THE reformation effected by Nehemiah in the earlier part of his administration had been maintained by his own personal influence and political authority; and when the strong hand of the governor was for a time removed, old abuses revived, and even some new laxities and transgressions were added. In the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes Nehemiah had been recalled to Babylon or Susa, either because his furlough had expired, or because he had to make further arrangements for the prolongation of his command, or simply, as was the Persian custom, to give an account of his actions, which had been unfavourably represented at court. On his return at the end of two or three years (Nehemiah 13:6), he found great cause for sorrow and anxiety. Advantage of his absence had been taken by the latitudinarian party in the commonwealth to return to those evil practices and that open disregard of the Law which he had so severely reprobated twelve years before. Ezra was probably dead, as no further mention is made of him after Nehemiah's second return from the Persian court; and, losing the support of this wise and single-hearted scribe, Nehemiah would have had to stem the torrent of laxity and profaneness alone, had not God raised up the Prophet Malachi at this crisis. As Haggai and Zechariah had animated the spirits and rebuked the faint heartedness of the earlier pilgrims, so now Malachi comes forward to assist Nehemiah in this new reformation by boldly and unflinchingly reproving the delinquencies of priest and people, and announcing the great day of judgment. A prophet was indeed needed at this moment. The spirit of Pharisaism and Sadduceeism, which in after years worked such ineradicable mischief, had already begun to exhibit its evil propensities. On the one hand, the perfunctory, outward observance of ritual acts with no inward repentance or devotion, was considered to be all that religion could claim, all that was needed for acceptance; on the other, a widespread scepticism was sapping all morality, and teaching men to live impiously and selfishly. The promises set forth by the earlier prophets had, as they reflected, not been fulfilled; they were still in a depressed and humble position; and, contrasting their present state with the splendid prospect spread before them in the restored theocracy, they murmured against God, and questioned his providence and his power. They were impatient for some display of his judgment on the Gentiles, and, not seeing this, they presumed to doubt the righteousness of his rule and ordering. In their impatience they forgot that it was their own negligence, infidelity, and manifold transgressions that withheld God's blessings from them. They might also have observed that the brilliant future predicted was not promised as immediately to succeed the return from captivity; on the contrary, many intimations were given that a long interval lay between the prophecy and its complete fulfilment. Against this evil spirit of unbelief Malachi had to contend; and how vigorously he performed his part, a review of his book will clearly show.
The book is divided into four chapters in the Authorized Version, the Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Arabic Versions; the Hebrew combines our third and fourth chapters into one. But neither arrangement exactly suits the distribution of the subject matter, which is usually (after Ewald) divided into three parts, consisting respectively of Malachi 1:2-2:9; Malachi 2:10-16; and Malachi 2:17 to the end. Though thus artificially distributed, the prophecy is one whole, and forms one continuous address, combined, it may be, from many utterances.
The prophet begins by showing Jehovah's love for Israel, and proving it By recalling to memory the differing destinies of Jacob and Esau, how that the descendants of the latter had suffered rain and desolation, while the Israelites had experienced favour and protection in the past, and should be still more blessed in the future (Malachi 1:1-5). Yet they had not responded to his love; yea, the very priests had been foremost in offending him, by polluting his altar and offering unworthy sacrifices; these offerings God wholly rejects, demanding such pure offering as that which shall be presented in the time of Messiah. But the priests have performed their office in a mercenary and perfunctory spirit, and have learned to despise the worship of God; therefore, unless they repent, they shall be punished with curse and rejection; and then, to demonstrate how far they have erred from the right path, the prophet sketches the portrait of the true priest, such as God would have him to be (Malachi 1:6-2:9). The second part reproves the heathen marriages of priests and people. In defiance of the Law, and regardless that they were thus profaning the covenant, they had repudiated their own legitimate wives in order that they might marry the daughters of the idolatrous heathen. The Hebrew wives had wept and laid their cause before the Lord, and he hears them, and will vindicate his own institution (Malachi 2:10-16). The third part introduces Cod as the God of judgment. The people had thought to go on their way unpunished; but the Judge shall come at a time when they look not for him, and shall punish evil doers, executing swift judgment upon those who violate their duty to God and their neighbour, and separating from them the righteous, that the land may be purified and refined. Did the people complain that God was tardy in executing his promises? Let them see the cause in their own transgressions, their many rebellions against his authority, their neglect of tithes and offerings. If they aid their duty, he would reward them with fertility and abundance. They had dared to say that it was a vain thing to serve God; they had confounded good and evil; but the Lord cared for the pious, and would bring them to glory, while he condemned the wicked as stubble to the fire. Therefore let all men observe the Law of Moses, and let them look for the coming of the great day of judgment, and the gracious appearance of the Lord's messenger Elijah the prophet (Malachi 2:17; 4:6).
The distinctive character of the Messianic prophecies in this book consists in the announcement of the second Elijah, who should precede the advent of the Messenger of Jehovah, the Messiah himself, and in the statement of the universal and everlasting nature of Christ's sacrificial offering and mediatorial office. Combined with these two declarations is the account of the effects dependent on the advent of Messiah. That appearance shall be a day of fire, consuming the evil, purging away the dross, and making men fit to offer acceptable sacrifice; it will be also a day of light, bringing health and joy to those who fear God.
2. AUTHOR AND DATE.
The name Malachi is found nowhere else in Scripture. The LXX., in the title, calls him
ας. It is probably contracted from Malachijah, and means, "Messenger of Jehovah." Such abbreviations are not uncommon. Thus we find Abi for Abijah (2 Kings 18:2; 2 Chronicles 29:1); Phalti for Phaltiel (1 Samuel 25:44; 2 Samuel 3:15). So probably Zabdi is the same as Zabdiel, Uri as Urijah. Absolutely nothing is known of his history; and as the Septuagint (Malachi 1:1) reads, instead of "by the hand of Malachi,"
λου αὐτοῦ, "by the hand of his messenger," many have doubted whether the name is that of a person or of an office, an appellation given to an ideal messenger of God. Origen held that the book was written by an angel; others have argued that Malachi was a pseudonym for Ezra, who was the real author of the work, though one would have thought that the style and diction of the two writers were sufficiently distinct to obviate any such supposition, and it is hardly possible that the authorship of so distinguished a man should have been forgotten when the canon was arranged. Besides, to all the prophetical books the writer's own name is prefixed. The use of a pseudonym or a symbolical name is unknown; and the authenticity of the contents of the prophecy is always testified by the naming of the author as one known to his contemporaries and approved by God. Malachi, therefore, is certainly a real person; and though there is no description of him in his book, neither his parentage nor his birthplace being mentioned, yet the same omission occurs in the case of Obadiah and Habakkuk, of whose personality no doubt has ever arisen. That the histories of Ezra anti Nehemiah contain no notice of him or his prophetical work is easily accounted for by the fact that he exercised his ministry on or just before Nehemiah's second visit to Jerusalem, of which we have only the barest and most summary account (Nehemiah 13:7-31). From his trenchant references to the priesthood it is conjectured that he was a member of that body; but there is nothing further to support the notion. The absence of all authentic information concerning Malachi has been supplied by tradition. The Talmud states that he was a member of the great synagogue, as Haggai and Zechariah had been; and Pseudo-Dorotheus and Pseudo-Epiphanius assert that he was born in Sopha, or Supha, in the tribe of Zebulun, and died there while still young. No particulars of his life have been handed down even in mythical narrative.
The general period of Malachi's appearance as a prophet is easily determined; but the definition of the exact date has some difficulties. It is plain, from the contents of the prophecy, that it was delivered when the Captivity was well nigh forgotten, and after the temple was rebuilt and its worship had been for some time duly established; it is also evident that, as the prophet complains of the inferior offerings brought by the people, the time of the royal grant made to Ezra (Ezra 7:20-26) had expired, and the necessary sacrifices wore supplied by the inhabitants themselves. This was done without dispute or apparent reluctance in the earlier part of Nehemiah's administration, according to the engagement introduced by him (Nehemiah 10:32, etc.). No mention of any infringement of the resolution then passed is made in the Book of Ezra; so it seems most probable that the abuses named crept in after Ezra's death, and during the time when Nehemiah was absent at the court of Persia (Nehemiah 13:6), which may have been an interval of two or three years. That Malachi prophesied during this interregnum, or at any rate at a period when Nehemiah was not acting as governor, has been deduced from the expression in Malachi 1:8, where, rebuking the people for daring to sacrifice imperfect animals, he says, "Offer it now to thy governor; will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person?" Nehemiah, it is contended, prided himself on never having taken anything, even his dues as viceroy, from the people; therefore the governor here mentioned must be some other person. But this is by no means a necessary conclusion. The self-denying practice referred to belongs to the early years of his administration, and may not apply to his later governorship. Further, the refusal to be burdensome to his countrymen did not extend to the non-acceptance of presents, without which no Oriental would come for a formal interview with a Superior; and the prophet might well ask whether they would dare to make such offerings to a governor, without any special reference to a particular personage. But although we cannot build any theory of date on this expression of the prophet, there is other internal evidence which is more determinate. The great point is that the abuses rebuked by him are just those against which Nehemiah had to contend. Both of them denounce the corruption of the priests in marrying alien wives (comp. Malachi 2:11 with Nehemiah 13:23); the withholding of the appointed tithes from the Levites (Malachi 3:8 and Nehemiah 13:10); the neglect of and dishonour clone to the temple, and its services; the repudiation of legitimate wives. It is true that Malachi does not expressly name the desecration of the sabbath, against which Nehemiah made such strict regulations (Nehemiah 13:15-22), but he denounces the infringement of the Law in the offering of blemished victims, and we cannot doubt that this was only one instance of the same spirit which led to the breaking of the sabbath. Thus it seems that the prophet and the civil ruler are contending against the same evils, and endeavouring in their different vocations to draw the people to amendment.
From the above considerations we may conclude that Malachi exercised his ministry during the time of Nehemiah's second visit to Jerusalem, B.C. 430-420.
Thus Malachi is the last of the prophets, the author of the final book of the Hebrew canon, and named by Jewish authorities "the seal and end of the prophets." He exercised his ministry a hundred years later than Haggai and Zechariah. We may here note that the twelve minor prophets cover a period of four centuries — a space, as Farrar remarks, nearly equal to that from Chaucer to Wordsworth.
3. GENERAL CHARACTER OF THE WORK.
Some critics have characterized Malachi's style as "pedantic, forced, and barren;" but we cannot assent to their somewhat inconsiderate verdict. In contrast with some other prophetical works, Malachi's writings may be considered to be prosaic, and to hold an inferior position, but they have an excellency and orginality of their own which acquit them of all such charges as those above. The great peculiarity of the style consists in the use made of interrogation and reply. A dialogue is introduced between God and the people or priests; the questions of objectors or complainants are stated, amplified, and finally answered with withering scorn by the mouth of the prophet. Thus he is rather a reasoner than a poet; he exhibits the calmness of the practised orator rather than the fire and energy of earlier seers. But there are tokens that he is still influenced by the ancient prophets, and with all his methodical and artificial forms he models himself upon his predecessors. Simple, smooth, concise, his diction is easy to understand; if he does not rise to the grandeur and power of other prophets, he is always polished and elegant, and at times even remarkably eloquent. The sketch of the character of the ideal priest (Malachi 2:5-7) is a passage of eminent beauty; and there are a few other places of equal excellence.
Among the most useful. commentaries on Malachi may be cited those of Chyrtaeus; Kimchi and Jarchi, 'Commentarii,' Interprete S.M. De Muis; Stock; Selater; Pocock, 'Works,' vol. 1.; Venema; Bahrdt; Fischer, with notes on the Septuagint Version; Packard, Book of Malachi expounded (Edinburgh); Reinke, 'Der Prophet Malachi'; Koehler; Dr. Samuel Cox, in vol. 3. of 'The Bible Educator.'
5. ARRANGEMENT OF THE BOOK IN SECTIONS,
The book is most conveniently divided into three parts.
Part I. (Malachi 1-2:9.) Reproof of the priests for neglect of Divine service.
§ 1. (Malachi 1:1.) Heading and author.
§ 2. (Malachi 1:2-5) The prophet declares God's special love for Israel.
§ 3. (Malachi 1:6-14.) Israel had shown no gratitude, and the priests had been the chief offenders by offering defective sacrifices and profaning the temple worship.
§ 4. (Malachi 2:1-4.) The priests are threatened with punishment.
§ 5. (Malachi 2:5-9.) In contrast with these, the character of the true priest is sketched.
Part II. (Malachi 2:10-16.) Condemnation of priests and people for alien marriages and for divorces.
Part III. (Malachi 2:17-4:6.) The day of the Lord.
§ 1. (Malachi 2:17-3:6.) The faithless people doubted God's providence, but the prophet announces the coming of the Lord to judgment, preceded by his messenger. He shall refine his people and exterminate sinners.
§ 2. (Malachi 3:7-12.) God is faithful to his promises, but the people have been shamefully negligent in the matter of tithes and offerings; let them amend their practice, and they shall be blessed.
§ 3. (Malachi 3:13-18.) The impious murmuring of the people is contrasted with the conduct of those who fear God, and the reward of the pious is set forth.
§ 4. (Malachi 4:1-3.) The final separation of the evil and the good at the day of judgment.
§ 5. (Malachi 4:4-6.) Concluding admonition to remember the Law, lest they should be liable to the curse, to avert which the Lord would send Elijah to promote a change of heart in the nation before his coming.