The Biblical Illustrator
Book Overview - Malachi
by Joseph Exell
I. First of all, we are to look at the world in which this prophet’s lot was cast, the character of his contemporaries, the souls with which he had to deal. Let us suppose that more than ninety years, an entire century almost, have passed away since Haggai and Zechariah began to preach in Jerusalem to the captives who had returned from Babylon. Artaxerxes Longimanus sits now on the throne of Persia, and is the sovereign lord to whom the Hebrews in Judea pay allegiance and tribute. It is, we shall say, the year 425 b.c., for if that be not the exact date it cannot be very far removed from it. The second Temple has been finished long since. It was not in vain that Zechariah encouraged the restored exiles by visions and predictions to be up and doing. Haggai’s declarations that there was an intimate union between liberal giving to the Lord and external prosperity were uttered to good purpose. At the call of God’s ambassadors the people roused themselves from their unworthy and selfish lethargy. They built the sacred walls and courts and pinnacles with zeal and enthusiasm; before long the hill of Zion was crowned again with the sanctuary of Jehovah. There succeeded a brief season of spiritual life and earnestness and joy. The priests offered sacrifice anew, and made intercession for the citizens within the Holy House. But this genial summer was short-lived. The generation to which Haggai and Zechariah spoke with such effect, died out ere long; and their successors did not manifest their zealous devotion. They were remiss and negligent. The city which their fathers had begun to rebuild they left incomplete and half-ruinous; they took little delight in the Temple which their fathers had raised. They withheld from God those tithes and offerings which pertained to Him; and when they did bring animals for sacrifice on His altar, they were often the very poorest of the flock--sheep and lambs which they would have been utterly ashamed to present to their Persian governor. Their priests were men like themselves. They cared not how slovenly the Temple service might be. They came far short of realising the responsibilities of their office. They inflicted daily dishonour on the God whose servants they called themselves. Both priests and people intermarried freely with aliens, with those who were strangers to the commonwealth and the covenant, who were idolatrous in worship and sinful in life. Both were rapidly growing sceptical alike in thought and m speech, questioning many things which had hitherto been most surely believed, avowing their incredulity boldly and defiantly. It was a lamentable change. During these days of reaction and retrogression, two visitors came to Jerusalem from the Court of Persia--first one and then the other. They were Jews, full of patriotism, and anxious to see how it fared with their kinsfolk in the city of their fathers. The first of them was Ezra, the priest and the scribe. It was the midsummer of the year 459 when he arrived. He was prepared to find much that was disappointing; he knew the difficulties with which the Hebrew colonists had had to contend; and he did not expect to discover an ideal State or a Church without spot and stain. But the actual condition of affairs astonished and dismayed him--those unholy marriages with the heathen most of all. When he learned the full extent of the evil, “he tore his outer cloak from top to bottom; he tore his inner garment no less; he plucked off the long tresses of his sacerdotal locks, the long flakes of his sacerdotal heard; and thus, with dishevelled hair and half-clothed limbs, he sank on the ground, crouched like one thunderstruck, through the whole of a day.” £ Then, eager to usher in a better era, he devoted himself to the work of renovation; like the Baptist, he commanded all--the ministers of religion and the citizens as well--to repent of their sins; and his influence penetrated far and near. Fourteen years later, the second visitor came. This was Nehemiah, a young Jew of noble family, who had filled the high post of chamberlain to the Persian king. A deep and brooding anguish possessed him when he thought of the city of his ancestors in her desolation and shame. He bogged of his royal master permission to return to his native country with power to rectify the disorders which vexed him so keenly. The request was granted, and he started with escort and authority to accomplish the desire that lay near his heart. Through twelve summers and winters he remained in Judea and acted as its governor. One much-needed reform after another was carried through. The fortifications of the town were raised from their ruins. The nobles were rebuked for their iniquitous exactions. The Levites and the singers were bidden resume their duties in the sacred courts. The gates were closed against the merchants who came with their laden asses on the Sabbath day. It seemed as if, through the efforts of these two--the aged scribe, full of passionate love for the ancient law, and the young noble, who was both soldier and statesman--a revival of a genuine and permanent kind had indeed been brought about. But the morning which had opened so clear and fair was destined to be overclouded soon. Nehemiah went back for a short time to the court of Artaxerxes. He was not long absent; but during the brief interval, when the strong hand of the ruler was withdrawn, the Jews reverted to their old misdemeanours and sins; “all his fences and their whole array” were blown to the ground. When he returned, matters were even worse than they had been on his first arrival. Within the family of the high priest himself an odious alliance with the heathen had been contracted; one of the young men of his house had taken to wife the daughter of Sanballat, the very ringleader of the enemies of Judah. The Temple service had fallen again into dishonour and neglect; God’s tithes were once more being denied Him; the Sabbath traffic which had been so sternly forbidden was prosecuted as vigorously and as unblushingly as ever. It was a sad relapse. This was the time in which Malachi was called to carry “the burden of the Word of the Lord.” We may believe that his solemn threats and condemnations rang through the streets of Jerusalem during that short absence of Nehemiah at the Persian Court. But before we glance at what he had to say to his erring countrymen, there is a question which confronts us of a fundamental sort: Was there any Malachi at all--any person who actually bore this name, and who was known by it among his fellow-citizens? The question has more than once been answered in the negative. “No,” it has been said, “there was no prophet called Malachi. For the Word simply means ‘the messenger of God’; and beyond doubt it was a kind of epithet, a kind of official title, by which one of the servants of Jehovah in that time chose to designate himself. Perhaps it was the venerable scribe Ezra; £ or perhaps it was Nehemiah, the Tirshatha himself; or perhaps--who knows?--it was one of the angels of light come down from the heavenly places in the form of a man, to do God’s will and to proclaim His grave and heavy warnings. You may search as carefully as you please the lists which are given in the historical books of those who, for one reason or another, were notable in the Jerusalem of the day; and you will find no Malachi among them. Evidently there was none. The name indicates the work done by him who bore it; it is not a personal designation at all.” That has been the opinion of not a few both in older and more recent times. But we may at once set it aside. Malachi, like that greater preacher of a future age to whom he pointed his contemporaries forward, may be only a “voice” to us; of his career and history we know absolutely nothing; but he was unquestionably a real person, and this was his proper name. It is not the habit of the prophets to prefix descriptive titles to their books, or to speak of themselves only by the office which they held, or to write under some nom de plume. Each of them tells us plainly and frankly his ordinary name by which he was greeted in the street and the market and the home. And Malachi, we may be certain, is no exception to the rule. He was distinct from Ezra and Nehemiah, less famous than they, but not a whir loss solicitous about the glory of God and the reformation of Jerusalem. Unconsciously lie paints for us, I think, a picture of himself in his book, when he speaks of the little companies of God-fearing Jews who were in the habit of meeting together in that wicked time to converse one with another about what was holy and spiritual, and so to keep their own souls aglow when all around them was cold and frozen and dead; if we could have entered the upper room where these few disciples assembled, we should certainly have found Malachi among them. These were his surroundings, then; this was the world to which he proclaimed the sorrow and indignation of the Lord, which were his own sorrow and indignation too.
II. But let us turn now to consider the prophet’s message to the men of his day. Living when “the world was very evil,” what had he to say to it? He sets out with the declaration that the conduct of Judah was without excuse. If God had been a hard taskmaster--if He had shown Himself strict to mark iniquity, and unmindful of loyal service when it was given Him--there might have been some justification for the ingratitude of Jerusalem. But it was not so. God had dealt with the Jews in sovereign and marvellous love. No doubt they questioned His compassion and grace. Where could be the Divine mercy towards them, they asked, when they were a people scattered and peeled, few in number, and held in contempt? The answer was a convincing one. Let them look across the borders of Judah, east and south to the blue mountains that rose beyond the Dead Sea--to Edom, a nation near of kin to themselves, sprung from Esau as they were sprung from Jacob. They might be poor and despised; but the condition of Edom was tenfold sadder and more hopeless. Its rock-hewn cities were desolate. Jackals and scorpions made them their home. No proud and warlike people dwelt in them any more. And what was the reason of the difference? Why should brother-races, starting from the same mother’s knee, be separated by so wide a gulf, the one utterly destroyed, the other spared and blessed? The sole cause was the love of God. Jacob He had loved; Esau He had hated--and that was why Jerusalem survived, whilst Petra was waste and lonely, its pride abased, its glory departed. Freely and spontaneously--patiently and fervently--God had loved the Jewish people, and therefore the sons of Jacob were not consumed as the sons of Esau had been (Malachi 1:1-5). Having thus reminded the children of Israel how unreasonable and thankless their conduct was in rewarding God evil for His good, disobedience and neglect in return for His loving-kindness and tender mercy, Malachi brings against his nation an indictment which has three counts in it. First, he reproves the priests for their scandalous negligence in the management of the Temple worship. The sacrifices which they offered at the altar were despicable and worthless. They seemed to imagine that any animal was good enough for God--the lame or the blind that had become useless for work, the maimed or the torn, the beast that was dying of disease and could not be presented for sale in the market, that which had been stolen, and which they would have been afraid to sell. They grudged the best of their possessions to Him who had given them all. They dishonoured God openly in the sight of man. Would that there were someone to shut the doors, he exclaimed, that this profane and fruitless worship might be carried on no longer! He takes no pleasure in those who do not come with alacrity to His house. He loveth a cheerful giver; but souls to whom His service is a weary burden--souls that grudge Him their best and richest treasures, and can spare Him only that which costs them nothing--what delight can He take in them? The second accusation which Malachi pronounces against his countrymen deals with a flagrant sin both of priests and people--the sin of intermarriage with aliens. These alliances between the sons of Judah and heathen women awakened in the prophet, as they had awakened in Ezra and Nehemiah, the intensest repugnance and alarm. He recognised clearly the crime of Jerusalem in contracting wedlock with “the daughter of a strange god.” He felt that the offenders had profaned the covenant of Jehovah. His sentence went forth against them sharp and strong, “The Lord will out off the man that doeth this, the master and the scholar.” Do we wonder that His anger should be so hot and fierce? Do we say that alien blood ran in the veins of David himself, the very darling of Israel; and that Ruth the Moabitess, who became the ancestress of the king and of One greater and diviner than he, is pictured to us in Scripture as fair and sweet and holy, “a perfect woman nobly planned”? But therein lies the difference. She gave up her heathenism when she entered a Jewish home; “thy people shall be my people,” she told Naomi in those musical words of hers, “and thy God shall be my God.” It was otherwise with the wives be my God.” It was otherwise with the wives of the men to whom Malachi spoke. They continued idolatresses, reverencing Moloch and Chemosh and Baal rather than Jehovah. The prophet saw that those who wedded them exposed themselves to subtle temptation and ran fearful risk. He denounced their conduct as unpatriotic. They were bringing down to the common earthly level the holy people whom God loved. They were endangering the separate existence of the race which was meant to be a living witness against polytheism and sin. They were destroying the barriers which divided it from the ungodly world. God, he declared, was full of pity for the Hebrew wives, who had been driven from hearth and home in order that outsiders might step into their prerogatives and privileges. The poor, forsaken Jewish women had covered His altar “with tears, with weeping, and with crying out.” Ah, surely sin is an evil thing and a bitter. It had already led many a Jew to inflict this sore anguish on the wife of his youth; and it must end in more trouble still. For, much as the God of Israel hated putting away, the strange women must go. They might plead with clinging entreaties, with wild reproaches, to be allowed to remain; it might break the hearts of those who loved them only too well to part with them; but in this way alone could the sin of Jerusalem be removed and cleansed. Men cannot have the friendship both of God and of transgressors; they must choose between the two. Unless we are putting away from us everything that is of the earth earthy, as Malachi bade the Jews put away their heathen consorts, we may well doubt whether we are true sons and daughters of the Lord (Malachi 2:9-16). The prophet’s third charge against his countrymen, is that they had fallen into a scepticism which questioned moral distinctions and scoffed at God’s threatenings. Living so long in Babylon, meeting so habitually with men of other ways of thinking than their own, they had learned to cavil and doubt where they ought to have believed. “Where is the God of judgment?” they said. The very form into which the sentences of the Book are thrown indicates the infidelity that was prevalent. The preacher is continually repeating the questions which he heard among the people. “Wherein has God loved us?” and “Wherein have we despised His name?” and “To what profit is it that we have kept His ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts?” Where their fathers had been content to exercise a childlike faith, the Jews of Malachi’s time were ready to point to this stumbling block and to that contradiction. Intellectually they were more active than their fathers; morally they were more distrustful and more presumptuous; in their case, as in many others, the reason had been developed at the expense of the heart. But the prophet assures them that the God of judgment, about whose existence and power they were so dubious, would manifest Himself soon in a way they could not mistake. His servant Nehemiah would come suddenly to the Temple to cleanse it; he would be a swift witness against the wrongdoers of the city; he would appear in the spirit of Elijah--the stern spirit which made an end of idolaters and transgressors; he would enforce the broken law of Moses. And, beyond Nehemiah, Malachi beholds a greater still, the New Testament Elijah, John the Baptist; and, beyond John, One nobler even than he--One who could fitly be named the Sun of Righteousness, who should deal in integrity with His own true people, and should trample the wicked under foot. Then, by the confession of all, it would be well with the godly; then, when they could find no place for repentance, those who were so faithless now would discover their error and foolishness. But these doubts, which the men of the prophet’s age raised and cherished--do they not linger among us to-day? Are not we inclined sometimes to question in our hearts whether there can be a God, because He hides Himself, and leaves His people in trouble, and allows their enemies and His to enjoy a time of prosperity and success? We overlook the disciplinary value of adversity and pain and loss--how they are often a hundredfold better for us than an easy and pleasant life. There are bright touches in the prevailing dark of Malachi’s prophecy; in his chapters gloom and glory meet together. Over against the hireling priests he places the likeness of a true priest and servant of Jehovah (Malachi 2:5-7). A beautiful miniature it is, and doubtless it was drawn from the life. Then, too, although in his time the evil far outweighs the good, the prophet discovers here and there a spot of heavenly brightness. He speaks of brotherhoods of congenial souls, bearing a silent witness for God by lives of consecration, linked by bonds of prayer and love, handing down to their successors the truth which heals and blesses and saves. “They that feared the Lord spake often one to another,” etc. We should be thankful that never, even in the worst days, has the King wanted such quiet and brave and steadfast servants. They are the very salt of the earth; they are the light of the world. (Original Secession Magazine.)
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18