Background to the Book of Malachi: (Historical Background)
The name, Malachi, means my messenger and there are some doubts whether it was ever a proper name. In Malachi 3:1 it is a noun plus the first person personal pronoun ykalm - my messenger. The date of the book is generally set after the establishment of the Second temple in 515 BCE and before the reforms of Nehemiah in 445 BCE (Coggins: 74).
The prophet is concerned with things of the temple and it is in this period that the priests gradually become the religious and political leaders within Israel. Malachi functions as a prophet condemning the priests very harshly in 1:6-2:9. The description of the abominations which they have committed reminds me of the very strong words in Isaiah 65 and 66 which list some appalling things that the leaders are doing as part of worship practices. Malachi is calling the priests back to the correct way of sacrifices as depicted in the Torah. Other concerns for Malachi are the way marriages are being contracted with women who worship foreign gods, a call to reconsider divorces because it upsets the fabric of the community and the people are not supporting fully the work of the temple with their tithes. There appears at times a general feeling that it is hopeless and God has deserted them.
The book has an unique form in that it is set out as an exchange of a series of questions and answers between the prophet and his hearers (Coggins:76). It may be an adaptation of an earlier genre used by the pre-exilic prophets who used a form of lawsuit to bring home to the listeners that they were about to be judged. Here in Malachi the questions are both of an accusatory nature and a proclamation of what is to come if they repent.
Although it has been suggested by some scholars that Malachi has close similarities to the latter parts of Zechariah, its unique form suggests that we need to examine Malachi as an independent book which may have similar superscriptions to both Haggai and Zechariah.
One of the problems from a literary perspective is that the Christian Church has used Malachi 3:1-4 but totally ignored the fact that it is part of an oracle which include 2:17-3:5. This distorts the theology quite significantly.
Context of Malachi 3:1- 4 (What's Happening in the Literature around Malachi 3:1- 4)
Depending on the scholar this section is part of either, Malachi 2:17-3:5 or, Malachi 2:17-4:6 (Hebrews 3:24). It appears from reading the text that the people are feeling a helplessness which manifests itself in the way they are careless in the ways of worship. Furthermore, they seem to think that Yahweh is indifferent to their plight.
Malachi 2:17 sets the question for the answer in 3:5: when 2:17 is omitted it distorts what the message is about.
In the section prior to these verses Malachi is raising the issues about people getting divorces and the effect this has on the community life. When families go through divorce the community is affected in the way it has to care for those cast out and leaves people feeling disenfranchised. This breakdown in community can result in breakdown of relationship with Yahweh. The call by Malachi is to have a spirit of commitment to each other as Yahweh has a commitment to the people of Israel.
Following, the set reading for the lectionary is an affirmation that God does not change and all they have to do is repent and God will return to them. Even then they ask the question, "How shall we return?" The answer given indicates they must start giving their tithes in full in order that everyone can have food. If this happens the Lord will pour down blessings and their lands will be a delight which will cause all the nations to call Israel blessed. It is a conditional theology in that the Lord's response is dependent on the people acting first.
Insights/Message of Malachi 3:1- 4
This reading comes fourth in the six units usually ascribed to the literary divisions within Malachi: 1:2-5, 1:6-2:9, 2:10-16, 2:17-3:5, 3:6-12, 3:13-4:3. Malachi 1:1 and 4:4-5 are regarded as later additions.
Malachi 2:17 sets the question for the answer in 3:1-5 and contains the most profound and yet indirect question to God, "Where is the God of justice?" The direct question in v.17 is, "How have we wearied you?" The answer to this latter question is in v.17, but the answer to the indirect question is answered in 3:1-5.
God will send a messenger, Malachi (my messenger), to the people to prepare them for God's appearance in the temple. Malachi is described in a most unusual way as 'the messenger of the covenant' or if not Malachi it may refer to God. Not everyone agrees that Malachi is the person in 3:1, but an unnamed messenger whom the Jews identify as Elijah and the Christians as John the Baptist. Whoever it is, the purpose is to be the precursor to the person who is going to judge the priests and then against those who commit unjust practices as named in the 10 commandments (v.5). The Lord is coming to judge the evildoers and corrupt priests and therefore justice will be seen to prevail and the answer to their question, Where is the God of justice?, will be seen at work in their lives.
If the people have been feeling hopeless because the priests have been corrupt, this message will strongly affirm that there will be a cleansing and a new order will be established which will please the Lord. Furthermore, the lax morals of some people in the community will exposed and they will be punished. The strong message is one of judgement by God on religious and ethical wrongdoers which ought to give new hope for those who feel that the community has sunk to such depravity and therefore it is not worth bothering about. God will be seen to establish justice in spite of their accusation in 2:17. Once the people see this cleansing they will return fully to the covenant relationship with God and co-operate in efforts to reverse the downward spiral of their community religious and ethical wrongdoing.
In the Christian church this passage has been applied often to John the Baptist as the precursor of Jesus. However, Jesus does not present himself as coming in judgement on priests and those who break the commandments, but as one who identifies with our humanity in baptism and calls us to be in relationship with God. He puts people before Law, relates to the outcasts and forgives those who betray him. It is well to note the difference and give integrity to both the Old and New Testaments proclamations. It is well to ask the question within the gospel message about how sinners are punished for unethical and immoral behaviour. Does God send bolts of lightning upon a person, intervene with creation, impose some illness or cause an accident? Some people believe this is indeed the way God brings punishment, others believe that the Holy Spirit works through our conscience and gives us the means to repent and redress the wrongs we have done. Living with the hurt we have caused is often an ongoing punishment and lives on through the consequences of our behaviour.
When this passage has been paired with Phil 1:3-11 other people see the second coming of the Lord as the fulfilment of the Malachi passage.
Some closer exegetical comments:
- v.1 - the Lord will come swiftly not some distant time in the future: the phrases, whom you seek and in whom you delight seem to refer to the God of justice in 2:17 (Smith:328):
- v. 2 - suggests that no-one will be able function when the Lord comes because his purpose is to refine the priesthood.
- vv. 3,4 - the comparison is to a refiner of silver which apparently is a more difficult process than that of refining gold. The end result will be a return to sacrifices which are done in ways that are congruent with the Law in the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).
- v.5 - the next step is for the Lord to judge those who commit the following sins, sorcerers, adulterers, those who wear falsely, those whom oppress the hired hands, the widows and the poor, those who fail to act appropriately to the sojourner and those who do not respect God. All these sins are in Hebrew participles which indicate 'habitual conduct and attitudes' (Smith: 330).
- vv. 6-12 - speak in general to the people accusing them of turning away from Yahweh and the need for them to repent. If they turn again to God they will find blessing, fruitfulness of land and the recognition of the nations because their land is perceived as a land of delight.
- OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Luke 3:1-6. Vv 1-2 have very close parallels to the beginning of a number of prophetic books which places the prophet in a particular time and place and makes explicit the prophecy that follows is from God. So it is the case here but the prophet is now proclaiming a new era. The act of baptism (v.3) may have its roots in the Qumran community but takes on new meaning and purpose in this context. Verses 3-4 are from Isa 40:3-5 which is part of the encouragement for the people in exile to to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and temple. The significant difference is the changed last line which now declares salvation is for all peoples. Luke like Matthew is keen to show that Jesus' ministry links with the prophetic promises of the past and bringing in a new era. Gentiles and Jews together will make up the new community of Christians.
Resources/Worship for Malachi 3:1- 4 (Worship and Ways to present Malachi 3:1 – 4)
I think it is essential to put Malachi 3:1-4 into the context in which it was intended and help congregations to understand that the message which was intended for the people of that time before moving into the Christian view. If the verses are taken out of context it is very easy to impose meaning on the text which fails to take into account its original audience. We must treat the text with integrity before asking the question: how does this speak to us in a Christian context? We can then see for Christians how it has been fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist as the precursor of Christ.
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Malachi, the author is R.J.Coggins, 1987 (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).
The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the 1996 is more up to date than some earlier works.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. Nahum - Malachi. Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986.
Floyd, Michael. Minor Prophets: part 2. Grand Rapids, Micah: W.M.Eerdmans, 2000.
Hill, Andrew. Malachi. AB. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Petersen, David. Zechariah 9-14 and Malachi. OTL. Loiusville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995.
Schuller, Eileen. The Book of Malachi. NIB. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Smith, Ralph. Micah - Malachi. WBC 32. Waco, Tex.: Word, 1984.
The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989
Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: