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.
I – 1:1-5 -- The Love of God
- God's statement and people's objections in form of question "I have loved you" – Oh, really, how…?
- God's response
- Compares experience of Jacob vs. Esau (Israel vs. Edom)
- God chose Israel; Edom has been evicted from their land
- Other nations would be blessed through Israel's blessing
II – 1:6-2:9 – Problems with the Priesthood
- Disrespect through services and sacrifices
- "You have despised my name" – Oh, really, how…?
- Priests have no respect for the Lord
- Show disrespect by putting defiled food on altar
- By using blind, lame animals they show contempt for worship
- They wouldn't even give those animals to the governor
- Why, then, do they offer them to God?
- Critique of the priesthood – attitude problem
- Ironically, Gentiles acknowledge God as God of all
- Jews are perfunctory in their worship
- Priests are "bored" with their duties
- Their job was to guarantee unblemished animals for sacrifice
- They could have cared less
- God gives warning: if they renege on their tasks, He will find others to revere His name
- Rebuke for the priests
- Attempt to restore worship to its rightful place
- Worship is an expression of a life lived with God
- Job was to instruct the faithful regarding the Lord
- Failed on both accounts – were simply indifferent
- If they don't change their ways, their blessings will be cursed
- They have violated the covenant he had made with Levi
- They will be humiliated and despised among the people
III – 2:10-3:12 – Unfaithfulness and Cleansing of Community
- Problem with intermarriages
- "Have we not all one father?" How then are we faithless..?
- Intermarriage oftentimes led to integration and acceptance of foreign gods
- Some people were aware of God's displeasure
- Wept and wailed at the altar, wondered why they were not blessed
- Many of them were divorcing (Israelites wives) and marrying foreigners
- (Scholars think having two wives was still permissible at this point.
- So the problem might have been that Gentile fathers insisted they divorce the Israelite wife before allowing them to marry Gentile daughters. In a sense they were sinning twice – against the wife and against God.)
- Hence, their sacrifices were no longer acceptable to God
- The Lord says, "I hate divorce."
- Divorce had become commonplace, symptom of society's decline
- Divorce was legal, but took its toll on human relationships
- (Some scholars think this whole section is a metaphor, not about human relationships but about separation from God.)
- Faithful human relationships reflect faithfulness to God
- Justice and Judgment
- "I am wearied with your words" – Oh, really, how…?
- People question God's justice
- Evil doers seem to be receiving God's blessing
- Therefore, there is no justice in the world
- A messenger will be sent to prepare the way for the advent of the Messiah
- The Day of the Lord is that day when God enters history and does His work
- God will purify the faithful and eliminate the unfaithful
- God will not abandon His people – for good or evil
- Problem with Tithing
- "The people are robbing me" – Oh, really, how…?
- God affirms He is immutable (that's why he hasn't destroyed them)
- People inquire what he wants in return
- They should return to practice of tithing and offerings
- As it is, they are robbing God
- If they do what is right, they will receive an abundant return on their investment
- "All the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land."
IV – 3:13-18 -- The Servants of the Lord
- People complained that God is unjust
- "Your words have opposed God" – Oh, really, how…?
- The people have said the wicked prosper; faithful suffer
- Scroll for remembering
- Some of the faithful listened to God
- Their names were written on a scroll of remembrance in God's presence
- These faithful witnesses will be God's treasured possessions
- On the Day of Judgment, He will spare them
- Then all will see that God is just and He acts justly
V – 4:1-6 – The Day of the Lord
- That will be a day of judgment for the wicked
- It will be a day of fulfillment for the righteous
- God's intended order for the world will be realized
- Moses and Elijah
- Call to obey the Law of Moses
- Deliberate joining of the "law and the prophets"
- Call to Elijah who will come to announce the advent of the Messiah
- (NT writers identified John the Baptist as this person)
On that note, the series of Minor Prophets (and the whole Old Testament) comes to a close. Like his predecessors, Malachi addressed the needs of his time. He pointed up society's shortcomings and focused on the need for moral integrity within the community. He understood that present day behavior affects future events, both in worship and in the secular world. He held the priests to a higher standard, in accord with their covenant with God. Ultimately, however, he speaks of a future time, a time when a messenger would prepare the way for the Messiah. In so doing, his words provide a bridge, linking the Old Testament to the coming stories in the gospels, to John the Baptist who was the herald for Jesus.
Craigie, Peter. "Twelve Prophets." Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984.
Gaebelein, Frank. "Malachi." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1985.
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.
Redditt, Paul. "Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi." The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1995.
Smith, Ralph. "Micah-Malachi." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1984.