By Ryan King
It is good that people, imperfect as we are, change. I am concerned when I hear people say “I’ll never change” or “I have not changed a bit” with reference to one’s self as a person or to some particular trait or aspect of their life. I even find a silver lining in the cloud of negative change: the one who changes for the worse may at some stage sooner or later change yet again for the better. It would be a bad thing though for God, perfect as he is, to change. In fact, the idea is absurd and totally impossible. If God changes then he is no God at all. In which case God does not exist except as a fleeting vapour of the imagination or a bit of putty in the brain that we have to shape according to our own circumstantially motivated wishes, speak for since he can’t give a consistent word, and make our servant since he doesn’t know what he is doing on his own. In other words, an idol. We can put that idea to bed though. God – who exists, speaks, and acts in and of himself – is immutable.
To say that God is immutable is to say that God is unchanging and unchangeable. Immutable is one word that sums up the eternal constancy of the Triune God, the truth that God is as he always has been and as he always will be in his eternal power and divine nature, and by extension that his sovereign plan is irreversible and his promises irrevocable. In one sense God’s immutability is foundational to his other attributes, infinitely sustaining his composition and character beyond our own limitations of time and space. It is however reassuring and refreshing to reflect on God’s immutability towards the end of a series on the attributes of God: to know that the God who has revealed himself in the past to be triune, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, good, sovereign, faithful, just, holy, loving, and gracious is still all of those things today and will continue to be those things for an unending number of tomorrows. Immutability is not identical to God’s faithfulness but it is that which assures us that the God who was faithful remains and will continue to be faithful. Immutability is the forever-ness of God: all that he is and all that he is like.
This incomprehensibly amazing attribute of God can be drawn from and illustrated by many Scriptural texts, but take the book of Malachi for example. At the centre of this final prophecy before the end of the Old Testament period is the divine statement “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). The book as a whole demonstrates the powerful point of this one verse.
- God is forever caring.
“I have loved you”, God’s message through the prophet begins (Malachi 1:2). The relationship of God with his people is often depicted as that of a man and his wife. A husband who has faithfully demonstrated his love for his wife would rightly expect something along the lines of a hug and kiss back, and some verbal affirmation of the wife’s love and respect for her husband. Instead, God’s demonstration of affection for his spiritual bride is met with cold indifference at best and the insinuation is made that he is kidding himself. “How have you loved us?” his people ask. He takes them back to Jacob and Esau and reminds them that he loved Jacob and hated Esau. He has protected, provided for, and preserved Jacob’s descendants through much suffering, and has always brought them through seasons of desolation and despair but he has destroyed Esau’s descendants who proudly and jealously try to better their cousins and belittle their God. The Lord is saying to his people that he had a choice, and based on no perceivable merit in the man or his descendants, chose to care for Jacob. He still chooses to care for “Jacob”.
- God is forever king.
In the same way that God still cares for us even when we don’t give a care, he reigns over us even when we don’t submit to his lordship. Still in the first chapter of Malachi, we read that the people God has loved and led have not exactly given him the honour and fear he deserves. Particular reference is made in Malachi 1:6-14 to their sacrifices, or lack thereof. Before the full and final sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God’s people made various sacrifices of animals and produce in the temple but at this stage in their history, what they were giving could hardly be called ‘sacrificial’ – at least not in the truest sense of the word. Instead of the strong and healthy animals prescribed in the Levitical codes, the people thought they could get away with offering up their old, weak, sick, disabled, and diseased animals as passable substitutes. A few others apparently were not allowed by their conscience to do this so they violently stole healthy animals belonging to other people and brought those to the temple as their sacrifice. Their artificial spirituality and hypocritical religiosity is a severe breach of etiquette in the heavenly courts and God is so disgusted he wishes someone would close the temple doors and keep people away from the altar. He won’t receive anything from them, because at the moment all they are doing is taking him for granted. Perhaps they mistake God’s past kindness, compassion, and care for weakness and feel they can get away with doing things in their way, according to their wishes. God’s way is a weariness to them, so they will just dispense with it and he won’t notice or mind.
They thought wrong. The God who was King when the law was given is still King and will remain as King. He reminds them, and us, that “from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations…For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations” (Malachi 1:11,14b).
- God is forever cleansing
God is understandably not pleased with the disgraceful way in which he has been treated by the collective people with whom he has entered into marriage-like covenant. But the Lord is determined not to be rid of them, rather to rid them of those things that have diminished their privilege, honour, and beauty as his supposed-to-be-worshipful people. Surveying the courts and halls of the temple, it is as though he see the mess of excrement left by the sick and stolen sacrificial animals and says “That is how my people have treated me, that is how I am going to treat the priests who represent my people to me.” In chapter 2, Malachi communicates the message that God is going to take the dung of the nasty creatures and rub it into the priests’ faces. Which doesn’t sound very cleansing at first, but God is effectively marking out the men who have led his beloved astray so they can be taken away and burned with the rest of his people’s refuse. Excrement was the fruit of their lives and ministry, the substance of their spirituality, and the essence of their idolatrous identity. It is only appropriate that it be their destiny, as God cleanses his people and takes out their trash.
Ultimately the cleansing of the people will be achieved by the promised Messiah: the Lord whom they seek will arrive suddenly and purify the people “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” and a righteous offering will be made that is very pleasing to God. After this, he will come to judge the world in righteousness and stand as witness against “the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me” (Malachi 3:5). The sad truth is that unless they, and we, change, those who will be judged include people who profess to know God – even their spiritual leaders! The joyous reality is that if they, and we, do change, there is hope because God does not change.
- God is forever committed
God is the most committed Being ever. He is eternally committed in himself, in his own unified complexity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three-in-one enjoyed perfect, committed fellowship before the ages began and created humanity in their image and likeness to – among other things -reflect this commitment. Marriage – the lawful and hopefully love-filled binding contract between a man and woman, is meant to be the foremost portrayal of this as husband and wife are brought together “with a portion of the Spirit in their union” (Malachi 2:15). The disruption of the marital contract, once made, is in no way pleasing or acceptable to God but makes a sham of God’s will and defaces his image in the beauty and glory of human relationships. Whether it is the correct translation of Malachi 2:16 or not, the alternate reading of the verse is correct in the sentiment it expresses: “God hates putting away”, primarily because he would never put someone away once taking them to himself. Sadly, not everyone shares this godly mind-set.
God has been faithful to look after his spiritual wife, but she hasn’t exactly reciprocated by looking up to him – in fact, quite the opposite. She looked away from him to check out other guys. She found God’s rules demanding and tiresome so tried to get away from his control by seeking out and finally settling into what she thought was a satisfying, fulfilling relationship…with an idol who not only wouldn’t but couldn’t give her what she needed. Going her own way and doing her own thing she robbed God in more ways than one, not returning the respect, love, commitment, pleasing sacrifices, and consistent tithes and offerings of which he was and is worthy. She was distinctly both unloving and unloveable. God could have consumed her…or could he?
To consume or do away with the one he loved even though she had effectively done away with him might seem reasonable enough to us, but it goes against the character of God by making him less than immutable, his care, kingship, cleansing of and commitment to his people less than forever. You see, unlike the loser in the Taylor Swift song, when God said “Forever and Always” he really meant it, baby.
Is there any greater message in Scripture? The Sovereign King of the universe reaches out to the wayward, disrespectful, ungrateful, unfeeling, callous, cold, sensual, adulterous slanderers of his name and robbers of his fame, and says, “you might have changed and moved away from me, but I haven’t changed and I’m still right here for you. Come back.” Or as the text reads, “I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed…Return to me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:6).
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, this story of national redemption for the people of Israel points ahead to the great story of global redemption for all who repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ who made a sin bearing, wrath satisfying, God pleasing sacrifice, cleanses his people, pledges himself to them with the Holy Spirit, and leads them through history as his betrothed bride to the great marriage day in the glory of the new heavens and new earth. If we want to see what immutability looks like, we have only to look to Jesus: “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Doing so, we are encouraged by his example and empowered by the Spirit to lift our drooping arms and strengthen our weak knees for committed lives of grateful, awe-filled reverence and worship (Hebrews 12:12, 28).