After the return from the Babylonian exile in 538 b.c., the Jewish remnant led by Zerubbabel the governor was able to complete the rebuilding of the temple by 515 b.c. With their beloved worship center restored, the Jews hoped to avoid the sins of the past and to serve the Lord faithfully. During the next century, however, we learn from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that serious problems arose in Jerusalem. Commitment to the law of Moses weakened, and some of the people intermarried with non-Jews. When Nehemiah came to Judah as governor in 445 b.c., he discovered that the Sabbath was not being observed properly and that tithes and offerings were being neglected ( Nehemiah 10:30-31 Nehemiah 10:37-39 ). Even the priests were prone to corruption ( Nehemiah 13:7 Nehemiah 13:28-30 ). Since several of these sins are mentioned in Malachi, the book may have been written while Nehemiah was governor or after he returned to Persia in 433 b.c. Making use of linguistic analysis, other scholars prefer to date Malachi from 500 to 475 b.c., during the decline that preceded Ezra's return to Judah.
The name "Malachi" (Heb. malaki [yik'a.l;m]) means "my messenger" (see 3:1 ) and could be interpreted as a title rather than a proper name. Since all the other prophetic books are named after a particular individual, however, it is likely that Malachi was indeed the author's name.
God's Love for Israel. In a passage made famous by its quotation in Romans 9:13, the Book of Malachi begins with the statement, "I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated" ( 1:2-3 ). In Romans Paul was dealing with election, and this helps us understand that to "love" Jacob was to choose Israel as his special people. Esau, though Jacob's twin brother, was the founder of Edom, a nation that God turned into a wasteland as he poured his wrath upon it ( 1:3-4 ). According to Obadiah the Edomites rejoiced over the fall of Jerusalem and did not assist their "brother" Israel ( Obad 1:10-12 ). At Mount Sinai the nation of Israel became God's "treasured possession" ( Exod 19:5 ), a term used in Malachi 3:17 also. In spite of the fact that many Jews questioned God's love for them ( 1:2 ), the Lord promised that those who feared him would indeed be his special people. God would never forget his covenant with Abraham by abandoning his people ( 3:6 ). In fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, the day would come when all the nations would call Israel blessed ( 3:12 ).
The Character of God. Although some of the Jews were dishonoring the Lord by their sinful attitudes and actions, the greatness of Israel's God was evident among the nations. God had brought destruction on Edom and earlier on Assyria and Babylon, showing that he was superior to the gods of these nations ( 1:5 ). Yahweh was "a great king" and his name was "to be feared among the nations" ( 1:14 ). Ultimately, offerings and praise will be brought to the Lord from all over the world ( 1:11 ), a prediction that especially looks forward to the inclusion of Gentiles in the New Testament church. How ironic that Israel, God's chosen nation, failed to acknowledge the greatness of her God while pagan Gentiles became believers in him (see Rom 9:26-33 ).
The Israelites were a fickle people, but the Lord was unchangeable. His love for Israel continued in spite of their sin, and he would never forget that they were his covenant people ( 3:6 ). Yet God was a holy God who demanded obedience, so if Israel refused to repent she would have to be judged ( 4:6 ).
Throughout the Scriptures the Lord is portrayed again and again as a God of justice and righteousness, but strangely, here at the end of the Old Testament his justice is questioned ( 2:17 ). Perhaps the Jews were struggling with their relative insignificance within the Persian Empire or with the delay in the fulfillment of the messianic age. From 3:13-15 it appears that some people were frustrated by the prosperity of the wicked. Whatever the reasons for their doubt, the Lord assured them that the wicked will receive just punishment and those who serve the Lord will be marvelously blessed (see 4:1-3 ).
The Sinfulness of the Priests and the People. The rebuilding of the temple should have been a strong incentive to holy living, but both priests and people failed to honor the Lord. According to 1:6-14 the priests set a poor example by showing contempt for the sacrificial system by offering crippled or diseased animals. Their careless attitude made a mockery out of worship, and the Lord asked them to shut the temple doors and put an end to their hypocrisy. Religious activity without a heart committed to the Lord is useless (see Isa 1:11-17 ).
Led astray by the priests, the people in general were guilty of oppression and immorality, and divorce became widespread. Ezra and Nehemiah had condemned intermarriage with foreigners, a practice that may have gone hand in hand with divorce. Men were breaking their marriage covenants and wedding pagans, a sure way to get entangled with idolatry ( 2:11-14 ). In response to their actions the Lord stated clearly "I hate divorce, " because the disintegration of the family would affect society adversely and would make it difficult to teach spiritual values to children ( 2:16 ).
The Rewards of Faith and Fearing the Lord. Six times in the book the people are urged to fear (revere, respect) the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly ( Malachi 1:6 Malachi 1:14 ; 2:5 ; Malachi 3:5 Malachi 3:16 ; 4:2 ). If the priests and the people continued in their sin they would be under a curse ( 2:2 ; 3:9 ), including the threat of total destruction, the "ban" to which the Canaanites and Edomites were subjected ( 4:6 ; see Joshua 6:17 ; Isa 34:5 ). Those who truly feared the Lord would have their names recorded in a "scroll of remembrance" and would be duly rewarded ( 3:16 ).
One practical way to serve the Lord was to bring him tithes and offerings. Instead of "robbing" God, the people were to bring their gifts to the Levites, and the Lord would "throw open the floodgates of heaven" and provide crops in such abundance that they would "not have room enough for it" ( 3:9-10 ).
The Messenger of the Lord. Three times in the New Testament John the Baptist is identified as the messenger "who will prepare the way" before Jesus ( Matt 11:10 ; Mark 1:2 ; Luke 7:27 ; cf. Mal 3:1 ). Normally a prophet or a priest was called a messenger. Luke also connected Malachi 4:5-6 with John the Baptist, noting that John ministered "in the spirit and power of Elijah" and called the nation to repentance ( Luke 1:17 ).
The Coming Messiah. A second "messenger" is mentioned in 3:1, this time "the messenger of the covenant, " who is also identified with "the Lord you are seeking." Since "messenger" (malak [J'a.l;m]) can also be translated "angel, " the reference to "covenant" could be to the angel of the Lord and his involvement in the Mosaic covenant. Christ came to fulfill the law of Moses, but he also came to establish the New Covenant by giving his life to redeem humankind. Most of the Messiah's judging work is associated with his second coming, but Christ did cleanse the temple and denounce the hypocrisy of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees.
Another messianic reference may be found in the phrase "sun of righteousness" included in 4:2. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, called Jesus "the rising sun" who would bring the light of life to those living in darkness ( Luke 1:78-79 ).
The Day of the Lord. In the prophetic books the day of the Lord signifies the time when God intervenes in the affairs of nations to judge the wicked and rescue the righteous. In Malachi the judgmental aspect is emphasized, in that the day of the Lord is a "dreadful day" in which evildoers will be set on fire ( Malachi 4:1 Malachi 4:5 ). Much of the judgment connected with the Messiah will take place at Christ's second coming, but in 3:2-4 it is the priests and Levites who are refined and purified. Perhaps Christ's severe criticism of religious leaders followed by the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70 shows how judgment can be tied in with his first coming also. For those who revered his name and received him as Savior, Christ's coming brought spiritual and even physical healing ( 4:2-3 ; see Acts 3:8 ).
Herbert M. Wolf
Bibliography. R. Alden, Malachi; J. G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; R. B. Chisholm, Jr., A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 397-433; R. J. Coggins, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; R. L. Smith, Micah-Malachi; P. A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi; H. M. Wolf, Haggai and Malachi.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Malachi, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".