The Lord Is Coming: Look Busy! Reflections on Malachi 3:1-4

Lectionary Reflections
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).

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.