Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4
In Malachi 3:1-4, God announces that he is sending a messenger to prepare for his coming. In the accompanying Gospel reading, John son of Zechariah appears as that messenger, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:1-5). In both texts, the message is both proclamation and act, as each messenger actively prepares the audience for their encounter with God.
Yet there is at least one significant difference: where John offers the baptism of repentance to everyone, Malachi’s messenger cleanses and purifies only the priesthood. It is possible to interpret Malachi’s fiery messenger coming to cleanse the entire community; for example, that fiery cleansing is implied when John the Baptist declares that the one coming after him will baptize with fire. But Malachi’s focus is on the priests alone.
In this time of COVID, when churches have been opening up again after a long period of worshiping remotely—a term that by definition implies absence and separation—Malachi 3:1-4 challenges preachers to consider their own preparation for this particular season of the Lord’s coming. What does Malachi envision as a necessary first condition for being ready to meet God?
Most scholars agree that the book of Malachi reflects the period of restoration shortly after the Temple was rededicated in 515 BCE. This period of restoration was not an easy one. Mark McEntire suggests its crises were as threatening to community survival as the crises of Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BCE and the subsequent exile to Babylon. 1
From the same period, the prophet Haggai speaks of famine and hardship, while Zechariah hints at the failure to re-establish the Davidic monarchy. Malachi reflects this situation. Besides the priesthood, no other leaders are mentioned, as if to suggest that the priests alone are now responsible for the community’s well-being. And, although the priests are condemned for offering lame and blind animals in sacrifice (Malachi 1:7), this may have been a necessary accommodation to the economic and agricultural hardships of the period.
The book is structured as a series of interconnected “disputations” between God, the priests, and the members of the community. Although the question-and-answer exchanges can easily be read as contentious arguments, they can also be read as genuine questions about how relationships have broken down. Running throughout these disputes are questions about whether the community or its covenant with God can survive its present crisis. The pervasive tone is of a community or, more poignantly, a family that can no longer understand one another.
Indeed, the community is on the verge of falling apart. Psychic injuries run deep. God can’t seem to get through to the people. The people, meanwhile, reflect a healthy skepticism about all things divine. “I have loved you,” says God; “How have you loved us?” comes the almost instantaneous reply (Malachi 1:2). If the community genuinely doesn’t feel God’s love, God is also rightly miffed at the sacrificial offerings of blind and lame livestock: “If then I am a father, where is the respect due me?” (1:6).
This rupture between God and people spills over into human relationships. An inability to honor God as father is reflected in their faithlessness to one another: “Have we not all one father? Why then are we faithless to one another?” (Malachi 2:10). These fractures become painfully obvious at the altar, the site of sacred communion between God and people: “You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand” (Malachi 3:13). No one is satisfied with this relational impasse: God is weary, and the people are either exasperated or truly mystified that their best efforts at seeking God have failed (Malachi 2:17).
As it turns out, it is their theological blame-shifting that wearies God. They claim that God somewhat arbitrarily favors the wicked: “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” The conclusion, that the God of justice they once knew has disappeared, then becomes inevitable: “Where is the God of justice?” (Mal 2:17).
The messenger of Malachi 3:1-4 is God’s answer to the community’s theologizing. No longer engaging in endless argument, the messenger decisively resolves the impasse in these fractured relationships. Christians frequently associate the messenger with the task of prophecy. But it’s important to note that the messenger brings neither a message nor does he announce judgment, which is so frequently the task of prophecy.
This messenger’s role more closely resembles that of the priests, who were charged with maintaining the sanctity of the Temple. In Malachi, this sanctity requires both moral uprightness and ritual purity. Priests tended to moral uprightness through their function of instruction (Hebrew torah), understood as guiding the people in the ways of the covenant (Malachi 2:1-9), while questions of ritual purity arose in connection with the offering of sacrifices on YHWH’s altar. Yet even here questions of purity and pollution have a moral component, since the offering of blind and lame animals indicates a lack of proper reverence for God. Taken together, these two tasks ensured full communion—God speaking to people, and people responding to God in love and gratitude at the altar.
God’s messenger purifies the priests so as to restore this full communion between God and people. The metaphor of refining silver and gold envisions a fearful yet vital transformation which restores the priests to their proper function so that the people’s offerings will once again be pleasing to YHWH.
By focusing in this way on the purification of the priesthood, the messenger restores possibilities for divine graciousness. Clearly, the priests endure a fearful ordeal. But in the biblical lexicon of divine visitation, the arduous and painful process of refining is neither judgment nor punishment. Even though priestly malpractice surely did not survive either the fire or the caustic fuller’s soap, this fearfully thorough purifying and refining is better understood as a radical transformation of priestly practice. Thus restored, the priests will once again be able to present offerings rightly to God, and God will once again receive the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem.
This little text suggests that the first order of business as we prepare for the Lord’s coming is not endless discussion—no more endless questions, please, about how we came to be in the mess we are in—of who is right and who is wrong, or, for that matter, whether God sees these things as we do. Rather, the first order of preparation is to establish the conditions for reconciliation—to consider how this God who desires life and peace may once again be encountered in ordinary human communities of conflict and tension.
Justice, the practice of determining blame and setting things right, is not beside the point, nor is it set aside, since the verses immediately following Malachi 3:1-4 turn to address these questions (see Malachi 3:5). Even so, the messenger in Malachi tends to a more fundamental problem, of restoring the conditions for full communion—between God and people, yes, but also among the members of the community as well.
- Mark McEntire, A Chorus of Prophetic Voices: Introducing the Prophetic Literature of Ancient Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 187-88, 195-197.