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by Albert Barnes
Introduction to Malachi
The last prophet of the Old Testament, like the forerunner of our Lord, whom he foreannounced under his own name . “The messenger of the Lord,” willed to be but “the voice of one crying in the wilderness;” as his great successor, who took up his message, when asked, “Who art thou? What sayest thou of thyself?” said John 1:23, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” He mentions neither his parentage, nor birthplace, nor date; nor did he add the name of his office , and he has left it to be guessed, whether the name under which he is known, was the name which he bore among men; so wholly did he will to be hidden. No one before him is recorded to have carried his name. It may be that he framed it for himself, and willed to be known only as what it designated, “the messenger of the Lord.” This was a favorite title with him, since, in this brief prophecy, he uses it, as describing the priest’s office, and that of the forerunner Malachi 2:7; Malachi 3:1; whereas, before him, except once by Haggai and once by Isaiah Haggai 1:13; Isaiah 42:19, it had been used only of the blessed angels.
There is, however, no ground to think that it was not his name. Even the Septuagint, which paraphrases it, “His messenger,” prefix to the book the name Malachi; and the title, “my messenger,” would not have described that he was “the messenger of God,” since the name of God had not preceded. “If names are to be interpreted,” Jerome says , “and history is to be framed from them, not a spiritual meaning to be derived, then Hosea who is called Saviour, and Joel whose name means, ‘Lord God,’ and the other prophets will not be men, but rather angels or the Lord and Saviour, according to the meaning of their name.” No special stress was laid upon the name, even by the Origenists, who supposed Haggai, Malachi and John the Immerser to have been angels . Origen himself supposed John the Immerser to have been an angel in human form , and Melchizedek , as well as Malachi. More widely, that , “they became the words in the prophets.”
At the time of our Lord, some accounted him to have been Ezra, perhaps for his zeal for the Law. His date must, however, have been later, since there is no mention of the building of the temple, whose service was in its regular order. In the New Testament, like others of the twelve, he is cited without his name , or the substance of his prophecy, is spoken of or alluded to, without any reference to any human author Luke 1:17, Luke 1:76; Matthew 17:10; John 1:21; so entirely was his wish to remain hidden fulfilled.
Yet he probably bore a great part in the reformation, in which Nehemiah cooperated outwardly, and to effect which, after he had, on the expiring of his 12 years of office Nehemiah 5:14, returned to Persia, he obtained leave to visit his own land again Nehemiah 13:6, apparently for a short time. For he mentions his obtaining that leave, in connection with abuses at Jerusalem, which had taken place in his absence, and which he began reforming, immediately on his arrival. But three chief abuses, the neglect of God’s service, the defilement of the priesthood and of their covenant, and the cruelty to their own Jewish wives, divorcing them to make way for idolatresses, are subjects of Malachi’s reproofs. Nehemiah found these practices apparently rampant. It is not then probable that they had been, before, the subjects of Malachi’s denunciation, nor were his own energetic measures probably fruitless, so that there should be occasion for these denunciations afterward. It remains, then, as the most probable, that Malachi, as the prophet, cooperated with Nehemiah, as the civil authority, as Haggai and Zechariah had with Zerubbabel , “So Isaiah cooperated with Hezekiah; Jeremiah with Josiah. Of a mere external reformation there is no instance” in Jewish history.
It does not appear, whether Nehemiah, on his return, was invested by the king of Persia with extraordinary authority for these reforms, or whether he was appointed as their governor. The brief account affords no scope for the mention of it. It is not then any objection to the contemporaneousness of Malachi and Nehemiah, that, whereas Nehemiah, while governor, “required not the bread of the governor,” i. e., the allowance granted him by the Persian government, as an impost upon the people, Malachi upbraids the people that they would not offer to their governor the poor things which they offered to Almighty God, or that the governor would not accept it, in that it would be an insult rather than an act of respect. For:
(1) the question in Malachi is of a free-offering, not of an impost;
(2) Nehemiah says that he did not “require it,” not that he would not accept it;
(3) there is no evidence that he was now governor, nor
(4) any reason why he should not accept in their improved condition, what he did not “require Nehemiah 5:18, because the bondage was heavy upon this people.”
Presents were, as they are still, a common act of courtesy in the East.
Like John the Immerser, though afar off, he prepared the way of the Lord by the preaching of repentance. More than other prophets, he unveils priests and people to themselves, interprets their thoughts to them, and puts those thoughts in abrupt naked language, picturing them as demurring to every charge which he brought against them. They were not, doubtless, conscious hypocrites. For conscious hypocrisy is the sin of individuals, aping the graces which others possess and which they have not, yet wish to be held in estimation for having. Here, it is the mass which is corrupt. The true Israel is the exception Malachi 3:16 - “those who feared the Lord, the jewels of Almighty God.” It is the hypocrisy of self-deceit, contented with poor, limited, outward service, and pluming itself upon it. Malachi unfolds to them the meaning of their acts. His thesis is themselves, whom he unfolds to them.
He interprets himself, putting into their mouths words, betokening a simple unconsciousness either of God’s goodness or their own evil Malachi 1:2. “Yet ye say, Wherein hast Thou loved us?” This was their inward thought, as it is the thought of all, ungrateful to God. But his characteristic is, that he puts these thoughts into abrupt, bold bad words, which might startle them for their hideousness, as if he would say, “This is what your acts mean.” He exhibits the worm and the decay, which lay under the whited exterior Malachi 1:6. “Ye say, Wherein have we despised Thy Name?” Perhaps, they were already learning, not to pronounce the proper Name of God, while they caused it to be despised. Or they pronounced it with reverent pause, while they showed that they held cheap God and His service Malachi 1:7. “Ye say, The table of the Lord is contemptible Malachi 1:7, Malachi 1:12. Ye say, the table of the Lord is polluted; and the fruit thereof, his meat, is contemptible.” Their acts said it. What a reading of thoughts Malachi 1:13! “Ye said also, Behold, what a weariness!” It is the language of the heart in all indevotion Malachi 2:14. “Ye say, Wherefore?” as if innocently unconscious of the ground of God’s judgment Malachi 3:8. “Wherein have we robbed Thee?” The language of those who count the earth as their own Malachi 2:17. “Ye say, Wherein have we wearied Him? When ye say, Everyone that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and in them doth He delight, or, Where is the God of judgment?” The heart’s speech in all envy at the prosperity of the wicked!
Yet the object of all this unfolding them to themselves, is their repentance. We already have the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, and the Sadducees’ denial of God’s Providence. And we already have the voice of John the Immerser, “of the wrath to come.” They professed to Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:1 “delight in the coming of the messenger of the covenant;” yet their deeds were such as would be burned up with the fire of His coming, not, rewarded.
Pharisees and Sadduces are but two off-shoots of the same ungodliness; Pharisees, while they hoped by outward acts to be in favor with God, they become, at least, secret Sadducees, when the hope fails. First, they justify themselves. God had said to them Malachi 2:8-9, “Ye are departed out of the way: I have made you base, as ye have not kept My ways.” They say Malachi 3:14, “It is vain to serve God; and what profit, that we have kept His ordinance?” (affirming that they had done, what God called them to repentance for not doing) God said Malachi 2:13, “Ye have covered the altar of the Lord with tears,” the tears of their wronged wives; they insist on their own austerities Malachi 3:14, “we have walked mournfully before the Lord our God.” Then comes the Sadducee portion. God had called them to obedience and said (Malachi 3:10, וּבתנוּני ûbethânûnı̂y), “Prove Me now herewith: they say, (Malachi 3:15, בצנוּ bâchănû), the workers of wickedness have proved God, and are saved.” God promised . “All nations shall call you blessed;” they answer , “and now we call the proud blessed. What have we spoken against Thee?” is the last self-justifying question, which Malachi records of them; and this, while reproaching God for the uselessness of serving Him, and choosing the lot of those who rejected Him.
Thereon Malachi abandons this class to their own blindness. There was hope amid any sin. However, it rebelled against God. This was a final denial of God’s Providence and rejection of Himself. So Malachi closes with the same prophecy, with which John the Immerser prepared our Lord’s coming, “His Luke 3:17 fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor; and will gather the wheat into His garner, but the chaff He shall burn with fire unquenchable.” The unspeakable tenderness of God toward “those who fear His name,” and the severity to those who finally rebel, are perhaps nowhere more vividly declared, than in these closing words of the Old Testament. Yet the love of God, as ever, predominates; and the last prophet closes with the word “Remember,” and with one more effort to avert the curse which they were bringing upon themselves. Yet no prophet declares more expressly the rejection of the people, to whom he came to minister, the calling the Gentiles, the universal worship, in of the earth, of Him who was hitherto worshiped by the Jews only; and that, not at Jerusalem, but each offering, in his own place, the sacrifice which hitherto (as they had recently experienced, in their captivity at Babylon) could be offered up in Jerusalem only. To him alone it was reserved to prophesy of the unbloody sacrifice, which should be offered unto God “in every place” throughout the world “from the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof.” It has been said , “Malachi is like a late evening, which closes a long day, but he is at the same time the morning twilight which bears in its bosom a glorious day.”
“When prophecy was to be withdrawn from the ancient Church of God, its last light was mingled with the rising beams of the Sun of Righteousness. In one view it combined a retrospect of the Law with the clearest specific signs of the Gospel advent Malachi 4:4. Remember ye the law of Moses My servant, which I commanded him on Mount Horeb, for all Israel, with the statutes and the judgments. Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord. Prophecy had been the oracle of Judaism and of Christianity, to uphold the authority of the one, and reveal the promise of the other. And now its latest admonitions were like those of a faithful departing minister, embracing and summing up his duties. Resigning its charge to the personal precursor of Christ, it expired with the Gospel upon its lips.”
A school, which regards the “prophets” chiefly as “poets,” says that “the language is prosaic, and manifests the decaying spirit of prophecy.” The office of the prophets was, to convey in forceful words, which God gave them, His message to His people. The poetic form was but an accident. God, who knows the hearts of His creatures whom He has made, knows better than we, why He chose such an instrument. Zechariah, full of imagination, He chose some years before. But He preserved in history the account of the words which Zechariah spoke, not the words wherewith he urged the rebuilding of the temple, in his own book. If Malachi had spoken in imaginative language, like that of Ezekiel, to whom God says Ezekiel 33:32, “thou art unto them like a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument, and they hear thy words and they do them not,” it may be that they would have acted then, as they did in the time of Ezekiel. It may be, that times like those of Malachi, apathetic, self-justifying, complaining, self-complacent, needed a sterner, more abrupt, more startling voice to awaken them. “Wisdom was justified of her children.”
God performed by him a reformation for the time being: He gave through him a warning to the generation, when our Lord would come, that He would come, as their Judge as well as their Saviour, and, how they would stand in the day of His coming. He gave it as a book to His whole Church, whereby to distinguish seeming from real service. Parting words are always solemn, as closing the past, and opening out a future of expectation before us. The position of Malachi, as the last of the prophets, bids us the more solemnly prepare for that dread day, our Lord’s second coming, which he foretold, in one with the first coming, warning us that we do not deceive ourselves, in unconsciousness of our own evil and remembrance of our seeming good, until He professes unto us Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity.”
the Second Week of Advent