Opening The Old Testament
The Lord Is Coming: Look Busy! Reflections on Malachi 3:1-4
Since many scholars believe that Nehemiah was sent to Jerusalem in 445 B.C.E., some sixty years after the reconstruction of the temple of YHWH, it may be said that Malachi spoke his angry words sometime prior to that date, perhaps 450 B.C.E. or so. In the five decades since the temple was rebuilt, it has had ample time to fall into corruption and lax practices of proper worship, according to Malachi at least.
It is important to note just how different Malachi's temple interests appear to be from nearly all of the pre-exilic prophets. When Amos speaks of the temple, its ardent worshippers, and their priests, he does so with complete contempt. He laughs scornfully when describing worshippers in 8th-century B.C.E. Bethel who chatter away in the back of the sanctuary, wishing the boring priests would conclude their mumbo-jumbo in order that these merchants can get back to cheating their customers (Amos 8:5-6). When Isaiah speaks of the temple, he only announces to the worshippers that YHWH has no interest at all in "burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts" (Is. 1:11). What YHWH desires is nicely summarized by the famous words of Micah: "do justice, love mercy, and walk continually (perhaps a better reading than 'humbly') with your God" (Mic. 6:8). Malachi's passionate interest in right sacrifice and priestly propriety are quite alien to the more famous prophets that preceded him. Right sacrifice does not automatically lead the people to right action, as Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah would be quick to say.
Yet, there is more in Malachi than that, and this chapter 3 makes that plain. When Malachi announces that "the Lord ('adon here, not YHWH) will suddenly come to his temple," he is not merely expecting this Lord to tut-tut at the poor quality of the sacrificial beasts and urge the priests to do a better job of hand-washing. Why else would he say, "the messenger of the covenant whom you delight in" is indeed coming, and warns "who can stand when he appears?" The fact is, "he is like a refiner's fire, like harsh soap," until all are "refined like silver and gold," finally presenting "right offerings to YHWH" (3:2-3). But right offerings are never enough, though they may serve as the foundation of more significant actions.
After the offerings are cleansed and given rightly, then YHWH "will draw near to you in judgment" (Mal. 3:5). YHWH's judgment will include anger at "sorcerers," false followers of false deities, "adulterers," "those who swear falsely," "those who oppress hired workers in their wages," "the widow, the orphan, those who shove the immigrants aside, and do not fear me, says YHWH" (Mal. 3:5). Now here are familiar words from a true prophet of Israel. These concerns with a litany of oppressive acts echo the pre-exilic prophets with real accuracy. And though Malachi has far more concern with correct religious practice than his predecessors (he turns in 3:8f to concerns of tithes and offerings for the temple, something Amos never thought of), he still does not conclude that right worship is the correct way to the heart of God. Thoughtful worship must always be coupled with just behavior in the community. The former without the latter is finally no worship of YHWH at all.
So Malachi is still worth hearing in his own 5th-century-B.C.E. words. There is more to him than a mere warm-up act for the main stage appearance of Jesus. Still, I fear he will be remembered by Christians as a predictor rather than a truth-teller for his own time and ours. We would all do well to take him more seriously as a prophet who warns us that when the messenger of the covenant shows up, he will have more in mind for us than a sweet baby and a tinsel-filled tree. The judge will still look carefully at just how we have been treating those members of our community who are on the margins, who struggle for daily bread and fulfilled life. We should expect nothing else this and every Advent season.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.