The individuals who chose the order of the Old Testament canon used a rough chronology, and therefore Malachi—the last to be written—comes logically at the end. But it is an odd choice. Scholars are unified in the period, if not the date, of the prophecy, coming during the time of the Persian Empire (around 420 BC), possibly overlapping with Nehemiah’s final “reprimanding” chapter (Neh. 13) where he addresses many of the same themes as Malachi.
The time of major insecurity is mostly over for returnees from the Babylonian Exile. They have established an infrastructure and rebuilt their ruined country (see historical background of Haggai and Zechariah), so there are now markets, agriculture, “police,” and religious observances in their rebuilt Temple. Men like Ezra and Nehemiah have helped reestablish Israel as a nation once again, though now a third-rate power as the era of potent but shifting Gentile empires (described in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in Daniel 2) is fully underway.
Those empires will sweep, like tides, back and forth over the land bridge between Asia and Africa, a process that started with Assyria. I remember a secular college professor of Jewish history once describing ancient Israel being in a vise between these empires “with nowhere to look but up” as the impetus and rationale for their spiritual development.
Malachi is interesting because of its tone and the unique issues it addresses. It is a series, for lack of better terms, of ironic and sarcastic dialogues between God and primarily the priests of Malachi’s day. Jewish writers have always been famous for dark irony and sarcasm about the powers over them (listen to any Jewish comedian talk about their mother!), and Malachi certainly is an illustration of it. It is Socratic in its approach of asking and answering questions to get its truths across.
Most of the dialogues focus on the Levitical priests and their attitudes in leading Israel in its worship and performing their tasks in the sacrificial system. The “Law of Diminishing Returns” is in full force, for, however exciting it was to rebuild their Temple and reestablish their worship after the seven decades in Babylon, the daily repetition of their duties over the last century caused those duties to grow old and stale. It is a good thing we have evolved past such attitudes!
There is a clear “cycle” to these dialogues:
God declares a principle or truth, or charges them with some negligence or bad attitude.
The audience questions God’s declaration: “How?” How could he say this or charge them with this?
God gives the evidentiary proof, what they are doing or saying, sometimes even whispering to each other, that validates the truth of the principle or the charge he made.
God concludes by stating different ways his greatness will be magnified despite their failure.
Often a “hinge verse,” where the last verse of the cycle becomes the introduction to the next cycle.
It is that idea of “What to do when the shine wears off” one’s religious commitment, one’s walk with God, or one’s ministry experience, that provides an idea of when it might be a good time to preach through this wonderful book. It is also about the danger of routines/ruts. If you have a staff, elder board or lay leaders that are griping and/or complaining due to a “tiresome routine of ministry,” or you sense a growing malaise on the part of your ministry body, Malachi may be just what the Divine Physician ordered. You could use it at a staff or elder retreat to revitalize the troops or preach it in summer months to add some pizazz to summer doldrums. Much ironic humor may be found in the dialogues.
Be careful if you are embattled in your ministry though, as Malachi could be used as a whip—never a wise course with the Scripture. I have preached such a “whipcrack” series, and it is tantamount to striking the Rock rather than speaking to it. You receive the discipline for such a misuse of God’s Word. I know!
Malachi, like Haggai, could also be preached at the beginning of the year as a “Divine Priorities”-type of series, and would be a good fit for an older ministry established in its ministry routines. The focus could be on “How to Keep Things Fresh” or “Freshening Up Spiritually.” It also fits in a Lenten context, as God’s probing questions lead folk to repentance.
Malachi’s Cycle of Dialogues
Text: Malachi 1:1-5
Israel’s Issue: Does God really love us?
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: Remember how generous and good he is to his chosen ones.
Text: Malachi 1:6-11
Israel’s Issue: Is God worthy of our best? (Part 1)
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: Be very honest about how well we are honoring him.
Text: Malachi 1:11-14
Israel’s Issue: Is God worthy of our best? (Part 2)
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: Make sure to give to God what we commit to give, and that it’s our best.
Text: Malachi 2:1-9
Israel’s Issue: Do we honor God with our attitudes?
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: Remember who we serve … really!
Text: Malachi 2:10-16
Israel’s Issue: Does faithfulness characterize our lives?
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: Recommit to being faithful in all your covenant or “vowed” relationships.
Text: Malachi 2:17-3:6
Israel’s Issue: Does purity characterize our lives?
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: Cooperate with—don’t fight—God’s refining fire.
Text: Malachi 3:6-12
Israel’s Issue: Are we wise stewards with what God has blessed us?
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: God invites us to test whether we can out-give him, so let’s do it.
Text: Malachi 3:13-18
Israel’s Issue: Are we working for or against God?
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: Be careful how we talk to each other when we get discouraged.
Text: Malachi 4:1-6
Israel’s Issue: Are we ready for God’s evaluation?
Rekindling the Fire/The Way Out of Ruts: Any price we pay in our service to God will be worth it.
I believe it is always best for preachers to immerse themselves into the context of the biblical author, to become an audience member listening to them to sense their issues. The post-exilic prophets had a unique cultural/religious context.
By the time of Malachi, almost exactly a century after the return from Babylon, all the crises of the previous century were over, and things had fallen into a routine for the priests and population. Or, perhaps better to understand the attitudes Malachi addresses, they fell into a rut. Someone has defined a rut as “a grave with the ends kicked out.” Ruts are common (and deadly) in ministry.
To get a sense of the power of ruts, one needs to look no further than the arc of most empires. Once they reach their apex of power, their “glory days,” they invariably fall into routines and ruts. Keeping the machinery running becomes the objective. Churches and ministries are no different. Once they fall into routines and ruts, it is easy to lose the dynamic, creativity, and energizing power of the Holy Spirit.
I had a professor who once said, “Pray earnestly that, if the Holy Spirit ever departs from your ministry, you are not six months from figuring it out!” Malachi prophesied in a day when they needed to figure it out quickly, because God is to the point of wishing someone would shut the doors of the Temple because their lackadaisical worship had become a waste of everyone’s time.
One of the key application areas of Malachi is the viral nature of faithlessness and breaking covenants. It starts to erode in what people offer to God (compared to what they promised/committed) and in what ministry leadership begins to tolerate in their own attitudes and personal purity. The lack of faithfulness soon spreads to marriage and family as well.
Malachi is a miniature “practical theology of God.” The “ho-hum” attitude that infected spiritual leadership (and thus infected the populace and their commitments to covenant-keeping) causes God’s prophet to confront the lackadaisical attitudes with the greatness of God’s attributes. The attitude of the nations toward God—who he is and how his Name will be exalted among them—stands in contrast to Israel taking him more and more lightly.
Here are some specific theological themes of Malachi:
The Doctrine of God
Many of God’s attributes are on full and graphic display: His love (1:2-5), his power and authority (1:6-14), his faithfulness (2:1-16), his justice (2:17-3:5), his immutability (3:6), his generosity (3:7-18), and his ultimate return to judge the nations (4:1-6). These are usually portrayed against the backdrop of Israel’s failure to recognize or honor him appropriately.
Handel’s Messiah captures Malachi’s prophecy of the Lord who “suddenly comes to his Temple” (3:1) and who “purifies the sons of Levi” (3:2-3). What is often missed here is the irony, for he shows up because Israel’s leaders keep asking “Where is the God of justice?” assuming he delights only in the wicked (2:17). In a beautiful picture of the nature of the resurrected Christ’s reign in the coming kingdom, we are told the “sun of righteousness rises with healing in its wings” (4:2).
The Holy Spirit
Someone described the Book of Esther as being “A book where God is never mentioned but is everywhere present.” That is somewhat true of the Holy Spirit in Malachi. He sits in the background of all the ministry taking place. The one specific debatable mention is concerning divorce, that “no one who has a remnant of the Spirit does this” (2:15).
One of the more striking prophecies of both the First and Second Coming of Messiah is the one God leaves ringing in their ears in the 400 silent years between the Testaments from Malachi 4, specifically of the returned ministry of Elijah (4:5-6). Jesus pointed to John the Baptist as fulfilling a portion of this (Matt. 11:14; 17:11-12), but many interpret this as John coming “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), but that Elijah himself will return before the Second Coming, being one of the two “witnesses” of Revelation 11.
God’s love (1:2-5) starts the book, and his covenant to provide “life and peace,” to Levi specifically is at its heart. But through them to his people, as the Levites share the covenant teaching and “turn many back from iniquity” (2:6). The contrast of facing God with and without faith is graphically portrayed in 3:16-18.
My Encounter with Malachi
I “discovered” Malachi early in my walk of faith and fell in love with it. In one of my seminary classes, the prof gave us an assignment to do a graphic/pictorial/structural overview of an OT book and I chose Malachi and delved more deeply into his unique approach to communicating truth. It had an impact on the rest of my ministry.
All ministry is exciting in its early days of discovery and growth, but with our sinful hearts, the Law of Diminishing Returns soon comes to tarnish the shine of those days. We fall into temptations to laziness, to cutting corners, to settling for less than our best, becoming satisfied with keeping the machinery of ministry running. I learned in such times to go back and marinate in Malachi. It acted as a bracing slap to the cheek to wake me up and get me out of such ruts, to remember who God is and who I am and why serving him well all the time is so important.
Eugene H. Merrill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Exegetical Commentary (N.L.: Create Space, 2014).
Andrew Hill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi,Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012).
Mignon Jacobs, The Books of Haggai and Malachi, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).
Kenneth Quick is Professor Emeritus of Practical Theology at Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Greenbelt, Maryland. Previously, Ken was a Senior Pastor for 23 years. He now serves as Director of Consulting for Blessing Point Ministries.