We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, who are still here, and we honor with gratitude the land itself and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

“Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?” 

#1  Background

If the theme of Messiah’s opening pieces (I. 1-4) is comfort, then the theme of the subsequent set (I. 5-7) is accountability. How can believers prepare the way for the Messiah? What can we expect of him when he comes-and comes again? What will he expect of us?

Handel and Jennens turn to two Old Testament prophets for help in answering these questions. Haggai and Malachi both lived in the period after the Babylonian exile when the com­munity of faith was struggling to reestablish itself religiously and politically. In both these spheres they found themselves wrestling with a reality which did not live up to their expec­tations. In the midst of their struggles they turned toward the future and the hope that God’s messiah would come to show them the way.

There is a sense of good news/bad news tension with dealing with the current reality and the future promise of the Messiah. The books of Haggai and Malachi deal with this tension. The guest whose arrival they anticipate is, of course, the messiah.1 The “house” that they are attempting to put in order is the house of worship. On the one hand, they look forward to their honored guest’s arrival because they know that he will raise them to heights they had only dreamt of before. On the other hand, they are sadly self-conscious about how far they fall short. So, they attempt to rally everyone around the urgent task of reform and preparation. Haggai’s focus is on the house itself, while Malachi is more concerned with the menu, that is, the quality of the worship being “served” within that house. Both books share a common concern for fusing form with substance, words with actions.

Although the original context of these prophetic words is ancient, their call to religious accountability is startlingly relevant to modern communities of faith. They offer some timely advice on how we as modern Christians can “prepare the way” for the Messiah.

#2  Setting  the Scene

When last we left the people of Judah they were far from their homeland. Since the fall of their capital city, Jerusalem, in 587 B.C.E. they had been living as exiles in the city of Babylon. World events were working in their favor, however, as Babylon’s hold on the ancient near east began to weaken. The texts we read from Isaiah 40 were indicative of a new spirit of hope and expectation among the exiles.

As it turned out, those hopes were well-founded. In 539 B.C.E. Babylon fell to the Persians, and the exiles found themselves under radically new political leadership. The Persian king, Cyrus, had a very different policy toward those who had been held captive by his Babylonian predecessors. Religious and, to some extent, political toleration were the new orders of the day. In 538, Cyrus issued an edict for the captives’ release, and further, the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. Two accounts of this famous edict are preserved for us in the Bible. While Ezra 1:2-4 preserves a more colorful version, Ezra 6:3-5 gives what is prob­ably the more authentic account.

Ezra 1:2-4

2 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:

“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. 4 And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”

Ezra 6:3-5

3 In the first year of Cyrus the king the same Cyrus the king made a decree concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, Let the house be builded, the place where they offered sacrifices, and let the foundations thereof be strongly laid; the height thereof threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof threescore cubits;

4 With three rows of great stones, and a row of new timber: and let the expenses be given out of the king’s house:

5 And also let the golden and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took forth out of the temple which is at Jerusalem, and brought unto Babylon, be restored, and brought again unto the temple which is at Jerusalem, every one to his place, and place them in the house of God.

#3 The Divine Shakedown – Haggai to Malachi

In it we find many of the former exiles back in Judah, which is now a Persian state. True to Cyrus’ liberal poli­cies, however, they are allowed some measure of independence. They have their own high priest, Joshua, and a governor named Zerubbabel. While this governor is a Persian appointee, he is also the grandson of one of the last Davidic kings, a fact that must have added fuel to the fire of the people’s nationalistic hopes.

Politically speaking, this situation was a vast improvement over the people’s prospects in exile. Yet, it was still a far cry from either the golden age of the past or the glorious restora­tion envisioned in Isaiah 40-55.

Our interest is with those Jews, eager to reclaim the land promised to their ancestors, who went with Ezra and Nehemiah to start over again in their ancestral homeland. Some of those who returned were old enough to remember the old country and the splendor of Solomons Temple. They had been among the deportees.

The land was depopulated, the economy depressed, and the site of the Temple was the heap of ruins that Micah, two hundred years earlier, had predicted it would become. To reclaim their heritage, the returned exiles would have to rebuild the Temple. To many the return proved a grievous disappointment. The work of rebuilding a whole society was daunting.

The people’s meager present must have made the prophe­cies in Isaiah seem at best an exaggeration and, at worst, a cruel joke. Where were the jewel-encrusted gates (Isaiah 54:12), the adoring nations (Isaiah 49:22-23), and the abundant har­vests (Isaiah 49:10 and 55:13)? If the people of this period were suffering from disillu­sionment, one can hardly blame them.

The book of Haggai opens eighteen years later in the year 520 B.C.E. It was in 538 that Cyrus of Persia, conqueror of Babylon, decreed that all the captive peoples might return to their own lands. As Ezra gives his version of the edict, the Jews were encouraged to rebuild their Temple. But as late as 520, no particular progress had been made. But the Temple had to be rebuilt, and worship purified.

The prophet Haggai steps into this situation with a word of both explanation and encour­agement. The reason that the nation is not enjoying their promised age of prosperity, according to Haggai, is that the Temple has not been rebuilt. Read 1:1-11. Here the prophet severely criticizes the people for seeing to their own interests before those of Yahweh, and characterizes the current economic crisis as a well-deserved punishment from God. The word of encouragement comes from the remedy Haggai suggests for their plight, namely, that their situation can be turned around by rebuilding the Temple and thus satisfying God’s demands.


Haggai 1:1-11

A Call to Build the House of the Lord

1 In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jozadak,[a] the high priest:

2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”

3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

7 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. 9 “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”

Haggai’s “bad news/good news” announcement seems to have had a profound effect on the people and their leaders. Haggai 1:12-14 describes an abrupt change in attitude and action, and the building project is commenced anew.

Haggai 1:12-14

12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.

13 Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. 14 So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God,

As the work progresses, however, a new psychological obstacle is raised. Evidently there are still a number of people around who remember the glories of the first Temple built during the reign of Solomon. Read Haggai 2:1-3. For them the new Temple is little more than a cheap imitation of the original Ezra 3:10-13 describes how those “who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house …”


Haggai 2:1-3

 2 1 on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of  the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak,[a] the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3 ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing

This is the point at which Haggai steps in again with another encouraging word (and the verses which are quoted in Handel’s Messiah). After counseling courage and reminding the people of God’s sustaining presence (read Haggai 2:4-5), he makes a prediction about the once and future glory of God’s Temple. “

Haggai 2:4-5

4 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

Thus says the Lord of hosts,” he proclaims in 2:6-7:

Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts.

Verses 8 and 9 go on to remind the people that God, finally, is the owner of all things pre­cious, and that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.”

8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The actual words of the prophet Haggai were not referring to the Messiah, but to treasures being brought into the Temple, but the two themes are concordant. The shaking of the world at the advent of the Messiah reorders the religious geography as all the nations respond to the divine summons. It is as Micah had said:
In days to come the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Micah 4:1-2)

In that Haggai’s prophecy lifts our eyes toward that heavenly temple where the Messiah will reign in majesty, the inclusion of these verses seems entirely appropriate. For on that final day “the glory of this latter house” shall indeed “be greater than of the former” (Haggai 2:9; KJV). Sit back, close you eyes, and picture the heavenly temple in all its grandeur.

Concept of Shake

The creation of the temple will be done by people but God will have a hand as well,
as God describes the new Temple as a shaking of the universe. “I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations.”

Inhabitants of those regions were thoroughly familiar with earthquakes, when the very ground on which they stood could rise and ripple with terrifying destructive force. It provided a ready metaphor to describe the appearance of God — a theophany as scholars call it. We are told that when Moses went up on the mountain where he was to receive the Torah from the hand of God, the mountain quaked (Exodus 19:18).

As the Hebrew poets tell of the quaking of Sinai, it is as a manifestation of the God of Israel, their national God. Haggai sees more. This shaking will encompass the whole cosmos that God spoke into being on the first three days of creation: the skies, the earth, the oceans, the continents. And it will be felt not only by Israel, but by all the world’s nations. This theophany, this appearance of God, will confront all humanity.

Messiah

->Recitative for Bass

Thus saith the Lord of hosts: yet once a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire of the nations shall come. (Haggai 2:6-7; modified)

#4 Ancient Church Politics

Now that we have dealt with Haggai’s external preparations for the messiah, let us turn to Malachi’s concern for the internal preparations.

Malachi lived 50-75 years after Haggai.2 At this point the Temple had been rebuilt, but something was still “rotten” in Jerusalem. Malachi lays much of the blame on the priests. One of the reasons he may have been so critical of them is that he was probably a “Levite,” that is, a member of one of the parts of the priestly
house of Levi who were no longer allowed to act as full priests. This rivalry among the various priestly groups is fairly complex. Summary:

   Levi was the patriarch of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. All the male descendants of this priestly tribe could legitimately be called “sons of Levi.”

   By Malachi’s time, only the “sons of Levi” who were descendants of Aaron could exercise full priestly functions. Those outside this exclusive line were called “Levites” but were limited to auxiliary roles.

Malachi was not amused.

Malachi, like prophets before him, saw the faithlessness in the land to be a result of the faithlessness of the priesthood. In 2:2 he charged, “But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi.”

From his perspective, the priests of his day were merely going through the motions-making a big show out of their religion without giving any attention to its substance. “Do faithful people cheat their employees?” asks Malachi. “Do they lie? Ignore the needs of widows and orphans? Try to fool God into thinking they are giving their best, when really they have kept it for themselves?”

This situation just described was certainly a far cry from what the prophet Haggai had envi­sioned some 75 years earlier. One gets the sense that Haggai had expected everything to fall into place after the rebuilding of the Temple. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Malachi bears witness to a political state firmly under the thumb of its Persian overlords and a reli­gious community riddled with corruption and rivalry. How had this grim scenario come about?

Although no one knows for sure, it is very likely that the Persians soon caught on to the fact that it was not a good idea to appoint a Davidic heir to the governorship. In spite of Haggai’s high hopes for him, Zerubbabel simply disappears from the annals of history. Scholars are not sure of his fate, though most make note of the fact that his absence seems suspiciously convenient for the Persians.

By the time of Malachi, the governorship had faded into insignificance, and Judah’s real locus of power, such as it was, had transferred to the high priest. Politics in general had become “church politics.” The ranks of the priesthood had become the arena for political ambitions, and ancient priestly rivalries took on new and far-reaching significance.

As with any kind of politics, there are winners and there are losers. Malachi was very prob­ably among the latter. All priests of this time were formally considered to be “sons of Levi,” named for the tribe of Levi which had been given priestly privileges in ancient times (see Exodus 32:25-29 and Deuteronomy 33:8-11). Yet, within that overarching category there were certain subgroups, some of which had considerably more power and prestige than others. At the time when the book of Malachi was written, the “sons of Aaron” were among the most powerful, having sole right of access to the altar for offering sacrifices. Malachi’s group (the “Levites”), on the other hand, had been demoted to the ranks of temple servants and singers. (My apologies to Kerygma participants who sing in the church choir!)

#5   The Importance of Being Ernest

One does not have to read very far in Malachi to discover that he has an ax to grind against “the priests” (i.e., the sons of Aaron). The crux of his argument is found in 1:6-2:3. Read that section now.

Malachi 1:5-12

6 “A son honors his father, and a slave his 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.

“It is you priests who show contempt for my name.

“But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’

7 “By offering defiled food on my altar.

“But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’

“By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible. 8 When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty.

9 “Now plead with God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?”—says the Lord Almighty.

10 “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. 11 My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty.

12 “But you profane it by saying, ‘The Lord’s table is defiled,’ and, ‘Its food is contemptible.’ 13 And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the Lord Almighty.

Malachi 2:1-3

1 “And now, you priests, this warning is for you. 2 If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me.

3 “Because of you I will rebuke your descendants[a]; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it.

“When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the Lord. 14 “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations.

His basic criticism is that they are doing a rotten job-simply going through the motions of their priestly duties, presenting impure offerings and keeping the best of everything for themselves. Neither Malachi nor God is fooled by this hypocrisy. In an unsur­passed moment of prophetic indignation, Malachi prophesies that Yahweh will curse their priestly blessings (2:2) and spread the dung of their impure offerings on their faces (2:3)!

Malachi’s criticism, however, is constructive. He has some very definite ideas about the road to reform, and these are along the lines of the ancient “covenant with Levi” which he describes in 2:4-9. Yet, he looks toward the future as well as the past for the realization of his hopes. Read Malachi 3:1-4 now.

Malachi 2:4-9

4 And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord Almighty. 5 “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. 6 True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.

7 “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. 8 But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the Lord Almighty. 9 “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”

Malachi 3:1-4

1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

In this chapter he strains his eyes ahead and sees a “messenger of the covenant in whom you delight” (3:1). This messenger will “purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:3).

The process of purification promises to be painful, however. The metaphors used in this section are indeed “caustic.” Though Messiah does not quote the phrase, one of the images used by Malachi is that of the “fuller’s soap” (3:2). A fuller is one who treats wool, usually with a harsh, alkaline soap we refer to as lye. The other metaphor, that of the “refiner’s fire,” is even more severe. It refers to the process by which metal is refined, which involves heating at extremely high temperatures in order to eliminate all impurities. No wonder Malachi introduces this verse with the question, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”. One suspects he may have had a ready answer in mind, and that the sons of Aaron were not on his list of survivors.

Malachi looked for the day when God’s people would worship by heart and not by rote. The covenant to which he swore faithfulness was one that assumed a fusion of form and substance, a correspondence between what we say and what we do. Like Haggai, he insisted that God must have only our best in our worship and in our lives.

It would be in the form of a renewed priesthood, the purification of the sons of Levi, so that they might once again be fit to bring offerings to the Lord on behalf of the people. Bringing offerings “in righteousness” means bringing them properly, in the right manner. The whole nation is in view, but the priesthood is in focus.

In the Temple the priests made offerings on behalf of the sins of the people. Malachi sees God manifesting his presence there once again, affirming his covenant by convulsing the universe in an action that will call all nations to respond to the call of Israel’s God. In the Temple the infant Messiah is hailed as the revelation to the Gentiles. The writer of Hebrews uses the image of priesthood, sacrifice, and Temple to tell of the Messiah’s work among us, taking away the sins of the world.

The purification of the Levites, the priesthood, is the climax of Malachi’s oracle, and as the climax of this sequence in the oratorio, the chorus sings the promise. Here are the people joining together in the exultant hope of being rendered fit to come before God, of being brought before the Lord by the ministrations of the Messiah as our great High Priest, to whom these words, in the context of the oratorio, point.

Malachi never saw his reforms realized, at least not in the ways he had hoped. The Levites continued to languish, and the sons of Aaron retained their power. Still, Malachi’s inclu­sion in the biblical canon has significantly prolonged the fife of his prophecies. His call to purity and sincerity in worship, and his insistence on consistency between faith and prac­tice ring out loud and clear across the centuries.

As we look toward Jesus’ birth, it is good to be reminded of that message. It is not enough, after all, to go through the motions of our traditional Christmas pageantry, beautiful though they may be. “Preparing the way” for the Messiah means fusing form and substance. It calls us to reach out to the world’s needs just as God has reached out to us in Jesus Christ. “Indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:1). Will we be able to stand when he appears?


->Recitative for Bass (continued)

The Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, e’en the messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in, behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1b)

->Air for Alto

But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire. (Malachi 3:2a)

->Chorus

And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3:3; selected portions)