The Difference Between the Righteous and the Wicked

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13 “Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ 14 You have said, ‘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? 15 And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’ ”

16 Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.            17 “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. 18 Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.

What is the distinction between a righteous person and a wicked person? Is it easy or difficult to distinguish between the two? Our passage today addresses these questions because the people of Israel are ready to give up their faith in God. They are convinced that it is worthless to serve God. But Malachi shows us an alternative to their worthless religion. And that is where the true distinction between the righteous and the wicked may be found.


Verse 13 begins with yet another accusation of God levied against the people of Israel. It appears that the attitude of the people toward God has deteriorated. Previously (Mal 2:17) God said that they had wearied him with their questions because they were not listening to his answers. But now they have become much more antagonistic and aggressive. “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD.” Translated another way, “You have criticized me sharply” (NET).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that the way to combat evil thoughts most effectively is by refusing to verbalize them.[1] So he made a rule in his community saying that one was prohibited from talking about another unless that person was himself in the conversation. Here the Hebrew suggests that the people have been speaking against God to each other.[2] Their criticism was spreading throughout the community in the form of malicious gossip. What were they saying to one another?

Two complaints

There were two related complaints that they were making against God. One complaint is found in verse 15: “Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.” It is the same complaint they made in Malachi 2:17, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.” Their complaint is that the irreligious are the ones who prosper in this life.

This is not an insignificant complaint. The “arrogant” are those whose pride is “exaggerated to include defiance and rebelliousness.”[3] These are the irreligious, the kind of people who blatantly stand against the authority of God, shaking their fist at him and challenging him to show them up. And while we’ve all heard stories about such people and how God supposedly had vengeance on them, the truth is that many people like this do appear to “prosper” and do appear to escape the test of his wrath.

On the other hand, the people also complain that “It is vain to serve God” (v. 14). They have not seen any profit from their religious devotion. And so they have concluded that “the arrogant” are “blessed” (v. 15).

The flaw in the logic

The people were correct in assuming that worship of God would bring blessing and prosperity. God himself said so in the previous passage. If they would bring “the full tithe” in worship, God said he would “open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Mal 3:10). They were right to expect a tangible blessing from God as they carried out their religion. God did not disagree with their expectations.

They were also correct that their service to God was worthless. God himself said so when he wished that their religious activity would be shut down entirely rather than letting them continue to “kindle fire on [his] altar in vain” (Mal 1:10). Throughout the Bible God is clear that there is no magical nature to religious activity. It is not sacrifices and burnt offerings that he is after.

This is where the flaw in their reasoning resided. The problem was not in the promise of God to bless his worshipers, nor in the value of external forms of their worship. Where these people went wrong was in assuming that “that their merely outward worship, which was bad enough according to what has already been affirmed, is the genuine worship which God must acknowledge and reward.”[4]

Wrong worship

Where these people went wrong is the same place we all go wrong. It is the problem of religion. We instinctively believe that God is served by a purely external form of worship. But God says that such acts are worthless, no matter how “good” at it we may be.

The people of Israel were good at “keeping his charge” (v. 14) which means they were intent on following God’s commandments. Even with the economic struggles they were facing under the rule of foreign government, they did not give up all vestiges of external obedience. They were also good at “walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts.” This refers to the custom of donning dark clothing to signify their awareness of their sinfulness and a willingness to evidence repentance. But all of this was worthless in God’s sight.

Such remains the danger for all of us. It is far too easy for us to put confidence in our external performances, assuming that such activity gives us some merit before the Lord. But God does not need your good deeds or your confessions during communion. Our propensity toward such religion can even be apparent in the way we feel guilty for failing in some performance. We think we are far from God because we don’t pray enough or read the Bible enough or go to church enough.

I am not saying that worship is worthless but that wrong worship is worthless. As one commentator notes, “So-called good works that do not arise from genuine faith and gratitude to God are simply ‘hot checks’ drawn on an empty bank account. They may provide a temporary sense of self-satisfaction, but God recognizes their true value—zero, and he will eventually bring to justice anyone who tries to live on them.”[5]


So what is it that differentiates worship that God accepts from worship that God rejects? I’m using the word worship though in our text the actual word is service. In verse 14 we hear the complaint of the religious who have decided that “it is vain to serve God.” And they were right: their service was in vain. But there is a way to serve God that is not only right but also required. For according to verse 18 the righteous are those who serve God and the wicked are those who do not serve him. It is critical that we know how to worship God in a way that is not in vain.

Three groups of people

Notice that there are three groups of people represented in our text. The speakers in verses 14 and 15 I have been calling the “religious.” They serve God, but it is in vain. There are also the “arrogant,” whom the religious in our text admire. The arrogant are the irreligious, those who are deliberately hostile to God and refuse to serve him. But in verse 18 these two groups—the religious and the arrogant—are grouped together as “the wicked” and are described as those who do not serve God. But there is a third group, called the “righteous” in verse 18 and described as those who do serve God. Who are the kinds of people in this group?

Verse 16 calls them “those who feared the LORD.” They are implied in Malachi 3:5 where sinners are noted to be those who do not fear God. But here they are especially separated from the religious who are complaining that their worship of God is not getting them anywhere. But “those who feared the LORD spoke with one another” and God took notice of them. These must be a remnant within Israel who are performing the external duties along with the religious but whose worship is favored by God. So what else is different about these God-fearers?

Listening in on the God-fearers

We find one difference in their conversation. They, too, are involved in “gossip” as we see them speaking with one another (v. 16). But there is something different about what they are saying about God and their words seem to grasp God’s attention and bring his favor.

We are not told explicitly what they were saying to one another, though given God’s response, it must have been a contrast to what was being said in verses 14-15. At the end of verse 16 we see that rather than criticizing God as the religious were doing, these “feared the LORD and esteemed his name.” To “esteem” something is to hold it in high regard. Those who feared God also valued God. He was their treasure. And whatever is important to us, whatever it is that we treasure, we find it easy, natural, and unavoidable to talk about because that is what is on our mind regularly.

And because we think about and talk about whatever it is we esteem, it is not hard for others to see what it is that is valuable to us. So I think that God took notice of them because he heard his name on their lips often. Perhaps they were giving testimony of God’s goodness to them, like the psalmist who said, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul” (Psa 66:16). Or maybe they were rejoicing together in light of God’s goodness as described in Ephesians 5:19 where believers are urged to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” Or maybe, in light of the sinfulness around them, they were exhorting one another to stay the course and resist having “an evil, unbelieving heart, leading [them] to fall away from the living God” because sin is exceedingly deceitful (Heb 1:12-13).

The Book of Remembrance

Verse 16 says that when God paid attention and heard what was being said, “a book of remembrance was written before him.” This is probably a metaphorical reference, used to signify the fact that God remembers everything, whether it be the evil deeds of the wicked that need to be punished or the acts of the righteous that need to be rewarded. The metaphor comes from the ancient custom of a king’s historical record, his “chronicles,” that were carefully written down to ensure that evil would be punished and good would be rewarded.

A great example of this is found in the book of Esther. A man named Mordecai uncovers a conspiracy to kill the king and is able to spoil the plot from being carried out. The event was recorded in the king’s chronicles (Est 2:23). Later one evening, the king had trouble sleeping so he asked for his chronicles to be brought out and read to him. After hearing again the story of how Mordecai saved his life, the king asked if any honor had ever been bestowed on Mordecai. And when he found out that nothing had yet been done, the king asked one of his servants, Haman, “What should be done for the one whom the king delights to honor?” Thinking that the king must be speaking of him, Haman suggests a grand parade in his honor. Poetic justice is achieved when the king commands Haman to do as he had suggested to Mordecai, whom Haman hated more than anyone else.

The point is that it is always significant when an act makes it into the public record rather than being lost forever. Or at least it used to be significant until the Library of Congress decided to archive the 55 million messages sent out every day via Twitter! At any rate, the fact that God is a great King with a book of remembrance that records every evil deed that needs to be punished and every good deed that needs to be rewarded is proof that there truly is benefit to serving God.

According to verse 17, God claims these God-fearers as his own treasured possession. This verse envisions a victorious king collecting the spoils from a recent conquest. The king owns everything, but still chooses to take certain things to himself and to treasure those things above all the other loot. God says that is what he will do with those who serve him.


When that day comes we will “once more . . . see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him” (v. 18). But for now, the line between these two groups of all humanity is not always obvious. The righteous are those who serve God, but as we have seen, there are plenty who appear to be doing just that but whom God has rejected. Why is the distinction so unclear to us?

The problem of religion

One reason why we are not always able to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked is because of religion. Religion blurs the lines because it enables the wicked to appear righteous. Religion covers up the identity of the wicked by involving them in spiritual activity. So the wicked and the righteous can appear very similar outwardly, and of course it is always difficult to discern the real motives of a person’s heart. This is why, in the book of Malachi, the people of Israel respond to God’s accusations defensively.

  • “How have we despised your name?” (1:6)
  • “How have we polluted you?” (1:7)
  • “How have we wearied him?” (2:17)
  • “How shall we return?” (3:7)
  • “How have we robbed you?” (3:8)
  • “How have we spoken against you?” (3:13)

The people are basically saying, “How dare you accuse us of wrongdoing! Who are you to judge our motives?” But God is able to do just that. And he knows the difference between the religious and those who embrace the gospel. The religious come to Christ to see what they can get from him. For example, the word “profit” in verse 14 is predominately a negative word, used to signify selfish gain.[6] We might understand the complaint of the people in verse 14 this way: “It is vain to serve God. What cut do we get for our service to him?”

Charles Spurgeon once told this story that illustrates this difference between religion and the gospel.

Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot--what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”[7]

The problem of moralism

The motivation behind religion can appear subtly. But it is frequently discerned when we champion morality as the way to success. A Christian businessman may think that if he will treat his employees well, then God will make his business prosper. But this suggests that the businessman’s ultimate goal is a prosperous business. Or one might reason that if he will give generously to the church or to charity then God will make him rich. But what the giver wants most is wealth and simply sees generosity as the best way to reach his goal. A Christian athlete might believe that if he will visit the chapel or same a prayer before the game then God will help him win the contest. But he is only using God as his superstition to give him the competitive edge.

The Christian gospel is not to be confused with moralism. I cannot agree with those who opt for Christianity because they view it as “the best possible way to live.” The Christian faith is to be accepted primarily because it is true, not primarily because it works.

The gain of the gospel

This of course does not mean that there is nothing to be gained through the gospel. The difference between religion and the gospel is that in the gospel we come to Christ to see what we have already been given in him. Religion leads a person to a cost-benefit analysis. Religion asks of Jesus, “Is he worth it?” The gospel says of Jesus, “He is worth it!” Religion is about seeking what we can gain by what we do for Christ. The gospel is about celebrating what we have already gained because of what Christ has already done for us.

What has Christ already done for us? Notice the promise made in the second half of verse 17. “I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” The fact that God promises to “spare” those who fear him implies that the fate even they deserve is to come under the consuming wrath of a holy God. Instead he promises to make them his “treasured possession” implying that God takes great delight in these wrath-deserving sinners. Jesus Christ has made the difference. This is what he has done for your soul.


If you and I feel tempted to complain that “It is vain to serve God” then we have just demonstrated that we do not believe the gospel. By default we all follow the tenants of religion, believing that it is our service to God that will secure for us God’s favor. Such a view will inevitably lead us to despair when we no longer see the value of what God has already done for us in Christ.

But there is another way! When we gaze upon the merits of Christ and see all that he has achieved on our behalf, we will be satisfied with our identity as God’s treasured possession. This is the person God calls “the righteous.” Only the righteous can offer acceptable service to God because only they can do so in response to God’s grace rather than as a means to God’s grace.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 91-92.

[2] The Hebrew verb translated “spoken” in verse 13 is in a form that means “to speak with one another” (Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, CD-ROM Edition, trans. M. E. J. Richardson [Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994-2000], 210).

[3] R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 239.

[4] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 10:660.

[5] E. Ray Clendenen, “Malachi,” in Richard A. Taylor and E. Ray Clendenen, Haggai, Malachi, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2004), 437.

[6] Harris, Archer, and Waltke, TWOT, 122-123

[7] As cited in Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 60-62.

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