Unworthy priests (2:1-9)
The priests are chiefly to blame for the poor spiritual condition of Israel. If they do not quickly reform their ways, God will punish them. He will reduce their income from the people’s tithes and offerings, and bring public disgrace upon them. He may even remove them from their position as priests, in order to stop the priesthood from becoming so corrupt that it has to be abolished. God prefers to maintain the priesthood, according to the promise he gave to the tribe of Levi (2:1-4).
Priests are not merely officials who look after temple rituals. They are supposed to be the spiritual and moral guides of the people. The early priests taught the people, by their personal example as well as by their instruction, how to know God and live righteously (5-6; cf. Num 25:11-13). Priests are servants of God who have the responsibility to teach people God’s law and give them practical instruction concerning everyday affairs (7; cf. Deut 33:10). But the priests of Malachi’s day have failed to uphold God’s standards, either by teaching or by practice, and so have led Israel astray. They favour the rich and powerful, and as a result are despised by the common people (8-9).
Divorces and mixed marriages (2:10-16)
Marriage disorders were a further cause of Israel’s troubles. Many Jewish men had married idolatrous heathen women, and introduced idolatrous practices into the holy worship of God (cf. Ezra 9:1-2; Neh 13:23-27). Not only did these Jewish men marry idol worshippers, but they divorced their Jewish wives to do so. They despised both the marriage covenant and the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. God designed the covenant to promote family and national unity, but these men break up families and intermarry with pagans (10-11). Malachi warns that God will act in decisive judgment against those guilty of such selfishness and disloyalty (12).
The wrongdoers are upset that God no longer accepts their ritual sacrifices and offerings, but they show no concern at their own unfaithfulness in breaking a marriage covenant that God himself had witnessed (13-14). By marrying idolatrous wives they show that they have no real desire to bring their children up to know and follow God. They also show that they are unconcerned that their former wives are left to face lives of hardship (15-16).
Cheating God (2:17-3:18)
When the Jews saw surrounding nations prosper while they suffered hardship, they complained that God was not just. Other nations made no effort to keep God’s law, whereas Israel was his people (17). Malachi replies that if justice is what the Jews want, then justice is what they will have; but they must realize that such justice will apply to them as well as to their heathen neighbours. They have asked for the God of justice; now he will come and do his work of justice among them (3:1).
God will intervene in human affairs and bless his people as they wish, but first he will have to cleanse them of all uncleanness, rebellion and social injustice – and this will be a very painful process. Those who resist his cleansing and continue in their sin will be punished with swift destruction (2-5). (The intervention of God spoken of here was the coming of Jesus Christ. The messenger who came before him was John the Baptist; see Matt 3:10-12; 11:10; John 3:27-28.)
If the people want to escape hardship, they should be asking for mercy, not justice; for their hardship, though a punishment, is a merciful punishment. As always, God has been extremely patient with them. If God always acted according to strict justice (as they are claiming he should) they would all have been destroyed long ago (6-7).
Because of drought, locust plagues and plant diseases, they have had poor crops, but all these disasters have been sent by God. They are his punishment upon them because they have kept for themselves what rightly belongs to him. In their selfishness they have failed to give him their tithes and offerings (8-9). They must change their ways and be honest with God. Then he will bless them with good rains and good crops. The result of their generosity will be that they become more contented and their land becomes a better place in which to live (10-12).
Many of the people continue to murmur against God. They complain that it is useless to try to live to please him, as they still suffer hardships. By contrast, those who openly defy him seem to prosper (13- 15). Others, however, will not allow themselves to be influenced by such talk. They encourage one another to remain faithful to God, believing that he will never forsake them. The difference between these two classes – those who truly serve God and those who do not – will be clearly seen in the day of judgment (16-18).