Today we come to the end of our study of the Old Testament before continuing with the New. Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament has been our companion for much of this journey. Therefore, we will listen to some final words from him before moving on….
The prophet Malachi is the last book in the canon of the Old Testament. It is not dated, and the author is unknown. Its present title comes from the opening words of chapter 3, “My messenger” (in Hebrew, malachi). It is certainly post-exilic and may come from almost any period between the rebuilding of the temple in 516 B.C. and the end of the Persian period about 330 B.C. From its contents, it can probably be best placed just about the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Malachi roundly condemns many abuses in Israel that Ezra worked to reform. The priests perform imperfect and careless service in this temple. The people are marrying pagans with ease and taking divorce lightly. They fail to pay the tithes and offerings which they owe to God. He warns them sternly that God will bring swift punishment on them if they do not change….
Malachi is a book of passion. The author obviously loves the temple and its worship, demands much of the priests in their office, and values religious instruction. He speaks of the covenant with deep respect. He fears that the sin of Israel is terribly serious because it breaks the covenant made with Yahweh. He goes behind the laws of the Pentateuch to ground God’s will in the creation stories of Genesis (Mal 2:10). He roots his view of the enduring love of marriage in the covenant and even goes so far as to say “I have divorce” and repeats twice the warning, “So take heed for yourselves and do not be unfaithful” (Mal 2:15-16). He even talks of a covenant made with Levi that demands fidelity of all priests to their ministry (Mal 2:4-6). He ends his book, as do all the later prophets, with a vision of the day of the Lord that will bring fire and punishment on the wicked but a glorious revival to the just.
Perhaps his most famous lines are the last in his book. They are both a powerful summary of Israel’s foundations of faith and a firm statement of hope….
Because Malachi foresees the return of the prophet Elijah, this book was placed last in the canon of the Old Testament by the Greek translators of the Bible so that the whole of Scripture would look ahead to God’s further action in the world.
Malachi is deeply in debt to Ezekiel and his vision of the future community of Israel. He also uses many of Ezekiel’s methods of instruction. Where Ezekiel often begins an oracle with a proverb or quotation or colorful image, Malachi uses questions. Indeed, his whole style is question-and-answer, as though it were a child’s catechism. There are six oracles in all, and each involves a question addressed to Israel or to God, and is answered by the prophet in God’s name. In the answers we discover a mini-catechism of the covenant. Yahweh loves Jacob, is a father to Israel, is faithful to his word, and wants honesty in Israel’s words, true worship, fidelity and trust in God’s justice.
It seems clear that the full force of the Priestly law codes of the Pentateuch were not yet fully in force. Therefore Malachi probably lived and spoke sometime before Ezra and Nehemiah were able to overcome the indifference and loss of faith that had affected the people and their leaders alike.
In studying Ezra, we saw how he led the Jews who had married foreign wives to commit mass divorce. Therefore, it seems unlikely to me that Malachi was prophesying, or that the book was written, at the exact same time as Ezra’s reforms, since the book so strongly condemns divorce of any kind for any reason. Once again, this simple fact reminds us that the Bible is one book with many voices saying different things at different times in an attempt to guide God’s people.
It is no wonder, from a Christian perspective, that Malachi was placed last in the canon of Old Testament Scripture, for Malachi’s mention of Elijah who is to come prepares us rather perfectly to receive the ministry of John the Baptist in the Gospels. However, before we move on to our study of the Gospels, perhaps we need to consider a few questions….
1. What has struck you with most force in our study of the Hebrew Scriptures throughout this year?
2. What book did you like best? Why?
3. What book did you like least? Why?
4. What are you most looking forward to in our study of the New Testament?