Opening The Old Testament
The Lord Is Coming: Look Busy! Reflections on Malachi 3:1-4
December 9, 2012
In my much earlier life, I trained as a singer of opera and oratorio. Classical vocal music is deeply in my soul, and nothing is more thrilling to me than to sing with a chorus and an orchestra, an experience I have had many times. For classical singers, Christmas means one thing: Handel's "Messiah." (Well, it can also mean Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" too, but Messiah usually puts the bread on the table.) So, when I read Malachi 3:1-4, the several bass solos spring to my mind's ear.
In the Christian biblical canon, Malachi is the final book of the Hebrew Bible, though it is not that way in the Jewish canon. The reason that Malachi is placed last for us Christians is in the main because of these verses. When the unknown prophet predicts that "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple," there is little doubt whom the canonical shapers of the traditions of Christianity had in mind. The "Lord" for them was of course Jesus. And in the next book of the canon, the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus indeed shows up and eventually comes to the temple several times. So Malachi is the set-up for the gospels soon to come, characterized by the star of the Christmas pageant, the baby Jesus.
But just who is the "messenger to prepare the way"? Well, in the Christian lens the answer must be John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Lord about to come. Hence, Malachi 3:1-4 presents to the Christian eye a mini-gospel, a prefiguring of the beginning of the gospel story, John followed by Jesus. So when the bass in the "Messiah" thunders, "Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts. And I will shake (here the bass actually 'shakes' with running and descending sixteenth notes) the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land," he prepares the way for the terrifying appearance of the Lord. That quaking recitative is followed by the aria "For who may abide the day of his coming," concluded by the furious "For he is like a refiner's fire" from Malachi. (The latter two "Messiah" pieces are in modern performance practice assigned to the alto, either male or female. I have always disagreed with this decision, however much it is indicated in early performances of the work. I just cannot see how Handel would have used lighter-voiced singers to express these dark and angry thoughts. Surely, only the bass will do! I speak, of course, with no small bias!)
These connections between Malachi and the gospel story are deeply entrenched within us Christians, making it extremely difficult to hear what the prophet may have been trying to say to his own community. But let us try to give him a fair hearing in any case. As I noted above, the prophet is unknown to us; his so-called name, Malachi, has been borrowed from 3:1 where the words "my messenger" are found. In Hebrew that is "Malachi."
Can we surmise when this prophet was speaking? His central concern throughout his four chapters is the corruption of the cult of the Israelite temple. The priests of that temple have become lax in their proper practice of worship (1:6) and Judah is under the control of a "governor" (1:8), the Persian practice described to us in Nehemiah 5:14. Thus, we may conclude that the temple referred to here is the rebuilt temple of 515 B.C.E., that house excoriated by the prophet Haggai when he forces the remnant people, fresh from their Babylonian exile, to admit that their new temple is in fact "as nothing" (Hag. 2:3).
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.