The Book of Malachi begins with: “A burden, the Word of Yahweh to Israel by the hand of Malachi.” And that is all the information we have on this prophet. Other prophetic books often tell when the prophet wrote, that is, during the reigns of certain kings. As we shall see, though, there were no kings in Israel when Malachi delivered his messages--they were a thing of the past. So how can we date this book? What are the clues that we have?
To answer some of these questions we can only look at the contents of the book and make an estimation of the date of its composition. A quick read through the book will tell us that the messages are intensely practical about sacrificial worship, priestly ministry, marriage and divorce, tithing, and anticipation of the coming of Yahweh to judge the world and fulfill the promises of the golden age. We can conclude from this general survey that there was no problem with idolatry--it was a thing of the past. In fact, there is no mention of the judgment on Israel for idolatry, the Babylonian captivity. That was a thing of the past as well, long since forgotten by these folk. There is no reference to any king, only a governor. But they did have a temple and a functioning priesthood, even though it was not functioning correctly. On the basis of these observations we would date the book in the post-exilic period.
The exile in Babylon ended in 536 B.C. Many of the people returned to the land under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the heir apparent to the throne if there ever was one to inherit, Joshua the High Priest, and the prophets Zechariah and Haggai. By 515 B.C. they had rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, a major triumph for the people of God, but also a disappointment for those old enough to remember Solomon’s temple. As the people settled in to the land and tried to make a life for themselves, they became discouraged and disillusioned because the glorious prophecies about their re-gathering to the land seemed not to be fulfilled. And so in time their commitment to the covenant began to lag as well.
About 455 B.C. Ezra returned to the land and promptly began a revival to bring the people back to faith. The results of that spiritual work did not last very long, for in 444 B.C. Nehemiah was sent as governor and he found the same sins being committed that Ezra tried to correct. Nehemiah had to continue the reforms as well as rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was called back to the palace about 433 or 432 B.C. and remained there a few years. It seems most plausible to put the ministry of Malachi in this time of Nehemiah’s absence, because the messages address the same problems that Nehemiah had been working to correct. In Nehemiah we find that many had taken alien wives (13:23), and so too do we find this in Malachi (2:11); in Nehemiah the people were withholding their tithes (13:10), and so too in Malachi’s time (3:8); Nehemiah had to deal with divorce of legitimate wives (13:23, 27) and so did Malachi (2:15,16); and Nehemiah spoke of the neglect of temple service (13:4, 5, 11), and so did Malachi (1:12,13). We may conclude that while Nehemiah was there his reforms took hold, but when he was recalled there was a relapse, for he returned to find things in a mess again.
Malachi stepped forward to assist in bringing about the reforms permanently. He found a spirit that would later be expressed in Pharisaism and Sadduceeism, a spirit of outward perfunctory service with no inward repentance or devotion. There was widespread skepticism and resignation. The people complained that the earlier prophetic promises had not been fulfilled, and they were impatient for God to judge their enemies, especially the Gentiles. And so Malachi had serious issues to address--but he was exactly the right man for the job.
All this would mean, then, that Malachi wrote between 430 and 420 B.C. He was the last of the prophets to write, and his writing predicted the next great prophet who was to come to prepare the way of the Lord, John the Baptist. But we must remember when we say he was a post-exilic prophet that he came on the scene a good hundred years after Zechariah and Haggai, and almost a generation after Ezra. Malachi is the last of the twelve Minor Prophets--but those twelve prophets stretch over a period of 400 years, about the time from Shakespeare to today in our literary history. When Malachi came preaching it had been some time since a prophet was heard, and the people to whom he preached reacted with antagonism and skepticism.
But we still have no information about the man himself other than his name is Malachi--in Hebrew mak'aki (pronounced mal-ah-key). Some commentators even think that was an abbreviated name from Malachiah, “Messenger of Yah,”1_ftn1 or that the name might have even been a pen-name. But the prophets did not do that, as far as we know. The name most likely was as it appears, “My messenger.” And the name will provide a major unifying theme of the book: the prophet is a messenger, the priests are messengers, the forerunner is a messenger, and the Messiah Himself is a messenger.
The style of the Book of Malachi is clear and direct; it is the style of prophetic sermons with a few predictions included. Malachi may not have the lofty style and poetic imagination of an Isaiah, but he is nonetheless eloquent and effective. He is more a reasoner than a poet--and that is what was needed for these people. His style is simple, smooth, concise, and forceful--and at times eloquent. His description of the ideal priest in 2:5-7 is powerful as well as poetic; and his description of the coming of the Lord in 4:2 and 3 includes some of the most beautiful imagery found in the prophets. Because Malachi’s audience was skeptical, he chose to use interrogation and reply as the way of getting through to them. In each point he knew what they were thinking and what they were about to say, and so he anticipated them with both the questions and the answers.
The title of the book characterizes this prophecy as a “burden.” In other words, the oracles included here will be heavy and stern, warnings and rebukes. But the messages are also consolatory: they are not “against” Israel, but “to” Israel. And there are hopeful notes of forgiveness and blessing and joy--if the people will heed the warnings.
The book opens with the declaration of the word of Yahweh: “I have loved you.” This affirmation of God’s choice of and affection for the nation provides a powerful beginning to the oracles, for on the one hand it will soften the tone of the messages--they will be delivered in love, but on the other hand it will underscore the nations ingratitude. Even though God has loved them, they had failed to show any appreciation for it, or any response to it. In fact even when the prophet declared this message, the response was a skeptical challenge for the prophet to convince them that God loved them.
If people are in any way open to the word of God, the constantly repeated message of God’s faithful love for his people should inspire greater devotion and service. But the appeal of Malachi will be even wider than that, for the object of God’s love in this passage is the whole nation, some unbelievers and some believers. Even the unbelievers would have to acknowledge that they were part of a special people that God loved and desired to use, if they would only believe and follow His word. So Malachi begins with the most powerful motivation that he can use to appeal to the people--the love of God.
The people were not immediately convinced of this declaration; to them, because of their state of spiritual rebellion, it sounded good but was not convincing, not convincing because things had not worked out to their satisfaction. “How have you loved us?” they asked. And the prophet’s response reminded them of their status as the chosen people of God: “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Yahweh says. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau have I hated.”
To our word “love” (‘ahab [ah-have]) we now add the antonym “hate” (sane’ [sah-nay]). A careful word study of each of these terms will show that choice is a part of the meaning for love, and reject (or not choose) is at the heart of the word for hate. Even Jesus used the word hate with this basic meaning when he called for his disciples to hate father and mother--he called for them to choose to follow Him and that involved a radical break with families. With Jacob and Esau we know that the choice was made for Jacob even before the two boys were born, when the mother was pregnant and sought an oracle about the twins. And that oracle was not about two boys, but about two nations (Gen. 25). The loving and hating was not personal, but providential. That is why Paul refers to the same event in Romans 9:13 as a sample of divine election. God’s love for Jacob was a distinguishing love; it meant that the line from Jacob, i.e., the Israelites, was chosen for a special purpose in the world--to be the channel of blessing to the nations and the source of the Messiah. The Edomites, the descendants of Esau, were not chosen. This, of course, does not mean that individual Edomites could not come to faith in the LORD; it means that the line of the Edomites was not the chosen line.
The point that Malachi was making to his audience was that their existence as the people of God was the clearest evidence of the love of God on any nation. God chose the Israelites to be his kingdom of priests in the world. He gave them the Scriptures, the temple, the priests, the prophets, the covenants, and ultimately the Messiah. And His love for them was an everlasting love--even though they failed Him again and again, He still retained His covenant with them and chose to use them in a glorious way. That is--those who believed in Him and were willing to serve Him.
Not only did God choose Israel (“Jacob”), but He also cared for the Israelites whenever they were in trouble. The simple fact was that Israel was protected down through the ages, and the Edomites were not. Israel’s expectations were being fulfilled; Edom’s were not. This also should have told Malachi’s audience that the love of God was genuine.
The Edomites, mostly descendants of Esau but also a number of tribes that were included, lived in the region to the south and east of Israel, across the great rift of the Jordan Valley, and south of the Dead Sea. At one time it was heavily wooded and well watered. When the Israelites, their cousins, came up from Egypt, the Edomites would not let them pass through their land, but made them go all the way around into the eastern desert. But God would not let the Israelites fight them, for they were relatives. Nevertheless, down through the history the Edomites from time to time attacked the people of Israel or supported others who attacked them.
When the Babylonians invaded the land and sacked Jerusalem and carried off the people, Edom was left in misery along with the many other little states. The destruction of the Edomites was a part of the prophetic message from God to the region (Obadiah). And even in Babylon the people remembered the way that Edom had dealt with them (Ps. 137:7). After the exile the Jews were restored to their land, but the Edomites were never again a force in the desert. They were an easy prey for the Persians, and then the Nabateans--Arab tribes who drove them out of their land. They settled more to the south of Israel, and became known as the Idumeans. But they were subjugated by the Maccabeans, then the Macedonians, and finally the Romans. The only sore spot for Israel was that in the days of Jesus the Romans installed on the throne a client king, Herod the Great--an Idumean, a descendant of Esau.
In this passage God makes it clear to the nation that the Edomites have been left to the desert jackals. This was their state after the exile was over--their lands were barren, and they were subjugated. Moreover, God said through Malachi that even if the Edomites tried to rebuild, He would destroy their work. The only conclusion that was left from these themes is that the Edomites would always be a people under the wrath of God,2_ftn2 and they would be known as the boundary of wickedness.
Therefore, God was judging the Edomites for the treachery that they showed to Israel throughout their histories. Not only had God protected Israel from the treatment they received from Edom, He also in the end restored Israel to her land and left the mountains of Edom a wasteland. This too was a clear demonstration of God’s love for his people.
In a similar way the Church can look back over human history and see how the love of God has been demonstrated to them. God loved us; He chose us to be His people, to be a kingdom of priests; and He has preserved and protected us down through the ages, although so many in the world have tried to destroy the people of God one way or another. But Jesus said that He would not allow the gates of hell to prevail against His Church. And when the Church begins to doubt the love of God, they simply have to take stock of who they are and how they came to be. It was the love of God. But now, because of that love, the Lord will speak sternly to His people.
Malachi ends this little introduction with a final word from God: “You will see it with your own eyes and say, Great is Yahweh, even beyond the borders of Israel” (1:5). The people may have thought that God had not fulfilled all His promises to them, at least not as fast as they would have liked. But God declares that they will see the greatness of God, even beyond the land. This word anticipates the themes in this book that speak of the blessings on Israel, the salvation of the Gentiles, and the coming of the Lord to destroy all the wicked. Clearly, not everyone in Malachi’s day would see all of this--they would see bits of it. But true to the prophetic style, “you” refers to the people of God in general, and not just the immediate audience.3_ftn3
1 The development would follow other names such as Abi, which was also spelled Abijah (see 2 Kings 18:2 and 2 Chron. 29:1). But we have no evidence this happened with Malachi.
2 The title used is “Yahweh of armies.” Whenever prophets use this they are announcing some stern message that God will enforce. All the armies of heaven and earth are at his disposal.
3 Likewise in Matthew 24 and 25, the “Olivet Discourse,” Jesus gives the signs of His coming to the disciples in the form of “when you see … .” But some of what He described lay off in the future.