By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached August 8, 1852
"Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name."-Mal. iii. 16.
The first division of our subject is suggested by the word "then." When? They did thus in the times of Malachi. It is only in reference to those times that we can extract the true lesson from the conduct of the holy men whose behavior he praises. We will consider-
I. The times of Malachi.
II. The patience of the saints in evil times.
I. Not much is known of the Prophet Malachi, or his exact date. We are sure, however, that he was the last prophet of the old dispensation. He lived somewhere between the restoration from captivity and the coming of Christ.
Thus much we know of those times from history: The Jews were restored. From chap. iii.,ver. 10,we learn that the Temple had been rebuilt. But Israel's grandeur was gone, although still enjoying outward prosperity. The nation had sunk into a state of political degradation, and had become successively subject to the Persians, Syrians, Romans. It is precisely that political state in which national virtues do not thrive, and national decay is sure. ****
They had a glorious past. They had the enlightenment of present high civilization. But with this there was a want of unity, manhood, and simple virtues. There was just sufficient gallingness in the yoke to produce faction and sullenness; but not enough curtailment of all physical comforts to rouse the nation as one man to reconquer freedom. It was a state in which there was no visible Divine interference.
Compare this period of Israel's history with all which had preceded it. These four hundred years belong to profane history. The writings of that period are not reckoned inspired, so widely do they differ from the Scripture tone. There were no prophets, no flood of light, "no open vision." The Word of God was precious as in that time between the death of Joshua and the calling of Samuel.* [* Four hundred and thirty-one years] Except this solitary voice, prophecy had hushed her harp.
Now, what was given to Israel in that period?
I reply, retrospect, pause, and prospect.
Retrospect, in the sublime past which God had given her for her experience. "They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them." On them they were to live-their nation's sacred history; God's guidance and faithfulness; the sure truth that obedience was best.
Prospect, in the expectation of better times.
Dim, vague hints of the Old Testament had pointed them to a coming revelation-a day in which God should be nearer to them, in which society should be more pure. An advent, in short.
And between these two there was a pause.
They were left by God to use the grace and knowledge already given by Him.
Now this is parallel to God's usual modes of dealing. For example, the pause of four hundred years in the land of Egypt, between the bright days when Abraham talked with God, and the deliverance by Moses.
The pause in Canaan when the Israelitish commonwealth was left, like a building, to settle down before being built higher, between the times of Joshua and of Samuel.
The pause in the captivity, and now again a pause.
A pause after each revelation until the next.
So, in the natural world. Just as in summer there is a gush of nature's forces and a shooting forth; and then the long autumn and winter, in which is no growth, but an opportunity, taught by past experience, for the husbandman to manure his ground, and sow his seed, and to wait for a new outpouring of life upon the world.
And just as in human life, between its marked lessons there is a pause, in which we live upon past experience-looking back and looking on. Experience and hope, that is human life: as in youth, expecting manhood, and then looking for future changes in our condition, character, so in all God's revelation system there have been periods of "open vision," and periods of pause-waiting; when men are left to experience and hope.
It is in vain that we have studied God's Word if we do not perceive that our own day and circumstances are parallel with those of the prophet Malachi We live in the world's fourth great pause.
Miracles have ceased. Prophecy is silent. The Son of God is ascended. Apostles are no longer here to apply infallible judgment to each new circumstance as it arises, as St. Paul did to the state of the Corinthian Church.
But we are left to the great Gospel principles which have been already given, and which are to be our food till the next flood of God's Spirit, the next revelation-that which the Scripture calls " the second advent."
And the parallel holds in another respect. The Jews had but undefined hints of that which was to be. Yet they knew the general outlines and character of the coming time; they knew that it would be a searching time, it was to be the "Refiner's" day; they knew that He should turn the hearts of the fathers to the children: and they knew that the messenger age must be preceded by a falling back on simpler life, and a return to first principles, as Malachi had predicted, and as John the Baptist called them to. They knew that it was an age in which the true sacrifice would be offered.
And so now-we know not yet what shall be; "but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is." "And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself"
We know that it will be the union of the human race-they will be "one fold."
This is the outline and character of the revelation; and we may work, at least, towards it. "Ye are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief Ye are all the children of the light, and the children of the day." " Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do." To strive after personal purity and attempt at producing unity, that is our work.
We rest on that we have, and hope for that we see not. And only for the glimpse that hope gives us of that, is life worth having.
II. Let us consider the conduct of different classes in these evil times.
1. Some lived recklessly.
Foremost among these were the priests, as has been always found in evil times. The riot of a priest is worse than that of the laity. Mutual corruption. Against the priests Malachi's denunciations are chiefly directed.
He speaks of the profanation of the sacred places (chap. i. 6, 7). Of sacrifice degraded (ver. 12, 13). Vice honored (chap. ii. 17). In that they called good evil and evil good. By these men belief in God was considered ridiculous.
And then it was that one of those glorious promises was made, to be fulfilled in after-times. Malachi foresaw that the Gentiles would take up the neglected service (chap. i. 10, 11), and the vision of a universal kingdom of God became the comfort of the faithful few.
2. Others lived uselessly, because despondingly.
The languor and despair of their hearts is read in the words (chap. iii. 14, 15); and indeed it is not surprising: to what point could good men look with satisfaction? The nation was enslaved, and worse-they had become slaves in spirit. Their ancient purity was gone. The very priests had become atheists. Where was the promise of His coming? Such, too, is the question of these latter times. And our reply is from past experience.
That dark day passed, and a glorious revelation dawned on the world. From what has been, we justly infer what will be. Promises fulfilled are a ground of hope for those yet unfulfilled. Where is the promise now of holier times? Yes, but remember the question seemed to be just as unananswerable then; it was just as unanswerable in the days of the Judges, and in the captivity in Egypt and in Babylon.
This "Scripture was written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the world are come." Then the consolation of St. Peter becomes intelligible, " We have a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts."
3. But in these evil times there were a few who compared with one another their hopes, and sought strength in Christian communion and fellowship. Of them the text speaks.
This communion of saints is twofold: it includes church fellowship and personal friendships.
It is plain that from church fellowship they could gain little in those days. Unity there was not, but only disunion. Over that state Malachi lamented in that touching appeal"Have we not all one Father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning, the covenant of our fathers?" Israel had forgotten that she was a family.
And it is true that in our day church fellowship is almost only a name. The Christianity of the nation does not bind us as individuals. Well-does the Church? Are there many traces of a common feeling? When church privileges are insisted on to produce unity, do they not produce division? Are not these words of the prophet true of us? Where are the traces of Christian brotherhood?
Here-in this town? here-in this congregation? at the holy supper which we join in to-day? Shall we meet to get private good, or to feel we are partakers of the same Body and the same Blood? Therefore to insist on church union as the remedy would be to miss the special meaning of this verse. The malady of our disunion has gone too deep to be cured by you or me.
We will consider it, therefore, in reference to Christian friendship. We find that within the outward Jewish Church there was an inner circle, knit together by closer bonds than circumcision or the passover-by a union of religious sympathies. "Then they that feared the Lord spoke often one to another:" they "thought upon His name."
Let us consider the blessing of Christian friendship. In such times it discharges a double office.
1. For the interchange of Christian hope and Christian feeling. It is dreary to serve God alone; it is desolate to have no one in our own circle or family from whom we can receive sympathy in our hopes. Hopes die.
2. It is a mighty instrument in guarding against temptation. It is a safeguard, in the way of example, and also as a standard of opinion. We should become tainted by the world if it were not for Christian friends.
In conclusion, cultivate familiar intimacy only with those who love good and God.
Doubtless there are circumstances which determine intimacies, such as rank, station, similarity of tastes. But one thing must be paramount to and modify them all-communion in God. Not in a sectarian spirit. We are not to form ourselves into a party with those who think as we do, and use the formulas that we do. But the spirit of the text requires us to feel strongly that there is a mighty gulf between those who love and those who do not love God. To the one class we owe civility, courtesy, kindness, even tenderness. It is only those who love the Lord who should find in our hearts a home.