The next biblical book that we are going to study is Malachi. Uh-oh! I see some of you rolling your eyes already!
While many Christians don’t feel it is necessary or profitable to study the Old Testament, I disagree. Here are some reasons why:
First, as Malachi will shortly point out, God has not changed. The things that pleased him in the past still please him now. The things that angered him in the past still anger him today. Therefore, the spiritual truths presented to God’s people in the past are still relevant for his people now.
Second, someone once said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. The same principle applies here. Because there is ‘nothing new under the sun’, taking a good, thorough look at Israel’s past temptation and sin will assist us in our current Christian walk. It will aid us in avoiding the same mistakes they made, and help us keep ourselves on the straight and narrow path of righteousness.
Third, you don’t have to take my word for it that the Old Testament is still applicable today – listen to what the Holy Spirit said through the apostle Paul:
2 Timothy 3:16 – All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
Notice that ALL scripture is profitable for the Christian; not just the New Testament. After all, what scriptures did the apostles use when they preached Jesus as the Messiah? That’s right – the Old Testament!
We can conclude that it is indeed worthwhile for us to study and become familiar with the Old Testament.
I have also heard people say that they do not enjoy or get any benefit from reading the prophetic books like Malachi. Many people say they don’t really understand these books; even after reading them, their meaning and significance remain a mystery.
Let’s consider that for a minute. I think we have all had those thoughts at one time or another. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are certainly not as straightforward and easy to understand as some of the other biblical books, such as the gospel of John or the book of Ruth.
Why is that?
Well for one thing, the prophetic books are best understood when you consider the circumstances surrounding God’s people (or the nation of Israel), at the time the prophesy was given. If you don’t familiarize yourself with the crisis that faced the nation, then the messages don’t seem to make any sense.
It’s kind of like this – you need to know the question (the crisis) in order to understand the answer (the prophesy from God). If you have one or the other but not both, they will both be confusing!
C. Hassell Bullock, in his book An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, says it this way:
“The prophets spoke to Israel in times of crisis… Had there been no crisis, there would have been little need for the prophets. When the list of literary prophets is posted, it will be noted that they are clustered around critical historical events or eras.”
So, if you are just reading the bible cover-to-cover, or if you are following a read-the-bible-in-a-year reading plan, you will come across the prophetic books, but they will be separated from the historical circumstances that prompted them. This makes them extremely difficult to understand.
In our study, we are going to include known facts regarding the historical and national circumstances surrounding the book of Malachi. This will greatly increase our understanding of the book.
Another reason that the prophetic books are sometimes difficult to understand is that prophesy tends to blur time – it lumps the past, present and future together.
To complicate matters, prophesies tend to have two or more fulfillments – one near to the time the word was given, and a second fulfillment in the future. (This is not an extreme difficulty in the book of Malachi, but in other prophetic books, it is a critical issue.)
So, admittedly, timing is an issue in every prophetic book, and that can make the books more difficult to understand. Lucky for us, thousands of years have passed since the Old Testament prophets penned their works. Thanks to hindsight, we have a better understanding of the prophets than former generations.
However, time has not solved all of the mysteries of the prophets. I can guarantee that all of our questions will not be answered, because even now (in 2021) we have not seen the complete fulfillment of many of the promises spoken by God in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. While we do our best to look into the future and anticipate what will happen, only time will eventually reveal the complete fulfillment of God’s promises. Simply stated, we cannot hope to fully and completely understand everything the prophets spoke/wrote.
But that is not a good reason to ignore them.
In fact, the opposite is true. Think about it – God has given us promises that are still unfulfilled. Should we ignore them or cast them aside? No way! We should be spending time examining those promises, bringing our questions before his throne, seeking to know if today is the day that God will bring them to pass. Perhaps you and I are the generation in which these promises will manifest! Perhaps you and I will be the very people that God uses to bring these promises to pass. Have you considered that?
Think of it this way: the Old Testament prophets are like a goldmine that has been dug, but not fully explored or mined. Who knows what rich veins of goodness and blessing and victory are waiting in those pages? Who knows what God has in store for us in this generation, through those prophets?
It may take some time and effort to explore the prophetic books, but I believe it will be well worth the effort (and since I am the host of this blog, that is what we are going to do!)
Now… what do we know about the ancient prophets?
They are divided up into two categories: Literary prophets and non-literary (or verbal) prophets.
The non-literary (verbal) prophets are men who spoke the words/oracles that God gave them, however, their words were not specifically written down and saved for future generations. For example, we have all heard of Elijah and his successor, Elisha. These are examples of non-literary prophets. They spoke the words that God told them, but there is no ‘book of Elijah/Elisha’ that contains all of the prophesies that he spoke.
The words of the non-literary prophets are preserved for us in the Old Testament passages that reflect the life of someone else. For example, Elijah ministered during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. His prophesies/words are recorded in the context of what was happening in the nation of Israel during the reign of Ahab (I Kings 18).
Another example is the prophet Nathan. He ministered during the reign of King David; his words are recorded in the context of what God was doing in the nation of Israel and the life of David as opposed to being recorded in a book bearing his own name (2 Samuel 7).
As I am sure you have figured out, literary prophets are simply the prophets whose words/prophesies/oracles have been written down and preserved for us in the form of a biblical book that bears the prophets name. For example, Isaiah or Malachi.
The literary prophets have been further subdivided into two categories: major prophets and minor prophets.
The terms ‘major’ and ‘minor’ have nothing to do with the actual messages they bring. Obviously, any word directly from God is relevant and important. The terms major/minor simply refer to the length of the book. The shorter ones (the last 12 in the Old Testament) are considered minor, and the rest are designated as major.
As we pointed out earlier, the messages of the prophets are generally easier to understand when you place them in their proper place in the history of Israel.
So stop here for a minute and list the top 7-10 defining moments of Israel’s history which are recorded in the Old Testament.
Here is the list I came up with. Yours might be slightly different, but in general these events were historically significant:
- The forming of the nation (the era of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob)
- The period of slavery in Egypt
- Freedom from slavery/Egypt
- Inheritance of the Promised Land
- The era of the monarchy
- The division of Israel into 2 nations
- The fall of the Northern kingdom
- The fall of the Southern kingdom
- The exile
- Return to the land from the exile
- Reestablishment of the temple.
Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament shows that God sent wisdom, guidance, warning and promises to his people during these major events. While that role was sometimes fulfilled by angels or even God himself, the major source of communication was through the prophets.
Prior to the monarchy being split into two, prophetic ministry was mainly of the verbal type. Once the split occurred, the ministry of the literary prophets became preeminent. Interestingly, God assigned one set of prophets to the Northern Kingdom, and a different set to the Judah. No single prophet ministered to both kingdoms.
Five of the Old Testament prophets ministered to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, until its destruction in 722BC. They were Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah. This is sometimes referred to as the Assyrian period.
Six of the Old Testament prophets ministered to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, until its destruction in 586 BC. They were Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Ezekiel and Obadiah. This is sometimes referred to as the Babylonian period.
Once the southern kingdom fell, Israel was in exile, which lasted 70 years. At the end of that time, God miraculously brought them back to the Promised Land and had them rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.
Five of the Old Testament prophets ministered to the post exilic Jews who returned to the land by the decree of Cyrus. They were Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel and Malachi. This is sometimes referred to as the Persian period.
So the point is, anytime you read one of the Old Testament prophets, their message will be much easier to understand if you know what the political and moral circumstances were during that time.
For example, the earliest prophet of the Persian period was Daniel, who specifically set his face to seek God about the return of the people from exile (Daniel chapter 9). He was very concerned about the sin of his nation, and of its future state.
Haggai and Zechariah prophesied at a time when Israel needed a push/encouragement to finish the work they were called to do (complete the temple and walls). Haggai focused on spiritual apathy, Zechariah on great things that God would do in the future (God never gives correction without hope). They worked in conjunction with Joshua the priest and Zerubbabel the governor.
Malachi also prophesied during the post exilic period. We will soon discover what his message was! For now, let’s see if we can determine a date for his ministry.
We know the Jews officially returned to their homeland in several waves, beginning in 537 (after the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC). We also know that the temple was eventually finished and dedicated in 516 BC. Since Malachi makes reference to the temple in his prophesy, so we know he ministered sometime after 516 BC.
We also know that Ezra (a priest) led a wave of returning Jewish exiles to Jerusalem in 458 BC and that Nehemiah (the governor) was also ministering in Jerusalem in 445 BC.
If we make a comparison between Malachi and Nehemiah, we will find that both of these men spoke out about many of the same issues. These issues include priestly corruption, neglect of tithes, disrespect for God and intermarriage with foreigners.
So we find that God orchestrated the ministries of these men (Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi) to bring about the changes that were necessary in order for the Jewish people to fulfill the destiny God had in store for them.
Think of it this way: John the Baptist prepared the people for the coming ministry of Jesus by preaching a message of repentance. In much the same way, Malachi also preached a message of repentance, which prepared the people for the coming social and religious reforms instituted by Nehemiah.
Because their ministries are intertwined, an acceptable date range for the ministry of Malachi is 455-425 BC.
What was going on with the culture at that time?
Well, certainly, there was cause for rejoicing and celebration when the Jews returned to their homeland. Under the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah they finished the temple and the walls. They established themselves in the land and began to prosper. The priesthood was faithful to their duties and the people were faithful to the Law. It was a season of spiritual closeness to God.
But as the years passed, that generation died and a new one took its place. The new generation had not been in exile. They had not lived without a temple. They did not have the same appreciation for God as their forefathers. They lacked the earnest and zealous devotion to God that their ancestors exhibited.
Their apathy became apparent in their service to God. They disregarded the law, oppressed the poor and became more and more like the heathens they lived among. The priesthood also became corrupt and failed in their duty to teach and enforce the laws of God. They considered themselves servants of God, but they dishonored him in their daily service.
In essence, the Jews as a whole were in rebellion against God. They were morally and spiritually corrupt. They were blind to their own sins. If they continued along this path, they would soon wind up back in exile or worse. (It reminds you of the Jewish priests and leaders we encountered in the book of Matthew, does it not?)
In the midst of this crisis, God sends his people a message of warning and hope through the prophet Malachi.
Now that you know the background of this prophetic book, why not take a few minutes this week and read through it? See how much you understand yourself and next week we will begin our verse by verse examination of the text.