Warning – This post has footnotes!

I read the book of Malachi again this week and was so blessed by it that I wanted to provide a theological overview of the whole book (from my perspective) that I hope will encourage you. You may want to read the whole book of Malachi yourself first, and then work through it again with this post in front of you. Enjoy!

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A law was passed on 2 May 1648 making denying the Trinity, or doubting that the books of Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah or Malachi in the Old Testament were the word of God, punishable by death.[1]

Apparently it was important for people living in England in 1648 to believe, among other things, that the book of Malachi was truly God’s word. Indeed, it seems their lives may have actually depended on it! It is not clear whether or not this archaic British law was ever repealed or nullified, but it is certain that the British are not enforcing it today, and it is clear that most British citizens living today have no idea that it was ever a law. It is not hard to imagine a present-day Briton discovering this law, and asking –

Is this still relevant to us?
Is it still in force?
Has the law ever changed, and does it even apply to us today?

This is an interesting parallel with the book of Malachi itself, and especially with the people living during the time when Malachi was written. The book of Malachi serves to answer questions such as, “Is this still relevant?” and “Is this still applicable to us today?” I believe God Himself answers His people in Malachi 3:6a by saying, “For I the Lord do not change.”

This (rather long but hopefully helpful) post attempts to identify the message of Malachi by looking closely at the book along three lines:

(a) A brief survey of the context and historical background of the book,
(b)
 A brief survey of several core theological themes of the book, and
(c) A brief discussion of the central issue of the book which I believe is the question of the continuity of God’s covenant with Israel – or more simply –

“Is God still our God, and are we still his people? Is his covenant and law still in force after all this time and after so much change?”

The Historical Context & Background of Malachi

The final book in the Old Testament in the Protestant canon is addressed to Israel (cf. Mal. 1:1b). In 538 b.c., after their exile and Babylonian captivity, a remnant of the Jewish nation, led by Zerubbabel the governor, returned to Israel. Together, they were able to restore the walls of the city, and complete the rebuilding of the temple by 515 b.c. With a restored Temple, the center and symbol of their devotion to Yahweh, the Jews purposed to avoid the sinful ways of previous generations, and serve the Lord in faithfulness. But over the course of the next century, as seen in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, that commitment was short-lived. Devotion to the Law of Moses weakened, and some of the men took wives among non-Jews. Nehemiah returned to Judah as governor in 445 b.c., and immediately discovered that the people were not keeping the Sabbath, and that tithes and offerings were being withheld (Neh. 10:30–31, 37–39). Corruption had infiltrated even the ranks of the priesthood (Neh. 13:7, 28–30).

The name “Malachi” (Heb. mal˒ākɩ̂) means “my messenger” (see 3:1). Some scholars interpret this as a title rather than a proper name. In keeping with the pattern wherein all the other prophetic books are named after a particular individual, I embrace the assumption that Malachi was the author’s name.

Malachi is, among other things, a book of questions and answers. I’ll use the questions to outline the entire book:

Six Questions

  1. A question about God’s love (1:2–5)
  2. A question about God’s honor (1:6–2:9)
  3. A question about faithlessness (2:10–16)
  4. A question about God’s justice (2:17–3:6)7
  5. A question about repentance (3:7–12)
  6. A question about speaking against God (3:13–4:3)

A basic form-critical analysis of Malachi’s structure reveals typical and stable components in line with most all Old Testament prophecy. Walter Bruegeemann has written about this:

“While the prophets, in their various ways of inventiveness, spoke in what we regard as many different genres, three genres most typify prophetic utterance in mediating Yahweh as sovereign and faithful. [2]

Brueggeman’s insights into the basic structures of Old Testament prophecies are helpful here. He concludes that they typically include: Lawsuit Speech in which the oracles are “addressed against the leadership for its exploitative practices of injustice and for its complacent attitude toward Yahweh, who is assumed to be indulgent toward Jerusalem.” [3] Secondly, they include Appeals for Repentance.

Primary Theological Idea: God’s Love for Israel

Romans 9:13 contains (and has made famous) a direct quotation from the Book of Malachi:

“I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (cf. Mal.1:2–3).

The framework for Paul’s use of this text is election. In this light, the reference to God’s “love” for Jacob is a way of expressing his choice of Israel (Jacob) rather than Esau to be his special missionary people through which he would bring blessing to all of the (shall we say) non-elect nations of the world. Esau, Jacob’s brother, was the patriarch of the Edomites. The Old Testament pictures Edom as a nation that became an object of God’s wrath (cf. Mal. 1:3–4). In Obadiah’s prophecy, the Edomites did not assist their “brother” Israel, but instead, rejoiced when they fell (cf. Obad. 10–12). At Mount Sinai Israel is spoken of as God’s “treasured possession” (cf. Exod. 19:5). This term is used by Malachi in 3:17. In spite of the fact that many Jews were questioning God’s love for Israel (1:2), the Lord affirmed his enduring love, and swore that those who feared him would indeed be his special people. God would never forget his covenant with Abraham. He would not abandon his people (cf. Mal. 3:6). As God promised in the Abrahamic covenant, there would come a day when all the nations would call Israel blessed (Mal. 3:12).

Primary Theological Concern: The Character of God

In spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness, the greatness of Yahweh was evident to the nations during the writing of Malachi. Edom, Assyrian, and Babylon had all learned (the hard way) that Israel’s God was superior to their false deities (cf. Mal. 1:5). In Malachi, Yahweh is “a great king” whose name was “to be feared among the nations” (cf. Mal. 1:14). Malachi predicts that in the end, God will receive the offerings and the praise that belong to him. There are allusions and forward glances to the time when the Gentiles will be embraced and included in the company of God’s people (cf. Mal. 1:11). It should not escape our notice that even though Israel failed in her vocation be the people who show the world what God is like, many Gentiles became believers in him (cf. Rom. 9:26–33). Israel was fickle, but Yahweh said, “I, the Lord, do not change” (cf. Mal. 3:6). God’s love for Israel was unfailing, though Israel’s commitment to God was broken and weakened time and time again. Nevertheless, Yahweh is a holy God. He required obedience from His people. If Israel sinned, but then refused to repent, God would remain true to his own character, and Israel would be judged (cf. Mal. 4:6). This, too, is related to Malachi’s concern for the character of God. God is love. God is faithful. God is holy. God is merciful. God is judge.

The themes of God’s love and justice are pervasive in the Old Testament Scriptures. But interestingly, in this final prophecy in the Old Testament Israel questions God’s both of these attributes of God (cf. Mal. 1:2 & 2:17). It may be that the Jews were struggling with a relative sense of insignificance in comparison to the Persian Empire, or with impatience as they contemplated the delay of the messianic age that they had heard so much about. In Malachi 3:13–15 there is an unmistakable sense of frustration about the prosperity of the wicked. But even in the face of all this, God assures them that the wicked will be punished, and the people of God will be preserved and see days of blessing and rejoicing (cf. Mal. 4:1–3).

Primary Theological Quandary: The Sinfulness of the Priests and the People

In spite of the fact that Israel had rebuilt their temple, they failed in their vocation to reflect God’s holiness. According to Malachi 1:6–14, the priests showed contempt for the sacrificial system by offering crippled and diseased animals. Their poor example made a mockery out of worship. As a result Lord had them to close the temple operations and put an end to their hypocrisy. Previous generations had to learn the same painful lesson: Religious activity without a heart committed to the Lord is useless (see Isa. 1:11–17).

Following the poor example of the priests, the people fell into oppression and immorality, and divorce became pervasive. Israel’s practice of intermarrying with neighboring Gentiles and pagans had already been condemned by Ezra and Nehemiah. Men were dissolving their marriage covenants and marring women from among the pagans. This proved to be recurrent gateway into idolatry (cf. Mal. 2:11–14). In response to this, the Lord said, “I hate divorce.” The disintegration of the family would denigrate their society, and would make it nearly impossible for them to teach spiritual values to their children (cf. Mal. 2:16).

Central Theological Promise: The Rewards of Faith and Fearing the Lord

There are six exhortations in Malachi urging God’s people to fear (revere, respect) the Lord, and to serve him wholeheartedly (cf. Mal. 1:6, 14; 2:5; 3:5, 16; 4:2). Failing to heed these calls would bring both priest and people under a curse (cf. Mal. 2:2; 3:9), including the possibility of total destruction through the “ban” to which the Canaanites and Edomites were subjected (4:6; see Josh. 6:17; Isa. 34:5).

On the other hand, those who truly feared the Lord would have their names recorded in a “scroll of remembrance” and would be rewarded (cf. Mal. 3:16). A central means of showing devotion to the Lord was to bring tithes and offerings into the Temple storehouse. Rather than “robbing” God, the people were exhorted to bring their gifts to the Levites. In response to their obedience, the Lord promised to “throw open the floodgates of heaven” and provide such bountiful crops that they would “not have room enough for it” (cf. Mal. 3:9–10).

Two Eschatological Identities: The Messenger of the Lord and the Messiah

The Coming Messenger: In three texts in the New Testament John the Baptist is identified as the messenger “who will prepare the way” before Jesus (cf. Matt. 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27; and cf. these with Mal. 3:1). 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 of Israel to repentance (Luke 1:17).

The Coming Messiah. A second “messenger” is mentioned in 3:1. In this case, it is “the messenger of the covenant,” who is also identified with “the Lord you are seeking.” For Christians, the primary emphasis on the Messiah’s restorative (and judging) ministry tends to focus on his second coming. But Christ did cleanse the temple and confront the hypocrisy of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. An additional messianic seems bound up in the phrase “sun of righteousness” in Mal. 4:2. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, called Jesus “the rising sun.” He was the one who would bring the light of life to the people living in darkness (cf. Luke 1:78–79).

A Certain Eschatological Event: The Day of the Lord

The idea of the day of the Lord is featured prominently in the Old Testament prophetic books. These envision the time when God would intervene in the affairs of nations both to judge the wicked and rescue the righteous. In Malachi the judgmental aspect is particularly emphasized, in that the day of the Lord is a “dreadful day” in which evildoers will be set on fire (4:1, 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 will be refined and purified.

The Central Issue: The Relevance of God’s Covenant with Israel

With all of this theological, historical, and textual material providing a backdrop, I return now to the big idea of this post. Through the prophetic dialogue between God and Israel in the form of several questions (or disputations), answers, and proof, the primary question is the question of covenant. That is, “Is God still our God? Are we still God’s people? Is the covenant still in place after all this time, and after all this change?” Regarding the prominent and central idea of covenant in Malachi’s prophecy, Charles Savelle notes:

“The term covenant occurs seven times in the book. References are made to “my covenant” (2:5), “the covenant with Levi” (2:8), “the covenant of our fathers” (2:10), “the marriage covenant” (2:14), and the “messenger of the covenant” (3:1). The respect and obedience to the stipulations of these covenants is most evident in the six disputations that make up the bulk of the book.”[4]

But the Covenant God will require covenant faithfulness from his people. Thus, the purpose of Malachi’s prophecy seems to include four important ideas related to the covenant question:

  1. To affirm to Israel that Yahweh loves them, and that his covenant with them is still intact.
  2. Since the covenant is still intact, Israel must be called to account for their violations of their relationship to God.
  3. Following this calling to account, Israel is exhorted to re-engage in faithfulness and devotion to Yahweh, and to honor their own participation in the covenant.
  4. Repentance and obedience will be required if Israel is to be prepared for the coming of the divine messenger.

Regarding this bridge between God’s past covenantal pledges, and his future promises to Israel (and Malachi’s role in reminding them of both), Eugene Merrill has written:

“As the last of Israel’s kerygmatic heralds, Malachi reached back to the beginning of her covenant election and forward to the promise of covenant fulfillment, bridging the two with his urgent insistence that the theocratic people be worthy of their calling, for the King of all the earth was at hand.”[5]

So what?

So, what is the point of Malachi?

It is to answer the BIG covenantal questions on the minds of the people in Malachi’s day… “Is God still our God? Are we still his people? Is his program for us still on track? Does his law still apply to us? Should we still be living as God originally called Israel to live, or have things changed? God’s answer in the prophecy is… “You are still my people. I still love you. We are still in covenant. I am keeping my end of the covenant. Now keep yours. Be my people in this generation and you will see my promises for you fulfilled.”

Or put more simply —

I am the Lord. I do not change.

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Notes:

[1] Nigel Cawthorne. The Strange Laws of Old England, (London, England: Piakus, 2013), 63.

[2] Brueggemann, W. (2005). Theology of the Old Testament: testimony, dispute, advocacy. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, p. 635.

[3] Ibid, 636.

[4] Savelle, Charles (2006). The Book of Malachi. Greenville, TX: CenterPoint Publications, p. 1.

[5] Eugene H. Merrill, An Exegetical Commentary; Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Chicago: Moody Press,1994), 385.

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