Summary: Exegetical Paper on Malachi 3:6-12 - Encouraging a careful examination at scripture itself, especially in "well-known" passages where "everybody knows what that says." The context and connections of the passage only reinforce the content...but do we list
The Obscurity of the Familiar:
Content, Context and Connection in Malachi 3:6-12
Section One: Introduction
Most North American Christians coming to Malachi 3:6-12 encounter the obscurity of the familiar. The panacea of Malachi 3:10 has been prescribed by family-counselors-turned-moral-crusaders, by financial advisors lucratively marketing their economics theories, and by pastors whose congregation’s “obedience” gives opportunity (and financing) to build broadcasting and/or publishing empires. A cynic might see one sad consequence, however, as intentional. With interpretation and application pureed, strained and served to them the audience is never bothered to examine the word of God themselves, thus leaving them dependent upon the priests and scribes.
“We all know what that says.” This is the obscurity of the familiar. It haunts many of the most easily understood (often the most difficultly practiced) passages of scripture as well as those that require closer examination. Thankfully, Malachi’s message as a whole appears to be regaining some attention from scholars, especially those who see parallels between the present “post-modern” and/or “post-Christian” era and the environment facing the restoration community of Yehud, the province surrounding Jerusalem, in the latter years of the Persian Period. That increased attention, however, appears to be breeding anything but consensus.
In contrast to the obscurity of the familiar noted above, the most notable theme in Malachi scholarship seems to be, “We don’t know at all what that says.” Perhaps scholars become too familiar dealing with obscurity, but one longs for a definite conclusion or even an “odds-on-favorite” among so many theories. While popularists paint over the richness of Malachi’s message with a broad brush, insisting on a single simplistic application, others find occasion to evade God’s clear command in the confusion and debate over any variety of details that, while important, bear only on the minute specifics of the disobedience of Malachi’s audience, rather than clarifying any ambiguous requirements for the practice of Christians today.
Those who most confidently assert “the truth” of Malachi 3:10 appear reticent to clearly explore even that one verse, much less its context in 3:6-12, and by no means with regard to Malachi’s message as a whole. Others who have so deeply explored the passage under consideration, however, appear to have come only to the confidence that Malachi’s argument, its structure, rhetorical devices, and even concrete cultural referents cannot be definitively explained.
And perhaps they are right. One may be dissuaded by the belief that careful exploration is unnecessary in a passage with which they are so familiar. Others may be hindered by the belief that confident explanation is impossible in a passage with so much uncertainty in the socio-cultural details. This paper seeks to present as objective and inductive a view as possible (within the constraints of the writer’s deadline and available resources, not to mention the reader’s perseverance), questioning each element, its relationship to the passage, this passage’s relationship to Malachi’s argument as a whole (notwithstanding those who view Malachi as presenting no coherent and unified message), and its contribution not only to the overall canon of scripture, but the life and ministry of Christ through His Church today.
For those familiar with scholarship devoted to the book of Malachi, please note that this writer takes the view that there are eight disputations comprising a definite structure to a coherent and unified argument in the text of Malachi as translated in the New American Standard Bible. These disputations are identified as introduced by (and in 1:6 and 3:7 comprised by) the rhetorical questions asked in 1:2, 1:6, 1:7, 2:14, 2:17, 3:7, 3:8 and 3:13.
Section Two: The Theme and Construction of Malachi 3:6-12
The first most important determination in studying any passage of scripture is whether one sees a complete pericope or thought-unit before them. Malachi 3:6-12 having been assigned for consideration, one is initially and equally torn by a desire to push farther than 3:12 (to include the second of two means by which God’s people are commanded to return to Him) and the seeming discontinuity of 3:6 appearing to complete the thought of the previous pericope, and the first of two apparent sections in Malachi. In the structure of Malachi’s argument, however, 3:6 is the crux, reflecting back upon the charges levied against God’s people and priests in the first five disputations (taking an eight disputation view) and setting the tone and foundational assumption for the three disputations that follow (two of which are included in the passage under consideration).
With regard to looking beyond 3:12, in 3:7 God commands His people to return to Him. The resulting disputation, expressed rhetorically as “How shall we return?” is answered with two subsequent instructions. Clearly 3:8-12 is just the first of two means by which God’s people are to return to Him. Still, these seven verses are more than sufficiently rich in content to consume the attentions of this paper.