Malachi Overview: Priests and People Sin Against Love

9th Century Prophets 8th Century Prophets 7th Century Prophets Exilic Prophets Post-exilic Prophets


1. Name

The book is named after its prophetic author, Malachi, whose name means “my messenger.” Although some have considered this a title rather than a personal name, this is unlikely as all the other prophetic books bear the personal name of their authors.

2. Theme

Divine love: spurned yet persistent.

3. Purpose

To call the discouraged community living in the promised land after the exile to renewed faith by announcing the coming judgment of the Messiah.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1526.[/footnote]

4. Key verse

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts (Mal.3:1).

5. Key truths

• The people of Israel were corrupted by sin during the last years of the Old Testament period.
• God offered his people forgiveness of their sins.
• God promised that the Messiah would come to purify the nation.
• The wicked will be judged and the righteous rewarded in the future judgment.[footnote]Ibid., 1526.[/footnote]


I. Author

The book of Malachi is the twelfth and last of the Minor Prophets. It brings the second part (the Nebi ‘im) of the three-part Hebrew canon to an end. In English translations of the Bible, which follow the Greek tradition, Malachi concludes the canon of the Old Testament. Its position among the twelve is likely due to the fact that Malachi was the last to minister.
The prophet’s name stands alone in verse one without any further definition as to family or hometown. Nothing is known of his life except what can be deduced from the book itself. He obviously prophesied in Jerusalem near the Temple and priesthood. Quite likely he was born and lived his life in Judah.

Because he was the last of the Old Testament prophets Malachi has been dubbed “the seal of the prophets,” or more poetically, “the last flush in the sunset of Hebrew prophecy” (Farrar). The style which is manifested in this book has caused others to call Malachi “the prophet of didactic-dialectic,” or “the lecturer” or “the Hebrew Socrates” (Robinson). The message of this man of God has earned him the title “the prophet of universal worship” or “the prophet of the coming and the return of the Messiah.”[footnote]J E Smith, The Minor Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


II. Date

The Book of Malachi fits the general situation amid which Ezra and Nehemiah worked. Internal indicators of the date are:
• A Persian governor was in charge (Mal.1:8), indicating that the book was written while Nehemiah was back in Persia (435-432 BC).
• Sacrifices were being offered in the temple (Mal.1:7–10), indicating that the temple had been rebuilt.
• Malachi faced similar problems to Nehemiah: corrupt priests (Mal.1:6–2:9; cf. Neh. 13:1–9), neglect of tithes and offerings (Mal.3:7–12; cf. Neh. 13:10–13), and intermarriage with pagan wives (Mal.2:10–16; cf. Neh.13:23–28).
On the basis of this evidence, a range of dates have been proposed, from before the coming of Ezra in 457 BC to just after Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem for his second governorship in 432 BC.

III. Historical Analysis

1. Chronology

538/7 First return under Zerubbabel
458 Second return under Ezra
445 Third return under Nehemiah
445-443 Nehemiah’s first Governorship
443-432 Nehemiah returns to Persia

2. Historical background

The Jews had been back in Canaan for about 100 years when Malachi ministered. The blessings predicted by Haggai and Zechariah had still not materialised. The people had become depressed and discouraged. Instead of the promised victory and fertility of the Messianic age they experienced poverty and drought. Backslidden in heart, in life and in outward observance of the Temple ritual, they had become critical of God’s dealings with them and refused to accept that anything was wrong with them. Malachi’s ministry was intended to stir them up to repent and return to the Lord.

The book of Malachi contains the Lord’s last recorded words of Old Testament times. In many respects it is a sad book, because it reveals what little progress – if any – Israel had made since the nation was born fifteen hundred years earlier (Gen 12). Dark and distressing as this is, however, the sun of God’s grace arises out of its pages; so, when the reader has arrived at the last verses, there is no question but that in the end the day of glory will come for a repentant Israel, as well as for all believers.[footnote]I L Jensen, Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 467.[/footnote]


IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative outlines

Archer Bullock Nelson J E Smith
Introductory appeal
(Mal.1:1–5)Oracle against the priests (Mal.1:6–2:9)Oracles against the laity, (Mal.2:10–4:3)Concluding admonitions: (Mal.4:4–6)
First Disputation:
About Love
(Mal. 1:2–5 )Second Disputation: About Honour
(Mal. 1:6–2:9 )Third Disputation:
About Faithlessness
(Mal. 2:10–16 )Fourth Disputation: About Divine Justice
(Mal. 2:17–3:5 )Fifth Disputation:
About Repentance
(Mal. 3:6–12 )Sixth Disputation:
About Serving God
(Mal. 3:13–4:3 )
Appendix: Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Exemplar of Prophecy
(Mal. 4:4–6 )
The privilege of the nation
(Mal.1:1-5)The pollution of the nation
(Mal.1:6-3:15)The promises to the nation
Yahweh’s Sovereign Love
(Mal.1:1-5)The Priests Sin Against Love
(Mal.1:6-2:9)The People Sin Against Love
(Mal.2:10-4:3)Final Exhortation


a. The priests sin against love (Mal.1:1-2:9)

God loves Israel (Mal.1:1-5)

The priests sin against love (Mal.1:6-2:9)

b. The people sin against love (Mal.2:10-4:3)

The people sin against love (Mal.2:10-4:3)

God calls Israel (Mal.4:4-6)

This may be presented in a chiasmic structure as follows:

God loves Israel (Mal.1:1-5)

The priests sin against love (Mal.1:6-2:9)

The people sin against love (Mal.2:10-4:3)

God calls Israel (Mal.4:4-6)

2. Style

Malachi is composed of six prophetic disputations (Mal.1:2-5; 1:6-2:9; 2:10-16; 2:17-3:5; 3:6-12; 3:13-21).

The method of this prophet has been called didactic-dialectic or dialogistic. Seven times in the book this pattern recurs. Malachi will make an affirmation or assertion about some sin or problem in the community. The people would then object to the charge by interrogating Malachi. They would demand in effect that Malachi explain the charge and present his evidence. Thus the dominant pattern in this book is assertion, objection and refutation. To put the matter another way, the literary pattern in Malachi is affirmation, interrogation and rebuttal. The prophet would then refute the objection by presenting his case. Certainly this is the most argumentative of all Old Testament books. A courtroom atmosphere prevails throughout the book.[footnote]J E Smith, The Minor Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Disputation Passage Introduction Question Answer Teaching
Love Mal.1:2-5 I have loved you How have you loved us? Compare Edom with Israel God loves His people
Honour Mal.1:6-2:9 God deserves honour as father/master How have we dishonoured you? You have sacrificed defiled food to me God is Israel’s father/master
Faithlessness Mal.2:10-16 God is Father and creator of all How are we breaking faith with God and each other? By divorcing your wives God is Israel’s creator
Divine justice Mal.2:17-3:5 The Lord is weary of His people’s words How have we wearied Him? By accusing God of honouring or ignoring evil God is just
Repentance Mal.3:6-12 God does not change but you must How are we to change? By not robbing God of His tithe God does not change
Serving God Mal.3:13-4:3 The people have used harsh words of the Lord What have we said against you? You have said that serving God is pointless God is honest


V. Thematic Analysis

1. God’s love (Mal.1:1-5)

Malachi lays the foundation for all that he will say in the four verses following the heading. He sets forth a proposition, and then offers the proof to sustain his proposition.

a. The Proposition (Mal.1:2)

Right at the beginning, God asserts “I do love you.” He makes clear that His love for Israel is sure and continuing. Contrary to what their outward providence seemed to say and contrary to what their hearts were saying, God did love His people with an unchanging love.

b. The Proof (Mal.1:3-5)

By Esau and Jacob Malachi means the nations which were descended from these men. Compared to the lot of Esau’s descendants, the Jacobites were most blessed. The evidence that God loved Esau less than Jacob could be observed in the present and future condition of the nation Edom. Though Israel would have its share of setbacks, Edom’s far more miserable circumstances would demonstrate God’s watchful care over his people (Mal.1:5).

2. Israel’s sins

The sins of ungrateful Israel are then contrasted with the unchanging love of God.

a. The priests sinned against love (Mal.1:6-2:9)

Having established how God had displayed his love for Israel, Malachi charged first the priests and then the people with slighting that love. Malachi charged the priests with polluting the altar (Mal.1:6-10), profaning God’s name (Mal.1:11-14), and perverting the covenant (Mal.2:5-9). In addition to offering inappropriate sacrifices the priests neglected to teach and to enforce the law of God (Mal.2:1-9). For this the priests would experience punishment at the hands of their God (Mal.2:1-4). The Lord would reject them and raise up a pure priesthood from among the Gentiles.

Rather than continue to insult God with their tainted sacrifices, it would be better, Malachi argued, to shut down the temple. Sacrifices were no longer accomplishing their purpose. They were lighting the altar fire “in vain,” i.e., for nothing. The sacrifices were doing more harm than good. They angered God rather than pleased him (Mal.1:10a).[footnote]J E Smith, The Minor Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

b. The people sin against love (Mal.2:10-4:3)

(i) Unlawful marriages and divorces

God abhorred the way Judahite men married idolatrous Gentile women (Mal.2:10-12), and also divorcing their Israelite wives illegally (Mal.2:13-16). This was contrary to the covenant of our fathers (Mal.2:10) and jeopardized the maintenance of the Jewish faith as well as the very existence of the nation.

(ii) Doubt and scepticism (Mal.2:17–3:6)

The people complained that the wicked prospered while the righteous suffered (Mal.2:17), and concluded that there was no justice in God. However Malachi makes clear that judgment was near and that none would escape (Mal.3:1-6).

(iii) Dishonesty (Mal.3:7-12)

They had robbed God by withholding their tithes and so God had cursed the land (Mal.3:9). If they started to tithe God would mightily bless them again (Mal.3:10-12).

(iv) Cynicism (Mal.3:13-4:3)

Many thought that serving God demanded too much and returned too little. They could not see any benefits in keeping God’s covenant (Mal.3:13) and even called the proud blessed (Mal.3:15).

3. Covenant

Malachi begins and ends with reference to God’s covenant with Israel. Throughout the book covenantal themes are referred to: God’s election of Israel instead of Edom (Mal.1:2-5), God and Israel are like Father and Son (Mal.1:6), priests disobeyed the covenant with Levi (Mal.2:1-9), the people broke the covenant made with their fathers (Mal.2:10-16), the messenger of the covenant will punish covenant breakers (Mal.3:1), God’s covenant faithfulness contrasted with Israel’s unfaithfulness (Mal.3:6-12), Israel to be God’s special possession (Mal.3:16-19; cf Ex.19:5). God’s judgments are related to covenant violations (Mal.3:9; Lev.26:14-46; Dt.28:15-68)

4. God’s judgment

While God is calling Israel to return and assuring of His covenant love, Malachi also reveals God’s eventual judgment upon the unrepentant. The day was coming when vice will be punished and virtue rewarded (Mal.3:18). Those that the sceptics regarded as happy and blessed in this world would become stubble (Mal.4:1a).

The coming judgment would be thorough; all evildoers would be completely destroyed, leaving only the righteous alive to enjoy God’s blessing. Before executing His justice God would send a prophet to encourage the people to repent in order that they might avoid condemnation and receive blessing.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1526.[/footnote]

5. God calls Israel

The prophecy of Malachi concludes with an exhortation and a warning. Despite all their sins against His love, God continues to exhort and call the people to His love.

The Lord exhorted his people to “remember the law of Moses my servant.” Malachi thus sets his seal of approval on the Pentateuch, giving a fitting climax to the Old Testament. The book closes with a prediction that Yahweh would send “Elijah the prophet” to sound the final warning to national Israel. The New Testament, seems to clearly indicate that John the Baptist is intended (Matt 11:14 ; Luke 7:27). John came in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). Elijah (John the Baptist) would come before that great and fearful day of Yahweh. Some think the reference is to the final judgment. More likely is the view that “the great and fearful day of Yahweh” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. This event figures prominently in Old Testament prophecy as well as in the teaching of Jesus.

Malachi concludes the prophetic corpus, and closes the Greek (and thus our English) canon on this fitting note – of the cleansing required by the community as a prelude to covenant renewal. Israel is potentially under a curse, for assent to the covenant only in name will destroy her. This has been the essential message of Israelite prophecy from Samuel onward. In Malachi, the prophetic movement concludes with the coming Elijah figure, its witness to Israel ending on the high note of pronounced covenant emphasis on which it had begun, with the inauguration of the monarchy.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 241.[/footnote]


VI. New Testament Analysis

1. Purification of the priests (Mal.3:1-5)

The messenger of the covenant was to come to His Temple and begin a work of purification. The process of purification would begin with the priests.

Some think that the cleansing of the temple by Jesus is the focus here (Jn.2:14-17). Others highlight that Christ’s preaching was directed at the religious leaders of His day. Still others point to the conversion of many of the Levitical priests in Acts 6:7. It is more likely that the prophecy is of an ongoing refining work. Perhaps the fulfilment is in the continuous cleansing of the antitypical Levitical priesthood, the church of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 2:9; 1 John 1:9), and will complete that purification when he returns in glory (Rev.21:22-27).

2. The Sun of Righteousness (Mal.4:2)

This appears to be a title for the Messiah. That Messiah would bring light is a major theme of messianic prophecy. Zacharias called him “the Dayspring from on high” (Luke 1:78), an apparent reference to this passage. The figure points to Jesus as light after darkness, warmth after cold, beauty after bleakness, and joy after gloom. The Sun of Righteousness is said to have “healing in its wings.”The rays of that Sun would radiate healing for broken hearts and perplexed minds (Matt. 12:15 ; Rev. 21:4 ).

He would awaken the righteous to a new life as the sun in the spring awakens nature to a new life. That Sun rise would usher in a joyous new day for the faithful. “And you shall go forth and leap as calves from the stall.” An animal which has been penned up for some time expresses joyous abandon when first released. So the figure here expresses freedom after oppression, joy after gloom, vigour after vicissitudes. Paul may have had this verse in mind when he spoke about the “glorious liberty of the sons of God” (Rom 8:21).

3. The forerunner (Mal.3:1; 4:5)

The forerunner prepares for the coming of the Lord’s messenger (Mal.3:1; 4:5). The New Testament specifically identified Jesus as this messenger and John the Baptist as the one who preceded him and who ministered in the spirit and power of Elijah (Mat.11:14; 17:10-12; Lk.1:17; 7:26-27).

With the culmination of the book of Malachi the Old Testament preparation for the coming of the Messiah is complete. Theophanies, types and prophecies have laid the foundation. The promise of a great champion, who would do battle royal with the enemy of God (Gen. 3:15) and rectify the appalling damage which resulted through the sins of unbelief and disobedience, has been elaborated. Predictions have been made…the scene is set. The godly yearn; they watch; they wait and they pray. The ‘just and devout’ wait ‘for the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25). The Old Testament Scriptures are complete. The prophet’s voice is silent for the next four hundred years, until suddenly a man emerges in Judah crying out: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ (Mal. 3:2). John the Baptist breaks forth as ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the LORD”’ (Isa. 40:3). He is the Messenger of the covenant (Mal. 3:1). God has raised him up to reveal his Son to Israel (John 1:34,31). The fullness of the time has come. God sends ‘forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law … that we might receive the adoption as sons’ (Gal. 4:4-5)…The history of the Old Testament should thrill us; so too should its prophecies and teachings. The Old Testament should thrill us because it has one glorious and united purpose, one unifying subject: Christ and his church. The Bible should thrill us because it speaks of him (John 5:39) and what he has done for his people – at great personal cost, to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18).[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 807-808.[/footnote]


VII. The Message of Malachi

Original Message: Let Israel return to my gracious love before I return to her in just judgment.
Present Message: Let the Church return to my gracious love before I return to her in just judgment.