The prophet and his prophecy
The book is ascribed to Malachi, whose name means “my messenger”, of which we know little. A high percentage of the narrative is the actual word of the Lord and given it is His last, at least explicit, word for 400 years, it is one we need to note carefully. While a hard hitting one, which is nothing new of course, there is a sense of sadness as God tells the people to get their act together and as it were slips away until they do or at least until the coming of Jesus. Remarkably, the words of the prophecy resonate today and might be encapsulated in the phrase “take God seriously”. Malachi is the last Old Testament prophet, although the date when he wrote we cannot be certain. As far as canonical writings go, there appear to be no more prophets until John the Baptist. Israel continued to be ruled, with varying degrees of benevolence (from sympathetic to exactly the opposite) by occupying powers (and that remained the case until 1948 when the Jewish State of Israel was formed) with moral leadership shifted toward priests.
Background and context
Spurred on by the prophetic activity of Haggai and Zechariah, the returned exiles under the leadership of their governor Zerubbabel finished the temple in 516 BC. In 458 BC the community was strengthened by the coming of the priest Ezra and several thousand more Jews. Artaxerxes king of Persia encouraged Ezra to reconstitute the temple worship (Ezra 7:17) and to make sure the law of Moses was being obeyed (Ezra 7:25–26). Fourteen years later (444) the same Persian king permitted his cupbearer Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its walls (Nehemiah 6:15). As newly appointed governor, Nehemiah also spearheaded reforms to help the poor (5:2–13), and he convinced the people to shun mixed marriages (10:30), to keep the Sabbath (10: 31) and to bring their tithes and offerings faithfully (10:37–39). In 433 BC, Nehemiah returned to the service of the Persian king, and during his absence the Jews fell into sin once more. Later, however, Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem to discover that the tithes were ignored, the Sabbath was broken, the people had intermarried with foreigners, and the priests had become corrupt (13:7–31). One hundred years after the first return, as Malachi preached to people, things had got worse, despite some mini revivals under Ezra and Nehemiah and the people were despondent and depressed. Several of their past sins are condemned after repeating them in Malachi’s time (Malachi 1:6–14; 2:14–16; 3:8–11). Malachi’s prophecy (1:1) is written in lofty prose. The text features a series of questions asked by God and the people. Frequently, the Lord’s statements are followed by sarcastic questions introduced by “(But) you ask” (1:2,6–7; 2:14,17; 3:7–8,13; cf. 1:13). In each case the Lord’s response is given. Repetition is a key element in the book. The name “Lord Almighty” occurs 20 times.
A synopsis of the Book
- Title (1:1)
- Introduction: God’s Faithful Covenant Love for Israel Affirmed (1:2–5)
- Israel’s Unfaithfulness Rebuked (1:6—2:16)
- The Unfaithfulness of the Priests (1:6—2:9)
- They dishonor God in their sacrifices (1:6–14)
- They do not faithfully teach the law (2:1–9)
- The Unfaithfulness of the People (2:10–16)
- The Lord’s Coming Announced (2:17—4:6)
- The Lord Will Come to Purify the Priests and Judge the People (2:17—3:5)
- Call to Repentance in View of the Lord’s Coming (3:6–18)
- An exhortation to faithful giving (3:6–12)
- An exhortation to faithful service (3:13–18)
- The Day of the Lord Announced (ch. 4)
The message of the Prophet
“The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi”(1:1). While “burden” may not be the best translation, it was something this messenger carried.
Jacob loved, Esau hated (1:2-5)
We have already set the scene of a people that were disconsolate. God is saying He loves them and their response is how come given their situation. God’s response is to remind them of the ongoing story of Jacob and Esau and how he has even since, and demonstratively so, favoured Jacob over his brother, Esau,
Blemished sacrifices (1:6 – 1:14)
We come to one of the crunch issues in God’s complaint – the people giving to God what is second best and thinking they can get away with something that in any normal father son relationship or between the people and the governor would be seen as wholly unacceptable. This occurred in the matter of sacrifice – rather than offering the best animals they offered the worst. As for God, we are reminded: “for from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles” (1:11) and “I am a great King, saith the Lord of hosts, and my name is dreadful among the heathen” (1:14).
Admonition for the Priests (2:1 – 2:9)
Attention turns to the priests who were now the effective leaders of the people who were meant to be teaching them what is right and arbitrating in matters of justice but had fallen from that high standard that was set when the priesthood, and particularly the Levites were established under Moses: “The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity. For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the Lord of hosts” (2:6-8). There will be dire consequences as a result of them falling short of the of the standards and expectations that God had set.
Judah Unfaithful (2:10 – 2:16)
God makes a further complaint against the people, despite outward religious observance, and in two specific areas. Firstly, they had inter-married with those who were outside the faith (something we are reminded was an issue in the Book of Ezra): “for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god” (2:11). Secondly, there was unfaithfulness in marriage: “the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth” (2:14-15). It is a salutary thought that believers marrying unbelievers and Christians divorcing and re-marrying are significant issues among Christians today and that Malachi’s message on these matters is relevant.
The Day of Judgment (2:17 – 3:5)
Just as relevant as being a contemporary issue is the idea of calling right wrong and wrong right and thinking that with God it doesn’t matter: “Ye have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delighteth in them; or, Where is the God of judgment?” (2:17). As is the case of many of the writing prophets and has been discussed, Malachi considers future events and later develops thoughts on the Day of the Lord. He talks of the one preparing the way (John the Baptist) “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me” (3:1a) and then the Lord Himself (in the person of Jesus): “and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts” (3:1b).
There will be a time of refinement: “But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” (3:2,3), followed by evil purged and of blessing: “Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years. And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts” (3:4,5).
Robbing God (3:6 – 3:18)
The Lord reminds His people that He does not change, for if He did they would have been consumed. This has implications for now, given so much else does change. He invited them to return to Him. Their response, yet again, is why and how? God is clear they are robbing Him and they need to give Him what is His due, for until they do, they will remain under a curse, and if they give Him what is His due there will be a great blessing (yet another poignant lesson for today): “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (3:8-10).
The issue of tithes and offerings is one we might pick up on. While it was true the people lost out by withholding that which was God’s due, the author is of the view that under the New Covenant we are not obliged to tithe and yet our whole life you be characterised by our giving to God, including in financial matters. As for the people being addressed here, if they do these things, God will protect them from their enemies and the surrounding nations will recognise that they are indeed blessed of God. Such is the twisted minds of some though that they still think people are better off doing wicked than doing right.
This section ends on a heart warming note, concerning them who fear God and what God will do for them: “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not” (3:16-18). Again, a practical application for now, for those who fear the Lord (and there is nothing to say under the New Covenant fear does not matter), should be encouraging one another in the things of God and this is something in which he delights.
The Day of the Lord (4:1 – 4:6)
So we end looking forward to the Day of the Lord, although as we now know, 2400 years on it has still to happen, although Christians see part fulfilment in the first coming of Jesus, which again was declared by His forerunner, John the Baptist, again talked of in this section. It will be a time when wickedness will be judged and righteousness vindicated: “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts” (4:1-3). Again, we see a lovely picture of them who fear the Lord with the thought of calves skipping freely. As for the here and now, the God who has not changed, still requires His people to keep the Law.
Back to John the Baptist, who is referred to as Elijah, we note: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (4:5-6). This is referred to when the angel speaks to Zacharias, 400 years later, concerning the birth of son, John: “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” Luke 1:16,17. John was an Elijah type figure when it came to lifestyle and he did what Malachi and the angel said before Jesus embarked on His ministry that is yet to be fully fulfilled. It is a sobering thought though, that the very last verse is a threat of a curse, should the hearts of the people not be changed. For while the last word of the Old Testament has been spoken, the story has not ended!