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Wrestling with Theodicy in Malachi

Closing of Exile

As Israel’s time in exile was drawing to a close, prophecies from Isa 40–55 spoke of redemption and a glorious return to their homeland. These oracles of salvation envisioned this return as a second exodus (Isa 43), as a recreation of their identity as the people of God (Isa 48). The anticipated joys of resettlement were quickly dashed by the realities that beset them in Yehud. Famine, drought (Hag 1), and crop failure (Mal 3:11) plagued the community. Circumstances proved so challenging that the people were weeping at the altar (Mal 2:13). The overthrowing of the nations and the promise of Zerubbabel as the signet ring of YHWH did not materialize as expected (Hag 2:20–23), or at least, such promises were understood as long delayed. Any hope they had of political independence and the restoration of a national identity quickly disappeared under the expansive rule of the Persian Empire.

Where is YHWH's Justice?

Any community experiencing these kinds of challenges could easily fall into despair. In the first disputation (Mal 1:2–5), for example, the community queried over whether God still “loved” them, whether God was still faithful in his covenant with them. No doubt what prompted that line of investigation was their current circumstances, particularly the issues mentioned above. In the fourth disputation, another issue proves more challenging and vexing, and similar to the first disputation, it is brought on due to the current circumstances within the community.

The apparent unchecked success and prosperity of the “evildoers” led them to question YHWH’s justice (2:17). The issue at hand was not simply that people participated in activity that was contrary to the torah or that such activity proved counterproductive to the survival of the community, but that God seemed unmoved by their behavior. Why would YHWH allow such behavior to continue unabated?

Persian Empire

Theodicy in Malachi

The problem of theodicy is obviously not unique to Malachi in the Old Testament, but perhaps its closest analog can be found in the book of Habakkuk. In the opening verses (1:2–4), the prophet laments the injustice and violence that seems rampant and unchecked in pre-exilic Judah.

While most prophets in ancient Israel called the community back to covenant faithfulness, Habakkuk appears to be “calling God to account when [God’s] actions did not seem to correspond to those demanded by the covenant.” Similar to the issues in Mal 2:17, Habakkuk is concerned over the apparent silence of the Divine in the face of such gross injustice, including the flagrant disregard of torah demands by those within the community (Hab 1:4).

While the issue of theodicy may appear similar in the two books, the response of those raising the question are quite different. In Habakkuk, following his articulation of the problem in chapter 1, the prophet announces in chapter 2 that he will station himself on the rampart and “keep watch to see what [YHWH] will say to me” concerning his complaint (2:1 NRSVUE). Although current circumstances are troubling, the prophet’s hope remains in the coming of God and his capacity to bring resolution. A similar move is made in the psalms of lament. Repeatedly the psalmists ask “how long” (13:2[1]; 74:10–11), or they raise concerns about God’s apparent hiddenness (10:1; 42:10[9]), but time and again, they confess that they will wait on God.

Human Circumstance and God's Character

The “wearisome words” offered by the community in Malachi stand in contrast to the expression of faith articulated by Habakkuk and the psalmists when they encountered similar questions of theodicy. Had those within Malachi’s community only asked the second question, “Where is the God of justice?,” then their voice would have joined a chorus of others who have asked about the hiddenness of God.

It is the first statement posed by the community, however, that signals their divergence from traditional, more orthodox, responses. In their accusation that God counts the evildoers as “good,” and more problematic still, that God “delights” in evildoers, the community in Yehud has sought to redefine the character of God based upon their own experience. From their angle of vision, if the wicked appear to prosper and if God has not responded in judgment, then there can only be one conclusion: God must have changed the rules. It is this faulty assessment by the community that wearied God (2:17a) and necessitated a prophetic response in 3:1–5. To wrestle with God, to plumb the depths of theodicy, invites us to explore the mystery of God and God’s ways in the world, but such explorations are not an invitation to redescribe the very character of God.

Content adapted from Malachi (ZECOT) by W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.
Photo Credit: Lucy Chian. 

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