A Valentine for those who Fear Yahweh: The Book of Malachi


Ralph W. Klein

Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor of Old Testament, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Reprinted and updated in bibliography from Currents in Theology and Mission 13 (1986):143-152.


What does the proverbial "person in the pew" know about the book of Malachi or its message? At most, I think the stirring lines from chapter 3, sung in Handel's Messiah: "But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fine, and like fullers' soap."

Because of the arrangement of English Bibles, Malachi is known commonly in the church as the last book in the Old Testament. The Hebrew canon actually ends with the books of Chronicles, and they-plus at least Ezra, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel, and probably Proverbs, Song of Songs, Joel and Jonah -were written a century and more after Malachi. Our book was placed last in the prophetic canon because it is linked to the two immediately preceding prophetic units (Zech 9-11 and 12-14), each beginning with the word "oracle."

The average seminary graduate learns in addition that Malachi was a post-exilic prophet who criticized Israel for offering second-rate animals in their sacrifices, and who promised great material blessings to those who tithe. But the book is hardly a favorite, and full length commentaries on this book are rare indeed.(1)

1. The best available commentaries: Rex Mason, The Books of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1977); Wilhelm Rudolph, Haggai-Sacharia 1-8-Sacharia 9-14-Maleachi, Kommentar zum Alten Testament 13, 4 (Gütersloh; Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1976); Ralph L. Smith, Micah- Malachi, Word Biblical Commentary 32 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984). David L. Petersen, Zechariah 9-14 and Malachi, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995); Andrew Hill, Malachi, Anchor Bible 25D (Garden City: Doubleday, 1998.

Because of Malachi's unique question- answer format, many characterize it as a catechism or, perhaps better, a disputation, but there has been little attempt to follow the line of the book's argument from beginning to end. Through general inattention and exegesis by excision (2)

2 Almost all modern scholars, correctly in my judgment, identify 4:4-6 as a secondary appendix. What we call 4:1-6 is numbered 3:19-24 in the Hebrew Bible. 3:13-4:3 is identified as secondary by Seven L. McKenzie and Howard N. Wallace, "Covenant Themes in Malachi," CBQ 45 (1983), p. 562.

scholars have missed the coherent rhetorical arrangement of the book. The following pages hope to redress this situation and rehabilitate the prophet Malachi as an important theological contributor to the faith of Israel. This essay is designed to lure readers into the biblical text and to encourage them to wrestle with Malachi about the nature of God's love and the balance between good and evil in the world. For each pericope we propose a narrative outline that puts emphasis on the rhetorical structure; this we follow with theological or explanatory comments of our own.

Outline of Malachi

1: 1 Superscription: The Word of Yahweh concerning Israel by the hand of "Malachi"

1:2-5 Yahweh's Reliable Love

Yahweh says: I have loved you.

You say: How have you loved us?

Yahweh says: I have loved Jacob and hated Esau and have permanently destroyed Edom to prove the point. The Edomites will be called the wicked territory, the people with whom Yahweh is angry forever.

You will say: Great is Yahweh over the territory of Israel!

For a book that criticizes sharply both priests and laity, it begins strangely, with Yahweh affirming his love. Who is the audience identified as "you"? Is it the priests that cheat on their offerings, or the wicked whose misdeeds are catalogued in 2:10-16 and 3:5? Are they people whose faithfulness leads them to expect more concrete evidence of God's love?

God's reply focuses on his preference for Jacob over his brother Esau as proof of his love. Esau is the ancestor of Edom, the archetype of national evil. Such divine hatred is not questioned as unfair or ungodlike; (3)

3. In Gen 29:30-31 Leah is designated as "less loved" in the first verse, but this is interpreted as "hated" in the second.

we too can accept it as a hyperbolic way of underlining God's positive love for the people addressed as "you," who seem to have had trouble believing that they were loved. Since wicked Edom will never be rebuilt, why are the people unclear about whether Yahweh loves Jacob rather than Esau?

Someday the people addressed as you" will join in an eschatological cheer: Yahweh is great!

So the author has posed the thesis (Yahweh loves you) that will be debated-and resolved-in the rest of his book.

1:6-14 Indictment of the Priests for Despising the Altar

Yahweh says: A son honors his father and a servant his master. Yet I am father and master and am neither honored nor feared. Yahweh accuses priests of despising his name.

You priests say: How have we despised you?

Yahweh says: By offering polluted food upon my altar.

You say: How have we polluted it? Yahweh says: By thinking that Yahweh's table may be despised. Or by offering blind, lame, and sick animals.

Present such a gift to the governor. Would he receive it or show you favor?

With such a gift from your hand, will God show favor to any of you? Better to close the doors of the forecourt of the temple than to light vain fires. I will not accept an offering from your hand.

My name is great among the nations and everywhere outside Jerusalem pure offerings are made to my name.

But you defile Yahweh's name in Jerusalem when you say the table of the Lord is defiled and the food destined for him can be despised. Sacrificing is a weariness to you and you offer animals taken by violence. Cursed be the cheat who sacrifices a blemished animal when there is a whole animal in his flock. After all, Yahweh is a great king, whose name is feared among the nations.

In this rare Old Testament reference to the fatherhood of God (outside of Malachi only clearly in Isaiah 63-64), Yahweh notes that he lacks a father's expected honor and reverence (fear). He accuses the priests of despising him by offering shoddy animals as sacrifices. He ironically suggests that they give their Persian governor such a present to see how he would react. No, sacrifices would be better than such sacrifices!

Pagan worship is deemed better than what goes on in the Jerusalem temple. Does superior worship among the nations refer to recent converts to Judaism (cf. Jonah 1), or to Jewish synagogue worship in the dispersion? Does the writer believe that since pagan gods do not exist, those who sacrifice with sincerity to these gods are worshipping Yahweh unawares? Whatever its precise meaning, the intention of this sentence is clear: Worship in Gentile territory is much superior to that going on at Yahweh's temple in Jerusalem.

With the words But you (stressed by the word order of the Hebrew text of v. 12) the prophet contrasts the corrupt priesthood to their pagan counterparts. By mentioning animals taken by violence the author refers either to the fact that they were stolen or to the fact that they had been killed by wild beasts and then "given" to Yahweh. Such carcasses were not even proper for human consumption (cf. Lev 7:24; 17:15; Deut 14:21; Ezek 4:14).

Though someday Yahweh will be hailed as great in Israel (cf. 1: 5) and even now he is feared among the nations, neither his greatness nor his reverence is affirmed by the present cultus in Jerusalem.

2:1-9 Priests Unworthy of their Namessake Levi

Yahweh says: If you priests will not listen or honor my name, I will lay a curse upon you. I will cut off your arm, fling offal resulting from sacrificial preparations in your face, and banish you from my presence.

My covenant was with Levi. It included life and peace-and also the need to fear, and he did fear me. True instruction was in his mouth and he turned many away from iniquity. A priest's lips keep knowledge and people seek instruction from his mouth for he is the messenger of Yahweh of hosts.

But you have turned aside from the way and have caused many to stumble by instruction. You have corrupted the covenant with Levi.

Hence I make you despised. You acted against God's greatness and now you will be made small in the eyes of all the people. You have shown partiality in your instruction.

The priests' failure to honor Yahweh's name (cf. 1:6) will result in curses appropriate to their office. A person without an arm would be ineligible to serve (cf. 1 Sam 2:30-31). All the gore and viscera connected with the slaughter of sacrificial animals, including the con- tents of the animals' stomachs (offal; cf. Exod 29:14), would be hurled in their faces, and they would be banished from access to God, or, as some scholars read this line, people would treat them as a curse. A covenant with the Levitical priests is mentioned in Jer. 33:21 (cf. Neh 13:29). (4)

4. The Bible actually reports no covenant with the patriarch Levi himself though the prophet may have been thinking of Deut 33:8-11 or Num 25:11-13.

In Jeremiah that covenant is viewed as unbreakable as God's covenant with the day and the night, which follow each other in an unstoppable progression. But Malachi understands this covenant as two-sided and capable of breach: it offered life and peace as a gift from Yahweh, but it also contained the expectation that Levi would reverence or fear God -which he carried out in exemplary fashion. Instruction or torah was found in his mouth and he turned people away from sin. You priests-the words again are given special emphasis in Hebrew-are counter images of your ancestor. You have turned yourselves away from God and caused others to stumble.

The result: punishment to fit the crime. The great despisers (cf. 1:6, 7, 12) will be themselves despised; those who acted against God's greatness (cf. 1:5, 14) by playing favorites with the torah will be diminished.


2:10-16 The People are Faithless to their Covenant

The prophet says: We all stem from one father and we should be one fami- ly. But people are faithless to the covenant of our fathers. Judah has married the daughter of a foreign god. May all who do this be without support in the community.

You ask: Why does he not accept our offerings?

The prophet says: Yahweh is witness to the covenant between you and your wife. You have been faithless to her despite her companionship and her role as your covenant wife. The marital bond is traced back theologically to creation.

Yahweh says: I hate divorce. It is just like violent acts. Do not be faithless.

The prophet indicts lay Israel for violating the covenant made with their ancestors. Two sins dealing with marriage are cited as illustrative of this faithlessness (cf. 3:5 for other instances of sins by the laity). Judah's marriage to the daughter of a foreign god is usually understood to refer to intermarriage with a foreign woman who is not part of the covenant community, a sin committed by their ancestor Judah himself (cf. Gen 38:2). Some scholars understand this "marriage" as a syncretistic tie of Judahites with a pagan goddess (= the daughter of a foreign god).

A second offense has also triggered God's refusal to accept the people's sacrifices. They have violated another covenant, that with their spouse, despite her faithfulness and partnership in the faith. Many read between the lines here to discover a great social problem dealing with broken marriages. (5)

5. Are the sins of 2:11-12 and 13-16 more closely related than we have indicated? Did men get divorces from their Israelite wives (vv. 13-16) so that they could marry Canaanite women (vv. 11-12) to improve their economic or social condition?

In any case, Yahweh's hard-line position-I hate divorce-is in sharp distinction to the permissive legislation in the Torah, which merely requires that a man divorcing his wife give her a written certificate (Deut 24: 1). It may be that Jesus' own harsh words about divorce find here their Scriptural base (Matt 19:6, 9).

2:17 Is God Fair?

The prophet says: You have wearied Yahweh.

You say: How have we wearied him?

The prophet says: By saying every evildoer is good in the eyes of Yahweh. Where is the God of justice?

Who is addressed by these accusations? Surely not the corrupt priests of 1:6-2:9 or the lay people indicted in 2:10-16! Note how the speakers (you) distinguish themselves from evildoers. Is their self-defense not an echo of the question with which the book begins: How do you, Yahweh, love us? Before we can nail down the identity of these speakers we need to consider God's initial response to their challenges.

3:1-12 God's Fairness Demonstrated

  1. By his purifying of priests 3:lb-4 (cf. 1:6-2:9)
  2. Yahweh says: I am coming in an awe-inspiring way, preceded by "my messenger." I will purify Levites, so that the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing as in days of old.

  3. By his executing justice against the wicked 3:5 (cf. 2:10-16)
  4. Yahweh says: Then I will draw near for justice toward you who are gross sinners and do not fear me.

  5. By Yahweh's affirming his own and the people's unchanging behavior, and the continued possibility for them to change in order to receive blessings (3:6-12)

Yahweh says: I am unchanging and so you are also still children of Jacob! You have always turned aside since the time of your ancestors. Return to me and I will return to you.

And yet you say: Why should we return ?

Yahweh says: You are robbing me.

You say: How have we robbed you?

Yahweh says: By cheating on your tithes. Pay your tithes and test me out to see if I will bless you and rebuke the "devourer." All nations will call you blessed.

Where is the God of justice? The answer: he is coming to purify and judge. just as a modern politician is preceded by an advance team, so king Yahweh will have an angelic messenger go before him to prepare his way. Yahweh is "The Lord whom you seek" and "the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight." (6) Every theophany is awe-inspiring, but the advent here announced is of the one who cleanses with fire and powerful soap.

6. There is wide agreement on the identity of ,'my messenger" and "The Lord whom you seek," but references to Yahweh in the first and third person and the mysterious "messenger of the covenant" have called forth an unending stream of interpretations. Recently, Bruce V. Malchow, "The Messenger of the Covenant in Mal 3:1," JBL 103 (1984): 252-255, identified this figure with the coming Levitical messiah, but to do so he considers vv. lb-4 as secondary. Many follow Karl Marti in seeing the "messenger of the covenant" as a dogmatic correction designed to protect the transcendence of God by having him represented by an angelic representative. In this case the covenant referred to would be that of Sinai (cf. Gal 3:19; Heb 2:2; Acts 7:38, 53).

He will move against the modern-day Levites who have cheated the sacrificial system; he will purify them so that they can offer once more sacrifices with righteousness. A purified priesthood will be matched by God-pleasing sacrifices from the whole community of Judah and Jerusalem.

The God of justice will also come to judge those evildoers who prospered unfairly: (7)

7. In the view of those who complained in 2:17, these evildoers seemed to enjoy God's favor.

the sorcerers (Deut 18:10), adulterers (Exod 20:14), false sweaters (Zech 5:4), those who oppress hirelings, widows and orphans, and those who thrust aside the resident aliens (Zech 7: 10). Their root sin: they do not fear me (cf. 1:6; 2:5).

Where is the God of justice? was the charge. In part C of his response Yahweh affirms that he acts no differently than in the past, just as Israel still continues in the model of its deceitful ancestor Jacob. (cf. Gen 27) The Jacob he loves (1: 2) is a person only a gracious God could love. Their long pattern of backsliding is capped by a contemporary, insensitive question: Why should we return?

The reply to this complaint makes clear that Yahweh is not addressing common thieves, but those who rob him in tithes and offerings. And still his love shines through: Test me out, pay your tithes. See if I won't pour out limitless blessings in response, protect you from devouring threats, (like the locusts of the book of Joel?), and change the ridicule of the nations (Deut 33:29; Zech 8:13) into their recognition of your blessedness.

3:13-18; 4:1-3 Reaffirmation of love toward those who fear Yahweh

3:13-15 A Dialogue with those who fear Yahweh.

Yahweh says: Your words have been hard against me.

You say: How have we spoken against you?

Yahweh says: You have said: It is useless to serve God. From now on we too will consider the arrogant blessed just as Yahweh apparently does. (cf. 2:17) Evildoers prosper and they escape even when they test God.

3:16-18; 4:1-3 Yahweh recognizes the fidelity of those who fear him

At that time when those who feared Yahweh spoke with one another, Yahweh heard and a book of remembrance was written listing those who feared him and thought on his name.

Yahweh says: They shall be my prized possession on the day when I act. Once more you will be able to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked (cf. 3:15). Arrogant evildoers will become stubble, but God-fearers will be healed by the sun of righteousness and will romp like calves released from the stall. You will tread down the wicked on the day when I act.

Now Yahweh voices his own complaint. The people with whom he is speaking have not only asked about the whereabouts of the God of justice (cf. 2:17), but they still believe serving God is without benefit. If the evildoers are good in Yahweh's eyes, they affirm, that's the way we will consider them as well. Not only do the wicked prosper; they even escape all punishment when they put God to the test.

Who raises this complaint? The same people who asked at the beginning of the book: How have you loved us? and who complained in 2:17 that the God of justice is absent. As far as they are concerned, God's three-fold defense of himself in 3:1-12 is good but beside the point, or at least only a partial solution. The people who raise this complaint are righteous. They are latter-day jobs who find that their own fate in life does not correspond to their fidelity to God. As these Yahweh-fearers spoke in bitterness to one another, Yahweh finally paid attention and recorded their names in a book of remembrance. Elsewhere the Old Testament knows of a heavenly list of names (Exod 32:33-34; Isa 4:3; Ezek 13:9; Ps 69:29; 87:6) or of books in which the deeds of pious people are recorded (Neh 13:14; Ps 139:16; Dan 7:10; 10:21; 12:1). Apparently the second type of book is meant here. These people are those who in fact fear, not those about whom God had complained that they did not fear him or reverence his name (1:6). These are people who are mirror images of that great ancestor Levi (2:5) who both feared Yahweh and honored his name.

On that great coming day, when Yahweh will purify the Levites and act in judgment against the gross sinners, he will declare these people who fear him his prized possession. The present inequity will be overturned. No longer will they say that serving Yahweh makes no difference (3:15). Their present wounds will be healed by the "sun of righteousness," with healing in its wings. The winged sun disk, an ancient Near Eastern emblem for a pagan deity like Ashur, is transformed into a symbol of God's great eschatological reversal. Then those who fear Yahweh will leap and dance like calves on a Spring day, and they will trample on the wicked in Israel about whom they have complained bitterly. This is a gospel for a people in conflict. It answers their complaint about God's apparently unfair retribution even if it leaves us-and the ancient reader?-uneasy about their vindictive attitude toward the faithless within Israel.

Later Supplements

Yahweh says:

4:4 Remember the statutes of Moses

4:5-6 I will send Elijah the prophet. He will reconcile the generations of Israel to one another so that I will not have to smite the land with a curse.

It is a common judgment today that both of these comments come from a later hand, from that inspired body of tradents who preserved and shaped the prophet's words and lent them such authority that we, both Jews and Christians, consider them canonical.

The first supplement takes account of the fact that we are at the end of the prophetic canon. In the Hebrew Bible the "Prophets" consist of Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets. At the end of this canonical unit the text urges us to remember Moses and his law, thus tying together the law and the prophets as co-authorities in the community. Specifically, the fourth commandment revealed through Moses, requiring honor for parents, anticipates the content of the next two verses.

The second supplement interprets a pair of riddles from the original book: Who is "my messenger" in 3: 1? Who is "the messenger of the covenant whom you desire"? (cf. footnote 6) One answer to these questions is provided by the superscription in 1: 1: "The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi." "Malachi" is Hebrew for "my messenger." According to this verse, the messenger who is to prepare the way for God' own coming is the prophet himself and his message to Israel.

In 4:5-6 that coming messenger is identified as Elijah, the prophet who left this world without dying and thus was available as God's heavenly advance man. This supplement proposes that Elijah will reconcile the generations to one another. Many have seen this as particularly necessary in the Hellenistic period when the generations' loyalty was getting pulled in different directions. However that may be, Elijah is to play a far different role than the way- preparing-messenger of 3: 1. His ministry of reconciliation will make unnecessary God's own coming to curse his people. just as many of us wince at the judgmental words of 4:3 that breathe vindictiveness towards members of the community, so the editors responsible for the canonical shape of the text indicate that all Israel will finally be saved at the great and terrible day of the Lord. The Bible never fully resolves this debate: On the one hand God's wrath will be poured out against all wicked, within and outside of Israel; on the other hand, God's final word to his people is always "yes." Note that those who supplemented the text did not eradicate the words of purification and judgment in 3:1-12 and in 4:1-3. But they urged that all those who raise words of judgment about individual or communal behavior do so in the knowledge that God's ultimate and final word to his people is that all Israel will be saved. In the ancient Greek translation of Malachi, the final verses appear in the order 4:2, 4:3, and 4: 1.(8)

8. In the Jewish synagogue the reading of 4:4-6 is followed by the rereading of v. 4.

In this way the translators made sure that the last word of the prophetic canon would not be the word "curse." After all that never is God's last word.

The book of Malachi begins and ends with unconditional statements of God's love. Those addressed include those who corrupt the worship of God and those whose moral actions reveal their own in- fidelity, as well as those who fear God and who puzzle over his strange ways with the human family. For the latter group the burning theological issue is one of theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the ways of God with the character of God. A just and loving God does not tolerate shoddy worship or lives lived in contradiction to his holiness. But such a God cannot ignore those who fear him. Whatever their lot in this life they are to be reassured that they ultimately are God's prized possessions. Their present grievances will be healed by and at God's coming.

Our reading of the book of Malachi makes the prophet more complex than one who criticizes cost-cutting in worship or who harps on the sins of the wicked. Even his critical paragraphs are prefixed by Yahweh's assurance, "I love you." That love does not mean overlooking failures in worship or daily life, but that love, too, finally recognizes and honors those who fear Yahweh and who think about his name.

With whom should readers identify as they study the book? With the prophet who castigates those clergy and laity who sin? With those called to a more sincere worship life and to higher ethical standards? Or with those who are loved by Yahweh and yet find that love hard to believe, especially when the wicked prosper and their own words seem only to weary God? I propose the latter. Such loved ones are urged to hope not only for justice toward the wicked, but also for healing and rejuvenation for themselves at God's appearing. They know God loves them.

From beginning to end, the Christian gospel tells of God's love for his children. It is not a love that overlooks sin or brooks service of self, but it is a love that promises final and full deliverance for people who cling to God in faith. This reassurance reverses and contradicts judgments others make of sinners, or that they make of themselves. The reconciling work of Christ, that sought-for-prophet-of-God who has already come, offers salvation to all. He purifies our worship and judges those who sin, but he also breaks down the dividing wall of partition between our generations, nations, sexes, and races. "I love you," he says, "by my life, death, and resurrection." The one whose traditional birthday corresponds with the Winter solstice, the festival of the unconquered sun, offers us righteousness and healing. He is the son of righteousness. Because of this sun/son, God no longer has to smite the land with a curse.