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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Malachi 1

 

 

Verses 1-14

; Malachi 2:1-17; Malachi 3:1-18; Malachi 4:1-6

PROPHECY WITHIN THE LAW

"MALACHI" 1-4

BENEATH this title we may gather all the eight sections of the Book of "Malachi." They contain many things of perennial interest and validity: their truth is applicable, their music is still musical, to ourselves. But their chief significance is historical. They illustrate the development of prophecy within the Law. Not under the Law, be it observed. For if one thing be more clear than another about "Malachi’s" teaching, it is that the spirit of prophecy is not yet crushed by the legalism which finally killed it within Israel. "Malachi" observes and enforces the demands of the Deuteronomic law under which his people had lived since the Return from Exile. But he traces each of these to some spiritual principle, to some essential of religion in the character of Israel’s God, which is either doubted or neglected by his contemporaries in their lax performance of the Law. That is why we may entitle his book Prophecy within the Law, The essential principles of the religion of Israel which had been shaken or obscured by the delinquency of the people during the half-century after the rebuilding of the Temple were three-the distinctive Love of Jehovah for His people, His Holiness, and His Righteousness. The Book of "Malachi" takes up each of these in turn, and proves or enforces it according as the people have formally doubted it or in their carelessness done it despite.


Verses 2-5

1. GOD’S LOVE FOR ISRAEL AND HATRED OF EDOM

Malachi 1:2-5

He begins with God’s Love, and in answer to the disappointed people’s cry, "Wherein hast Thou loved us?" he does not, as the older prophets did, sweep the whole history of Israel, and gather proofs of Jehovah’s grace and unfailing guidance in all the great events from the deliverance from Egypt to the deliverance from Babylon. But he confines himself to a comparison of Israel with ‘the Gentile nation which was most akin to Israel according to the flesh, their own brother Edom. It is possible, of course, to see in this a proof of our prophet’s narrowness, as contrasted with Amos or Hosea or the great Evangelist of the Exile. But we must remember that out of all the history of Israel "Malachi" could not have chosen an instance which would more strongly appeal to the heart of his contemporaries. We have seen from the Book of Obadiah how ever since the beginning of the Exile Edom had come to be regarded by Israel as their great antithesis. If we needed further proof of this we should find it in many Psalms of the Exile, which like the Book of Obadiah remember with bitterness the hostile part that Edom played in the day of Israel’s calamity. The two nations were utterly opposed in genius and character. Edom was a people of as unspiritual and self-sufficient a temper as ever cursed any of God’s human creatures. Like their ancestor they were "profane," [Hebrews 12:16] without repentance, humility, or ideals, and almost without religion. Apart, therefore, from the long history of war between the two peoples, it was a true instinct which led Israel to regard their brother as representative of that heathendom against which they had to realize their destiny in the world as God’s own nation. In choosing the contrast of Edom’s fate to illustrate Jehovah’s love for Israel, "Malachi" was not only choosing what would appeal to the passions of his contemporaries, but what is the most striking and constant antithesis in the whole history of Israel: the absolutely diverse genius and destiny of these two Semitic nations who were nearest neighbors and, according to their traditions, twin-brethren after the flesh. If we keep this in mind we shall understand Paul’s use of the antithesis in the passage in which he clenches it by a quotation from "Malachi": "as it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." In these words the doctrine of the Divine election of individuals appears to be expressed as absolutely as possible. But it would be unfair to read the passage except in the light of Israel’s history. In the Old Testament it is a matter of fact that the doctrine of the Divine preference of Israel to Esau appeared only after the respective characters of the nations were manifested in history, and that it grew more defined and absolute only as history discovered more of the fundamental contrast between the two in genius and destiny. In the Old Testament, therefore, the doctrine is the result, not of an arbitrary belief in God’s bare fiat, but of historical experience; although, of course, the distinction which experience proves is traced back, with everything else of good or evil that happens, to the sovereign will and purpose of God. Nor let us forget that the Old Testament doctrine of election is of election to service only. That is to say, the Divine intention in electing covers not the elect individual or nation only, but the whole world and its needs of God and His truth.

The event to which "Malachi" appeals as evidence for God’s rejection of Edom is "the desolation of" the latter’s ancient "heritage, and" the abandonment of it to the "jackals of the desert." Scholars used to think that these vague phrases referred to some act of the Persian kings: some removal of the Edomites from the lands of the Jews in order to make room for the returned exiles. But "Malachi" says expressly that it was Edom’s own "heritage" which was laid desolate. This can only be Mount Esau or Se’ir, and the statement that it was delivered "to the jackals of the desert" proves that the reference is to that same expulsion of Edom from their territory by the Nabatean Arabs which we have already seen the Book of Obadiah relate about the beginning of the Exile.

But it is now time to give in full the opening passage of "Malachi," in which he appeals to this important event as proof of God’s distinctive love for Israel, and, "Malachi" adds, of His power beyond Israel’s border. [Malachi 1:2-5]

"I have loved you, saith Jehovah. But ye say, ‘Wherein hast Thou loved us?’ Is not Esau brother to Jacob?-oracle of Jehovah, and I have loved Jacob and Esau have I hated. I have made his mountains desolate, and given his heritage to the jackals of the desert. Should the people of Edom say, ‘We are destroyed, but we will rebuild the waste places,’ thus saith Jehovah of Hosts, They may build, but I will pull down: men shall call them ‘The Border of Wickedness’ and ‘The People with whom Jehovah is wroth forever.’ And your eyes shall see it, and yourselves shall say, ‘Great is Jehovah beyond Israel’s border."’


Verses 6-14

2. "HONOR THY FATHER"

Malachi 1:6-14

From God’s Love, which Israel have doubted, the prophet passes to His Majesty or Holiness, which they have wronged. Now it is very remarkable that the relation of God to the Jews in which the prophet should see His Majesty illustrated is not only His lordship over them but His Fatherhood: "A son honors a father, and a servant his lord; but if I be Father, where is My honor? and if I be Lord, where is there reverence for Me? saith Jehovah of Hosts." We are so accustomed to associate with the Divine Fatherhood only ideas of love and pity that the use of the relation to illustrate not love but Majesty, and the setting of it in parallel to the Divine Kingship, may seem to us strange. Yet this was very natural to Israel. In the old Semitic world, even to the human parent, honor was due before love. "Honor thy father and thy mother," said the Fifth Commandment; and when, after long shyness to do so, Israel at last ventured to claim Jehovah as the Father of His people, it was at first rather with the view of increasing their sense of His authority and their duty of reverencing Him, than with the view of bringing Him near to their hearts and assuring them of His tenderness. The latter elements, it is true, were not absent from the conception. But even in the Psalter, in which we find the most intimate and tender fellowship of the believer with God, there is only one passage in which His love for His own is compared to the love of a human father. And in the other very few passages of the Old Testament where He is revealed or appealed to as the Father of the nation, it is, with two exceptions, in order either to emphasize His creation of Israel or His discipline. So in Jeremiah, [Jeremiah 3:4] and in an anonymous prophet of the same period perhaps as "Malachi." This hesitation to ascribe to God the name of Father, and this severe conception of what Fatherhood meant, was perhaps needful for Israel in face of the sensuous ideas of the Divine Fatherhood cherished by their heathen neighbors. But, however this may be, the infrequency and austerity of Israel’s conception of God’s Fatherhood, in contrast with that of Christianity, enables us to understand why "Malachi" should employ the relation as proof, not of the Love, but of the Majesty and Holiness of Jehovah.

This Majesty and this Holiness have been wronged, he says, by low thoughts of God’s altar, and by offering upon it, with untroubled conscience, cheap and blemished sacrifices. The people would have been ashamed to present such to their Persian governor: how can God be pleased with them? Better that sacrifice should cease than that such offerings should be presented in such a spirit! "Is there no one," cries the prophet, "to close the doors" of the Temple altogether, so that "the altar" smoke not "in vain?"

The passage shows us what a change has passed over the spirit of Israel since prophecy first attacked the sacrificial ritual. We remember how Amos would have swept it all away as an abomination to God. So, too, Isaiah and Jeremiah. But their reason for this was very different from "Malachi’s." Their contemporaries were assiduous and lavish in sacrificing, and were devoted to the Temple and the ritual with a fanaticism which made them forget that Jehovah’s demands upon His people were righteousness and the service of the weak. But "Malachi" condemns his generation for depreciating the Temple, and for being stingy and fraudulent in their offerings. Certainly the post-exilic prophet assumes a different attitude to the ritual from that of his predecessors in ancient Israel. They wished it all abolished, and placed the chief duties of Israel towards God in civic justice and mercy. But he emphasizes it as the first duty of the people towards God, and sees in their neglect the reason of their misfortunes and the cause of their coming doom. In this change which has come over prophecy we must admit the growing influence of the Law. From Ezekiel onwards the prophets become more ecclesiastical and legal. And though at first they do not become less ethical, yet the influence which was at work upon them was of such a character as was bound in time to engross their interest, and lead them to remit the ethical elements of their religion to a place secondary to the ceremonial. We see symptoms of this even in "Malachi," we shall find more in Joel, and we know how aggravated these symptoms afterwards became in all the leaders of Jewish religion. At the same time we ought to remember that this change of emphasis, which many will think to be for the worse, was largely rendered necessary by the change of temper in the people to whom the prophets ministered. "Malachi" found among his contemporaries a habit of religious performance which was not only slovenly and indecent, but mean and fraudulent, and it became his first practical duty to attack this. Moreover the neglect of the Temple was not due to those spiritual conceptions of Jehovah and those moral duties He demanded, in the interests of which the older prophets had condemned the ritual. At bottom the neglect of the Temple was due to the very same reasons as the superstitious zeal and fanaticism in sacrificing which the older prophets had attacked-false ideas, namely, of God Himself. and of what was due to Him from His people. And on these grounds, therefore, we may say that "Malachi" was performing for his generation as needful and as Divine a work as Amos and Isaiah had performed for theirs. "Only, be it admitted," the direction of "Malachi’s" emphasis was more dangerous for religion than that of the emphasis of Amos or Isaiah. How liable the practice he inculcated was to exaggeration and abuse is sadly proved in the later history of his people: it was against that exaggeration, grown great and obdurate through three centuries, that Jesus delivered His most unsparing words.

"A son honors a father, and a servant his lord. But if I am Father, where is My honor? and if I am Lord, where is reverence for Me? saith Jehovah of Hosts to you, O priests, who despise My Name. Ye say, ‘How’ then ‘have we despised Thy Name?’ Ye are bringing polluted food to Mine Altar. Ye say, ‘How have we polluted Thee?’ By saying, ‘The Table of Jehovah may be despised’; and when ye bring a blind beast to sacrifice, ‘No harm!’ Pray, take it to thy Satrap: will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person? saith Jehovah of Hosts. But now, propitiate God, that He may be gracious to us. When things like this come from your hands can He accept your persons? saith Jehovah of Hosts. Who is there among you to close the doors" of the Temple altogether, that ye kindle not Mine Altar in vain? I have no pleasure in you, saith Jehovah of Hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hands. For from the rising of the sun and to its setting My Name is glorified among the nations; and in every sacred place incense is offered to My Name, and a pure offering: for great is My Name among the nations, saith Jehovah of Hosts. But ye are profaning it, in that ye think that the Table of the Lord is polluted, its food contemptible. And ye say, What a weariness! and ye sniff at it, saith Jehovah of Hosts. When ye bring what has been plundered, and the lame and the diseased, yea, when ye so bring an offering, can I accept it with grace from your hands? saith Jehovah. Cursed be the cheat in whose flock is a male beast and he vows it, and slays for the Lord a miserable beast. For a great King am I, saith Jehovah of Hosts, and My Name is reverenced among the nations."

Before we pass from this passage we must notice in it one very remarkable feature-perhaps the most original contribution which the Book of "Malachi" makes to the development of prophecy. In contrast to the irreverence of Israel and the wrong they do to Jehovah’s Holiness, He Himself asserts that not only is "His Name great and glorified among the heathen, from the rising to the setting of the sun," but that "in every sacred place incense and a pure offering are offered to His Name." This is so novel a statement, and, we may truly say, so startling, that it is not wonderful that the attempt should have been made to interpret it, not of the prophet’s own day, but of the Messianic age and the kingdom of Christ. So, many of the Christian Fathers, from Justin and Irenaeus to Theodoret and Augustine; so, our own Authorized Version, which boldly throws the verbs into the future; and so, many modern interpreters like Pusey, who declares that the style is "a vivid present such as is often used to describe the future; but the things spoken of show it to be future." All these take the passage to be an anticipation of Christ’s parables declaring the rejection of the Jews and ingathering of the Gentiles to the kingdom of heaven, and of the argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that the bleeding and defective offerings of the Jews were abrogated by the sacrifice of the Cross. But such an exegesis is only possible by perverting the text and misreading the whole argument of the prophet. Not only are the verbs of the original in the present tense-so also in the early versions-but the prophet is obviously contrasting the contempt of God’s own people for Himself and His institutions with the reverence paid to His Name among the heathen. It is not the mere question of there being righteous people in every nation, well-pleasing to Jehovah because of their lives. The very sacrifices of the heathen are pure and acceptable to Him. Never have we had in prophecy, even the most far-seeing and evangelical, a statement so generous and so catholic as this. Why it should appear only now in the history of prophecy is a question we are unable to answer with certainty. Many have seen in it the result of Israel’s intercourse with their tolerant and religious masters the Persians. None of the Persian kings had up to this time persecuted the Jews, and numbers of pious and large-minded Israelites must have had opportunity of acquaintance with the very pure doctrines of the Persian religion, among which it is said that there was already numbered the recognition of true piety in men of all religions. If Paul derived from his Hellenic culture the knowledge which made it possible for him to speak as he did in Athens of the religiousness of the Gentiles, it was just as probable that Jews who had come within the experience of a still purer Aryan faith should utter an even more emphatic acknowledgment that the One True God had those who served Him in spirit and in truth all over the world. But, whatever foreign influences may have ripened such a faith in Israel, we must not forget that its roots were struck deep in the native soil of their religion. From the first they had known their God as a God of grace so infinite that it was impossible it should be exhausted on themselves. If His righteousness, as Amos showed, was over all the Syrian states, and His pity and His power to convert, as Isaiah showed, covered even the cities of Phoenicia, the great Evangelist of the Exile could declare that He quenched not the smoking wicks of the dim heathen faiths.

As interesting, however, as the origin of "Malachi’s" attitude to the heathen, are two other points about it. In the first place, it is remarkable that it should occur, especially in the form of emphasizing the purity of heathen sacrifices, in a book which lays such heavy stress upon the Jewish Temple and ritual. This is a warning to us not to judge harshly the so-called legal age of Jewish religion, nor to despise the prophets who have come under the influence of the Law. And in the second place, we perceive in this statement a step towards the fuller acknowledgment of Gentile religiousness which we find in the Book of Jonah. It is strange that none of the post-exilic Psalms strike the same note. They often predict the conversion of the heathen; but they do not recognize their native reverence and piety. Perhaps the reason is that in a body of song, collected for the national service, such a feature would be out of place.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Malachi 1:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/malachi-1.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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