsworth once wrote that the leaders of the French
revolution gradually twisted their motives of conviction into motives
of conquest. They came to live, he said, in "that tempting region. . . .
Where passions have the privilege to work and never hear the sound.
their own names."60 Such is Malachi's case against
people hide their compromise behind smug religious forms. God is
not pleased. He will not have his people nursing the values, attitudes
and behaviors of the prevailing culture--while calling it "faith," or
"therapy,” or “contemporary,” or “state-of-the-art,” or any of the
names by which compromise is cloaked. He demands a difference.
The Subtle Crisis of Hope (3:7-4:6)
It has been said of Marxists that they dispensed with any hope of
"pie in the sky" and concentrated on the task of getting boiled beef
and carrots here. Such is the nature of secularism. It strips life of its
supernatural character, and shifts the focus of existence to the tem-
poral and tangible. The thesis of Malachi's final message to the world
addresses this pervasive present-mindedness: Hope is what makes life
The crisis of hope dominates the third and final movement of
Malachi. Clendenen locates the problem specifically in -14:
"You have said harsh things against me, says the Lord. Yet you ask,
'What have we said against you?' You have said, 'It is futile to serve God.
What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like
mourners before the Lord?'"
60 W. Wordsworth, "The Prelude," Bk. XI, line 230.
58 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Such murmuring is characteristic of lost or abandoned hope. In the
OT, the "attitude of expectant and confident hope increasingly ex-
presses the realisation that everything in the earthly present is pro-
visional."61 The crisis of hope, therefore, evolves out of an over-
emphasis on the present. Said another way, the trees of the present
hide the forest of the future. The investment of time, energy, money
and interest solely in the present reduces the hope of eternity to mere
Although at first they appear unrelated, all the sections of this
final movement concern that problem of abandoned hope. They seem
rather naturally to underscore three vital facts about hope.
In the first section (3:7-12), the prophet suggests that hope should
be the operative principle of life. This emphasis can be seen in his
exhortation to "Return to me" (3:7). When the injured innocence of
the people asks, "How are we to return?" (3:7) Malachi answers that
they must return in tithes (3:8-10).
Although apparently unconnected, "tithes" and "hope" stand on
common ground. W. Zimmerli has pointed out that the OT, unlike the
New, lacks an unambiguous term for hope (such as elpis). The con-
cept is clearly present, however, in a number of terms that express
(1) "A waiting, an existence toward that which is to come";62 and
(2) The thought "of trust and refuge in God."63 Hope is, therefore,
oriented toward the future, while secularism is oriented to the present.
It is oriented toward the person of God, while secularism is oriented
The tithe simply expresses these commitments pragmatically.
The "tithes" (ma'aser, 3:9 [=MT 3:8]) were offerings from the harvest
(Num 18:21) as were the "offerings" (teruma, 3:9 [=MT 3:8]; cf. Num
). When crops are failing (cf. ), such rituals represent hard
choices! They symbolize a genuine conviction that "this," the "here
and now," is not everything.
There may even be a touch of bitterness here that intensifies the
irony for the people. E. Cashdan notes that these tithes and offerings
benefitted the priests and Levites.64 Given what Malachi has said
about the disdain the people have for these unfaithful priests (2:9), the
people might well have rationalized the withholding of tithes. It
would be easy to excuse when the recipients are so unworthy! But
Malachi will not excuse them. They are robbing God (3:8). The
61 R. Bultmann, "e@lpij," TDNT 2 (1964) 52.3, emphasis added.
62 W. Zimmerli, Man and His Hope in the Old Testament (London: SCM, 1971) 8.
63 Ibid., 9.
64 Cashdan, "Malachi," 351.
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 59
withholding of tithes affronts God personally.65 On the other hand, the
invitation here is to "return to God." The net effect of the exhortation
is that the tithe represents a living, operational hope, for it symbolizes
a commitment to eternal values rather than provisional ones, and a
vital trust in the God who is the Lord of life rather than in the
circumstances which go into making up life.
In the second section (-18), Malachi underscores the fact that
hope elevates life. The emphases which appeared in the first section
reverberate here; but, the prophet adds a new thought. When the
people lament that there is no profit in obedience they muddle the
distinction between belief and unbelief. Religion is irrelevant. Malachi
responds in two ways.
First, he records the fact that some emerged from this mass of
unbelief; "The those who feared the Lord talked with each other"
(). What they said we are not told. Calvin says "they were touched
with repentance" and sought "to unite. . . as many friends as pos-
sible."66 Luther says the reference is to "those who comfort each
other."67 On Calvin's view, they repented of their murmuring and
complaint, turning again to the eternal God of hope. On Luther's, they
supported each other in their commitment to live in hope despite the
prevailing skepticism around them. On either view, they are distin-
guished, separated, demarcated, from the surrounding culture. Their
hope (whether renewed, or sustained) marks them as the true people
of God. The point is very important. It shows that the final judgment
("the day of YHWH") which ultimately separates the believers from
the unbelievers is already taking place. To live in the hope of eternal
life is in some sense already to experience that life!68
Second, Malachi answers these people with a metaphor of God's
constancy; "A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence
concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name" (3:16b).
The "scroll" likely draws on the imagery of the Persian compensation
65 The word for "rob," (qaba' may mean "to circumvent" (BDB, 867); or, more
likely "to take forcibly" (Cashdan, "Malachi," 351). The difference is only one of
degree. Either rendering implies that the people appropriate to themselves the rights
66 J. Calvin, "Lectures in Malachi," Calvin's Commentaries (24 vols.; Grand
Rapids: A. P. and A., n.d.) 6.1094.
67 M. Luther, "Lectures on Malachi," Lectures on the Minor Prophets (ed. H. C.
Luther's Words 38 vols.;
R. Mason, The Books of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi
University Press, 1977) 157. This concept recurs frequently in the NT (cf. Rom -25).
As G. E.
Ladd has argued so well, the whole idea of the
the advent of a new life that is, here and now, a real experience of the life of God there
and then! See his Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).
60 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
roll. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that the names of "Royal
Benefactors" were placed on the roll because the government took
special care to insure a proper reward for service.69 Herodotus also
reported, however, that such persons sometimes waited months or
years for their honors.70 If that figure is in view here, it communicates
a profoundly realistic, but comforting message. The life of hope
accepts the responsibility of obedience in uncertain circumstances,
and in skeptical society, even though the reward for doing so is not
immediately apparent. The life of hope is oriented to the long-term,
not the short-term, toward eternal not temporal values, toward God's
will, not self-gratification.
The theme of distinction is also expanded with this thought.
Those who distinguish themselves from the prevailing culture now
(when it is difficult, perhaps dangerous) will finally be distinguished
forever as God's "treasured possession" (). Make no mistake,
Malachi declares, there is a difference between the life of unbelief and
that of belief. A fallen world tends to blur the distinction. Compro-
mise and accommodation on one side, irreligious humanism on the
other may raise doubts for believers. But the difference is radical:
"You will again see the distinction between the righteous and the
wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not" ().
The third and final section of this movement draws this thought
to a climax with two dramatic assertions. The first is that the distinc-
tion made now between those who believe and those who do not
has real and eternal consequences (4:1-3). Pope's famous line that
"hope springs eternal in the human breast"71 expressed a quality of
humanity--a craving, a yearning, a desire for that which God made
experience. Malachi assures
Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death, and God adore!
What future bliss, he gives thee not to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.72
It is sobering to reflect on the fact that we are living, whether we
realize it or not, for eternity. Our lives, our values, our commitments,
our interests, our behaviors--all of it has eternal significance.
Malachi's second assertion here is that while God has given hope
as the essential motivation for life in the present, he has given Law
69 Herodotus, Herodotus, VIII, 85.
70 Herodotus, History, V, II; IX, 107. Cf. also Perowne, Malachi, 35.
71 A. Pope, "An Essay on Man," Epistle I, line 95.
72 Ibid., lines 91-94.
Wells: THE SUBTLE CRISES OF SECULARISM 61
and prophecy as the essential guides for life in the present.73 Despite
J. M. P. Smith's rather brutal remark that this reference to the Law
"makes connection with neither the foregoing nor the following con-
text" being is merely "can isolated marginal note from some later legal-
its,"74 the context suggests a legitimate purpose. The Law looks back
to obligation, the coming of Elijah forward to the promised salvation
of God.75 The Law stands complete, etched in the stone tablets of
Horeb. Elijah, the first prophet, appears as the next and last prophet,
prophecy "is exhausted and her message to
fulfilled."76 The Law reflects the character of God-holiness. Elijah
heralds the Messiah of God--redemption.77
God has not left his people helpless. The Law represents the
norm of life. Commitments, relationships, all the values and activities
of life can be evaluated. The prophet stands for the transformation of
life. Elijah's coming signals the restoration, not just the diagnosis, of
relationships.78 It is the glorious final appeal of Scripture--return to
the God of hope, to the one who not only enables you to understand
your life, but invites you to experience his!
73 The word is Kaiser's (Malachi, 100).
74 J. M. P. Smith, "Malachi," 81.
75 Baldwin, Malachi, 251-52.
76 G. A. Smith, Prophets, 371.
77 Kaiser, Malachi,106-7.
78 Cashdan, "Malachi," 354.
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