(46) “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant” – Jeremiah 31:31

The last of the minor prophets, Malachi, was a contemporary of Nehemiah and his short book, which is the last in the Old Testament, echoes the themes found at the end of Nehemiah. Malachi challenges the people for offering second rate sacrifices to God and for robbing God by not giving their tithes and offerings. The law said that the tithe – 10% of their income – was for the work of the priests and to support immigrants, the fatherless and widows (see Deuteronomy 14:28-29) and the priests and the poorest people are suffering without this. Malachi also rebukes the priests for not teaching the people God’s law, which is vitally important for the life of the nation, and challenges the men who divorce their wives, who defraud their workers of their wages, who oppress the poor and deprive the disadvantaged of justice.

Nehemiah and Malachi provide the last record we have of the people of Israel for over four hundred years. They bring the Old Testament to a conclusion with a bleak picture of God’s people who, in spite of the occasions when they have stood and committed themselves to following God’s law wholeheartedly and the terrible experience of the exile when God removed them from the land, remain unable to maintain their commitment and live as God intended.

God’s covenant with the people of Israel depended on their faithfulness in obeying his commands and they failed to do this generation after generation, including in Malachi’s day. However, the Old Testament does not leave us without hope. God promised a new covenant through the prophet Jeremiah.

This new covenant was different in that it only depended on God. The Lord said, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). This is an unconditional covenant. There is no use of the word ‘if’ as in the old covenant (see Exodus 19:5) or any need for God’s people to keep his laws. Instead of the law being an external rule book that condemns us, God will put his law in people’s hearts so that they will obey them. Instead of relying on priests or teachers to be intermediaries between us and God everyone can have direct access to knowing God for themselves.

How is this possible? David knew how difficult it was to be right before God and asked, “Who may stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3) Isaiah the prophet was a good man but when he saw a vision of God he cried out “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

At the end of the new covenant is a remarkable promise. God says that he will forgive our wrongdoing and remember our sin no more. In the Old Testament, sin could only be forgiven through regular sacrifice of animals. But in the new covenant, Isaiah had already talked about a ‘suffering servant’ who would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). It is only through this sacrifice that sins can be forgiven.

Once we are forgiven we will also be equipped to follow God’s ways. Throughout the Old Testament there were men and women who tried hard to follow God’s laws and yet failed but there is another promise of things to come in the prophet Joel. He promised that God would pour out his Spirit on all people (see Joel 2:28) and enable them to be empowered by God in a way that was reserved for the few in the Old Testament.

The last words of Malachi are a promise that the Lord himself will come. He says that “the prophet Elijah” (Malachi 4:5) will prepare the way for him, words that were not to be fulfilled until four centuries years later when John the Baptist appeared in the Judean desert. After Malachi’s words the Bible is silent for four hundred years.

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