Malachi 4 – Burnt-Up Evildoers and the Winged Healing Calf-Skip-Making Sun

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Today’s PassageMalachi 4

This is the last chapter of Malachi, and, in the canon’s traditional arrangement, the last chapter of the Old Testament. I can’t say for sure whether it’s also last chronologically. Some quick Googling reveals that it’s dated roughly around 500 B.C., give or take sixty years either way (thanks, Bible.org), which puts it somewhere around the Ezra-Nehemiah period. According to Ichthys.com’s chart of Biblical composition, however, it was the last book to be written down. And it ends with a short chapter, clocking in at a mere six verses. What are those verses about? Judgment and restoration.

Literally hot on the heels of last chapter’s indictments comes a promise of punishment. God states: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (1). God’s people will, it seems, be the instrument of his wrath after they have been purified: “You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing” (3). Good will triumph over evil; righteousness will come out on top. Given that it mandates this punishment for “all the arrogant” and “every evildoer,” I’m inclined to conclude that it’s an eschatological prophecy, foretelling God’s purging of all evil from his universe. Even if it was already fulfilled at some historical point, how much more true will it be on the day of judgment?

On the topic of final judgment, I have a friend (whom you can find at Cantus Firmus) who’s an annihilationist. He believes that those who reject Jesus Christ, as the punishment for their sin, will cease to exist rather than suffer eternal conscious torment. Passages such as Mark 9:43-50, in which Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched,” incline me to think that hell isn’t annihilation. But I read verses like Malachi 4:1, with its picture of the wicked as burnt-up chaff, with no root or branch left, and I’m willing to admit that perhaps I’m wrong in my hermeneutical approach. I don’t think I’m wrong! But it’s conceivable to me that I might be.

The picture of judgment employs fire imagery consistently throughout. But the portion speaking to restoration is bonkers: “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall” (2). There is a sun, first of all, which is kind of in line with the fire thing, because the sun is hot. Then the sun has wings. Okay, so that’s how the sun rises, I guess, on its wings. And then the wings have healing in them, because when I think of wings, I totally think of healing and how great they are for medical purposes, and this rising healing wing-sun makes God’s people skip around like calves. It’s easy to miss if you breeze right through it, but this verse is a mass of mixed metaphors and I love it.

Also, Elijah is going to come back, and he’ll be instrumental in this restoration for which the winged healing calf-skip-making sun is a metaphor. Later, when John the Baptist ministers to Israel, we learn that Elijah is John the Baptist. But that’s another story for another time.

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