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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Malachi 1

Verse 1

QUESTIONS REGARDING GOD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS PEOPLE

Malachi 1:1 to Malachi 3:15

Title (1:1)

The first verse of Malachi, like the first verses of many of the other prophetic books (for example, Isaiah 1:1; Jeremiah 1:1-3; Hosea 1:1), is a title, intended to provide the reader of the book with the name of its prophetic author and some descriptive information regarding the contents of the book.

The book is characterized as an "oracle" or burden, the word frequently used by the prophets to describe their feeling of the weight and importance of the word of the Lord with which they were commissioned (see Jeremiah 23:33-40; Isaiah 15:1; Nahum 1:1; Zechariah 9:1; Zechariah 12:1). In Malachi the "burden" is specifically defined as "the word of the Lord."

All that the editor can do to identify the setting of the prophetic oracle is to describe it as addressed "to Israel by the hand of my messenger" (see margin). No specific date or reference to contemporary kings or governors is provided. Apparently the editor did not know exactly where to locate the work of this prophet. "Israel" simply refers to the remainder of the Chosen People then in existence.

Rightly, however, an editor separated it from the latter chapters of Zechariah, which are also designated "oracle" and are anonymous. Searching the contents of the oracle, and perhaps hoping that its author was the expected messenger of the Covenant of 3:1, the editor described rather than named the author of the oracle as "my messenger." Although the title in its English form appears to provide the reader with the name of the author of the book, it actually testifies only to the hopeful spirit of the editor of the prophetic canon and his sure faith in the divine revelation through the words of the prophets.

Verses 2-5

The Question of God’s Love for His People (1:2-5)

The brief initial section of the book centers around a question supposedly on the lips of the people of Judah and Jerusalem at some time after the resettlement of exiles and the erection of the Second Temple. The prophet begins by quoting a word from God, "I have loved you." His quotation is not a directly literal one but may refer to Isaiah 43:4 or Jeremiah 31:3, or to the declaration of Deuteronomy 7:8; Deuteronomy 7:13.

Opposed to this declaration of love on the part of the Lord is the spoken or implied question of the people, "How hast thou loved us?" Like the Pharisees and Sadducees seeking a sign from Jesus, the people of Malachi’s day cannot see clear and unmistakable evidences of the love of God. Like some contemporary thought, which fears to speak of God or moral values because it cannot see these in any tangible form, the central question of the prophet’s day only probed in the direction of ultimate realities. The inhabitants of Jerusalem were not so sophisticated as to question the existence of God, but they could ask — by action if not in word — whether God was showing his love for his people in a tangible way.

A single instance is all that is required to refute an argument which might otherwise end in a universal negative. Malachi answers the question with an illustration from what was apparently a contemporary event. In the personifying language of his time, he asks, "Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?" and continues, "Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau." More precisely he goes on to explain that what has happened to the hill country of Edom (Esau) is clear evidence that God cares more for Judah than he does for the neighbor people whose home was across the Dead Sea southeast of Judah.

The chronology of events to which Malachi refers is not known accurately, but the sequence is generally recognized. During the siege of Jerusalem and after its fall in 587 B.C., the Edomites not only failed to help the Jews but apparently rejoiced in their downfall (Lamentations 4:21-22; Psalms 137:7) and rushed in to collect spoil. Later, perhaps in the period immediately preceding Malachi’s prophetic ministry, the Nabataean Arabs in turn seized the hill country of Edom and drove the Edomites westward into the southern section of Judah, where ultimately their descendants set up the Idumaean kingdom with its capital at Hebron. Malachi seems to be referring to the desolation left by the flight of the Edomites from their native lands. This destruction is from God, and no efforts to rebuild will avail. The desolate country will be a continuing monument to the vengeance God brought upon the heads of those who had turned their backs upon his people in their day of trouble.

As the Jews look beyond their borders, they may be continually reminded of the greatness of the Lord, whose avenging power is able to destroy a former kinsman turned bitter enemy. It is in this willingness to avenge the injury done his people that God’s love was manifested. With a wider vision of history the contemporary Christian should be able to provide himself with far more satisfactory evidences of the love of God (see also Rom, 9:13-18).

Verses 6-9

The Question of Proper Respect for God (1:6-2:9)

The next section of Malachi’s argument with his contemporaries is addressed primarily to the priests, since they are responsible for the conduct of worship, but it concerns also the offerings actually presented by the people.

Malachi begins by stating what was axiomatic in his day, "A son honors his father, and a servant his master." In a "how much more" deduction from this premise, Malachi raises the question for the Lord, "If then I am a father, where is my honor?" Then, turning to the priests, the prophet addresses them as those "who despise my name." Again, their question — uttered or implied — forms the basis for an exposition of the abuses of the ritual current in that day.

Priests and people have despised the name of the Lord "by offering polluted food" on God’s altar. They have polluted the offerings "by thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised." Malachi is not arguing in a circle, for he continues with specific charges: the people, led by their priests, have brought blind, lame, and sick animals as their sacrifices. The law required perfect animals; no blemished animal was to be presented to God (Deuteronomy 15:21). Some even went further: they vowed to present an unblemished male from their flock, but then presented a blemished substitute (Malachi 1:14).

Much of the first paragraph of this lengthy indictment (Malachi 1:6-14) is addressed to the layman, who should be able to see how his behavior has been contemptuous of God. "Present that to your governor," says the prophet in the name of God; "will he be pleased with you or show you favor?" Genuine respect should result in the presentation of the best sort of gifts; even self-interest prompts people to present acceptable gifts to the politically powerful.

Interrupting his bill of particulars, the prophet looks in vain for "one . . . who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain!" No sacrifice at all would be preferable to the blemished offerings that have been presented.

In this connection the prophet makes the most striking statement of all (Malachi 1:11), declaring that from east to west, "in every place," the name of God is great among the nations and incense and a pure offering are offered to the name of God. It is clear that Malachi has a high view of God as "a great King" (Malachi 1:14), but the idea that God accepts any conscientiously offered sacrifice is unexpected, to say the least. Such universalism is not elsewhere expressed in the Bible, though at many points in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament the idea of the participation of non-Jews in the worship of God is expressed (see, for example, Isaiah 2:2-3 and Zechariah 14:16). Malachi’s statement is as broad as that of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (Malachi 11:6), "Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him," but it is more specific in including the worship of pagans. Taken in its context with reference to the necessity for due respect to God, it may be understood as other prophetic hyperboles are understood: blemished Jewish sacrifices are not acceptable; pagan sacrifices, conscientiously offered, are far more acceptable. The statement may offer some clue to the beginnings of Jewish proselytism in the period between the Old and New Testaments. As thoughtful pagans began to repudiate the more sensual and polytheistic elements of their traditional beliefs, it became possible for Jews to consider them as proselytes, or, as in the case of Malachi, to see them as sharing essentially the same faith. Malachi’s view of such pagans, however, did not prevail.

Malachi’s indictment turns to the priests and in a strongly worded paragraph (Malachi 2:1-9) threatens them with disgrace before the people and exclusion from the presence of God. Their offerings will be cursed, in fact, have already been cursed; their offspring: will be rebuked; the dung of offerings will be spread on their faces. The reason is at first simply stated: "If you will not listen, if you will not . . . give glory to my name." Later, the prophet adds another explanation: "Inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction."

Instruction is the Hebrew word, Torah, or Law, used here in its simplest sense. Instruction was the priest’s specific guidance to> the individual worshiper, an example of which appears in Deuteronomy 26:1-15. It was the duty of the priest to assist in the performance of rituals, to see to it that the worshiper said the right words (Deuteronomy 26), and to see that the animal was killed in the right way, as in the later laws recorded in Leviticus 1:1-17. Any such direct guidance provided the worshiper by the priest was "instruction." It was this which the priests of Malachi’s time had perverted.

Malachi contrasts the present ministry of the priests with that of a somewhat idealized Levi, the ancestor of the priests and the Levites. According to Malachi’s picture the Lord had made a covenant with Levi, promising life and peace if he "feared" God. Here Levi did actually "fear" the Lord; that is, he spoke true instruction, and no wrong was upon his lips. By this instruction the idealized Levi "turned many from iniquity" and walked with God in peace and uprightness. Peace should be understood in this context as referring to wholeness or its modern near equivalent, "integrity." Levi was, according to this view of him, a true messenger of the Lord to his generation, instructing wisely and serving as an ideal priest.

The covenant with Levi alluded to in this ideal sketch is not clearly defined in the Old Testament. In Numbers 25:10-13 (and Psalms 106:30-31) a covenant with Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, is mentioned in connection with his zeal for the Lord during the religious debacle at Peor when the Israelites sacrificed to Baal with the Moabites. Deuteronomy 33:8-11 may refer to the same incident, but there Levi stands for the priestly tribe, and the setting is at Massah and the waters of Meribah. The bitterness expressed against Levi in Genesis 49:5-7 has been entirely forgotten in the blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy (33:8-11) and in Malachi’s words. In Malachi’s idealized picture, Levi is the representative of the priestly tribe. Evidently Malachi transferred the recollection of the incident with Phinehas and the establishment of a special covenant with him to his tribal ancestor, Levi. To this ideal from the ancient past the contemporary priests have not been true. Being the recognized leaders of Malachi’s day, the priests had a heavy responsibility and deserved severe rebuke and punishment for their faithlessness.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Malachi 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/malachi-1.html.