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Introduction No. 2
January 19, 2003

We took note of Malachi’s historical context last Lord’s Day evening. Malachi prophesied most of a century after the first exiles returned from Babylon in the 530s B.C. They came back with high hopes, had grown discouraged rather quickly; there had been a revival of sorts under the ministry of Haggai and Zechariah – the temple had been rebuilt on a much smaller scale – but now, years later, discouragement had set in once again. Zechariah and Haggai had encouraged the people with prophecies of the coming of God’s kingdom, but what the people were finding, eighty years later, was small potatoes everywhere. There certainly had been no miraculous interventions on God’s part to aid his people and restore them to their former glory under David and Solomon. The people were, so far as we can tell, still orthodox. Unlike earlier generations, they did not dally with the pagan idolatry all around them. “Not a single idol, cultic sanctuary or altar has been discovered in an Israelite area from the post-exilic period…” [G. Hugenberger, Malachi, 5] They hadn’t deserted the faith, but they were spiritually discouraged.

That spiritual discouragement had led to moral lapses and it would be Malachi, together with Ezra and Nehemiah, who would address the people’s condition, there in the middle of the 5th century B.C. Malachi, we said, is all about “preparing ourselves for God’s blessing by presenting to him the kind of lives he delights [to bless].” That statement comes from Jack Collins who also put me on to a statement made by a former pastor of mine in Aberdeen, Scotland, William Still: “To prepare our hearts for revival is to prepare them for heaven, so that in a true sense we can say preparation for revival is revival.” [Letters of William Still, 43] To put it more simple, Malachi is a call to repentance. Placing Malachi with Ezra and Nehemiah makes him the last prophet prior to John the Baptist, who was born some 450 years later.

Now, tonight, I want to introduce you to the book as a whole. It is important to do that because Malachi used a particular rhetorical form throughout his book and understanding it makes the book simpler to understand and, also, Malachi’s preaching has a very definite theological background and once that background is known and understood the prophet’s argument becomes not only clearer but more powerful.

So, let’s begin with Malachi’s use of the disputation form.

In the disputation pattern, a point is raised by certain people and then contradicted by the prophet, or, better, by the Lord speaking through the prophet. In other words, the prophet enters into an exchange with his audience. Now, clearly this is a literary device. We are not required to believe that each of these disputations originated in an actual conversation. The prophet is casting his argument in the form of a series of dialogues involving Yahweh and his people. [Ernst Wendland, “Linear and Concentric Patterns in Malachi,” BT 36, 1 (Jan. 1985), 112] In this conversation, the Lord makes a general statement concerning the current unacceptable condition of the people’s faith and life, then the people or a segment of the people, such as the priests, react in objection to the negative judgment made by the Lord, and then the Lord responds. Indeed, each challenge on the part of the people is invariably introduced by the same Hebrew phrase, translated in the NIV, “But you ask…” Each challenge is answered in turn by a fuller reply on the Lord’s part.

The prophet puts his own words into the mouths of his opponents but he does this accurately because he has read their thoughts and their attitudes in what they have said and done. It is not hard to see how effective a rhetorical device this is, how quickly it would have gained the attention of his hearers and readers: Malachi telling them what they are really saying and what the Lord says in response. The Bible is often telling us what we really mean by what we are saying and doing. We often resent this when others do it to us – put words in our mouths – but we cannot resent it when the Bible does it, when the Holy Spirit does it. He knows infallibly what we really mean by what we say and do, he knows our true viewpoint even when we don’t recognize it or when we are unwilling to admit it. He looks upon the heart.

Now Malachi is not the only prophet to use this literary or homiletical device. Look, for example, at Jeremiah 2:23-25.

“How can you say, ‘I am not defiled; I have not run after the Baals’? See how
you behaved in the valley; consider what you have done. You are a swift she-
camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing
the wind in her craving – in her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue
her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her. Do not run until
your feet are bare and your throat is dry. But you said, ‘It’s no use! I love foreign
gods, and I must go after them.”

You see the conversation or disputation that Jeremiah sets up: the people of Judah speak their mind and he then responds with the Lord’s view of things and the Lord’s judgment.

Or, take Isaiah 40:27-28:

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the
Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not
heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He
will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.”

There are a number of other examples of this way of putting things in the form of a statement placed in the mouths of the prophet’s audience and then his reply to it. You find it in one form or another in Amos, Micah, and Ezekiel, as well as in Isaiah and Jeremiah.

But only Malachi raises this disputation to the organizing principle of his prophecy. Malachi is, in fact, 6 of these disputations with a very short introduction and a short conclusion.

Here, then, is the outline of the book:

1. Disputation 1 is 1:2-5
2. Disputation 2 is 1:6-2:9
3. Disputation 3 is 2:10-16
4. Disputation 4 is 2:17-3:5
5. Disputation 5 is 3:6-12
6. Disputation 6 is 3:13-4:3

In each case the section is marked by some statement or question that Malachi puts into the mouths of the people. Now, one obvious and simple conclusion forced upon us by this outline – which is now admitted on all hands to be the proper way to understand the organization of the book – is that, as one commentator put it, “the chapter divisions [of Malachi] are notoriously inept.” The chapters are put not at the beginning of each disputation but right in the middle of them and so clearly were not placed according to any accurate understanding of the contents of the book. Remember, the Bible was divided into chapters 1000 years after the completion of the New Testament and into verses 500 years later still. Chapter and verse divisions are not original to the Bible and we have no obligation to think that they are correct. In any case, if you ever need to prove to someone that the chapter divisions are not always useful or well-made, Malachi is the place to take them!

Now, take a quick look and see what I mean. In the first disputation, in 1:2-5 the people are said to ask the Lord: “How or in what way have you loved us?” The people need reassurance of the Lord’s love and it comes in the Lord’s reply through his prophet. In the second disputation, in 1:6-2:9, the priests are accused of showing contempt for the Lord and they ask, in turn, “How have we shown contempt for your name?” The prophet then shows them how they have shown contempt for the Lord’s name. And so on. There is going to be this interchange, this dialogue, this disputation between the prophet (or the Lord speaking through the prophet) and the people in each separate section.

For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing and to remind you of the growing appreciation in biblical scholarship for the literary artistry with which the OT was composed in all its parts, there appears also to be a chiastic arrangement of these six disputations: that is an ABCCBA arrangement in which each pair is balanced (the first and sixth, the second and fifth, the third and fourth). [You remember chiasmus from our studies in Genesis and Samuel. A chiasmus is an inverted parallelism, the arrangement of corresponding pairs in a reverse order.] I won’t take time to demonstrate that to you, but you can look for the evidence yourself. One obvious mark, you will see, is that only the second and the fifth disputations have a double assertion and question pattern, that is, “But you ask…” occurs twice in each of those disputations but only once in all the rest. [Cf. Stuart, 1250] One thing this tells us is that Malachi, as a book of prophecy, was very carefully structured and arranged. That is the first thing I wanted to show you about Malachi this evening: its literary structure.

The second thing of importance to notice is the relationship between Malachi and the Pentateuch, and especially the revelation of God’s covenant in the Pentateuch..

Some of you may remember, years ago when we studied Hosea in a series of morning sermons, the importance of this same connection. The easiest way to remember what Hosea is about is not to memorize the subject of each chapter, but simply to remember that two-thirds of the book is Hosea’s presentation (in the manner of a prosecuting attorney) of the evidence that Israel has been unfaithful to the covenant. One quarter of the book is the enumeration and the description of the covenant curses about to be visited upon Israel for her infidelity to the Lord. Some 20 of the 27 different curses listed in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are mentioned in Hosea. One tenth of the book remains and is devoted to the promise of restoration and divine blessing and favor in the distant future.

Well, you have a similar thing happening in Malachi. The covenant that God made with his people is fundamental to the message of Malachi. We have God’s electing love for Israel as the opening theme in 1:2 and the book ends in 4:4 with a summary exhortation to obey the covenant commandments given to Moses at Mount Sinai. In between, the Lord, the one who made covenant with Israel, addresses his people in the first person in 47 of the 55 verses. This book represents an encounter between the Lord and the people with whom he made his covenant. Because of the covenant Yahweh had become Israel’s father and Israel his son; it is the relationship of a family. (It is interesting, by the way, that the fatherhood of God is not a major theme in the OT. It awaits the incarnation for its more complete revelation. I would say this is in large part because it is the first person of the Trinity who is revealed least in the OT, God the Father. God the Son is the Yahweh who reveals himself to Israel and we see the working of God the Spirit again and again. Remaining largely hidden, however, is the Father who sends the Son and the Spirit to his people. However, the fatherhood of God does appear in Deuteronomy, the great book of the covenant in the OT.) So what Malachi presumes is this covenant that is to establish a living relationship between the Lord and his people. You’ll notice by the way, beginning in 1:1, that Malachi uses the name “Israel” for the people of God. The covenant name has been applied to what remains of the people of God. The northern tribes, who were specifically Israel during the days of the divided kingdom, are no more, but Israel lives on in the remnant of the entire nation that returned from exile, primarily, of course, the descendants of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

The basic sin that Malachi will expose is the people’s living in a way that jeopardizes this relationship. [Baldwin, TOTC, 216] They were breaking or violating the covenant, or that’s how Malachi puts it in 2:8.

Someone has defined a prophet in the OT as a “covenant enforcement mediator.” [Stuart, 1258] He was the Lord’s spokesman in matters relating to the enforcement of the covenant sanctions as well as to the promise of the covenant’s blessings. In other words, none of the prophets created the blessings and curses they pronounced in their preaching. They were already enshrined in the covenant; God had revealed them to Israel through Moses. The prophet merely announced that for her unfaithfulness the curses were about to befall Israel or that on account of her faithfulness (and, of course, much more, on account of the Lord’s faithfulness) the blessings would be forthcoming. Usually the prophets, when speaking of covenant blessings, have to speak of what are called by scholars “restoration blessings.” That is, Israel’s unfaithfulness requires the imposition of the curses, but, after the sins have been punished and purged and Israel is faithful again, then God will bless her with the blessings promised in his covenant.

Because the Jews were thoroughly familiar with the covenant material of the Pentateuch, it was only necessary for Malachi to allude to one or another of the 27 curses threatened in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to indicate both that he was accusing the people of having violated the covenant and what manner of punishment he was threatening should the people not repent. In the same way, he had only to allude to one of the ten restoration blessings of the covenant to indicate not only what lay in store for those who would be faithful to the Lord but, as well, that the faithfulness he was speaking of was precisely faithfulness to God’s covenant, the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai.

No single prophetic book of the OT contains all 27 of the curses of the covenant that are found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Nor does any prophet mention all ten of the restoration blessings. However, Malachi, for its length, contains a high proportion of both the blessings and the curses, proving what we already knew: that Malachi is concerned with the people’s fidelity to the covenant, worried about their jeopardizing the blessings of the covenant, and determined to summon them back to faithfulness so that the blessings and not the curses of God’s covenant will be their lot.

Let me just illustrate this in a few instances.

In Lev. 26:31 the Lord promises that if his people are unfaithful, he will reject their worship and their service of him will be of no avail.

“I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings.”

In Malachi 1:10 we have the same thought:

“’Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you’, says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will accept no offering from your hands.’”

In Lev. 26:16, 20 and, then again, in Deut. 28:20, 29-31, 33, 38-41, we have God threatens his people with a life of futility if they are unfaithful to him.

“Your strength will be spent in vain because your soil will not yield its crops,
nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit.” [Lev. 26:20]

“You will be unsuccessful in everything you do…” [Deut. 28:29]

“You will build a house, but you will not live in it.” [28:30]

“You will sow much seed in the field, but you will harvest little, because
locusts will devour it. You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but
you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them.

“You will have olive trees throughout your country, but you will not use the
oil because the olives will drop off.” [28:38-40]

But now you have the same sort of threat in Malachi. In 1:4 we read:

“They may build, but I will demolish.”

In 2:2:

“I will curse your blessings.”

But, the same is true for the blessings of the covenant. One of the blessings of the covenant upon its restoration after Israel’s punishment, indeed the first of them, found both in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the renewal of Yahweh’s favor and his presence among the people, the restoration of his covenant with his people. You have the same in 3:1 and 3:17, for example.

“Then suddenly, the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple…”

“ ‘They will be mine’, says the Lord Almighty, ‘in the day when I make up my
treasured possession.’ ”

Another familiar covenant blessing, as you remember, is physical prosperity, often expressed in terms of agricultural bounty. And you have the same in Malachi. In 3:11-12 we have this:

“ ‘I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

And I could illustrate Malachi’s dependence upon the covenant material, especially the blessings and curses we find in Leviticus and Deuteronomy at much greater length.

Now, what does all this mean? Well, it means this. You and I are under this same ancient covenant that God made with Abraham and Israel. It is those who believe, as Paul said, who are the true sons of Abraham, be they Jews or Gentiles.

We prayed, Wednesday night, for two Arab men, one a long-time member of Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s radical Palestinian political party. They had become Christians in surely what must be one of the most unlikely places in all the world to become a Christian, in the heart of radical Palestinian political life. They were imprisoned, tortured, and one of them was sentenced to death for their crime of converting. Their sister has disappeared and they fear that she was killed as retribution. The two brothers escaped from a Palestinian authority jail and fled to Israel who, so far, has been willing to grant them only a 30-day visa and threatens to return them to the Palestinians who would, in all likelihood, execute them. By their faith in Christ, they came into this same covenant that Malachi is talking about. They fall heir to its indescribably wonderful blessings. But, it is also true that, difficult as their faith in Christ has made their lives, they must remain faithful to this covenant and to the Lord of the covenant, or else the curses instead of the blessings will come upon them. That is just how practical, real-life, and down to earth Malachi’s message is. It tells us what we must do and how we must live and why, no matter our circumstances, no matter our present prospects, no matter the likely consequence of our living in faithfulness to the Lord. After all, when Malachi preached, things were at a low ebb and the people could not see better things around the corner. But, Malachi will also encourage us to believe that God will not fail to bless his people when they trust in him. He will not fail. He never has, he never will. He will not fail to bless those two brothers, and he will not fail to bless you and me. We tend to think about other things first. We tend to look to other means of obtaining what we want and need. Malachi will clear our heads and tell us that nothing matters except that we are looking to the Lord and, in faith, doing his will.