A prophet was a messenger from God, and the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘Malachi’ is ‘my messenger’.
Some regard the word ‘Malachi’ in the opening verse not as a person’s name but as a statement that the writer is a genuine messenger from God. (The same word is used in Malachi 3:1, where it is not the name of a person.) The usual understanding, however, is that the writer, in calling himself Malachi, is introducing himself by his name, as do the other writing prophets.
Background to the book
As a result of the Persian king’s decree that released captive peoples (539 BC), many Jews returned to Jerusalem. In spite of some initial selfishness among themselves and opposition from local people, the Jews completed the rebuilding of their temple in 516 BC. However, with no one to replace the original strong leaders, people of later generations drifted from God. In 458 BC a Jewish priest named Ezra came from Persia to Jerusalem to carry out much-needed reforms among the Jewish people (Ezra 7:7,11-26). He was joined in 445 BC by another Jew from Persia, Nehemiah, who became Judea’s new governor (Neh 2:1-8). Jerusalem was full of social and religious disorders, and these two men worked together in an effort to lead the people back to God (Neh 8:1,8,9; 12:26,31,36,38). It seems that Malachi brought his message to the people some time during this period of reform by Ezra and Nehemiah. He does not give the date of his prophecy, but the sins he rebukes are similar to those that Ezra and Nehemiah had to deal with (cf. Mal 2:7-9 with Ezra 10:18-19; Neh 13:28- 29; cf. Mal 2:10-11,14-16 with Ezra 9:1-10:44; Neh 10:30; 13:23-27; cf. Mal 3:5 with Neh 5:1-13; cf. Mal 3:8-12 with Neh 10:35-38; 13:10-14). The Jews of Jerusalem thought that because they were back in their land and the temple was in operation again, they would now enjoy the unlimited blessings of God. This did not prove to be so, and as a result they began to doubt whether God really cared for them. Malachi responded to the people’s complaints by pointing out that the fault was on their side, not God’s. They had, by their sins, created barriers that hindered the flow and enjoyment of God’s love. The people, refusing to admit their faults, rejected Malachi’s message and argued bitterly against the accusations that God brought to them through his messenger (Mal 1:2,6-7; 2:17; 3:7,13). Some, however, loved and respected God, and for these Malachi had a special message of encouragement (Mal 3:16-17; 4:2).
Summary of contents
In answering the people’s complaint that God no longer loves them, Malachi gives them undeniable evidence that God’s love has never forsaken them (1:1-5). He then shows how their sins are the reason for their present unhappy spiritual condition. They have demonstrated their wrong attitude to God in many ways: their offering of disgraceful sacrifices (1:6-14); the worthless behaviour of the priests (2:1-9); the sexual immorality that has produced divorce from Israelite partners and marriage to idol-worshippers (2:10-16); their irreverent complaining against God; and their cheating him of the offerings due to him (2:17-3:18). The day of the Lord is approaching, when God will intervene in the affairs of the world and deal decisively with the wicked. At the same time he will rescue his own and lead them into lives of new joy and freedom (4:1-6).