13. Reflections on Old Testament Prophets (Malachi)

Malachi’s Last Word (Malachi 2:17–3:5; 4:1)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (August 13, 2007)

The short prophetic book of Malachi serves as a kind of benediction to the Old Testament as a whole and, more specifically, to the prophetic books.

Though set in the years following the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple in 515 B.C., the book leaves its historical context quite vague.  It contains no direct references to contemporary events or people and gives us no information about its author. We may read Malachi, then, as a kind of summary exhortation.  It speaks to the long period of Israel’s existence as the covenant people of God following Judah’s demise as a nation-state.  The leaders of the people had returned from their Babylonian exile, re-established the community and rebuilt the temple–though on a much humbler scale.

“The day of small things”

Long gone, though, were the heady days of David and Solomon, the times when Israel walked in the corridors of power as a player among the kingdoms of the Earth.  Now, the community had been reduced to a tiny administrative unit within the massive Persian Empire. As another post-exilic prophet, Zechariah, wrote, for Israel, this was “the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10). However, Israel’s originating vision, God’s promise that God has called together this people in order to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3), remains alive in the prophet’s consciousness.  The sustenance their identity as people of the promise remains of vital importance.

And how is this identity to be sustained?

Malachi mentions two key threats to the people’s identity.  The first is “wearying” God by saying “all who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord” (2:17).  The second is questioning the presence of the God of justice (2:17).  That is, we who have paid attention to the prophetic proclamation may ruefully note, the more things change the more they stay the same.  The problems identified by Amos and Hosea three centuries earlier remain present.

It seems even people who self-consciously name Yahweh as their God, who name the Law of Moses as their authoritative source of guidance and who worship Yahweh in the temple of Jerusalem, still struggle with knowing who they are and who their God is.

Malachi promises God’s involvement.  “He will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.  Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years” (3:3-4). The promise of deliverance serves as a reminder of the key elements of the law that God’s people remain accountable to.  Mal. 3:5 echoes almost exactly the central concerns of the law in Leviticus 19.

The reason for deliverance

Christians understand the promises of 4:1 and 4:6 as pointing ahead to the coming of Jesus.  However, all too often, this view has led to minimizing the reality that the prophets make clear: The point of the deliverance is that God’s people finally actually live faithfully to Torah.

If it is true that God’s deliverance has truly come through the ministry of Jesus, it is all the more crucial that we embody the kind of justice God’s expects of people of the promise (for example, generosity in paying hired workers their wages and caring for widows, orphans and aliens, 3:5).

Our calling to bless all the families of earth remains the key to our identity as people of God.  Malachi’s general proclamation pushes the prophetic message out into the future.  The prophets spoke to particular times and places, but their message remains one for the ages.

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