The Four Messengers
Malachi is the last prophet of the Old Testament. He lived and prophesied after Judah’s exile and is one of the post-exilic prophets, along with Haggai and Zechariah.
Malachi’s prophecy shows us the conditions in the nation of Judea leading up to the coming of Christ. In that sense, his prophecy told the people of his day what issues were going to be a problem in the next few centuries. God wanted the people to know what to pray about, how to seek God’s will, and how to avoid the pitfalls in the years leading up to the coming of the Messiah. God had Malachi write these things so that the people would have understanding during the 400 so-called “silent years,” when no prophets arose to give them direction.
Malachi’s prophecy came late, for the text itself speaks of the second temple as if it had already been built. (It was completed in 515 B.C.) Malachi speaks of the sacrifices being made in that temple, as well as the knowledge of the law and the Old Testament canon in general that was compiled by Ezra. In fact, enough time had already passed to allow the people to become careless or indifferent in regard to temple worship.
The book is generally dated in the latter half of the fifth century B.C. If written about 432 B.C., it would mean that this final Old Testament prophecy was given 430 years before the birth of Christ in 2 B.C. Recall that in an earlier time, the time between the Abrahamic (New) Covenant and the Mosaic (Old) Covenant was 430 years (Gal. 3:17). Perhaps a second 430-year period ensued between the last Old Covenant prophet and the birth of the Mediator of the New Covenant.
Forty-three (i.e., one-tenth of 430) is the biblical number for “contention” and is specifically associated with the contention between Hagar and Sarah, representing the two covenants.
As for the prophet himself, nothing conclusive is known about Malachi. In the fifth century, Jerome thought that he was identical to Ezra. No doubt he got his view from the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel, who had studied under Hillel the Elder (110-10 B.C.). This Jonathan lived around the time of Christ or just before His birth. Jonathan believed that Malachi, “My Messenger,” was just his title, while Ezra was his personal name. However, nothing can be proved.
Malachi, is a shortened form of Malachiah, “Messenger of Yahweh.” There are four “messengers” found in the book. Each has a different message and calling. The first one is Malachi himself (verse 1), who used his name (or title) as evidence of his call to give this final OT message to the nation of Judea as a whole.
The second messenger (2:7) is a priest carrying a list of reforms that should be instituted in temple practice.
The third messenger (3:1a) was the one called to prepare the way for the Messiah. This was fulfilled in John the Baptist, according to Mark 1:2, Matt. 11:10, and Luke 1:76.
The fourth messenger (3:1b) is the “messenger of the covenant,” who was to “suddenly come to his temple.” This was fulfilled in Jesus Himself, who was the Mediator of the New Covenant. In John 7:10, after sending His disciples ahead to Jerusalem, Jesus arrived at the temple unexpectedly in the midst of the feast of Tabernacles.
The Hebrew word translated “suddenly” is pithom, which means “suddenly, surprisingly, unexpectedly.” His arrival at the temple was not to elicit fear but surprise. By coming in the middle of Tabernacles, he surprised his disciples and everyone else. These are the four messengers in the book of Malachi.
The first messenger presents God first as a Father and then as a great King. God has treated “Jacob” as a beloved son, but the people have not respected or honored their Father (1:6). The criticism is primarily in terms of sacrifice, which is compared to a gift that a man takes with him when he desires to have an audience with a king. Their faulty gifts show lack of respect for the “great King” (1:14).
In the course of this message, God shows how He preferred Jacob over Esau. This was a sovereign choice that God made before the twins were even born (Rom. 9:11). It was evidence of His love for Jacob, but other legal issues arise immediately in the course of God’s appeal for honor.
The Lessons of Jacob and Esau
Malachi 1:1-3 begins by saying,
1 The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi. 2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How hast Thou loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob; 3 but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.”
God’s love for Jacob-Israel was manifested in the fact that He chose Jacob before he had opportunity to do either good or evil. The sovereignty of God is the first issue, and this is discussed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 9. There we learn that a sovereign God (Creator) has the right to do as He chooses with His creation. He owns what He creates and therefore enjoys the legal rights of ownership.
Rom. 9:10-13 says,
10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
So Paul tells us that God’s love for Jacob and hatred for Esau was primarily a statement of the sovereignty of God. God made a sovereign choice that was not based on the works of the children (whether good or bad), but purely based on His own will and decision. The lack of “fairness” in this matter is not relevant, Paul explains, because as the Creator, God had the right to make such a choice. He was exercising His right as a Creator, so no man can question His decision.
God loves a good challenge. But how can anything be challenging to a God who can do anything except to be untrue to Himself? Man was created with limited knowledge in order to have some who believe that some things are just too hard for God to do.
First, there is the law vs. grace enigma. In view of man’s sin and the law that condemns it, how can God save anyone without being untrue to Himself?
The Promises to Noah and to Abraham were to save the whole earth and all nations, but then God instituted the law, which seemed to make this promise unrealistic and virtually impossible.
When Israel came out of Egypt, God led them to the Red Sea in order to make it look impossible for anyone to survive—much less make it to the Promised Land.
God promised to give Jacob the birthright, but then He worked it so that Esau was the firstborn. The law of the first-born rights seemed to clash with the promise. This was what tripped Jacob and caused him to lie to his father in order to make prophecy happen.
In the end, all of the God-ordained enigmas are designed to separate those who actually believe the promises of God from those who do not. They are also designed to distinguish those who believe God fully from those who believe that the promises of God require some help from men, especially the “believers.”
The Law of First-Born Rights
God’s right as the Creator to bypass the first-born son seems to clash with His responsibility as a Father, for the law protects an unloved first-born son. Deut. 21:15-17 says,
15 If a man has two wives, the one loved and other unloved [“hated”], and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the first-born son belongs to the unloved, 16 then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the first-born before the son of the unloved, who is the first-born. 17 But he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the first-born.
Jacob and Esau came from the same mother, of course, but the law shows that the first-born son has legal rights and cannot be disinherited at the will of the father. Hence, when God claims to be a Father, He is under legal restrictions.
This is a classic case of the apparent conflict between God’s will (thelema) and God’s plan (boulema). In the sovereignty of God, exercising His right as an impersonal Creator to decide upon a plan (boulema) for His creation, He has the right to choose Jacob and to reject Esau. But in His role as a personal Father, He is restricted by the law—which is an expression of His will (thelema), and He cannot pass over the first-born in favor of the second son without due cause.
This enigma had to be resolved in a way that would harmonize His Plan with His Will, because God’s plan and His will come from the same God. God is not conflicted. God does not do anything that violates His own code of honor (i.e., the law). He cannot devise a plan that is untrue to Himself. In the end the divine plan will make its way around the obstacles of sin and justice until it emerges from the maze of history with the law in full agreement.
The problem throughout history is that most Bible scholars have not fully understood how God’s plan and will can be fulfilled at the same time. So they have devised various “solutions” that are, in fact, incorrect. Some discount God’s sovereign right as the Creator, shifting that right to men in the doctrine of “free will.”
This doctrine was designed to protect God from blame for evil in the world, but it did so only at the expense of His sovereignty. God’s power (and rights) were reduced to the point where He was often helpless to withstand evil and was soon pictured in a life-and-death struggle with the devil.
Others attempted to preserve God’s sovereignty at the expense of His Love that Paul set forth in Romans 5, a full four chapters before his “sovereignty” teaching in Romans 9. It is only when we understand that God’s sovereign plan is to save all men (Rom. 5:18) that we can unwind the enigma and do justice to Esau and Pharaoh (Rom. 9:14).
In fact, the story of Jacob and Esau was designed to show us how Jacob tried to fulfill the prophecy in an unlawful way—by lying to his father and by pretending to be Esau. Even this deception was prophesied by his name, Jacob, which means a deceiver or supplanter. His name was not changed to Israel until he had learned to stop trying to fulfill prophecy by the power of the flesh.
Jacob’s mistake was in the fact that he had too little confidence that God was able to fulfill His promise that was given prior to his birth. No doubt he knew the prophecy and only wanted to have what God had promised to him. But when his father decided to give Esau the blessing, contrary to the prophecy, Jacob’s mother panicked, and Jacob did not have enough faith to resist her devious plan to come to God’s rescue.
In planning to bless Esau, Isaac was not merely following his heart (for he loved Esau), but he was actually following the law of the hated son in Deuteronomy 21. At that time, Esau had not yet had time to prove himself to be unworthy of the blessing. Isaac’s mistake, it seems, is that he thought he was nearing his time to die, not realizing that he would recover and survive for another century.
Even so, God used this situation to teach us many things. Perhaps the most important lesson is in knowing that the promises of God will always be fulfilled, even when they appear to be impossible. True faith in God does not believe in appearances, but stands firm in the face of utter contradictions. True faith rests in the knowledge of God’s ability to fulfill His word, whereas shallow faith feels the need to help God and to save Him from failure.