Summary: The people of Malachi’s day were asking several questions, but out of rebellion rather than interest.
Sara Maitland, a British author, tells about an interesting experience she had, in her book A Big Enough God: “A few years ago, just a day or so after a York Minister was struck by lightning, I was on my way to the local post office near my home, which is in a wretchedly poor part of Hackney, when I met an elderly woman. She was most distressed by this bolt from the heavens, this “act of God” as the insurance people call it (which alone gives you pause for thought). She was very upset. Did I think, she asked, that God had done it on purpose, as some newspapers were speculating? The post was about to leave, and I was in a hurry, but how can anyone resist such a subject? No, I said, I didn’t really think so, did she? No, she said, she didn’t really think that God was like that. There was a pause, and I was poised to escape. Then she added, in what I can only describe as a tone of affectionate criticism, “But he should have been more careful; he should have known there’d be talk.’”
There was plenty of talk during the time of the prophet Malachi. People were talking about God in a critical way that was less than affectionate. It was a time which was different than most of the other prophets. Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets who preached around 430 B.C. His ministry was to the grandchildren of the people who had originally returned to Jerusalem after the time of exile in Babylon. The first exiles had returned over 150 years before, and the temple had been rebuilt almost a century earlier. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C., and burned the beautiful temple built by King Solomon. Solomon had built the temple at a cost of what today would be around $15,000,000. The temple was extremely ornate with walls which were covered with pure gold. The original exiles had been away from their homeland for 70 years, and when they returned to Jerusalem their stunning temple was only a burned out shell. The few exiles who had returned to Jerusalem were living in abject poverty. There was no way they could rebuild the temple to anything near its former glory. The whole city of Jerusalem was a mess one hundred years after a crude temple had been reconstructed, and the people were dejected and depressed. Their spirits were in ruins as well as the city. They were discouraged and ready to give up. Families were breaking up. Those who had a little money or power were oppressing others and resorting to violence. Temple worship was a farce. Only the absolute minimum of religious practice was observed. People felt that God had let them down and they were mad at him. They went through the motions of worship, but their hearts were not in it.
Into this depressing atmosphere stepped the prophet Malachi. And the first words to come out of the mouth of Malachi from God were: “I have loved you, says the Lord” (Malachi 1:2). The people must have laughed in his face at those words. They were cynical. “How have you loved us?” they asked. “If you loved us, our families would never have been taken into exile. Our city would not have been destroyed and the temple would not have been burned. If you loved us, we would not be living in these conditions now. Pardon us if you don’t seem very loving.” These people were obviously alienated from God. The book of Malachi teaches a great deal about people who are alienated from God. The first mark of a people who are alienated from God is: They treat God with contempt and justify their own behavior. Any objective observer looking at what was happening in Jerusalem would be able to understand that the people were experiencing these conditions because they had abandoned God when things became difficult. Their difficulties led to disappointment with God and their disappointment eventually led to outright anger. Many people stopped going to the temple for worship altogether, and those who did attend gave God the leftovers of their lives and love. They offered their lambs as a sacrifice, but only the weak and diseased ones. Their lips formed prayers, but their hearts were far from God. They blamed him for everything and themselves for nothing. They forgot that the destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile which followed, was a result of the sin and rebellion of their fathers. And now they were headed down the same path that their fathers had traveled. They were practicing violence and unfaithfulness. They had abandoned God and blamed him for all their troubles at the same time. They became hardened cynics who lived only for themselves.