NOTE: There are two systems for numbering the three verses following Malachi 3:18:
• Some translations follow the Septuagint (Greek language) tradition, which numbers these verses as 3:19-21.
• Others follow the Hebrew language tradition, which numbers these verses as 4:1-3.
The Hebrew word mal’ak means ” messenger”—similar to the Greek word angelos in the New Testament. We cannot know whether mal’ak in 1:1 is intended as a proper name, Malachi—or is simply means messenger. Scholars are divided on that matter.
This book was written after the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian Exile and rebuilt the temple (1:10) but probably prior to the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The book of Malachi was placed at the end of the Old Testament so that it would appear right before the book of Matthew. The book of Malachi says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes” (4:5). The book of Matthew portrays John the Baptist as an Elijah-like prophet. Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah (Matthew 11:-13-14; 17:10-12).
This book is composed of six dialogues or disputations (verbal controversies) bracketed by an opening verse or superscription (1:1) at the beginning and a Godly challenge (4:4-6) at the end. The six dialogues or disputations are:
Two: 1:6 – 2:9
Four: 2:17 – 3:5
Six: 3:13 – 4:3
It should be apparent from the above list that the chapter breaks in this book are unfortunate. The snippet that constitutes our lectionary reading is part of a larger section, 3:13 – 4:3, that constitutes the Sixth Disputation.
That section begins with a reminder by the Lord that the people have said, “It is vain to serve God;’ and ‘What profit is it that we have followed his instructions?” (3:14). They complained, “Now we call the proud happy; yes, those who work wickedness are built up; yes, they tempt God, and escape” (3:15).
However, the Lord then remembers those who revered the Lord, promising, “They shall be mine,” says Yahweh of Armies, “my own possession in the day that I make, and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him. Then you shall return and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him who serves God and him who doesn’t serve him” (3:17-18).
Those verses lead into our reading, which describes in more detail how the Lord will treat the wicked (v. 1) and the righteous (vv. 2-3).
MALACHI 4:1. ALL WHO WORK WICKEDNESS WILL BE STUBBLE
1“For, behold, the day comes, it burns as a furnace;
and all the proud, and all who work wickedness, will be stubble;
and the day that comes will burn them up,” says Yahweh of Armies,
“that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.“
“For, behold, the day comes” (v. 1a). The day in question is the Day of the Lord—an eschatological (end of time) event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but some (like this one) also include a note of vindication for the righteous.
“it burns as a furnace“ (v. 1b). “Fire language is commonly used in connection with divine judgment and anger…. Destruction by fire is a type of covenant curse…. The phrase ‘burn like a furnace’ alludes to the hottest fires people in ancient times saw, the confined fires of the large beehive-shaped metal-working furnaces” (Stuart, 1386).
“and all the proud, and all who work wickedness, will be stubble” (v. 1c). People have been struggling with the problem of evil people prospering and good people suffering—a fact of life that goes counter to the traditional Deuteronomic theology that says that the good prosper and the bad suffer. As noted above, the people have complained, “Now we call the proud happy; yes, those who work wickedness are built up; yes, they tempt God, and escape” (3:15).
But God assures them that a new day is coming—a day when the Lord will right the wrongs—when evildoers “will be stubble”—when the Lord will annihilate evildoers, burning them up so that no remnant remains, “neither root nor branch.”
This kind of imagery hearkens back to 3:1-2, where the Lord promised that the “messenger of the covenant” (3:1) would appear like a “refiner’s fire, and like launderer’s soap” (3:2). While the refiner’s fire is intended to purify rather than to destroy, it is good news for the righteous and bad news for the unrighteous. A refiner refines metal by melting it over a hot fire. As metal melts, pure metal remains at the bottom while impurities float to the top to be drawn off and discarded. A visit to a metal refinery would be educational. Metal refineries are hot, dirty, dangerous places. The process by which metals are purified is uncomfortable at best and deadly at worst.
So it will be when the Lord comes. He will use fire to separate the pure from the impure so that the impure can be drawn off and cast aside. By this refining process, the Lord will remove the unrighteous people from the community and make the rest of his people worthy of his presence.
MALACHI 4:2a. YOU WHO FEAR MY NAME SHALL RISE
2a “But to you who fear my name
shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in its wings.”
Those who fear the Lord’s name will have a vastly different experience than evildoers. They will see the sun of righteousness rising. They will experience healing from its wings.
MALACHI 4:2b-3. YOU WILL GO OUT, AND LEAP LIKE CALVES
2b “You will go out, and leap like calves of the stall.
3You shall tread down the wicked;
for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet
in the day that I make,” says Yahweh of Armies.
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but they constitute the end of this disputation so the preacher needs to be aware of them.
“You will go out, and leap like calves of the stall” (v. 2b). Healthy calves tend to be frisky and playful. They are a joy to watch as they leap and run for the sheer pleasure of it. They inspire a bit of envy among those of us who are no longer so nimble or energetic. But God promises that those who fear the Lord’s name will be nimble and energetic—frisky and playful. They will feel like happy children once again.
“You shall tread down the wicked” (v. 2c). Righteous people, who have seen the wicked prosper and who have suffered at the hands of the wicked will see a Great Reversal take place on the Day of the Lord. These righteous people will no longer be victims, but will instead become the Lord’s agents to inflict punishment on the wicked. On that day, the injustices that provoked their earlier complaints (3:15) will be remedied.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, Interpretation Commentary: Nahum-Malachi, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986)
Baldwin, Joyce G., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Vol. 24 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972)
Brown, William P., Obadiah through Malachi (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Goldingay, John and Scalise, Pamela, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets II (Peabody, Massachusetts, 2009)
Kaiser, Walter C., The Preacher’s Commentary: Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Vol. 23 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992)
O’Brien, Julia M., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004)
Petersen, David L., The Old Testament Library: Zechariah 9-14 and Malachi, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Schuller, Eileen M., O.S.U., The New Interpreters Bible: Malachi, Vol.VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Smith, Ralph L., The Word Biblical Commentary: Micah, Malachi, Vol. 32 (Dallas: Word Books, 1984)
Stuart, Douglas, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Taylor, Richard A., The New American Commentary: Haggai, Malachi, Vol. 21A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Verhoef, Pieter A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Haggai and Malachi (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan