Malachi means “my messenger.” It is the word often used for angels because they are messengers of God. But people also can be messengers of God. It is not altogether certain that Malachi is the name of the prophet who wrote this letter, it is possible that the letter is written by an anonymous messenger of YHWH. It is fitting that the name appears in the text of Malachi, “Behold, I send my messenger…” (Malachi 3:1, English). Nevertheless, the traditional assumption is that the name of the Prophet who delivered the oracle was Malachi.
Malachi uses one of the more uncommon prophetic oracle forms that we call a disputation. The way that Douglas Stuart explains the form is as having four elements: assertion (by God), questioning (by Israel), response, and implication. The book consists of the superscription of Malachi 1:1 followed by six disputations, plus Malachi 4:4-6 (English). Disputation is essentially a question and answer pattern. Unfortunately the English chapter divisions totally ignore the structure of the book. The disputations are Malachi 1:2-5, 1:6-2:9, 2:10-16, 2:17-3:5, 3:6-12, and 3:13-4:3.
Malachi 1:2-5: The First Disputation
The first disputation (Malachi 1:2-5) is an oracle against Edom. It begins with the assertion by God, “I have loved you.” Then Israel responds with the question: “How have you loved us?” (Or perhaps, “In what way have you loved us?”). Then we hear the response of God: “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” The response continues with God saying that if Edom wants to rebuild that He will tear it down and that He is angry with them forever. Then there is the implication: “Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, ‘Great is YHWH beyond the border of Israel!”
It is not as if Israel literally asked the question. The disputation format is a framework for the prophetic oracle. Likewise, later in the oracle when Edom is quoted it again is not as if they literally said that.
Edom, as we have seen repeatedly, represents humanity against Israel. The effect of the first disputation, as we have also seen repeatedly, is to move the people to cheer the prophet’s words before then moving to oracles against Judah-Jerusalem. It has a description reminiscent of judgment day in other biblical literature like “I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert” (Malachi 1:3). The jackal is an unclean animal. But even with the questioning Israel does in verse two we already know that the chosen nation is going to receive some correction in Malachi.
An important part of this first disputation is that Edom is called “the wicked country.” The disputation is concerned to show that God distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked and that the distinguishing factor is that the righteous are in covenant relationship with God.
Malachi 1:6-2:9: The 2nd Disputation
The second disputation (Malachi 1:6-2:9) is much longer. This one is an oracle against the priests at Jerusalem for breaking covenant. God asserts: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? Says YHWH of Hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name.” Israel was the servant-son of YHWH, but the priests had neither acted like sons nor even servants. But Israel questions: “But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’” This is followed by the brief response, “By offering polluted food upon my altar” and this pattern repeats.
The second question in the second disputation is, “How have we polluted you,” and the response begins “By offering polluted food upon my altar.” This general response is followed by examples, “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil?” The disputation establishes that the priests have broken the covenant made with Levi. Note the common theme with the fifth disputation of improper offerings.
Another important theme is this language found in Malachi 1:11 – “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name…for my name will be great among the nations, says YHWH of Hosts.”
And another feature of the second disputation is that we see the promise of reversing blessings. He says that he will “curse your blessing” (a futility curse – your blessings will not amount to anything, important because a priest blesses the people with Numbers 6:23-27 language).
Malachi 2:10-16: The 3rd Disputation
The third disputation (Malachi 2:10-16) is against the people of Judah for breaking covenant by intermarrying with pagans and/or divorcing their first wife. The disputation also concerns spiritual infidelity to God and calls Judah faithless – Judah has married the daughter of a foreign god! Concerning the divorcing of their first wife Malachi says that YHWH was a witness between you and the wife of your youth. The marriage is even described this way: “Did He not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” And this unity was to produce “Godly offspring.”
Malachi 2:17-3:5: 4th Disputation
The fourth disputation (Malachi 2:17-3:5) is an oracle again against the people of Judah for breaking covenant this time because they are unrighteous and unjust. It includes the famous lines: “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says YHWH of Hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:1-2).
The sons of Levi the text tells us will be purified and refined like gold and silver and they will bring offerings in righteousness to YHWH. The previous disputation also mentioned offerings. While that is the main theme of disputations two and five it is a sub-theme in three and four. The fourth disputation also mentions adulterers (Malachi 3:5).
Malachi 3:6-12: The 5th Disputation
The fifth disputation (Malachi 3:6-12) is again against Judah for breaking covenant this time because of tithes and offerings. The first assertion by God in this disputation includes “For I YHWH do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” He says, “Return to me and I will return to you.” The response of Israel is, “How shall we return?” Then we see a second assertion and questioning – the assertion that they are robbing God, but they reply, “How have we robbed you?” The answer: “in your tithes and offerings.”
Already you can see much in common with the second disputation, add to them this – it continues with the themes of blessing and curse – “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.” Israel is told to test God and bring the full tithes that they owe into the storehouse and see if He will not open the windows of heaven (interestingly where the flood-waters came down from in Genesis) and pour down blessing until there is no more need. Then all nations will call Israel blessed. This theme of blessing and curse continues in the sixth disputation.
Malachi 3:13-4:3: The 6th Disputation
The sixth disputation is an oracle against the people of Judah for breaking covenant by failing to fear and honor God and doubting that God distinguishes between the righteous and the evil and warns of the coming day of YHWH. The assertion is that the people have spoken hard words against YHWH, but they respond, “How have we spoken against you?” The answer is that they have said that it is vain to serve God and they call the arrogant blessed, evildoers prosper and even put God to the test and escape.
In the sixth disputation there is the “book of remembrance.” And in this book are written the names of those who feared YHWH and esteemed His name. YHWH says that they belong to Him – “they shall be mine…in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” (This does bring to mind the second disputation son and servant discussion.) But here the point is: “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not….”
This oracle disputation also describes the day of YHWH this way: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze…but for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says YHWH of Hosts” (Malachi 4:1-3, English).
Malachi 4:4-6: Summary Conclusion
The conclusion of the matter is this: keep the Torah of Moses (the main theme of the first three disputations) and be prepared for the coming Day of YHWH (the main theme of the second three disputations).
Stuart is the one who alerted me to the fact that the first part is the theme of the first three disputations and the second part is the theme of the second three disputations. As you might have guessed, I then got to thinking that the book might be a chiasm of some kind as well. Sure enough, Stuart sees the book as a chiasm as follows.
The whole book of Malachi is a chiasm:
Stuart citing Hungenberger says the common themes of the superscription and summary challenge (he calls it) is YHWH has a message for Israel, the first and sixth disputations, “God distinguishes between the good and the wicked; the proof of his covenant love is his sparing the righteous and condemning the wicked,” the second and fifth disputations, “the double assertion-questioning pattern at the beginning of each disputation; improper, begrudging offerings condemned; promise of reversal of blessing; the Lord’s name to be great among the nations,” and the third and fourth, concerning marital fidelity and the unfaithfulness of Judah.
It is worth observing that the summary conclusion to Malachi also acts as a summary conclusion to the Book of the Twelve. The main theme of The Twelve is the coming day of YHWH. Moreover, it acts as a summary conclusion to the eight books of the Prophets. The end of Deuteronomy said that the prophet greater than Moses had not yet appeared. And the end of the Prophets says that the best candidate for the prophet greater than Moses (Elijah) will return before the Messiah-prophet-greater-than-Moses comes. Until then the charge is given: study the Torah.