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SCRIPTURE: Malachi 3:1-4
The Hebrew word mal’ak means ” messenger”—similar to the Greek word angelos in the New Testament. We cannot know whether mal’ak in 1:1 is intended as a proper name, Malachi—or is simply means messenger. Scholars are divided on that matter.
This book was written after the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian Exile and rebuilt the temple (1:10) but probably prior to the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah.
This book is composed of six dialogues or disputations (verbal controversies) bracketed by an opening verse or superscription (1:1) at the beginning and a Godly challenge (4:4-6) at the end. The six dialogues or disputations are:
Two: 1:6 – 2:9
Four: 2:17 – 3:5
Six: 3:13 – 4:3
It should be apparent from the above list that the chapter breaks in this book are unfortunate. That is particularly true for his week’s reading, which should begin with 2:17 and end with 3:5 to encompass the Fourth Disputation.
However, it is clear why the lectionary chooses only 3:1-4 for the reading. These verses emphasize the coming of the messenger. That fits well with the Gospel lesson, which talks about John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming of the Lord (Luke 3:1-6).
The book of Malachi was placed at the end of the Old Testament so that it would appear right before the book of Matthew. The book of Malachi says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes” (4:5). The book of Matthew portrays John the Baptist as an Elijah-like prophet. Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah (Matthew 11:-13-14; 17:10-12).
MALACHI 2:17: YOU HAVE WEARIED YAHWEH WITH YOUR WORDS
17You have wearied Yahweh with your words. Yet you say, ‘How have we wearied him?’ In that you say, ‘Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of Yahweh, and he delights in them;’ or ‘Where is the God of justice?’
While this verse is not included in the lectionary reading, it sets the foundation for that reading. Verses 3:1-4 cannot be understood apart from this verse.
The problem illuminated by this verse is that the people have been complaining about the injustices that the Lord has permitted—and the Lord is tired of hearing their complaints.
Why would they complain? It has been several decades since their return to Jerusalem from exile, and life in their homeland has failed to meet their expectations. They have, with great effort, rebuilt the temple. The Lord promised to return to Zion and to dwell in Jerusalem on the holy mountain (Zechariah 8:3), but they have seen no evidence of that having taken place.
Furthermore, they have seen bad people prosper and good people suffer, and have concluded that the Lord delights in people who do evil.
In their cynicism, they ask, “Where is the God of justice?” There is considerable irony in their question, because the prophet has just indicted them (especially the priests) for their sins (1:6 – 2:9). They claim to want justice, but they will find justice a barbed surprise.
MALACHI 3:1. THE LORD WILL SUDDENLY COME TO HIS TEMPLE
1“Behold (Hebrew: hinne—see, look, behold), I send my messenger (Hebrew: mal’ak), and he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord (Hebrew: ha ‘adon), whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes!” says Yahweh of Armies.
“The church has traditionally interpreted these verses (1-4) as a statement about John the Baptist and has linked them with Mal. 4:5. A new Elijah will arise, or, in the view of the church, has already arisen in order to judge the people and in order to usher in the coming kingdom of God” (Newsome, 12)
“Behold (hinne), I send my messenger (mal’ak), and he will prepare the way before me” (v. 1a). The word hinne invites special attention to the words that follow.
In those days, roads tended to be marginal, so a king would send people ahead to smooth the path before him—to fill in potholes and to remove rocks and other obstructions.
In like manner, the Lord is sending a messenger to prepare his way so that he might come to his temple. However, the preparation for the Lord’s coming will be spiritual rather than physical. The people need to repent of their sins.
This verse gives us no clue as to the identity of this messenger, but 4:5 identifies him as the prophet Elijah. As noted above, the church has traditionally identified the messenger as John the Baptist—and Jesus identified John the Baptist as Elijah. John’s basic proclamation will be “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) and his purpose will be, “make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3).
“and the Lord (ha ‘adon), whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple“ (v. 1b). Note that “the Lord” of verse 1b is ha ‘adon (Adonai), while the word used in 1c is YHWH (Yahweh).
These people have been waiting for many years for the Lord to fulfill his promise to come to his temple (Zechariah 8:3). This verse reaffirms that promise and says that he will come “suddenly.” The meaning of suddenly in this context is unexpectedly rather than quickly. The unexpected quality of the Lord’s coming will be a theme that Jesus will emphasize (Matthew 24:36, 44; Mark 13:32-36).
“and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes!” says Yahweh of Armies”(v. 1c). Who is this “messenger of the covenant”? Perhaps and angel—or Elijah—we don’t know.
“Whom you desire” is ironic or sarcastic. As noted above, the prophet has already indicted these people for their sins, so their real delight is in things other than the Lord—in things opposed to the Lord. Furthermore, because they are a sinful people, they will find that the Lord’s coming will bring judgment rather than delight.
MALACHI 3:2-4. WHO CAN ENDURE THE DAY OF HIS COMING?
2“But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like launderer’s soap (Hebrew: borit); 3and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer to Yahweh offerings in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasant to Yahweh, as in the days of old, and as in ancient years.
“But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears?” (v. 2a). Whose coming? The Lord’s coming! “The day of his coming” is most likely synonymous with the “great and terrible day of Yahweh” that is mentioned in 4:5.
The Day of the Lord is an eschatological (end of time) event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but some also include a note of vindication for the righteous.
“Who can endure?” and “who will stand?” suggest a great ordeal—a trial by fire. The expected answer is that no one can endure—or that very few are prepared for this test.
“For he is like a refiner’s fire” (v. 2b). The image here is of a person refining metal by melting it over a hot fire. As metal melts, pure metal remains at the bottom while impurities float to the top to be drawn off and discarded. A visit to a metal refinery would be educational. Metal refineries are hot, dirty, dangerous places. The process by which metals are purified is uncomfortable at best and deadly at worst.
So it will be when the Lord comes. He will use fire to separate the pure from the impure so that the impure can be drawn off and cast aside. By this refining process, the Lord make his people worthy of his presence.
“and like launderer’s soap” (borit) (v. 2c). Borit was not soap as we know it, but was instead an alkali substance used to clean clothing. “A fuller…bleached and dyed cloth. The process included washing with lye and cleansing by stomping…. The cloth was then spread out on the ground to be bleached by the sun” (Brown, 200-201). As you can imagine, such a process would be hard on cloth, which could not stand very many such cleansings. So also will the Lord’s coming be a harsh process.
“and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver” (v. 3a). But the good news is that the Lord’s intent is not to destroy but to purify. The refining/cleansing process will be difficult for everyone—good and bad alike—but the good will find themselves in a better world at the end of the process.
The prophet specifically mentions the purification of the “sons of Levi.” He has only recently served up a scathing indictment of the priests (1:6 – 2:9). Levites assist priests in their work. This verse suggests that they are as much in need of purification as the priests.
“and they shall offer to Yahweh offerings in righteousness” (v. 3b). A corrupt priest could not make an offering that would please the Lord. Priests and Levites needed purification so that in righteousness they could present a righteous offering to the Lord.
“Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasant to Yahweh” (v. 4a). Once the religious leadership has been purified, they will not only be able to present righteous offerings, but will also be able to begin purifying Judah and Jerusalem.
“as in the days of old, and as in ancient years” (v. 4b). “Malachi is almost certainly thinking of the Mosaic period as the ideal era” (Baldwin, 244). If so, he has chosen not to remember the golden calf (Exodus 32) and other evidences of sin among the people of that period.
MALACHI 3:5. THEN I WILL COME NEAR TO YOU FOR JUDGMENT
5 I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against the perjurers, and against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and who deprive the foreigner of justice, and don’t fear me,” says Yahweh of Armies.
This verse is not in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of it.
“I will come near to you to judgment” (v. 5a). As noted above, the process of refining separates metal from its impurities, which are drawn off and discarded. In like manner, the process of purifying the people of God will result in some being purified and others being judged—condemned.
“and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against the perjurers” (v. 5b). Jewish law included prohibitions against sorcery (Leviticus 19:26, 31; 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:10-12), adultery (Exodus 20:14), and swearing falsely (Exodus 20:16; 23:1; Leviticus 19:12). These were serious offenses—in some cases requiring the death of the guilty party.
“and against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and who deprive the foreigner of justice” (v. 5c). Hired workers, widows, orphans, and aliens were considered to be vulnerable, and so Jewish law made special provision for their protection (Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Exodus 22:21-24). The victimization of vulnerable people was a special emphasis of the prophets—and also of Jesus.
“‘and don’t fear me,’ says Yahweh of Armies” (v. 5d). The phrase, “fear of Yahweh,” has to do with reverence and faith that lead to obedience. Fear of the Lord is serving the Lord and the Lord only (Deuteronomy 6:13). It is observing God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 28:58). Fear of the Lord is “the beginning of knowledge,” in the sense that the person who fears God will be open to instruction by God (Proverbs 1:7). It is often the result of seeing God’s power in action (Exodus 14:31). Fear of the Lord requires righteousness (Acts 10:22), faithful service to God, and rejection of false gods (Joshua 24:14). Fear of the Lord insures God’s mercy (Luke 1:50), and results in spiritual prosperity (Acts 9:31). “Behold, Yahweh’s eye is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his loving kindness” (Psalm 33:18).
But those who refuse to obey the Lord have demonstrated that they do not fear the Lord.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, Interpretation Commentary: Nahum-Malachi, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986)
Baldwin, Joyce G., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Vol. 24 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972)
Brown, William P., Obadiah through Malachi (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Goldingay, John and Scalise, Pamela, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets II (Peabody, Massachusetts, 2009)
Kaiser, Walter C., The Preacher’s Commentary: Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Vol. 23 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Petersen, David L., The Old Testament Library: Zechariah 9-14 and Malachi, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Reid, Stephen Breck, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Schuller, Eileen M., O.S.U., The New Interpreters Bible: Malachi, Vol.VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Smith, Ralph L., The Word Biblical Commentary: Micah, Malachi, Vol. 32 (Dallas: Word Books, 1984)
Stuart, Douglas, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Taylor, Richard A., The New American Commentary: Haggai, Malachi, Vol. 21A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Verhoef, Pieter A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Haggai and Malachi (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan