“For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Mal. 3:6, ESV)
The first sermon I ever preached at the church we planted in September of 2001 was titled, “God Never Changes!” from Malachi 3:6. I chose that text because everything was changing in the world (September 11th happened 18 days before we launched), and everything was changing in big ways for those of us who were starting the new church. I wanted to let the people know that even though things may have seemed different in big and small ways, there was a constant in the midst of all of it… the Faithful God who never changes.
Bible and Theology geeks enjoy big words to describe the concepts we discuss. Sometimes we invent them (e.g. infralapsarian & supralapsarian, etc.), or borrow them (e.g., immutable, omnipotent, transcendent, etc.), and sometimes we use the last names of people who made the ideas famous (e.g., Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.) in order to expand our theological lexicon. Every field of study does the same thing. But sometimes, when I’m just reading the Bible, I want to dump out all of the theological jargon and just meet God in the text. That happened to me this week when I was reading Malachi for a seminary project in Old Testament theology. I came again to the text in 3:6 that says, “I the Lord do not change.”
A good theology geek would exclaim, “Aha! Yes. The immutability of God! Yes, you see – uhem – God is immutable, which is to say that the Divine Spirit is unchanging in all His attributes. He is ever-constant in both His person and His purposes, and thus — his nature and his decrees are immutable. And that, dear students, is what is meant by this text in Malachi.”
Is all that true? Probably, but I’m not so sure that Israel was getting an abstract theology lesson about the immutability of God in this text.
In the days of Malachi’s prophecy, many Jews had returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. Nehemiah and Ezra had helped them to rebuild the temple, rebuild the city walls, and rebuild their identity as the people of God. But as you read Malachi’s prophetic exhortations, you can see that both people and priests wondered if the God who had promised so much to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so many hundreds of years earlier still cared about them. So, they got lazy in their worship, lazy in their obedience, lazy in their devotion, and lazy in their dedication to their special vocation to be the People of God.
Perhaps God didn’t really love them as much as He loved previous generations. Go read the first verses of Malachi and see if that question isn’t rattling around in their minds (and in their mouths)! After all, look at the pitiful little temple. Look how much they had been through. Perhaps God wasn’t really paying attention to their plight, so then why (they seemed to be wondering) would He pay attention if they offered a blind or sick animal on the altar, or if they held back their tithes now and then? If He didn’t care about one thing, why would He care about the other? Perhaps God had changed His mind about Israel and His purposes and promises for them. Perhaps His covenant with earlier generations was no longer valid, and they were just keeping a meaningless ceremonial religion alive while they pretended to be a nation!
These are the questions (and the answers) that swirl around in the prophecy of Malachi. And it is in this context that God says to hurting, disoriented, and yes — disloyal and disobedient people — “I don’t change!” In other words, God is not inviting them to do theology along the lines of terminological abstractions about Himself. No! He is inviting them to think about Him in covenantal, relational, personal terms that touch their lives! When God tells them, “I don’t change,” he’s not trying to get them to google “God is immutable.” He is trying to tell them that He is faithful.
So, this week as you are “thinking theology,” I encourage you to push back from the terminology and the abstract language for a minute, and connect with God. Sure, you can say He’s immutable if it makes you feel better, but what He wants you to know is that He is faithful!