Eli T. Evans
The hero dangles by one gloved hand from the wall of a steep ravine. The heroine, lashed to the railroad tracks, struggles to escape as the train rushes toward her. The villain looks on gleefully, twirling his mustache. Will the hero fall? Will the heroine be crushed? Will the villain get away with it all? You’ll find out—in our next installment!
The cliffhanger, so named for melodramatic scenes such as this, is used to ramp up suspense and dramatic tension just before a break in the story. Cliffhangers tend to bring the conflict into sharp focus, sometimes by putting the main characters into impending danger, other times by suddenly revealing a plot twist or introducing a new character. The point is to keep the audience guessing about what happens next.
Malachi is the cliffhanger to the Old Testament—not that the period between the Testaments is completely silent. (Many Christian communities recognize books that were written in the 400-odd years between Malachi and Matthew as Scripture.) Rather, Malachi is the last book of the “thus sayeth the Lord”-style of discourse that typified the golden age of Israelite prophecy.
Malachi sets a scene of impending doom: The people have returned from exile in Babylon, Israelite society is being painfully rebuilt and the temple worship is functioning once again—or would be, except that the priesthood is desperately corrupt. Malachi demonstrates how low the Israelites have sunk by putting a series of petulant questions into their mouths:
“How have you loved us?” Israel’s first failure is that they have forgotten the nurturing and preserving hand of Yahweh (Mal 1:2). “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food on the altar (1:6). “How have we polluted you?” By offering blind or lame animals as if they were acceptable (1:7).
At this point, the priests protest, saying “What a weariness this is!” (1:13). They apparently see no use in serving Yahweh in the proper way. Later, Malachi has them say that “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” (3:14). The fundamental issue in Malachi is a lack of real respect for God—the façade of the temple worship is there, but there’s no substance behind it.
The protests continue: “Why does he not [accept the offerings with favor]?” (2:14). “How have we wearied him?” (2:17). “How have we robbed you?” (3:8). The cumulative effect of these “hard words” against Yahweh is startling: When confronted with their sin, the priests stubbornly respond with slander, blasphemy and demands for more evidence.
The sins we see in Malachi are no different from those in Jesus’ day: cheating with the sacrifices, mishandling the tithes, profiteering, oppressing the poor and rampant divorce. “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts.” That’s Malachi 2:7–8, but it could just as easily have come from one of Jesus’ tirades against the “blind guides” who “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces,” as in Matthew 23:2–36.
As Malachi comes to a close, all hope appears lost. The should-be-heroic priests are playing the villain while the fledgling nation of returned exiles dangles over the precipice by its fingertips. Will the priesthood remain corrupted? Will Israel and Judah join Edom as “the people with whom God is angry forever” (Mal 1:4)? Find out in our next exciting episode!
Just as the peril reaches its peak, the plot shifts, and a new character is introduced: “For behold, the day is coming” when the tables will turn and “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (4:2). Malachi doesn’t say who this “sun of righteousness” is, but he does tease us with something to look forward to: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before that great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (4:5).
Malachi’s cliffhanger ends abruptly with both imminent danger and two mysterious new characters. After a prophetic intermission of four centuries, a lone preacher appears in the desert, dressed in a hair shirt and belt, proclaiming repentance and prophesying like a man from another time. For someone who claims not to be Elijah (John 1:21), John the Baptist certainly dresses, speaks and acts just like him. John’s protestations notwithstanding, Jesus confirms that John is the prophet promised in Malachi 4:5—if we are “willing to accept it” (Matt 11:14). John the Baptist, “one like Elijah,” prophesies of this Jesus, this “sun of righteousness” (Mal 4:2). Thus the cliffhanger is resolved by the arrival of the only true hero in the story. There’s a new sheriff in town, stirring up trouble, ready to pardon any villains who will lay down their arms and follow Him, putting life and limb on the line to pull us all back from the brink.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).