Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study. Each month we feature a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot.
This month has three entries, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, whose writings complete the works of The Minor Prophets. It is generally assumed that these three were all post-exilic prophets. Their worldview was radically and forever altered by the events in 587 BCE, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. It is possible that Haggai and Zechariah might have been alive at that time, though scholars cannot know that for certain. They both devoted their ministries to the rebuilding of the temple, to restoring proper worship, and to assuring the people of their unbroken relationship with God. Malachi, speaking another generation later, knew the rebuilt temple was not the final answer. The people still had a responsibility to conduct their lives in a manner consistent with their status of being God’s chosen people. And he tried hard to make that happen, all the while knowing that the Israelite community was still a “work in progress.” Thus it is that Malachi’s final words look forward – to the future, to the messenger who would be the forerunner of the Messiah yet to come. If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
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Malachi stands last in line among The Minor Prophets. As a matter of fact, his are the final words of the Old Testament. Most scholars recognize the relative importance of “final words.” (Even Jesus gave a farewell address to his disciples.) Malachi, they say, was up to the task. Unlike several of the previous prophets, he gives no dates for his ministry, nor does he name names. Most scholars assign his ministry to the time of Nehemiah, around 430-450 BCE (give or take fifty years!). This is based on the fact that his oracles presume a working temple and enough time to have passed for problems to once again occur regarding the integrity of the Israelites’ worship.
Malachi, then, offers the “last words,” not his own personal words, but those of a whole generation. He speaks for all the prophets through whom God revealed Himself to his people. After Malachi, the prophetic voice fell silent – for roughly 400 years. In a sense, his final words are timeless, addressing the past, present, and future of God’s people. He reminds them of God’s love, rebukes them for their current failings, and gives them hope for the coming of the Day of the Lord when God would punish the sinful and reward the faithful. He also refers to the two greatest prophets, Moses and Elijah, and looks forward to Elijah’s return to prepare the way for the Messiah.
There isn’t much information about the period in which he prophesied. Some scholars liken it to a “dark age” of the biblical world. The fortunes of the Jews were inexorably tied to the Persians. It is thought that Jews continued to migrate back to Jerusalem after Cyrus’ decree, raising the population to about 50,000. But the region was volatile because it existed as the thoroughfare between Persia and Egypt. The resulting war created many additional hardships, especially for the poor. The rich usually do well, but in this case, they also suffered from heavy taxation levied to underwrite the expenses of war. The enthusiasm evidenced in Haggai had long since waned. Those who expected the return of the Davidic monarchy upon completion of the temple were disappointed. It was not long before the people fell into a despondency that drained their spirit and their will to obey God’s commands. They were just drifting along when Nehemiah went to Jerusalem. He worked long and hard to improve the general living conditions. By restoring the walls of the city, he was able to provide a tangible change and the people responded. After working there for 12 years, things seemed to be back on track.
On his second visit, however, he discovered many of the people had fallen into their old habits. Priests were allowing Gentiles into the temple area, intermarriage was a fact of life, and the resulting children couldn’t even speak the language (which speaks to how long he’d been gone). In addition to this, the Sabbath had been desecrated and worship was merely a perfunctory act. These were some of the issues addressed by Nehemiah and it is thought that Malachi followed closely after him, both in time and thought.
Malachi employed a question and answer technique for the basis of his message. This would be the method used by later rabbis and scribes (even Jesus). Malachi had no oracles against the nations and no apocalyptic visions. Like Haggai, his message was very straightforward. He presented God as being God of the whole world, a God whose promises could not be thwarted. Although he seemed preoccupied with various details of proper worship, he was also interested in all aspects of life, including justice, mercy, and steadfastness. Most unique to his ministry was his anticipation of the forerunner, the one who would announce for the last time God’s anticipated messiah.
The book is generally divided into five sections. I – The Love of God 1:1-5; II Problems with the Priesthood 1:6-2:9; III – Unfaithfulness and Cleansing of Community 2:10-3:12; IV – The Servants of the Lord 3:13-18; V – The Day of the Lord 4:1-6.