Longing to breathe

Dr Byron Smith reflects on the last chapter of the last book of the Hebrew prophets with its yearning for God’s arrival.


Byron Smith has a doctorate in Christian ethics on emotional responses to climate change. He frequently speaks and writes about following Jesus in a warming world. He’s authored a number of scholarly articles and book chapters and has joined in creative peaceful actions against new coal projects.

Longing to breathe

In a parched and burnt land, Dr Byron Smith reminds us to walk with those yearning for God’s arrival.

Daily Reading Malachi 4

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

“Burning like a furnace […] set on fire […] ashes under the soles of your feet […] strike the land with total destruction.”

As I write this from the eastern suburbs of Sydney, after a record-dry Spring, amidst a crippling drought, with a scalding Summer predicted ahead, I cannot breathe. Ash, too fine to see is an inescapable presence: my running nose, my sore throat, my labouring airway, my aching joints, my weary body. The sun, like my eyes, is red. The masks I wear to protect my compromised respiratory system largely fail to keep out the most dangerous flecks.

We are all choking on dirty air. Up and down the eastern coast of our baked and burning continent, air quality has never been recorded as this bad for this long.

I know the research into the health effects of particulate pollution: the movement of microscopic particles into every organ and virtually every cell of our bodies, the triggering of heart attacks and strokes, the inflammation, the infections, the acute and chronic respiratory issues, the damage to lives forming in the womb, the cognitive impairment that makes us all dumber as we breathe this blighted air.

This ash is the dark shadow of forests and fauna engulfed by flame. The fires in New South Wales have already burned an area larger than Wales. Many lives and homes have been lost. Communities disrupted and displaced. Thousands have been hospitalised. Flames have spread beyond the fire-adapted eucalypts into wet forests that previously repelled them, into scattered fragments of Gondwana Rainforest recognised as the common heritage of the world. Irreplaceable ecological treasures are in charred ruins and we are breathing their incinerated memory.

The land is parched. The air is hot. Beyond the usual seasonal cycles, human obsession with burning things for power has disrupted the global climate. New South Wales and Queensland are one of the world’s greatest sources of coal. Dirty energy pollutes our politics and our leaders bow before its demands. Dirty energy disrupts the climate and dirties the air: metaphorically and literally.

In this context, it is tempting to read Malachi chapter four, the last chapter of the last book of the Hebrew prophets, the page of our Bible before the Gospel of Matthew, as talking directly to us - we even have ashes on the soles of our feet.

It isn’t.

The book of Malachi was likely written some four hundred-odd years before Jesus, during the time of restoration after exile, when for Jewish people living back in the land of their ancestors, the realities of the present were disappointing in comparison with the glories of the remembered past. The restored Temple was underfunded and the priesthood compromised and neglectful. The prophetic message is focused upon the priests and is filled with warnings against their half-hearted corner-cutting, their neglect of the covenant regulations, their disdain for what ought to be holy. But the prophet’s critique also falls upon the nation for accepting lies, breaking promises, oppressing workers, neglecting the needs of the vulnerable, and failing to welcome the foreigner.

In that context, the final chapter of Malachi is a promise and a warning. The day of the LORD is coming: a day of judgement on the arrogant and evildoers; a day of vindication and release for those who truly cherish the Creator and faithfully remember and follow God’s message. The decisive moment will be preceded by the return of the prophet Elijah.

In the Gospels, this expectation is understood to be fulfilled in John the Baptiser, preparing the way for the arrival of the Lord. John preaches Malachi’s message of warning to the arrogant and evildoers, of forgiveness and vindication to the humble and repentant.

As we travel through Advent, we remember those who long ago anticipated the coming of the Lord and join with them in yearning for the overcoming of evil, the vindication of truth, the implementation of God’s care for the widow and orphan, God’s welcome of the foreigner, God’s flourishing for the land’s ancient inhabitants, God’s justice for the worker, God’s rejection of corrupt leadership, God’s reconciliation between generations that life may flourish in a land no longer blighted under a curse of destruction.

This message is fresh air. Let us breathe it in deeply. And may a fresh wind from God blow through this land.

Go Deeper

What does air pollution do to our bodies? 

Are this year's fires unprecedented? 

What are the links between bushfires and human-caused climate disruption? 

Are Australia's emissions too small to make a difference? 

What are the links between dirty air and our dirty politics? 

We Are Longing: An Advent series from Common Grace