Lesson 5 of 5
In Progress

Theological Themes in Malachi

The “burden” of prophecy

Malachi’s first word, massah, “oracle” also means “burden.” This double meaning of the word affords an insight into the nature of prophecy. Prophets are “burdened” to deliver their messages, the word from God that often judges and condemns. “Woe is me, my mother,” cries Jeremiah, “that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land!” (Jeremiah 15:10; see his similar laments in 11:18-19; 17:15-18; 20:7-8, 14-18). Massah as both “burden” and “message” reminds us that speaking God’s message of judgment often burdens today’s preachers as well.

Covenant obedience

Malachi condemns the practice of unworthy sacrifices and idolatry, but covenant obedience is more than proper religious ritual. Yahweh “will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me” (3:5). The passage echoes other prophetic verses in which concern for justice and the poor takes precedence over cultic ritual (Isaiah 61:1-2; Amos 5:11-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

The Day of the Lord

Among the Old Testament prophets the “Day of the Lord” is a frightening day when evil will be punished. Here it is described with dire and fearsome phrases as “the day of his coming” (3:2), “the day is coming, burning like an oven” (4:1), “the day when I act” (3:17; 4:3), “the great and terrible day” (4:5). It is a day when God’s final judgment will be levied against unrighteousness, injustice, and evil.

Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah

The return of Elijah is a prominent theme in Jewish practice and piety, reflected in the connection made with both John the Baptist and Jesus in the New Testament Gospels.

Marriage and divorce

Intermarriage with adherents of other religions was a perennial problem in Israel, but particularly in the postexilic period when exiles returned to find non-Israelites occupying their land (Nehemiah 10:28-30). In no uncertain terms, Malachi states, “I hate divorce, says the LORD” (2:16). Malachi knows that faithfulness to the covenant begins in the home, where husband and wife share a common faith. He exhorts the people to remain faithful to God by marrying others within the covenant. His admonition deserves serious consideration today as well.

Priestly fidelity

“And now, O priests, this command is for you” (2:1). Malachi’s most pointed criticisms are aimed at unfaithful and corrupt priests. The role of Christian priests and pastors is quite different today, but reading these chapters inevitably causes contemporary readers to reflect on what constitutes faithfulness and integrity among today’s clergy.

Tithing and “overflowing blessing

Malachi states that tithing will produce prosperity for the giver (3:10-12). These verses are cited by proponents of so-called “prosperity theology,” who promise that generous contributions to the church will guarantee a profitable return. In its most crass form “prosperity theology” ignores the biblical message that faithfulness may bring suffering, even martyrdom. God’s promises are distorted if we narrow the “overflowing blessing” promised in 3:10 to material wealth. Clearly, for Malachi, the tithe is not a “let’s make a deal” arrangement to secure favor with God. Better to close the doors of the Temple than to allow such thinking (1:6-11). A proper tithe is pure gift, recognizing the great name of Yahweh (1:11). A proper tithe is a sign of returning fully to God in faithful service (3:7). Such tithes bring God’s blessing, not because God pays off those who pay in full, but because the relationship with God that the faithful tithe implies is itself a blessing.