“An Oracle. The word of Yahweh to Israel through my messenger.”
Malachi is the Hebrew word for “my messenger.” It is uncertain whether the Hebrew term is a proper name (Malachi) or a general description (messenger). The name is unknown elsewhere and “Malachi” is not associated with any particular region or lineage unlike other prophets. Some Jewish traditions identified “my messenger” with Ezra. Whatever the case, the unique—and most suggestive—term in this superscription is “oracle.”
“Oracle” (or “Burden”) only occurs here and in Zechariah 9:1 and 12:1. It seems likely that these three oracles form a trio of sorts, but the style of Zechariah 9-14 is rather different from that of Malachi. Perhaps a later prophet uses the term to connect with the other two oracles and delivers it in a subsequent era. While Zechariah 9-14 are probably located in the early later ministry of Zechariah (480s-470s), Malachi is probably best located closer to the end of that century (440s-430s). In any event, Malachi continues the prophetic tradition of Zechariah 9-14 and concludes the “prophets” of the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant Old Testament canon.
The situation Malachi presumes sounds similar to the situation at the time of Nehemiah. An administrative official in the Persian Empire, Nehemiah was permitted to go to Jerusalem in 445 B.C.E. to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and establish the province’s territorial integrity. He returned to the Persian capital at Susa in 432 B.C.E and upon his return to Jerusalem found the city unfaithful (Nehemiah 13). In particular, five thematic concerns connect Malachi and Nehemiah:
- Mixed marriages (Mal. 2:11-15; Neh. 13:23-27).
- Failure to tithe (Mal. 3:3-10; Neh. 13:10-14).
- No Sabbath-Keeping (Mal. 2:8-9; 4:4; Neh. 13:15-22).
- Corrupt Priests (Mal. 1:6-2:9; Neh. 13:7-9).
- Social Problems (Mal. 3:5; Neh. 5:1-13).
Malachi—or the messenger—probably served as a prophet who supported Nehemiah’s reforms. This “oracle” addresses the social and theological questions that dominated the postexilic community in Judah in the late 440s-420s during the reign of the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes (465-425).
The prophet addresses a discouraged people who engage Malachi’s message in a protracted dialogue. The text follows follows a form something like this:
Malachi addresses the people.
The people question the message.
Malachi responds to their question.
The people have apparently lost hope in the postexilic promise (like Zechariah 9-14). They sense God’s abandonment and how irrelevant the practice of their faith has become to their lives. Their questions reveal a disconnect between God’s covenant promises and their day-to-day lives. Disappointed with how their lives have unfolded since their return from exile, they maintain the appearance of faith without the heart. Faith was no longer profitable. They went to “church,” declined to give their best, and went home to live as they pleased. Religion had become irrelevant.
If time of Nehemiah is the correct setting for these messages, the people had indeed suffered much. They were heavily taxed (Nehemiah 5:4) by an oppressive power who occupied their homeland. Many borrowed money or sold their children into economic servitude in order to pay taxes (Nehemiah 5:14-15). They were under constant threat of attack from surrounding provinces and marauders (Nehemiah 4:16-18). They lived in constant fear. Oppressed, they saw little hope in the future.
Consequently, when Malachi appears with a message from Yahweh, the people are skeptical. The ask questions. Given the questions the people ask, the book may be read through the lens of those questions and is neatly divided into six sections.
|1:2-5||How Have You Loved Us?||Identity|
|1:6-2:9||How Did We Insult You?||Honor|
|2:10-16||Why Does Not God Accept Us?||Faithlessness|
|2:17-3:5||How Did We Wear You Out?||Justice|
|3:6-12||How Did We Rob You?||Repentance|
|3:13-4:6||What Have We Said?||Hope|
These questions, while socially located in the Persian post-exilic period, are nevertheless perennial questions. These questions have appeared on the lips of God’s people throughout biblical and post-biblical history. Malachi’s response provides some guidance for wading through the brokenness and disappointments of life even now.
How does faith become relevant again? Malachi offers some direction. Faith is about identity, honor, covenant, justice, repentance and hope. These themes raise major questions but they also contain the seeds of a faithful response to discouraging and chaotic times.