The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > From the study: Purifying peppermint

From the study: Purifying peppermint


Metaphors and symbols characterize Christian practice throughout the year, but as we prepare to celebrate Christmas with trees, lights and giving of gifts, the season of Advent is particularly rich with tangible signs that creative people have developed over the centuries to illustrate the mystery of God’s relationship to humanity through incarnation in Jesus. The candy cane is one of these signs, a simple object carefully designed to instruct people through the physical senses of touch, taste and sight about the things God has accomplished through the events of Christmas.

Candy canes are flavored with peppermint to evoke the aroma of hyssop, since both herbs are members of the mint family. Hyssop is used throughout the Old Testament for cleansing rituals, so it’s incorporated into the taste and smell of a candy cane to reference Jesus’s priestly task of purifying God’s people. The prophet Malachi also speaks of this purification, but he uses a different metaphor–that of a fire refining gold and silver. Malachi describes purification in the context of a word from Yahweh announcing the arrival of God’s “messenger” who is tasked with transforming the people of Israel and the character of their offerings.

Malachi 3:1 I am about to send out my messenger,

     and he will clear the way before me,

but suddenly he will come into his temple, 

     the master whom you are seeking,

but the messenger of the covenant,

     whom you are mindful of, 

     is about to come,

says Yahweh of hosts.

Malachi 3:1 is organized into three distinct statements that each refer to the coming of Yahweh’s “messenger” or “the master.” The first statement indicates the messenger’s task to “clear the way” for Yahweh, highlighting the fact that the messenger does not come on his own terms but is working in concert with Yahweh. The second statement indicates that he will come “suddenly,” with unexpected timing. The third clause interrupts to reiterate the addressee’s prior awareness of the messenger’s coming. Noting that the second and central statement highlights the sudden manner of the messenger’s arrival, unexpected despite this present word of warning, it seems Yahweh anticipates this word may not be heeded until it is fulfilled.

2 But who can endure the day when he comes?

And who is the one standing when he appears?

Verse 2 begins with two rhetorical questions in parallel clauses. Each question employs the same interrogative term, asking, “Who?” The temporal clause is also virtually synonymous as both questions refer to the arrival of the messenger. The middle element, the verb of each clause, shows parallelism of specification. The first question asks generally: Who can remain unmoved by what is coming? The second specifies: Who can avoid being knocked to the ground or swept off their feet? The specification suggests that the messenger’s coming has irresistible force or gravity. The implied, literal answer to these questions is, “No one,” but the further question they evoke is: What kind of impact will this messenger have?

For he is like a refiner’s fire

and like a washer’s soap.

An explanatory clause gives the reason for the messenger’s irresistible impact. It introduces two similes to further describe the work the messenger is coming to accomplish. Yahweh compares the coming messenger to “a refiner’s fire” and “a washer’s soap.” In this context, the common feature of fire and soap is their function as tools in the hands of the indicated laborers for the purpose of removing impurities from the materials they handle. By using these two similes, Yahweh explains that the messenger is coming to serve as Yahweh’s instrument in removing impurities from the ‘material’ Yahweh is working with.

3 And the refiner will sit, and as he purifies silver,

     so he will purify Levi’s sons,

     and he will refine them like gold and like silver,

     and they will become righteous gift-offerings

          for Yahweh.

Verse 3 expands on the refiner metaphor and identifies “Levi’s sons,” Israel’s tribe of priests, as the object of Yahweh’s refining task. Adding a layer to the simile, Yahweh compares the priests to “gold” and “silver,” which when subjected to fiery heat in the hands of the refiner are transformed into something more usable and more beautiful than in their raw state. Indeed, the effect of this refining is that the priests themselves are fashioned into an offering worthy to present before God.


A refiner heats large quantities of gold and sits by the blazing fire to scrape off dross that rises to the surface as the gold melts. The components that are actually gold are preserved to be molded, while the impurities are removed and discarded. Using the metaphor of refining to describe the judgment God’s messenger brings indicates that its purpose is not to eliminate whole persons as punishment for their evil deeds, but rather to extricate the unwholesome inclinations from within and among the people to make them fit for their intended, dignified purpose of belonging to God.


4 But the gifts of Judah and Jerusalem are pleasing to Yahweh

     like the days of eternity and like the former years.

5 And I will approach you for justice,

     and I will be a swift witness

     against sorcerers and adulterers

     and against those who swear falsely,

     and against those who extort the workers’ wages

     and widows and orphans,

     and turn aside a stranger and do not fear me,

says Yahweh of hosts.

Verse 5 calls out God’s people for the specific types of action that make them need refining. Woven into this litany of unwholesome actions, Yahweh also identifies the kinds of people affected by such actions as faithlessness, extortion and inhospitality. God’s judgment comes through the messenger for the sake of the worker, widow, orphan, and stranger. In other words, Yahweh’s motivation for refining God’s people is not just to mold a static object arbitrarily deemed pretty because it is made uniformly of gold; God’s purpose is to form a dynamic society of people who honor God’s goodness by being good to each other. The actions identified impede God’s people from their purpose of being in compassionate relationships with one another.

6 For I am Yahweh; I have not changed,

but as for you, Jacob’s sons, you aren’t finished.

In verse 6, another pair of somewhat parallel clauses contrast Yahweh who judges from the people who are judged. Each clause identifies a distinct subject–the first person “Yahweh” in the first clause, contrasted with the second person “Jacob’s sons” in the second. Each clause is completed by a negative statement describing its subject. Yahweh hasn’t changed because God is already holy and pure and doesn’t need to be refined in the fire to fulfill God’s purpose. The people of Israel, on the other hand, are an unfinished work requiring further transformation. God the refiner is still laboring with this material, and this is why the messenger comes to be the refining fire, God’s instrument to make the people pure.

7 From your ancestors’ days you rebelled against my statutes and you didn’t keep them;

return to me so I may return to you,

says Yahweh of hosts;

     but you will say, “How may we return?”

The first line of verse 7 describes a past state that continues into the present, a state where the people rebel against God’s laws. But the second line uses an imperative with a future result clause to suggest the possibility of change. In their unrefined state, they offer themselves to self-serving purposes (see verse 5), but now Yahweh implores the people to voluntarily offer themselves back to God. Yahweh offers reciprocity for this return, but still the people protest. At present they withhold their full offerings from God because they believe this is most to their benefit, and their question expresses incredulity at the suggestion of a reasonable alternative.

8 Will humanity cheat God?

For you are cheating me,

     and you will say, “How are we cheating you?”

The tithe and the offering.

9 By the curse with which you are cursed you are cheating me–

     the nation in its entirety.

Yahweh responds with an apparent non sequitur and accuses the people of cheating God with their tithes and offerings. The key word “cheat” is repeated four times in these two verses, and describes how the offerings the people currently present to Yahweh fall short of what God deserves. When Yahweh specifies that it is in “the tithe and the offering” that the people are cheating God, it links this verse with the proposed outcome of the messenger’s judgment, which is that the priests themselves will be an offering for Yahweh (see verse 3). Miserly material gifts are utterly incomparable with the full loyalty and service of the people. In keeping themselves and their loyalty to other pursuits which drive them away from God’s intention for a loving community, the people are robbing God. The issue of justice or reason is not the proffered future of returning to God, as the people suggest with their question; the problem is the present state of offering anything less than their whole selves to Yahweh.

10 Bring all the tithes into the storehouse,

     so there is food in my house,

     and please try me in this,

says Yahweh of hosts,

if I do not open for you the treasuries of the heavens

     and pour out for you inexhaustible blessing.

11 And I will rebuke for you the devourer,

     and I will not ruin for you the earth’s fruit, 

     and I will not bereave you of the field’s vine,

says Yahweh of hosts.

12 And all the nations will call you happy,

     for you will be a desirable land,

says Yahweh of hosts.

With the imperative to “bring all the tithes,” God demands a change in the people’s cheating behavior of holding back what is due to God in their offerings. Turning from rebuke to promise of blessing, Yahweh elaborates on the promise of reciprocity (see verse 7). Verse 11 uses three somewhat parallel clauses to express that giving all the tithes to God will not result in lack for the people. The “devourer” who would consume the land’s produce will not be allowed to continue with impunity. The earth’s fruit and field’s vine, the produce that would sustain the people, will have its quality preserved and be accessible to the people.

Yahweh says, “please try me in this” to emphasize the assertion of God’s own trustworthiness to uphold the promised reciprocity. At present they seek after the things they desire, but their loyalty to Yahweh will bring divine blessing so they receive what they truly need.


The challenge at play for the people who await God’s messenger is that God requires the people to give up what they have to gain more through relationship with God. The people must trust God to handle their offerings–to be a good sovereign over their very selves. God’s messenger judges to carefully yet ruthlessly remove the bad and preserve the good in the people. His judgment does “redemptive work,” setting “right a world gone awry” for the sake of “the new life made possible by its refining fire” (Murphy). At Christmas, the birth of Jesus inaugurates God’s new redemptive work to transform a people tarnished by a tendency to serve themselves at the expense of others into a people purely committed to God and to one another’s well-being.


Secondary references:

On hyssop:

On refining: 

“The advent we hope for” by Debra Dean Murphy, in The Christian Century (December 6, 2011).

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