Background

“My messenger” or “my angel” is the meaning of the name Malachi. The Septuagint treated the name in the opening verse as a descriptive title (“his messenger”) rather than a proper noun, thus lending support to the idea that the word is not a man’s name but the title of an anonymous spokesman of the Lord. The Targum of Jonathan ben-Uzziel also added: “whose name was called Ezra the scribe.” We acknowledge that we cannot establish with certainty that Malachi was the author’s proper name. We also state that there is no firm evidence that his name was not Malachi. Since every other book of the Minor Prophets opens with the name of its chosen writer, we consider it most probable that Malachi is a proper name and not a mere descriptive title. The opening words of Malachi 3:1 are best seen as a wordplay on his name. Some consider the name an abbreviated form of Malachiyah, “messenger of the Lord.” According to the Talmud, Malachi (along with Haggai and Zechariah) was a member of the Great Synagogue.1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

See also the Chronology of the Prophets and the Chronology of Latter Prophets and Intertestamental Period.

Authorship

We know very little about the man Malachi, since there are no cross-references in other biblical books and no genealogical heritage is provided (as is also true regarding Obadiah). The contents of the book reveal his integrity and staunch convictions against the evils of idolatry (Mal 2:10-12), sinful divorce (Mal 2:13-16), and social injustice (Mal 3:5). He was a man of courage who boldly rebuked the influential priestly class and the social elite (see Mal 1:1-14, 2:1-4, 3:2-4).

Date

In seeking to ascribe dates to the ministry of Malachi, we have no explicit chronology given in the text. Still, there are evidences to guide us. The second temple had been built and the offerings were being given (Mal 1:7,10; 3:1) and a [Persian] governor ruled the area (Mal 1:8). So we conclude that Malachi served after Haggai and Zechariah. Comparisons between this book and those of Ezra and Nehemiah show close similarities between the religious and social ills being denounced, so it is reasonable to conclude Malachi prophesied during the same general period. Whether he did so before Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem (458 BC) or perhaps between Nehemiah’s two tours of duty as governor (433-approximately 420 BC) is really unknown. Some consider Nehemiah to be the governor referred to in Malachi 1:8. It is a reasonable guess that Malachi served during the time Nehemiah returned to Susa between his stints as governor, so a general date of 430 BC is perfectly acceptable. Malachi is generally considered the last of the Old Testament prophets, although the inability to assign a specific time period to Joel’s ministry and prophecies has led some to consider Joel as the last of the Old Testament prophets.

Recent linguistic studies, also among conservative scholars, have led some to adopt an earlier time period for Malachi’s ministry and messages. Hill and Walton advocate such a position: “Careful study of the Hebrew language of Malachi…reveals that the book has considerable linguistic similarities with Old Testament writers dated to the sixth rather than the fifth century B.C. Based on the detailed information gleaned from this kind of technical linguistic analysis of the postexilic prophets, we conclude that Malachi was most likely composed in Jerusalem during the very early years of religious and social decline prior to the time of Ezra the scribe [roughly 500-475 B.C.]”2Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 544-45. This viewpoint is by no means certain, but it deserves consideration.

Purpose

The dominant theme or purpose of Malachi is similar to those also addressed in Ezra and Nehemiah. Covenant faithfulness, in attitude as well as action, remained central to the well-being of the postexilic community, and the messianic promise remained essential for the cultivation of such faithfulness. Direct and specific condemnations of the divine law are applied to the sins of the people followed by promises of blessing. The entire book shows a sort of “covenant theme,” which is seen in Malachi’s references to the covenant of Levi (Mal 1:6-2:9), the covenant of the fathers and of marriage (Mal 2:10-16), and the messenger of the covenant (Mal 3:1).

Content

The literary style of Malachi is prose, but a “lofty” prose with an almost poetic elegance. Scholars like to refer to this as “prophetic prose” or “oracular prose” as opposed to narrative prose. Earlier critics have even classified Malachi as poetry, assuming an “oral poetic tradition” that served as the basis of the written oracles.

The prophet’s use of penetrating and rhetorical questions is powerful and effective. The message is direct and forceful, with 47 of the 55 verses of the book addressed to Israel in the first person (and thus presenting a vivid encounter between the Lord of Hosts and his people). Sarcasm and vivid descriptive terminology invite and keep our attention. As was true also of Haggai and Zechariah, there is the repeated use of the phrase “Lord of Hosts/Armies” (20 times in this book, and about 90 times in the three books altogether).

Christ Connection

The people of Israel were brought back to their land but were once again backsliding. Malachi’s harsh messages for them attempted to prepare the people for the approaching Messiah who would fulfill God’s promise.

To help prepare the people even more for the coming of the Messiah, Malachi prophesied about one whose work would be the final preparation before the Savior (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6). This man Malachi prophesied about was John the Baptist, who turned the hearts of the people back to God just before Jesus’ ministry began (Mt 3:1-12; 11:10-14; 17:10-13).

Notable Passages

  • Malachi 1:2-3
  • Malachi 1:11
  • Malachi 2:7
  • Malachi 2:15-16
  • Malachi 3:1-4
  • Malachi 3:6-12
  • Malachi 3:17-18
  • Malachi 4:2
  • Malachi 4:5-6

Outline

Traditional outlines have commonly divided the book into two main parts, roughly consisting of the first two and then the last two chapters, though many agree that the second main portion begins at 2:17 rather than 3:1.

  1. Oracles against the priests and people for dishonoring their faithful covenant God (Mal 1-2)
  2. Oracles regarding the coming of the Lord for purging and blessing, signaling repentance and renewal (Mal 3-4)

Increasingly, scholars who analyze the book see it composed of six or seven units (or oracles) with an appendix (Mal 4:4-6 — Mal 3:22-24 in the Hebrew text). These may be seen as usually beginning with verbal exchanges between the Lord and his people and usually end with a phrase like “says the Lord of Hosts.”

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.
2. Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 544-45.