Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate and survivor of the Holocaust, died this past week and there were a lot of rightfully reflective articles about his life and work in the media. If you’ve read his work, you know that it is powerful because it came through the lens of intense suffering and hope.
One of the stories that has circulated about Wiesel was that one night in the dark corner of a barracks in the Auschwitz concentration camp, three rabbis decided to put God on trial. They charged God with working against the covenant made with his chosen people and accuse him of being the one responsible for their suffering. Wiesel said he witnessed the trial, which ended by not calling God guilty, but rather, in the Hebrew chayav, which means, “He owes us something.” In 1977, Wiesel wrote a play based on that night titled, “The Trial of God.”
It’s not unprecedented for people to put God on trial, of course. In 2007, an agnostic state senator Ernie Chambers from Nebraska filed a law suit against God charging him with “making and continuing to make terroristic threats of grave harm to innumerable persons, including constituents of the plaintiff…” The suit goes on to blame God for all natural disasters, diseases, and death that befalls people.
It’s a bit ridiculous, really…or is it? Haven’t we wanted to put God on trial ourselves at times? I have talked with many people over my years of ministry who wanted to do just what those rabbis did in Auschwitz—to have God answer for their suffering, to explain why. Like those rabbis, they felt like God owed them something. Most of the time, people feel guilty themselves for thinking this way—surely, I can’t be angry at God, can I?
Well, I tell them, there is certainly biblical precedent for it. Indeed, the rabbis that night were following a very Jewish tradition in many ways because the Hebrew scriptures are full of laments and cries to God for answers. The Psalms are full of them; Job is a classic example of taking God to task; even Jesus himself cries out from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” which is taken directly from Psalm 22.
And then there is the book of prophet Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. It is a courtroom scene where the people, after all that has happened after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, after 70 years of exile, decide to take God to court. In the ancient Jewish world, when a case was too difficult for the local courts, which met at the town gates, it was then brought to the priest in the Temple to be decided by him, speaking in the name of God. In this book, Malachi plays the role of priest—indeed, his name means “My Messenger.”
The book begins with the people stating their case against God. In chapter 1:2, they accuse God of not loving them and in 2:17 they rail against him for letting the wicked prosper while not granting them his justice. These are the cries of people who think they deserve better—that they are in the right and God is against them unfairly.
It’s part of human nature, actually. We always think we are better and more righteous than anyone, even God sometimes. I heard a great quote from the legendary 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon this week in which he said, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him, for you are worse than he thinks you to be.” We want to put God on trial, believe that he owes us something, but under cross examination we come to realize just how little we actually deserve.
God steps down from the judge’s seat and begins to cross examine the people of Judah. You want justice? You think you are owed something? The truth is, like that state senator in Nebraska, you are agnostics when it comes to dealing with me! You want me to bring you justice, but you have ignored me most of the time—acting as if I didn’t exist.
So God levels several countercharges against the people—charges that go straight toward our tendency to pay God lip service while acting counter to the covenant.
In 1:6, for example, God begins by examining their worship. “Where is my honor, where is my respect?” God rails about their worship. It’s half-hearted and weak. They “pollute” the altar by giving God their leftovers—blind, lame, and sick animals for their sacrifices instead of the best of their flocks. “I will curse the cheater who has a healthy male in his flock, but who promises and sacrifices that which is corrupt. I am truly a great king, says the Lord, and my name is feared among the nations.”
We don’t sacrifice animals anymore, but do we give God our best in worship, or are we content with leftovers? Do we make worshipping God a priority, not just on Sunday but every day? Or do we come to worship only when it is convenient for us or when we have nothing “better” to do? Do we order our time, our energy, our effort around the things of God, or do we pay him lip service occasionally? How can we believe God owes us something when we give him only the scraps of our time, talent, and treasure?
Well, lest you think that’s a problem only for you parishioners, God next turns his attention to the clergy. “If you don’t listen, or don’t intend to glorify my name, says the Lord, then I will send a curse among you. I will curse your blessings, and I mean really curse them because none of you intend to do it.” Indeed, God says, I will scatter dung on your faces—that’s pretty harsh!
God reminds the clergy of his covenant with Levi, saying in 2:7, “The lips of the priest should guard knowledge; everyone should seek Instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger from the Lord of heavenly forces.” But the clergy have “turned from the path and have caused many to stumble” (v. 8). The truth is that faithfulness for God’s people is a direct result of the faithfulness of their spiritual leaders. But when clergy spread false doctrine or fail to live out the truth in front of their people, it is a form of agnosticism that God will judge harshly. Don’t think that I am not concerned about this every day!
INFIDELITY IN MARRIAGE
That’s the irony of the peoples’ charges against God—they expose their own faithlessness, which is manifested in a myriad of ways. One of the ways that God turns to next in his rebuttal is their casual attitude toward marriage. Biblically speaking, the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman is designed to reflect the covenant that God makes with his people and Christ makes with the church. The people of Judah, however—much like the people of 21st century America—have forsaken that covenant. Sexual infidelity, promiscuity, and immorality have consequences beyond ourselves. When we cheat on a spouse, we are cheating on God. When we take sex out of the context God intended it for, we pay the price. When we fail to take the marriage covenant seriously and act with fidelity and faithfulness to our spouse, how can we possibly say we have been faithful to God?
The prophet is thus consistent with the full biblical witness on marriage as a mutual covenant characterized by companionship, love, and lifelong faithfulness in the mold of our relationship with God himself. Such a faithful marriage is intended not only for the man and woman, but also to give birth to “godly offspring” (v. 15). There is a missional purpose in marriage, as I said during our series on sex in January. It’s not merely about us, but is about serving God with our bodies and our relationships.
Divorce, on the other hand, is a form of “violence” that tears the family and the covenant apart, and anyone who has been through it knows what that is like. In verse 16 we read that God “hates divorce” and while there may be circumstances in which it is justified, it is clear that God does not want anyone’s lives torn apart. It’s about covenant.
It’s a hard teaching in a culture where sex is considered to have no consequences and marriage is redefined in terms of law rather than covenant. Malachi tells us that God will not accept the worship of the Judeans because they are faithless in their marriages. Faithfulness in marriage is faithfulness in discipleship. We love our neighbor as ourselves and nowhere do we get to practice that more often than with our spouse.
Malachi moves on with God’s case against the people. They have “wearied God with evil” and have admired those who practice it. The wicked do seem to have more fun, they think to themselves, so can’t we dabble in that while still throwing God a bone once in a while? God’s answer is a resounding no—faithfulness goes all the down and has to characterize every part of human life.
And that includes our wallets. In chapter 3, God accuses the people of robbing him because they have held back their tithes just like they held back their best from the sacrifices. They have begun to think that their money is actually theirs, rather than God’s. But God promises that if they are faithful in their giving, God will open the windows and pour our his abundance on them. When we are faithful, God is faithful. We have tested that principle many times in our family and have found it to be true. When we have been faithful in giving to God, there is always enough.
SPEAKING AGAINST GOD
And, lastly, God accuses them of speaking against him (3:14): “Serving God is useless. What do we gain by keeping his obligation or by walking around as mourners before the Lord of heavenly forces? 15 So now we consider the arrogant fortunate. Moreover, those doing evil are built up; they test God and escape.” God’s case wraps up as it began—the people are functional agnostics and putting God on trial for their unfaithfulness is folly. As a saying I heard once put it, “If you feel distant from God, who moved?”
So, we are not innocent sufferers. Some of the rabbis at Auschwitz knew this as well. “Some men spoke of God: His mysterious ways, the sins of the Jewish people, and the redemption to come,” writes Wiesel in his book Night, a memoir of his holocaust experience. But Wiesel still struggled with faith. “As for me,” he wrote, “I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not doubting [God’s] existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.”
In the face of intense suffering and despair, we feel Wiesel’s pain and that of the people of Judah. We seek to draw near to God, but the distance we create in our functional agnosticism often blinds us to his presence, even in the midst of horror. The people of Judah, like the people of Auschwitz, needed a sign of hope but none seemed to be forthcoming. The words of the prophets had yet to come true—there was no messiah, no savior at the gate to redeem them. There was only the distance between them and God—a distance that anyone who has seen the dark night of the soul and the face of death can tell you about.
But the cross-examining God doesn’t give his closing argument in the form of a rebuke. Instead, he promises a messenger of good news. We read about him in chapter 3 – the messenger who will clear the way for God to come to his Temple and dwell with the people again, the one who will purify the priests like refined gold and make the peoples’ sacrifices worthy again. He will announce God’s judgement on the evildoers and uplift those who have remained faithful. He will encourage the people to return to the Lord. He will be in the model of the prophet Elijah and announce that the Lord is coming to set things right.
It’s no coincidence that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament, for in the beginning of the new we read about John the Baptizer, who is the forerunner of the Messiah. He appears in the desert, calling people to repent and return to the Lord in preparation for his coming. And then, the Lord does indeed come, but in an unexpected way—he comes in person in Jesus Christ. And he comes not to condemn his people, but to save them. He closes the distance between God and his people.
In one of the most stirring passages of Elie Wiesel’s memoir, he describes an execution he witnessed in the camp—the execution of several, including a child, by hanging. While the others died quickly, the child, who was tool light, took a long time to die. Wiesel writes, “And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …”
For Wiesel, the sight of innocent suffering was evidence that God was dead. We cannot imagine the horror of it.
But the new testament tells us of another child, God’s own child—indeed, God himself, who also hangs from the executioner’s stand. When we ask in the midst of suffering, “Where is God?” We point to the cross and say, “This is where—hanging here from this cross.” But he is not dead. He is alive, and he did it all for us. We didn’t deserve it. He owed us nothing, but he came to set us free. God is not removed from their suffering. Indeed, he enters into it and takes it on himself. He takes on the pain, the sin, the death of his people in his own body. The God who is the righteous judge steps down from the bench and becomes like the accused. As Paul put it, “He became sin, who knew no sin, that we might become his righteousness.” He answers our suffering with his own, and by his scars and his cross, we find new life.
As N.T. Wright declares, “The nations of the world got together to pronounce judgment on God for all the evils in the world, only to realize with a shock that God had already served his sentence.”
The prophets call us to put our faith in this God—the one who comes for us. “Return to me and I will return to you,” says the Lord through Malachi. We must be faithful to the one who has been faithful to us, all the way to a cross.