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.
Worship is supposed to be a celebration of being in covenant fellowship with the living God. It is a time set aside for the members of the covenant, the believers, to demonstrate their faith with genuine praise and thanksgiving. And God arranged the worship of Israel in a way that praise and thanksgiving would be most natural for the people--he arranged it for the three great harvest festivals ion the land, barley in the spring, wheat in the summer, and summer fruits in the fall. Because the harvests were a gift from God, the people were by duty bound to bring tokens of their thanksgiving to offer to God at the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. And because these were harvest celebrations, they were natural times for the farmers to rejoice--the work was over for the season. Only those who grew up on a farm would know how hard the work is, and how much joy there is when the harvest was finally in.
When the Israelites came up to Jerusalem top worship, they were to bring animals from their flocks, wheat and fruit from their fields, and whatever other gifts of gratitude they wanted to give to God. God did not need the food to survive (see Ps. 50); Israel was to bring the offerings to God not because he needed them, but as an expression of the Israelite’s need of God. To refuse to offer the gifts to God was to say that God was not necessary to the success of the people, when in fact without him they could not survive.
When the people came to worship, God did not require a great deal of them in the way of offerings--tokens, really, of their herds and their crops--a handful of grain, or an animal for the family. But what they brought had to pass two important tests, and in many cases only they and God would know if they passed them. What they brought had to be the first and the best. Nothing else mattered. It had to be the first-born animal, or the first fruit of the crops or the orchards. God gets his share first, because he is the most important. But it had to be the best--the best firstborn or first fruit offering. To bring God an inferior gift would say that one did not think much of God, for the quality of the gift indicates the value the giver places on the one receiving the gift. That is true in any human relationship, and it certainly is true in the spiritual relationship we have with the Lord.
But people are always falling short of pure worship, or at least pure worship on a sustained level. And so the prophets came on the scene in Israel to rebuke, reprove, correct, and exhort the people. In the earlier periods the prophets had to deal with idolatry and pagan corruptions in Israel’s worship. After the exile that was no longer a major problem. But instead, worship was being corrupted by the indifference and selfishness of people. And so Malachi had to address a whole different set of problems in the nation. His first sermon, directed at the priests but certainly speaking to the worship of the people, deals with their making a mockery out of worship by bringing inferior offerings. God was not pleased with that kind of worship.
Malachi begins his message with a couple of affirmations that the people would probably agree with wholeheartedly, but that he would use to lead into his rebuke. He declares, “A son honors a father, and a servant his master.” They would respond, “Yes, this is what the Law said, and this is how things ought to be.” The word “honors” indicates that the son would give his father, and the servant his master, the proper weight of authority (the verb is from kabed, to be heavy”).
But Malachi follows this with two rhetorical questions from God: “If I am a father, where is my honor; if I am Lord, where is my fear?” says Yahweh of armies to you, O priests, who despise my name.” This would have overwhelmed the people; they thought the message was going to be on the human relationships he introduced, but he turned it to their spiritual relationship with God. The accusation is clear: they were not honoring nor fearing the Lord, and so they did not really consider him their father or their master. He still has not stated what the problem is, but whatever it is it can be summarized that they do not honor the Lord and they do not fear him--and yet they are priests and worshipers! It is possible to be in attendance in a worship service, go through all the ritual and sing all the hymns, and yet despise the Lord.
This is the point the prophet makes by saying that they despise his name. The message is addressed to the priests directly, but as we shall see, because of their failures, the nation was also guilty of not honoring and fearing the Lord. They are also the ones “who despise my name.” The word “despise” means to look down on something as if it is worthless, to despise or treat with contempt. The Lord says the priests are “despisers of my name,” the participle form emphasizing the nature of the word as their nature. And the “name” in the Old Testament refers to the Lord himself, his person and his works.
The priests thought they were doing everything right, saying the prayers and the blessings, and making all the right sacrifices; so they responded (at least Malachi knows how they would respond), “Wherein have we despised your name?” Even if they made a mistake here or there in the service, it did not mean that they despised the name of the Lord, did it?--so they would reason. But Malachi said the Lord said otherwise.
This is a very serious charge even as it stands; the seriousness is signaled by the title of God, “Yahweh of armies” [hosts], a judgment title meaning that God has all the heavenly and earthly armies at his disposal to judge the people. And so now that Malachi had their attention, he could explain what was happening.
The Lord said through the prophet that they were offering on the high altar defiled food. The altar was the place of sacrifice, of course; and the charge was that what they were offering to God did not measure up to the standards. The “food” that they brought was defiled or polluted. That the sacrifices were called food was both symbolic and practical, symbolic because when they were burned on the altar it was as if God “consumed” them, and practical because some of the sacrifices were to be eaten by the priests and the people as communal meals.
This was a serious charge because of the requirements in the Law. They were supposed to bring sacrifices that were perfect--healthy animals, without any blemish at all. There were two very important reasons for this. First, the sacrifice was a gift that was to be offered to God. As noted above, the kind of gift that someone gives indicates what they think of the person they are giving it to. For example, if a husband gave his wife a gift for Valentines Day, say a new mop, the gift would certainly not be well-received because it would not be special and because it would speak volumes of what he thought of her. Or if someone gave another person a gift that was old, used, worn out, and of no use any more, it would be an insult. They would just be pawning off some junk on the person. So to bring a gift to God that was defiled was a real insult--no matter how much the priests protested the charge.
Second, theologically the animal sacrifice was for atonement, signifying that the perfect animal would be offered in place of the sinner. Since the animal represented God’s provision for the sins of the worshiper, it had to be without blemish itself. This principle came to fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross: he was the sinless Lamb of God who gave his life for the sins of the world. If Christ had been defiled, a sinner, his death would have been no better than our own deaths. The only one who could redeem us from sin was the only one who was sinless.
So to bring defiled offerings was serious. And they knew it. But they challenged this as well: “Wherein have we defiled you?” Note, in anticipating what their response is, Malachi changes the object--they were not just bringing defiled offerings, they were defiling God.” If the sanctuary were holy, if the altar was holy, if the sacrifices were to be holy, then to bring in defiled gifts would be to defile everything about worship. How so? Because, as Malachi answers this charge, he says that in effect they are saying that the table of the Lord is contemptible! Here is the word “despise” again--not only do they despise the name of the Lord, they think the table, that is the altar, is worthless. Because the people brought defiled gifts they did not think the altar and the ritual was worthwhile.
How exactly did they despise the altar and offer defiled things? Here then are the specifics. In verse 8 the prophet says, "When you offer the blind for a sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer the lame, and the sick, is that not evil?” He is talking about animals. The people knew they had to bring animal sacrifices to the sanctuary for their worship--an animal for a sin offering, another animal for the burnt offering, a third animal for the peace offering--three animals for the family group every time they came to the sanctuary! That could get expensive, of course. And so they brought the animals that were diseased, crippled, blind, and worthless, animals they could not sell or use, but they could offer them to God. After all, God was only going to burn them up anyway. So this was a very practical thing to do--so they thought--fulfill the ritual, and get rid of the crummy livestock at the same time.
But Malachi challenges them: “Offer them to your governor; see if he will be pleased with you, or respect you”--says the Lord of armies. Try paying your taxes to the government by giving it worthless things. No, the government gets its hand into the paycheck first and takes its share right off the top. Always. But God is more important than the government; so why do people think they can get away with giving him inferior gifts?
And the people in Malachi’s day are not the only ones guilty of this. When I was growing up people used to collect things for missionaries or disaster relief, and they often found that people had given junk, things that they could not use any more. What happened to sacrificial giving? This was cleaning out the attic. And, when people give to the Lord in worship, it is often what is left over after they plan everything else that they want to do with their money. The standard in worship from the beginning is that God gets the first and the best. The first-born animal, the first fruit from the trees and the field, go to God; and whatever is given to God has to be perfect, it has to be the best. This is true of physical gifts as well as spiritual service. Our money, our time, our service--God’s people must give the best they have to him; and in all things he must have the pre-eminence (Col. 1:18).
In the next section the prophet instructs the people what they should do. They have a choice. If they feel that they have violated the holy things, then all they can do, and do quickly, is pray to the Lord for forgiveness (v. 9). “Now, entreat the face of God that he may be gracious to us.” The expression is bold, but simple--they have to pray for divine favor (the face of God usually represents his favor). The motivation is that God may be gracious. The word “gracious” implies that they do not deserve God’s favor, but rather his judgment, for “grace” is undeserved favor.
The reason for the urgent prayer is that the people are guilty: “this is from your hands” is an idiom in the book that means, “this is what you have produced.” Will God be pleased or will he respect those who do this? The implied answer to the rhetorical question is that God has no pleasure in or respect for the worshiper who offers to God something that is ruined or worthless.
But on the other hand, if they are going to keep worshiping like this, the prophet declares, “O that someone would shut the doors so that you might not kindle fire on my altar gratuitously.” Malachi thinks it is better to lock the doors of the temple and keep the people out. If they continue to worship this way, then the fire they light on the altar will be worthless. In stating this the prophet uses the word “gratuitously, without a cause”; it forms a word play on their seeking God’s grace, for it is from the same root (khanan). “Grace” is undeserved merit; “gratuitous” is for no reason, without a cause. In this passage, the latter meaning applies, for their worship would be worthless, pointless, for no reason, a waste of time. God takes no pleasure in worthless worship; in fact, he rejects it! If people do not do it with love and devotion, but only out of compulsion to follow a ritual, their gift will be worthless, and they will be rejected.
What would be the outcome of shutting down the temple and keeping false worship out? Turning to the Gentiles. In verse 11 we have one of the early predictions of Gentile faith: if the Israelites reject the Lord, the nations will not. So, from the rising of the sun to its setting, the Gentiles will worship him. This is a figure of speech called merism, two opposites are stated for the meaning of the totality. Rising of the sun is in the morning, setting is in the evening-all day; the rising is in the east, the setting in the west-everywhere. All day long and everywhere the nations will worship and magnify the Lord. Moreover, they will burn incense and offer pure sacrifices to the Lord. The burning of incense goes with offering prayers, and offering pure sacrifices goes with the obedience of faith, for to do that they would have to prepare for the worship. In time this is what happened, God turned to the Gentiles. And when the Gospel went to all nations, people celebrated the pure offering, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Righteous.
Malachi, in contrast to the prospect of others worshiping correctly, turns back to his audience to reiterate their sin and explain it further. “But you are profaning it.” The word “profane” in Hebrew means to treat or make as common (English “profane” means outside the temple), ordinary; the word is the antonym of “holy.” Their holy meal in the sanctuary was not holy; it was a profane or common meal because they brought ordinary animals. They said, or thought, that the table was defiled, and its food contemptible. Of course, they would not say this--they were priests, after all, and they had to say the right things in the services; but in the way that they worshiped they were saying this.
And even worse, Malachi says they are not even trying to hide their true feelings. In verse 13 he adds, “And you say, ‘What a drudgery!’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of armies.” The snorting must be some kind of gesture or expression of disgust; to them it was a drudgery to do it, a pain in the neck. There was no joy in worship, no delight in serving God.
This attitude prevails today in so many circles of worship where the ritual has become a routine, then a drudgery. People go through the service, but it is something to endure. And sometimes ministers, for one reason or another, might become bored, or indifferent, perhaps burned out. They need to turn the service over to someone else until they can get their spiritual perspective restored. Genuine praise and thanksgiving will go a long way to bringing life back into the service; but a large part of the problem is going to be concerned with how the Word of God is used--and that will be Malachi’s next sermon.
The Lord asks through the prophet, “When you bring injured, crippled and diseased animals to offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” What an insult! The message concludes with a curse: “Cursed is the deceiver who has in his flock an acceptable male [sacrifice], and offers to God a blemished thing”--literally, a ruined or corrupt thing (the word is used for things like spoiled milk). The Hebrew word “curse” basically means removed from blessing, or loss of the blessing. This will be the way the next sermon of Malachi begins--how God curses their blessing because they do not obey Scripture. But if people keep the best for themselves, and offer God the junk, God may take away even the best they have (see Deut. 8), or even their lives, as he did in Acts 5 when Ananias and Sapphira lied to God about what they were giving. So God will not long tolerate false worship; he will get rid of it, or as John warns in Revelation 2 and 3, he will remove the candlestick”
And then, if this curse lands, if the deceivers are removed from the place of blessing, the Lord’s name will be reverenced among the Gentiles. Even among the Gentiles it was known what the Lord could do, and so they feared him.
The Lord Jesus Christ told the woman at the well that the Father was seeking worshipers who would worship in spirit and truth. Worship must be honest and spiritual; the worshipers must put their heart into it and offer to God the best that they have, and the best that they can do. To get to this point they have to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord so that they will appreciate more who he is and what he has done. The greater the knowledge of the object of worship, the greater the worship. But if people do not venture there in their faith, but live selfish and self-indulgence lives, then the worship will be a drudgery and their gifts perfunctory and worthless.
Malachi had to deal with a variety of sins among the clergy and the people. In the last section he had to deal with their “cheap” worship and contempt for the ritual; and in the next section he will address the problem of divorce and marriage to pagans. Whenever there are such violations out of control in the people--people who claim to be followers of the LORD--it is almost always due to bad teaching. Somehow the people had the idea that these things were not sins, or that they could do them and get away with them. And so Malachi turns in this passage to address the priests, these ministers who were failing to do what they were supposed to do. Blaming the priests for the problems in no way let the guilty off the hook; they were responsible for their sin even if they were unaware of what Scripture said about it. But the guilt was greater for those who by their false teaching condoned sin in the congregation.
The short message breaks down into three parts: the condemnation (vv. 1-4), the covenant standard (vv. 5-7) and the charge (vv. 8, 9). It is constructed for the greatest rhetorical effect: he first condemns them for their failure in ministry--this would have grabbed their attention, but also sparked their interest to see what he was so upset about; then he lays out the standard for their spiritual service so they would know what they have failed to do, and finally he states explicitly what they have done wrong in the light of that standard.
The passage focused on the priests themselves, but also spoke to the guilty members of the congregation to remind them that no matter what the priests said in their teaching, they were to obey Scripture. Jesus in his day had to remind the people that when the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat (Matt. 23) they had to listen to them--because there the Pharisees read and explained the text. But then Jesus also said to beware of their false teachings, their leaven, and be careful not to do what they do. So the laity must be discerning, they must know the Word of God well enough to discern when the teacher or preacher gets it wrong. And all these applications remain today, even though Malachi preached about 2400 years ago. Those who minister, that is, those who teach the Bible, whether pastors, teachers, missionaries, or any others, must be very careful how they interpret and apply Scripture. And those who hear the Scripture taught must study it to know if the message or lesson was true or not. Today we are falling down on both counts.
Who today is to teach the Bible? Well, Hebrews 5 makes it very clear that all believers are to teach God’s word. The writer tells those early Hebrew Christians that they had been in the faith long enough that they ought to have been teachers by then, but instead they still needed someone to teach them the basics, they still were drinking milk and not eating the solid food of biblical doctrine. Some Christians will be called by God to pastor or to teach, and they will give their full time to this ministry; but every Christian must be able to teach something, to someone. If they cannot, then all that can be said is that they have not grown spiritually.
The sermon begins with the bold, direct confrontation: “The instruction is for you, O priests.” One can only envision the temple filled with priests, Levites, and the people, and all of a sudden the prophet stands up to speak and speaks directly and bluntly to the spiritual leaders. They might have anticipated that he would be critical of them, but they were not sure how critical. This would be major.
The announcement is that God would send a curse on them if they did not give glory to his name. This would be a curse on their blessings, something that God said he had already begun to do. These two words are important throughout the Bible. The word “blessing” (and the verb “to bless,” barak) means “enrichment”--physically, spiritually, materially. A blessing is a gift from God, but it is a gift that comes with some empowerment or enablement. What blessings had God given the priests? Well, in addition to the normal blessings for the people of God, the rain, the crops, the families, the homes, peace in their time, their health, and all that, there were the blessings of the priesthood. As priests they were empowered to lead worship, teach the Word of God, announce God’s forgiveness of sin and full atonement, eat from the offerings, dwell in the sanctuaries or the priestly cities, and have the respect of the congregation. It was a wonderful life because God had given them so much.
The opposite of the word “bless” is the word “curse”; it essentially means to ban someone, that is, to remove the person from the place of blessing, or remove the blessing. For example, when God cursed the ground in the beginning, we are told that it would no longer yield its strength in the harvest. And then when Cain was cursed, he had to flee from the fertile soil (the ‘adamah) to be a ceaseless wanderer in the world (the ‘erets, like the outback). Removal of a blessing is therefore a curse; the ultimate curse will be that some people will be removed from eternal blessings because of their unbelief. In Malachi 2 if God cursed the blessings of the priest, it meant that he was rendering them unfit for ministry; if he removed the blessings of priesthood from them, they would have no effective ministry even though they might remain in office. But as this section ends, God would make them contemptible and base in the opinion of the people (v. 9). And this is so true of the household of faith in all ages--because of sin the blessing of God is removed, even though the organization may continue to grind on. Jesus’ warning to the seven churches of Revelation was that he would remove their candlestick, i.e., he would remove their effectiveness as his witnesses in the world--they would cease to be a light to God. In other words, the churches would be dead, and considered worthless and irrelevant by people.
What did Malachi’s priests do to warrant this warning? They did not give glory to God’s name. Malachi presents this idea in the form of a conditional clause: “If you will not obey, if you will not take it to heart to give glory to my name.” The verb “to hear” (shama’) has the meaning of respond to, or obey. The priests heard the Word of God read, but they were not hearing it. Jesus had to tell people that if they had ears to hear, they should listen. This is the expected faith-response. And if they will not listen, they will not make a decision (“take it to heart”). He is talking about the faith commitment to do God’s will.
And in this case, that is “to give glory to my name.” The “name” of Yahweh, of course, means his nature, his person and his works, his character, who he is. How does one give glory to a name that is already glorious. Well, the word “glory” (kabod) comes from the basic word “to be heavy”--what is heavy is important. To honor someone, say a father or a mother as the commandment says, means to give them their proper importance, their proper weight of authority. But how does this work with God, who has it all? The only way we can glorify the LORD is by extending the knowledge of him in the world, we add to his reputation by what we say (praise) and what we do (righteousness). To glorify God in everything we do means that we cause God to be seen in everything we do. If we sin, or fail to do what he wants us to do in worship and service, we do not glorify his name, but give people the wrong impression about God. And this is what the priests were doing.
Another example may be helpful. In Numbers 20 when the people murmured against God because there was no water, God told Moses to speak to the rock in the presence of the people so that water would come out for them. But Moses lost his temper; he said, “Listen you rebels, must we bring you water from this rock?” And he struck the rock twice and water came out. But because of that, God told Moses that he would not bring the Israelites into the promised land--that blessing would not be his, but another’s. What did Moses do wrong? He was angry and impatient, he took credit for the mission (“we”), and he disobeyed the Word of God. This was not the picture of God that he was to convey; and so God made sure he was sanctified in the eyes of the people by punishing Moses. As God said when the sons of the priests offered strange fire on the altar (Lev. 10), “I must be sanctified in them that draw near to me [=priests], and before all the people I must be glorified.” Those who represent God, represent God. That is an awesome task. But if by their words or their works they bring down God’s reputation or character, they fail to glorify his name. And God will not let anyone destroy his name.
Malachi has not yet stated what the priests were doing wrong; but whatever it is that they were doing was ruining the picture that people had of God.
Now the Word of the LORD tells what this curse on the priests will be. The first statement is “I will rebuke your seed.” This is not very clear. For God to rebuke something means to change it, stop it, replace it (recall Jesus’ rebuking the winds and the waves). But the word “seed” is difficult. It could mean the literal “seed” in the fields, that is, the crops. The Book of Haggai actually discusses how God punished the nation a little earlier by bringing a blight on their crops. So that is a possibility here if the priests and the people do not obey. But since this is addressed primarily to priests, “your seed” would refer to their descendants, that is, that because of their sins their line would be stopped from being priests. This happened in the beginning of Samuel when God removed Eli and his corrupt sons from the priesthood and chose another line. This interpretation would either mean that the seed of the priests was already as bad as their fathers, or that such a curse on the father would be severely felt if he knew that by his actions he put his descendants out of ministry. Either one is possible. But this seems to be the best explanation.
Some of the ancient versions read the word as a different word here. The Hebrew word “seed” is almost the same as the word for “arm,” just a vowel or two change in the same letters. They thought that the arm of the priests was rebuked. This would mean he could not offer sacrifices on the altar, he could not lift his arm to give the priestly blessing, or he was physically incapacitated in some way that he was no longer qualified to be the priest (priests, according to Leviticus 21, 22, had to be healthy and whole--no broken bones, no hunchback, no physical defects at all, because they were conveying to the people the ideal).
So Malachi 2:3a is one of those lines in the Bible that we know what it means basically--their ministry is being judged--but we do not know the precise idea in the expression that the prophet intended. And, it is not impossible that he had here a deliberate ambiguity (as the prophets often did), meaning he had a couple of things in mind and this phrase covered them.
However that line is interpreted, it leads into the rest of the verse, which is very clear--graphically clear. God said to the priests, “I will smear offal on your faces, even the offal of your feasts, and you shall be carted away with it.” Zechariah used the same kind of language to describe the sins of the priests that contributed to judgment on the nation; in chapter 3 he portrayed the high priest as being clothed with filthy (=excrement be-spattered) garments. These post-exilic prophets did not mince words. Now then, in the ritual the priests would have to sacrifice animals, cut out the internal unclean parts, carry them outside the camp and burn them, wash, change their clothes, and come back in. That was the normal ritual to get rid of the unclean things. But God said he would smear it across their faces--making them as unclean as the unclean parts, and so they would be carried out to the rubbish heap. Obviously this is figurative language, for God did not do this literally. But what he meant was that he was declaring them unclean, and as a result they were not allowed in the sanctuary. Their ministry was over! This would have absolutely overwhelmed Malachi’s audience. He is saying they were unclean, disqualified, not welcome in the holy place, cursed by God. They thought they were doing fine. But Malachi says when God removes them from his service, then they will know that it was the LORD who did this--not just the raving of some prophet. It is a serious matter to attempt to speak for God, or minister in his name.
What was the purpose of the LORD’s judging these corrupt priests? Verse 4 says he will do this so that his covenant would remain with Levi. There is no specific covenant laid out in the Bible with Levi--Levi was the son of Jacob and not a priest--and there was no covenant laid out with the tribe of Levi, the Levites. But because the LORD chose the tribe of Levi to be the priestly tribe, that choice was considered a covenant. A covenant essentially includes the LORD’s calling of people, his promised blessings to them, and their obligations to the agreement; it is then sealed with a sacrifice. God called the tribe of Levi to service, gave them the wonderful blessings of ministry, but laid out their obligations in this arrangement, and then sealed it with the ordination sacrifice in Leviticus 8. That is what is meant by the covenant of Levi--it is the ministry of the priests.
Now the prophet reminds the priests of the calling that they received--what their ministry was supposed to be. This will make his charge against them all the more glaring by contrast. First he sets for the nature of the covenant with Levi, the nature of the ministry: it is a covenant of life and peace. The words “life and peace” in some way explain the nature of this covenant; in all probability, they state what the covenant, what the ministry, should produce. If the priests were faithfully serving in the sanctuary, speaking the truth, offering the sacrifices for atonement, praying for the people, then the worshipers would find life and peace through them. If they believed and obeyed the word, they would live; if they confessed and brought sacrifices, they would have peace with God. This is what any form of ministry is about--people need the life and the peace that God gives through the forgiveness of sin and the guidance of his Word.
But God reminds these priests that the earlier priests not only accepted the ministry and were ordained in it, they understood what an awesome task that was. God said that he gave life and peace to the early priests who were going to minister them, and he did this that they might fear God--reverential fear that leads to adoration, obedience, and worship. If any people receive such a position as priest, minister, pastor, spiritual director, and teacher without it striking the fear of the LORD in them, then they have missed the fundamental principle of the service of the LORD. It is service because he is the LORD God. That he would choose us is amazing; that he would entrust his word to us is frightening. But if the calling is received with faith and understanding, it will make us into more devout worshipers. That is what happened with the early priests--they feared the LORD and stood in awe of his name. That kind of reverential fear in the leaders will prompt devotion and dedication in the people.
The LORD continues to describe the ministry of the priesthood as he intended it to be. First he speaks of them as teachers. “The law of truth” could be interpreted either as “true instruction” (for “Law,” torah, means “instruction,” and “truth” can mean the content of the instruction was true, i.e., biblical), or “faithful instruction” (because “truth” is related to the basic idea of reliable, dependable). Probably the first is intended, given the context of this message; but that would also include the second, because if people teach the truth, then they are faithful to their calling.
Besides, the contrasting clause clarifies this: “unrighteousness was not found in his lips”--the early priests did not say things that were wrong, that did not conform to the standard of the Torah.1 They taught the truth--and that was their primary task (see Deut. 33:10).
But second, they did not just teach the truth, they lived it. They walked with God in peace and uprightness. “To walk” is a metaphor for the activities of life, conduct. To walk “with God” means to live one’s life in accordance with the will of God. That would be characterized by “peace” and “uprightness.” To walk with God one has to be at peace with God; and to be at peace with God one has to be upright. So the prophet is affirming that God gave the covenant to the Levites, and they were faithful in teaching the truth and living it out before the people.
And third, to no surprise, the faithful teaching and the obedient life caused many people to turn away from iniquity. The ministry had results--people changed to follow the LORD. They put away their iniquity and followed after righteousness.
And this is still the pattern of effective spiritual leadership: teach the Word and live the life. People will hear God’s Word, but they will see that it makes a difference in life, and many will respond.
And so the prophet declares the central principle that should govern the priests’ service of the LORD: “The lips of the priest must keep knowledge, and people must be able to seek that Law at his mouth.” Why? Because he is the messenger of the LORD (the word “messenger,” Hebrew mal’ak, is the key theme of the book--Malachi, “my messenger”).
The point is based on the blessing of Levi in Deuteronomy 33:10. There were three duties the priests were to perform: teach the Law of God, burn incense (i.e., make intercessory prayer), make sacrifices (i.e., be able to help people get to God through the provision of the atonement). But first and foremost, they were teachers. And whatever else might be said about teaching, the teacher must have knowledge, here the knowledge of God’s Word. There is no place in ministry for ignorant ministers, for ministers who have not and will not study, for ministers who do not use the Word of God much in their messages. The people must feel confidence that their minister knows what God said and what it means, and that they could go with their questions and the minister could answer from Scripture. This is central to ministry, to the faith itself. If there is no solid teaching, worship become a meaningless ritual (chapter 1), and the standards of righteousness irrelevant or unknown. Whoever speaks for God must remember that he or she is God’s messenger; the message is not theirs, no matter how clever they might be--it is God’s message.
Verse 8 starts with “But,” a sharp contrast to the standard in verse 7. That is an ominous way to begin when the ideal has just been set forth. “But you have turned aside out of the way.” They had deliberately changed the course of their service--they did not study, they did not tell people the truth, they did not live out the faith before the people. The ministry did not change--they turned away. They probably thought that they were simply making practical innovations for their age, but they were corrupting the plan of God.
And by their teaching they caused many to stumble. This no doubt refers to things like the first chapter where the priests were allowing corrupt gifts to be brought, and to the next oracle which is concerned with divorce and marrying pagans. The last line of this sermon gives us an idea of how this worked: they were showing respect of persons over the teaching of the Law. They applied the Law differently to different people, perhaps more leniently with the rich and powerful, the same kind of favoritism that James decried in his epistle. It is evil to use the Word of God this way, to cause people to sin through the teaching, or to show favoritism through it. The other prophets spoke of the false teachers who called evil good and good evil. And we are seeing a rise in this kind of application of Scripture today. Jesus said it would have been better for that one not to have been born than to cause a little one to stumble.
They dishonored God in their ministry; God will now dishonor them. He will leave them alone, let them continue for a while, but now that they have been exposed, everyone will know that they are base and low. How horrible to try to be a priest in the sanctuary and know that everyone knows you are a reprobate and condemned by God. That person would rather disappear into the countryside. How horrible to try to be a minister without God’s presence or power.
This was a sermon addressed to the priests, but the topic concerned the knowledge and use of Scripture in ministry. The principles set forth here certainly apply directly to people who are fully active in ministry today--pastors, teachers, counselors, and the like. How they handle the Word is critical; they dare not make mistakes. James said that it was a dangerous thing to teach. Perhaps we rush into it too eagerly, not realizing how serious a matter it is to speak for God.
But as with Israel, so in the church, all believers are a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2). What the priests were to the people, the people were supposed to be to the world. Teachers of God’s Word. The Great Commission made this clear: Go into all the world … and make disciples. Disciples are learners; we are the teachers. Christians, especially if they have been Christians for some time, must know the Word of God and be able to teach it and live it so that they may influence people toward righteousness. It is a wonderful, but solemn obligation.
Marriage is an institution of God. It accords with the dictates of nature and the laws of divine inspiration. It was an integral ingredient in the happiness of Eden, and so is an integral part of society. It heightened, it perfected, the pure, fresh, and serene joys of that Garden, the scene of every beauty and the temple of God; and so it has been perpetuated to this present hour as asocial blessing to soothe and sustain us amidst the depressing and difficulty circumstances of our fallen condition.
Jesus threw a distinct holiness and grandeur around this particular relationship of a man and a woman. To him it was a blessed estate, and so he clothed it with honor and sublimity. He ratified its contract; he guarded its obligations; he expounded its laws; and he graced its celebration with his presence. In fact, the first sign that his hands performed was at a bridal festival where he turned the water into wine for the joyous celebrations to continue.
The apostles caught the idea of their master, and invested it with mystic solemnity by presenting it as a type of the substantial, invisible and everlasting union existing between Christ and his bride, the church. Accordingly, it involves the most tender, close, and lasting ties that can unite human beings together in this life. It combines the earthly interest, fortunes, and happiness of two people, a man and a woman, and it influences the destiny of many others. The interests of the couple united, the triumph of truth in their union, and the upward progress of humanity in their arena are all dependent on the preservation of God’s institution of marriage.
Unfortunately, things have not turned out very well. If we are to look to the institution of marriage for progress in truth, stability, and progress in society, then we will be disappointed. From the very beginning of Genesis people have attempted to change God’s institution of marriage to suit their desires. That plan was simple and clear: one man and one woman becoming one flesh throughout their earthly lives, to produce a godly seed.
But the human race embraced every form of profane and vile activity; and within the marriage relationship the laws of God were broken at every turn. Formally or informally, marriages were dissolved, because all these sins in one way or another affected the family. And when the family serenity and unity is destroyed, the spiritual life and worship falls as well. In the modern world the dissolution of a marriage is rarely considered a sin; rather, it is an option that may be taken to avoid difficulties or tensions. Oh, it is regarded as a tragedy, certainly a stressful experience, and a failure on some level. But a sin, or even an embarrassment? Only in the strictest of religious settings. To God, however, divorce is a sin, no matter what the causes or circumstances, or who is the guilty party or who is the innocent party. A divorce, according to his word, is the breaking of a covenant, a falling short of the standard of God, and a serious and painful complication of life that seems never to go away.
And we find no better description of this violation and its pain than in the Bible than in Malachi 2. No passage in the Bible deals with all the details of marriage and divorce. Rather, each passage comes from a particular set of circumstances or a particular question. Malachi was dealing with a situation where a good number of men got rid of their Hebrew wives and married pagan women. The prophet gave no details, only a description of this as a treachery--to God and the covenant as well as to the wives. Modern counselors would look into what went wrong with their original marriages, or what in their personality needed to be addressed, which is certainly helpful. But the prophets wanted everyone to realize that the failure was a sin, and that to go ahead in life with God they first had to acknowledge that, or as we say, own it, at least own their part in something that fell short of the will of God. If reconciliation was possible, it was to be pursued; if not, then the people had to accept responsibility for their acts, find forgiveness and healing from God, and get on with their lives--like any other person forgiven and restored.
Malachi delivered his burden to the people of Israel well after the time of the return and revivals of Ezra and Nehemiah, somewhere between 440 and 400 B.C. What we have in the book is a number of his messages; we have them because they are part of the divine revelation of God and timeless in their relevance. But what this prophet faced was an antagonistic audience, much like today in these matters. In the earlier days when people heard the Word of the LORD they trembled and listened; but in Malachi’s day when they heard the Word they challenged it. This should not surprise us. For people to sin, say, for them to get rid of their spouses in order to marry pagans, biblical Law would have to be challenged, qualified, or set aside in some way. It cannot be ignored, because it stands there as a witness. And in the days of the prophets, a Malachi was there to declare the standard. After the captivity many folks got carried away with their freedom. When they divorced and married women who worshiped false gods, Malachi presented their actions as a defilement of the holiness of the LORD. Malachi’s message was similar to that of Ezra and Nehemiah; but he alone focused on the pain all this caused and on the fact that God hates it. His message follows two major sins, first the divorces, and then the marriages to foreign women.
Malachi begins by laying down a principle: although Israel was created by one Father, they were guilty of treachery against the covenant. The first verse affirms the principle by rhetorical question that they had one father who created them; and the second half expresses the prophet’s amazement over their violation of the covenant. The prophet at this starting point speaks in general terms to get the people’s attention; when he has it, he narrows the focus to the actual sins involved. As we shall see in these first three verses Malachi was actually condemning intermarriage with pagans; and these intermarriages gave the occasion for the divorces. And since the message begins with the affirmation of the sovereignty of God, then the message is that unfaithfulness to the marriage in this way is disloyalty to God. But the principle as it will be related to marriage is well summarized by Hengstenberg: The one who annulled the distinction between an Israelite and a heathen woman proved by this very action that he had already annihilated the distinction between the God of Israel and the idols of the heathen, that he no longer had the theocratic consciousness of God (Christologie, III:381).
Malachi’s reference to their creator as “father” recalls the language of Malachi 1:6, “Is not God our father?” And the use of “father” recalls the covenant relationship that God established in Egypt and confirmed by covenant at Sinai (“let my son go”; see Exod. 4:22; Deut. 32:18; Isa. 1:2; and Jer. 3:9). Spiritual unity should have existed because they had a close relationship with God and with one another by means of the covenant. But more to the point, because loyalty to the covenant was paramount, the Law strictly prohibited intermarriage with the pagans (see Exod. 34:11 and Deut. 7:1-4). Such marriages would destroy worship and undermine the entire covenant. To do this, then, was to dishonor God and act faithlessly against fellow members of the covenant. It was all unfaithfulness to God, for sin against another person was sin against God. And it still is.
The sin is introduced as a “treachery” before the sin is defined. “A treachery had been committed”--that would get the attention of the audience. The word for “treachery” here means a willful betrayal of confidence, trust or truth. One who is treacherous is a traitor, unreliable and disloyal; and a traitor is dangerous. The term is bagad (bah-gad), related to beged (“garment”). In the Jewish writings the verb came to mean “act violently, faithlessly, and rebel.” So the people had been unfaithful to God, traitors to the covenant. This was very harsh language; the sin must have had greater implications than, say, a couple not getting along and divorcing.
Moving from the general description, the prophet now identified the exact problem. Malachi’s style is first to give the theological principle (against which there was no argument), then the general rebuke (over which people would be concerned), and then the actual sin (which would hit home). Even here it is not until the second half of the verse that it is clear what he is talking about.
The first thing we note is the identity of the guilty. He mentioned Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem in order. These are figures of speech (metonymies of subject, meaning the people in these areas). Israel was mentioned because it was the name of the covenant people; Judah and Jerusalem emphasized the center of the theocratic kingdom, the religious center of the nation. These heightened the boldness of the sin--it was no marginal problem of people who had no biblical training; it was in the very center of the political and religious community.
The force of the verse lies in the idea of the treachery, which was paralleled with the word “abomination.” This makes it something that God loathes, something that is repugnant to God, and therefore tabu. It is clear that the intermarriage of Israelites with pagans was repugnant to God; and it should have then been a matter of reverential dread to the people as well. We are talking about bringing idolatry into the family of Israel! Did they not learn from their history and their exile?
The reason that God loathed it was that it “defiled the holiness” of God that he loves. The words “defile, profane” and “holiness” are cleverly put together--they are antonyms. “Holiness” means “distinct, set apart, separate” to God. “Defile” means “common, profane, separated from the sanctuary” or from God. These people made common that which was to be distinct.
What did Malachi mean by “the holiness” of the Lord? It could refer to the temple. The idea would be that some Israelites were bringing pagan idolaters into the Lord’s house and therefore profaning it. Support for this view comes from the fact that the Lord loves Zion (Ps. 78:68; 87:2) and prohibits idolatry from the sanctuary.
But the word “holiness” may refer to the nation itself. The support for this view is a little more convincing. First, Israel is called a holy nation (Deut. 7:6) and his sanctuary (Ps. 114:2). Second, the immediate context is based on the fact that God made them one nation. Third, Malachi begins his book on the fact that God loves Israel. And fourth, intermarriage with pagans profaned the holy seed (Ezra 9:2; Jer. 2:3; Deut. 14:2). God established the marriage laws (Lev. 21:14, 15 and Neh. 13:29) for the people he loved (=chose) in order that they might be distinct to him. Now, however, Israel had profaned that holiness and made themselves common. The last clause explains how they did this: “by marrying the daughter (worshiper) of a foreign god.” This expression, we know from Jeremiah 2:27, refers to a worshiper of a strange or foreign deity. It would destroy Israelite worship, and therefore the covenant. The text uses the singular “daughter,” but it means the practice was typical of a widespread sin in the land.
The message brought a clear rebuke from the prophet because a violation of the covenant has been committed. Malachi says, “May the LORD cut off … .” This is not an announcement of doom; it is an imprecation of the prophet as if to say the people deserve this judgment. But a curse from the prophet was warning enough that if such sin was persisted in it would bring the penalty.
The idea of being “cut off” needs some explanation. In its uses for divine punishment, the verb “cut off” can be used for the death penalty at the hands of the people, for premature death at the hand of God, or excommunication from the religious community. One of the latter two is probably in the mind of the prophet--God would deal with this matter if the righteous in the land did not.
Who stood to be so “cut off” by God? The answer, through some poetic expressions, indicates that none are excluded. The general statement is given first: “the man who does this.” Then the specifics: “him that wakes and him that answers.” There are many suggested interpretations for this difficult phrase. One thing is clear, the two different ideas in it are opposites, and so the expression forms a figure of speech (a merism)--everyone from the waker to the answerer. One very possible interpretation would be to say the waker and answerer refer to watchmen in the city. Perhaps with the reference to the “tents” we can get the idea of watchmen at either end of the camp, one calling out and the other answering. Thus, it would mean everyone, from one end of the settlement to the other. Judgment for this kind of sin applied to everyone, rich or poor, leader or follower. No one would be exempt.
The last expression is set off by itself in the poetry: “him that offers a offering (a gift, minkhah) to Yahweh of armies.” The point is that judgment would fall on such covenant violators, even if they appeared to be faithful and generous worshipers of God (albeit hypocritically). This kind of gift was not usually a blood sacrifice, but a gift of foods and produce. To give this gift along with the blood sacrifice would be the way to indicate gratitude for God’s provision and dedication of life to his service. Here is real treachery. The outward sign of dedication to the LORD was betrayed by the treachery of uniting with paganism in marriage. Such dedication is a delusion. It is an attempt to gloss over the sin, to salve the conscience, and to appear faithful to the community.
Now a second thing that they did is mentioned by the prophet. This second sin grew out of the first, for in finding and marrying pagan women they put away their primary wives by divorce. The two sins here are inseparably bound together, but the prophet turns his attention now to the treachery on the personal level. Marrying an idolatrous woman was one thing; but dumping a legitimate wife for her is another. Both violate the covenant and bring pain to God, but the latter causes great pain to the women who were put away.
The picture is painted dramatically. The wives who had been put away were in great mourning and anguish. The women came to the altar to pray, but their tears intermingled with their prayers. Their woe rose to God with such intensity that God no longer could regard (give attention to) the offerings brought by the men. So, in effect the men covered the altar with tears and sighing--not their tears, for they were cavalier about it all and thought God was pleased with their gifts, but with their wives’ tears, because by causing the pain the men were actually presenting their wives’ grief to God and not a sacrifice. That is what their hand produced, as Malachi put it. And all such hypocritical worship was completely rejected by God.
Here were men, calloused and less than loyal to the historic faith, coming to the sanctuary with their impressive gifts of dedication and thanksgiving. But over here were their unfortunate wives, now abandoned, praying and crying to God for help. Their tears were what God saw, not the offerings of their husbands. There is scarcely a thought more solemn and searching than the thought that few, if any, of our prayers go up to God unqualified and unchecked. We pray for something, but our sins cry out for something else, and the prayer is hindered. After all, Peter reminded all Christian men to treat their wives with respect as joint heirs of the covenant “so that nothing will hinder [their] prayers” (1 Pet. 3:7).
The response of the men was again to challenge the word of the prophet: “Wherein have we dealt treacherously?” There is a cold defiance in the words of the people, a defiance that comes from a rationalized sin. They had been told by the prophet that God was rejecting their worship; but their response was not fear and repentance. It was a proud challenge to “his view.” They thought that if they did the worship routine well enough and gave to the sanctuary, they would be highly favored in the courts of heaven. Well God not only did not need their gifts--he did not want them. But this is what we are seeing today, people entering all kinds of religious service with new marriages, never having admitted, let alone confessed, that there has been sin.
The answer to the peoples’ question was a stinging answer from the prophet. He takes them back to the marriage of their youth, a marriage covenant that God himself witnessed, and so one signed and sealed in heaven. Here is the rebuke of a prophet most forceful and precise; here is pastoral counseling at its best. The fact that God was witness tells us that marriage is a covenant, whether there was a ceremony or not. To agree to live together as man and wife is a covenant, and God is the witness. To dissolve the marriage is to break the covenant, to break an oath. Several passages use covenant language for marriage: Proverbs 2:17; Ezekiel 16:7 (applying it to God and the nation); Ruth 4:11 (witnessed by the community) and Genesis 24:60 (based on love and faithfulness). The covenant agreement of a marriage is to be based on loyal love, characterized by the protection and care of the partners, and dedicated to producing righteous, believing children that God may provide.
The expression “wife of your youth” should be understood as “youthful wife,” the wife the man married when he was young and full of love and devotion and ambition and plans. Pastoral counseling tries to get the parties of a marriage to go back and recall what they had and what they wanted together. She was the wife of his youth, the one who had his first affections when they were the strongest, the one who probably gave him children, the one who had lived through it all with him. Now she had become the scorn and loathing of his later years.
Malachi also says that the wife is “your companion.” This adds to the treachery. The word comes from a verb “to unite,” or in our language we would say things like “tie the knot” or “be united” in marriage. She was not only the wife of his youth, but his comrade, his partner. She was not a servant or a slave; she was a partner. They were bound together as one in the eyes of God. They shared everything together, grief and joys, successes and failures, hard times and good times. But now, these women were being cast aside as an old garment for something new and fresh and exciting, but thoroughly pagan. Whatever was there that fit the description of “holy matrimony” had now become nothing more than a “common coupling” or “profane fornication.”
All of these qualifications of marriage were piled up by the prophet to enforce how treacherous this all was. The word “treachery” now appears for the third time in the oracle--it was against women like this that the treachery was committed. The word has a use in Job that illustrates the meaning. Job’s friends are described as treacherous as a brook. The brook provided water, as the text explains, so that people became dependent on it. But when Job went to his friends for help, the brook had dried up--when that happens with literal brooks, caravans in the desert die. One cannot depend on a traitor, and that is the case of a treacherous husband--or wife as the case might be.
The main idea of the passage is clear: God planned that a man and a woman would become one, be partners, share everything, build a life together, and please God. Their personal blessing depended on preserving this covenant; and the well-being of the nation depended on the marriages doing what they were supposed to do.
Malachi was not yet through. The final section is clearly set off as a warning for those who are in a marriage. They must understand its purpose if they are going to preserve it.
Verse 15 is the most difficult verse in the book. The two thoughts center on the meaning of “one” and the “residue of the Spirit”: “Did he not make one, even though he had the residue of the spirit? What then is the one? Producing a godly seed.” One view takes the “one” back to the creation of Eve with Adam. It would be normal to think of Genesis 2 because Adam and Eve were to be “one flesh.” God could have done it differently--he had the residue of the Spirit, that is, he had all the resources and options available. But he chose one wife for one man. The difficulty of this view is that monogamy does not guarantee godly children would be produced. The two would have to be committed to the faith and to the training of children in it.
Perhaps a better view is that the “one” refers to the nation of Israel, the covenant people. This view has the support of the book that presents the nation as the creation of God. Why did he choose one nation, Israel? --to produce a godly seed in the earth. Pagan intermarriage and the dissolution of good marriages would ruin the chance to do this. God wanted a nation; he could have chosen and formed others, or more. But by focusing on one as the means of bringing blessing to the world, he would form a righteous people on earth.
Therefore Malachi warned them to take heed not to deal treacherously, against the wife and therefore against the covenant plan of God. The verb “take heed” means “to watch carefully.” It calls for constant vigilance and concern, like a night watchman watching the city. The husband must be careful and alert to protect the marriage covenant from any treachery, by himself or from outside.
The line is powerful: “I hate putting away.” Some of the ancient versions actually misinterpreted the line to say, “if a man hates his wife he should put her away.” But the context is against divorce, and an exception as wide as this would not fit. What Malachi is doing is offering the quintessential reason for trying to keep a marriage together come what may--God hates divorce.
What does it mean when it says God hates it? When “hate” is used in contrast to “love” in passages, as it is in Malachi 1, it has the sense of “reject” and love would have the sense of “choose.” But when the word is used separately, as it is in this particular passage, it adds the idea of “to detest, abhor” to the rejection. We can see from this that God is emotionally involved in the lives of his people. He hates it when they destroy their marriages, because he knows the pain that will cause, and the effect that will have on the faith for the future.
But God adds something else as the object of his hatred--when people cover their garments with violence. This word for violence is a word for social injustice. Their replacing the garment of marriage, their vows of love and devotion to their wives, with acts of social abuse and emotional and even physical violence, God hated as well. The final step in this violence against their wives is putting them away, divorcing them. It creates havoc with the society, violates the family, and spoils the covenant God loves.
The prophet closes with the same warning: Take heed. Be on your guard against such treachery. To do this involves two very important considerations: knowing and agreeing with the plan of the covenant God has made for the people of God, and knowing and agreeing with what God has planned for the marriage. To fulfill the first one must be committed to worshiping and serving God in holiness and righteousness. To fulfill the second one must know that the marriage is a covenant confirmed by God and the wife is a lifelong partner.
To motivate diligence and care for the marriage, Malachi has included three warnings: 1) divorce and remarriage (especially to a pagan) destroys worship; 2) divorce and remarriage (especially to a pagan) hinders producing godly children; and 3) God hates divorce. So the message to the household of faith is clear: if you truly see how the marriage covenant fits the covenant God has made with his people, then you will marry within the faith and you will give all diligence to preserve that marriage come what may. No marriage is perfect. In marriages there will be fallings from the ideal for sure; the marriage may be strained and thinned by friction, or marred and spoiled by a gross contempt for its moral meaning; but the failures and abuse do not destroy or degrade the ideal. We are always called back to the ideal, to the standard of God. For marriage to be “holy” matrimony, it must be pleasing to God; and to develop this there must be a real giving of soul to soul in the Lord, so that the husband and wife truly belong to one another, and truly see their marriage as service to God. Malachi says to take heed that this is preserved--do everything in your power to do it. And it will take such diligence because the way of the world is so different.
Some may find that it is too late, because they have lived through a failed marriage and there is no going back. For them, the message of God’s Word is clear: they must be sure their lives are now right with God, and that means acknowledging their share in the dissolution of a covenant and resolving to serve God now with all devotion and obedience, and that certainly means that in any new relationship they might have they will see to it that it counts for God.
The prophet Malachi had to deal with a different kind of situation now, people who were wondering why God was not doing something to correct the sins and the corruption in the land. The only answer that they could come up with was that God was not just, that he was unwilling to judge sin. The prophet came down hard on this kind of shallow thinking; he made it very clear that if they really wanted the justice of God to be meted out, no one could stand! The individual who understands doctrine will always desire divine grace over divine justice. And we who live in the New Testament age understand this very well: what the justice of God demanded for our sins, the grace of God provided in the death of Christ on our behalf. And now that we are in Christ by faith, there is no condemnation for us.
In this next prophetic message the promise of coming justice, or judgment, is tied to the coming of the Messiah. And so here we get into Malachi’s “eschatology” (the word means the study of last things). In preparation for that we need to think about a couple of things, just to make sure we understand how the prophets wrote. Most informed Christians know that the word “Messiah” (Hebrew mashiakh, pronounced mah-SHE-ack) means “anointed one,” i.e., the anointed king who is to come, Immanuel. The word was translated into Greek with Christos. Every king who came to the thrown of David was “anointed” and so a messiah; but as time passed the prophets began to write of the great coming king, THE Messiah. And his kingdom, or the age that he would usher in, is called the Messianic Age. This Messianic hope was the desire of the nation, as Malachi 3:1 says.
Israel’s prophets looked forward to that golden age when the Messiah would come and judge the wicked and reward the righteous by setting up his universal reign of righteousness and peace. They knew the facts about the Messiah, but they did not have the time sequence of the events of the Messiah. In fact, they did not know that there was going to be a second coming of the Messiah--it appeared that there would be only one. And yet, when they spoke of the coming of Messiah, it seemed confusing--he would suffer and die, but reign gloriously. Peter says that they could not put this together. But with the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of his return, the Old Testament passages began to make very good sense. However, the teacher of the Bible has to explain this occasionally, especially in a passage like ours where it moves from first to second coming with no indication. Bible teachers at times illustrate it with mountain ranges: one can stand and look at a mountain peak, and yet there may be another peak directly behind it with a great valley in between them, but he cannot see the second peak as distinct from the first. This was the view of the prophets--it looked like one coming, but when that coming occurred, one could see a huge value lying before the second peak.
In the prophecy we have before us the prophet will also employ his prophetic name. That name, “Malachi” (Hebrew mal’aki, pronounced mal-ah-KEY), means “my messenger.” The prophet was the LORD’s messenger. And we have seen that the priests were the LORD’s messengers. Now we will see the word used twice, once for John the Baptist and once for Jesus.
The passage opens with a short exchange between the people and the prophet, something that had occurred frequently enough in life for Malachi to make it a sample of the weakness of their faith. There were those who came to the conclusion that people who did wickedly were good in the eyes of the LORD, that he was pleased with them. They must have concluded since God is a righteous God he should have done something to judge the sinners, but since he did not he must have been approving what they were doing. Or, they could word it another way, “Where is the God of justice?” Why was God not doing anything about the sin in the land?
Malachi told his people immediately that their challenges and questions wearied God. This figure of speech is “anthropomorphism,” i.e., using human language that we understand to explain God’s reaction to their endless challenges. As a human would get tired of endless argument and challenge, God was tired, fed up as it were, with these people. They did not think they had wearied God, but they had.
There are a number of reasons why God would delay judgment, apart from the fact that he is slow to anger. God often postponed judgments to give people a better chance to put their houses in order, meaning, to repent and prepare spiritually. We also read in the Bible that our Lord has other sheep to bring from other sheep folds, and he must bring them. Thus, judgment is delayed. But also, in the divine plan of redemption, the Messiah had to come and pay for the sins of the world so that judgment would be poured out on him on behalf of people. Thus, he would not come to judge in the days of Malachi, but in his own time.
But the prophet told his audience that their request was presumptuous--if they really wanted the justice of God then they too would be in trouble. No one could stand under divine justice. But the Judge would come some day.
The entire section through the judgment of verse 5 could be made two separate points; but it seems better to make verse 1 a separate point of the coming, and then the next sections what it means.
Verse 1 has two figures, two people in mind. The first figure will prove to be John the Baptist and the second the Messiah. The LORD announces,
“Behold, I am about to send my messenger who will prepare the way before me.”
The grammatical formula “Behold” plus the participle--almost “here I am sending”-- is a way to express the imminent future. It is what God is about to do--even though 400 years off. In Matthew 11 Jesus made it clear that this was a prophecy of John the Baptist. As the messenger of the LORD, John was to prepare the way before the coming of the LORD. That was to involve a spiritual preparation. Isaiah 40 also prophesies that John will be a voice in the desert preparing the way of the LORD--every valley shall be filled, and the crooked places made straight, so that the LORD may have direct access. The imagery of building a super highway refers to spiritual preparation--the crooked places in the heart had to be straight, and the things missing had to be supplied, so that people would receive the Messiah. John came preaching repentance to prepare people for the Messiah, the Lamb of God.
Jesus does something very significant in his use of Malachi. He changes the pronouns from “my face” to “your face.” In Malachi the LORD was speaking, saying “I ( the LORD) am sending my messenger before my ( the LORD’s) face.” Since Jesus was now in mortal flesh, he wanted to make clear that if John who introduced him and preached repentance was this forerunner in Malachi, then he, Jesus, was the LORD. It was a clear claim of deity.
The second figure in this prophecy is also a messenger, but he is called the messenger of the covenant, that is, the one who was going to bring in the covenant. This would refer to the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, and Isaiah 54. Two things are said about this messenger. First, he is the one that they all strongly desired--he is the Messiah, the king, that people had been longing for. Second, he would come to his temple. Now in the Old Testament the temple is called “the house of the LORD (Yahweh)”; it is God’s house. But here this messenger will come to “his temple.” He is the LORD, meaning, Yahweh of the Old Testament, God in the flesh. And so the second messenger is Jesus himself, the Messiah of Israel.
“Suddenly” he will come. This does not mean quickly, but surprisingly. And yet, the prophecy of Daniel 9 helped the diligent students of the Bible to determine pretty much the time of the appearance of Messiah on earth. And even then his appearance took people by surprise. But when he entered into the temple and cleansed it, then this part of this prophecy found its full meaning.
Note, then, that we have God the sender, and God, the one being sent. We can read this from the New Testament and note the hint of the trinity, as in other Old Testament passages. But in the Old Testament times it would have been somewhat confusing; they would not have thought of Messiah as divine, but certainly pre-existent (according to Daniel 7:14ff.), for he was in heaven and given the kingdom before he appeared on earth. And even though he was born in Bethlehem, his goings were from everlasting (Micah 5:2). The people could not think that he was God, and so concluded he was the first creation of God and would come to earth in some way. But with the full revelation of the New Testament we know that Jesus is indeed God, the second person of the trinity, and we can now understand so many Old Testament passages that spoke of this, but needed confirmation by further revelation. In Christ we have that full revelation--God the Father sent God the Son into the world, and he, God the Son, came to his temple.
This section starts with the rhetorical question, “Who can endure the day of his coming?” The meaning is that no one could survive divine judgment. The reason is that his coming will be like a laundryman’s soap and a refiner’s fire. This did not happen when Jesus was here on earth. His first coming was to establish who he is and to pay for the sins of the world and gain victory over the grave; his second coming will be with fire, judgment, and will bring to fulfillment all things. John the Baptist already made this clear in Matthew 3, the baptism of Jesus. He announced that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit and with fire. In the context “fire” is mentioned twice, in the sense of judgment--it is an unquenchable fire that will burn up the chaff. The baptism (identification with) the Spirit was established in the first coming; but the second coming will be with judgment by fire. When Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Luke 4, he read the prophecy about his ministry, but he stopped half way through the passage and said that what he had read was fulfilled in their presence. But the next line, which he did not read, announced the time of God’s wrath. That would be fulfilled in the second coming.
The first focus of the judgment will be on purifying the Levites so that he will have righteous servants to lead the worship. It is a common theme in biblical prophecy that the LORD will cleanse Israel from its sin so that those still alive after the wrath on earth will come to faith in the Messiah and will once again be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. This is the major theme in the Book of Zechariah, especially in chapter 3, which tells how the LORD will clean up the priesthood by the sacrifice of the Messiah (using the images of the Branch and the Stone). The divine judgments at the end of the age, many of which are detailed in the Book of Revelation, will be designed to bring Israel to its knees and to its Messiah. The reference in Malachi is not to any time that the LORD purifies his people--it is the coming day of judgment.
Then, in verse 5, we see that the coming judgment will be swift against the great sins of the people. God will be the witness and the judge that these crimes have been committed: sorcery, adultery, perjury, defrauding workers, oppressing the widows and the orphans, and depriving foreigners of justice. The judgment is not simply for these sins, but for people who did not fear the LORD. The expression “fear me” means to worship and obey the LORD. The judgment will fall on unbelievers, people who have no reverential fear of the LORD, no matter who they are; and that judgment will be for their sins.
The sins that the prophet listed here covered a wide array of crimes, from the gross violations of the moral code to the breakdown of social justice. Not caring for the poor and needy and the foreigner were serious matters in Israel; James reminds us that this is at the heart of pure religion. And so Malachi’s messages continue to convict the so-called good people of his day, the people who thought God should come and judge the world, uncovering their failure to do works of righteousness.
This section of the message on the faithfulness of God begins with a firm doctrinal statement: God does not change. The statement forms a transition from the last section where people thought that God was no longer judging sin, to this section, which shows that he does. But the people of God should find this statement so comforting, because in spite of their failures God does not change--if he did, they would be consumed on the spot. The point is that God is faithful to the covenants that he makes. Those who belong to him will not be judged; even if they prove to be unfaithful, he remains faithful because he cannot deny himself--as the apostle says.
God then reminds the people that they have failed time and time again, ever since the time of their forefathers. But he has always been there to call them to repentance so that they could enjoy the blessings of God. Here again he calls for them to return, so that he might return to them. The verb “return” in Hebrew is often a call for repentance, to turn back from sins. Then God will turn back from the course of action that he has begun--punishment for their sins.
Once again Malachi’s audience was indignant: “How are we to return?” They did not see that they had any need to repent. What should they turn from? And so Malachi pulls out another indictment against them, robbing God. Their ingratitude showed their unfaithfulness to God at the very foundation of the faith--stewardship--they owed their lives to God.
The people had not been paying their tithes, and so the whole land was under a curse, an actual dry spell where nothing was growing. First, we need to consider what their tithing was all about. Many people today claim to be tithers, and by that they mean they give 10% to the Lord. I suppose churches would be delighted to get at least that. But in the Old Testament the system of tithes and offerings was far more complex. The Israelite under the Law had to bring first the priest’s due (either 2% or 10%). Then he brought the basic tithe, 10%. But he was also required to pay a second tithe (another 10%) that was to go to Jerusalem and its needs--it could be spent in Jerusalem on the three annual pilgrimages, somewhat of a pilgrimage budget. If they could not go to the holy city, they had to send the money. And then, every other year there was a third tithe, which went to the poor. So the basic tithing was probably over 22% any given year, possibly 27%.
Now this did not count the offerings, the animals that were to be brought to the three festivals. It did not include the extra money to be paid for sin and trespass offerings, which could be high, based on the sin. The tithing system also called for the people to have a Sabbath year, one seventh of their income over a seven year period would be given up, as well as a forty-ninth of it over a forty-nine year period if they kept the Jubilee. Then they were to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to glean; they were to give to charity; and they were to take care of the widow, orphan, poor and the stranger. On top of all that, they could at any time offer a free will thank offering--more animals and gifts. So then, if someone today wants to live under the Law of Israel in this respect, the amount would exceed 40% a year.
In the New Testament the outlook is totally different. Everything belongs to God, and we give proportionately as a token of our acknowledgment of this truth as the Lord prospers. It is not how much we should give, but how much we should keep and what we should do with it. Our time, our possessions, our abilities--all part of the stewardship--are gifts from God. We live in the light of the spirit of the Law, not the letter. And yet we still try to get by with the simple interpretation of a tithe, something that was not even allowed in Israel.
But the principle found in this passage applies today. If we refuse to show our loyalty and faithfulness to God in even such a simple thing as giving a token of our time, talents, and treasures in gratitude to him, then he may very well hinder his greatest blessings from being given to us.
Malachi calls for the people to test God’s faithfulness. Give, and see how God will take care of you. This is not like the modern prosperity preachers in television, who treat giving like a sure thing on the stock market; the blessing of God may not mean that you will get back your money with a tidy increase. People were to give by faith out of gratitude, not as a way of manipulating God to give it back with interest.
But the law of Israel promised blessing for obedience and curse for disobedience (see Leviticus 26). If they were disobedient, God would withhold the rain--and that is what has happened here. They were to pray for rain, but they were to be faithful as well, if they wanted God to provide for their livelihood in the land. It was no simple cash investment; it was a call for obedient, faithful living--tithing was but one evidence of their commitment to the LORD. If they persisted in disobedience (all the kinds he has addressed), there could even be pests in the land. But God would keep that away if they lived obediently. It would not matter if they gave money, thinking God would give them an increase; if they were divorcing their spouses, marrying pagans, not teaching the word right, ruining worship, or treating poor people with contempt, then tithing would not bring a blessing. The modern orientation is selfish and self-centered, to get money back. But the biblical picture is sacrificial giving, helping people in need, and trusting that God will take care of your needs. This is giving by faith.
And if people who claim to be believers are not doing what verse 5 said, helping people in need, championing justice for the oppressed and the stranger, then they had better think twice about calling for the God of justice to step in. Malachi calls people to order their lives aright in view of the coming of the LORD--which for him was the first coming, but or us it is now the second.
In the preceding message the prophet challenged the people to be faithful to the LORD in their personal stewardship and obedience. This included far more than bringing a simple tithe--it included the total commitment of the people to serve the LORD with all they had. The prophet held out the promise of God to them that their land would flourish if they were faithful, that all the nations would call them blessed, for the land would be a delightful land.
But the people Malachi addressed still had an attitude; they still thought God was not administering things correctly. And so the prophet warmed them about this, and reminded them that the day of divine vengeance was coming.
The prophet immediately addressed the problem of those people who criticized the faith (and therefore the LORD) because it was not what they expected or thought it should be. The LORD says through Malachi, “Your words have been insolent against me.” The people that the prophet addressed here were skeptics; they had their doubts about the validity of the faith. But then they were not committed to the LORD; they had false and selfish expectations. They were expecting an immediate payoff, rewards or benefits for becoming part of the congregation and living under the Law. They thought that God owed them something for their presence. They probably were not true believers; but if they were believers, their whole approach to the worship and service of the LORD was mercenary--they wanted to know what was in it for them. The great saints of the ages who endured all kinds of suffering and deprivation never said such impudent things. But these people revealed extensive impiety in their words, their attitudes, and their method of spreading their discontent (“they said” indicates they were saying this to each other, complaining among themselves).
These “make-believers” had done what the LORD said to do in a way--test him and see if he was faithful--but they concluded that he was not. Their insolent words formulated three claims. The first is the dramatic statement that it is vain to serve the LORD. The word “vain” means “emptiness, vanity” or “to a false purpose” (found in the ten commandments); their statement claims that all service of the LORD is without value or worth on any level.
This is followed up with the claim that there is no profit in keeping God’s Law. There was no reward or benefit in it for them, no pay, no return on their investment. They are like some moderns who give to the LORD only because they expect to get double or triple their money back, a special reward. They expected their “cut” in much the same way as a gangster would want his share.
In fact, they were truly surprised that there was no pay off since they had even gone about mourning. They apparently went through the motions of appearing to have grief and sorrow for the sin of their nation. But it was false; they did it expecting some reward from God, as if they were professional mourners. But God always inspects the hearts of the mourners, or worshipers, to see if they are genuine--and if they are doing it for a reward or recognition it is not.
But the most impudent statements they made concerns the justice of God. They claimed that the reality was just the opposite of what was said in verse 10--they claimed that it was the arrogant who were “blessed” by God, that the wicked prospered, and that even those who put God to the test escaped. In other words, God was either too weak to stop them, or was not interested in clamping down on the wicked or in making a distinction between the righteous and the wicked, or good and evil. God had promised to bless those who obeyed, but now he was blessing those who were wicked--so they said. These are amazingly sharp words against God; they show a severely unspiritual attitude, probably that of unbelievers (since the rest of the book seems to assume they are the wicked.
He remembers those who fear him (v. 16). At the same time (“then”) there were the righteous believers who spoke to one another, but their conversation was very different. They are known as people who “fear” the LORD. This word in the Bible is a word that describes faithful worshipers. It includes both the idea of being drawn near to something amazing or overwhelming in adoration and wonder, and also that of shrinking back in a healthy respect or fear. This may be illustrated by anything that fills people with wonder and fear. Here the object is the LORD. The devout love and adore the LORD because of power and his glory--but they treat him with reverential fear that leads to obedience. After all, he is still the sovereign judge of the whole world (it is a good study to see in the Bible what results whenever the fear of the LORD is mentioned).
The LORD heard what these folks were saying, heard their words of faith and reverence, in contrast to what the insolent people were saying. And so the text says that God recorded this on a “scroll of remembrance.” This is a highly figurative description, an implied comparison, for divine omniscience does not need to keep written records (any more than God needs to keep our tears in his bottle [Ps. 56:8]). God does not forget his own. But the ideas of God remembering and not forgetting are very human descriptions (anthropomorphisms) and need explanation. He knows everything instantly--he never forgets anything. But the point of the Hebrew word “remembrance” goes beyond simple recall to mean “act on the basis of what one remembers.” If God remembers us it means he will do something on the basis of the covenant he has with us--he will act on what he “remembers.” In this passage God will not only secure the believers as his own people but also spare them from the judgment.
The next line repeats that these people are those who fear the LORD, and who think on his name. The “name” of the LORD refers to his nature, his character--the attributes of God (power, glory, wisdom, love, mercy, righteousness, goodness, eternality, omniscience, omnipresence, infinity and so on). And the verb “think” is an active word (in the Bible it can mean “reckon, think, plan, devise”); here it would have the connotation of regarding or meditating on the nature of the LORD. This was what built their pious devotion to the LORD. It is like taking inventory on what God is like, or reckoning how those attributes work out in real life. The implication is that true believers value God as their prized possession.
He will spare his possession (v. 17). God announces that these people shall be his, his own possession (see Exod. 19:5), and this will be important in the day that God will do all these things. Accordingly, when the Day of Judgment comes, God will remember (= save) his own people, that is, spare them from the judgment. The security of the believers is based on this: that they belong to God.
He will enable them to discern (v. 18). When he does judge, then everyone will see the real difference between the righteous and the wicked. The skeptics claimed that there was no difference--because they had false expectations of a simple pay off. But in the eternal plan the benefit of faith is much greater than a few rewards now.
Everyone will discern between the one who is saved and the one who is not; and they will realize the importance of fearing and serving the LORD.
The wicked will be burnt up (4:1). The announcement picks up the theme of the day of the LORD, a theme that prophets in each of the last few centuries of the monarchy stressed. The day of the LORD can refer to any divine intervention to judge and to bless; but the great day of the LORD refers to the second coming (as the study of the minor prophets and the New Testament fulfillment will show) when the Lord Jesus will come to judge the world and establish a universal reign of righteousness. All prophetic oracles about the day find their fulfillment in the coming of Christ; and any immediate and partial fulfillments over the ages merely foreshadow the great coming redemption.
The motif of burning is used by Malachi, and later used by John the Baptist when he declared that the wicked would be burned with unquenchable chaff (as the Lord’s baptism by fire would signify). Those judged are the proud and the wicked. The word “proud” must not be trivialized, as in taking pride in one’s work. It refers to people who think they do not need God, who live independently of God and any faith. But their good works, whatever good works they have, will not be good enough to enable them to escape the judgment fire.
The prophets sometime linked this judgment of fire (what John calls the baptism of fire) with the final great war that will be raging at the time the Lord descends to the Mount of Olives (see Zech. 14). The furnace may in fact be a description of some kind of nuclear holocaust that will bring human history to a close, and be the means of removing the wicked from the earth. After all, it will be as in the days of Noah, when the righteous survive the judgment and are left (the wicked are taken away), and begin a new age with the worship of the LORD.
Those who fear the LORD will have a glorious deliverance (4:2-3). The contrast is now made with the true believers. “You who fear my name” refers to true believers who faithfully worship the LORD and seek to keep his commandments. The word “fear” is now used a third time for true believers, those with reverential fear--drawing near to the sovereign Lord with adoration and devotion, but shrinking back in a healthy fear or respect. Once again the object of this fear is the LORD’s (i.e., Yahweh’s) “name” (the character of God; see passages like Isaiah 9:6). Thus, to worship the “name of the LORD” is to worship the LORD in all his glory, power, and majesty, all that he is and all that he does. So these are the devout believers who are faithful to the LORD.
What do they have to look forward to? The coming of the Messiah and all the changes that will bring. To them the “sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” This is an implied comparison: the coming Messiah is like the rising sun, whose rays, like wings, bring light and life to the world. But this “sun” is qualified with a genitive--”sun of righteousness.” This could be attributive, a righteous sun, which is certainly true of the Lord. But it is more likely that the expression was meant to say that this “sun” would produce righteousness throughout the world, as the Messianic promises of Isaiah foretold. Zecharias, the father of John the Baptist, referred to the Messiah as the “sunrise” (dayspring from on high) in his great song (Luke 1:76-79).
The great release from the bondage of the world, sin and oppression will cause the righteous to celebrate enthusiastically. Another image is used, an implied comparison followed up by an explanatory simile: “you shall go forth and gambol (skip) as calves from the stall.” Calves that have been penned up closely for winter months will skip in their running when they are set free from the stalls. So the righteous when they are finally set free from all the effects of the curse will leap for joy in great celebration.
But they will also trample the wicked oppressors underfoot. Isaiah 63:1-6 portrays Christ as trodding them underfoot as in a winepress of his wrath; but here the prophet sees the righteous sharing in that great victory (for it was promised that the human race would destroy the seed of the Serpent in Genesis 3:15; see Rom. 16:20)--not that we will actually do anything to banish evil, but it will appear that way when we accompany Christ in his victorious conquest as youthful warriors as numerous as the dew of heaven (Ps. 110). The verse here simply says that the wicked will be ashes under the feet of the righteous. Perhaps the battle is already over, and the symbolism of treading on the ashes indicates sharing in the conquest.
Instruction: Obey the Word of God (v. 4). Malachi calls on the righteous to “remember”--act on what they remember--the Law of Moses. (One may note that if the liberal critical view were correct that the Pentateuch was written and edited during the exile, this post-exilic author would not have been so dishonest as to call it the Law of Moses). The Law of Moses, given at Horeb/Sinai, was the foundation of Scripture--everything was based on that. People could not disobey the Law and claim to be faithful. We of course have much more Scripture; but Jesus said he did not come to annul or destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. So we interpret the Law through the fulfillment of Christ, and learn that the spirit of the Law is profitable for instruction in righteousness, as the apostle says.
So in principle we may say that we who are looking for the second coming of Jesus the Messiah should be living soberly and obediently. The apostle says that whoever has this hope purifies himself. To live daily in the expectancy of the second, watching and waiting, means that we will be ready.
Promise: Elijah will come and unite the people in the covenant (vv. 5, 6). Now Malachi announces that God is sending Elijah the prophet before that great and terrible day of the LORD.
At the beginning of chapter 3 God said, “I am sending my messenger”; and now in similar words he says, “I am sending Elijah the prophet.” Malachi does not say that these two are one and the same, although if we only had this book we might say they could be the same person because of parallel constructions. We know from the New Testament that the messenger of Malachi 3:1 is John the Baptist. But is John also Elijah?
In the Gospels John the Baptist came preaching repentance in the desert, preparing people for the coming of the Lord. Luke 1:17 says that he came in the spirit and power of Elijah. In the Old Testament Elijah, you may recall, never died, but was taken up in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). But before he left he gave his mantel to Elisha, so that Elisha could have a double portion of the power of Elijah. Elijah was the first full prophet (although Abraham is called a prophet, and Samuel and David are called prophets). He stands at the head of a long list of prophets, so that all the prophets coming after him have something of the spirit and power of Elijah--but they were not Elijah the Tishbite.
When John was asked who he was, he stated very clearly, “I am not Elijah” (John 1:21, 23). Now in Matthew 11:13 Jesus said, “If you receive it”--this was Elijah who was to come. There is a contingency here. John may have come in the spirit and power of Elijah--but he was not Elijah, and he did not do what Malachi 4 said, turn the people right just before the great and terrible day of judgment. “If you receive it” may very well refer to receiving the message of the kingdom, that is, receiving Christ. But we know that Jesus came to his own, but his own received him not, but to as many as received him he gave the authority to be the sons of God (John 1:11, 12). Jesus may have meant that had the people received the Messiah, John would have fit the requirements. But of course they did not, and the Scripture was clear that they would not; but Jesus’ offer of himself to his people was still a legitimate offer, even if he knew they would reject him.
Then at the Transfiguration (see Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:11), Jesus announced that Elijah does come, and restores all things. But then he added that Elijah already came. So here we have another example of the already--not yet theme of prophecy. John came in the spirit of Elijah, and people killed him. But Elijah must yet come.
Most commentators identify one of the two witnesses in Revelation 12 as Elijah--either the real Elijah (otherwise, why did he not die?) or one like John who came in the spirit of Elijah. That chapter goes on to say that these witnesses have the power to shut up heaven so it will not rain--exactly what Elijah did at the beginning of his ministry.
But when this “Elijah” comes at the end of the age, he will bring about true repentance and change in the nation so that they will be ready for the coming of the Lord. The imagery of turning the hearts of fathers and children to each other is a spiritual change, the hearts referring to their wills; as they turn their hearts, it will be in obedience to the Law, and so they will be in fact turning their hearts to the Lord.
People everywhere must turn their hearts to the Lord, or when he comes he will smite them with the curse (kherem). This word for “curse” literally mean “banned, devoted”--it is off limits. In holy war, things would be put under this “ban”; that meant they belonged to the Lord, to be used by him or to be destroyed, but no human could have them (see the sin of Achan in Joshua, and the sin of Saul in 1 Samuel--they preserved banned things that should have been destroyed). So Malachi is thinking in terms of holy war, that when the Lord comes he will utterly destroy the world and its inhabitants, but will spare his people.
If people do not think God is ruling in fairness today, and they choose to rebel against him for that reason, they will have a sad future awakening. When the LORD comes, he will separate the righteous from the wicked, and it will be such a dramatic moment as the world and all in it are .
But before he comes he will send guides to bring about harmony and righteousness in the families, the key to the nation. The Word of God is full of instructions to watch and pray for his appearance. And the New Testament continues the theme. The faithful must work to bring people to repentance and to a proper spiritual level. And God is preparing his messenger. Many will come in the spirit and power of Elijah over the ages; but after they are long gone, and just at the eve of the coming, an Elijah will appear and draw people back together, and back to God.
Those living in the hope of the second coming will have to be prepared for it, but they will also be doing the work of the prophets, warming people that of the evil devastation to follow.