Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are reading Malachi’s fourth disputation. Previous disputations charged the priesthood with negligent worship and condemned Israelite men for their pagan marriages. Those prophetic messages were harsh and pointed. Still, the restored community remains obnoxiously unaware of their shortcomings.
Malachi uses his prophetic pulpit to explain why God is indeed withholding blessing. However, in a balanced message of hardship before hope, Malachi foresees the coming of a messenger who will prepare the way for the Messiah.
The fourth disputation follows the basic structure of the others. Malachi makes an assertion. The people follow up with a counter-question. God weighs in with a warning about the implications of their disobedience.
This disputation addresses the general community. They are all guilty of wearying the Lord with their words. God’s patience with his wayward people has worn thin. Malachi demonstrates their cluelessness by putting words in their mouths that best reflect their poor mindset. The people ask, “How have we wearied him?” Tongue-in-cheek, Malachi adds, “By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.’ Or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?’” (2:17).
Malachi is accusing the people of letting their cynicism go beyond complaining and bump up against the fence of blasphemy. Before we jump on the judgment train, however, it is important to empathize with the demanding situation of the returnees. We know from Haggai (1:6) that poverty is commonplace and crops are failing. We know from history that even though they have returned, Judah is still a subject of the Persian empire, forced to pay tribute to fund the king’s wars. We know from Nehemiah that the people lack any sense of security with Jerusalem’s city walls still in disrepair. From their vantage point, their prayers must be going unanswered. Their fatigue is understandable.
Still, they cannot base their measure of God’s justice and mercy on their temporary suffering. According to Malachi, they are blaming God for defaulting on his covenant promises instead of evaluating their own covenant faithfulness. Their sense of chosenness has once again blocked their self-awareness.
They are hungry for God’s system of retribution. When they do not see their enemies punished, they accuse God of hating good and delighting in evil. They question if God is present in an overturned world. Meanwhile, they live as if there is no consequence for their own bad actions, which Malachi will take inventory of at the end of the disputation. When they ask, “where is the God of justice?” they are accusing God of not paying attention.
Certainly, the Bible gives examples of prophets and patriarchs dialoguing with God and pleading with him to show mercy and enforce divine justice. Abraham bargained with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18). Moses stopped God from destroying the idol worshiping Israelites at Mount Sinai (Ex. 32:9-14). Job questioned the purpose of his existence (Job 3). The prophet Habakkuk asked God, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (1:2).
The returnees’ questions do not reflect the same pious and pleading struggle with God that we see in Moses, Abraham, Job and Habakkuk. Instead, they are throwing up jaded accusations, accusing God of going missing. Denying his closeness permits them to ignore his commands. Struggling with God, like the patriarchs, is one of the core privileges of being in relationship with God. Demonstrating ambivalence toward God, like the returnees, is an act of rebellion.
In response to the people’s reproach, God announces that he will intervene in a surprising way with a two-stage plan. First, God will send a messenger. Second, he will purge the community of the unrighteous.
Yahweh says, “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (3:1). Commentaries note the similarities between the messenger of Malachi and the angel of Exodus. In biblical Hebrew, angel and messenger are the same word, malak, so the translation choice is based on context.
In Exodus, the angel goes before the Hebrews to guard them as they enter Canaan. God tells the people to listen to the angel, obey his direction, and not rebel against him because God’s name “is in him” (Ex. 23:20). That does not sound like an invisible force, but rather a divine messenger which could be seen, heard, and followed. The angel cleared the physical obstacles for the people’s safe passage.
In Malachi, God will send another malak, translated as messenger, and this messenger’s job is also to clear the path. God says, “prepare the way before me” but thenswitches point of view saying, “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Malachi does not use God’s covenant name Yahweh, but instead uses his title HaAdon or the Lord. Is the messenger preparing the way for God or someone else? Either way, the agent is divine. For Christians who believe in the triune God, we get a little Holy Spirt goose bumps from these glimpses of the Trinity.
Malachi is using an analogy familiar to his listeners. In the Ancient Near East, a visiting king would often send a messenger in advance of his arrival so his subjects would have adequate time to prepare for the royal procession. They would clear the road of obstacles beforehand to ensure the king’s arrival would be without incident.
In addition to the messenger who prepares the way, Malachi foresees a second messenger. Malachi calls him “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight” (3:1). Another way interpreters translate the phrase is “the messenger of the covenant whom you are seeking.” “Messenger of the covenant” is a title found nowhere else in the scriptures. Some scholars believe the first messenger and the messenger of the covenant are the same.
For Jewish readers, without the New Testament frame of reference, the “messenger of the covenant” could be Yahweh because he is the enforcer of the covenant. Christians, however, see Jesus as Malachi’s “messenger of the covenant.” Jesus was the one God sent to initiate the “new covenant.” Jeremiah said God would put the law within his people and write it on their hearts so he could “forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:33).
Malachi is building on the Messianic profile that the people already know through the law and prophets. Malachi is the first prophet to give the Messiah a forerunner. Although the people anticipate a Messiah in the form of an earthly king, Malachi adds what seems to be an element of divine authority to the Messiah. Malachi also mixes his arrival with the Day of the Lord. He asks, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (3:2).
While the people of Israel often anticipated triumph on the Day of the Lord, the prophets often corrected those expectations. If the people were faithful, the prophets predicted the Day of the Lord would destroy their enemies and bless Israel with abundance. However, because of their covenant unfaithfulness, the Day of the Lord will be a thing to endure, part judgement and part purifying (3:2,5). The only way to overcome the sudden impasse is to put the people through a period of testing and filter out the righteous from the unrighteous.
As the community stands, they are not acceptable before Yahweh but he is sending the messenger to function as a “refiner’s fire and like washer’s soap” (3:3). Fire and soap separate the impure from the pure. They will purge all the stains and dross infecting the community. Malachi describes God as the silversmith, sitting near the furnace “as a refiner and purifier of silver” (3:3). This is a fresh spin on an old prophetic metaphor. Usually, God is the purging unquenchable fire but Malachi has God as the patient silversmith. Ultimately, it is the silversmith’s expertise to determine the end of the purification process.
Like prophets often do, Malachi sets down his eschatological lens and speaks a word for the present. Prophets may glance toward the future or look over their shoulder to the past, but ultimately their message is for the present community. Malachi says the Levites are first in line for purification. God will purge the priests who continue permitting unacceptable offerings to the Temple (1:6-14). Malachi warns that God will “purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:4).
Malachi’s focus on proper offerings has nothing to do with the wealth or status linked to the Temple. When priests ignored the laws of sacrifice, they were doing so out of indifference to God and ambivalence to the community they represented. God desires people who give out of contrite hearts and free spirits that are drawn to him. Compliance is a byproduct of right motivation. Not long after Malachi’s teaching, the reformer Nehemiah did cleanse the priesthood of the defilers (Neh. 13:29-30).
Malachi closes the loop on his disputation by giving a chilling answer to the people’s question “where is the God of justice?” (2:17). God warns, “I will draw near to you for judgement” (3:5). The people had accused God of loving evil because their enemies went unpunished. To quote a New Testament idiom, they failed to see the plank in their own eye (Matt. 7:3). As a result, God is drawing near.
Malachi lists the categories of their transgression. They are guilty of sorcery, adultery, swearing falsely, wage theft, oppressing widows and orphans, and mistreating foreigners. Sorcery and adultery were sins punishable by death according to the law (Lev. 20:10, 27). Perhaps the marriages to pagan women were taken so seriously in the time of Malachi because they invited sorcery and adultery into the restored community. The other pervasive sins represent how the people have rejected the things of God. Even gentile nations in the Ancient Near East understood that a society with basic decency had to protect widows and orphans. God’s laws are specific in how provisions need to be made for society’s most vulnerable (Deut. 10:18; 14:29; 16:11). The last listed sin summarizes the root of the problem. God says, they “do not fear me” (3:6).
Malachi’s fourth disputation gets a lot of scholarly attention, mostly due to the debates over the identity of Malachi’s two messengers. The answer would be an interpretative guessing game, except the New Testament provides Christians with a decoder ring. Twice in the gospels Jesus tells his followers that Malachi’s prophecy of a coming messenger was fulfilled in John the Baptist (Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:27). John the Baptist was by God’s design the forerunner to Messiah Jesus. The passage from Matthew is worth quoting in full:
“Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What, then, did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What, then, did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matt. 11:7-10).
The gospel of Mark also sees John the Baptist as a fulfillment of prophecy but Mark quotes a prophecy in Isaiah. John the Baptist made “straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3). Ultimately, Christians believe that the arrival of God’s son on earth required a clearing of inward obstacles. The obstacles were not in the physical realm but spiritual. John the Baptist preached individual revival, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:5). Preaching the need for a Messiah was essential to prepare the way for someone even greater than John the Baptist, someone who would baptize the people not with water but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).
The gospel writers interpreted the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of Jesus. Christians, in turn, receive a tradition that removes the shroud from prophecy and reframes it with definiteness. John the Baptist was the messenger of Malachi because Jesus said so. Only with the sacrificial death of Jesus was the plan fully exposed beyond hints and prophecies. The prophets are an unfolding narrative that point to the mission of Jesus.
At the same time, the prophets are firmly rooted in their own place and story. Malachi has one eye on the future coming of the Messiah, but he spends the bulk of his book naming the sins of his contemporaries. This is the prophets magical method of threading between history, theology, and eschatology.
Join me next week for the fifth disputation which covers 3:6-12. The people are robbing God.
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