The Hebrew name Malachi means ‘my messenger’ or, if Malachi is a shortened form of ‘Malachiah’, perhaps ‘messenger of [the Lord]’. Based on the lxx some scholars have argued that Malachi in 1:1 ought to be understood as a title, ‘my messenger’, rather than as a proper name. It appears more likely, however, that it is a man’s name, as it is interpreted as such in other ancient sources. If this is so, the book of Malachi follows the pattern of each of the other fourteen writing prophets, where the author is introduced by name at the beginning, using language similar to that employed in 1:1 (cf. especially Hg. 1:1). Accordingly, 3:1 offers an important word-play on the prophet’s name: ‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me’. The implication of this word-play is that Malachi’s own ministry was intended to foreshadow that of the coming messenger, who is identified in the NT as John the Baptist (see on 3:1 and 4:5–6). See the chart ‘The prophets’ in Song of Songs.
In contrast to most of the other prophetic books of the OT, Malachi offers no clear pointer to the date of its composition. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that Malachi was probably a contemporary of Nehemiah in the mid-fifth century bc. The implied existence of the temple in 1:10; 3:1, 8, requiring a date after its reconstruction in 515 bc, supports this. The most compelling evidence for dating Malachi, however, is the substantial parallel which exists between the sins reported by Malachi and those addressed by Ezra and Nehemiah. There are shared concerns with the corruption of the priesthood (1:6–2:9; Ne. 13:4–9, 29–30); interfaith marriage (2:10–12; Ezr. 9–10; Ne. 10:30; 13:1–3, 23–27); abuse of the disadvantaged (3:5; Ne. 5:1–13); and the failure to pay tithes (3:8–10; Ne. 10:32–39; 13:10–13).
Malachi’s ministry took place nearly one hundred years after the end of the Babylonian captivity and the inspired decree of Cyrus in 538 bc, which allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and to rebuild the temple (2 Ch. 36:23). This was nearly eighty years after the prophets Haggai and Zechariah had encouraged the rebuilding of that temple with glorious promises of God’s blessing, the engrafting of the nations, prosperity, expansion, peace and the return of God’s own glorious presence (cf. e.g. Hg. 2: Zc. 1:16–17; 2; 8; 9). To Malachi’s disillusioned contemporaries, however, these misunderstood predictions must have seemed a cruel mockery. In contrast to the glowing promises, the harsh reality was one of economic privation, crop failure, prolonged drought and pestilence (3:10–11).
After the return from exile Judah remained an almost insignificant territory of about 20 x 25 miles (30 x 40 km) inhabited by a population of perhaps 150,000. Although they enjoyed the benefits of Persia’s enlightened policy of religious toleration and limited political self-determination, the people felt acutely their subjugation to a foreign power (Ne. 1:3; 9:36–37), and they suffered persistent opposition and harassment from their neighbours (Ezr. 4:23; Dn. 9:25). Judah was no longer an independent nation, and more importantly it was no longer ruled by an anointed king from David’s line.
Perhaps worst of all, in spite of the promises of the coming Messiah and God’s own glorious presence (e.g. Zc. 1:16–17; 2:4–5, 10–13; 8:3–17, 23; 9:9–13), Israel experienced only spiritual destitution. Unlike the historical records of earlier periods, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah are frank in their description of post-exilic Judah as lacking miraculous evidences of God’s presence. In contrast to both Solomon’s temple and the prophetic promise of the restored temple (as in Ezk. 40–43), the actual post-exilic temple was physically and spiritually inferior. As 3:1 reveals, the holy of holies in this second temple had no visible manifestation of the glory of God. Though God was certainly alive and well, as revealed, e.g. by his remarkable providences in the book of Esther, it was definitely a period of life ‘after the fireworks’ (cf. also Mi. 5:3). In other words, it was a period very much like our own, in which God’s people have to live more by faith than by sight (Jn. 20:29; 2 Cor. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:8; 2 Pet. 3:3–13).
Malachi’s contemporaries may have been relatively orthodox in their beliefs and free from blatant idolatry (though cf. 2:11), but theirs had become a dead orthodoxy. They were all too ready to make ethical compromises and to dilute the strenuous demands of proper worship. In response to the cynicism and religious malaise of his fellow-Israelites, Malachi’s prophecy comes as a wake-up call to renewed covenant fidelity.
In 1:2–5, the first of the book’s six ‘disputations’, Malachi begins by defending the reality of God’s elective love for Israel, a love which calls for robust covenantal obedience and sincere worship as its proper response. Far from this expected response, however, the people were dishonouring God by their feckless offerings and the hypocritical formalism of their worship.
In 1:6–2:9, the second disputation, Malachi exposes these offences and rebukes the priests for condoning them and thereby violating the Lord’s covenant with Levi.
In 2:10–16, the third disputation, Malachi condemns interfaith marriage as infidelity against Israel’s covenant with the Lord, and unauthorized divorce as infidelity against the marriage covenant between a husband and his wife, to which the Lord is witness. Malachi warns that these offences not only render offerings unacceptable but also place the offender’s life in jeopardy before a holy God.
In 2:17–3:5, the fourth disputation, Malachi broadens the focus of his indictment as he promises that the Lord will vindicate his justice. This will take place when ‘the messenger of the covenant’ comes to judge the wicked (when the Lord will function as a witness not only against adulterers, as in 2:10–16, but also against other offenders) and to purify his people so that their offerings will be acceptable at last.
In 3:6–12, the fifth disputation, Malachi returns to the subject of Israel’s begrudging offerings. The people had experienced material adversity and were under a curse, not in spite of their behaviour but because of it. Accordingly, Malachi challenges them to conscientious tithing, which will be rewarded with divine blessing.
In 3:13–4:3, the sixth disputation, Malachi assures his querulous contemporaries that evildoers, who may seem to escape divine justice because of their prosperity, will yet be judged, while the Lord will deliver those who fear him.
Finally, in 4:4–6 Malachi summarizes the main points of his prophecy: remember the law of Moses (the focus of disputations 1–3) and the promise of Elijah and the coming day of the Lord (the focus of disputations 4–6).
Malachi’s message is arranged in a structured ‘mirror-image’ pattern—ABCCBA—and this is reflected in the sections into which the commentary has been divided.
J. Benton, Losing Touch with the Living God (Evangelical Press/Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985).
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
P. C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 2, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1985).
J. G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, TOTC (IVP, 1972).
P. A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1987).
lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)
NT New Testament
OT Old Testament
DSB Daily Study Bible
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament