When calves are released onto fresh grass for the first time, or older cattle let out after eating dry hay in stalls all winter, they run, skip and leap about with great excitement. It’s quite a sight, one with which Malachi must have been familiar. It’s the picture he uses here to encourage God’s people – there’s a day coming when we’ll feel like newly released calves leaping about on fresh green grass in the springtime. The people in Malachi’s time needed this encouragement, since their lives often felt like chewing dry hay in sheds! Our lives might feel like that sometimes too.
Malachi spoke into a time after God’s people had returned from exile in Babylon. The temple had been rebuilt, but life seemed a far cry from prophesies made during the rebuilding like ‘“‘I will fill this house with glory’”’(Haggai 2:7). The people had become disillusioned and half hearted, saying things like ‘“‘It is vain to serve God’; and ‘What profit is it that we have followed his instructions’”’(Malachi 3:14). They felt that their lives could be summed up as ‘“‘walked mournfully’”’(Malachi 3:14), and in contrast ‘“‘those who work wickedness are built up’”’(Malachi 3:15).
God was not impressed with such a jaundiced, grumbling perspective and attitude. Nevertheless, our Lord is not only the good shepherd but good calf-herder too. His message via Malachi was designed to heal and encourage, which sometimes does involve an element of ‘chastening’(Hebrews 12:11). God warned that it’s a mistake to serve half-heartedly, adopting the attitude ‘“‘what a weariness’”’(Malachi 1:13), and especially turning ‘“aside out of the way”’(Malachi 2:8) with regards to lifestyle and teaching etc. Yet His call, as always, was ‘“Return to me, and I will return to you”’(Malachi 3:7).
God is not absent or impotent when things seem a bit flat, even grim in the stall; He’s listening and taking notes, especially noting those with a better attitude: ‘Then those who feared Yahweh spoke one with another; and Yahweh listened, and heard, and a book of memory was written before him, for those who feared Yahweh, and who honoured his name’(Malachi 3:16).
God wants us to know how much He treasures folk with that sort of attitude, saying ‘“They shall be mine”’(Malachi 3:17), even regarding them as ‘“his own son”’(Malachi 3:17), and so encouraging and willing His flock/herd back into the family fold/stall, which of course is no ordinary will, but powerful and effective. God’s people are designed ‘for adoption as children… foreordained according to the purpose of him who works all things after the counsel of his will’(Ephesians 1:5-11).
In particular God wants His children to be encouraged by this future ‘“day”’(Malachi 3:17) on the horizon. One of the disappointing things for Malachi and his contemporaries about the post-exilic temple, compared with Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle before it, was that God wasn’t tangibly present as ‘the cloud… the glory of Yahweh’(Exodus 40:34, 1 Kings 8:10-11), or ‘“the cloud on the mercy seat”’(Leviticus 16:2). Perhaps that’s because the first manifestation of this coming day would be His arrival literally ‘in person’ to teach in His temple: ‘“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple’(Malachi 3:1). So the ‘“‘messenger’… John”’(Matthew 11:10-11) the Baptist came, to prepare the way, and ‘The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory’(John 1:14) and ‘Every day Jesus was teaching in the temple’(Luke 21:37).
That arrival was cause enough to leap for joy. In fact John the Baptist did just that when he saw Jesus coming, whilst they were still both in the womb! Mary went to visit John’s mother Elizabeth and ‘when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting… the baby leaped in her womb’(Luke 1:41) and she exclaimed ‘“blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy!”’(Luke 1:42-44).
However, although John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, a new horizon came into view regarding this way to a day. Jesus had come to lead us further, towards a day that would end all days, a new spring sunrise with ‘“healing in its wings”’(Malachi 4:2), the dawn of ‘New Jerusalem’(Revelation 21:2). So Jesus’ message was, ‘“I am going to prepare a place for you… you know the way… I am the way”’(John 14:2-6), and one day we’ll be released into that lush place, running, skipping and leaping about, forever.
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