When God is silent, what do you do? When you feel trapped in the darkness of interminable night, how do you wait for the rising sun without growing weary? The book of Malachi, the last of the Minor Prophets, was written to a group of people who faced these very questions, questions that are just as relevant to the people of God today as they were 2500 years ago.
Malachi the prophet is completely unknown to us outside of the book he wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. He is so obscure that many scholars theorize he never even existed. The term Malachi could be a proper noun functioning as the name of an individual, but it also could be a common noun translated into English as my messenger or the Lord’s messenger. In Malachi 3:1, the term occurs in the latter sense, where God promises to send “My messenger” who will clear the way before Him. Some, such as Jerome following the Targum of Jonathan, have speculated that perhaps the book of Malachi was written by Ezra the scribe under this pseudonym. The Talmud suggests Mordecai from the book of Esther is the author behind this cryptic title, while still others have theorized that Malachi was originally the third section of Zechariah, having been separated from its original work to round off the Minor Prophets with the sacred number of twelve. While all of these various conjectures are fascinating, they crash upon the rocks of Hebrew grammar, which indicates Malachi functions as a personal name rather than a title.
Malachi does not give any explicit indicators concerning the dating of his prophecy. From the internal data, including the restoration of temple worship, an active priesthood, and life within Jerusalem, Malachi must have been written after Haggai and Zechariah, who ministered during the rebuilding phase of Jerusalem and the temple. Depending on how Malachi’s relationship to Ezra and Nehemiah is construed, the dating of the prophecy falls between 458-433 BC. Malachi, then, ministered God’s Word anywhere from 50 to 90 years after Haggai and Zechariah and is the last of the Old Testament prophets.
From reading the book of Malachi, two aspects of Jewish life during this time period become evident.
First, the people have become apathetic about God’s Law and once again are sinking into the same sins that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. From sexual immorality to sorcery, from selfishness to swindling, the people of Israel are once again living like the pagan nations surrounding them. The joy and jubilation over returning to the land from Babylon has evidently faded, and the routines of life have sapped their spirits.
This period also is characterized as a period of darkness. The book of Malachi ends with the imagery of the sunrise. Since Malachi is the last of the writing prophets, this imagery is all the more striking as Israel enters into a centuries-long night when God is silent and all they can do is wait for His promises to be fulfilled without any new revelation, without a prophetic messenger, and without any miraculous acts of deliverance. The people of Israel had been waiting perhaps as long as 90 years since they completed the temple and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and they had grown weary of waiting. Malachi thus comes to a weary people to encourage them to continue waiting patiently for God’s promises.
When we consider the imagery of the night giving way to the sunrise, two applications are apparent for Christians today.
First, the rising of the sun of righteousness occurred for us at the Incarnation when Jesus, the light of the world, came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3) and we beheld His glory, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). The period of waiting for the promise of the Messiah’s coming at last came to an end after a wait that stretched up to 450 years. Tragically, the people of Israel did not heed the words of God’s messenger, Malachi, or of the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist. Rather than embracing the Light, they did not comprehend it (John 1:5) and crucified the light of the world. The resulting darkness that would fall on the earth was displayed during the three hours of darkness while Jesus hung on the cross. The sun rose, but sinners loved the darkness to which they had become accustomed, the darkness that seemed to conceal their wicked deeds.
Because the Lord of glory was crucified, the Light is no longer among us (John 12:35), and we have entered into another period of waiting, another period of night, waiting for the sunrise. The New Testament bears this out, referring to the present period as a time of darkness and night. In Romans 13:11-12, the Apostle rouses us from our spiritual slumber and reminds us that although night still blankets the world the day is near. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-8, we are reminded that it is night as we await the Day of the Lord. The reality of the darkness of night is apparent everywhere as the world is spiritually comatose, drunk on the pleasures of sin, but because we are of the day and sons of light, we are called to wait for the Lord’s coming with sober and alert minds, donning the full armor of God.
Since we find ourselves in such a similar situation as the original readers of Malachi, his message is timely to us. How were the people of Israel to wait patiently for the sunrise through centuries of darkness? Malachi answers that question at the end of the book from 3:16-4:6. The key phrase he repeats three times in this section is fear the Lord. He describes this as esteeming God’s name (3:16), being righteous (3:18), and serving God (3:18). The formula for such patient waiting combines two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament: Moses and Elijah. Israel is to remember the Law of Moses and to look for the coming of Elijah. Moses and Elijah stand as the two major sections of the Old Testament scriptures: the Law and the Prophets. The admonition is simply this: Believe what the prophets have promised, and live out that faith in obedience to the Law of God.
Those who trust God’s promises and obey His commands are those who truly fear the Lord. They will be found ready when day dawns. The coming of Christ will not overtake them like a thief in the night, because they are patiently waiting for the sun to rise.