Evening Prayer and Reflection November 17


Scripture: Malachi 3: 1-4; 4: 1-5  Nigel Bunce

This evening’s reading comes from Malachi, the final book in the Hebrew Bible. I reflect upon the reference to God being like a gold refiner’s fire. What a negative consequences this has had for Christian doctrines about evil doers burning in hell’s unquenchable fires,


This week, the daily lectionary includes Malachi, the last book in the Hebrew scriptures, what we Christians often call the Old Testament. You might think that this brief book prepares us for the coming of John the Baptist and for Jesus. After all, we think of John as the messenger who foretold the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps we recall the famous quotation from Isaiah. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

But we would be wrong. Malachi is one of the ‘short books’ which we usually call the Minor prophets. They date from various times in Israel’s history, some of them as far back as the 8th or 9th century BCE.

Who wrote the book Malachi, and when?

Scholars do not agree on the date of Malachi – or very much about it at all.  However, there’s a majority opinion that the book dates from the 4th century BCE. After the exiled Israelites returned from Babylon.  That’s 500 years before the Gospels . 

Moreover, there’s equal uncertainty as to who Malachi was. That’s because the name malakhi means ‘messenger’. We know that many Jewish names had meanings that told about the future that might be in store for the person. But tonight’s reading begins, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me. The messenger can’t be sending himslef as his messenger!!

Besides, for use as a person’s name, that name should indicate whose messenger – e.g., malakhiyah, YHWH’s messenger.

God as a refiner’s fire leads to the flames of  hell

Christians have long looked for references in the Hebrew Scriptures that foretold the coming of Jesus, and what sort of Messiah to expect. Those Hebrew writings have informed many of our standard doctrines. This evening we read that God will be like a refiner’s fire.

That’s the idea that gold refining involves heating it to high temperature. Everything else burns away or remains as “dross”. So the people of Israel in the centuries before the time of Jesus, argued that God will purify souls the same way. We met the same idea at our remembrance service (Wisdom 3:6).  “Like gold in a furnace he tried them.” The Book Wisdom dates from the 2nd century BCE. 

However, this leads to the concept of eternal burning of sinful souls in a lake of fire. The fires of hell. Evil doers will become like burnt stubble that remains after the harvest and clearing the land by fire.

Without doubt, there is a strain of Gospel teachings that resembles these ideas. Mainly, they occur at the end of Jesus’ ministry when he criticizes the Temple authorities (the scribes and Pharisees) for behaving in too worldly a fashion.

I look to different Gospel images in my search for Jesus

However, the Gospel teachings that resonate with me are not those. I look to passages such as the Sermon on the Mount. No ‘eye for an eye’. Try to love your enemies, not hate them. Stop worrying about what might (or might not) happen in the future. Don’t be judgemental. Love your neighbours; the new commandment.

We can find both strains of thought in the Gospels. Why, I wonder, has the Church tended to emphasize the negative? Is it to keep the folks in the pew in line? On their knees, in fear and trembling of eternal damnation?

That’s a joyless and unforgiving version of Christianity. It doesn’t represent the Jesus that I want to follow. Amen.