The Old Testament is the first major section of the Bible and tells the stories of the people of Israel, laying out the rituals and laws that form the foundation of the Jewish and Christian faiths. It is a text of profound meaning and depth expressed through rich language. Most people are familiar with the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis. Its account of the world “in the beginning” is one of the most famous written passages in human history. Less well-known is the last book found in the Old Testament, the book of Malachi.
What is this final Old Testament book all about? And why is this the book that closes out this first major division of the Bible? Let’s take a closer look at the book of Malachi and explore the message and impact this text has for us today.
Context for Malachi
Malachi is not only the final Old Testament book but also the last of the Minor Prophets. The book is believed to have been written by the prophet Malachi during the post-exilic period of Israel's history. However, since the name Malachi means “my messenger” in Hebrew, some scholars have argued that this is ascription is not intended as the name of the author, but instead a general designation or title. Indeed, the term is used elsewhere in scripture to refer to other messengers and priests of the Lord. Nevertheless, Jewish tradition has referred to the author of this text by the name, “Malachi”.
After the Assyrian invasion, Babylonian exile and captivity, and Persian rule, the Jewish people were finally allowed to return home to Jerusalem and their homeland. Malachi deals with the period of time after the people of Israel rebuilt the Temple and returned to the law and practices laid out by God.
This era of renewal and restoration occurred under the leadership and guidance of Nehemiah, a governor and prophet with his own namesake book of the Bible. Despite the revival Nehemiah helped to usher in, when he returned to Persia to serve the king, the people fell back on their sinful ways. Laws and practices such as tithing and Sabbath-keeping were abandoned; priests were corrupted. Nehemiah and Malachi both address these errors and denounce the faithlessness of the people in this Jewish community. The similarities between this book and the book of Nehemiah suggest that both prophets were active around the same period.
Malachi’s theme is one of both judgment and restoration. The central message is that God, as Israel’s ultimate and great king, will hold the people accountable for the wickedness they have enacted. But God will also bless and preserve God's people, protecting them and restoring them to righteousness. The book concludes with an announcement that the Day of the Lord is coming.
In many ways, Malachi follows the typical structure of prophetic texts: a renouncement of sinful behavior, a call to repentance and reorientation, and a message of hope and future renewal.
Why is this the book to close out the Old Testament? Interestingly, the Tanakh--sometimes called the Hebrew Bible-- concludes not with Malachi, but with the book of Chronicles. This distinction reflects the difference in structure between the Hebrew scriptures and the Old Testament found in Christian Bibles.
The three parts that make up the Tanakh are the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim, which make up the “T”, “N'', and “K” in the word. The Nevi’im translates to “the prophets” in Hebrew. This section of the Tanakh can be broken down into two major sections: the Former and the Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets are mostly comprised of historical narratives documenting the time after Moses’ death as the people of Israel enter the Promised Land, including stories from the reigns of King David and King Solomon. The Latter Prophets contain the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve, a single book that recounts the stories of 12 other prophets, such as Jonah and Malachi.
The last part of the Tanakh is the Ketuvim, or “writings” in Hebrew. This portion contains 11 books and consists of history as well as wisdom mostly in the form of poetic verse. The main parts of the Ketuvim are the poetic books, which consist of the book of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. The Ketuvim also contains the Megillot scrolls, the prophecy of Daniel, and the history books which consist of the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. Because of this categorization, the last text in the Tanakh is a historical account in Chronicles, not the prophetic book of Malachi.
The Old Testament
In contrast, the Old Testament designates the books found in the Tanakh’s Former Prophets as Historical Books. And since the OT orders the Prophetic Books after the Historical Books and Wisdom Books, Malachi closes out the first major division of the Bible.
Malachi is believed by many scholars to be the last or latest of the prophets chronologically--hence it's being ordered last. Although some argue that Joel is actually later, thematically, Malachi still serves as a fitting transition between Old and New Testament in Christian Bibles.
Malachi as a Transition
The book of Malachi demonstrates that even after generations in captivity, the hearts of the people were not fundamentally changed. While they committed themselves fully to God upon their return to Jerusalem, at the first opportunity, God's chosen people returned to their own ways of living, instead of the Lord’s way. Malachi drives home the need for a greater reckoning--the need for a savior. This leads well into the New Testament and, more specifically, the four Gospels as they introduce Jesus Christ and present him as the very Savior of which the prophet spoke.
The last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi is a prophetic call to turn back to God. While Malachi was written in a specific context to a specific group of people in ancient Israel, the text’s words of wisdom can still enlighten us today. Malachi calls us to turn away from selfishness and hypocrisy. It reminds us that the Lord is a God of love and of justice; we as people of God are invited to live into His vision for the world. Malachi sets the stage for the Good News shared in the Gospels: the Day of the Lord ushered in by Jesus.
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