Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3.18–4.2

Malachi 3.18–4.2

[18] Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. [4.1] See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, say the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. [2] But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

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COMMENTARY: Calvin begins this portion of his commentary by reprising the discussion with which he concluded the previous portion, and which I highlighted in the last installment of this series, concerning the question of merit. He summarizes succinctly: “We saw in the last lecture that no works of the faithful please God, except through a gratuitous acceptance: it hence follows, that nothing can be ascribed to merits without derogating from the grace of Christ.” But what comes out here more so than in his previous discussion, is that Calvin regards this as a hermeneutical point, i.e., it explains how different sorts of biblical statements can fit together. So Calvin (again): “We now see how these two things harmonize—that reward is promised to works, and that works themselves deserve nothing before God; for though God can justly reject them, he yet regards them as acceptable, because he forgives all their defects” (610).

The last installment of this series also highlighted Calvin’s discussion of hope, and the idea that faith involves patience during the gap or delay between God’s promise and its fulfilment. In this way faith also means persisting in trust of God when experience or outward appearances suggest that this is fruitless. But for those who persist in this hopeful faith (or, faithful hope?), Calvin points out that verse 18 includes the promise that “experience will then at length teach you” what you have heretofore believed in spite of experience to the contrary (611).

Continuing with verse 18, Calvin notes the parallel between those who are righteous / just and those who serve God, and those who are wicked and do not serve God. He then makes the penetrating application: “there is no justice where there is no obedience rendered to God” (613). This is a typical Calvin point, but there are other places in his work where I have encountered this sentiment (though I can’t think of where off the top of my head right now) where he has more clearly taken the next step and reversed it to say something like there is no obedience rendered to God where there is no justice. But Calvin does not take such a step this time, instead doubling down: “We must then always come to this,—that men must obey God, if they desire to form their life aright.” Talk about a missed opportunity.

This is something of a random comment, but Calvin takes up the issue in connection with verse 1 of God’s timing for the execution of judgment, and it made me think of the college admission process. Some institutions do what is called “rolling admission” where applications are processed and acted on continuously; other institutions (and this was more common in past decades) had particular admissions periods and deadlines. Calvin makes the point that God works more like the latter than the former: “God does not execute his judgments in an even or a continued course, but that he has a fixed time, now for forbearance, then for vengeance, as it seems good to him” (616).

Finally, I want to highlight some larger bits of Calvin’s interpretation of verse 2 specifically relating to his identification of Jesus Christ as “the sun of righteousness” and as “the sun of righteousness” (repetition is mine, as is emphasis on “sun”):
The meaning . . . of the word sun, when metaphorically applied to Christ, is this,—that he is called a sun, because without him we cannot but wander and go astray, but that by his guidance we shall keep in the right way. . . . Christ then daily illuminates us by his doctrine and his Spirit; and though we see him not with our eyes, yet we find by experience that he is a sun. (618)

He is called the sun of righteousness, either because of his perfect rectitude, in whom there is nothing defective, or because the righteousness of God is conspicuous in him: and yet, that we may know the light, derived from him, which proceeds from him to us and irradiates us, we are not to regard the transient concerns of this life, but what belongs to the spiritual life. The first thing is, that Christ performs towards us the office of a sun, not to guide our feet and hands as to what is earthly, but that he brings light to us, to show the way to heaven, and that by its means we may come to the enjoyment of a blessed and eternal life. We must secondly observe, that this spiritual light cannot be separated from righteousness; for how does Christ become our sun? It is by regenerating us by his Spirit into righteousness, by delivering us from the pollutions of the world, by renewing us after the image of God. (618–19)

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast appointed thine only-begotten Son to be like a sun to us, we may not be blind, so as not to see his brightness; and that since he is pleased to guide us daily into the way of salvation, may we follow him and never be detained by any of the impediments of this world, so as not to pursue after that celestial life to which thou invitests us; and that as thou hast promised that he is to come and gather us into the eternal inheritance, may we not in the meantime grow wanton, but on the contrary watch with diligence and be ever attentively looking for him; and may we not reject the favour which thou has been pleased to offer us in him, and thus grow torpid in our dregs, but on the contrary be stimulated to fear thy name and truly to worship thee, until we shall at length obtain the fruit of our faith and piety, when he shall appear again for our final redemption, even that sun which has already appeared to us, in order that we might not remain involved in darkness, but hold on our way in the midst of darkness, even the way which leads us to heave.—Amen.

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