Malachi does not have a lot evidence which could provide a specific date for its composition. The most compelling pieces of data would be that the second temple has been built and the priests have been making sacrifices with an extended practice. The Jews after the Return are still struggling to flourish in the promised land in and around Jerusalem, so they believe it is acceptable to sacrifice animals who are blemished or disabled. This seems to be a standard enough practice that it deserves a prophetic denunciation. Being after the temple’s completion and given some time, possibly decades, of bad sacrificial practice, the date of Malachi’s compilation was likely sometime in the early to mid-5th century BCE.
Malachi is a prophecy that calls the Jews to give God more honor. God’s argument is that he has loved Israel more than other nations, including even Edom, who was the older brother Esau to Israel’s father Jacob. God has proven his love for Israel, but Israel has not honored God as their father, lord, or as the great king over all the nations. The temple priests believe they have given all the honor they can to God by obeying the sacrifices as they have received them in the traditions and writings of Moses. Yet, God explains that accepting blemished and disable animals from the people for sacrifices means the sacrifices become polluted and rejected. The pollution occurs on account of the intention of the people and the priests. They are not honoring God even as much as they honor their governor with the animals they are presenting.
Malachi makes clear that the priests, by not addressing these unfaithful intentions in the sacrifices, are bringing a curse on to the people because the sacrifices have become unacceptable. God expects the priests to teach the people how to live according the covenant so that such unacceptable sacrifices are not presented to him in the temple, but the priests are failing to lead the people, which means the people are being led astray and the covenant is being broken again by wrongful worship. God is going to turn the people against the priests because they are not teaching the fullness of the covenant to the people. No doubt such public distrust will be generated or further encouraged by Malachi’s denouncement of the temple priests for failing to be good leaders.
The prophet then turns to the marital practices of the Jews. More specifically the sex practices found in the marriages of Jewish males. Malachi makes the claim that God is both the Creator god and is One. This is a merging of the creational story and the Shema in way that emphasizes God’s rule over all things in creation, particularly over the one-ness of Adam and Eve as the One Creator god. If the Creator god created Israel in order to teach her how to live with him in creation correctly, why isn’t the people obeying the covenant in their relationships with one another? Jewish males were being allowed, by the neglectful teaching of the priests in the temple, to marry women from other people groups, and they were divorcing their Jewish wives in order to do so! Malachi defines marriage as the covenanted, faithful life of a man and women manifested in their sex act, in which the Creator pours his Spirit into in to (pro)create children for Israel through their bodily one-ness. The prophet reveals a similar conclusion as his predecessor Hosea; sex is a simultaneous act of worship to God (like a sacrifice), faithful obedience to the covenant, and a personal expression of allegiance to both God and his people.
After bringing these charges against the Jews in the temple, Jerusalem, and all the land of Judah, Malachi addresses why the people have slacked into this unfaithful behavior. The people believe that obeying the covenant has no benefit because they see evil people prospering. Their conclusion is that God is not ruling according to the covenant and so they do not have to live stringently according to it. God reveals that he will send a messenger before the day of his coming to teach the people how to obey the covenant better than they currently do. The day of God’s coming is the day he will rule over his people in such a way that enforces his covenant’s blessings and curses fully on and in the people. The reason there seems to be a delay in God’s ruling in such a way is that if God comes before his messenger the people might suffer another full destruction and be sent back into exile.
The messenger will be a fire from God; he will be an Elijah come to purify Israel with the fire of God. The purification will start with the priests in the temple so then sacrifices will become acceptable again. The people have not returned to God by simply returning to Jerusalem and Judah after the fall of Babylon, they return to God by meticulously obeying the covenant, such as in the practices of tithing. Once they begin to live according to God’s laws and teachings God will bless their life in the land because they are living faithfully in the covenant.
In fact, God declares those who live in faithful obedience to the covenant now might not see the day God comes to vindicate their obedience by overthrowing the prosperity of the unfaithful covenant-disobeying evildoers, so he has created a book filled with the names of the faithful who will be blessed after death in such a way that they will witness the fall of the wicked on that day. God’s presence on the day of his coming is depicted as a fire as well. God’s presence will set the evil ones ablaze and they will be burned up, but the faithful Jews who were refined by God’s earlier fire in the Elijah-messenger will rejoice on the day God comes to rule his people.
Malachi ends his prophecy here with an encouragement and a warning. An encouragement that the people should remember and obey the laws and teachings of the covenant. And a warning that if the people does not learn to be obedient God will come and decree another destruction event, leading to another exile.
- In some academic literature of the early second temple literature there is an idea that the temple priesthood sought to coalesce their power quickly as they rebuilt the temple in order to rule over the Jews. Malachi’s text is a problem for this hypothesis. It is not the priests who are demanding a more stringent obedience to the Law of the covenant, it is the prophets who are demanding more stringency by the temple! This difference might also be seen in a better historical understanding of the temple in Jesus’ day as well. It was not the Sadducees, who ran the temple system, who were demanding strict purity laws be obeyed by all the Jews. It was the Pharisees, a pietistic group outside the temple system, that put pressure on both the Sadducees in in the temple and the regular Jews throughout the Roman world.
- It is important to note the intentions of the people and the priests were able to pollute the sacrifices. Their hearts led to the practices being performed but in a wrong form or mode, leading to an unaccepted sacrifice, even though the priests had their own contextual reasons for performing the sacrifices in a different way. The importance attached to intention, which leads to right or wrong practice, is also emphasized when it comes the sex practices of the Jews in 2:15-16. It is not enough to simply do the practice. The person must participate in the practice with the correct intention or the practice is corrupted by the person. The person is an element of the sacrifice and the sex, therefore to be corrupt in the heart or spirit (the participatory intention) means the whole practice is corrupted. I can’t help but see how this should affect how Christians participation in the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism.
- I find it fascinating how Malachi connects the sex practices of the Jews to their sacrificial practices. Sex is depicted as form of sacrifice, which is very in line with Hosea’s theology of sex as a form of worship, and as a personal act of allegiance to both the Jewish people and the Creator god. For a Jewish man to divorce his wife and to choose a foreign woman is to treat her the way God treated Esau. Therefore, this man rejects the people of God and the godly Jewish children the Creator god would (pro)create through him and his wife. By rejecting to participate in sex with a Jewish wife this man rejects participating in the people of God and with God in creation.
- God’s reluctance to come to his people and judge them parallels Peter’s argument that God’s patience is so that more people might come to repentance before all things are made new in 2 Peter 3:8-13. Peter uses fire imagery to talk about the purifying power of God’s presence on the day of his coming, so Malachi could easily be on Peter’s mind.
- The promise of “a book of remembrance” in 3:16-18, which will keep the names of all the faithful Jews who obey the covenant’s law, seems to be the first hint at a concept of a special blessing reserved in the future for those who die before the eschatological day of God’s coming. This day seems to be seen as the day God will make all things right inside the people of God as well as with the nations in relation to Israel as God rules as king.
- Again, God is referred to as a king but neither David nor the Davidic lineage is mentioned or alluded to.
This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.
 1:6, 14.
 2:17, 3:14.
 3:1, 5, 4:5-6.
 3:2-3, 4:5.
 See E.P. Sanders’ Judaism: Practice and Belief for more on the distinctions between different Jewish groups in first century second Temple Judaism.