Malachi, Book of


Books of the

Hebrew Bible

Malachi (מַלְאָכִי, Mál'akhî—"my messenger") is a book of the Hebrew Bible traditionally believed to be written by the prophet Malachi in the mid fifth century B.C.E.. It addresses the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile, calling them to repentance, faithfulness, and hope. Malachi is particularly concerned with the purity of the sacrifices offered by the Levite priests, promising the coming of a messenger from God who will cleanse the practices of priesthood and the Temple of Jerusalem. The book also preaches strongly against divorce and failing to tithe properly. Malachi's most famous prophecy is his prediction of the return of the prophet Elijah before the "Great and Terrible Day of the Lord."

Contents

Nothing is known of Malachi's personal life, or indeed if he existed at all. The book was assigned the name "Malachi" due to its references to God's purifying "messenger" or "angel" (malachi). Nevertheless, Malachi had a significant impact on Judaism, particularly because of its dramatic promise of Elijah's coming as forerunner to the Day of the Lord and the associated expectation of the Messiah. In Christianity, Malachi's prophecies are connected to the birth and ministry of John the Baptist, who is identified as fulfilling the prediction of Elijah's return. Malachi is particularly important in the new religious tradition of the Church of of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Unificationism.

Purpose

A Levite priest records the "tithes" of grain and cattle offered to the Temple of Jerusalem.

The book of Malachi was written to correct the lax religious and social behavior of the Jews—particularly the Levite priests—in post-exilic Jerusalem and Judaea. It addresses several political, spiritual, and moral ills, specifically:

  • a policy of accommodation toward Edom
  • the lax attitude of certain priests toward accepting animal sacrifices
  • a high divorce rate
  • lack of faith in God's coming justice
  • not offering a full tithe

Some of the above themes may be interpreted metaphorically. For example, the issue of Edom vs. Israel is thought by some not to be a political statement, but solely an expression of God's special love for His chosen people, to whom the book is addressed. The issue of divorce, about which the prophet's message seems somewhat confused, may relate more to the question of faithfulness to God, using divorce metaphorically to symbolize idolatry and alienation from God.

Malachi promises his audience that in the coming "Great and Terrible Day of the Lord," the differences between those who served God faithfully and those who did not will become clear. The book concludes by calling upon the teachings of Moses and by promising that the great prophet Elijah will return prior to the Day of the Lord.

Summary

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.

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)

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).

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.

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).

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.

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)

Significance in Judaism

Unlike in Christian tradition, Malachi is not the last book of most Hebrew Bibles—since the "writings" such as Job and Esther come after the "prophets." However, it is the last of the books of the prophets, or Nev'im. Malchi's prophecies had an important impact on the history and attitude of Judaism, far greater than the size of his small book would indicate.

Malachi predicted that Elijah, who ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, would return to earth before the Day of the Lord.

Most important was his promise of the coming of Elijah prior to the advent of the Day of the Lord. Several prophets had predicted such a day, usually associated with the coming of the Messiah and a final battle between the forces of good and evil. By tying the Day of the Lord specifically to the return of Elijah, Malachi provided the Jews with a definite sign by which they could know that the time was at hand. The Messiah would not appear until Elijah came again as his forerunner. This idea would be enshrined in the Jewish tradition of Passover, in which a special cup of wine is reserved for Elijah, in case he should come this year, and the door is opened to demonstrate readiness for his arrival.

In New Testament times, the Jewish expectation of Elijah's coming was reportedly so strong that Jesus' disciples faced frequent objections to their testimony regarding their leader because no "Elijah" had yet appeared: "They asked him, 'Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?' Jesus replied, 'To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things'" (Mark 9:11-12).

Malachi's teaching on divorce also provided a basis for making divorce more difficult and strengthening the rights of women in divorce proceedings. His promise of the coming messenger who would act to purify the priesthood was particularly important to the Essenes, who saw themselves as preparing to replace the corrupt Temple priesthood in preparation for the final battle between the "sons of light" and the "sons of darkness" based on the predictions of Malachi and other prophets.

Malachi in Christianity

Primarily because of its messianic promise, the book of Malachi is frequently referred to in the Christian New Testament. The opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke tell of the priest Zechariah receiving a revelation from the Angel Gabriel and later prophesying that his miraculously conceived son would fulfill the promise of Elijah's coming to "prepare the way of the Lord." In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus declares that John is indeed the promised Elijah. However, in John's Gospel, John the Baptist himself publicly denies this (John 1:21). Matthew 16:14, meanwhile, indicates that some people thought Jesus himself was fulfilling Malachi's prediction of Elijah's return.

The following is a brief comparison between the book of Malachi and the New Testament texts which refer to it.

Use of the book of Malachi in the New Testament (NRSV)
Malachi New Testament
"Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau" (1:2-3) "'I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.'" (Romans 9:13)
"See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me," (3:1) "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;" (Mark 1:2) (see also Matthew 11:10; Luke 7:27)
"But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" (3:2) "for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (Revelation 6:17)
"and he will... refine them like gold and silver," (3:3) "the genuineness of your faith . . . being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire . . ." (1 Peter 1:7)
"Return to me, and I will return to you," (3:7) "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you" (James 4:8)
"Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." (3:23, 4:5) "he is Elijah who is to come." (Matthew 11:14) See also Matthew 17:12; Mark 9:13.
"Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents," (3:23-24, 4:5-6) "With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous," (Luke 1:17)


Mormon beliefs related to Malachi

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that the prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith on April 3, 1836 (Passover) and restored important "keys" related to temple work and family record-keeping (Doctrine and Covenants Section 110).

John the Baptist and Jesus

This is believed to be in direct fulfillment of Malachi's prophesy at the end of chapter 4. According to LDS tradition, the angelic prophet Moroni also appeared to Joseph Smith, in the year 1823, and told him that parts of Malachi chapter 3 and all of chapter 4 had not yet been fulfilled but soon would be. Malachi's teachings on the blessings of tithing are also considered very important in LDS doctrine, and were repeated by the resurrected Savior in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 24,25).

Malachi in Unificationism

Malachi's prophecies are also particularly important in the teachings of the Unification Church. According to the Divine Principle, although Malachi's prophecy concerning the return of Elijah was supposed to be fulfilled by John the Baptist, John did not complete the mission as Malachi had predicted. This was the reason that Jesus had to go to the Cross, instead of being welcomed by the Jews. John should have become Jesus' first disciple. But instead, he separated from Jesus and even denied that he was Elijah (John 1:21). He thus failed to prepare the way for Jesus as the Messiah, for which Elijah's coming was the prerequisite according to Malachi. Unification tradition also holds that Malachi was a very significant figure in providential history, playing a role in Judaism parallel to that of Martin Luther in the history of Christianity.

Critical views

Author

Nothing is known of the biography of the supposed author of the Book of Malachi, although it has been suggested that his concerns make it likely that he was a Levite. The word malachi means simply "my messenger," and is closely related to the Hebrew word of "angel," malakh. There is substantial debate regarding the identity of the author of the book. Early manuscripts did not include book titles, and since there are no capital letters in ancient Hebrew, it is impossible to know for certain if "malachi" was meant as a proper name at all. The term malachi occurs in verse 1:1 and verse 3:1, but its fairly clear that the word does not refer to the same character in both of these verses.

One Jewish tradition (Tosafot Yevamot 86b) identifies Ezra the Scribe as the author of the Book of Malachi. Other rabbinical authorities disagree, however; and there is no direct evidence to support this claim. Some scholars note affinities between Zechariah 9-14 and the book of Malachi. Others argue that the prophecies of Malachi are actually a collection of originally independent anonymous oracles.

Date and place

There are very few historical details in the book of Malachi. The greatest clue as to its dating may lie in the fact that the Persian-era term for governor (pehâ) is used in 1:8. This points to a post-exilic date of composition both because of the use of the Persian period term and because Judah had a king before the exile. Since, in the same verse, the Temple of Jerusalem has been rebuilt, the book must also be later than 515 B.C.E. Malachi was apparently known to the author of Ecclesiasticus early in the second century B.C.E. Because of the development of themes in the book of Malachi, most scholars assign it to a position between Haggai and Zechariah, slightly before Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in 445 B.C.E.

The book of Malachi deals directly with abuses in the restored Temple system—apparently from first hand experience. Thus, the book was almost certainly written in Jerusalem.

References

  • Hill, Andrew E. Malachi: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible, 1998. ISBN 9780385518529
  • LaSor, William Sanford et al. Old Testament Survey: the Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996. ISBN 9780802837882
  • Mason, Rex. The Books of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1977. ISBN 9780521097635
  • Van Hoonacker, A. "Malachias (Malachi)." Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 9, 2007.

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