Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Malachi

by Various Authors



Contents and Form

The Book of Malachi consists largely of a series of indictments of God’s people based on imaginary questions addressed to God by the people. To these pointed questions the prophet addresses his replies in the name of the Lord of hosts. The whole series of discussions concerns the relationship between God and the postexilic religious community centering in Jerusalem — a relationship whose effectiveness and value the later generation of Jews began to question in practical ways. The actual questions posed by the prophet arise from the practices of his time and indicate the spirit behind certain abuses.

The only kind of division necessary for understanding the book is that provided by the questions and the prophet’s replies to these. Only at 3:16-18 is the flow of rhetoric interrupted for a brief narrative statement of the results of the prophet’s preaching, and this may be considered a parenthesis. The remainder of the book continues the somewhat extended reply to the question, "Where is the God of justice?" (2:17; 3:1-5).

The style of the book is not intense, but reasoned and argumentative. Each question raised by the people is stated in simple form, and its implications are examined. The reasoning is almost syllogistic, though as will be seen it frequently depends on a single specific instance rather than a generally accepted axiom.

The Author and His Times

For convenience the name "Malachi" continues to be used in reference to the author of the material contained in this last book of the prophetic canon, which is also the final volume of the Old Testament in the order commonly followed among Protestants.

It is generally agreed that the name Malachi in the title of the book (Malachi 1:1) is drawn from 3:1 where the Lord simply promises the sending of his "messenger" to prepare the way before him. In the latter place it does not refer to the author of the prophecies in the book, but to "the messenger of the covenant" who is to come. The title appears to be, like other titles (for example, Amos 1:1; Hosea 1:1), an addition made by an editor, who attempted to draw from the book a suitable name for its author. Perhaps it was the editor’s hope that Malachi had actually served the function of forerunner, and that the Lord himself would soon appear at his Temple.

The name Malachi means simply "my messenger," and, as it stands, is an unlikely name for a person. It may, of course, be the abbreviation of a name, Malachiah, "Messenger of the Lord"; this would be a proper and normal parallel to such names as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and the like, but there is no evidence for its use. The name Malachi has become fixed in the grouping of the twelve Minor Prophets by the scribal editor and has been generally adopted since before the Christian era as the last of the Twelve Prophets.

Though the prophecy remains essentially anonymous, there is almost no question of the individuality of its author. The book stands as a unity in form and purpose, and, with the exception of the last few verses (Malachi 4:4-6), no part has been seriously questioned. These verses may be a sort of postscript added by pious scribes.

The author, to be known as Malachi for lack of any further identification, was clearly a thoughtful Jew living in Jerusalem, a God-fearing, patriotic man, who was concerned with the abuses of his time: the carelessness of priest and people with respect to offerings, the faithlessness of his people in marriage, and their lack of concern for widow, orphan, and sojourner.

The word "governor" (Malachi 1:8) indicates that Jerusalem and Judah were in the period of Persian occupation at the time these prophecies were composed. This could mean any time after 536 B.C. and before the end of Persian rule. The only other reference to external events or situations concerns Edom (Malachi 1:2-5), but unfortunately this cannot be used to date the prophecies accurately. After the downfall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., the Edomites apparently swept into Judah and took possession of much that had been left; later the Edomites themselves were dispossessed. It is to this later dispossession that the prophet refers in 1:2-5. If its date were known accurately, a more precise suggestion could perhaps be given for the date of the prophecies.

It is not likely that Malachi’s work came immediately after the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah, for the mood of depression and discouragement evident in Malachi must have taken some years to develop after the period of enthusiasm generated by the building of the Temple in 520-515 B.C. under Zerubbabel. In Malachi, the Lord’s table or altar (Malachi 1:7) is firmly established, the storehouse is available for the receipt of tithes (Malachi 3:10), and the priests have grown careless with the handling of the offerings (Malachi 1:6-8; Malachi 2:1-9).

Malachi was concerned with abuses. Nehemiah’s reforms dealt with the same abuses: intermarriage with the people of the land (Nehemiah 10:28-30), tithes (Nehemiah 10:32-39), and the performance of the ritual (Nehemiah 12:45). Since no mention of a prophet appears in connection with the reforms of Nehemiah, it is reasonable to suppose that the prophecies of Malachi preceded the reforms of Nehemiah by some years. These reforms can be dated as beginning in approximately 444 B.C., and therefore the prophetic work of Malachi may be placed somewhere in the quarter of a century from 475 to 450 B.C.

This places the ministry of Malachi shortly after the battles of Marathon (490 B.C.), Thermopylae and Salamis (480 B.C.), and Plataea (479 B.C.). These events must have been reported and discussed in Jerusalem, but they did not concern the prophet. Though the defeats of Darius I and Xerxes I by the Greeks may have awakened hopes of freedom from Persian rule or expectations of Messianic deliverance, Malachi did not relate his prophetic thought to the movements of armies and the defeats or victories of military forces. His thought is almost exclusively concerned with the relation between God and his people.

The Message and Meaning of the Book

The Book of Malachi calls for the reforms made by Ezra and Nehemiah, and it is entirely lacking in the development of Messianism which came with the writings of the Greek period, such as the last few chapters of Zechariah. With reference to the successive codifications of laws, the guidance offered with regard to tithing is intermediate between that offered in Deuteronomy, the pre-exilic book of the Law found in the Temple in the time of Josiah, and that to be found in the priestly legislation, generally considered to be postexilic.

On the other hand, the message of Malachi is very largely in the ethical spirit of the earlier prophets, demanding justice, opposing false swearing and other abuses. Concerned with the correct performance of ritual as the earlier prophets were not, Malachi still insists on the inwardness of true religion. Like the pre-exilic prophets, he looks toward a simple but far-reaching visitation from the Lord in which those guilty of evil will be removed root and branch. The blessings promised those who are found serving the Lord in that day are general, as with the earlier prophets.

The message of Malachi was designed for a day of discouragement and disillusionment. He aimed primarily to persuade his contemporaries to take God seriously. If they changed their careless ways with regard to sacrifices, and if they took seriously the divine instruction regarding tithes, marriage, and the other directives of the law, then God himself would intervene in their behalf and provide overflowing blessing.

Malachi points the way back to a renewed clarity in ethical instruction as well as to renewed significance in the observance of religious ritual. The way back to significance in either area is through a renewed vision of the Lord of hosts, who takes an interest in the minutiae of human activity and who is the majestic "great King" who created us. Malachi’s vision has its limitations, but it is sufficiently penetrating to enable us to see the importance of God in relation to our common life.


Questions Regarding God’s Relationship with His People. (Malachi 1:1—3:15)

Concluding Narrative and Further Declarations. (Malachi 3:16 to Malachi 4:6)