1 The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. – Malachi 1:1 ESV
Over the centuries, there has been much debate over the identity of the author of the book of Malachi. It would be simple to assume that the book bears the name of its author, but in Hebrew, “Malachi” is more of a title than a name. It means “my messenger.” The book itself contains no details regarding the author’s identity, providing no birthplace, ancestry, vocation, or tribal affiliation. Three of the gospel writers quote from Malachi 3:1 but do not reference Malachi by name (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27).
The Targum, an ancient Aramaic translation and paraphrase of the Old Testament, credited Ezra as the author of Malachi. But the Talmud, a Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament, gave the honor of authorship to Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther (Esther 2:5-7). But the designation of either Ezra or Mordecai as the author of the book has garnered little validation or support over the centuries.
Another reason given for rejecting Malachi as the author of the book is the use of the Hebrew word, מַלְאָךְ (mal’āḵ), in chapter 3:1. It simply means “messenger” and seems intended as a wordplay on the title used in chapter one, verse one.
The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi (מַלְאָכִי – mal’āḵî). – Malachi 1:1 ESV
While there remains no consensus as to the identity of the book’s author, there are still many biblical scholars who give the credit to an unknown man named Malachi. If he is not the author, the book of Malachi would be the first prophetic book in the Old Testament to be written anonymously, which seems highly unlikely.
But regardless of the author’s identity, the book claims to be a message from God to the people of Israel. Yet, a second problem arises when studying the book of Malachi: Its place in the timeline of Israelite history. There are no references to specific kings, historical figures, or datable events in the book, which makes it virtually impossible to establish an accurate idea of when it was written. The reader is left to determine a date based on inferences and implications garnered from the text itself. And the options that have been suggested range from as early as 538 B.C. to as late as 420 B.C.
Based on the content of the book, it is believed that Malachi, like Haggai and Zechariah, was a postexilic writing prophet. In verse 8 of chapter one, the term “governor” is actually the Persian word, peḥâ, and would seem to be a reference to the Persian king, Cyrus, who issued a decree allowing the exiled Israelites to return to the land of Judah.
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:1-4 ESV
Both Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, two Hebrews who helped lead the people back to Jerusalem and oversee the rebuilding of the city and the temple, each bore the same Persian title of “governor.” And because Malachi references worship at the restored temple, it would appear that he wrote sometime after the date of 515 B.C., when the temple restoration was completed.
There are a great many similarities between the Malachi and the book of Nehemiah. Both men dealt with issues regarding the poor state of the priestly order, the intermarriage of Jews with outsiders, and peoples’ neglect to pay the designated tithe. This would seem to indicate that Malachi penned his book sometime during the governorship of Nehemiah, which would place its date of authorship somewhere between 445-420 B.C. According to Thomas L. Constable, “Malachi’s place at the end of the twelve Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Bible and modern translations argues for a late date.”
As a prophet, Malachi expresses God’s disfavor with the people of Israel, concentrating most of his emphasis on their lax and less-than-faithful practice of worship. God had graciously allowed them to return to the land of promise, just as He had said He would do, but they have proven to be far from obedient and less than appreciative in their display of reverence for Him.
It is important to consider the timeline that precedes Malachi’s book. Sometime around 537 B.C., Zerubbabel led more than 50,000 Israelites back to Jerusalem with orders from King Cyrus to rebuild the city and the temple. Haggai and Zechariah ministered to this remnant of Israelites as they went about the task of restoring the long-abandoned city that had been destroyed by the Babylonians some 70 years earlier. In 458 B.C. an additional group of about 5,000 Jews made their way from Babylon under Ezra’s leadership. The temple having been rebuilt, Ezra attempted to reinvigorate the peoples’ worship of Yahweh. Then in 444 B.C., Nehemiah led a third contingent of about 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem with the express purpose of rebuilding the walls and gates of the city.
The Israelites’ return to the promised land was anything but easy. They had been met with opposition and the work of rebuilding the devasted and long-neglected city was difficult and time-consuming. Over time they experienced success at their daunting task, having restored the temple, rebuilt the walls, and reinstituted the sacrificial system and temple worship. But their hearts were not solely dedicated to Yahweh. They were lax in their observance of the Mosaic Law and, as a result of their intermarriage with the Gentiles, they were guilty of practicing idolatry. They had allowed themselves to be become infected and influenced by the surrounding pagan cultures, which ended up diminishing their set-apart status as the chosen people of God. So, Malachi set out to address their spiritual, ethical, and moral weaknesses, in the hopes of revitalizing their worship and reinvigorating their allegiance to Yahweh.
“. . . Malachi and his contemporaries were living in an uneventful waiting period, when God seemed to have forgotten His people enduring poverty and foreign domination in the little province of Judah. . . . True the Temple had been completed, but nothing momentous had occurred to indicate that God’s presence had returned to fill it with glory, as Ezekiel had indicated would happen (Ezekial 43:4). . . . Generations were dying without receiving the promises (cf. Hebrews 11:13) and many were losing their faith.” – Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 211.
The purpose behind Malachi’s book was the same as any other Old Testament prophet: To expose the sins of the people and call them to repentance. Malachi understood that a restored temple, a reinstituted sacrificial system, and a rebuilt city were meaningless if the people refused to honor the God who had made it all possible. A reestablished kingdom was worthless if the people refused to honor Yahweh as their King and Sovereign.
For the people of Israel, return to the land and the re-establishment of their kingdom would mean nothing if they were not going to live as the children of God. He had sent them into exile 70 years earlier because of their disobedience and rebellion against Him. Now, He had returned them to the land and He expected them to repay His goodness and grace with faithfulness and an outward display of obedience. But years after arriving back in the land of promise they were just as stubbornly resistant to His laws as ever before. Their lives were marked by divorce, moral laxness, spiritual indifference, and a pervasive sense of religious apathy. In a sense, they had given up. The work of restoring Judah and Jerusalem had proven too difficult and they were ready to throw in the towel, spiritually speaking.
But Malachi would not allow them to do so. His job, as the messenger of God, was to call the people to repentance. They had a job to do. Their job to restore Judah would not be complete until they were restored to a right relationship with Yahweh. So, Malachi delivered God’s impassioned plea that they return to Him.
“I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 3:6-7 NLT
And if they refused, they would face judgment yet again.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.