Some concepts in Scripture are more difficult to understand than others. One of the concepts with which many Christians struggle is that of fearing God. After all, “God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 2:7). Many find it difficult to reconcile the thoughts of loving and fearing God, as if the two are mutually exclusive.
Throughout Malachi, we have heard God challenge his people about worship. As we reach the conclusion of the prophecy (3:16–4:6), we find that some people responded well. How so? They “feared God and esteemed his name” (3:16). Heeding every challenge that the Lord put to them, those who heard and believed responded with fear and esteem.
But what did that look like? Did it look like cowering dread accompanied by refusal to approach God? It doesn’t appear so. The text appears to highlight at least three characteristics of those who feared God. If we will fear God as he expects, we will do well to meditate on these three characteristics and ask if they are present in our lives.
First, those who feared God repented (3:16–18). The word “repent” is not found in these verses but the concept is certainly present. God had accused his people throughout the prophecy of unrighteousness but, in the text before us, we see a shift. Malachi distinguishes between those who feared God and those who did not. And what was the distinguishing mark? What was the difference? It was “the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, the one who serves God and one who does not serve him” (3:18). The people who feared God had stopped pursuing wickedness and had instead begun pursuing righteousness. They had heard the Lord’s rebukes, confessed their own wickedness, and changed their ways.
A proper fear of God displays repentance. Righteous fear shows itself by turning from wickedness and embracing righteousness. If we hear God’s rebukes but nothing changes in our lives, it is a sure sign that we do not fear God and esteem his name.
Second, those who feared God trusted (4:1–3). In these verses, God warned that he was going to come in judgement. Many did not trust his word, but those who feared his name did. God speaks to them in these verses as those who believed that he would act (4:3). Too many heard and laughed off the warnings of judgement, but those who feared the Lord displayed their fear by believing and trusting what he said. They trusted that he would come in judgement as he had warned, which led to their repentance.
We cannot claim to fear God if we do not trust and believe what he says. Christians walk by faith, not by sight. We live in a world, however, where we are encouraged to walk by sight. But the more we walk by sight, the less we trust God, because “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Righteous fear displays itself in believing and trusting God by believing and trusting his word.
Third, those who feared God hoped (4:4–6). The prophecy closes on a note of heaviness. It is significant that the last word in the English Old Testament is “destruction” (or “curse,” in some translations). As it opened with a warning of death (if you eat of the tree, you will die), so it closes with a warning of death (“lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction”). But the informed reader of Scripture will immediately discern the note of hope in these verses.
Many Jews took the promise of Elijah’s return literally. For centuries, faithful Jewish families left a seat open at the dinner table during their annual festivals in the hope that Elijah would return. There are hints in the New Testament that Jesus’ disciples shared this misunderstanding. But Jesus clarified when he said that John the Baptist was the fulfilment of this prophecy (Matthew 11:13–14). And what was John’s message? “Repent!” John preached repentance and baptised the repentant as he pointed to Messiah to come. While many, who did not believe, were destroyed, those who believed John’s preaching found hope of eternal salvation.
Fearing God manifests itself in gospel hope. Dever accurately asserts that fearing God manifests itself in this: “by living as if we believe him, by running with joyous abandon toward him, and by trusting that he will receive us as his own through Christ.” Hope is not the opposite of fear but the culmination of fear.
As you meditate on Malachi 3:16–4:6 this morning, ask God to help you to fear him by repentance, trust, and hope. May we all find our name in the “book of remembrance … written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”