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Book of Malachi

Book of Malachi
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

The Holy Prophet Malachi lived 400 years before the Birth of Christ, at the time of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. It is the last book of the collection of the twelve Minor Prophets which is inscribed with the name of Malachias or Malachi. As a result, the author has long been regarded as the last of the canonical prophets of the Old Testament, and, therefore, the holy Fathers call him "the seal of the prophets." Manifesting himself an image of spiritual goodness and piety, he astounded the nation and was called Malachi, i.e., an angel.

Malachi was one of the three postexilic writing prophets along with Haggai and Zechariah, and he was quite certainly the last one chronologically, even though we cannot be dogmatic about a exact date for his writing. The first group of almost 50,000 Jewish exiles returned from Babylonian captivity under Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel's leadership in 537 BC. Ezra 1—6 records their experiences. Haggai and Zechariah ministered to these returnees in 520 BC and urged them to rebuild the temple. Zachariah's ministry may have continued beyond that year. The events recorded in the Book of Esther took place in Persia between 482 and 473 BC. A second group of about 5,000 Jews returned in 458 BC under Ezra's leadership. Ezra sought to beautify the temple and institute reforms that would purify Israel's worship (Ezra 7—10). Nehemiah led a third group of about 42,000 back in 444 BC, and the events recorded in his book describe what happened between 445 and 420 BC including the rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall. Malachi evidently ministered in Jerusalem during that period.

Life was not easy for the returnees during the ministry of the fifth century restoration prophet. The people continued to live under Gentile (Persian) sovereignty even though they were back in their own land. Harvests were poor, and locust plagues were a problem (3:11). Even after Ezra's reforms and Nehemiah's amazing success in motivating the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem's wall, most of the people remained cold-hearted toward Yahweh. Priests and people were still not observing the Mosaic Law as commanded, as is clear from references in the book to sacrifices, tithes, and offerings (e.g., 1:6; 3:5). Foreign cultures had made deep inroads into the values and practices of God's people. The Israelites still intermarried with Gentiles (2:11), and divorces were quite common (2:16). The spiritual, ethical, and moral tone of the nation was low.

The prophet addressed the restoration community of Israelites who had returned to the land not many years earlier from Babylonian captivity. His purpose was to confront them with their sins and to encourage them to pursue holiness.

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Brief chapter outline is listed below:

Chapter 1:

1:1-1:5 Israel Preferred to Edom
1:6-2:9 Corruption of the Priesthood

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Chapter 2:

2:10-2:17 The Covenant Profaned by Judah

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Chapter 3:

3:1-3:7 The Coming Messenger
3:8-3:15 Do Not Rob God
3:16-3:18 The Reward of the Faithful

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Chapter 4:

4:1-4:6 The Great Day of the Lord.

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A narrative summary follows.

The Book of Malachi is composed of six fairly distinct prophecies. These consist of a series of disputes between Yahweh and the various groups within the Israelite community. Implicit in the prophet’s condemnation of Israel’s religious practices is a call to keep Yahweh’s statutes. The book draws heavily upon various themes found in other books of the Hebrew Bible.

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1. The Prophecy on Esau and Jacob.

Malachi appeals to the story of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau and of Yahweh’s preference for Jacob contained in Genesis 25-28. Malachi reminds his audience that, as descendants of Jacob (Israel), they have been and continue to be favored by God as His chosen people. The aspiration of the Edomites, Esau's descendants, are specifically disparaged, while Israel's right to dominion over Edomite territories in affirmed:

Edom may say, "Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins." But this is what the Lord Almighty says: "They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, 'Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!' (1:4-5)

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2. The Prophecy on Acceptable Offerings.

In the second prophecy, Malachi draws upon the Levitical Code (e.g. Leviticus 1:3) in condemning the priests for offering unacceptable sacrifices, such as blind or crippled animals. He furthermore pronounces a curse on those who have healthy cattle and yet offer diseased or otherwise unacceptable beasts to be sacrificed (1:6-2:9). The passage is remarkable for its contrast with the Book of Amos, which emphasized social justice as the crucial qualification for a true priesthood, rather than the quality of the animals being sacrificed by the priests. The prophet reaffirms God's special covenant with the Levite priesthood, but threatens priests who make unacceptable offerings: "I will spread on your faces the offal from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it" (2:3).

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3. The Prophesy on Divorce.

The third prophecy is a dramatic condemnation of divorce:

Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. "I hate divorce," says the Lord God of Israel... So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith (2:15-16).

The exact meaning of the oracle, however, is not so clear-cut. In one verse, the prophet clearly refers to Judah's collective faithlessness in marrying foreign wives and adopting their idolatrous practices. The more specific condemnation in the 2:15-16, however, could be interpreted as disagreeing with the insistence of Ezra and Nehemiah, perhaps issued after Malachi was written, that Judah's leaders divorce any non-Jewish wives among them.

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4. The Prophecy on The Messenger of Justice.

The fourth condemns those who question God's justice, promising the coming of the "messenger (malachi) of the covenant," who “is like refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap...” (3:1-2). He will carry out the promised purification of the Levite priesthood, so that "offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by" (3:4). Echoing the classical prophets, the author predicts that God will testify against "sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice" (3:5).

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5. The Prophecy on Tithes.

Following this, the prophet turns to issue of tithes. Malachi quotes Yahweh as declaring, "You rob me." God commands: “Bring the full tithe... [and] see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down on you an overflowing blessing” (3:10). Tithes here refers not primarily to monetary offerings, but to a tenth of one's cattle and harvest of crops.

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6. The prophecy on The Return of Elijah.

Malachi's most famous prophecy, is contained in his sixth and final oracle. This is the prediction of the "great and terrible day of the Lord," when evil will be burned away, and the righteous will "trample down the wicked." Malachi calls his readers to recall the great prophet Moses and obey "all the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel" (4:4). In conclusion God promises:

"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse." (4:5)

This concludes the Old Testament Research Assignment.

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