How to read Malachi


  • Content: in six disputes with his people, Yahweh warns them of future judgments and promises redemption to the faithful

  • Prophet: Malachi ("my messenger"), otherwise unknown

  • Date of prophetic activity: unknown; perhaps ca. 460 8.C., just before the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah

  • Emphases: Yahweh is a covenant-keeping God and requires the same of his people; God's people show disdain for God by their apathy and moral and religious decline; God will judge his people in justice for their halfhearted obedience


Malachi's oracle comes by way of six disputes between Yahweh and his people, all having the same root cause: In a time of spiritual disillusionment, Israel has grown weary of Yahweh and of keeping his covenant. The disputes come in two sets of three. The first set takes up the basic issue-their complaint that Yahweh does not love them (1:2-5), and Yahweh's "complaint" that they have shown contempt for him (1:6-2:9; 2: 10- 16). In the second set, Yahweh twice takes up their complaint that he has done nothing about evil and in justice (2:17-3:5; 3: 13- 4:3); these two bracket Yahweh's exposing their own form of injustice (3:6-12).At the same time they affirm that the great day of Yahweh will come indeed (3:1 -4;3:17 -4:3). The book concludes (4:4-6) with words about the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah).


Although one cannot be sure when Malachi prophesied, if it was just before the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, as seems likely, you would do well to review briefly what is said about these times in the "Specific Advice" for reading 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. Malachi's book is a graphic indicator of the moral and spiritual apathy of the time, which expressed itself in various forms of contempt for Yahweh and the covenant. In fact, most of the sins mentioned in Malachi are also mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah-mixed marriages (Mal 2:11,-15/Ezra9-10/Neh 13:23-27); failure to tithe (Mal 3:8-10/Neh 13:10-14); corrupt priests (Mal l:6-2:9/Neh 13:1-9); and social injustice (Mal 3:5/Neh 5:1-13).

This general malaise and contempt for the covenant probably account in part for the unique form and structure of Malachi. You will see that each of the disputes tends to follow the same pattern:

  • Declaration: the issue announced by Yahweh

  • The people's question: basically taking the form of "How so?"

  • Yahweh's response: reminding them of his past or coming actions, or revealing their actions that show contempt

These disputes function as a wake-up call in a time of disillusionment (see 3:14) when the returnees from Babylon felt generally abandoned by Yahweh. So rather than a court setting (as in Hosea and Micah, for example), Yahweh challenges them by means of declaration, question, and explanation.

There is a kind of progression to the disputes. They begin with Israel's questioning Yahweh's love (: compassion for and loyalty to them). To this, Yahweh responds that not only does he indeed love them (look what I did to Edom) but that there is plenty of evidence that they do not love Yahweh, in the form of contempt for the covenant by priests and people alike (offering blemished animals in sacrifice, and divorce and intermarriage with pagans). The final three disputes start the cycle again. Feeling abandoned by Yahweh, the people speak cynically about the prosperity of those who practice injustice. But, Yahweh responds, they themselves practice injustice by withholding tithes, the means of livelihood for the Levites and of provision for the poor (Num 18:21-32; Deut 14:28-29).In the final set, there are also assurances of God's coming justice-both judgment of the wicked and salvation of the (new) righteous remnant.

Thus, at the end of the Christian Old Testament (by way of the Septuagint) are prophetic words that Jesus and the New Testament writers see as speaking about his coming. Not only will God send "[his] messenger, who will prepare the way before [him]" so that "the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple" (Mal 3:1), but the final two words speak of Moses and Elijah, who make their appearance with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.




As with Joel, Malachi's heading does not help us identify either the prophet or his times.


First Dispute: On Yahweh's Love

Note how this first dispute sets both the tone and the structure for the rest. Yahweh does love them. How so? By his hating (=rejecting; allying himself against) their "brother" - but ancient foe - Edom, thus fulfilling Obadiah's prophecy.


Second Dispute: On Offering Unacceptable Sacrifices

Now it's Yahweh's turn. The basic issue is set forth in 1 :6-the priests do not love (- they show contempt for) Yahweh. How so? By offering Yahweh blemished animals (see Lev 22:17 -25) that they would not dare offer even to a governor. Better to close down the temple altogether than to show such disloyalty (1:10-14), which also dishonors Yahweh's name among the nations. Thus this dispute concludes with strong admonitions for the priest to change their ways (2:1-9)


Third Dispute: In Intermarriage and Divorce

Note that the form changes slightly here: Malachi now speaks for God (v. 10) as the dispute turns to the people themselves-over inter-marriage with pagans (vv. 11-12), thus breaking covenant with Yahweh (=capitulation to idolatry). The issue of divorce (vv. 13-16) is related (= breaking covenant with a Jewish wife to marry a local woman).


Fourth Dispute: On Wearying Yahweh with Words

Back to the people's complaint. In their present malaise, they (cynically) call evil people good ans ask about justice. Yahweh's answer is twofold: 1) The Lord whom they seek will come suddenly to his temple - as a refining fire (3:1-3a), and 2) his coming will result in both acceptable sacrifice at the temple (thus back to 1:6-2:9) and judgment against all forms of injustice (3:3b-5).


Fifth Dispute: On Returning to Yahweh

Notice how this dispute follows closely on what is said at the end of

the previous one by putting the ball back in their court: They themselves must return to Yahweh (vv. 6-7). To their "How so?" the answer is to stop their own form of injustice - withholding the tithe (food, which is used for the Levites and the poor). Only then can the curse for covenant disloyalty be removed, so that the nations will see again God's blessing in his people (cf. Gen 12:3).


Sixth Dispute: On Speaking Harshly about Yahweh

This final dispute both wraps up the second set of three and brings the whole series full circle. It indicates why the first dispute was necessary: The people have been saying harsh things about Yahweh-that it is futile to serve him, and that in any case the arrogant prosper, while those who consider themselves as righteous do not (3:13-15; cf. dispute 4). Thus the final answer indicates that God wilt indeed divide the house-the arrogant will be judged (4:1)- and the "sun of righteousness will rise" for the righteous (4:2-3)


Two Appended Words: the Law and the Prophets (Moses and Elijah

Malachi concludes by bringing Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the prophets) into the picture. The people are urged to keep the covenant of law; they can anticipate the coming of a second Elijah who will precede the coming great day of Yahweh.

Malachi reminds God's people that they must take their covenant

relationship with him seriously and that a great new day will dawn for

them with the coming of Elijah (John the Baptist) to precede the Lord

(Jesus Christ).