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Old Testament: Malachi

Related Periods:


JerusalemThe period of exuberance and the energy experienced when the exiles returned from Babylon and rebuilt the temple has given way to a diminishing regard for obeying the law. Even priests have become lethargic and corrupt in their religious practices. Malachi urges a return to covenant obedience, faithful sacrifices, and tithes. He alerts the people that God will send another messenger before the Day of the Lord.

So What?

Congregations all have their ups and downs, periods of energy and success, too often followed by a let-down. This book addresses exactly that situation. The effort and enthusiasm of the exiles as they returned from Babylon and rebuilt the temple have been followed by a lethargy and slovenliness even among priests. Malachi's message urges us today to restore our dedication and faithfulness as we await the coming Day of the Lord.

Where Do I Find It?

Malachi is the thirty-ninth and last book of the Old Testament.

Who Wrote It?

In Hebrew malaki means "my messenger." In 3:1, "See, I am sending my messenger," the messenger is malaki. Most scholars assume the author of this book took "malachi" as a pen name. In a double sense, "Malachi" is the messenger bringing us this book, and his message is that God will send another messenger in the future, as the great prophet Elijah returning before the Day of the Lord.

When Was It Written?

The reference to "your governor" (1:8) dates the book in the postexilic period, when Judah was ruled by governors, such as Zerubbabel and later Nehemiah. It was probably written several decades-up to a century-after Haggai and Zechariah, since the content of the book suggests that the vigilance and faithfulness of returning exiles has diminished into unfaithfulness. Indeed, it may have been written in the mid-400s B.C.E., around or during the time of Nehemiah's rule, since Nehemiah and Malachi address many of the same concerns-cultic reform, faithful tithing, divorce, and mixed marriage (Nehemiah 10:28-39, 13:10-14; 23-31).

What's It About?

The book is an indictment of the corruption and wickedness into which the priests and people have fallen following the rebuilding of the temple by the exiles returning from Babylon.

How Do I Read It?

We reflect on our own ministries and congregations as we read this book. Have we lost enthusiasm following a new building, a new program, or a change of pastors? Have we clearly defined our parish's mission and ministry? How can we best be faithful to the covenant promises God has made with us? Malachi urges us to avoid complacency and to strive constantly to be faithful.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic

Rhetorically, much of the book is organized around questions and answers-questions that might be posed by the people, then answered by the prophet.

I. The Desolation of Edom (Malachi 1:1-5)
To the question, "How have you loved us?" Yahweh points out that Jacob was loved but his twin brother Esau was hated. Edom (Esau's descendants) is a wicked country and will be desolated.

II. Corrupt Priesthood (Malachi 1:6-2:9)
Sons should honor their fathers and servants their masters. Should not therefore Yahweh be honored? Yet the priests have despised the Lord's name by offering stolen, sick, or maimed animals as sacrifice.

III. Disregarding the Marriage Covenant (Malachi 2:10-17)
"Have we not all one Father?" Husbands and wives share the covenant God made with them, but they profane the covenant by marrying foreigners and falling into idolatry.

IV. The Coming Messenger (Malachi 3:1-7)
"Who can endure the day of his coming?" Yahweh is sending "my messenger" (malaki), who will purify priests ("the descendants of Levi"), refining them like gold and silver. Return to the Lord and the Lord will return to you.

V. The Full Tithe (Malachi 3:8-18)
"Will anyone rob God?" Rather than robbing God by bringing faulty sacrifices, the people should bring the full tithe. Then all nations will count God's people happy. They will be a land of delight, and their names will be written in "a book of remembrance."

VI. The Great Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:1-6)
The day is coming when evildoers will be like straw, and the sun of righteousness will rise for all who revere God's name. Before that day Yahweh will send Elijah to reunite parents and children so that the land will not be cursed.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic

The exiles returning from Babylon beginning in the 530s B.C.E. worked to restore their land and rebuild the temple. That dedication and energy was followed decades later by a period of laxity and decadence, particularly among the priesthood, the "descendants of Levi." Inferior animals were offered for sacrifice, many were intermarrying with those of other religions, divorce was common, and tithes were not being given. Malachi arrived in Judah during the first half of the fifth century B.C.E., although some think his period of prophecy coincided with the work of Ezra and Nehemiah in the mid 400s, when Ezra restored the law and Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall. In any case, the concerns of Malachi are similar to those of Ezra and Nehemiah.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic

• "Book of remembrance." The names of those who revere the Lord will be noted and entered into "a book of remembrance." Such a book is also mentioned in Exodus 32:32, 33; Psalm 69:28; perhaps Isaiah 4:3; 65:6; Daniel 7:10; 12:1; and most notably in Revelation 20:12 and 21:27, where it contains the names of those destined for eternity.

• "I have hated Esau" (1:3). Why does Malachi use such harsh language against Edom and Edom's ancestor Esau? In covenant or election language Malachi is simply saying, "I chose Jacob and not Esau." In general, however, Edom is singled out for harsher judgment than other nations (Psalm 60:8-9; 137:7; Isaiah 21:11-12; 34:5-17; 63:1-6; Jeremiah 49:7-22; Lamentations 4:21-22; Ezekiel 25:12-14; 35:1-15; Joel 3:19-21; Amos 1:11-12; Obadiah 1-16). This may be because the first division in the covenant family is between Jacob and Esau, who sold his birthright, and Edom represents all non-covenant peoples. Or it may be because, as some scholars believe, the Edomites collaborated with Nebuchadnezzar in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 587 B.C.E.

• The "LORD of hosts." The term Yahweh tsebaoth occurs often in Isaiah 1-39, Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, but seldom in other books. The meaning of tsebaoth is "armies," such as the armies of Israel (Psalm 44:9; 60:10), the armies of heaven (Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 148:2), or the armies of Yahweh (Joshua 5:14; 1 Samuel 17:45). When connected with heaven or Yahweh it means the array of heavenly beings, as in Micaiah's vision of "all the host of heaven" (1 Kings 22:19) or Elisha's vision of the horses and chariots (2 Kings 6:17). The term "Lord of hosts" means that Yahweh is not a solitary being, but that there are other celestial beings (though not divine beings) in the eternal realm of God.

• "Malaki" (my messenger) and Elijah. How is the relationship to be interpreted between Malachi ("my messenger"), the name of the book in 1:1, and "my messenger to prepare the way before me" in 3:1? How do those two "messengers" relate to the sending of the prophet Elijah in 4:5-6, who will "turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents"? In 3:1, the voice of Yahweh announces that "my messenger [will] prepare the way before me," namely, that Yahweh himself will come (3:2). In the Synoptic Gospels, the messenger of 3:1 and the return of Elijah in 4:5 both find their fulfillment in John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10, 14; Mark 1:3; 6:15; Luke 1:17; 7:27). John the Baptist denied being Elijah, although Jesus named him as the returning Elijah. However, since Malachi's concluding verses (4:5-6) are probably an addendum to the book by a different author, and since the role of the messenger in 3:1 ("to prepare the way before me") and Elijah in 4:5-6 (to "turn the hearts of parents") are different, there is no reason within the book itself to assume the messenger and Elijah are the same.

• The "messenger." Malachi, "my messenger," is more likely a descriptive title rather than a proper name for the author. Since the word occurs in the first verse, it became the title of the book. A righteous priest is also "a messenger of Yahweh" (2:7), as is a prophet (Haggai 1:13).

• Moses and Elijah. The mention of Moses and Elijah in the concluding verses of the book may be a later addendum added to summarize and define covenant fidelity as adherence to both the law and the prophets. The term "the law and the prophets," commonly used to describe the content of the Old Testament, is personified as Moses and Elijah. Moses is commonly cited as the source or personification of the Torah, or "teachings," even by Jesus (Matthew 8:4, Mark 1:44; 7:10; Luke 5:14; 24:27; John 5:45-47; 7:19-23). Elijah is an early prototype of the prophets to come later. The mention of the two together here is reminiscent of their appearance at Jesus' transfiguration (Matthew 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30).

• "An oracle." Zechariah 9:1; 12:1; and Malachi 1:1 all begin with massah dabar Yahweh: "An oracle. The word of the LORD," a phrase occurring in the Old Testament only in these three verses. Because of this, many scholars believe that Zechariah 9-14 and Malachi may be by the same author (the last five chapters of Zechariah are distinct from Zechariah 1-8). The root meaning of massah is "burden," the word used in the King James Version (and by Martin Luther in his German translation: die Last). Contemporary versions use "oracle" (NRSV, NIV, RSV) or "message" (NJB, NLT). An oracle is a revelation of divine intent or divine action to a human situation, delivered from God by a messenger or prophet. Here Malachi is "burdened" to deliver his message, and since the content of his message is a revelation from God, the word "oracle" seems fitting. Although Malachi directs his massah, "heavy message," to Israel (also Ezekiel 12:10), such oracles are most often directed at other nations, as, for example, in the first verses of Isaiah 13; 15; 17; 19; 21; 22; and 23; Nahum 1:1; and Habakkuk 1:1.

• The Torah of Moses my servant. The usual phrase in the Old Testament is "the law (torah) of Yahweh" (Exodus 13:9; Psalm 19:7 [v. 8 in Hebrew], Isaiah 30:9; Amos 2:4, for example) or "the law of God" (Joshua 24:26; Nehemiah 8:18: 10:29; see 2 Kings 10:31). The phrase here, in 4:4, "the teaching [law] of Moses my servant," is similar to Daniel 9:11, "the law of Moses, the servant of God"; and Daniel 9:13 reads simply, "in the law of Moses." The original meaning of torah is an oral instruction or teaching. With the giving of the ten "words" to Moses (Exodus 20:1, Deuteronomy 5:22), torah took on the meaning of "commandment" or "law," and in time the "five books of Moses," or the Pentateuch, was called the Torah, as distinct from the Writings and the Prophets. The fact that Malachi adds "statutes and judgments" to the "law of Moses" indicates that he has in mind all the instructions and laws of the Pentateuch, not just the Ten Commandments given on Mount Horeb/Sinai.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic

• The "burden" of prophecy. Malachi's first word, massah, "oracle" also means "burden." This double meaning of the word affords an insight into the nature of prophecy. Prophets are "burdened" to deliver their messages, the word from God that often judges and condemns. "Woe is me, my mother," cries Jeremiah, "that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land!" (Jeremiah 15:10; see his similar laments in 11:18-19; 17:15-18; 20:7-8, 14-18). Massah as both burden and message reminds us that speaking God's message of judgment often burdens today's preachers as well.

• Covenant obedience. Malachi condemns the practice of unworthy sacrifices and idolatry, but covenant obedience is more than proper religious ritual. Yahweh "will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me" (3:5). The passage echoes other prophetic verses in which concern for justice and the poor takes precedence over cultic ritual (Isaiah 61:1-2; Amos 5:11-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

• The Day of the Lord. Among the Old Testament prophets the "Day of the Lord" is a frightening day when evil will be punished. Here it is described with dire and fearsome phrases as "the day of his coming" (3:2), "the day is coming, burning like an oven" (4:1), "the day when I act" (3:17; 4:3), "the great and terrible day" (4:5). It is a day when God's final judgment will be levied against unrighteousness, injustice, and evil.

• Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah. The return of Elijah is a prominent theme in Jewish practice and piety, reflected in the connection made with both John the Baptist and Jesus in the New Testament Gospels.

• Marriage and divorce. Intermarriage with adherents of other religions was a perennial problem in Israel, but particularly in the postexilic period when exiles returned to find non-Israelites occupying their land (Nehemiah 10:28-30). In no uncertain terms, Malachi states, "I hate divorce, says the LORD" (2:16). Malachi knows that faithfulness to the covenant begins in the home, where husband and wife share a common faith. He exhorts the people to remain faithful to God by marrying others within the covenant. His admonition deserves serious consideration today as well.

• Priestly fidelity. "And now, O priests, this command is for you" (2:1). Malachi's most pointed criticisms are aimed at unfaithful and corrupt priests. The role of Christian priests and pastors is quite different today, but reading these chapters inevitably causes contemporary readers to reflect on what constitutes faithfulness and integrity among today's clergy.

• Tithing and "overflowing blessing." Malachi states that tithing will produce prosperity for the giver (3:10-12). These verses are cited by proponents of so-called "prosperity theology," who promise that generous contributions to the church will guarantee a profitable return. In its crassest form "prosperity theology" ignores the biblical message that faithfulness may bring suffering, even martyrdom. God's promises are distorted if we narrow the "overflowing blessing" promised in 3:10 to material wealth. Clearly, for Malachi, the tithe is not a "let's make a deal" arrangement to secure favor with God. Better to close the doors of the temple than to allow such thinking (1:6-11). A proper tithe is pure gift, recognizing the great name of Yahweh (1:11). A proper tithe is a sign of returning fully to God in faithful service (3:7). Such tithes bring God's blessing, not because God pays off those who pay in full, but because the relationship with God that the faithful tithe implies is itself a blessing.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic