1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.Malachi 3:1–4 (NRSV)
Malachi 3:1–4 is a political critique of the Persian empire that financially funded religious cults of its subjects—that is, until their goal of territorial expansion was fulfilled. In Malachi 3:1, YHWH comes as a “messenger” and “Lord” to invite a rebellion against the “benevolent” empire, Persia. The “benevolence” of Persia faded away as soon as its economy was threatened. Although it presented itself as a better alternative to the Babylonian empire, Persian policies were ultimately self-centered.
The Persian empire and its policies strike me as similar to the current Indian government and its policies. Five years ago on November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, made a televised address to the nation declaring a ban of ₹500 and ₹1000 currency beginning from midnight of the same day. Eighty-six percent of the entire currency suddenly ceased to be a legal tender. The Prime Minister asked the currency holders to exchange their ₹500 and ₹1000 notes in the bank within the next fifty days. It was claimed that the objective of this sudden currency ban (also known as demonetization) was to tackle corruption and get rid of illegal money. In his speech, Narendra Modi claimed the motto of their government as Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas, which he translated, “With All Citizens, for the Development of All Citizens.” Although Modi and his party promised an unbiased government that would serve everybody alike, their implicitly (and often explicitly) caste driven politics have put the Dalits, tribals, and women at the margins.
Like the Modi government, the Persian empire presented itself as a people-friendly empire. According to the Hebrew Bible, the first Persian emperor, Cyrus, declared that YHWH had charged him to build a house at Jerusalem in Judah (Ezra 1:2). After defeating Babylon, Cyrus did not make too many policy changes at the local level. As long as he conquered new territories that paid tribute to Persia, Cyrus tolerated the varied religious practices of his subjects. It is commonly understood that the Persian empire was far more tolerant than the series of empires that preceded it. While the Babylonian empire forcefully displaced populations, the Persian empire allowed the return of its subjects to their ancestral lands. In biblical perspective, this return was seen as God-ordained (Ezra 1:1). But the Persian empire also had a hidden agenda, which was to strengthen their boundaries and expand their territory. Similarly, the Indian Prime Minister’s claim of Sabka Vikas (Development of All Citizens) was really only a development of Modi’s own self, his caste, and his party.
Jon Berquist suggests that Malachi’s concern with the priests coincides historically with the later Persian emperor Xerxes’s reforms of temple funding. After Xerxes assumed power, he suddenly reduced the resources allocated to the provincial shrines. The sudden reduction in temple income directly impacted the way worship was offered in Yehud, including the income of the priests. These policy changes incited rebelliousness from some subjects. Egypt, for example, unsuccessfully rebelled against the Persian empire. Malachi 3:1–4 can be seen as one such rebellion, incited by YHWH.
YHWH’s call to rebellion in Malachi 3:1–4 can be seen in two ways: firstly, the language of “messenger” in 3:1 reverses the role played by “messenger” in the cultural milieu. Messages in the Persian empire were written on scrolls, signed by a royal authority, and hand delivered or read by messengers who had no agency of their own. The people of Yehud were familiar with such messages and messengers. However, the messenger language in Malachi 3:1–4 has confused several scholars and there is no consensus on the identity of the “messenger” in verse 1. While there are three “characters” in 3:1 (“my messenger,” “the Lord,” “the messenger of the covenant”), I argue, along with Beth Glazier-McDonald, that the Lord and the messenger of the covenant refer to the same individual, YHWH.
Although the “messenger” did not normally have any personal agency in the cultural milieu, YHWH infuses the role with divine agency, declaring that YHWH will be seated in the temple. The “sudden” change in the economy of the temple (caused by emperor Xerxes) will be compensated by the “sudden” coming of the Lord (Hebrew: ha’adon) who will equip Yehud to offer offerings in righteousness. This acknowledgment of YHWH, along with the presentation of offerings in righteousness, declares an allegiance to YHWH and a critique against the Persian empire. YHWH is both “the Lord” and “the messenger” who communicates rebellion against the empire by being seated in the temple.
Secondly, there will be a reversal in the recipient of the offerings. Malachi 3:4 reads, “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” The offerings will be pleasing to the Lord, YHWH—and not to the Persian governor or emperor. In Malachi 1:7–8, we notice that the priests were condemned for offering polluted food as offerings to God. The priests were challenged rhetorically: would they present such polluted offerings to the Persian governor? In this way, a comparison was made between the offerings presented to the Lord and the offerings presented to the governor. But by Malachi 3:4, the language has shifted. Now, the gifts of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord. And the recipient of the choicest gifts will be YHWH—not the governor. With this language, YHWH invites the people of Judah and Jerusalem to revolt against self-centered government, changing their allegiance from the Persian emperor to YHWH, who is the Lord, the messenger, and the message.