Tales of the Nevi'im - Malachi
The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message intended to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Malachi
After the Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and ended their empire forever, he issued an edict in 538 BC allowing the Jews to return to their homeland. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel (pronounced Zair-ub-bab’-el), many returned and began to rebuild their lives. They also began to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Because of the hard times, they became discouraged and stopped work on the temple, but Haggai and Zechariah encouraged them to continue. In 516, they completed the temple.
The Persian Empire at the time of Malachi, about 460 BC
Meanwhile, the Persian kings were intent on expanding their empire. One of the better-known Persian kings was Xerxes (pronounced zerks’-zees). He ruled from 486 until 465 BC. Xerxes accomplished many things, but you may know him best for two: first, he invaded Greece in 480 BC, and the 300 Spartans delayed his forces at the pass of Thermopylae long enough for the Greeks to unite and defeat him. Xerxes could never have guessed his exploits would spawn a blockbuster, adventure movie in the 21st century! Second, Xerxes is very likely the Persian king in the book of Esther. God used him to elevate Esther to a position where she could save the Israelites living in the Persian empire.
During the reign of Xerxes, taxes were increased to unbearable levels for conquered people so he could finance his building projects and wars. It is estimated that interest rates were as high as 40, even 50%! By 460 BC, the Israelites had endured many years of hardship that tested their faith and their devotion to God was flagging. It’s at this time that God sent Malachi to speak to his people.
To finish our historical adventure, I should add that just after Malachi’s ministry, the priest Ezra returned to Judea and reinstituted the observance of the Law of Moses (458 BC). A little later (445 BC) Nehemiah returned to rebuild the outer wall of Jerusalem. You can read about their adventures in the books bearing their names in the Old Testament!
Judea and surrounding nations after the return from exile in Babylon
Malachi means “my messenger,” and he was the last messenger, or prophet, that God would send to Israel in the Old Testament era. Why do we think that? There are several reasons, but in general, the dating of the letter, about 460 BC, the language of the letter, and tradition all combine to make it likely that Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. That means from the time of Malachi in 460 BC until John the Baptist appeared more than 400 years later, Israel would hear no prophetic word from God.
The province of Judah in the time of Malachi was a shadow of its former size and greatness. How far Israel had fallen from the golden age of David and Solomon 500 years before! The Israelites occupied an area of only about 20 miles by 30 miles. It’s estimated that there were probably a mere 150,000 Israelites in the land.
The book of Malachi is a short one, just 55 verses, but in 47 of these verses, God is speaking directly to his people. The emphasis is on the message, not the messenger - in fact, we know literally nothing about Malachi. The message, however, is clear – Malachi rebukes the priests who serve God and are supposed to lead the people spiritually:
“Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand…You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? Says the Lord.” (1:10, 13)
“For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction.” (2:7-8)
Malachi also challenges the people. Among other things, he calls them to be faithful in giving:
Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.
“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’
“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’
“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” (3:7-10)
And finally, Malachi gives Israel a glimpse of the coming of the Messiah, the one who will bring judgment on the wicked and salvation for the faithful:
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” (3:1)
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts… But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (4:1-2)
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (3:5-6)
Lessons and Themes
The Day of the Lord is coming. You’ve seen by now that this day of judgment and reward runs through all the prophets. It is the assurance that justice will be done. It is the assurance that faith will persevere. Jesus talks quite a bit about judgment as well. In fact, it is not possible to understand the good news of what Jesus has done for us without appreciating the reality of a day of accountability.
God calls us to have an impact in our world as well as in eternity. Another theme we’ve seen in the prophets is God’s desire for justice. In Malachi 3:5 we read, “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
Sometimes we’re tempted to think that the Bible is about eternity, saving our souls for the next world - that’s true! But we cannot neglect or forget the reality, echoed through the Old and New Testaments, that our faith must work itself out in the here and now. And the way faith acts in the world is often seen most clearly in how we treat those who are on the margins of society.
Obedience to God is based on the reality that God loved us first. God’s opening words in Malachi (verse 2) are, ‘I have loved you,” says the Lord. In Jesus, we realize the depth and concrete reality of God’s love. Romans 5:8 puts it this way, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Obedience to God is not based on his demand as our Creator and Sustainer (although He deserves it!) but as a response to His love. If we think that we must obey for God to love us, we fall into legalism and dishonor God. If we believe that we have God’s love so there is no need to obey, we embrace license - a cheap grace - that mocks God.
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
Can you imagine being an Israelite living in the four centuries between Malachi and the coming of Jesus? Would you have felt forgotten by God? Are there similarities between that time and our own, as we await the second coming of Christ?
Throughout all of Scripture, we see God’s sovereignty; we read about the day of judgment. And yet, he chose to relate to us, first and foremost, as a loving father. How were you raised to think about God – loving father or judge? How does your view of God affect how you live out your faith?
Since we are saved by grace through faith, and not by good works, why do you think the prophets (Malachi included) mention giving, compassion, and doing justice so often? How is that related to our faith?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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