What does Malachi actually say?
Most people, clerics of all religions and even scholars read the three chapters (in the Christian Bible the book is divided into four chapters) with just 55 verses, as the prophet Malachi foretelling the future coming of the messiah who will be preceded by the coming of Elijah the prophet, who lived and died centuries before the birth of Malachi, but is resurrected to appear before the coming of the messiah for some unclear purpose. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Malachi is the last book in the biblical collection called Trei Asar, which is literally one word in English, “Twelve,” but is usually rendered “The Twelve Prophets.” It is a collection of the short often poetical writings of twelve prophets, which was apparently collected into a single volume in the Hebrew Bible because each is so small. Malachi is not only the last volume in this collection, but the author is considered to be the last of the prophets. After him, that is after about 460 BCE, prophecy ceased; scholars say it stopped because people ceased to believe it was true that God spoke to prophets. After the age of prophecy, the rabbis say, people would find God’s words in books, in the Bible, and they encouraged people to read the Bible.
It is generally believed that Malachi lived and spoke the divine words to Judeans (later called briefly, Jews) in the then small community of Jews in Judea, whose leaders at the time were priests, just before the arrival of Ezra, around 444 BCE, who was soon followed by Nehemiah, neither of whom were prophets. Ezra and Nehemiah found that the same problems Malachi berated his co-religionists about, still existed. They unfortunately were equally unsuccessful in resolving the problems.
What problems did Malachi try to resolve? And why did so many people think he spoke about the messiah and a resurrected Elijah?
- Malachi begins his discourse to the small remnant of Judeans who returned to Judea after being exiled by the Babylonians in 586 BCE by telling them that despite their hardships, God loves them. The Edomites aided the Babylonians when the Babylonians sacked Judea and laughed at the Judeans, but they were destroyed soon after that time. They will never recover from their defeat. But Israel will recover if the Judeans do what God requires them to do.
- Conditions in Judea was very bad. The Judeans offered sacrifices to God, but because of their impoverished conditions, they could only offer cattle that were maimed. Malachi berated the priests for accepting such sacrifices. They would never give the Persian monarch cattle as a gift which was so maimed. It is far better, he said, to stop offering sacrifices altogether.
- Malachi emphasized that the primary role of priest is to instruct the people how to behave. By accepting the mutilated offerings and not teaching the people the correct behavior, they are abrogating their role.
- He criticized the Judeans for their intermarriages in 2:13-16. The Judeans were so poor they could not support two wives, so they divorced their Judean wives to take the foreign women. This caused hardship to the divorced Judean women and their children. It also caused the former wives and their children to hate their husbands and fathers. Furthermore, intermarriage leads to the acceptance of the gods of the new wives, and the abandonment of the true God.
- As a consequence of the Judean’s misbehavior, Malachi states in 3:19 that: “A day is coming that burns as a furnace.” It will turn the wicked into stubble. “The day that comes will set them ablaze.”
- Verses 3:23 and 24 continues what is in verse 19, the coming of the day of judgment, the punishment, and state: “Behold, I am sending you Eliyah the prophet before the coming of great and terrible day of the Lord. He will turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” There are several matters to note about these two sentences: (a) Verses 23 and 24 are clearly not speaking about a time of peace, a messianic age, but the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” (b) Verse 23’s sholeach is in the present tense, I am sending, not the future, I will send, and it can reasonably refer to the prophet who is speaking. He is seeking to resolve the problems he sees. (c) While it is true that the Bible frequently shortens names, and Eliyah could be a shortened version of a resurrected Eliyahu, Elijah in English, Eliyah could be as some scholars say, the name of the prophet; for Malachi could be seen as an adjective, my messenger, not the prophet’s name. There is no one else in the Bible called Malachi and the term Malach is used two other times in this book where it clearly means “messenger.” (d) Most significant is the promise of turning the father’s heart of his children and the children’s heart to their father. This promise has absolutely nothing to do with a messianic age. It is referring to the results of intermarriage, which I discussed in item 4 above. Eliyah will resolve the problem of intermarriage which will result in familial love.