Malachi Introduction

Malachi IntroductionMalachi 1:1

Most teenagers are remarkably similar creatures. For instance, independent of each other, most implement a similar strategy when confronted with an error. It may present itself like this:

A father walks into his son’s room and says, “You did not clean up your room, so you’re not leaving the house tonight.”

The teenager replies, “What do you mean I didn’t clean up my room?”

“Your mother and I told you to clean this place up, and there are still things everywhere.”

“But I organized it all. I know where everything is!”

“There are still dirty clothes piled up in the corner!”

“That’s better than them being everywhere.”

“I said everything had to be off the floor.”

“Well, what did you mean by everything?”

Even though conversations like this can be frustrating for the parent, they are needed. Parental parameters are not enforced for cruelty, but for protection. Clothes on the floor is not the end of the world, but the act of picking things up off the floor was not the intention of the parents’ mandate. More important than the room being cleaned is the son’s practicing obedience, and his practice of obedience allows for more intimate parent-child fellowship. Similarly, God outlined rules and regulations for our protection as well as for intimate fellowship with Him.

When we stray from Him, He lovingly corrects us. Love is not only expressed by words of affirmation and appreciation, it can also come in the form of a rebuke.

Love is a double-sided coin.

Love is looking in your spouse’s eyes and saying, “You mean the world to me. I wouldn’t want to go on without you.” But, love could also be a protective warning. When a friend is about to engage in adultery, the loving thing to do would be to say, “STOP! Don’t do it!”—even if it means losing your friendship over it.

Throughout Malachi we will see how God, as a loving Father, confronts, corrects, and challenges the people of Israel about straying from Him. No one is excluded.

This book is a deep but short one, and it is easy to gloss over it in our study of the Bible. It contains theologically heavy material, which can be easily understood once certain frameworks are set. There are five crucial facets of Malachi that this introduction will explain:

  • Its Author
  • Its Audience
  • Its Occasion
  • Its Oracle
  • Its Style and Structure

Malachi is a call for Israel to return to God before the Messiah comes to earth, for it was written to a people who lived in expectation of Him, but who had not yet seen Him. We are in a special situation, though: we have the privilege of looking in remembrance, not anticipation, of the Messiah who lived, died, and rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. Fortunately, the message of Malachi is not only for those who hadn’t yet encountered the Messiah, for its message is not merely, “shape up, because the Messiah is coming”; it is, “evaluate yourself, for you are not measuring up to what is required of you.” Just as the people in Malachi’s day were to introspectively evaluate their walks with God, we must take an inventory of our lives as well.

The Author of the Book

The name Malachi can mean “My Messenger” or “My Angel.” That causes a problem to the modern audience: we are forced to determine whether this is a human messenger or a heavenly one. Throughout this book, there are four mentions of “My Messenger”:

  • 1:1: “The word of the Lord to Israel through ‘My Messenger’”;
  • 2:7: The Messenger to the priesthood;
  • 3:1a: The forerunner to the Messiah;
  • 3:1b: The Messiah Himself.

It’s difficult to determine exactly who Malachi was because there is no mention in the book of his father’s name or of his place of birth. Some people believe Malachi is a title for Ezra the Scribe. John Calvin preferred that view (Minor Prophets, 5:459).

We can narrow the search a little bit, though. It can be rightly inferred that he was a contemporary of Nehemiah, because both of them dealt with similar issues.

  • Nehemiah addressed the defection of the priesthood in Nehemiah 13:1-9, which Malachi addresses in Malachi 1:6–2:9.
  • Nehemiah addressed the people’s diminishing concern for tithing in Nehemiah 13:10-13. Likewise, Malachi spoke about robbing God of the tithe in Malachi 3:8-12.
  • Finally, Nehemiah warned the people about intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles in Nehemiah 13:23-28. Malachi offered the same warning in Malachi 2:11-16.

Furthermore, because Malachi seems to be a proper name rather than a title, we will operate under the premise that Malachi is a human prophet not God’s angel. While this is the assumption under which this commentary will operate, it is crucial to remember that the text never emphasizes the messenger; the focus is entirely on the message. But in order to determine the message, first the recipients of the message must be determined.

The Audience of the Book

Discovering the identity of the people to whom this book’s message was to be delivered will reveal important truths about the message itself. Based on Malachi’s word choice, we can assume that the nation of Israel has returned from the Babylonian captivity by the time of this book’s writing. By addressing the book “to Israel” rather than “to Israel and Judah,” he is stating that there are no longer two separate kingdoms and that they have returned to their unified state. This has to have been after 538 BC, when Cyrus of Persia’s decree that all Jews return to the land of their fathers was delivered (Ezra 1). God is declaring that those who returned are indeed the continuation of His covenant people, so the term Israel is used to refer to the entirety of the people.

The Occasion of the Book

The majority of scholars agree that the book was written between 450 and 430 BC. Craig Blaising provides reasons to support this date:

(1) Malachi’s rebuke of the priests’ malpractice in the temple shows that the temple had been rebuilt and the priesthood reestablished. (2) The moral and spiritual conditions Malachi addressed were similar to those encountered by Ezra, who returned in 458, and Nehemiah, who returned in 444. These included intermarriages with Gentiles (2:10-11; cf. Ezra 9:1-2; Neh 13:1-3, 23-28), lack of the people’s support for the Levites (Mal 3:10; cf. Neh 13:10), and oppression of the poor (Mal 3:5; cf. Neh 5:4-5). Either Malachi was addressing the same generation that Ezra and Nehemiah spoke to, or Malachi spoke to a later generation some time after Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s corrections. (“Malachi,” 1573)

During the time of Malachi’s writing, the temple was fully functioning with all the rituals and sacrifices of the Mosaic law. A significant portion of the book is addressed specifically to the priesthood, which would only happen should the priesthood be functioning.

As will be demonstrated, moral degradation was at an all-time high, with adultery, divorce, falsehood, fraud, and sorcery running rampant throughout the city; the source of much of the corruption was the priests themselves. As already mentioned, intermarriage between Jew and Gentile, a practice prohibited in the Mosaic law, was commonplace. Additionally, traditionalism was beginning to trump the commands of Scripture, laying the foundation for both Pharisaism and Sadduceeism.

Malachi, like the prophets before him, looks forward to the Messiah’s coming. He prophesies about the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for Jesus. In the same passage, he also predicts the coming of the Lord Christ Himself:

“See, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the Lord of Hosts. (Mal 3:1)

The prophecies and warnings that will be exposited in this book bear a special weight also because Malachi is the final canonical work of the OT before the coming of Christ. A 400-year silence from God will be broken by Gabriel’s prediction of John’s and Jesus’ birth in Luke, the direct fulfillment of the promise in Malachi that God will send a messenger. As readers who have already encountered the promised Messiah, we can view the unprecedented miracle represented here: that the Author entered into His ow=n story and played a role in His own providential plan.

The Oracle of the Book

The first verse of Malachi has two words that require a bit of special attention: oracle and hand. You have not misread that, nor have you missed something in your English translation—“oracle” is clearly stated, but “hand” is not. In Hebrew, verse 1 reads, “An oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by the hand of Malachi.” “By the hand of” is a Hebrew idiom that would have resonated with the hearts of Malachi’s audience. Malachi claims divine inspiration as the source of his words in order to eliminate any doubts in the minds of the hearers. It was the hand of God that delivered the prophetic oracle, Malachi wrote it down, and then he handed it to the people of Israel.

The tone that this beginning sets is interesting as well: Malachi is almost threatening the people, saying, “I swear that this is going to happen. You can take this to the bank: God’s punishment is imminent if you don’t repent.”

The Hebrew word massa is translated into English “oracle.” Both Habakkuk and Nahum begin their books with the same word, which literally means “burden” or “load” (cf. Exod 23:5; Num 4:24, 32; 11:11; 2 Sam 15:33; Isa 22:25; 46:1-2; Jer 17:21-27; 22:33-40) (Clendenen, Haggai, 242).

Traditionally, massa could be used as a judgment against a person, as in the “pronouncement” against Ahab in 1 Kings 9:25-26. In Malachi, though, massa signifies judgment against the nation of Israel (cf. Isa 22:1; 30:6; Ezek 12:10; Hab 1:1). However, the prevailing usage of the word was in judgment against foreign nations (Isa 13:1; 14:28; 15:1; 17:1; 19:1; 21:1, 11,13; 23:1; Nah 1:1; Zech 9:1) (Clendenen, Haggai, 242).

If this is a word straight from God, why was it literally a “burden” for Malachi to deliver it to the nation of Israel?

We must remember that the office of prophet was not something one aspired to, like he would a political position or business role. It was a calling, much like a pastor or shepherd. The prophet had two distinct functions:

  1. Instituted in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, the prophetic function in the context of the theocratic kingdom was to call the nation of Israel back to the Mosaic law. The conditional covenant of the law blessed obedience and punished disobedience.
  2. The prophet would deliver predictive messages, typically about the coming Messiah.

Like a megaphone held to the mouth of an announcer, the prophet stood between God and the people, much like the expository preacher does today. At one time, God spoke directly to Adam and Eve in the garden and directly to Moses on Mount Sinai. But from then on He has used prophets: often solitary, devoted, and quite lonely individuals who lived secluded, extremely difficult lives.

People who choose the title of prophet for themselves should be taken with caution, for the life of a prophet is indescribably difficult. Think of Isaiah. God instructed him to discard his outer garments and sandals and then walk naked around the city for three years as a visual sign to the people of Israel of their coming captivity (Isa 20:1-4). Imagine God saying to your pastor, “Your people are stiff-necked and selfish. They are not getting the message. I want you to take off the suit and tie. In fact, take everything off and walk the halls of your church completely nude for three years.”

Jeremiah has been labeled the weeping prophet of the Old Testament, and for good reason. Israel’s slide into Babylonian captivity was too much for him to bear. He preached the very words of God—the words God told him to speak—for decades. He watched his brothers and sisters disregard God’s words, disregard God, and give themselves over to their Babylonian captors. Throughout the course of his preaching, Jeremiah saw not one person respond to him. He preached a lifetime of sermons and nobody “came down front” even once. In his eyes and in the eyes of Israel, Jeremiah was a massive failure. But his success was measured not by his fruit, but by his faithfulness to preach God’s Word.

The life of a prophet was a tough assignment to receive, but that was only half of the struggle: the words they were given were rarely easy to deliver. The words given to Malachi were extremely weighty. He was not communicating a health, wealth, and prosperity message. He didn’t prescribe “10 easy steps to be the best you you can be.” He said, “repent, or be destroyed” to his own people. And, as was the case with the majority of his prophetic contemporaries, his words—God’s words—were brushed off.

The Style and Structure of the Book

The book radiates with rich theology, covering themes such as the nature and majesty of God, the coming Messiah, and the steadfast love of the Lord.

Six speeches and two commentaries provide a framework for Malachi:

  • Speech 1: God’s Love (1:2-5)
  • Speech 2: Unfaithfulness of the Priests (1:6–2:9)
  • Speech 3: Divorce (2:10-16)
  • Speech 4: Divine Justice (2:17–3:5)
  • Speech 5: Tithe (3:6-12)
  • Speech 6: Day of Judgment (3:13–4:3)
  • Commentary 1: Observing the Law (4:4)
  • Commentary 2: Coming of Elijah (4:5-6)

Malachi was heavily influenced by the Persian world. We know this by the use of the term governor in 1:8. Instead of using the Hebrew word for governor, he opts for pechah, which is a Hebraic transliteration of a Persian word. Furthermore, Malachi uses the Socratic dialectic method of communication. Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher who cross-examined someone in order to uncover contradictions or inconsistencies in their assertions. Rather than teaching by coming right out and stating a conclusion, the dialectic style piles questions on top of each other in order to make the conclusion come from within the student—and thus, to make the lesson stick. Malachi, a relatively short book, is packed with questions:

  • 10 questions in chapter 1
  • 7 questions in chapter 2
  • 6 questions in chapter 3

This dialectic method consists of three parts. Arnold Fruchtenbaum explains,

First, there is a basic declarative statement. Secondly, this is followed by an objection. In the book of Malachi each of these objections begins with the same Hebrew word translated Wherein six times and What once. The third part is to give the answer to that objection. The Socratic method, then, is a statement, followed by an objection, followed by the answer. (“Malachi”)

Again, the Socratic dialectic is a method of teaching that brings answers not from the mouth of the teacher to the ears of the student, but rather from the heart of the student into his mind. Rabbis used this same approach constantly, and Jesus was no different: much of His teaching was done by merely asking questions.

If a rebuke is raised against you, it is easy to brush it off as just a negative, misunderstanding opinion. However, should the accusation be raised in the form of a probing question, so that your realization of the error of your ways comes from within rather than from without, it is no longer a mere outside, misinformed opinion; it is an opportunity for reflection, self-examination, and repentance.

How a person handles correction speaks volume about their character. The author of Hebrews says,

My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or faint when you are reproved by Him, for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives. . . . No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (12:5-6, 11)

This is why Malachi begins his book with the words, “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord.”

God loves you so much that He is willing to bear the difficult burden of exposing your sin. He loves you so much that He doesn’t allow you to wallow in it. Malachi will demonstrate just how God goes about doing that.

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