Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi, Preface and 1.1-6

Malachi 1.1-6

[1] A prophecy: The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi. [2] “I have loved you,” says the LORD. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob, [3] but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” [4] Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the LORD Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the LORD. [5] You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the LORD – even beyond the borders of Israel!’ [6] A son honors his father, and slaves honor their master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty.

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COMMENTARY:

Series (re)Introduction

It is a pleasure to bring this series back and present you all once again with discussion of Calvin’s commentary on Scripture. If you have not yet seen this series here on DET, you may want to check the serials index to catch up on previous installments. At present, we have covered the whole of 1 Peter. Now we take a step back to the Old Testament book of Malachi. On to Calvin’s text!

Preface

Calvin’s preface is quite short – only 2 pages – wherein he makes three points. First, he discusses the book’s author. Some, he tells us, have understood the author to be an angel since the author’s name is built on the Hebrew word for “messenger”, which is used of angels (much the same happens in NT Greek). Calvin thinks this is “absurd” since God was in the habit at that time of using humans to communicate with his people. He further suggests what I think is an interesting hypothesis, namely, that Malachi was Ezra’s surname. I have not found any discussion of this possibility in the limited exegetical resources on Malachi that I have lying around, but it at least fits with the book’s dating. Second, Calvin notes that Malachi is the last prophet both canonically (even though it is not the last book in the MT, it is the last prophetic book) and temporally before Christ. He thinks that this could be the case for one or both of two reasons: God could have been angry with Israel and so withheld communication, and God could have wanted to raise their level of suspense before the coming of Christ. I've heard the first of these notions often, and therefore appreciate Calvin's second option, which fits better with Calvin's own modes of thinking. Third, Calvin gives a paragraph summary of the book which recounts briefly the way in which Malachi berates Israel for its sin and calls them back to loving service of God and neighbor.

1.1

Calvin thinks that the book’s opening word, rendered “a prophecy” above, is better translated as “burden” here because “prophecy is not everywhere called a burden; and whenever this word is expressed, there is ever to be understood some judgment of God…[T]his word was regarded as ominous” (461). This sets the stage for Calvin’s reading of the whole book, which he understands to be a summons of Israel before “God’s tribunal, inasmuch as many sins had again begun to prevail among them.”

2-6

The elephant in the room for this set of verses is the doctrine of election. Calvin will treat that in his next lecture. Here Calvin points out that before calling Israel to account, Malachi sets out the benefits that God has given to her. God says first that he has loved Israel and, when Israel questions that love, God reminds her of her lowly and utterly undeserving origins. God might have loved Esau and rejected Jacob, but he did not. It went the other way, and it did so only because of God’s decision. Hence Calvin concludes that “the origin of all the excellency which belonged to the posterity of Abraham, is here ascribed to the gratuitous love of God” (465). This pertains, of course, to the question of whether Law or Gospel comes first. That is the main point – here are a few interesting asides.

(1) Calvin here notes that God dealt differently with two children of one family, loving one and hating the other; blessing one and cursing the other. What impact might this have on the tendency in certain Reformed circles to elevate the family as a unity in their ecclesiology? How might it impact the familial aspect of certain Reformed sacramental understandings?

(2) This passage tells us that Caanan was fertile land while Edom was made into desolation. Still, such a distinction seems relativized by the recognition that both Babylon and Egypt were more wealthy, powerful, and fertile still. In response to such a worry, Calvin here severs any straightforward connection between earthly success and one’s position with respect to God. He notes that Jerusalem was not a particularly good city – “Jerusalem was not superior to other cities of the land…on account of its situation…” – what made it special was its relationship to God – “…at the same time it excelled in other things, for God had chosen it as his sanctuary” (466). Of course, this has implications for all sorts of Christian thinking from notions of a “Protestant work ethic” (i.e., the practical syllogism) to the Prayer of Jabez to the Prosperity Gospel.

(3) Calvin notes how Edom was made desolate and points out that, while Israel was also made desolate a few times, it was always restored while Edom was not. As he then puts it, “Since then there had been no restoration as to Idumea, the Prophet shows that by this fact the love of God towards Jacob and his hatred towards Esau had been proved” (467). Still, the Herodian line was Idumean. What new light might such a pair of observations cast on the narrative of Christ’s passion? Is it one more instance of disgrace being visited upon Edom?


PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast not only designed to give us a life in common in this world, but hast also separated us from other heathen nations, and illuminated us by the Sun of Righteousness, thine only-begotten Son, in order to lead us into the inheritance of eternal salvation, - O grant, that having been rescued from the darkness of death, we may ever attend to that celestial light, by which thou guidest and invitest us to thyself; and may we so walk as the children of light, as never to wander from the course of our holy calling, but to advance in it continually, until we shall at length reach the goal which thou has set before us, so that having put off all the filth of the flesh, we may be transformed into that ineffable glory, of which we have now the image in thine only-begotten Son. – Amen.

3 comments:

Matt Frost said...

I might say that 1:2 is God calling Israel to account, from the very beginning. The simple expression of Israel's contention of God's love stands before the athnach as the opening of the prophetic burden.

And it seems odd to me that Calvin should say of this group of verses that it expresses Jacob/Israel's lowliness and undeservingness. I don't see anything about human deserving here, let alone anything that compels the audience to question whether God might not have chosen them. God is faithful to his choice, and that faithfulness is shown in privilege granted to Jacob/Israel that is emphatically denied its neighbors. If deserving plays a role, it is in 1:6, as God begins to indict Israel for not returning what God deserves for this faithfulness of love: honor and respect.

For that reason, I'm totally on board with the election motif -- though we give far too much attention to God's active desolation of Edom. As though the choice of Jacob were defined by the hatred of Esau. It simply stands in relief by comparison with the fate assigned Edom. (And yet a double-predestinarian must, and I can see how this reinforces the idea. As a Lutheran, I may not like it, but I see it.) The question here is whether God's love and choice endure, or are passing. And so in the next set we turn to whose love truly has waned.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Something I've wanted to do for a long time is make a thorough study of Lutheran theology (Luther, Melancthon, Chemnitz, at least) on the question of predestination.

Matt Frost said...

Augustine certainly lies back of much of it anyhow, and there's no shortage of dualisms in the Lutheran sphere -- zwei Reiche, for example, and law/gospel in the ordo salutis. I wager there's something of it to be found in the "age of orthodoxy," but probably quite a bit more to be found once we hit America. But then we also hit heresy trials. The run up to Lutheran Concord would be the more interesting place to find it, though. More power to you, if you should take it up!