1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Malachi

MALACHI, the name assigned to the last book of the Old Testament in English (the last of the “prophets” in the Hebrew Bible), which according to the title (Mal. i. 1) contains the “word of Yahweh to Israel by the hand of Malachi.” In form the word means “my messenger.” It could be explained as a contraction of Malachiah, “messenger of Yahweh”; but the Septuagint is probably right in not regarding it as a proper name (“by the hand of His messenger”). Not only do we know nothing from internal or external evidence of the existence of a prophet of this name,[1] but the occurrence of the word in the title is naturally explained as derived from iii. 1: “Behold, I send my messenger” (cf. ii. 7). The prophecy must, therefore, be regarded as anonymous; the title was added by the compiler who wrote similar editorial titles to the anonymous prophecies beginning Zech. ix. 1, xii. 1.

The contents of the prophecy fall into a series of clearly marked sections, as in the paragraph division of the Revised Version. These apply, in various ways, the truth emphasized at the outset: Yahweh’s love for Israel in contrast with his treatment of Edom (i. 2-5). Israel’s response should be a proper regard for the ritual of His worship; yet any offering, however imperfect, is thought good enough for Yahweh’s altar (i. 6-14). Let the priests, who are responsible, take warning, and return to their ancient ideals (ii. 1-9). Again, the common Fatherhood of God should inspire a right relation among fellow Israelites, not such conduct as the divorce of Israelite wives in order to marry non-Israelite women (ii. 10-16).[2] The prevalence of wrong-doing has provoked scepticism as to righteous judgment; but the messenger of Yahweh is at hand to purge away indifferentism from worship and immorality from conduct (ii. 17-iii. 6). The payment of tithes now withheld will be followed by the return of prosperity (iii. 7-12). Religion may seem useless, but Yahweh remembers His own, and will soon in open judgment distinguish them from the irreligious (iii. 13-iv. 3). The book closes with an appeal to observe the law of Moses, and with a promise that Elijah shall come before the threatened judgment.[3]

The topics noticed clearly relate the prophecy to the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Temple had been rebuilt (i. 10; iii. 1, 10), the province of Judah was under a Persian governor (i. 8), and there had been time enough for the loss of earlier enthusiasm. The majority of modern scholars are agreed that the prophet prepares for the work of those reformers (Ezra, 458; Nehemiah, 444, 432 B.C.). The abuses of which he particularly complains are such as were found rampant by Ezra and Nehemiah—marriage with foreign women (ii. 11; cf. Ezra ix.; Neh. xiii. 23 seq.; Deut. vii. 3) and failure in payment of sacred dues (iii. 8 seq.; cf. Neh. x. 34 seq.; xiii. 10 seq.; Deut. xxvi. 12 seq.). The priests have fallen into contempt (ii. 9) and have neglected what is still one of their chief trusts, the oral law (ii. 6 seq.). The priestly code of written law was not promulgated until 444 B.C. (Neh. viii.-x.); “Malachi” writes under the influence of the earlier Code of Deuteronomy only,[4] and must therefore belong to a date prior to 444. The independent character of the attack on current abuses also suggests priority to the work of Ezra in 458. The prophecy affords an interesting and valuable glimpse of the post-exilic community, with its various currents of thought and life. The completion of the second Temple (516 B.C.) has been followed by disillusionment as to the anticipated prosperity, by indifference to worship, scepticism as to providence, and moral laxity.[5] In view of these conditions, the prophet’s message is to reassert the true relation of Israel to Yahweh, and to call for a corresponding holiness, especially in regard to questions of ritual and of marriage. He saw that “the disobedience of his time was the outcome of a lowered morality, not of a clearer spiritual vision.”[6] A strong sense of the unique privileges of the children of Jacob, the objects of electing love (i. 2), the children of the Divine Father (ii. 10), is combined with an equally strong assurance of Yahweh’s righteousness notwithstanding the many miseries that pressed on the unhappy inhabitants of Judaea. At an earlier date the prophet Haggai had taught that the people could not expect Yahweh’s blessing while the Temple lay in ruins. In Malachi’s time the Temple was built (i. 10) and the priests waited in their office, but still a curse seemed to rest on the nation’s labours (iii. 9). To Malachi the reason of this is plain. The “law of Moses” was forgotten (iv. 4 [iii. 22]); let the people return to Yahweh, and He will return to them. It was in vain to complain, saying, “Every one that doeth evil is good in the eyes of Yahweh,” or “Where is the God of judgment?”—vain to ask “Wherein shall we return?” Obedience to the law is the sure path to blessing (ii. 17-iii. 12).

He calls the people to repentance, and he enforces the call by proclaiming the approach of Yahweh in judgment against the sorcerers, the adulterers, the false swearers, the oppressors of the poor, the orphan and the stranger. Then it shall be seen that He is indeed a God of righteous judgment, distinguishing between those that serve Him and those that serve Him not. The Sun of Righteousness shall shine forth on those that fear Yahweh’s name; they shall go forth with joy, and tread the wicked under foot. The conception of the day of final decision, when Yahweh shall come suddenly to His temple (iii. 1) and confound those who think the presumptuous godless happy (iii. 15), is taken from earlier prophets, but is applied wholly within the Jewish nation. The day of Yahweh would be a curse, not a blessing, if it found the nation in its present state: the priests listlessly performing a fraudulent service (i. 7-ii. 9), the people bound by marriage to heathen women, while the tears of the daughters of Israel, thrust aside to make way for strangers, cover the altar (ii. 11-16), all faith in divine justice gone (ii. 17; iii. 14 seq.), sorcery, uncleanness, falsehood and oppression rampant (iii. 5), the house of God deprived of its dues (iii. 8), and the true fearers of God a little flock gathered together in private exercises of religion (perhaps the germ of the later synagogue) in the midst of a godless nation (iii. 16). That the day of Yahweh is delayed in such a state of things is but a new proof of His unchanging love (iii. 6), which refuses to consume the sons of Jacob. Meantime He is about to send His messenger to prepare His way before Him. The prophet Elijah must reappear to bring back the hearts of fathers and children before the great and terrible day of Yahweh come. Elijah was the advocate of national decision in the great concerns of Israel’s religion; and it is such decision, a clear recognition of what the service of Yahweh means, a purging of His professed worshippers from hypocritical and half-hearted service (iii. 3) that Malachi with his intense religious earnestness sees to be the only salvation of the nation. In thus looking to the return of the ancient prophet to do the work for which later prophecy is too weak, Malachi unconsciously signalizes the decay of the order of which he was one of the last representatives; and the somewhat mechanical measure which he applies to the people’s sins, as for example when he teaches that if the sacred dues were rightly paid prosperous seasons would at once return (iii. 10), heralds the advent of that system of formal legalism which thought that all religious duty could be reduced to a system of set rules. Yet Malachi himself is no mere formalist. To him, as to the Deuteronomic legislation, the forms of legal observance are of value only as the fitting expression of Israel’s peculiar sonship and service, and he shows himself a true prophet when he contrasts the worthless ministry of unwilling priests with the pure offering of prayer and praise that rises from the implicit monotheism of even Gentile worship[7] (i. 11), or when he asserts the brotherhood of all Israelites under their one Father (ii. 10), not merely as a ground of separation from the heathen, but as inconsistent with the selfish and cruel freedom of divorce current in his time.[8] The book is a significant landmark in the religious history of Israel. Its emphasis on the observance of ritual finds fullest development in the Priestly Code, subsequently promulgated; its protest against foreign marriages is made effective through the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah;[9] the influence of its closing words on later expectation is familiar to every reader of the new Testament.[10]

The style of Malachi, like his argument, corresponds in its generally prosaic character to that transformation or decay of prophecy which began with Ezekiel; and Ewald rightly called attention to the fact that the conduct of the argument already shows traces of the dialectic manner of the schools. Yet there is a simple dignity in the manner not unworthy of a prophet, and rising from time to time to poetical rhythm.

Literature.—Nowack, Die kleinen Propheten (1897; 2nd ed., 1904); Wellhausen, id. (iii. 1898); G. A. Smith, The Book of the Twelve (ii. 1898); A. C. Welch, art. “Malachi” in Hastings’s Dict. of the Bible, iii. 218–222 (1900); C. C. Torrey, id. in Ency. Bib. iii. c. 2907–2910 (1902); Marti, Dodekapropheton (1904); Stade, Biblische Theologie des Alten Test. § 141 (1905); Driver, The Minor Prophets, ii. (Century Bible, 1906).  (W. R. S.; H. W. R.*) 

  1. A Hebrew tradition given in the Targum of Jonathan, and approved by Jerome, identifies Malachi with Ezra the priest and scribe.
  2. Torrey (Ency. Bib. c. 2908) holds that the reference here is purely figurative; “Judah has dealt falsely with the wife of his youth, the covenant religion, and is wedding a strange cult.” But he assigns the book to the 4th century.
  3. This closing prophecy may possibly be a later addition (so Marti) rounding off the prophetic canon by reference to the two great names of Moses and Elijah, and their characteristic activities. In this case, “Elijah” will represent an early interpretation (cf. Ecclus. xlviii. 10) of the “messenger,” originally conceived as a purely ideal figure. The only other passage in the book whose originality is not generally accepted is that referring to mixed marriages (ii. 11, 12).
  4. It is the Deuteronomic law that is most familiar to him, as appears from his use of the name Horeb for the mountain of the law, and the Deuteronomic phrase “statutes and judgments” (iv. 4), from his language as to tithes and offerings (iii. 8, 10; cf. Deut. xii. 11; xxvi. 12), and especially from his conception of the priesthood as resting on a covenant with Levi (ii. 4 seq.). Malachi indeed assumes that the “whole tithe”—the Deuteronomic phrase for the tithe in which the Levites shared—is not stored in each township, but brought into the treasury at the Temple. But this was a modification of the Deuteronomic law naturally called for under the circumstances of the return from Babylon, and Neh. x. and xiii. produce the impression that it was not introduced for the first time by Ezra and Nehemiah, though the collection of the tithe was enforced by them. See further, W.R.S. in O.T.J.C. ii. 425–427.
  5. Cf. Stade’s reconstruction, G.V.I. ii. 128–138.
  6. Welch in D.B. iii. 220.
  7. This remarkable utterance is sometimes (as by W.R.S.) interpreted of the worship of Jews scattered in the Dispersion: reasons for the above view are given by Driver.
  8. In ii. 16 the Targum renders “If thou hatest her put her away.” It is characteristic of later Judaism that an arbitrary exegesis transformed the above anticipation of the doctrine of marriage laid down in the gospel into an express sanction of the right of the husband to put away his wife at will.
  9. “The permanence of Judaism depended on the religious separateness of the Jews” (Ryle, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 143).
  10. Matt. xvii. 3, 4, 10-13; xxvii. 47, 49; John i. 21, 25.