Religious people are often stereotyped as naïve, shallow, and bigoted, but this is usually not the real story. The Jewish people proved to be very knowledgeable of the customs and religions of other nations. After all, they had the experience of having tried them all and seen the consequences of their bad choices. They had been given great liberty to investigate different lifestyles, but their personal relationship with their God Jehovah brought them back to the place of wanting to please Him. The Captivity was an intense learning experience. They learned that choices have consequences, and their experiences made them wise and mature far beyond the other nations.
Many new attitudes were formed as a result of the Captivity. They were so determined not to repeat the mistake of being influenced by foreign cultures, that separation became primordial. One Bible dictionary says that the Pharisees probably came out of the Maccabean Revolt in 165 BC, but "There was, however, a group of Jews resembling the Pharisees as far back as the Babylonian Captivity." The Semitic form of the name Pharisees even means "separatists". After Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 330 BC, Hellenism spread like wildfire throughout the world and threatened the integrity of Judaism everywhere it was found. In the 2nd century BC, the Maccabees rose to the occasion and led a military revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Their determination to protect Judaism from corruption was handed down to them from the time of Malachi.
Malachi spoke out just ten or twenty years after Nehemiah, so his role was to get the Jews back on track so they could focus on their objective for the next five hundred years, until the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The rules were the same as always, but the journey would be a long one. The book of Malachi consists of six discussions between God and his people. The first discussion (Malachi 1:2-5) begins by God telling them "I have loved you". The evidence lies in the fact that Judea fared better than Edom because God loved Jacob rather than Esau. The land of Edom, where the descendants of Esau lived became deserted and its inhabitants transferred to Idumea, south of Judea. God's intentions were always good. Love was always the bottom line. God's relationship with his people was as personal as it gets. He was always there for them.
The second discussion (2:10-16) is about respect. God says, "where is my honor?" because the priests were offering second-rate sacrifices. Since God is real, the relationship is real, and respect is necessary for a good relationship. God ends by saying, "I am a great King, …, and my name will be feared among the nations" (1:14). God was respected among the Babylonians because of Nebuchadnezzar, among the Persians because of Cyrus, among the Greek because of the Maccabees, and among the Romans because of the Jewish wars. Why would God not be respected among his own people?
The third discussion (2:10-16) is about faithfulness. The people were breaking the most solemn of their contractual covenants. They profaned the temple by marrying "the daughter of a foreign god", and they were divorcing the wives they married when they were young. This is about going the distance. Divorce was proof that this was a character flaw. It wasn't God. We should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they corrected the problems. Ten generations later, Jesus would draw attention to divorce (Matthew 19:7-9), but his words were not as scathing as Malachi's. They seem to have learned something about faithfulness.
The fourth discussion (2:17-3:5) is about honesty, as it relates to justice. Relational conflicts involve accusations. Those who argue accuse others and exonerate themselves. God tells the people that they weary him by calling evil good. They willfully distort right and wrong, and they're pointing the finger at God. This could go on forever, except that God will someday send his messenger and will draw near himself to pass judgment. This is a promise.
The fifth discussion (3:6-12) is about generosity. God was generous, but his people were lax. He goes so far as to say that they are robbing him. A relationship involves mutual responsibilities and expectations. God expected a "full tithe", at a minimum. Selfishness versus generosity! God didn't need their wealth, but they needed to learn generosity, for their own good.
The sixth discussion (3:13-4:3) is about accountability. God is keeping a "book of remembrance". Those who "fear the Lord" will belong to his "treasured possession"; evil will be set ablaze like stubble. This will happen because "the Sun of righteousness [shall] arise with healing in his wings" (Mal. 4:2 KJV). Love, respect, faithfulness, honesty, and generosity will all be worth it when we give account of ourselves in the future. Our reward is a relationship with God himself.
It is one thing to begin and another to finish. Israel is still in the race. It is still personally accountable to God, and it will one day stand before the Sun of righteousness who will rise with healing it his wings.