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18. Malachi

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Notes on the Book of Malachi

I. The Prophet Malachi.

The Hebrew word Malachi (מַלְאָכִי) means “my messenger.” The Septuagint has translated the word as a common noun: “his angel/messenger” (ἄγγελος αὐτοῦ). Furthermore, the same word appears as a common noun in Mal 3:1: “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of Hosts. This fact and the absence of this name elsewhere in Scripture has led some to question whether it is a proper name or a common name. Von Orelli’s discussion arguing for a proper name is still valid. It should be considered a reduction of a form like Malachiah.1

II. The Date and Historical Background of Malachi.

Chisholm says, “Internal evidence indicates the book was written in the post-exilic period. The reference to a governor (peha, 1:8) points to the Persian period. This title is used frequently in Nehemiah for Persian governors. Earlier Haggai applied the title to Zerubbabel (Hag. 1:1, 14; 2:2, 21). Various parallels between Ezra-Nehemiah and Malachi suggest that the latter dates to the mid-fifth century B.C. Both Ezra-Nehemiah and Malachi refer to intermarriage with foreign wives (Ezra 9—10; Neh 13:23-27; Mal 2:11), failure to pay tithes (Neh 13:10-14; Mal 3:8-10), and social injustice (Neh 5:1-13; Mal 3:5). The precise date of Malachi is impossible to ascertain.”2

III. The Structure of Malachi.

The structure of the book is not altogether obvious. The style is generally considered to be “disputation,” that is, question, answer and rebuke. Chisholm,3 in general agreement with Verhoef,4 finds six units. It can at least be said that there are seven questions in the book (I am assuming that 1:7 is another facet of the same question in 1:6). The people respond to Yahweh’s statement with a question in 1:2,6,7; 2:14,17; 3:7,8,13. Questions 1, 2, and 2a are introduced with the Hebrew “in what” (bammeh, or בַּמָּה ) as are questions 4, 5, and 6. Question 3 begins with “upon what” (‘al mah, mah, מָה). The form looks like this:

Chapter 1

1. But you say, How hast Thou loved us? (1:2)

2. But you say, How have we despised Thy name? (1:6)

2a. But you say, How have we defiled Thee? (1:7)

Chapter 2

3. Yet you say, For what reason? (2:14)

4. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him? (2:17)

Chapter 3

5. But you say, How shall we return? (3:7)

6. But you say, How have we robbed Thee? (3:8)

7. Yet you say, What have we spoken against Thee? (3:13)

IV. The Outline of the Book.

A. Heading (1:1).

This message is an oracle (massa, מַשָּׂא) as in Zech. 9:1 and 12:1. A heavy, that is, judgmental, message is about to be delivered. It is the word of Yahweh through the prophet Malachi. The recipient of this burden is Israel. The returned exiles are aware that the remnant of Israel has returned from Babylon and thus “Israel” is used here in that sense.

B. Rhetorical question #1: “How hast Thou loved us?” (1:2-5).

The difficulty through which “Israel” has gone since 586 B.C. may have led to a cynical questioning of whether Yahweh’s love was valid. After the holocaust of World War II, many Jews asked the same question. The issue of Yahweh’s unfailing love for his people is a recurring theme in the prophets. Yahweh’s love for Israel is demonstrated negatively: that is he has chosen Jacob over Esau. Love and hate are often used in the Bible to mean “choice” and “rejection.” The words should not be understood in a visceral sense. It refers to God’s sovereignty, asserted early in Genesis 25:23 (note Paul’s use of both these passages in his teaching on the selection of the church over Israel in Rom 9:12-13). At this time in history (400’s B.C.) the old Edomite home in Petra has been taken over by Nabatean Arabs and the Edomites have moved into the Negev area. Their original homeland has been devastated and their failure to accept this does not assure them of a future blessing.

C. Rhetorical question #2: “How have we despised your name?” (1:6—2:9).

This unit takes the priests to task. The book of Nehemiah indicates continued problems in getting the priests to perform their ritual with justice and purity. In Malachi Yahweh castigates the priests for despising his name which for them (rhetorical question 2b) means that they are defiling the altar of the temple. In spite of the priests’ protestations of innocence, God says that they bring offerings that violate the Mosaic order of sacrifices. They would not even dare give such offerings to their governor (a concept indicating the post-exilic period). There will come a time, says Yahweh, when his name will be glorified among the Gentiles (1:11), but in that time even his own people were polluting his name.

The criticism of the priesthood continues in chapter 2. Yahweh promises that his judgment on them will take the form of reversal of their pronounced blessings (2:2) and the rebuking of their offspring (2:3). Yahweh reminds them of his original covenant with Levi the father of the priesthood. This covenant was one of life and peace. The priest was involved in instruction, rebuke, and his lips were to be filled with knowledge and instruction (these are “wisdom” words found in Proverbs and indicate the post-exilic emphasis on teaching by the priests). In contrast to Yahweh’s original plan for the priesthood, these priests have turned from the way and have corrupted the covenant made with their ancestor Levi (2:8-9).

D. Rhetorical question #3: “For what reason” (has Yahweh rejected us)? (2:10-16).

Both Ezra (9:1—10:44) and Nehemiah (13:23-28) dealt with the problem of intermarriage between the Jews and the surrounding (pagan) peoples. Since the latter part of the chapter deals with marriage, it is probable that the first part does as well. The problem is that the “holy seed” (zera‘ haqqodesh , Ezra 9:2) is being defiled through intermarriage. The “abomination” of Malachi 2:11 is also referred to in Ezra 9:1 in connection with intermarriage. The imagery of this unit, therefore, should be viewed in that light: “the covenant profaned” refers to the Mosaic prohibition against intermarriage with unbelievers; the “sanctuary” (qodesh, קדֶשׁ) as in Ezra 9:2 refers to God’s holy people; and “the daughter of a foreign god” is the “idolatry” committed by this intermarriage. Consequently, Yahweh will not receive their offerings (2:10-13).

On the contrary, these people have been unfaithful to their Jewish wives. The Hebrew of 2:15 is obscure, but the sense should be picked up from the “godly offspring” (Heb: seed of God, zera‘ ’elohim, זֶרַע אֱלהִֹים). This should point to Ezra 9 where the phrase is “holy seed.” In other words these returned believers are to produce holy children by staying faithful to their Jewish wives instead of divorcing them, perhaps to marry pagan wives. God hates divorce even though he permitted it because of “the hardness of their hearts” and even though Jesus permits (but does not require) it in his discussion in the Gospels. It still is not God’s ideal (2:14-16).

E. Rhetorical question #4: “How have we wearied Him?” (2:17—3:5).

An eschatological tone now comes into the prophecy. Yahweh has become weary of hypocrisy and disobedience. The time will come for rectifying that which is crooked. This is known throughout the prophets as “the Day of Yahweh.” God will thrust himself onto the historical scene first with a predecessor or messenger. He will prepare the way before him: wepinna derek lepenai, (cf. Isaiah 40:3: “A voice is calling, Clear the way for the Lord (pannu derek Yahweh דֶּרֶךְ יהוה  פַּנּו) in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God”). Yahweh will suddenly visit his temple, obviously an accountability trip. “The messenger of the covenant” is difficult. Is it the same as the Lord or a different person? The parallelism would point to an identity of the Lord and the messenger.5 However, the first messenger should be identified with the person in Isaiah 40:3 as the forerunner. Furthermore, the phrase “behold I am about to send” appears in 3:23 where it refers to Elijah as the one who will serve as a catalyst in conjunction with the Day of Yahweh.

The coming of the Lord will result in thorough purging (3:2-3). Two stringent purifiers are referred to: refiner’s fire (to remove dross from metals) and washer’s soap (comparable to lye soap today). This purging will bring certain results (3:4-5). (1) The offerings brought to the temple by God’s people will be pleasing to Yahweh and (2) social inequities and religious apostasy will be corrected.

F. Rhetorical questions #5 and 6: “How shall we return?” and “How have we robbed Thee?” (3:6-12).

It is difficult to determine whether 3:6 goes with the preceding (NASB) or the following section (NIV). By taking the “for” as a strong assertion (“indeed”), it may be linked with what follows. Because of God’s covenant faithfulness and unchangeableness, God’s people will not be destroyed even though they have turned aside from Yahweh’s laws (3:7).

Their insensitivity leads them to ask “what wrong have we done that would require us to return (repent)?” Yahweh then gives them a specific: they have failed to support the work of the temple with their tithes to the Lord.6 A favorable response on their part will result in God’s blessings being poured out in such a way that their agriculture will flourish (3:10-12).

G. Rhetorical question #7: “What have we spoken against thee?” (3:13-15).

Yahweh connects the final “disputation” with their arrogant words. They argue that it is of no value to serve the Lord.7 Because of their attitude they have concluded that those who go their own way and ignore God are the happy ones. The teaching of Ecclesiastes has been taken to a cynical extreme.

H. Concluding message of hope and judgment (3:16—4:6).

Some include this latter section with the final “disputation” unit,8 but it seems to me that a new thought has begun. A remnant appears in 16-17; those who “fear the Lord” (yir ' e Yahweh, יִרְאֵי יהוה) or one could say, “God-fearers.” In that wonderful, future time, there will be a faithful remnant who will distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. This will come about because of God’s faithfulness to them and his love for them (3:16-18).

The purification spoken of in 3:1-3 is taken up again in chapter 4.9 It is the Day of Yahweh that will bring about the cleansing resulting in a purified remnant. Again this remnant is referred to as those who fear Yahweh’s name (yir ' e shemi,יִרְאֵי שֵׁמִי). What a glorious picture of the triumph of righteousness and righteous people. What a contrast to the present immorality and injustice in the world! (4:l-3).

The concluding message to the Old Testament is found in 4:4-6. Rudolph sees Malachi 3:22-24 (4:4-6) as the conclusion of the entire prophetic canon which begins for the Hebrew Bible with Joshua 1:1. The last chapter in the Pentateuch (Deuteronomy 34), the first chapter in the prophetic canon (Joshua 1:1) and Malachi 3:22 (4:4) all refer to Moses as the servant of the Lord.10 The righteous will be remembered (3:16), but they are also to remember the law of Moses, the law which is being cavalierly broken in the post-exilic period. Furthermore, a classical Old Testament figure will come on the scene preparatory to this great period when all things will be made right, Elijah the Tishbite. This prophecy is the subject of much discussion in the New Testament. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, is told that John will “turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:15-17). John the Baptist denies that he is Elijah when the Pharisees ask him whether he is Elijah (John 1:21), but he does say that he is the “voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:22). When Elijah appeared in the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8), the disciples’ curiosity was piqued and they asked him about the teaching that “Elijah must come first” (17:10). Jesus answers that in one sense John the Baptist was Elijah but both he and the one whom he represented must be rejected and suffer at the hands of the religious leaders. However, in the future, Elijah will indeed come and restore all things (by implication, the Son of Man will also come).

There is a structure beginning with chapter 3 that carries through to the end of the book. It is eschatological in content.

Behold I am going to send my messenger (3:1-6)

Criticism, three questions (3:7-15)

Faithful remnant (3:16-18) God-fearers

Behold a day is coming (4:1-4)

Faithful remnant (4:2-3) fearers of my name

Remember the law of Moses (4:4)

Behold I am sending Elijah the prophet (4:5-6)

Faithful remnant (4:6)

The Prophets fittingly come to a close with emphasis on the coming of Yahweh to the earth to establish the equity and justice all the prophets from Amos on down have been writing about. The predecessor, Elijah, is the harbinger of that coming one. Small wonder that the crowds poured into the Jordan valley to hear the one who came “in his spirit and power” and pointed them to the one who would “baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11).


1C. Von Orelli, The Twelve Minor Prophets (1897, reprint Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, 1977, 382-83).

2R. Chisholm, Interpreting the Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 278.

3Chisholm, The Minor Prophets, 279.

4P. A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 164-68.

5For a discussion see Chisholm, The Minor Prophets, 286.

6A similar situation existed after 432 B.C. in Nehemiah’s day (13:10-14).

7Job says the same thing in Job 9:29.

8See, e.g., Chisholm, The Minor Prophets, 288-89 (3:13—4:3) and Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi, 312ff.

9The Hebrew text has only three chapters and so 4:1-6 are in Hebrew 3:19-24.

10W. Rudolph, Haggai—Sacharja 1-8—Sacharja 9-14—Maleachi in Kommentar zum Alten Testament, Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, XIII 4:291.

Related Topics: History, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Prophets