The period in which Malachi lived and ministered is roughly the same time as Nehemiah was working to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. Therefore, it is useful for us to read the books of Nehemiah and Malachi together because they will give us a bigger picture of the problems that each faced and the messages that God sent to his people at that time.
The provision of a politician (Nehemiah) and a prophet (Malachi) is also a reminder to us of God’s grace to his people in that he caters for all that is necessary for spiritual restoration to occur. This grace of God is further enhanced when we realise that there had been another attempt at restoration a couple of decades before through the work of Ezra and Zechariah the prophet.
Malachi describes his message as a burden given to him by the Lord. In calling it a burden, the prophet is saying that he did not find his message an easy thing to bear. Just as we are aware when we are carrying a load, so Malachi was aware of this weight on his heart. His message was not detached from him.
It is evident from the book of Malachi that the people were questioning God’s commitment to them. This expression of unbelief may have been due to the two failed attempts at restoration in their land after the Exile (first under Zerubbabel a century before and more recently under Ezra). Both these attempts had begun well, contained mountain-top experiences, but had eventually declined. The people may have asked, ‘Why did God not restore us to the heights that our forefathers knew during the reigns of David and Solomon, especially since many of the prophets predicted that he would?’ In any case, disillusionment had crept in to the thinking of the people of God. It is usually true that disillusionment and doubt go hand-in-hand.
Perhaps the problem was connected to what has been called the second or third generation factor. God does something special for one generation but the next generations fail to build on it. If this was the problem, it would have been enhanced by the fact that these Israelites had known more than one occasion when God had done something special. What are the signs of this factor?
I would suggest that what has been called ‘dead orthodoxy’, where there is a focus on correct doctrine and little else. Obviously correct doctrine is essential, but it is not the only essential. We have only to think of the church in Ephesus described in Revelation 2, with all its orthodoxy, but with little love for God.
A second feature of this generational factor is a sense of stability, and we can see this in the people of Malachi’s day. They had been given political stability by the Persian Empire, they had been given religious stability by the re-introduction of the temple worship in Jerusalem, and they had material stability because of the improved government structures of the time.
Yet despite possessing correct doctrine and pleasant stability, their zeal for God had declined. The leaders regarded the public worship of God as boring (ch. 1) and the people refused to pay their tithes and offerings to God (ch. 3). Their hearts were not warm towards God.
God’s first response through Malachi, and we will see further divine responses later on, is to remind his people of his sovereignty, and that in two areas. The first area concerns God’s special love for his people in contrast to his rejection of others; the second area concerns how this discriminating love works itself out in providence. We will look at some aspects of this tomorrow.