Imagine a mother approaching her child and saying, “I love you,” and he retorts, “How have you loved me?” What kind of bitterness does the child harbor that causes him to respond this way?
Post-exilic Israel regarded God as this child regarded his mother. While the Israelites were no longer captives, they were a puppet nation subject to the restraint of another. Worse, neighboring states delighted in oppressing them. Amidst these difficulties, they forgot the only thing that could have given them hope: God’s love.
The oracle of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.
“I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?”
Israel probably never said this to God’s face, but their actions demonstrated their doubt. They had relaxed the standards for sacrifices, for marriages, for tithes, and for worshipping and serving the LORD. They muttered among themselves, “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to test and escape” (Mal. 3:14-15, ESV).
To counter any of God’s advances and messages through His prophets, they replied, “how?” Israel did not outright reject God’s declaration but asked in their hearts how.
There is a certain desperation and resentment in this challenge–it is as if Israel is saying, “Sure, LORD, whatever you say. But I don’t see much of that love coming my way.”
Whether we admit it or not, we, too, question God’s love: every time you grumble, seethe in anger, or shrivel into yourself, dwelling obstinately on your feelings, you challenge His love. We ask, “How is this the best thing for me?” and moan, “I just can’t see how God’s love is part of this,” through our actions, often without looking for an answer. For some, these questions riddle the small things they do, especially at home. For others, these dominate their life.
As always, God has an answer.
“Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD.
“Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated…”
Here, “hate” and “love” do not indicate malice or disgust and romance or liking, as the terms mean today. Rather, these words refer to the essential nature of God and man.
People are essentially sinful and thus God, infinitely holy and righteous and just, cannot dwell with them and must judge them for their blatant and deliberate transgressions of His law–this is the hate. This hate is far more terrible than man’s hate because God is undeniably right in judging us and because His judgement is eternal.
On the other hand, God has chosen to love us, sending His Son to earth. The Infinitely Perfect Person died and rose again to pay our infinite debt to God and to free us from the clutches of sin–this is the love. And this love of self-sacrifice and unconditionality is far greater than man’s love because God’s love is pure, sincere, and eternal.
By contrasting the two brothers, Jacob (also named Israel) and Esau, God points out the blessings He has and will be giving to Israel as opposed to Edom:
“I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to the jackals of the desert.”
If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the LORD of hosts says,
“They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and
‘the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.’”
Edom, in worldly ruins, sought to rebuild its ruins but failed because it was in ruins spiritually. Israel, in worldly ruins too, was also seeking to rebuild its ruins but was ignoring God in the process. It forgot that spiritual prosperity comes first and thus was working towards an end like Edom’s. The Israelites applied a standard of worldly prosperity to God’s love, but the measurement simply could not work–like applying a 1-dimensional measurement to a 3-dimensional object–so they concluded that He could not possibly love them.
God reminds the Israelites, “This is Edom, and this is not you. This is how you should have been, and this is how you would have been… if I had not loved you.” He reminds them to look back upon His promises for their future.
Similarly, we falter when we do not get what we think we need, retaliating by repelling the very God who is there to reassure us with His love. We judge God with our fickle standards and, consciously or unconsciously, nurture bitterness within our hearts toward Him. Like the Ephesians we have “abandoned the love [we] had at first” (Rev. 2:4, ESV).
And, like the Ephesians, we need to “[r]emember… from where you have fallen” (Rev. 2:5, ESV). We need look back and remember His promises, as David rejoiced:
“In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace”
(Ps. 37:10-11, ESV).
Challenge: Especially during Christmastime, God’s love should inform and guide every second of our lives. As we remember with joy and thanksgiving Jesus’ selfless sacrifice and humility in coming down in the form of a newborn baby, we are reminded of God’s glorious and amazing love that is the reason we will not perish in hell for eternity. Amidst the winds of this world, God is a sure anchor, and His abounding love will overflow our hearts if we turn to Him every second, daily, remembering how much He loves us. So I ask you, in the midst of the piling schoolwork and chores and responsibilities… is Jesus the joy and focus of your life every minute of the day? Do you constantly understand and view your life in the light of His love that has redeemed you? Take it to the Lord and stand, head to toe, immersed in and awed by His love.
Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the LORD beyond the border of Israel!”
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; O Holy Night
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face.”
Dedicated to a certain someone whom I hope will one day understand this.