Malachi (Prophetic Profiles, Part 16)

Malachi16.1 The Date (of the prophet’s ministry and work)

Malachi does not date his prophecy, but the overwhelming consensus among scholars is that it is a product of the Persian period.  The first clue is the mention of the Persian governor (pehah) in 1:8, which would place the writing of the book sometime after Judah’s return from captivity in 536 B.C.  Second, the references to certain religious ceremonies indicate that the temple reconstruction was complete and functioning in the cultic life of the people (1:7-10; 3:8), thus placing the date of the book sometime after 515 B.C.  Third, the sins of the people according to Malachi reflect the state of the nation during the era of Ezra and Nehemiah rather than that of Haggai and Zechariah.  Wood concludes that since neither Ezra or Nehemiah mentions Malachi by name, he likely ministered after the writing of their books, perhaps sometime around 430 B.C.[190]   Dillard and Longman argue conversely that Malachi does not mention Ezra or Nehemiah, therefore a date preceding them is preferable, perhaps 460 B.C.[191]   Such arguments from silence are not conclusive, therefore it is safest to say Malachi prophesied during the general timeframe of the Ezra and Nehemiah reforms of the latter half of the fifth century B.C.

16.2 Background History (historical setting of the prophet)

After the initial excitement of the exiles returning to the land to be pioneers of a new restoration period, the people became disillusioned with the slowness of arrival of the promised blessings.  They had abandoned the temple reconstruction project after a short time and returned to their homes to eek out a meager living.  The prophets Haggai and Zechariah stirred up the people to complete the temple and they responded with action.

By the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people had grown increasingly impatient with Israel’s servile international status and had lapsed into a new set of moral failings.  No longer were they primarily guilty of spiritual depression, lethargy, and apathy.  Malachi confronted a culture that was intermarrying with pagans (2:11-15), robbing God of the commanded tithe (3:8-10), and holding the Sabbath in contempt (2:8-9; 4:4).  Furthermore, Israel’s religious leaders (the priests) were corrupt (1:6-2:9) and the people were inflicting social injustices on the downtrodden in their community (3:5).

16.3 Work and Person (character and ministry of the prophet)

The book of Malachi does not begin with the ordinary prophetic superscription formula.  There is no mention of the prophet’s family of origin or hometown.  Some have suggested that the prophetic call recorded in 1:1 (“the burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi”) is not indicating authorship by a man named “Malachi.”  The name means “my angel” or “my messenger” and is translated as such in the Septuagint.  Although this interpretation of the word “Malachi” is a possibility, it is unlikely because it would leave Malachi as the only anonymous prophetic book in the Old Testament.

Bullock summarizes what can be said of this prophet of whom we know little.

As to the person of Malachi, we know only what we deduce from the book itself.  He obviously prophesied in Jerusalem near the Temple and priesthood.  Quite likely he was born and lived his life in Judah.  His zeal for proper cultic observance was inseparable from his demand for moral integrity in personal affairs.  Both were proper expressions of loyalty to the covenant.  That was the real passion of Malachi’s heart.[192]

Malachi probably worked alongside Ezra and/or Nehemiah to urge the people to put away their sin.  He was a spiritually mature man who served as a dedicated prophet.  His calling was to confront the many sins of the people: interfaith marriages, failure to pay tithes, and offering unworthy sacrifices.  Like the prophets before him, Malachi was knowledgeable of the covenant law that God held forth as the standard for his people.  He preached the Lord’s love for Israel, confronted their flagrant violation of the covenant sanctions, and called them to repent, all with an eye on the eventual coming of Elijah followed by “the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (4:5).

Finally, it is significant to note that Malachi was the last in the distinguished line of Old Testament prophetic voices.  His words conclude with a deafening silence when no messenger in Israel proclaimed an inspired word from the Lord for over 400 years.

16.4 The Book (abbreviated outline[193]  and brief summary)

I. Superscription (1:1)
II. Dispute about God’s love for Israel (1:2-5)
      A. Introduction: The Lord has loved his people.
      B. Question: “How have you loved us?”
      C. Answer: By describing the destruction of the Edomites, the offspring of Esau.
III. Dispute about the contempt the priests show God (1:6-2:9)
      A. Introduction: God is father and master, deserving of honor.
      B. Question: “How have we defiled you?”
      C. Answer: “You have placed defiled food on my altar.”
IV. Dispute about Israel’s covenant breaking (2:10-16)
      A. Introduction: God is the father and creator of all.
      B. Question: “How do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another?”
      C. Answer: By divorcing the “wife of your youth.”
V. Dispute about God’s justice (2:17-3:5)
      A. Introduction: The Lord is weary of the words of his people.
      B. Question: “How have we wearied him?”
      C. Answer: By accusing God of honoring or ignoring evil.
VI. Dispute concerning repentance (3:6-12)
      A. Introduction: God does not change, but you must.
      B. Question: “How are we to return?”
      C. Answer: By not robbing God of the tithe.
VII. Dispute about harsh words against the Lord (3:13-4:3)
      A. Introduction: The Lord accuses the people of harsh words.
      B. Question: “What have we said against you?”
      C. Answer: You have said, “Serving God is pointless.”
VIII. Appendix (4:4-6)
      A. A call to observe the Lord (4:4)
      B. Announcement of the future arrival of the prophet Elijah on the eve of the day of the Lord (4:5-6)

As the last of the old covenant prophetic voices, Malachi’s task was to respond to “the deteriorating situation among God’s people at the end of the long movement toward the accomplishment of redemption.”[194]   Robertson finds in Malachi a fitting, final prophetic appeal based on the three ancient foundational mandates: worship, marriage, and labor.[195]   These themes do not appear at random, but form a literary inclusio with their institution at the beginning of the Old Testament in Genesis, thus creating an effect of “relevatory completeness.”

Malachi addressed the Lord’s displeasure with the corrupt worship practices of the priests and the worthless sacrifices brought by the disrespectful laity.  The people were robbing God of his tithes and blaspheming him by declaring futile any service to God (3:13-14).  The prophet also accused Israel of profaning the sacred marriage covenant by forsaking the wife of their youth to marry the daughter of a foreign god (2:10-11).  Robertson comments on the importance of this message on marriage.

Rooted in creation, founded on God’s redemptive covenant, solemnized by the Lord himself acting as covenantal witness, marriage is lifted far above the concerns of human convenience.   No full restoration of his people from the captivity brought about by sin can be complete apart from the proper reverence directed toward this God-ordained institution of marriage.[196]

Drawing on the theme of the curse on the land first introduced in Genesis, Malachi explained that this same curse is causing the devourer to destroy the fruit of the ground and the vine to fail to bear fruit (3:11).  The reason is that “God has come to them in judgment, testifying against those who defraud laborers of their wages, oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice (3:5).”[197]   The rich were oppressing the poor and defenseless, therefore God’s curse afflicted this merciless, unjust, greedy people.

But Malachi’s covenant lawsuit against the nation was not devoid of the common prophetic theme of hope for restoration.  Despite the cloud of disillusionment that hung over the people, Malachi offered a glorious vision of the future.  “Yes, a day was coming, a day that would see God intervene in the affairs of men and women, bringing victory to those who obey God’s laws and judgment to those who do not (3:1-5; 4:1-6).”[198]

Although written approximately 500 years before the next biblical revelation, the message of Malachi (especially its closing remarks) seems to flow seamlessly into the opening chapters of the New Testament.  The Lord’s messenger (3:1), identified in Malachi as Elijah the prophet, will return before the day of the Lord to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (4:6).

In English translations of the Bible, which follow the Greek tradition, Malachi concludes the canon of the Old Testament.  Its position among the twelve [the Minor Prophets] is likely due to the fact that Malachi was the last to minister.  While the collocation is not intentional, it is notable that the book concludes the Old Testament looking forward to the coming of the prophet Elijah, while one of the early voices of the New Testament period is that of John the Baptist, whom Jesus identifies with Elijah (Matt. 11:15).[199]

Endnotes

190.  Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 374.
191.  Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 439.
192.  Bullock, Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, p. 336.
193.  Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 439-40.
194.  Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, p. 391.
195.  Ibid., pp. 391-400.
196.  Ibid., p. 398.
197.  Ibid., p. 399.
198.  Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 442.
199.  Ibid., p. 437.

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