Malachi wrote the final book of the Old Testament and was the last of the prophets. The Hebrew term means, “My Messenger,” which could indicate that he was an anonymous prophet if this was not actually a proper name. He is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and little is known about him. Internal evidence in the text, however, indicates it was written no earlier than 450 B.C., with Jewish Chabad rabbis dating it to 312 B.C. The Encyclopedia Britannica remarks that this prophet wrote “long after the exile had become a distant memory.” It is therefore important to understand that it was written for and about the two tribes of the House of Judah who had returned to Canaan from Babylonian exile, not the more numerous ten tribes of the House of Israel, deported by Assyria centuries before, who never returned. The situation he describes is an accurate picture of Persian-era Judah, known as Yahud. Notably, only the tribes of Judah and Levi are mentioned in his discourse as being present in the land (Mal. 2:4, 8, 11; 3:3, 4). Malachi’s prophecies and threatenings therefore do not pertain to the other now “Gentilized” peoples comprising the descendants of the House of Israel in the world today.
Malachi, being the last of the prophets in the “scroll of the Twelve,” the 12 minor prophets, has an important place in Old Testament prophecy and Persian era events. Yet Malachi is largely ignored in Christian teaching today, in part due to a persistent misunderstanding of his message and the recipients of its fulfillment. He also lived in a time of great spiritual decay, and his words and denunciations may seem excessively sharp and strong to our ears, such as his famous declaration in chapter four: “FOR BEHOLD, the day comes that shall burn like an oven, and all the proud and arrogant, yes, and all that do wickedly and are lawless, shall be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. (Mal. 4:1)
When is “the day” that will see the fulfillment of his prophecies? Biblical commentators are not agreed on this. John Trapp supposed, “It was fulfilled in part upon this people at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and their miserable exile ever since for their unbelief.” Instead, John Wesley believed, “This may well be an emblem of the day of judgment.” Perhaps the Jamieson, Faucett, and Brown Commentary is nearest the mark: “Primarily is meant the judgment coming on Jerusalem…the final and full accomplishment, of which the former was the earnest, is the day of general judgment. This principle of interpretation is not double, but successive fulfillment.” We have seen a successive fulfillment of Malachi’s prophetic warnings in the suffering and persecution of the Jews throughout subsequent history since the prophecy was given. If his warning remains unheeded, the worst is yet to come, according to the Horae Homileticae: “But doubtless this warning refers also to the day of judgment—In that day the Judge himself will come in flames of fire [Note: 2 Thess. 1:7-9.]: and the objects of God’s displeasure shall be cast into the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone [Note: Rev. 21:8].” This is the severe warning given by the apostles in the New Testament and indicates that Malachi’s prophecy ultimately will be widened to include all of the ungodly unbelievers of the earth at large on the Day of Judgment.
What exactly is the “root and branch” judgment of which he is speaking? In one sense it may be considered simply a proverbial expression for total destruction. While do know that the fire of God’s wrath is indeed coming upon the earth, we are thankful that other prophets also clearly speak of Israel’s restoration and glorious future, which will include the House of Judah (Ezekiel 37). Yet, could there be an additional deeper symbolic or secondary meaning to Malachi’s warning? A human root is one’s ancestors, while branches and their boughs are sons, daughters, and their descendants. “Root” is translated from the Hebrew, sheresh (Strongs #8328). This word, often meaning ancestor(s), is seen in biblical passages such as Isaiah 11:1, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots,” a prophecy of the coming Messiah, whose root or ancestor was David, son of Jesse. (See also Isa. 11:10; 37:31; 2 Ki. 19:30).
A branch, Hebrew, anaph Strongs #H6057), used as a metaphor for Hebrew descendants, is seen in the Isaiah prophecy above, as well as Ezekiel 17:8, “It was planted in a good soil by great waters, that it might bring forth branches, and that it might bear fruit, that it might be a goodly vine.” The vine is symbolic of Israel (Isa. 5), and her tribes are branches spreading out from Canaan as “many nations” (Gen. 17:4-6). We find that both of these metaphoric issues, ancestors and descendants, roots and branches, figure prominently in Malachi’s prophecy. Ancestry and heritage were important and central to his teaching, and so the Jewish Targum says that Malachi speaks of a judgment “which shall not leave them son and nephew.”
In this vein, it is a noteworthy and often ignored point that his prophecy begins with a strongly-worded heartfelt and surely relevant discourse against Edom in chapter one, verses 2 to 5. Malachi (2:11-12) deplores the intermarriages evidently already taking place between the tribe of Judah and the Edomites as well as other nations, which nationally and religiously diluted the identity of the covenant people. The Edomites were finally conquered by Judean king John Hyrcanus in circa 129 B.C. and forcibly incorporated into the Jewish people. In this ancillary interpretation, Malachi may be implying that if this state of affairs continues, God’s judgment will complete the process leaving them with no root whatsoever.
It is significant that the Jewish people of today are a highly mixed people with an intermarriage rate nearing fifty percent, and as such are progressively losing their connection to Hebrew heritage and biblical religious principles. A recent study found that nearly half of American Jews under the age of 30 are agnostic. In addition, the Jewish birthrate is well below replacement level and falling, with another study projecting that the world Jewish population may decline by over half to only about five million in the next fifty years. This will result, as Malachi may be warning, in the loss of branches and boughs, or descendants.
Malachi’s stern prophecy certainly accurately foretold the sad vicissitudes of the Jews through the centuries, but let us not forget that the great majority of Israel—Ephraim of the Ten Tribes—have fulfilled many other significant and more beneficial prophecies of the covenant people, including that their many nations (Gen. 17:4-6; 35:11; 48:19) would take the Word of the Lord in Christian evangelism to the ends of the earth (Isa. 49:6). We are thankful for prophets such as Malachi, with their needed warnings, and for the fulfillment of these and so many other important biblical prophecies!