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Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 14–20 

Approaching a Theology of Malachi

Brian Froese

Malachi was a prophet living about one hundred years after Israel returned to their homeland following the Babylonian exile. 1 The driving force behind the book of Malachi is the importance of understanding God’s program of revelation to the nations. As the structure of the book indicates, God did not need the priests to reveal knowledge himself, he chose to. And part of that choice demanded appropriate behavior. Speaking through Malachi to the priests of Israel, with all the nation listening, three cycles of accusations regarding improper cultic practice and disregard for the law are issued. Malachi is centered on God’s dealing with a corrupt priesthood and the subsequent purification of Israel in order to continue Yahweh’s witness to the nations.

Based on a structural analysis of Malachi, this article argues the central theme as God will become known to all nations through the purification of Yahweh’s priesthood and people.

There are several ways to divide Malachi. At the end of the nineteenth century, C. Von Orelli, divided the book into three parts: 1:1-14 as the complaint of neglect, 2:1-16 as the treachery of the priests and people and 2:17-3:24 as the day of the Lord. 2 Orelli viewed Malachi in terms relating solely to Israel’s development. Malachi, for him then, is the turning point where the community is transformed from a “national corporation {15} to a moral and religious fellowship.” 3 There are problems with this accounting as it fails to explain what the reasons for exile were. While most commentaries break Malachi into several components, there is at least one approach that simplifies Malachi into two parts: chapters one and two forming the first part and chapters three and four the second. In this scheme part one deals with the sin of Israel and part two with God’s judgement. 4 As we will see, these two models are too simple.

Another approach that is also sensitive to the structure of a text, is that which perceives unifying themes. Although unifying themes driving the theology of a book vary from author to author, they nonetheless persist in taking text seriously. Julia O’Brien demonstrates this in her study of the priesthood in Malachi. Her use of the form critical method found Malachi to be supportive of a renewed priesthood without being antagonistic towards the office. 5 While O’Brien focused on priesthood, Beth Glazier-McDonald focused on the theme of divine messenger by contemplating on the significance of literary genre as the vehicle for Malachi. 6 Walter Kaiser, Jr., however, takes the view that Malachi is about the unchanging love of God and demonstrates this over a five section break-down of the book. 7 All of these are compelling, well argued and perhaps most importantly, they are different from each other. What this study focuses on, despite the viability of the aforementioned approaches, is the theme of knowledge of God to all nations through the purification of Yahweh’s priesthood and people.

The first five verses of the book serve as a preamble. There are two statements about love for Israel (1:2) and Jacob (1:3) followed by a hate statement concerning Esau (1:3) and a destructive statement concerning Edom (1:4). These four statements set the tone for a loving and hating God, holding both the power to destroy and preserve. The significance of this loving-hating-destroying-preserving God is also represented in his name, “Lord of Hosts.” This name is used twenty-four times in Malachi and is found predominantly in the post-exilic prophecies; although Isaiah uses it with regularity, it is the exception. As Elmer Martens demonstrates in his study of Jeremiah, the “Lord of Hosts” is a term drawing off of military, royalty, missional and combative nuances. As Yahweh speaks to both the people and the priests, the employment of this name is highly significant for it speaks to the theology of the book—aggressive, pure leadership focused on the mission of glorifying Yahweh’s name throughout the world over and against a climate of pluralism. 8 We arrive at the thesis of the book in verse five, the Lord will be magnified beyond the border of Israel.

There are three main actors in the preamble: God, Malachi and Israel. God speaks through Malachi to the people of Israel concerning the objective of becoming known beyond the Israeli border. God re-focused Israel’s {16} doubt, as seen in the question of verse two “How hast Thou loved us?”, from the image of the disinherited Esau to that of Jacob. Likewise, he reminded Israel of the weakness of Edom in contrast to himself. This may have assuaged any fears that a people who are about to see their leadership lambasted, and who have exile in their historical experience, could have had.

After the preamble, God spoke directly to the priesthood in three cycles of accusation: 1:6-2:9, 2:10-3:7 and 3:8-15. The first cycle begins with the image of a father and son relationship. This demonstrates the severity of the priests’ sins. As cultic practice is one way Yahweh revealed knowledge of himself, the priests’ defiling behavior (1:7-8) was an insult against Yahweh; like a son despising his father.

Within this first cycle Yahweh makes two references to being known among other nations (1:11,14). What makes this significant is the juxtaposition of international concern with local accusation. Why criticize the priesthood and in the same context declare greatness among the nations? Unless of course the two are connected. Fundamental to Yahweh’s case against the priesthood is the violation of the Levitical covenant (2:4,8). The covenant in question dates back to the pre-monarchy era where Yahweh instructed the sons in the tribe of Levi to be set apart for religious duty (Numbers 3:11-13).

The reference to covenant (2:4) comes after the instruction to listen and obey Yahweh. It is followed by an explanation of why the covenant was originally made and what the role of the priest is. The covenant was one of life and peace (2:5) with “true instruction” given to Levi (2:6). Yahweh’s insistence that this be continued demonstrates that the priesthood is inextricably linked to knowledge (2:7); and to defile the cultic practice, also bonded to knowledge, is to misinform the world as to who Yahweh is.

This concern for the nations is confirmed with two references (1:11,14). The first is in the future tense following a tirade against unacceptable cultic practice. Yahweh makes the claim that his name “will be great among the nations” with a reference to the rising and setting of the sun. Despite a corrupt priesthood, creation makes Yahweh known. The second reference also comes after a tirade against foul worship and Yahweh claims that his name, in the present tense, “is feared among the nations.” Here the name “Lord of Hosts” speaks to Yahweh’s concern for other nations. God will judge the nations and as the royal aspect of the name suggests, the “Lord of Hosts” is supreme and alone in that supremacy. 9 “The Lord of Hosts” should be feared like royalty. In the case of Israel, fear derives meaning in its relation to Yahweh’s anger against them—the chosen people. 10

The second cycle of accusation also begins with a father image (2:10-3:7). According to Kaiser, this image indicates that Malachi’s intended audience was his fellow Jews. As with 1:6, Kaiser connects the father-son image to {17} Israel. 11 This view has support. As the clan and tribe were the most important social groups for the Hebrew people, it is natural to think in terms of parent-child relationship. Considering the connection to their fathers’ covenant and Yahweh’s wrath in the memory of the exile, this image could arguably fill the Hebrew imagination with a sense of familial stability despite the difficulty this message would cause. Connecting the cycles of accusation with “family” brings the message closer to home and therefore strengthens its imperative.

This cycle deals less with cultic practice and more with adherence to the law. The centering image of marriage is also resonant with the theme of covenant. Yahweh declares in 2:11 that Judah profaned the sanctuary through an embrace of pluralism by marrying the daughter of a foreign god. The marriage theme is carried through 2:14-16 as Yahweh assails corrupt marital practice. He accused the priests of committing treachery against their wives and declared, “I hate divorce.”(2:16) This declaration is followed by a summary statement where they are accused of wearying Yahweh with words of untruth (2:17).

Yahweh has, at one level, been framing the discourse against the activities of the priesthood in terms of family and marriage. As the priesthood functions to transmit both knowledge of God and instruction to the people, then it stands to reason that how they manage their private lives is also a manner by which Yahweh is revealed. It is out of concern for this process that Yahweh completes the second cycle of accusation with a plan to cleanse.

The process of cleansing those who neither follow the law or fear God will be swift and painful (3:1-5). This language, coupled with the memory of exile and captivity would, unlike Glazier-McDonald’s thesis, indicate something deeper than mere literary genre. She is correct in arguing that because Yahweh is concerned with cult, beginning the purification process with the priesthood is logical. 12 But describing that future event as the “inverse of the present” intellectualized the severity of Yahweh’s intent into a seemingly safe and passive event. While Malachi obviously belongs to a literary genre worthy of study, the use of family images, cultic, priestly and legal traditions would cut deeper into the psyche of the audience than what is implied by Glazier-McDonald. Perhaps her intention to study literary devices prevents such analysis, but it should be remembered that literary devices are not self-existent. As we see, the cultic, priestly and legal traditions are being upheld by Yahweh as ways for all nations to know and fear him. Yahweh concludes the second cycle with a pronouncement that he never changes and because of this attribute the sons of Jacob will not be destroyed. They will be purified.

Theologically this expands the notion of knowledge, witness and mission of Yahweh beyond cultic practice to the very foundation of Hebrew society: the family. Marriage is to be respected similarly to how seriously Yahweh {18} should be taken. Yahweh makes this principle very clear by declaring, “I hate divorce” (2:16). The only other mention of Yahweh’s hatred in the book is in the preamble and it is directed at Esau. Esau is an example of someone who sold Yahweh’s inheritance to satisfy the mundane appetite. Similar, perhaps, to how the wives were being treated in post-exilic Israel. Structuring the complaint around family images, while focusing on the witness to other nations and adherence to the law, these components bring together a more wholistic view of Yahweh’s purpose.

This process is centered on covenant, law and accusation; his name will be feared the world over, starting with the leadership in Israel. Again the power of the name of “Lord of Hosts” is invoked, instilling both confidence and fear, authority and relationship. For Malachi revelation to the nations comes in the form of this military, royal missional power; it does not come in a tepid pluralistic humanism.

The third cycle of accusation, 3:7-15, expands the target from the priesthood to the whole nation of Israel. In doing so, the approach which divides Malachi into two parts, as represented by Young and Baldwin, breaks down. For here in chapter three the sin of Israel continues to be expounded upon. Again at issue are the statues of Yahweh, this time resulting in a call to stop stealing his rightful tithe. This section also starts off with a reference to the family by calling attention to their fathers. Serving as a time frame by which they can see the depth of their disobedience, this reference to family brings their ancestral history into the discussion.

In many ways this cycle is reminiscent of the other cycles. It too has an accusation, call to obedience and a future plan. The other plan included, respectfully, a curse and a messenger bringing purification. In the third cycle the plan is to have a future blessed by the nations (3:12). There is, however, one important difference between this cycle and the other two: Yahweh promises to destroy Israel’s enemies. This is alluded to in the preamble, and in 3:11-12 it is fleshed out in more detail. While Edom was invoked at the beginning to instill confidence in the people, here Yahweh demonstrates that despite all the problems and harsh language, he is their God demanding obedience—by the power of his name.

After concluding his cycles of accusation, Yahweh reiterates his promise to deliver the faithful (3:16-18). At the center of Yahweh’s remembering the faithful remnant is the image of father and son. This time it is used in a positive setting. He will spare the faithful as a father spares his child and in that people will be able to distinguish between those who follow Yahweh and those who do not. This is another way that Yahweh reveals himself to the world.

The final chapter of Malachi is centered around admonition. Speaking to the world, Yahweh announces his intention to purge the world. While some {19} like to center Malachi around the priesthood, 13 this summary chapter clearly focuses on Yahweh’s intent to reveal himself and to purify the entire world, starting with the Hebrew priesthood, but never ending there. It will be a day to fear for all who set themselves against Yahweh, but for those who fear him, it will be a day of remembrance. That day will bring with it healing and a newness of life described in terms of playful young animals (4:2). In 4:3 the final mention of “Lord of Hosts” is used in the context of destruction. Whereas in 3:17, the “Lord of Hosts” was used in the context of future deliverance of the faithful, it is used here for the destruction of the wicked. This represents two fundamental sides of Yahweh’s plan: deliverance and destruction based on response to his revelation. Because of the severity of this arrangement it is not difficult to understand his wrath at the corrupted practice of the priesthood and people.

However, there is a way out. Those who remember to be faithful to Yahweh and keep the law of Moses will trample the wicked. In addition to that promise is the promise that Elijah will return to restore the children to their fathers. This continues the thematic threads of law, promise and punishment all hanging on the skeleton of the father/child relationship. If the father and child relationship is not restored the land will be cursed.

Chapter four is a summary much in the same way the preamble is an introduction to the main themes and motivating concept: Yahweh made known to all the world through the life and treatment of his people. The structural form this is draped over is a series of accusations against both the priesthood and nation, incorporating the image of father and child.

In summary we ask, what is the theology of Malachi? What is driving this book? This approach takes cues from the structure. Here we find that the themes of knowledge and witness of Yahweh to the nations is Malachi’s theological pinwheel. The revelation as to who Yahweh is comes in three forms: cultic, covenant expressed in the Levitical priesthood and marriage, and adherence to the legal tradition. As Yahweh wished to be known to the nations, he starts with corrective measures in the priesthood, then in marriage, the whole of the nation and finally with the world at the time of judgement. This is reflective of the example in Genesis where Yahweh creates everything out of nothing, or by calling one couple he forms a nation to speak to the world. Yahweh’s program starts “small” and ends global. It is missional from start to finish. It also signals the importance of keeping the local house in order as the people of God reveal, in part who that God is.

Of equal significance as the structure and traditions illustrated in the book is the constant use of the name, “Lord of Hosts.” This is used to signify Yahweh more than any other descriptor in Malachi. What does it mean? The name “Lord” in this sense is used as the national Jewish name “Jehovah,” {20} while “hosts” is a military term relating to a mass of people. So it may be inferred with confidence that while Yahweh is severely criticizing Israel, he is also identifying himself with them on a platform of national identity and strength. An abiding faithfulness that demands international attention.

Malachi ends with a national God cleaning house with the chosen people. This implies that for the world to know and fear Yahweh, the people and their leadership must obey the covenants and law given to them. Yahweh’s program starts local and moves global, but not without identifying himself as their self-existent God. Malachi’s theological underpinning, concerning Yahweh’s revelation to the world, is the obedience of his people, whom he never forgets.


  1. There are questions as to the identity and existence of a person named Malachi. This paper is not dealing with that issue, rather it is concerned with the theology of a particular book and will refer to “Malachi” as an individual.
  2. C. Von Orelli, The Twelve Minor Prophets (Minneapolis, MN: Klock and Klock, 1977 <1897>), 390-404. It should also be noted that Orelli uses three chapters, instead of four, to divide “Malachi.”
  3. Ibid., 404.
  4. E. J. Young and J. G. Baldwin, “The Book of Malachi,” New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Wheaton, IL:Tyndale House, 1988), 728-29.
  5. Julia M. O’Brien, “Priest and Levite in Malachi,” Ph.D. diss., Duke University (Atlanta, GA: Scholars , 1990), 143-148.
  6. Beth Glazier-McDonald, “Malachi: The Divine Messenger,” Ph.D. diss., The University of Chicago (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1987).
  7. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Malachi: God’s Unchanging Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984).
  8. Elmer Martens, “Jeremiah’s `Lord of Hosts’ and a Theology of Mission,” Reflection and Projection: Missiology at the Threshold of 2001, ed. Hans Kasdorf and Klaus W. Muller (West Germany: Verlag der Liebenzeller Mission Bad Liebenzell, 1988), 83-97.
  9. 1 Sam. 4:4 is an example of how the “Lord of Hosts” bears the royal aspect.
  10. Martens, 88-93.
  11. Kaiser, 66.
  12. Glazier-McDonald, 155.
  13. Julia O’Brien represents this line of thought in that Malachi spends an inordinate amount of time on the priesthood. However, she would not argue that Malachi’s sole interest is about the development of the priesthood in post-exilic Israel.
  14. Brian Froese is a Mennonite Brethren student combining graduate work at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and Regent College, where he is presently completing a Masters degree in Christian Studies.

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