What you need to know about the book of Malachi:
The last of the minor prophets and the last book of the Old Testament is a significant book, even though only four short chapters in length. As with most prophets, Malachi holds the people of Israel up to their covenant obligations. As Douglas Stuart puts it: “Malachi was a ‘covenant enforcement mediator,’ a term that defines ‘prophet.’ He was God’s spokesperson (mediator) relative to the enforcement (via curses and blessings, also known as ‘sanctions’) of the Mosaic covenant.”
The book is broken down into six main sections, or six disputations:
1:1-5 God’s electing love and judgment
1:6-2:9 Right and wrong offerings
2:10-16 Right and wrong marriage
2:17-3:5 Adultery and other sins
3:6-12 More on right and wrong offerings
3:13-4:3 More on God’s electing love and judgment
Clendenen offers a helpful summary of the book’s message and purpose:
Malachi’s prophecy indicts the religious leadership of the day and chides God’s people for their spiritual apathy and their skepticism and cynicism concerning God’s plan for their future. It also calls the people to correct their wrong attitudes of worship by trusting God with genuine faith as living Lord. Furthermore, it warns the people of their immoral behavior toward one another and calls for their repentance lest they be terrorized at the coming of the Lord.
In his TOTC commentary Andrew Hill says this about the man and his message and some of the themes found in the book:
Malachi’s sermons were directed to a tough audience. His congregation included the righteous, the disillusioned, the cynical, the callous, the dishonest, the apathetic, the doubting, the sceptical and the outright wicked. What does a preacher say to this type of crowd? As a sensitive pastor, Malachi offered the ‘valentine’ of God’s love to a disheartened people. As a lofty theologian, he instructed the people in a basic doctrinal catechism, emphasizing the nature of God as universal King, faithful Suzerain and righteous Judge. As YHWH’s stern prophet, Malachi rebuked corrupt priests and warned of the coming day of God’s judgment. As a spiritual mentor, he called his audience to a more sincere life of worship, and challenged the people to embrace the ethical standards of the Mosaic covenant. But above all, Malachi was YHWH’s messenger, and his vital word to Israel was profoundly simple: “‘I have always loved you,’ says the LORD (1:2).
Some difficult passages are found here. In the opening verses we find these words: “I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated” (Mal. 1:2-3). The issue of divine election and things like predestination, and so on, are massive topics that cannot be entered into here. For a more generic look at these matters, see here: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/12/predestination-election-new-testament-data/
But a few things can be said about divine hate and divine choice. As to the former, his wrath or anger is different from that of humans. As Walter Kaiser has written:
This raises the question of how to reconcile the anger of God with the love of God….
Our difficulty in accepting that anger is part of the character of God is related to our improper association of anger with “the desire for retaliation,” or the desire to “get even.” Anger, properly defined, however, is the legitimate emotion of a person rising up to resist evil. Anger need not be unchecked or uncontrolled. God’s anger is certainly never explosive, unchecked or uncontrolled. In fact, in comparison to His love, His anger passes quickly (Isa. 26:20; 54:7-8; 57:16-19) while His love endures (Jer. 31:3; Hos. 2:19).
Or as Duguid and Harmon comment on the matter of God’s electing choice:
The language of “covenantal hatred” may be troubling if you think that, in order to be fair, God is obligated to love everyone equally. But do we expect human beings to love everyone in that way? If I disappeared one morning to do relief work at a disaster site, my actions might seem laudable. If I had not arranged for my absence with my family, however, they would be rightly upset. It is wonderful if I can help people suffering on the other side of the globe, but my primary responsibility and commitment is to serve my own family, church, and community, even if only in the mundane routines of life. None of us loves everyone equally. If we tried, it would be perverse. Husbands don’t love all wives equally. A husband loves his own wife in a special way. Parents love their children. In the same way, God binds himself specially to his people, not equally to everybody.
What is more remarkable, though, is that God should choose to love either of these brothers. If fairness is the issue, neither one deserved God’s favor….
Another possibly difficult passage is Mal. 2:10. For more detail on this verse see this recent discussion of mine on it: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/10/02/difficult-bible-passages-malachi-210/
The last two verses of Malachi (Mal. 4:5-6) are well known and deserve a closer look. They read: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
It is interesting that these are the very last verses of the Old Testament, and serve as a bridge to the New. The story of God’s grand purposes for humanity are closely connected with something God very strongly values: family relationships. Indeed, this is one of the grand themes of Scripture.
Since our three-in-one God is the primary and original family, his desire for us is a replication of such loving and committed relationships. So strongly committed is God to this that a clear indication of the end of all things is the restoration of family ties. Elijah, whose ministry had been one of restoration and repentance, is a fitting figure here.
Two things in particular can be said about these verses. One, our struggle to stand for marriage and family in a world that mocks and scorns both will not be easy. It will be an ongoing battle. As Peter Adam commented about Elijah: “God had sent Elijah at a very low point in the history of the people of God, when most had deserted God, and those who continued to serve God were very discouraged. Elijah had a lonely and tempestuous ministry, but stood firm for God in the church and in the world.” We must do the same today as we see marriage and family under such ferocious attack.
Second, the curse promised at the end of this passage must be seen in the light of the One who bore the curse of God for us. The curse that we all deserve for our sin and rebellion fell upon Christ at Calvary. He bore the curse for us, as it says in Galatians 3:10-14, in order that our relationship with Father God might be restored.
Above all else, God wants us to be restored to him in right relationship through Christ. And then he wants us to see renewed and restored relationships with one another, beginning with the most basic ones: family relationships. That has always been a priority for God.
And it runs throughout all of Scripture. God created marriage and family in the opening chapters of Genesis. The Old Testament closes with the promise of family restoration. The New Testament opens with the stories of two families: those of John the Baptist and Jesus. And the New Testament finishes with the glorious wedding between Christ and his Bride.
The overarching story of God is one grand story: It starts with the eternal and faithful love relations within the Trinity, and then works itself out in two main ways: God and his love relationship with humanity, and loving and committed relationships within the family unit, cemented by marriage.
We have a marriage in the garden in Genesis 2, and we have the marriage of the Lamb in Revelation 19. We do not get a loftier and more majestic picture of God’s heart for marriage and family than this.
Critical and scholarly commentaries
Adam, Peter, The Message of Malachi (BST)
Alden, Robert, Malachi (EBC)
Baker, David, Joel, Obadiah, Malachi (NIVAC)
Baldwin, Joyce, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (TOTC)
Craigie, Peter, The Twelve Prophets, vol. 2 (DSB)
Duguid, Iain and Matthew Harmon, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (EPSC)
Goldingay, John and Pamela Scalise, Minor Prophets II (NIBC)
Hill, Andrew, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (TOTC)
Hill, Andrew, Malachi (AB)
Jacobs, Mignon, The Books of Haggai and Malachi (NICOT)
Kaiser, Walter, Micah – Malachi (MTOT)
Mackay, John, Haggai, Zechariah & Malachi (FB)
Petterson, Anthony, Haggai, Zechariah & Malachi (AOTC)
Smith, Ralph, Micah-Malachi (WBC)
Stuart, Douglas, Malachi, in Thomas McComiskey, ed., The Minor Prophets, vol. 3 (Baker, 1998)
Taylor, Richard and E. Ray Clendenen, Haggai, Malachi (NAC)
Verhoef, Pieter, Haggai and Malachi (NICOT)
Devotional and expository commentaries
Boice, James Montgomery, The Minor Prophets, vol. 2, Micah-Malachi, (Baker, 1986)
Duguid, Iain and Matthew Harmon, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi (REC)
Kendall, R. T., Between the Times: Malachi: God’s Prophet of the Old Testament (Christian Focus, 2004)
As to recommended commentaries, perhaps go with Clendenen, Kaiser, Jacobs, and Stuart.