Malachi, Heb. MalХaki, means “my messenger.” However, the word may be a contraction of MalХakiyah, meaning “messenger of Yahweh.” Because the name occurs nowhere else in the OT, some have felt that Malachi was not the prophet’s name, but merely a designation of him as God’s “messenger.”
2. Authorship. The prophet makes no reference to his personal life and gives no dates for his ministry. Yet there remains little doubt that he was the last of the OT prophets. That Malachi prophesied when the Captivity was little remembered, and after the Temple had been restored and its worship had for some time been instituted, is evident from the contents of his book. The abuses condemned by Malachi are very similar to the abuses that arose during Nehemiah’s absence from Jerusalem at the Persian court (see Neh. 13:6), and thus it is quite possible that Malachi was written about 425 b.c. At any rate, it is probable that the book should be dated either during Nehemiah’s time or shortly thereafter.
3. Historical Setting. When, many years after the original return from Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah, as King Artaxerxes’ “cupbearer” (see on Neh. 1:11), heard that conditions were not right in Jerusalem, he requested permission to visit his countrymen there. The king readily acceded to the request, granting Nehemiah a leave of absence for an unknown period of time (Neh. 2:5, 6). Nehemiah was appointed governor, and beginning in 444 b.c., carried on a mighty work of reformation among the returned exiles for a period of 12 years (see on Neh. 5:14). After he was called back to Babylon, some years passed before he returned to Judea. Upon his return he found a state of marked spiritual declension, which he endeavored to correct. It was during this general period, perhaps between Nehemiah’s two terms as governor, that the Lord raised up the prophet Malachi to turn the people back to wholehearted service for God. For a more complete survey of the historical background of Malachi see Vol. III, pp. 73–79.
4. Theme. In contrast with Zechariah’s thrilling prophetic outline of the limitless possibilities that lay before the Jews upon their return from exile (see pp. 29–32, 1085), Malachi’s prophecy, a century later, presents a dismal scene of progressive spiritual declension. To be sure, the exiles had returned from the land of their captivity to the Land of Promise, but in their hearts they remained in the far country of disobedience and forgetfulness of God (see pp. 31, 32). Their “failure to fulfill the divine purpose was very apparent in Malachi’s day” (PK 705). In fact, things had come to such a pass that even the priests despised the worship and service of God and were weary of religion (ch. 1:6, 13); and on His part, God was weary of their faithlessness and found their worship and service entirely unacceptable (chs. 1:10, 13; 2:13, 17). Although, for practical purposes, the covenant had lapsed by default, God mercifully continued to bear with His wayward people.
He commissioned the prophet Malachi to bear a stern message of warning, reminding the Jews of their past experiences as a nation and calling upon them to return to God and to the requirements of the covenant relationship (PK 705). Eight times the Lord addresses the people and their religious leaders, graciously and patiently calling attention to one aspect after another of their apostasy, and eight times they petulantly deny any degree of imperfection (chs. 1:2, 6, 7; 2:13, 14, 17; 3:7, 8, 13, 14). God’s patient endeavor to elicit recognition of past mistakes, coupled with their progressively vehement denial of having made any, constitutes the theme of the book. This theme develops as follows: a. Tactfully, God begins by reminding Israel of His eternal love, but they callously protest a lack of evidence that He loves them. God responds by reminding them that it was by virtue of His love that they had become a nation (ch. 1:2–4). b. Observing that Israel owed Him the honor due a father from his son, God charges them with despising Him instead of requiting His love. They obtusely deny the charge. (v. 6). c. God submits evidence of their contempt for Him, pointing out their attitude toward the sacred rites of the Temple as an illustration. They have “polluted,” or made common, the most sacred things. But their response indicates utter blindness to any distinction between what is sacred and what is common (v. 7). They have a “form of godliness” but know nothing of its “power” (2 Tim. 3:5). d. God explains at length the worthlessness of their hollow round of religious ceremonies (chs. 1:8 to 2:12), concluding with the announcement that He will no longer notice or accept their offerings (ch. 2:13). Unabashed, and with a pretense of injured feelings, the people demand why God should thus ignore their worship and service (v. 14). Patiently He explains that the forms of religion are worthless when its principles are not applied to the practical problems of daily living (vs. 14–16). e. He is weary also of their hypocritical pretense at piety. The people defend themselves by insinuating that God’s charge is unwarranted and unjust. God answers: Their failure to distinguish between the sacred and the common in acts of worship is matched by a comparable failure to discriminate between good and evil in daily life.
They condone evil with the excuse that it really does not matter, and imply that God should not care so long as they keep up the forms of religion (v. 17). But God warns them that obdurate impenitence will inevitably hasten the day of final judgment (ch. 3:1–6). f. God now charges Israel with complete apostasy, yet accompanies the solemn charge with a gracious invitation to return to Him. The people, however, profess utter surprise and indignation at the thought of having in any way departed from the path of strict obedience to His requirements (v. 7). g. God answers their challenge with specific, tangible evidence of their departure from Him. He charges them with robbery, but they refuse to admit the charge. However, silence on their part is tacit acknowledgment of its truth (vs. 8–12). h.Finally, God indicts the Jews for their brazen retorts to His successive attempts to get them to see their spiritual condition, but they refuse to admit that anything they may have said is untrue or improper (v. 13). God meets this denial by pointing to the crux of the problem—their mercenary, self-seeking spirit. They have not been serving God with sincere hearts, but in the hope of profit and personal advantage (see pp. 32, 33). Utterly and incurably defiant, they are ready to put God to the test. They declare their readiness to hale Him into court, as it were, rashly confident of proving His charges against them invalid (vs. 14, 15).
In chs. 3:16–18 and 4:2 God acknowledges the faithful few in Israel who remain loyal to Him and assures them of His unfailing love. At the same time (ch. 4:1, 3) He warns the wicked of their fate on the day of final judgment. The message of Malachi closes with the assurance that prior to the great day of the Lord a messenger will appear to assist Him in the work of preparing the “jewels” for His crown and preserving them through the day of judgment (chs. 4:4–6, 2; 3:17).
The message of Malachi is particularly appropriate for the church today, and is comparable to the Laodicean message of Rev. 3:14–22. Like the Laodiceans, the Jews of Malachi’s day were utterly insensitive to their true spiritual condition and felt their “need of nothing” (Rev. 3:17). They were “poor” in heavenly treasure, “blind” to their errors, and “naked,” or not clothed with the perfect character of Jesus Christ (v. 17). Like the man in the parable without a wedding garment (see on Matt. 22:11–13), they stood before the King of the universe, despising the garment of His righteousness and fully content with their own moral rags.
I. Divine Love Unappreciated and Unrequited, 1:1–6.
A. Introduction, 1:1.
B. God’s eternal love for Israel, 1:2–5.
C. Israel dishonors and despises God, 1:6.
II. The Degenerate State of Religious Life, 1:7 to 2:17.
A. Failure to distinguish between things sacred and common, 1:7–10.
B. Failure of the Jews in their mission to the Gentiles, 1:11, 12.
C. Failure of the priests to provide spiritual leadership, 1:13 to 2:13.
D. Failure to apply the principles of religion to daily life, 2:14–17.
III. A Summons to Judgment, 3:1–15.
A. A warning of the day of judgment, 3:1–6.
B. A specific indictment for robbery of God, 3:7–12.
C. An indictment for contempt of God, 3:13–15.
IV. Preparation for the Day of Judgment, 3:16 to 4:6.
A. Deliverance for those who fear the Lord, 3:16, 17.
B. Annihilation for those who despise the Lord, 3:18 to 4:1, 3.
C. Divine guidance assured those who fear the Lord, 4:2, 4–6.