A Severe Mercy – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Malachi 3:1-5

The prophet Malachi could not be using more extreme language. The messenger for the Messiah will come “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”

  • A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible that heats precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state from which the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It is a searing process that yields the pure, precious metal.[i]
  • The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[ii] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The fullers stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the city walls of Jerusalem.

Similes and metaphors are woven into the scriptures, from beginning to end. What these two similes – the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap – have in common are their extremes.[iii] A refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap are the most, most, most extreme similes we will find in all the scriptures. How do we come by them? We will be prepared to meet the Messiah, or to meet the Messiah again, like by a refiner’s fire and like with fuller’s soap. This would not be good news… unless this is familiar. You, like I, may be able to look back on our lives and see how suffering has purified our lives and clarified our needs, our values, our life purpose, our ultimate end.

I certainly do not think that all suffering is for the good. Some suffering is appallingly bad, sometimes insidiously evil. Look at today’s news reports. And yet there is a suffering we may personally know in life that is doing the work of a refiner’s fire or fuller’s soap in our own souls. Remember your former life, where what is ultimately good has been redeemed from what for you seemed so terribly difficult in the moment. This will get you in touch with hope amidst your present suffering. In the fullness of time, you may know this suffering to be a severe mercy.


[i] The image of the “refiner’s fire” appears numerously in the Scriptures, e.g., Isaiah 48:10; Jeremiah 9:7; Job 23:10; Psalm 12:6, 66:10; Proverbs 17:3; Zechariah 13:9; Romans 8:28; Hebrews 12:29; 1 Peter 1:6, 4:12, 5:10.

[ii] Fuller’s soap was made from many different substances, among them lye, white clay, putrid urine, and the ashes from the burning of certain desert plants.

[iii] Another severe metaphor appears repeatedly in the scriptures is of God being the potter and we, the clay, e.g., Isaiah 29:16, 41:25, 45:9, 64:8; Jeremiah 18:1-12; Ecclesiasticus 33:13, 38:29; Romans 9:21.

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