Rivers Clap and Mountains Sing (Malachi 4:1-3; Psalm 98)
Of all the times I’ve had what could be called a “holy” experience, most of them have occurred outdoors. When I’ve been struck by the near presence of God, when I’ve felt wrapped in God’s love, when I’ve marveled at the beauty of creation, I’ve usually been outside—amidst mountains or lakes or wild flowers or trees or leaves.
Like all people, there are some days when I don’t feel near to God in a subjective way. There are other days when I sense God present in the world around me. Recently, I was running on a beautiful fall day on Capitol Hill and I couldn’t help but feel wonder and joy well up inside me. There were leaves on the side walk to swish my feet through; gorgeous trees to marvel at; and the sun was at the late afternoon level where it gives everything a golden glow. The earth appeared to break forth into song and I was surrounded by streaming sunshine and autumn leaves that were crimson, gold, and ginger.
In our psalm today, the people are rejoicing in the marvelous acts and nature of Yahweh. It is not only the people who declare God’s wonder and praises: the earth itself cannot help but take part. Rivers clap their hands and mountains sing for joy. The whole world exults because God has acted in the past and will come and act again.
Psalm 98 is paired with a passage from the prophet Malachi. Malachi is the last book we have before the gospels. His voice is the last prophetic voice we hear before the voice of John the Baptist calling out in the wilderness.
Malachi declares that the LORD, Yahweh, is coming and the images he uses probably make us more uncomfortable than those used in the psalm. I encounter tension, at times, when I read certain scriptures and maybe you do too. I yearn and find hope and want to shout joyfully that God is coming – but my voice is muted when I also read that the coming deliverance also includes judgment. How do we understand and wrestle through passages like Malachi, or other spots in the Old and New Testaments that portray redemption side-by-side with judgment?
Today’s sermon involves more process than analysis; more reflection, wrestling, and musing than certainty. The goal is to work through several questions: What are we to think when we read these passages? What did it mean for the original audience, the Israelites? What could it mean for us today? What is our response in light of these texts?
In Scripture, we see that God’s coming is described as the Day of the LORD, a day which brings both judgment and redemption. In the Old Testament, Israel’s hope hinges on the actions of YHWH, what He has done in the past and what He has promised to do in the future. These coming acts of judgment and redemption were what all of history was working for, what all of creation was yearning for. As the church today, we too wait in hope for the Day of God to come.
Waiting for the Day
Throughout human lives, there are times when it seems like our whole being is yearning for “a day”, a specific time that we wait for in anticipation. For kids, it is often Christmas: everything is leading up to the big day. In high school or in college, we labor and work hard and push our minds in expectation of “the day”, or graduation. There are engagements that culminate in weddings, there are pregnancies that culminate in births. As humans, we are not strangers to waiting, hoping, and finding fulfillment at the arrival of “the day”.
The Old Testament prophets frequently mentioned “the Day”, as the prophet Malachi does in today’s text in chapter 4, where he says, “Surely the day is coming”. The Day referred to is the Day of the LORD, a specific time or event where human history would be brought to a climax and the LORD (YHWH) would act.
What is this “Day of the LORD”? The complete phrase is found 21 times in the Old Testament prophets but what “the Day” meant varied by context and point Israel’s history. When the nation of Israel was full of injustice, when the poor were oppressed, foreigners mistreated, when the religious leaders were corrupt, “the Day” meant that Israel would be held accountable and judged. When Israel was destroyed by foreign invaders and the land was pillaged, “the Day” meant that the nations would be judged for their actions, for not acknowledging YHWH as King.
Not only negative, “the day” also had a positive meaning: “a day of rescue, deliverance, and well-being, such as when Jerusalem will be glorified in the eyes of the nations (Isa. 11:10; see Amos 9:11-15)” (Brueggemann, 2002, p. 46). The potential positive was not only given toward Israel. Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann writes that, at times in scripture, “The same [language] can anticipate well-being, healing, and blessing for the nations as well (as in Isa. 19:23-25)” (p. 46).
In order to understand a scripture like Malachi 4, we must understand what it meant for the Israelites so that we can grasp them in our own context. For Israel, the Day of the LORD is inextricably connected with hope. Brueggemann states that the phrase “is a technical term in Israel’s vocabulary of hope that anticipates a moment when an act of power and self-assertion will fully and decisively establish YHWH’s rule” (2002, p. 45). On that day, the LORD will reign.
He explains further that, “As an act of vigorous expectation on the part of Israel, the phrase (a) looks boldly to an actual concrete, this-worldly occurrence; (b) regards the coming assertion of YHWH’s rule as utterly reliable and beyond question; and (c) refuses to speculate about any time or schedule for such a coming rule. Thus the phrase is a subset of Israel’s deep and abiding hope and its reliance upon YHWH’s rule in the world to establish justice and well-being, which without YHWH would remain forever remote and beyond fruition” (Brueggemann, 2002, p. 45; emphasis added). The Day of the LORD is described as when the LORD God will surely act, not in some ethereal realm but in our world: to make things right, to bring healing, to bring justice. In New Testament terms, the day of the LORD is like Jesus saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” God is coming to be present, to reign, and the earth will be made whole.
Judgment and Deliverance
In many ways, the Day of the LORD sounds great—God ushering in justice and well-being. Yet some of the “Day of the LORD” language clearly sounds like there is not well-being for some people. How do we understand passages like the one we have in Malachi? We have this tension of the LORD bringing healing and renewal alongside judgment. He says that, “for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves” (v. 2). Healing, renewal, joy: this seems decidedly good and beautiful and glorious. If you’ve ever had the joy of seeing a calf frolic, you might know that such an image is of almost indescribable joy—for the human watching and, I think, for the calf alive and frolicking. These verses are beautiful.
Yet the companion verses seem almost ugly. “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, says the LORD Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them… [Y]ou will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Mal. 4:1, 3). Wow. What does this mean? How are we to understand these verses and others like them?
Perhaps there have been times when you looked around the world and said, “Why oh LORD, does this continue? Bring justice!” Perhaps you have cried, “Bring justice, Oh God!” when innocent men, women, and children are gassed by their own government. “Bring justice, O God!” when our sisters and brothers in Nigeria are killed while they worship. “Bring justice, O God!” when those who have plenty sit idly by while children die of hunger preventable diseases. “Bring justice, O God!” when a young man enters an elementary school and murders 20 precious first graders and their teachers.
Who is being judged here, on the “Day that is coming”? It doesn’t exactly say but Malachi writes, “the arrogant and every evildoer” (v. 1).
In Old Testament theology, we see that “righteousness” is characterized by “people who regularly enact a communal ethic… who are not greedy or self-sufficient, but who generously care for the neighborhood and are in firm devotion to YHWH” (Brueggemann, 2002, p. 177). The opposite of the righteous “are regularly characterized as selfish, greedy, and eventually destructive, because they do not care for the poor” (p. 178). We see in Scripture that part of redemption involves holding people accountable for their love of others and their love of God—or their lack thereof.
For the people of Israel, God’s judgment (when it wasn’t focused on them), was a key part of their future hope. Ushering in God’s peace involved making things right, holding people accountable for injustice.
Because of some Christians’ overemphasis on judgment, talking or reading about judgment can make us feel squeamish. We ask, does judgment really go hand-in-hand with redemption? Can we really have God’s full peace, could we really have wholeness without judgment of violence and injustice? When I consider my training in trauma healing, I know that the restoration of communities, that victim-offender reconciliation requires acknowledgment of wrongdoing and restitution in order to repair relationships.
In light of this, in light of Scripture like Malachi, it seems like judgment might be an essential act if God is coming to transform the world in his power, to make things right and whole.
That said, it is difficult to read the poetic imagery used by the prophets. In Malachi, accountability comes by fire. While in some texts, fire purifies (chapter 3 mentions God purifying a remnant), fire also lays waste. Here, the evil doers are described like a tree burning up. I don’t know if this is literal or figurative. Will the unjust experience desolation? Will they utterly cease to exist? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the purpose of this passage is not to lay out a specific analysis of judgment, to say step-by-step what will happen on “that day”. Rather, the purpose was to give hope to God’s people, often overwhelmed by the evil in the world around them, by injustice and violence. The promise was that the LORD Himself would act; that one day violent perpetrators will be so far removed from our lives that they will be like ashes under our feet. In that day, the people of God will rejoice without fear of violence or oppression—they will be as carefree as a frolicking calf.
Creation Rejoices and Waits for the Day of God to be Revealed
Today’s psalm also illustrates the goodness and joy and lack of fear surrounding the Day of the LORD and God’s judgment. The passage paints an image of the earth rejoicing: rivers clapping and mountains singing for joy. The earth celebrates is because of both judgment and redemption. “Let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Ps. 98:9).
In this psalm, “the day” of God’s act is not one of dread. The whole world is portrayed as yearning for God to bring judgment and redemption because, currently, the world is not as it was meant to be. As the church, we too yearn alongside creation and look forward to the Day when God will come and redeem the world.
Paul wrote to the church in Rome in Romans chapter 8, that “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… We know that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved” (Rom 8:18, 21-24a).
Sisters and brothers, though at times we may feel overwhelmed by violence or evil that does not seem able to be stopped, Scripture reminds us that the LORD is coming to judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.
As a New Testament people with faith rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, we learn from the hope of the Israelites. They eagerly anticipated the LORD God coming into their world to act and redeem. Let us too proclaim together: God is coming! The world will be made whole and right! Let the rivers clap and the mountains sing! AMEN.