Revival is when God gets so sick and tired of being misrepresented that He shows Himself. (Leonard Ravenhill)

The prophet Malachi brings a message of reconciliation to an embittered nation that is angry with God – disillusioned, disengaged, estranged, and disconnected. As the Old Testament concludes, God gives the promise that he will send Elijah to affect restoration (Mal. 4:6).

Slipped into the passage is this little phrase:

            “… come and smite the earth with a curse.”

It appears to be little more than a footnote. It would be easy to miss this phrase and even easier to miss its meaning. But it is loaded with significance – especially when we understand the meaning of the word “curse.”

“Curse” is derived from the Hebrew word herem.  The basic idea is “the exclusion of an object from the use or abuse of man and its irrevocable surrender to God.” The word is related to an Arabic root meaning “to prohibit, especially to ordinary use.”

The English word “harem,” (derived from herem) literally refers to “something forbidden” and commonly refers to a secluded house or part of a house allotted to women in a Muslim household. It may also refer to the wives, concubines, female relatives, and servants occupying a harem that are off limits.

In scripture it is commonly used in reference to something marked and “banned for utter destruction, the compulsory dedication of something which impedes or resists God’s work, which is considered to be accursed before God.” This noun derivative is used twenty-eight times in the OT to refer either to the object devoted or to the ban itself.

The story of Jericho’s fall to Israel provides clear examples of the first use. The whole city is called a “devoted thing” (Josh 6:17), and all Israelites are warned to keep themselves from the “devoted thing,” which likely is a reference to items within the city, all of which had to be burned if flammable and if not, given to God.  

The spoils of Jericho were devoted to God and not to be touched. When Achan disobeyed and took of these items, Israel’s army was defeated by the people of Ai, and God said that Israel had now become a “devoted thing” itself until the “devoted thing” (Achan in his sin) was destroyed from its midst.

So, then, Jericho the heathen city was “devoted” because it stood in the way of God’s work through Israel in making conquest of Canaan. Israel became “devoted” because of sin which entered and made the nation unusable in God’s work. Achan in his sin became “devoted” because he was the reason for Israel’s hindrance as the people of God.

Another example is taken from the story of Ben-Hadad, King of Aram, in 1 Kings 20. He was a rival king that threatened Israel and boasted that because Israel’s god was the god of the mountains, he would be powerless to help Israel if his army engaged them in the valley (v. 23). Through an unnamed prophet, God declared that because of his arrogance, Ben-Hadad and his army would be delivered into the hands of Israel (v. 28). With that announcement, Ben-Hadad and his army were under “the ban.”

In one day of battle, 100,000 Aramean foot soldiers perished. In full retreat, the remaining forces fled to the city of Aphek where a wall collapsed on them and killed 27,000. But Ben-Hadad escaped the collapse and hid in an inner room (vv. 29-30).

Ben-Hadad appealed to Ahab, King of Israel, for leniency. Ahab called him his “brother,” spared his life and made a treaty with him (vv. 31-34). God immediately sent a prophet to rebuke Ahab for protecting Ben-Hadad with these words:

Thus says the LORD, “Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people” (v. 42).

What we learn from these examples is the severity of “the ban.” Herem was not to be taken lightly. The things devoted to destruction should not be spared and could not be saved (Ben-Hadad eventually died). They were destined to destruction.

But the word also conveyed a positive meaning. It sometimes referred to things surrendered and devoted to the Lord for His glory and service, as in:

Whatever is devoted to the Lord, whether man, animal, or property, is considered most holy by God and is therefore not to be sold or redeemed by substituting something else. It was permissible for devoted things to be given to the priests:

So, the “ban” … the “curse” … the herem … referred to something surrendered to God which meant either (1) devoting it to the service of God or; (2) putting it under a ban for utter destruction.

In respect to the objects to be destroyed, they were considered to be offensive to God and injurious to his work. But objects to be set apart because they were holy, useful, and pleasing to Him were protected by “the ban.” Thus, herem conveys a dual purpose and destiny for devoted things – devoted either for destruction or protection.

So what does this have to do with the current economic crisis and its aftermath?

As the Holy Spirit has dealt with me from scripture and this passage in particular, I believe the concept of “devoted things” is in the middle of God’s activity in the current crisis. Some things have been devoted for destruction; others have been devoted for protection.

I believe there are many things in our culture/society that has come under “the ban” – things devoted to destruction. This doesn’t necessarily imply something as dramatic as fire falling from heaven to consume Sodom. It simply means that existing structures, systems, program, and long-established routines will undergo drastic changes as God brings down the pride and arrogance of our nation. I can only speak of this in general terms; the specifics will soon unfold. American lifestyles are already changing; soon they will change radically.

I also believe there are many things in the church that under herem – things devoted to destruction. In the words of Ravenhill, God is sick and tired of being misrepresented and He is about to bring down man-made religious structures, methods, systems, policies, protocols, agendas, and the like. Many of our familiar religious “landmarks” are about to be removed and we will soon have trouble recognizing what we use to call “church.” The church is about to undergo an extreme makeover!

At this point, it is necessary to re-visit two important points previously made, but perhaps overlooked. The first is this: “Jericho the heathen city was ‘devoted’ because it stood in the way of God’s work.”

Obstructions to God’s work outside the church may be easy to recognize, but many of the spiritual impediments within the church go undetected because they appear to be spiritual, and we have lost our capacity to discern between shields of brass and shields of gold.

We have grown so accustomed to our “broken cisterns” and the ministry models we have canonized that we fail to perceive that many of the things we think are part of God’s work are actually in the way of God’s work. Often, what we see as an asset God sees as a liability; what we regard as “blessings” may actually be “accursed.”

Others continue to exist, not because they are undetected, but because they are “protected” – our sacred cows, pet programs, and old wineskins that we defend with religious fervor and refuse to release. In our misguided zeal, we may find ourselves praying for God to preserve things He intends to destroy.

But those things that we have tried to protect are no longer protected. They are devoted to destruction – all that stands in the way of God’s work – and there is nothing that can save them. They are irrevocably surrendered to God.

The second point to remember is this: “it is commonly used in reference to something marked and banned for utter destruction, the compulsory dedication of something which impedes or resists God’s work.”

“Compulsory dedication” … by compulsion, not by choice. Mandated, not optional. Imperative, not discretionary.

Commenting on Malachi 4:6, Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser says that herem is “the opposite concept of voluntary dedication. It implies that if men do not turn to Him, He will come and take by force what belongs to Him. It is, in effect, a final call to repentance (emphasis added).”

In the choosing of “devoted things” and the consequences that follow, the prerogative belongs exclusively to God. He will not ask for our permission or require our approval. He will not submit His plan to a review board or ask that it be included on our agenda. He will carry out His determined purposes over our objections and complaints.

Revival is when God gets so sick and tired of being misrepresented that He shows Himself.

The extreme makeover will include things that we would never agree to if the choice was ours. The coming adjustments will be made because we have to, not because we want to. We will be forced to make radical adjustments that will affect most areas of our lives – our sense of community, stewardship of resources, lifestyle choices, and perhaps most importantly, our understanding and approach to ministry.

What this will entail, exactly, is yet to be seen. But crisis has a way of reducing us to essentials and stripping us of the superficial. Some of my early thoughts include:

  1. Ecclesiastical structures, budgets, polity, systems, strategies, and methods will be radically altered at all levels.
  1. How we think and do the work of ministry will undergo major adjustments. Yesterday’s wineskins will not hold today’s wine.
  1. Perhaps the greatest impact will be on church budgets. Financial constraints and considerations will touch just about every area of ministry. Downsizing of salaries and benefits for staff and elimination of some paid positions will be mandatory. Our initial thoughts will be that this is bad – and it will create financial challenges for many – but we may soon learn that many of the things we think are necessary to do ministry are not really required at all.

If this sounds like so much gloom and doom, it is only because we are overlooking the positive aspect of herem. Remember: while some devoted things are for destruction, others are devoted to protection.

There is another passage near the conclusion of the Old Testament that must not be forgotten, Mal 3:16-4:2:

Some things – accursed things that impede the way of the Lord – have been devoted to destruction and they cannot be saved. But other things – holy things that are precious to God – have been devoted to protection and cannot be touched. The same power of God that assures the destruction of what God has cursed also guarantees the protection of what He has blessed!

Yes, some things are going to be lost. But all that is necessary is certain and will not be lost.

In conclusion, God’s message through Malachi is mirrored in the New Testament book of Hebrews:

The beginning of this journey is terrifying because we cannot see the final destination – only the bewildering, frightening path before us. We are so focused on what is being lost that we cannot see what is being built. Rest assured, God will not destroy anything that should be protected, nor will He protect anything that should be destroyed.

When all that can be shaken is removed and only that which cannot be shaken remains, we will look back and wonder why we were ever afraid.

[1] “The Calf of Bethaven: An Ancient Heresy in Contemporary Times” is a 4-part sermon series I taught years ago. It details the counterfeit religion system of Jereboam, reflected in the contemporary American church.