WE DO NOT KNOW MUCH about Malachi. He served in the postexilic period, later than the early years when the greatest crises took place.
By his day, both the wall and the temple had been rebuilt. Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, and Joshua were names in the past. The returned remnant had settled down. Nothing of great significance had occurred very recently. There was no spectacular restoration of the glory of God to the temple, envisaged by Ezekiel (Ezek. 43:4). The ritual was carried out, but without fervor or enthusiasm.
This is the situation Malachi addresses. It makes his words peculiarly appropriate for believers living in similar days of lethargy. There is not much going on: the political situation is stable, religious freedom is secure, the prescribed rituals are carried out—but all of it lacks not only passion but integrity, life-transformation, zeal, honor in relationships and promises, the fear of the Lord. The returned Jews are characterized by a world-weary cynicism that will not be moved.
Already Malachi 1 sets the stage:
(1) The people are not convinced that God really loves them. “How have you loved us?” they protest (Mal. 1:2)—especially considering the generally sorry state of weakness and relative poverty in which they find themselves. God appeals to his love in choosing them in the first place. He chose Jacob above Esau; there was nothing intrinsic to the two men to prompt the choice. The choice is traceable to nothing more and nothing less than the electing love of God. Believers must learn to rest securely in this love, or they will be bushwhacked by every dark circumstance that comes along.
(2) In their religious practices the people perform the rituals but treat God with a distinct lack of respect. That is shown in at least two ways. (a) The law specified that those who bring a sacrifice should bring an unblemished lamb, not the weak and the crippled. Yet these people bring the worst animals from their flocks—something they would not think of doing if they were presenting a gift to an earthly monarch (Mal. 1:6-9). (b) Above all, by word and deed the people treat the worship of Almighty God as a burden to be endured rather than as a delight to enjoy or at least as a happy duty to discharge. “What a burden!” (1:13), they moan, sniffing “contemptuously” (Mal. 1:13).
What is at issue is that God is a great king. These people act in a way that despises him. “My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun” (Mal. 1:11). “For I am a great king … and my name is to be feared among the nations” (Mal. 1:14). Do Malachi’s words shame our approach to God?