Theological Themes in Malachi
Covenant Faithfulness: A repetitive and overarching theme in Malachi is that of the covenant. A covenant is essentially an agreement between two or more parties with given terms. In traditional Protestant theology, there are three fundamental covenants: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. In addition to references to the covenant of grace, there are also references to the covenant of Levi (2:5-9), the covenant of the Fathers (2:10), the marriage covenant (2:14), and the messenger of the covenant (3:1). The accusations of covenant infidelity on the part of the people along with the descriptions of the defensive and aggressive responses to these indictments are evidence of the centrality of the covenant in Malachi’s theology.
The post-exilic period was expected to be the beginning of a time of prosperity. The temple was rebuilt, the people were back in the Land, and the best days were just ahead. Yet, the people found themselves undergoing economic hardship, suffering under political alienation, and facing constant threats from other nations. These realities were the basis for the people questioning God’s love and faithfulness. God, however, demonstrates that it was the people who had been unfaithful, and therefore their current situation was directly related to their unrepentant hearts. The book of Malachi is comprised of a back-and-forth debate between God and the people (generally) and the priests (particularly). This dialogical style is used to demonstrate: (1) the unfaithfulness of the people and the priests, (2) God’s faithfulness to His covenant, and (3) to declare that there was a remnant who had remained faithful to God.
God’s Universal Sovereignty: “Great is the LORD beyond the border of Israel” (1:5). Much of the book of Malachi is premised upon the universality of God’s sovereignty. The Old Testament consistently declares the absolute rule and authority of God over all of creation. This view of God’s sovereignty is echoed in Isaiah 46:10, which states “Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” Christians have historically recognized the centrality of God’s sovereignty in Scripture and have written their confessions in such a way to reflect this position.
God in eternity past planned all things that would occur throughout history. Furthermore, His divine plans cannot be frustrated (Job 42:2), meaning that nothing can prevent Him from accomplishing what has been determined in His sovereign will. Malachi’s message announces these truths by highlighting God’s authority and sovereignty over the history, current circumstances, and future salvation of His people.
God’s Immutability: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (3:6). Malachi announces one of God’s incommunicable attributes, namely, His immutability. To be immutable is to be unchanging. God never changes in His being, attributes, perfections, purposes, and promises. Since God is perfect in being, any alleged alteration of His being, nature, plan, or purpose would be a deviation from that perfection. Malachi’s message emphasizes the immutability of God as the foundation for calling the people to place their complete trust in His plan and provision. Malachi is declaring that you can trust God because He never changes.
A People for Himself: Malachi illustrates the doctrine of election in God’s choice of Jacob and rejection of Esau. God’s declaration of His covenantal love for Jacob over and against that of Esau should not be understood as God loving His people more than unbelievers. Rather, the phrase “Yet Jacob I have loved but Esau I have hated” is meant to convey that God’s covenantal love is applied in His covenant with His people rather than being applied to unbelieving nations. This pronouncement, far from being a minor theological point, was meant to remind the audience of God’s faithfulness and love for His chosen people. Moreover, this statement is a foundational text in understanding God’s choice of a particular people. Malachi announces the doctrine of election as a means of displaying God’s love for His remnant and as a call to Israel to walk in active obedience.
WHERE DOES MALACHI FIT IN SALVATION HISTORY?
Salvation history is the progressive unfolding of God’s plan to redeem humanity that culminated in the person and work Jesus Christ (cf. Galatians 4:4-5). God’s specific and saving activity in human history, which includes his interactions with both believers and unbelievers, is commonly referred to as salvation history. The use of the phrase salvation history is meant to draw attention to the primary purpose of God’s activity in history, which is to save (redeem) a people for Himself. While God’s work in human history has been manifested in a variety of ways, one thing is certain: salvation has always been by faith alone and is made possible by God alone. From the beginning (Adam & Eve; Gen. 3:20-21), to the Patriarchs (Abraham; Gen. 15:6), and up to this very day, faith in the promises and person of God has always been the means of salvation (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:16-17; Gal. 2:16). Without faith in the promise and provision of God in Christ, there is no salvation (Acts 4:12) and no eternal life with the triune God (Rev. 21:1-4). What is clear from both the Old and New Testaments is the content of saving faith has always been the person and work of God. In the Old Testament, men and women were not saved by works, but by faith. Salvation has always been the supernatural work of God, which is manifested in persons acknowledging their own wretchedness, turning from their sins, and placing their faith in the grace and mercy of God (Genesis 15:6; Psalm 51; Hebrews 11). Salvation history reveals that salvation comes only through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Malachi’s place in salvation history is in a period when Israel, after being rescued from foreign oppression, continued to rebel against God’s precepts. This rebellion is uniquely placed in salvation history because the Exile from the Promised Land was over, and the people had returned to rebuild both the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. Although the people were freed from the yoke of slavery (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian oppression), they were still living in spiritual bondage. This bondage is evident in their apathetic worship, which flowed from both their skepticism and selfishness. Instead of honoring and worshiping God from a pure heart, they offered worthless sacrifices. This problem was aggravated, according to Malachi, by the priests endorsing and encouraging such empty worship (1:6-8). The prophet exposes these offenses and rebukes the priests for condoning them, which was a violation of the covenant with Levi, who represented the tribe that was set apart to serve as priests (Deut. 33:8-10). The tribe of Levi was chosen and blessed by God because of their singular purpose in defending truth and zeal for the glory of God, even at the cost of personal relationships. God’s selection of the Levities as the priestly tribe is especially striking when one considers what Scripture declares, “For they [the Levities] observed your word and kept your covenant” (Deut. 33:9b). Although God had chosen the Levities to lead the believing community in true worship, during Malachi’s ministry, they were breaking the covenant and now weeping (insincerely) because God rejected their worship.
Malachi’s preaching reveals that the people of Israel were living in rebellion to God’s Word. This attitude is similar to what is revealed throughout the Old Testament: humanity consistently fails to demonstrate faithfulness to God. This rebellion is at the heart of Malachi’s preaching, which includes a description of both the coming judgment (chapters 2 and 3) and future redemption (4:2-6), wherein God will once and for all demonstrate His faithfulness in the incarnation, propitiation, and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Malachi, the unknown prophet, was chosen to preach at a time in salvation history when God was preparing to be silent for nearly 400 years. His message was a call to faithfulness that would be largely ignored by his contemporaries. Yet, he remained steadfast in his rebuke of bad theology and polluted worship. Moreover, the prophet’s message of the coming manifestation of God’s faithfulness, which pointed to both the forerunner (John the Baptist) and the Messiah (Jesus of Nazareth), demonstrates the unique place this final book of the Old Testament holds in God’s story. Malachi fittingly closes the Old Testament by declaring the faithlessness of humanity, the unfailing love of God for His people, and the coming redemption through the Son of God, who would demonstrate once and for all the faithfulness and unfailing love of God.