The Sun of Righteousness

Bryan CribbBryan Cribb, Exegesis

Based on what I hear, the trendiest stories that trend on Twitter these days are ones with “lists.” Top ten of this… Five ways of that… So as not to be accused of not being hip to modern modes of messaging, I’m offering my own list.

As an Old Testament professor, sometimes I feel as if I have a neon sign on my back flashing, “Ask me your most difficult Bible question.” Rarely does a week go by without some query about some “hard text”—whether from emails from random visitors to our website, from students after class, or from a layperson at church.

So I thought a good article series would be my top—I’ll say five for now—Old Testament questions that people ask me. In the next few weeks, I’ll look at texts like the Sons of God passage in Genesis 6, tattoos in Leviticus 19, tithing in Malachi 3, etc.

Top Five Questions for an Old Testament Professor  | Part 1

But I will start with a question someone asked me last year concerning Malachi 4:2. The text reads:

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”Malachi 4:2 ESV

The person who asked the question was teaching the book of Malachi to a women’s group, and in her preparation she wondered if the “sun of righteousness” and “its wings” is a specific messianic reference to Jesus.

No doubt, the language of this text confuses. But as with any passage, the key to the meaning is context.

The key is context.
Malachi is prophesying in the post-exile, at the end of the Old Testament period. Though restored from captivity in Babylon, Israel has not been reconciled to God. In fact, Malachi claims that God’s people have largely continued in their covenant infidelity that led to the exile in the first place. Indeed, the threat of disciplinary covenant curses (famine, plague, pestilence, sword, etc.; see Leviticus 26) is still very real for God’s people.

In the midst of this disobedient generation, is there any hope for those who maintain covenant fidelity? That hope is found in a coming “Day of Yahweh”—a primary theme in Malachi. This day is one in which Israel’s covenant God will intervene providentially in space and time for His purposes. Such intervention could involve judgment or salvation. But in this case, the text seems to be referring to the Day of Yahweh as one of salvation for His people—for those who “fear” his name—that is, the people who have been faithful to God’s covenant in the crooked and perverse generation of the post-exile.

And when the Day of Yahweh comes, God will bring “healing” (from the covenant curses) and restored blessing (covenant blessings as pictured through the vigor of fattened calves). The prophets considered the removal of these curses and the pouring out of covenant blessings (see Ezekiel 34:25-31) as a sign of full restoration to right covenant relationship.

But note that, as this passage states, this restoration only comes from the righteousness provided by God—pictured by Malachi as being as bright as the sun itself. The “wings” are an ancient Near Eastern way of describing the rays of the sun.
The question is, when will this “Day of Yahweh” and healing/blessing/covenant restoration take place? It will take place when when the One who brings in the new covenant comes (Malachi 3:1). Then, those who are in darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9), and God will place over them “my Servant David” as prince (Ezekiel 34:23).

So I would argue that “sun of righteousness” focuses on the restoration that God would bring through His Messiah (who is “God our Righteousness”; see Jeremiah 23:4-5) and through His new covenant, rather than the “sun” being one-to-one correspondence with the Messiah.

But, the lines are blurred here, aren’t they? After all, it is a “hard text.”