Malachi

The traditional name ‘Malachi’ attached to this book is taken from the first verse, usually translated ‘An oracle. The word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.’ But the last word here is probably not a person’s name, but the Hebrew for ‘my messenger’. It refers forward to 3:1, ‘See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.’ The book is therefore probably anonymous.

The first word, ‘An oracle’ (Heb. massa) also introduces the prophetic collections in Zechariah 9-11 and 12-14, which immediately precede it. It seems likely that Malachi is the last of three collections appended to Zechariah, and was not originally a separate book. But it has been set apart from Zechariah, no doubt to make up the total of 12 ‘minor’ prophets in the Book of the Twelve (Hosea to Malachi), but also because it is very different in character from Zechariah 9-14, or indeed the whole of Zechariah.

The structure of the book is quite simple. It consists of six short units taking the form of dialogues or disputations between God or the prophet and the people, or some groups of them. The book is then rounded off by an epilogue (4:4-6) which picks up some of its themes and connects them with other parts of the Hebrew scriptures.

Each disputation begins with a rebuke from YHWH or the prophet, followed by an objection from the people and then a reply to the objection, enlarging on the rebuke and adding a warning or a promise. Even if the prophet begins the disputation, YHWH will speak at some point.

The subjects of the disputations are:
1:2-5 YHWH’s love for this people shown in his punishment of Edom.
1:6–2:9 addressed to the priests: substandard offerings to YHWH.
2:10-16 Judah’s faithlessness to the covenant.
2:17–3:5 YHWH’s justice, questioned, is foreshadowed by the coming of his messenger.
3:6-12 the people’s failure to pay the tithe.
3:13–4:3 a second objection to YHWH’s justice answered by distinguishing between those who ‘revere YHWH’, whom he now addresses, and the wicked. Divine judgment will divide them finally.

Date and authorship

All agree that the book dates from the Persian period (539–330 BCE), This is because there is no king in Judah, and the word in 1:8 translated ‘governor’ (peha) is the title for the governor of Judah under the Persians, given to Zerubbabel (Hag 1:1, etc.) and Nehemiah (Neh 5:14, etc.).

It is not possible to be more precise, although some say it must be after 515, when the restored temple was completed, or that it must be before the reforms of Ezra (traditional date 458-7) and Nehemiah (444- after 432). The altar was rebuilt long before the temple (Ezra 3:1-6), and there is no mention of the temple: many English versions speak of the ‘temple doors’ in 1:10, but there is no word for ‘temple’ in the Hebrew, and the altar was outside the temple when it existed, so it must be the gate of the court where the altar stood that is referred to (David L. Petersen). As for the reforms, it is simply not possible to say how well they were kept up (R. J. Coggins).

The author is anonymous (see above), but the book as a whole gives the impression of being written by one person. The epilogue (4:4-6) may be an exception. It is often seen as giving a later interpretation of the ‘messenger of the covenant’ passage in 3:1. Some scholars also argue that 3:1b-4 is a later interpretation of 3:1a (up to ‘before me’).

Interpretation

Much of the book is easy to understand, but there are a few interesting problems,

The famous saying in 1:11, suggesting YHWH is worshipped all over the world—does this refer to sincere pagan worship, as some allege, or to the worship of Jews in the diaspora? The former is obviously problematic, but the latter also raises questions, for incense and sacrifice were not generally a part of Jewish worship outside the homeland.

The most important question concerns the passage about the messenger in 3:1-4, which has given its name to the book and has had a significant influence (through 4:5-6) on both Jewish and Christian belief. Are ‘my messenger’, ‘the Lord’ (this is not the divine name), and ‘the messenger of the covenant’ the same person or three (or two) different ones, and who is or are they? Some identify the last two with YHWH, but this obviously cannot apply to ‘my messenger’. This is likely to be a prophet, who prepares the way for the coming of YHWH himself for judgment in 3:5. The identity of the ‘Lord’ and the ‘messenger of the covenant’ remains uncertain.

Malachi’s words are mainly influenced by Deuteronomy rather than by the priestly writings, despite his interest in ritual matters, and ‘the Torah of Moses my servant, which I commanded him on Horeb’ (4:4) recalls Deuteronomy (see Deut 5:2, 31) rather than Leviticus or Numbers.

Reception history

If most of the book has little influence, the messenger passages in 3:1 and 4:5-6 have been formative in both Christian and Jewish thinking. A prophet, identified with Elijah, who supposedly had never died (2 Kgs 2:11), is to come in the last days to prepare for the final coming of the LORD. This leads to the Jewish belief and custom referred to above.

In the New Testament the same expectation is discussed in relation to John the Baptist. Mark 1:2 resembles Exod 23:20 more than Mal 3:1; but in Mark 9:11-13 the Jewish belief is referred to, and applied to John without mentioning him by name. Matthew (11:14 and 17:10-13) makes the identification of John with Elijah explicit, On the other hand, in John 1:21 the Baptist is quoted as denying he is Elijah. The implication throughout is that John as the messenger prepares the way for Christ, who is the expected Lord.

The earlier passage in 3:1-4 is quoted in the text of Handel’s //Messiah// (numbers 5, 6, and 7), and there is an allusion to it in Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Love divine’. In both places the ‘Lord’ who ‘suddenly comes to his temple’ is identified with Christ.

Further reading

Coggins, R. J. Pages 7-24, 73-80, 84 in Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987. Repr., 1996.
Petersen, David L. Pages 1-23, 29-34, 165-233 in Zechariah 9-14 and Malachi. OTL. London: SCM Press; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995.
Smith, Ralph L. Pages 296-342 in Micah-Malachi. WBC 32. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984.