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Malachi’s message of the Maker’s love.
What can you and I glean from the last of the prophetic messages?
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
It almost goes without saying that the Old Testament (OT) Minor Prophets are anything but “minor” in their significance. We categorize these twelve prophetic books (that is, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) as the “Minor Prophets” solely because of their length, especially when compared to the so called “Major Prophets” (that is, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel). “Minor,” then, is a designation which has nothing at all to do with the message such oracles contain. Indeed, the Minor Prophets contain a bevy of uniquely resonant truths that you and I are right to take to heart. And among the best examples of that is the book of Malachi.
Malachi’s oracle is, perhaps, one of the more fascinating examples of prophetic writing, for a few reasons. (1) The author is completely unknown to us. Malachi has no background or biography to speak of, with little to no historical, let alone biblical, information to glean about his person. In fact, “Malachi” means, “My messenger,” leading some to postulate that this book was written under a pseudonym. There are some other theories, but, in the end, it doesn’t matter much — whoever it was that delivered this word to God’s people did so anonymously. “In this case,” unlike the other prophetic books, notes G. Campbell Morgan, “the Lord’s messenger is absolutely hidden behind the message he comes to bring” (22).
What’s more, (2) the date is almost as unknown as the author, with Bible scholars assigning the book a wide range of possible eras. Malachi itself doesn’t refer to any people, places, or events that might indicate a definitive time-period. However, there are a few hints in the text that might give us a clue to its context. For example, the title “governor” is employed in chapter 1, which was a title with etymological ties to the kingdom of Persia (Mal. 1:8; cf. Hag. 1:1, 14; 2:2, 21; Ezra 5:3, 6, 14; Neh. 5:14; 12:26). This seems to indicate that Malachi was written at least after 538 B.C., when the Persian king Cyrus decreed for the Jews to freely return to their homeland. Furthermore, Malachi makes mention of worship in the temple (Mal. 1:6–14; 2:7–9, 13; 3:7–10), which would suggest these words were for the people of Judah after the second temple had been restored (a.k.a. after 515 B.C.). The majority of OT researchers put Malachi’s oracle somewhere in the range of 450–430 B.C., just after Ezra and near the tail-end of Nehemiah. In fact, it’s widely concluded that Malachi was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Which makes when you consider that (3) the audience is the post-exilic Israelites, a.k.a. the people of God who had only recently come out of exile. Ezra and Nehemiah have done their thing, as the temple and the wall both standing erect again. And while, initially, the people of God experience a thrilling resurgence of concern for the things of Yahweh, they very quickly revert back to their old habits of sin and self-righteousness. Such is why Malachi unhesitatingly calls out his brethren for their gross negligence and insipid defilement of God’s words and worship. He calls out the priests for their loafing in their duties (Mal. 1:6; 2:8; cf. Neh. 13:29). He calls out the people for their unlawful views of marriage (Mal. 2:10–16; Neh. 13:23–27). And he calls out the people for their disregard in giving to the house of the Lord (Mal. 3:7–12; Neh. 13:10–13).
Like other oracles, however, the intent isn’t just to make the people feel miserable. The underlying aspiration is that at the recapitulation of their desperate estate they would turn to the Lord for redemption. Malachi’s primary concern is for the people of God to see their errors, to notice their deficiencies, and to turn (again) to the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. While his words are confrontational and polemical, at their core, they’re pastoral. Malachi’s heart is for the heart of the people. His God-given message is “about ‘getting things right’” (Hill, 530). But it would be Yahweh’s infinite love that would make that “rightness” a reality.
The message which Malachi relays is, essentially, God’s last word to his people, he being the last of the OT prophets. This oracle serves as the veritable hinge between the testaments, closing out the OT writings and signaling the finale of Yahweh’s prophetic intervention in and for his people before 400 years of silence. The weight of history which precedes and succeeds Malachi offers a truly captivating lens through which to understand his message, what with the ominous intertestamental hush looming over Malachi’s every word. With that in mind, what does God have to say to his people with these “parting words”? What can you and I glean from this last of the prophets? What is Malachi’s purpose for the likes of you and me? Well, the first five verses reveal both the immediate and timeless purposes of this resonant prophecy:
The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness. Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places; thus saith the Lord of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the Lord hath indignation for ever. And your eyes shall see, and ye shall say, The Lord will be magnified from the border of Israel. (Mal. 1:1–5)
In these words is captured the the heart of the Bible in a succinct way. Humanity never ceases to fail and forget, but God loves them just as well, with an unceasing and unending love. Even as his love was taken for granted, he loved anyway. Case in point, as the people of Israel returned to their homeland after decades of captivity, a flurry of questions concerning God and his love and his intentions raced through their minds. “Wherein hast thou loved us?” was their cry (Mal. 1:2). The optimism which was, perhaps, infused into Israelite lore and liturgy had all but faded into abject pessimism. God’s purposes and promises were only lightly trusted. “Malachi confronts a population given to religious cynicism and political skepticism,” Andrew Hill comments. “In the minds of many in Malachi’s audience, God had failed his people” (527). The prophet alludes to these doubts on a number of occasions (Mal. 1:2, 6–7; 2:14, 17; 3:7–8, 13), with effects of these embraced doubts rearing their ugly heads in Israel’s worship.
The way God’s people approached God himself had been fundamentally altered, bearing the incipient marks of the religious incipience that Christ himself would expose during his ministry. God’s people had developed a blindness both to their need of God and of his abiding love for them. And such is what makes Malachi so unique among the other prophetic writings. There are the usual elements of prophetic broadside peppered throughout, as Malachi “accuses, indicts, and pronounces judgment on the audience” (Hill, 529) without reservation. But even as he does so, there is an underlying motif of love that propels the prophecy. “I have loved you, saith the Lord” (Mal. 1:2) essentially becomes the clarion call of Malachi’s message, with the Lord’s insinuation being that he has, is, and will love his people, forever.
This prophecy sets the stage for what is to come in the New Testament at the incarnation of God’s only begotten Son. Malachi alludes to the forerunner who would “prepare the way” before the Lord (Mal. 3:1) — which we understand to be John the Baptist (Mark 1:2–8) — and mentions the coming of the “Sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2), which we knew and believe to be Christ himself. And so it is that Malachi’s audience, which includes you and me, is made to understand that the undiminishing, unrelenting love of Yahweh isn’t about to run out any time soon. The Lord’s favor for his own wasn’t on fumes. Indeed, God’s last word to his beloved is a message that his love for them would soon be demonstrated in ways too great, too unfathomable for them to even comprehend.
At the appearance of both the forerunner and the Messenger himself, Yahweh’s people would know that the “day” of the Lord’s love had dawned. Such is who Jesus is. He is the embodiment of the Father’s love for his people and the world. “God did not begin to love man when Jesus came,” G. Campbell Morgan declares. “Jesus came to roll back the curtain and show man the heart that was eternal, the love that was always there. Christianity is not God’s alteration of attitude toward man. It is not that in the old dispensation He was a policeman, and in this a father. He has always been a father, He never changes” (17). The “Sun of righteousness” wasn’t sent in order to coax his Heavenly Father into loving the world again. Rather, the incarnate Word is himself the express image of the depths of the Father’s love for the world (John 3:16; Heb. 1:3).
This, I’d say, is the heartbeat of the Bible. Indeed, it is the heart of God himself. Our only hope in life and death is that God loves sinners, who fail and forget constantly, with a love that is just as constant. It is the Lord’s purpose and prerogative to incessantly win his people back to himself with a love that is eternal and interminable. “I am the Lord, I change not” (Mal. 3:6). And neither does his love for his people. “God’s love is infinite and boundless,” Octavius Winslow affirms, “changing not with circumstances, chilling not with indifference, nor wearying with lapse of years” (16). Such is what Israel could cling to even during the days of the Lord’s silence. And such is what you and I can cling to during our days of frustration and doubt and suffering. The Maker’s loving embrace never relents or wanes. His is a “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (Lloyd-Jones, 14) that runs throughout the ages, receiving every sinner with unflappable acceptance.
Andrew E. Hill, “Malachi, Book of,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Story of God’s Love for You (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).
G. Campbell Morgan, Wherein Have We Robbed God? Malachi’s Message to the Men of To-day (New York: Revell, 1898).
Octavius Winslow, The Precious Things of God (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1867).