The meaning of the Hebrew word malachi is ‘my messenger’. Since a prophet was God’s messenger, some have thought that ‘Malachi’ in the opening verse is not a person’s name but a statement that the writer is a genuine messenger from God. (The same word is used of another messenger of God in Malachi 3:1.) The usual understanding is that the writer, in calling himself Malachi, is introducing himself by his own name, as do the other writing prophets.
Conditions in Israel
After Persia’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, the first lot of Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem and set about rebuilding their city and temple. They were under the leadership of the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua, and these were helped by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1-2). It was largely a result of the stirring preaching of the prophets that the temple was finished (in 516 BC; Ezra
6:14-15). (For further details of this period see background to Haggai.)
Little is known of affairs in Israel during the next sixty years. A new generation grew up, and without the strong leadership provided by Zerubbabel, Joshua, Haggai and Zechariah, the people drifted from God. When news of this reached Persia, a godly Jewish priest named Ezra obtained authority and finance from the Persian king, Artaxerxes, to go to Jerusalem and carry out reforms there. This was in 458 BC (Ezra 7:7,11-26).
Ezra’s reforms met with only limited success. But when Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem thirteen years later (445 BC) more extensive changes began to take place. Nehemiah also was a Jew who had previously lived in Babylon, and he also came to Jerusalem with authority from Artaxerxes. He was the king’s appointed governor over Jerusalem (Neh 2:1-8; 5:14-15). Ezra and Nehemiah then worked together to lead the people back to God (Neh 8:9; 12:26).
It seems that Malachi carried out his ministry some time during this period of post-exilic reform by Ezra and Nehemiah. The date of his book cannot be fixed with certainty, but the sins he rebuked were similar to those that Ezra and Nehemiah had to deal with.
The people apparently expected that because they had come back to their land and rebuilt their temple, they were going to enjoy the unlimited blessing of God. This did not prove to be so, and as a result people began to doubt whether God really cared for them. Malachi replied 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.