"You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, "How have we wearied Him?" In that you say, "Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them," or "Where is the God of justice?"" (Malachi 2:17)

By now you've picked up on the pattern manifested here in Malachi, haven't you? Each time God takes the time to point out their sin and the appalling evidences of their unbelieving hearts, the people respond by questioning God's assessment. In their hardness, they believe they have done no wrong and can't imagine why God would be upset with them.

Earlier, you'll recall, God rebuked them for the wicked way they had spurned His unfailing love. To this they responded by asking God, "How have you loved us?" Then, when confronted with their irreverent disrespect for God's authority, they asked, "How have we ever disgraced your name?" God went on to point out the deplorable sin of the priesthood, the spiritual leaders, in their misuse and abusive handling of the temple offerings by which God's altar was defiled. Again, the people rejected this criticism and questioned when they had ever defiled the Lord. Finally, God spoke to them of the wicked manner in which they had broken faith with Him as evidenced by their frivolous acceptance of divorce and the abandonment of holy vows. But all that concerned this self-absorbed people was what would ever provoke the Lord and cause Him to abandon them? They simply could not imagine that God would ever be displeased with their behavior.

Now, in my humble opinion, the text indicated the nearly complete loss of ability, on the part of this people, to understand God and to grasp the significance of His Holiness, Faithfulness and Love - and now, to make matters worse, they were questioning God's sense of Justice. So blurred had the line between good and evil become, in their thinking, that now it had become the generally acceptable notion that the individual who practiced evil was actually a good person with whom God was pleased. The bar on goodness and justice had been so lowered by this sinful nation that they were no longer capable of seeing God high and lifted up, but rather, imagined Him as one of them, deposed from His lofty position of sovereign authority.

They were of the opinion that God ought to behave as do we. His sense of justice should be more like our own. He ought to reward our misguided efforts and ignore our sins. He should hold our enemies guilty of their offenses by excuse our own. He should cause our hand (our lives) to prosper no matter how we live. Before even considering punishment, God ought to weigh the circumstances that surround our actions - circumstances of His making - and therefore, He should exonerate us of all wrong. This represents the sunken level of culturally accepted morality that this people had come to adopt - rather than be guided by God's Word.

God condemns them for "wearying" Him - in other words, for trying His patience and straining the limits of His longsuffering. With pride they took offense over God's callous rigidness and criticized His code. They could accept responsibility for none of their wrongs but could only turn around and blame God.

Let me pause and ask you if any of this sounds vaguely familiar in any way? Wouldn't you agree that often we ourselves behave like this? Lovingly our sinfulness is revealed to us by the scriptures but we balk and launch ourselves into a fury of self-defense. We may not be so bold (as were these people) as to call God a liar to His face, but we do the same by questioning His honor, His moral uprightness and integrity - whenever we challenge His actions in our lives.

Ask yourself this -- as a culture (a nation) how is it that we have sunk so low - so quickly - as now to pride ourselves on our toleration of evil? To what lengths have we gone to justify and reward the perpetrators of debauchery and immorality while openly condemning those who seek to live upright lives before God? It reminds me of a little something Mr. Selfwill (see: John Bunyan) said: "It is better to practice vice of your own free will, unashamed, than to do it against your better judgment, behind the door." Perhaps this attitude is what has led to the open perversions which are so wickedly flaunted (and applauded) before us today.

And do we weary the Lord with our words? Is this not the effect when we divorce religious speech from secular - talking one way when in the company of God's people, but quite differently when not? How about all those hymns we sing in church - "All to Jesus I surrender, all to Him I freely give" - or, "Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee; take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise, let them flow in ceaseless praise." It's possible, won't you agree, to weary the Lord with promises and vows we have no intention of keeping? - or by allowing the tone of our lives to be uninfluenced and unguided by God's precepts and commandments?

This seventeenth verse of Malachi really initiates a new section wherein God foretells His plans to bring His justice to bear upon the life of the nation. But judgment begins with the household of faith, does it not? So, He comes (again in love) to rebuke the people and to call them back to Himself in repentance. Surely He has revealed Himself to be a God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness - but it is the height of foolishness for any of us to test and try His patience. This passage is a clear call to see God as He is - a God of infinite justice who loves us, but will defend His honor.

The Rev. Donald Caviness is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, MS.