Malachi Study Part 1 - Terence Swinhoe

An Opening Prayer

Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence.
May your Word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher,
and your greater glory our supreme concern,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Title of Study 1: ‘LOVE STORY’

First of all, my thanks to Ian for allowing me to lead a Bible Study. And this is a written one rather than a live stream. I’m really uncomfortable with appearing on screens, I’m afraid! This is the first of six studies.

When I was thinking over which part of the Bible to take as a subject for study, I turned to the Book of Malachi, because I don’t think it’s very familiar to many readers. Also, because I think it can still speak to us today. It’s there in our Old Testament along with eleven other ‘Minor’ prophets, as they’re sometimes called. The ‘Major’ prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and all three of those are much longer than any of the ‘Minor’ books. The English and Hebrew Bibles arrange the books in a different order, but in both of them Malachi is the last of the prophets. In the English Bible arrangement, Malachi is in fact the last book of the whole Old Testament. After Malachi, as we’ll see later in these studies, the voice of the prophets was silent for some 400 years.

The prophets, we believe, gave inspired messages to God’s people. Divine inspiration works with the individual personality, vocabulary and style of each prophet. The Book of Malachi certainly has its own distinctive features. Prophets conveyed to the people what God revealed to them and commanded them to say. That’s why we read so often in the prophetic books of the Bible phrases such as “This is what the LORD says….” So let’s remember as we come to this Old Testament book that we’re reading not the prophet’s own opinions, but inspired words from God, and let’s be ready to see what they may say to us in the here and now.

Let’s begin our study of the Book of Malachi by turning to 1:1–5. This sets the scene. I’m using the NIV in these studies – the version used in church. Incidentally, the placing of LORD in capital letters in verses that I quote is to show that it translates the name of God as revealed to Moses – Yahweh, a name that comes from the Hebrew for “I am”, a name considered by Jews to be too sacred to pronounce.

Notice that 1:1 doesn’t tell us anything about Malachi. In many other prophetic books we are told that the prophet was ‘son of’ someone or other. Sometimes we learn how they came to be called by God, or where they came from, or the place where they prophesied, or which king was on the throne at the time. There’s none of that here. The name ‘Malachi’ means ‘my messenger’, which makes some people think that it wasn’t a real personal name. The book is the work of some anonymous prophet, they say. Even though ‘Malachi’ doesn’t occur elsewhere in the Bible as a name, other people think these prophecies are in fact the work of an individual with that name, despite our knowing nothing about him. I’m going to call him ‘Malachi’ throughout.

As we begin, we’re going to need to look first at the historical context in which he prophesied, because that’s always important. Malachi was active in the time when the people of Israel were settled back in their own land. They’d returned from the traumatic exile that began in 597 BC after their conquest by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Babylon had thought it was invincible, but in time like all empires it too fell (539 BC), conquered by the Persians under King Cyrus. Cyrus turned out to be a humane ancient ruler, because a year or so later it was he who allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their own land. All of which is quite remarkable – a heathen king being used by God to liberate God’s people (see Isaiah chapter 45)! The situation in Malachi is that they’ve been back for around a hundred years.

God’s promise that they would return to their land had been fulfilled, but those who returned were small in number. The name ‘Israel’ in 1:1 refers to what had been the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered and scattered by the Assyrians way back in the 8th century BC. Judah was now the remnant of Israel. They didn’t now have a king – the Persians had installed governors to supervise this small province of their empire. Earlier prophets had foretold a great and glowing future (e.g. Haggai and Zechariah). The Temple (destroyed by the Babylonians) had been rebuilt. But it was a modest affair. See how some people reacted to it in Ezra 3:12. It couldn’t compare for splendour with the first one built by Solomon, but at least it was there, and it enabled sacrificial offerings to be made once more. Later, important Jewish figures like Nehemiah came back from exile and rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls. Ezra, the teacher of the Law, returned too and under him Israel began to find their faith once more. This is the background out of which the Book of Malachi arose, somewhere around the year 450 BC.

Discontent and disappointment had set in. The initial enthusiasm of being back home had evaporated. Think for a minute of Charles Dickens’ famous opening words to ‘A Tale of Two Cities” – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ However, in Israel’s case at the time of Malachi it was a ‘nothing’ time! It was neither one thing nor the other. It seemed to be a day of small things. The day of miracles seemed to be over. This period in Israel’s history has been described as the period after the fireworks. Where was the promised new and glorious age that the return to the land would bring in? Why wasn’t everything going well? In fact, where was God? Did he still love his people Israel? Where was the evidence? There was apathy and backsliding. As a result the people had sunk into a kind of spiritual lethargy. People were starting to question God as to his actions, and some even to blame God for the state they were in. In a different context, people are still asking these questions now.

We ourselves have been living through difficult times. Many of us have felt frustrated over these last weeks and months. Health has been a major concern. So has finance. Some of us may have felt very isolated, unable to go anywhere or do very much. The coronavirus may have come very near to us or our family. Work has been a major worry, as has care for children and other family. For others, day succeeds to day, week succeeds to week, and nothing much seems to happen. Boredom easily sets in. So does spiritual exhaustion sometimes. We can begin to lose our spiritual cutting edge. So we might well be asking similar questions to the ones ancient Israel was asking all those years ago. What is God doing in this situation? Where is the God who loves us? These are real issues. We have to admit that we can’t always easily work out what’s happening in our world and in our individual lives. Lately the world has felt to be a very different place from the one we lived in pre-lockdown.

In 1:2, in the context in which he found himself, Malachi gives us a very abrupt start to the book! There’s not much of a preamble. And we don’t find soaring poetic passages in Malachi that are characteristic of many other prophets. The book is all in prose. His very first statement is a bald declaration of God’s love for Israel, I have loved you. The Hebrew of this sentence implies, ‘And I still do.’ See how Israel is described in Deuteronomy 7:6, For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. Countless times in the Old Testament his love for them is described as his ‘steadfast love’ – in Hebrew that’s the word hesed, which conveys a love that never gives up, never quits. So in that brief opening sentence Malachi was summarising a whole history. But the people are quick to reply to Malachi with a question they want God to answer – How have you loved us? This question and answer pattern is a feature of the book. It’s as if Malachi’s standing out in the public square announcing God’s word, and there’s a group of hecklers standing by who cut in every time he speaks! Just look at the first question they ask! It takes you aback. How ungrateful can you get? A chosen nation, Israel, asking how has God loved them! Israel had seen and experienced God’s love over and over again. There had been chastening times for them too, but there was so much of God’s blessing that they could look back on.

Let’s list some significant and obvious examples. God called and blessed the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which led to settlement in Egypt under Joseph, and eventual deliverance from slavery there. There followed a sacred covenant with God and the revelation of God’s Law under Moses. In their new promised land they began to live and develop their national life. Prophets like Samuel arose, and later on figures like Elijah and Elisha. The era of the kings was mixed, to say the least, but there’d been national prosperity under kings like David and Solomon. The great city of Jerusalem (Zion) with its magnificent Temple became a renowned centre of worship. And God hadn’t deserted them in Babylon and left them there for good in miserable exile. God had always been with them. How dare they ask, How have you loved us? The truth, as we’re going to see, was that they had deserted him. It’s a wonder Malachi didn’t reply to their question with a ‘You what?’ Of course, there had been earlier times when Israel’s appreciation of God’s love and their response to it had been poor. Back in the 8th century BC the prophet Hosea had relayed God’s complaint to them, ‘What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.’ (6:4). We would do well ourselves to ‘count our blessings’, as the old saying goes. Do we have times when we reckon God has stopped loving us? Let’s go back to 1 John 4:9–10, This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Human feelings can fluctuate and change, but we must beware of transferring that idea on to God. God is not subject to change – we’ll see a statement of that later in Malachi.

The people’s attitude in Malachi’s day can be summed up in the title of one of the commentaries on the book – Losing Touch With The Living God. When I read Malachi, I am struck by how, even though it is an Old Testament book, it addresses us in our setting today. The God he spoke about, the God who loved and guided his people Israel through their many struggles, is the same God whom we ourselves worship and follow. There are Christians who speak as if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom they know from the New Testament, is a different God from the one they have encountered in the Old. This is a real misunderstanding. Jesus himself knew intimately ‘the Scriptures’ and referred to them in his teaching. By ‘the Scriptures’ he meant the Law, the Prophets and the other Writings – in other words our Old Testament. The God who revealed himself to Israel is the same God who has come to us in Christ. In our own trials and tribulations we have to cling to the truth that this God who has drawn us to himself and claimed us as his own isn’t about to let us go. It was easy for me to write that sentence, but as I look at it I know that I and you who are reading this have our own uncertainties to struggle with, and that we need a great deal of perseverance. More than anything, we need the grace of God to provide us with the strength to get through.

In 1:2–5 Malachi answers the hecklers’ questioning of God’s love by taking them back to the account of the two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the scheming younger one, you remember. Malachi impresses this word of God on his listeners in1: 2–3, I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated. We’ll come to that way of putting it in a moment. Paul quotes that verse in Romans 9:13. Although he was the younger, Jacob found a cunning way to take the birthright away from his older twin, Esau (who agreed readily enough to sell it to him). As a result it was Jacob who later obtained the precious blessing of the firstborn son from their father, Isaac. In this way he became the one from whom the chosen line of Israel would come. The accounts are in Genesis 25:29–34 (Esau sells his birthright) and Genesis 27: 1–40 (Jacob obtains his father’s blessing).

Malachi is saying to his hearers, “Have you forgotten that you are the descendants of Jacob, the one whom God chose?” The words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ here aren’t human emotional statements. They don’t really describe feelings about someone. God’s ‘love’ of Jacob means his choice of and commitment to Jacob, seeking the highest and best for him so that he would fulfil God’s purpose. ‘Hate’ is used to mean the opposite of ‘chose’. Jesus used language in a similar way when he talked about ‘hating’ one’s family in Luke 14:26. He wasn’t suggesting we should have feelings of animosity towards our relatives. He didn’t hate his own parents, brothers and sisters. What Jesus meant is that to be his disciple, we should love God more. Our relationship to Christ should govern our perspective on everything else, and help us to order our priorities. God made his choice to commit himself to Jacob. It’s not that Jacob was a virtuous and lovable character and more deserving of God’s choice! No, far from! But God made his sovereign choice and chose Jacob. He didn’t choose Esau. This is known as the doctrine of ‘election’. Those whom God chooses are ‘the elect’. It’s a mystery to us how divine election and human responsibility go together. But both are taught in the Bible. A clear statement of it can be found in Proverbs 16:9, In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. We make our choices and decisions in life, but God brings his will to pass through them. We can’t really get behind that and ask why, or find reasons for God’s choice that make sense to us. Paul in Romans 9:20 – 21 illustrates it with the picture of the potter and the clay. Can’t the potter make out of the clay what he wishes to make? Do we have the right to talk back to God about the sovereign choices he makes? Can finite creatures tell an infinite Creator how to act? For another New Testament perspective on this, see Ephesians 1:4–6. Those verses tell us that we as Christians have been chosen ‘in him’ (i.e. in Christ) to be adopted into God’s family and that God has done this ‘in love’. I believe that we are meant to glory in that truth. But the Israel of Malachi’s day was close to forgetting it. Let’s not make that mistake ourselves. We need to remind ourselves of it frequently and exult in the truth that God has set his seal on us and will not let us go.

Let’s come back to Jacob and Esau. Esau’s descendants became the people of Edom (1:4), and in later times the Edomites were a thorn in the flesh of Jacob’s descendants. They took advantage of Judah’s plight and invaded their territory after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BC. They rejoiced in Judah’s downfall and tried to profit by it as much as they could. But eventually the Edomites themselves were defeated by Arab tribes and became powerless. We see it in Malachi 1:3–4, with its clear description of some recent disaster that has befallen Edom. Their land is described there by Malachi as a desolate and ruined place which will not rise again. Ultimately God did not allow them to flourish or to frustrate his plan for Israel. Malachi declares all this to the people as evidence of God’s love and care for Israel. Have you forgotten all this, he wonders. Other peoples have fallen or been set aside, but Israel is the people that he has chosen, the people on whom his favour rests. In fact, God is sovereign not just over Israel but over every nation (1:5). He is the LORD almighty (1:4) – this is a title for God that Malachi uses frequently throughout the book – 24 times in all. The ESV and the NRSV translate it as the LORD of hosts. A prophet who wrote early in the time of the return from exile had also referred to God’s universal rule, The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name (Zechariah 14:9). Malachi will return to this a little later.

So that’s the situation before us. Next time we will look at the rest of the first chapter and begin to see more about why Israel’s national and spiritual life had gone into such a slump. As the book goes on, we’ll see that Malachi has lots of questions thrown at him by the hecklers. We’ll also see the answers he gives! Let’s not be surprised to discover that some of the issues in Malachi are relevant to more than just the Israel of two and a half thousand years ago. I hope you’ll join me.

Closing Prayer

Lord God, loving heavenly Father, we praise you for your written word in the Scriptures. We thank you for your Holy Spirit who inspired the writers to set down your words for us to read and follow. We praise you for your faithful and steadfast love towards us. We confess that our love for you in return has often been weak and changeable. We give thanks for the way in which you guided your people Israel and set your love upon them. We thank you especially for the part of the Scriptures that we have begun to read today, and for its bold reminder of your love and care. Help us, O Lord, in these days we are living through to maintain our faith and trust in you.

Walk with us, we pray, as we continue our study, and enable us to have insight into what you may be saying to us in this our day. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.