The Shape of Theology in the Book of Malachi

Ralph L. Smith  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 30 - Fall 1987

Theological Introduction

After Solomon died Israel split into two inde­ pendent nations: the Northern Kingdom (also referred to as Israel), larger in size and military strength but weaker in religion; and the Southern Kingdom (referred to as Judah), only a rump-state with little military power but with strong religious and political traditions. Jerusalem, the temple and the Davidic monarcy were pillars of political and religious strength for Judah. The Northern Kingdom lasted two hundred years (922-722 B.C.). The Southern King­dom continued another 135 years after the Northern Kingdom fell. Both kingdoms fell to powerful foreign nations and many of their people were carried into exile. The classical prophets and Deuteronomic histo­rians attributed the fall of both kingdoms to the sins of kings and people and to the breaking of the cov­enant with Yahweh (2 Kings 17:7-20; 24:10-20).

The classical prophets from Amos to Ezekiel warned Israel and Judah of coming destruction, but they also held out hope of a return from exile and a restoration of the glory of the former kingdom (Mic. 4:8). In fact some prophets spoke of the future in glowing terms. The temple would be rebuilt and the glory of God would return to dwell in Jerusalem (Ezek. 43:1-4; Hag. 2:6; Zech. 1:16). The treasures of the nations would be brought to the temple (Hag. 2:6-9; Isa. 60:6-7; 61:6). The nations would come to the temple to be taught God’s ways (Isa. 2:3; Mic. 4:2). Nations would beat their swords into plowshares and universal peace would prevail (Isa. 2:4; 11:6-9; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10). A new covenant would be made with Israel and although it would have a corporate dimen­sion this new covenant would be individualistic, internalized and based on forgiveness and cleansing Jer. 31:31-34, Ezek. 36:25-27).

It seemed that many of these promises were about to be fulfilled when Cyrus, King of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. Cyrus gave Jewish exiles in Babylon the opportunity to return to Judah and Jerusalem. A small contingent of exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Sheshbazzar about 538 B.C. They began almost immediately to rebuild the temple but soon encountered great opposition and abandoned their plans to lay the foundation of the temple (Ezra 5:16). A second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem about 520 B.C. led by Zerubbabel the governor, and Joshua the high priest. These returnees, inspired by the preaching to the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, renewed efforts to rebuild the temple. They believed that if the temple were rebuilt the glory of God would return and the kingdom of God would come accompanied by material prosperity and spir­itual purity. The temple was rebuilt quickly and reded­icated in 516/15 B.C. (Ezra 6:14-22). But the kingdom of God did not come as expected.

Even before the temple was completed a spirit of disappointment and discouragement overtook the people. Some of them had seen the former temple and remembered its glory and splendor. Now they saw it “as nothing” and wept (Hag. 2:3; Ezra 3:12). Zechariah speaks of some people “despising the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10).

The disappointment and disillusionment deepened in the period following the completion of the temple. Jerusalem remained a small, insignificant outpost of the Persian empire and an unprotected (unwalled) enclave of frustrated Jews for another sixty years. In 458 B.C. a priest and scribe by the name of Ezra returned to Jerusalem with authority from the Persian king Artaxerxes to establish and enforce the Law of Moses as State law in Judea and to regulate the temple worship (Ezra 7:1-10:44; Neh. 7:73b-9:37). 1 One big social and religious problem Ezra faced was that “the people of Israel and the priests and the Levites had not separated themselves from the people of the lands with their abominations.” They had taken some of the daughters of the people as wives for themselves and their sons; “so the holy race (seed) has mixed itself with the people of the lands. And in this faith­lessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:1-2). Ezra rent his garments, pulled out his hair and beard and sat appalled (Ezra 9:3). At the time of the evening sacrifice he prayed, confessing the sins of past generations and remem­bered the law (cf. Lev. 18:24-30 and Deut. 7:3). He acknowledged that the mixed marriages of his people were evil. He called a conference and commanded the men of Judah and Benjamin to separate themselves from their foreign wives (Ezra 10:9-11).

In December 445 B.C., Nehemiah, a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes spoke to some of his Jewish brothers who had returned to Susa from Jerusalem. Nehemiah asked about conditions in Jerusalem and they said, “The survivors there in the province who escaped exile are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” (Neh. 1:3). On hearing this Nehemiah wept, prayed and continued to fast. Nehemiah confessed his and his peoples’ sins saying “We have acted corruptly against thee and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances which thou didst command thy servant Moses” (Neh. 1:7). Nehemiah asked Artaxerxes to send him back to Judah to the city of his father’s sepulchres that he might rebuild it (Neh. 1:5). The king granted his request, appointing him governor of Judah and giving him letters of authority over the people and property of the province. Within fifty-two days Nehemiah built the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 6:15). During the twelve years of Nehemiah’s first term as governor, a famine struck the land and some unscrupulous Jewish money lenders took advantage of the situation. Many of the people were forced to borrow money at interest, mortgaging their homes and fields in order to buy grain and to pay the king’s tax which previous governors had levied (Neh. 5:3, 15). When the borrowers could not repay their loans their property was confiscated and their children were sold as slaves. But Nehemiah made the money lenders restore to the people all they had taken and to put an end to interest charges (Neh. 5:6-15).

Chapter 10 of Nehemiah may be called a “reform document.” In it Nehemiah and the people pledged to separate themselves from the people of the land and not engage in mixed marriages. They pledged not to buy or sell on the sabbath and to observe the sabbatical year (Neh. 10:31). They promised to pay the temple tax and to support the Levites with their tithes so that the house of God might not be neglected (Neh. 10:39).

Nehemiah returned to Persia in 433 B.C. and “some­ time later” (probably before the death of Artaxerxes I in 424) Nehemiah asked permission to return to Jerusalem. What he found in Jerusalem disturbed him very much. Tobiah the Ammonite had taken up resi­dence in the temple, a flagrant violation of Deut. 23:3. Most of the pledges recorded in chapter 10 had not been kept. The temple was neglected (Neh. 13:11), the Levites were not supported with the tithe (Neh. 13:12-13), the sabbath day was not being properly observed (Neh. 13:15-18), and mixed marriages con­tinued (Neh. 13:23-26).

It was in a time like this that the prophet Malachi came on the scene. Brevard Childs says that critical scholarship reflects a rather broad consensus in dating the book of Malachi in the first half of the fifth century before the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. “There is also wide general agreement regarding the unity of the book.” The book of Malachi reflects a time when the temple was neglected (Mal. 1:7-10; cf. Neh. 10:39; 13:11). Priests had corrupted their covenant with God and had failed to teach the law properly (Mal. 2:6-8). Men had divorced their wives and married foreign women (Mal. 2:10-16). The sins of adultery, lying and oppression were common (Mal. 3:5). People withheld their tithes (Mal. 3:8-10). Drought and locusts de­voured the land (Mal. 3:11). Skepticism and permis­siveness were rife (Mal. 2:17; 3:13-15). The community was divided between those who feared God and cynics, between those who served God and those who did not serve him (Mal. 3:14-18). Many people were arrogant (Mal. 3:15; 4:1) and indifferent (Mal. 2:17; 3:14).

Malachi faced a mountain of apathy. Peter Craigie said Malachi spoke of faith to a people “for whom religion had become humdrum and who were lacka­daisical in their observance of the ancient tradition. Malachi had an uphill task.”  It is never easy to deal with indifference. When people cease to care, reli­gion, morality, social customs, and values cease to function as the mortar that holds a society together. In Malachi’s time certain religious fundamentals such as election, the love and justice of God were doubted. Malachi tried to rekindle the fires of faith in the hearts of his discouraged people. He assured them that God still loved them and the covenant was still in force (Mal. 1:2-5). But God expected them to honor and fear him as they would honor and fear a suzerain Lord (Mal. 1:6-2:9). God expected the people to be faithful to each other as well as to him (Mal. 2:10-16). He defended God’s justice by saying that he was coming to purge and purify the Levitical priests and to judge the guilty sinners among his people (Mal. 2:17-3:5). The people should repent of their evil deeds and their wrong attitudes before his return. If they would repent and make amends for their evil ways God· would pour out a blessing for them (Mal. 3:6-12). However, there was no sign of repentance on the part of the offenders. Instead we hear murmurings against God (Mal. 3:13-15). Some God-fearers encouraged I each other and were assured that they would be God’s special treasure and would be spared in the day of God’s coming, but the wicked would become ashes under foot when God acted (Mal. 3:16-4:3).

The language and ideas of Malachi are deeply influenced by the Deuteronomic materials. “Love,” “fear,” “faithfulness” are motifs which occur fre­quently in Deuteronomy or the Deuteronomic history as well as Malachi. The idea that the Levites could serve as priests is Deuteronomic (Deut. 17:9; 18:1; Mal. 2:1-9). The storehouse tithe is the Deuteronomic tithe (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12-14; Mal. 3:10). The expressions “The Law of Moses,” “Horeb,” and “All Israel” in Mal. 3:22 are Deuteronomic terms.


Theological Concerns

We have tried to establish a historical context and setting for Malachi’s message and ministry. But what about his theology and more specifically the theology of the book. The title of this article, “The Shape of the Theology of the Book of Malachi,” does not address the question of Malachi’s personal theology nor the theology of post-exilic Judaism. It limits the discussion to the theology expressed or implied in the book. What method shall we use to present the theology of this book? We could use the method systematic theology to organize the book’s theology. Derek Kidner uses this approach effectively in his commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah. The problem with using the systematic method here is that the book of Malachi does not contain a complete systematic the­ology, and there is always the temptation to change the biblical material to make it fit the systematic mold. Another legitimate approach is thematic. A commen­tator may select those themes that receive the most attention in the book and arrange them in an orderly fashion. Brevard Childs has advocated a new method for doing biblical theology, i.e. “Theology in a Ca­nonical Context.” But this method has not yet become clear nor widely accepted. It is better to use a thematic approach for this study.

What is the shape of the theology in the book of Malachi? There are four primary theological concerns in the book: the concern about covenant; the concern about the cult (worship); the concern about ethical conduct (justice and morality); and the concern about the future.

Is there a unity among all those themes? Some scholars view the covenant theme as an umbrella broad enough to cover all these areas. Some use the idea of the cult as the unifying theme of biblical the­ology. A. S. Kapelrud contends that “life in old Israel was permeated by cultic thinking, cultic acts, and cultic expressions. If we cut out the cult, we cut out the covenant, and in cutting out the covenant we also take the ground away under Israelite morality.”6 The book of Malachi is vitally concerned with the cult (temple, priests, levites, sacrifices, tithes). There is a relationship between these cultic matters, the cove­nant, and morality. But the book does not specify the precise nature of that relationship.


The Concern About Covenant

The term berit “covenant” occurs six times in the 55 verses of the book. The covenant of Levi is men­tioned three times (Mal. 2:4, 5, 8). The covenant of the fathers occurs in Mal. 2:10. The covenant of marriage is referred to in Mal. 2:14, and the messenger of the covenant is mentioned in Mal. 3:1. In addition to these six uses of the term berit “covenant,” Malachi uses covenant language in other parts of the book. For example, the reference to the love of God for Israel in Mal. 1:2-5 must be understood as covenant lan­guage. W. L. Moran has demonstrated that the “Love of God” in Deuteronomy and in Malachi, which may be defined in terms of loyalty, service, and obedience, has a treaty or covenant background.

The use of the word sane’ “hate” in Mal. 1:3 must also be understood as covenant language. When Yahweh says, “I loved Jacob,” he means, “I chose Jacob”; and when he says, “I hated Esau,” he means, “I did not choose Esau.” McKenzie and Wallace note that ”Malachi stresses that Yahweh chose Jacob over Esau and that Jacob’s descendants remain Yahweh’s elect (Mal. 1:2-5; 3:6). The reference to Yahweh’s cov­enant with Levi implies that Yahweh chose Levi and his descendants to be his priests. For Malachi “cove­nant and election are bound together.” The word 7irur “curse” in Mal. 1:14 and 2:2, as well as the ex­pression, “Great King” in Mal. 1:14 is covenant lan­guage. Malachi believed that God had made covenants with Israel’s fathers and with Levi which were still in effect with their descendants.

Another covenant word in Malachi is segulab “special treasure” (Mal. 3:17). It occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament at the inauguration of the Sinai covenant (Exod. 19:5) and later in Deut. 7:6, 14:2; 26:18 and Ps. 135:4. The idea is that all the earth belongs to Yahweh, but those who fear him and revere his name will be his own “special possession.” An Akkadian equivalent of segullab, sikiltum, has been found in old covenant grant treaties in ancient Near Eastern texts! This indicates that the idea of “special treasure” is very old.

The fundamental purpose of Malachi was to assure his people that God still loved them and was keeping covenant with them (Mal. 1:2-5). But the prophet intended also to warn his people that God demanded honor, respect and faithfulness (Mal. 1:6). The people and priests were dishonoring God with their worship, unfaithfulness to marriage vows (Mal. 2:10-16), by social injustices (Mal. 3:5), and harsh words bordering on blasphemy (Mal. 3:13-14). Malachi warns that Yahweh knows those who fear him and those who do not. He calls for the wicked to repent (Mal. 3:7). If they do not repent and return to God he will send Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers to children and vice versa. If the people fail to be reconciled God will smite the land with a curse herem.


The Concern About the Cult (Worship)

The opening theme of love (Mal. 1:2-5) gives way to criticism of the priests and to a discussion of the legitimacy of the worship in which they are engaged (Mal. 1:6-14). Malachi accuses the priests of dishonor­ ing and despising God’s name which is a violation of the third commandment. By using blind, lame and sick animals for sacrifice the priests have shown their contempt for God and his altar. These priests had more respect for the governor than they did for God (Mal. 1:8). Malachi says that it would be better for the temple doors to be closed and the fires on the altar unlit rather than allow this sham masquerading as true sacrifice to continue. The Qumran community picked up Mal. 1:10 in a polemic against the temple and referred to the Jerusalem priesthood derisively as “closers of the door.”

The priests were warned that if they did not listen and lay it to heart to give “glory” (same word as “honor” in Mal. 1:6) to God’s name, he would send a curse on them and their blessing. Indeed he had already cursed them (Mal. 2:2). They had failed as leaders of worship, ·and in their responsibility as teachers of the law and as counselors. They had cor­rupted the covenant and caused many to stumble (Mal. 2:6-8). They had turned many from “the way” and the people became skeptical, sorcerers, adulterers, liars, oppressive, and withholders of the tithe (Mal. 2:17; 3:5, 8). Some of the people said, “It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking in mourning before the Lord of Hosts? Henceforth, we deem the arrogant blessed” (Mal. 3:13-15a).

Many of Malachi’s predecessors had criticized temple worship from a different perspective. Amos said that God hated and despised the feasts of his day because of the social injustices perpetrated by the worshipers, (Mal. 5:21). Isaiah told his people, “Bring no more vain oblation. Incense is an abomination to God” (Mal. 1:12-13). One of the great sermons in the Old Testament was preached by Jeremiah at the gate of the temple warning those going to worship that the temple itself was no refuge from God’s judgment (Mal. 7:1-12). These former prophets condemned their people for considering the cult as a kind of insurance policy or an automatic “cure all” for individual and collective ills. The difference between the attitude of the people toward temple worship in pre-exilic days and that of people in Malachi’s time was that the first group considered temple worship significant, but its benefits were annulled by the evil deeds of the wor­shipers. But the people and priests in Malachi’s time did not consider cultic worship important because they did not fear and honor God. They observed some old forms of worship because of tradition. These old traditions were considered unimportant, so second rate sacrifices were good enough. Problems in worship reflect deeper problems in the lives of wor­shipers. Only those who honor and glorify God’s name can worship him in spirit and truth. The same careless indifference the priests showed toward sacrifice is also manifest in their attitude toward their duty to instruct the people. Priests should guard knowledge and instruct their people properly (Mal. 2:7-9). George Adam Smith said, “Every priest is a priest of truth, and it is very largely by Christian ministry’s neglect of their intellectual duties that so much irreligion prevails.”

In a surprising statement Malachi compares the shoddy, careless worship of Israel in his time to the worship of the Gentiles. Malachi said no worship would be better than bad worship which did not recognize the kingship of God (Mal. 1:10). Then he seems to say that there were people (Gentiles) from one end of the earth to the other who offer incense and a pure offering, “for my name is great among the nations” (Mal. 1:11). Mal. 1:11 is one of the most difficult verses in the Old Testament to interpret. The text is not clear and the context is uncertain. Some scholars view Mal. 1:11 as contradictory to the narrow particularistic view of Mal. 1:2-5 and consider it a later addition. But Th. C. Vriezen and Rex Mason have defended its authenticity. Many different interpre­tations have been given to this verse. Some of the main ones are: (1) the early Roman Catholic view that it refers to a prediction of the mass; (2) the view that it refers to the worship of the Jews of the Diaspora; (3) the syncretistic view that it refers to the worship of the high gods in all religions; (4) the metaphorical view that understands the prophet to be saying that some pagan worship is better than the adulterated worship in the temple in Jerusalem; and (5) the view of imminent eschatology espoused by Vriezen and Joyce Baldwin.

Malachi is not developing a “theology of other religions,” but he is drawing a contrast between Israelite worship and that of other nations in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of the worship of his own people. The problem with Israel’s worship was not in the system nor in the order of worship as much as it was in the worshiper. But that problem would be corrected. When God comes to refine and purify his people “the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old” (Mal. 3:4).


The Concern About Ethical Conduct

What is the relationship between worship and ethical conduct? One man said, “Theology and ethics are inseparable in the Bible.” The Old Testament supports such a conclusion. The decalogue begins with a list of theological principles which is followed by a list of ethical principles. The classical prophets always related acceptable worship to ethical conduct. Micah probably summed it up best:

He had showed you, 0 man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8).

James Muilenberg said, “When we . . . inquire what is the supreme good for man, the answer of the Old Testament is plain for all to hear. It is supremely good for man to worship God.”

We should note that not all modern philosophers agree with these biblical assertions that ethics are grounded in theology. Millar Burrows says that most modem philosophical systems are secular and anthro­pocentric. The summun bonum of the philosopher is what man considers best for him. Biblical “ethics” are also concerned with human welfare but in strict subordination to the will of God. What God wills is best for man, “but it is not to be found by human reason; it is revealed.”

The Old Testament makes it clear that ethical purity alone cannot please God and that ritual without righ­teousness is unacceptable in the sight of God. Old Testament prophets condemned non-ethical religions. Today people are prone to turn away from formal religious observances and rely on their own moral understanding. Norman Porteous noted that “a morality without religion appeals to the modern mind.” Porteous sees this as a legacy of Greek thought. Early Greek religion was immoral and childish. Homer and Hesiod ascribed to the gods all that men hold shameful and blameworthy: theft, adultery and deceit. Some Greek philosophers saw the fallacy of such religion. Plato criticized the popular theology of Greece on moral grounds. God cannot lie or deceive. He cannot cause evil. He is good and the only source of good. He is true in word and deed. If not, we cannot reverence Him. Aristotle moved theology to a realm above man and morals. In Aristotle’s writings “theology has become Meta­ physics, and has no place in the world of practical life. The religious element has disappeared from philosophy.”

Porteous says that modern man as the heir of Greek thought has become accustomed to the idea of ethics and religion being considered separate autonomous disciplines, each resting on its own axioms and operating on its own independent principles. But biblical faith never made such a distinction. Porteous argues that the pronouncements of the Hebrew prophets on ethics should be considered at least as worthy of consideration by ethicists as statements in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. But modern moral philosophers often consider such a claim as over­ enthusiasm of the religiously naive. They are apt to look on the Hebrew prophetic writings as a primitive mixture of elements which must be kept separate. “Thus it comes about that a student taking Moral Philosophy at the university may never or seldom encounter the biblical teaching on the subject of morality either in the lectures or in the prescribed reading.”

In the Bible, religion and ethics are inseparable. Worship acceptable to God must be moral. The moral side of life requires the support of regular worship. The problem in the Old Testament and in Malachi was not that people tried to be moral without being religious, but that many were trying to be religious without being righteous.

Some of the moral issues Malachi addressed were: divorce (Mal. 2:10-16), adultery, lying, oppression (Mal. 3:5), stealing (Mal. 3:8), and divisiveness (Mal. 3:18; 4:6). Malachi considered divorce not only a personal and social evil but also an abomination to God and a profaning of the covenant (Mal. 2:10). Other sins such as those of covetousness, getting wealth by violating the most elementary principles of brotherhood; and the inhumanity and callous indifference to conditions that breed poverty are condemned. Five times the word ‘fl.egad_, “unfaithful,” “deceitful,” “treacherous” is used (Mal. 2:10-16). Charles Isbell believes that the word begad comes from a noun meaning, “a garment:” Thus “unfaith­fulness” would mean “taking a garment” off a per­ son’s back.  The word “garmenting” was soon used to describe other improper acts. Cheating, swindling the gullible, defrauding the poor or helpless members of society were called begading or “garmenting.” A division between parties and groups had arisen in Israel in Malachi’s time. The righteous and the wicked opposed each other (Mal. 4:3), and the hearts of the fathers were set against the hearts of the children (Mal. 4:5).

Malachi’s remarkable ethical thrust has lost none of its cutting edge. His teaching, both negative and positive, strikes at the heart of nominal, easy-going religion.


The Concern About the Future

Malachi was not primarily concerned with the future. His primary interest was the “here and now.” He did not speak of “the day of the Lord.” He made no reference to “The Messiah.” He has no “full­ blown” system of eschatology. Yet he knows that he is living in the “not yet” era. Evil must be judged. The “righteous” must be rewarded. In his day Malachi noted a blurring of moral and theological values. Many people could not distinguish between right and wrong or between the righteous and the wicked. Community values had been totally reversed. The arrogant were blessed and the wicked prospered. They tested God and escaped punishment (Mal. 3:15).

For his response to this reversal of values Malachi moved from the present to the future. A society may decide to abandon any distinction between good and evil, but God never does. God hears those who fear him and writes their names in a book of remembrance (Mal. 3:16), and he will spare them when he acts (Mal. 3:17).

Then the scene shifts from the God who records human action to the God who comes to judge the world. Those who have embraced evil will be burned as stubble leaving them without root and branch (Mal. 4:1). But those who reverence God’s name will greet the judgment day like the dawn. God will rise with the brightness of the sun in a world that has lived in darkness. As calves frolic on an early spring morning, so God’s faithful will rejoice. One word of caution is probably in order. Malachi was not teaching a doctrine of salvation by works or merit. Those who were spared found favor not because of their righteousness but because they “feared” and thought on God’s name.

Malachi has nothing to say about the judgment of the nations. His concern was to keep faith alive in Israel and the nations were not part of his brief. This does not mean that Malachi considered God as indifferent to a wider world. He knew that the Lord !s dominion extended beyond the borders of Israel (Mal. 1:5) and all nations would witness the intervention of God (Mal. 3:12). In the postscript (Mal. 4:4-6), Moses and Elijah appear representing the law and the prophets. The law of Moses is to be remembered and obeyed (Mal. 4:4). Elijah will return before “the great and terrible day of the Lord” to reconcile fathers and children. If there is no reconciliation, God will come and smite the land (Judah) with a curse (Mal. 4:16). The last word of the book of Malachi and English Bibles is “curse.” Malachi is one of the few books of prophecy that ends on a note of judgment. Most end on a note of hope. The word “curse” is herem, “ban,” “destruction.” It is indeed a frightening fate.

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