The authorship of Malachi has been a subject of debate by Bible commentators. The superscription (Mal. 1:1) is inadequate and unclear to give us reliable information concerning the author. The word מַלְאָכִֽי can be interpreted either as “A message: the word of Yahweh to Israel through Malachi” or “A message: the world of Yahweh to Israel through my messenger” (McComiskey 1992, 1245). Some scholars agree it could be a proper name though unusual. However many commentators are of the opinion, which I also subscribe to, that these oracles were originally anonymous, and that the name ‘Malachi’ was introduced at a later stage, perhaps when tradition had come to see this prophet as himself the messenger of the coming one on whose behalf he had been commissioned to speak (Verhoerf 1987, 162).
The book of Malachi does not explicitly mention the date it was written. But commentators have used the issues that Malachi addresses as a guide toward figuring out a date of the book. When looked from this standpoint, Malachi addresses similar issues addressed by Nehemiah and Ezra, meaning that they could have been contemporaries. And so the year 460BC is suggested; that is two years prior to the reforms of Ezra, and 14years prior to the Nehemiah’s arrival to Jerusalem (McComiskey 1992, 1252). This date is supported by the reference to the ‘governor’ (1:8) who were appointed by Persian authorities. The word “governor” is also used of Zerubbabel in Haggai and also of Nehemiah (5:14;12:26).
The book contains six major disputations after the superscription (1:1). The first disputation (1:2-5) is an oracle against Edom. The second disputation (1:6-2:9) is an oracle against priests concerning their unfaithfulness to the covenant; the third disputation (2:10-16) is an oracle against the people of Judah concerning their unfaithfulness to the covenant on intermarriage; the fourth disputation (2:17-3:5) is an oracle against the people of Judah concerning their unfaithfulness to the covenant on being unrighteous and unjust. The fifth disputation (3:6-12) is an oracle against the people of Judah concerning their unfaithfulness to the covenant on failure to provide tithes and offerings to God. The sixth disputation (3:13-21) is an oracle against the people of Judah concerning their unfaithfulness to the covenant (McComiskey 1992, 1249). Other commentators have come up with seven separate periscopes by dividing the second disputation (1:26-2:9) into two (1:6-14; 2:1-9) (Verhoerf 1987, 162 987). The book concludes (3:22-24) with a brief charge and summary of the book, to observe the law of Moses and be prepared for the coming day of the Lord. As a poetic literature, the disputations are structured chiastically “the first disputation is comparable to the sixth disputation, the second to the fifth, and the third to the fourth” (McComiskey 1992, 1250).
Malachi 3:19-21 falls in the sixth (or seventh depending on the position taken) disputation in a context where the people fail to fear and honor God, the arrogant are called blessed, and the people think serving God is futile. In addition, the people doubt that God distinguishes between good and the wicked because evildoers are prospering and those who challenge God escape. But in Malachi 3:19-21 the prophet describes the judgment that will befall the wicked, the vindication of the righteous and their ultimate victory over the wicked during the coming of the day of the Lord. It may presently seem that evildoers are triumphing and the righteous losing but ultimately the opposite will happen: the righteous will triumph and evildoers will be judged.
This paper discusses the meaning and message of 3:19-21, and demonstrate how the passage relates to the church today. What comes out strongly for application from these verses is that:
God’s ultimate destruction of the wicked and vindication of the righteous in the coming day should encourage believers and ministers of God’s word today to endure in their walk and work to the Lord knowing that God is aware of their devotion to him.
An Exegesis of Malachi 3:19-21
As stated above, Malachi 3:19-21 deals with the coming day of the Lord. He says that the coming day of the Lord is certain and it will bring about the destruction/judgment of all the wicked, the vindication and triumph of the righteous over the wicked. The first part of verse 19 shows certainty of the coming day. This is developed further by a figurative description of what the day will be like to all that do evil. They will be destroyed. In figurative terms they shall be chaff, burned up. In addition, no root nor their branch will be left. Verse 20 deals with the righteous; and shows that the righteous will be vindicated, they will finally triumph. Figuratively, they will be vindicated and they will be like calves released out of stalls. Verse 21 continues the thought in verse 20, the Lord of hosts declares that they will triumph, trampling down the wicked.
- The Lord states the certainty of the coming day whereby all the arrogant and all those who do evil will face destruction with nothing left (3:19).
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and all that do evil shall be chaff; and the day that is coming shall burn them up” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (3:19).
Verse 19 connects is connected with the former context by the use of כִּֽי־. In the preceding verse (v. 18) God expresses determination to distinguish between evil doers and those who fear him upon the coming of the day he has set. In this coming day all people will see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. Therefore according to the preceding context כִּֽי־ can be best translated as “For” (Clines 1993, 384a), that is, as an explanatory causality (Joüon and Muraoka 2006, sec. 170) (HALOT 975). The conjunction כִּֽי־ links verse 19 in a manner that continues the explanation of the mentioned separation of the righteous and the wicked in verse 18.
The exclamation הִנֵּ֤ה is used to introduce the idea of time. (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 40.2.1d). It reinforces the determination of Yahweh to act as seen in the verse, also “the abruptnesss of the language presents it in catastrophic suddenness with which it will burst upon the heads of evildoers and rebels against God.” (Unger 1988, 2084). The author adds it after כִּֽי־ to introduce a positive oath exclamation (Gibson 1994,156a).
The word הַיּוֹם֙ “the day” serves as a nominative subject. It has a definite article and is noun masculine singular. The day is qualified by two participles בָּ֔א and בֹּעֵ֖ר. Malachi refers to this day being in the future, but in the imminent future. ‘The day of the Lord’ forms part of the eschatology of the Bible. Other equivalents are: ‘the day’, ‘in that day’. It is “the occasion when Yahweh actively intervenes to punish sin that has come to climax” and Malachi’s reference to ‘the coming day’ can be interpreted as eschatological because it speaks of a radical change in events that will take place in the future (Wood and Marshall eds. 1996, 261). The day has also been interpreted differently by different people, according to Calvin it refers to the first coming of Christ, while other think it is the second coming of Christ to judge and others think it is God’s judgment until the last day. Other think it was an imminent catastrophe which his contemporaries would experience (Verhoef 1987, 324-325).
Other OT passages that bear similarities with reference to ‘the day’ include: Jer. 30:7, “How awful that day will be! No other will be like it. It will be a time of trouble for Jacob, but he will be saved out of it” (NIV hereafter unless noted otherwise). “Doom has come upon you, upon you who dwell in the land. The time has come! The day is near! There is panic, not joy, on the mountains” (Ezek. 7:7). “It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign Lord. This is the day I have spoken of “(Ezek. 39:8).
That day will be a day of wrath- a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness (Zeph. 1:15).
Prophecies have various specific stages of application, the first has to do with regard to the immediate audience in their situation, the second is related to the coming of Christ and the third application to the day of the final judgment (Vehoef 1987, 325). Malachi uses “the day” in an eschatological sense referring to a future time when God will ultimately and decisively deal with the wicked. This has not been fulfilled in totality because the wicked and wickedness is still prevalent. The use of two participles בָּ֔א and בֹּעֵ֖ר (both Qal participle masculiine singular.) as opposed to imperfects has a predicate function as significance. Though the participle and imperfect are equivalent in aspect, the participle gives a more durative aspect than the imperfect (Joüon and Muraoka 2006, 121h).
The figure of speechבֹּעֵ֖ר כַּתַּנּ֑וּר is a simile. It is a declaration that makes an explicit comparison of two things of unlike nature that have something in common. Likening the day with a burning furnace gives a picture of the magnitude of the burning (destruction). The article in כַּתַּנּ֑וּר has a generic use. This is a common feature in comparisons and in accordance with good English style is should be translated with indefinite article (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, sec. 13.5.1f-g).
A similar context is found in Ps 21:9 which states the Lord’s destruction of the wicked: “When you appear for battle, you will burn them up as in a blazing furnace. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath, and his fire will consume them” (Ps 21:9).
In light of the context, the author singles out “all the arrogant” and “all who do evil” to further specify on what he referred as “wicked” in 3:18. They are also the object of burning in the day that is coming. There is also hendiadys- two nouns joined by “and” that express a single idea-all the arrogant and all who do evil are one. The reason why the wicked are addressed here in the 3rd person as opposed to the 2nd person is makes it clear that God is not talking directly to the wicked but to the righteous, as seen in the next verse. It indicates explicit antithesis between the righteous and the wicked. Also God sent his messenger Malachi to his righteous people as a response to their prayers, v. 16, and so the use of 3rd person in reference to the wicked is justifiable.
The figurative expression קַ֔שׁ is a metaphor. It makes an implicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that have something in common (all the arrogant and all who evil are compared with chaff that will be burned). It does not mean that the wicked are literally chaff but speaks of their destiny. The metaphor of chaff shows that the wicked will be of no use. This figure of speech also appears in Isa. 5:24: “Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames, so the roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty”.
In this verse, הַיּ֣וֹם הַבָּ֗א and הַיּוֹם is the same. First it has been mentioned twice for emphasis because it is the subject of the verb. Secondly it is mentioned twice to show certainty of the coming day.
The coming day will “set them on fire” by consuming all the arrogant and all who do evil. It speaks of their complete destruction. There is also a parallel to this earlier in the verse, “burn like a furnace”. And so the idea of setting them (chaff) on fire (like a furnace) is consistent with the figure of expression as earlier mentioned. The coming judgment will not be to refine or to purify (3:2) but to consume. It will leave them no root or branch. This is a proverbial expression showing complete destruction compared to cutting down a tree and digging up its roots so that it will never sprout to grow again” (Unger 1988, 2085). A similar scriptures is Joel 1:19 conveying judgment to the house of David by failing to administer justice,
“O house of David, this is what the Lord says: ‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done-burn with no one to quench it” (Joel 1:19).
The use of the third person masculine plural אֹתָ֜ם is in apposition to “all the arrogant” and “all who do evil”. In line with the imagery in this verse, the pronoun אֹתָ֜ם specifically refers to the object that will burn, that is all the arrogant and all who do evil. The clause אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־יַעֲזֹ֥ב לָהֶ֖ם שֹׁ֥רֶשׁ וְעָנָֽףis result clause. Its antecedent is “For behold the day is coming, burning like a furnace”. Therefore the coming day will set the wicked on fire that cannot be quenched and all the wicked shall be destroyed as chaff.
The figures of speech שֹׁ֥רֶשׁ and עָנָֽףare synecdoche of the part for the whole. These are individual parts of a plant. It conveys the idea of totality. Not a single part (of the wicked) will remain during the burning in the coming day. It shows complete destruction. “The reference to root and branch is particularly important because roots and branches play important roles in sustaining a plant. Without them, the plant cannot survive. The metaphor therefore conveys a complete destruction of the wicked” (Sweeney 2000, 748). The two words occur in Job 18:16 in a context concerning the fate of the wicked,
His roots dry up below and his branches wither above. The memory of him perishes from the earth; and no name in the land.
The figure of speech שֹׁ֥רֶשׁ וְעָנָֽףis a metaphor. It is an implicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that have something in common. It conveys the total destruction of all the arrogant and all those who do evil. The evildoers, in the previous verses, had said harsh things against the Lord (v. 13) and were prospering (v.14) but not in the coming day, they will be completely be destroyed. A similar passage that has similar figurative expressions is Amos 2:9 referring to the destruction of the Amorites,
“I destroyed the Amorite before them, though he was tall as the cedars and strong as the oaks. I destroyed his fruit above and his roots below” (Amos 2:9).
Having dealt with the judgment and destruction of the wicked, the author in the next verse proceeds to describe what the coming day of the Lord holds in store for the righteous. The next verse (v. 20) is introduced by the contrastוְ “but” shifting emphasis from the wicked to the righteous. It deals with the righteous, and their destiny that is characterized by healing and joy.
2. The Lord states that the coming day will bring about the vindication, joy, and healing to the righteous (v. 20).
“But to you that fear my name, the sun of righteousness will arise with healing in his wings; and you shall go out and grow up as calves of the stall” (3:20).
It is worth noting that the prophet in verse 20 addresses his readers in the 2nd person unlike in the previous verse where he addressed the wicked in 3rd person. This because his message is specially directed to the righteous, those that fear the Lord. The shift in from third person to second person in this verse is introduced by a וְwhich in this case is an adversative clause (Arnold and Choi 2003, 5.2.10). The righteous who talked to each other (v.16) at the sight of the prosperity of the evildoers are the direct audience of the author.
The phrase לָכֶ֜ם יִרְאֵ֤י שְׁמִי֙ refers to the righteous and those who serve God, according to v. 18. A use of similar expression referring those who fear the Lord as those who honor his name is also found in Ps. 61:5 referring to giving of heritage to those who revere/fear the Lord’s name: “For you, God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name”.
The word שֶׁ֣מֶשׁ is syntactically a nominative subject ((Waltke and O’Connor 1990, sec. 8, 3a-b).
The word שֶׁ֣מֶשׁ is a masculine. It is noted that sometimes the gender of an adjective does not agree with the noun it modifies, also called violation of concord (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 6.6b). An example of a passage with this kind of violation, where Hebrew follows semantics rather than grammatical orientation of a noun is Eccles. 12:9 קֹהֶ֖לֶת חָכָ֑ם. Here the noun קֹהֶ֖לֶת (‘teacher’) is feminine, but the adjective חָכָ֑ם (‘wise’) is masculine. Normally, in this instance we would expect the adjective to be feminine to agree with the feminine subject, but it does not. However the meaning of the corresponding words in different genders does not differ based on the change in gender (Gibson 1994, 16(c), 17 (b).
The word שֶׁ֣מֶשׁ is figurative. Its meaning can be better understood by treating it as a figurative language. And so, the figure of speech שֶׁ֣מֶשׁ is a hypocatastasis; a comparison between two things of unlike nature (sun and righteousness) which the subject of comparison must be inferred from the context. The use of this word with the verb “rise” at the beginning of the verse conveys a sense of dawning of a day. The figurative language in line with the context, referring to the dawning or the day that is coming as referred in verse 18. This figurative expression also occurs in, Isaiah 60: 20, “Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.” In this instance it refers to a future promise to the chosen people of God; that the light of God will shine upon them.
The wordצְדָקָ֔ה means ‘righteousness’. It as “righteousness as vindicated, justification, salvation” (of God) (Brown and Briggs 1907, 842). The syntax of the word צְדָקָ֔ה is an attributive genitive; the word in this case is the adjective of the construct noun שֶׁ֣מֶש (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 9.5.3b).This word also has a parallel usage in Isa. 58:9:
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
In this context of disputation between God and his people on true fasting, Isaiah proclaims the promise of vindication to God’s people. The figurative language of ‘the sun of righteousness’ is something from the ancient Near East cultures, “the sun of righteousness here is bringing justice. Throughout the ancient Near East solar deities are connected to justice. It is not unusual in the Old Testament for Yahweh’s work to be depicted using this metaphor of solar terminology” (Walton et al. 2000, 811). The destruction of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous emanates from the nature of God who is just.
Syntactically, מַרְפֵּ֖א is an apposition to the ‘sun’ (GKC 131k). The word מַרְפֵּ֖א means ‘healing’. It as “healing, cure, health” (Brown and Briggs 1907, 951); in this context it is used with spiritual implication. The vindication that arises out of God’s justice to the righteous is in a way healing. A parallel verse to the usage in this verse is Jer. 14:19 whereby the people of Judah, like Malachi’s audience who revere the Lord’s name, are longing for a healing from the Lord, it reads:
“Have you rejected Judah completely? Do you despise Zion? Why have you afflicted us so that we cannot be healed? We hoped for peace but no good has come, for a time of healing but there is only terror”.
The word כְנָפֶ֑יהָ means ‘wings’. It is defined as “fence in, enclose,” and Aramaic “collect, assemble” (Brown and Briggs 1907, 489b). ‘Healing in its wings’ is “a symbolic use of the wings of a bird with the rays of the sun. The wings denote protective care (hence the healing). An ancient Near Eastern motif in astral religions has the sun depicted as a winged disk. This is especially pervasive in the Persian period” (Walton et al. 2000, 811). The referent for the suffix בִּכְנָפֶ֑יהָ(third person feminine singular) is Yahweh. It is in apposition to “my name” in the same verse.
A passage with a same nuance is Ps.17:8-9 which refer to the protective wings of the Lord: “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked who assail me, from my mortal enemies who surround me”.
The conjunction וִֽ “and” links verse 20 and 20b in a sequential manner depicting the resultant experience of those who fear the name of the Lord when they will finally experience healing and vindication.
The figure of speech וִֽיצָאתֶ֥ם וּפִשְׁתֶּ֖ם כְּעֶגְלֵ֥י מַרְבֵּֽק is a hendiadys, in this case two verbs that express a single idea are joined by “and” (Snyman and Cronje 1986, 113-21). In this figure of speech therein is also a simile. It all conveys the freedom, and joy that comes wither the vindication of the righteous, those who fear the Lord’s name, when the day of the Lord comes.
There is a sequence from verse 20b to verse 21. In verse 20b the righteous will not only be freed, vindicated, and be full of joy as calves released out of stalls but they shall also triumph trampling down the wicked, v. 21. There is a progression of thought to further show that those who fear the Lord’s name shall finally prevail over the wicked.
3. The Lord states that the coming day be characterized by the triumph of the righteous over the wicked (v. 21).
“Then you shall trample on the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day when I shall act,” says the Lord of hosts” (3:21).
The verb עַססּ means to press, crush, by treading, tread down. It is defined as to “go the rounds (trample), prowl. The word is defined based on the Arabic reading (Brown and Briggs 1907, 779a). In the coming day the righteous will triumph over the wicked. The figure of speech וְעַסּוֹתֶ֣ם רְשָׁעִ֔ים is a metaphor. It conveys the ultimate victory of the righteous over the wicked, “all the arrogant and all that do evil” as stated in v. 19. The clause כִּֽי־יִהְי֣וּ אֵ֔פֶר תַּ֖חַת כַּפּ֣וֹת רַגְלֵיכֶ֑ם is an ordinary causality, showing that the righteous shall trample on the wicked (Joüon and Muraoka 2006, 170).
The day בַּיּוֹם֙ refers to the eschatological day of the Lord, the time when he will punish the wicked and vindicate the righteous. The preposition בַּ in this word has been used in a temporal sense and can be translated “when”. It refers to a time in the future of triumph, and vindication of the righteous; the time when all the arrogant and all that do evil will be destroyed.
The phrase בַּיּוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִ֣י עֹשֶׂ֔ה means ‘in the day that I will act’ refers to the coming day that the Lord will execute the judgment of the wicked and vindicate those who fear his name. It is “day of Yahweh, chiefly as time of his coming in judgment, involving often blessedness for righteous (Brown and Briggs 1907, 399a). Isaiah 34:8 is similar to this context whereby the Lord will act in vengeance in the coming day, “For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause”.
The message in Malachi 3:19-21 points out to a time that is coming, the day of the Lord, when all the arrogant and all that evil doers will be judged and destroyed with nothing left. Malachi wrote to the righteous who lived among the wicked who said harsh things about God and ridiculed service to God. In this context, God promises to act, in his coming day. The book does not explain when but what will happen during the coming day. But it is clear that when that day come the wicked will be no more. The righteous are still suffering and their vindication has not yet come in totality. This makes this passage eschatological, because though God has always judge the wicked before and after Malachi’s time, the wicked and wickedness is still a reality. It has not been totally wiped out. This will happen at the second coming of Jesus (Mt. 25:46).
The message of Malachi 3:19-21 has shown that the coming day of the Lord will bring about the vindication of the righteous and judgment/destruction of the wicked. The righteous and the wicked will be distinguished in the coming day. In that day the Lord will decisively deal with all the arrogant and all who do evil. He will destroy them like a farmer would destroy chaff by fire and they will be no more. On the other hand, the righteous or those who revere his name will receive joy, vindication and victory over the wicked in the coming day. God’s ultimate destruction of the wicked and vindication of the righteous in the coming day should encourage believers and ministers of God’s word today to endure in their walk and work to the Lord knowing that God is aware of their devotion to him.
In Malachi’s day, the evildoers said harsh things against the Lord (v.13), they said it is futile to serve God (v.14), they prospered, the arrogant were called blessed, and many who challenged God escaped (v.15). Certainly, this was a very challenging and oppressive to the righteous who might have been seen by their contemporaries as foolish or failures by serving God or by observing his commandments (in relation to disputations).
There are some parallels to this in our world today. It is not popular to serve God, we live in a continent plagued by corruption and each time godly values are pushed to the periphery; as a result those who fear God’s name and his commandments suffer insults, ridicule or severe persecution. The message of Malachi is an encouragement to believers and church leaders/pastors/missionaries who diligently obey the Lord and revere his name amidst prevalence of evil. It may seem that they are losing it all or that they are not successful in human terms; but even in their difficulties as they serve God they are regarded as successful by God and in due time they will be vindicated. The prosperity of the wicked is only short-lived, when the day that the Lord has set comes, they will be destroyed and the righteous will triumph and be vindicated.
Malachi 3:19-21 shows that the coming day of the Lord is certain and it will bring about the vindication to the righteous and the destruction/judgment of all the wicked. The idea is developed in verse 19 by stating that the coming day is certain. This idea is developed further by a figurative description of what the day will be like to all that do evil. They will be destroyed. In figurative terms they shall be chaff, burned up. In addition, not even their root nor their branch will be left. Verse 20 turns to the righteous and shows that they will be vindicated, they will finally triumph. Figuratively, they will be vindicated and they will be like calves released out of stalls. Verse 21 continues the thought in verse 20 making Yahweh’s declaration that righteous finally triumph, trampling down the wicked.
This passage should have been a strong warning to the wicked that though they presently seemed to prosper in their evil schemes, the Lord has set a day that will bring judgment and destruction to them; the day will burn them up and they will not escape. In addition, this passage must have encouraged the righteous/those who serve God that despite prevalence of wickedness and evil people God is aware of their plight. And in due course he will vindicate them, for those that fear his name will finally triumph.
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