As is so often the case, we have to read back a little way in order to understand this passage in its own context. In fact a new section begins in 2:17 with the prophet telling the people that they have worn God out with their complaining. Apparently the idea was gaining currency that because they couldn’t see bad people getting the comeuppance they deserved, God must be approving what they were doing. They looked for a God of justice, a God who would punish evil and reward goodness, but instead all they found was a God who let nasty people get away with it. So we hear again the eternal question ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’
When someone says something about us which is just so blatantly untrue and unfair, we can’t help but respond to put them right. That’s exactly what the prophet does in God’s name. He will indeed do something. After an introductory herald, the Lord will appear in his Temple. The word ‘suddenly’ contains a hidden sense of threat, as though God is going to catch out the wicked red-handed, with their smoking guns.
The picture then changes to two related images: that of a refiner of metal, and a launderer. The idea in both is of getting rid of impurities, either by burning them away or washing them clean. But interestingly it is not the ‘wicked’ who are to be subjected to a good scrubbing or burning, but the Levites, the religious leaders who ought to have known better. In fact their corrupt lifestyle has meant that the sacrifices of the people have not been acceptable to God. But after they have been refined the Levites will be able, as in the past, to offer acceptable sacrifices. So what have they been up to? The list in v 5 seems pretty unbecoming at the least for religious leaders, but of course sounds remarkably up-to-date.
So what are we to make of this passage? It is difficult to see a single fulfilment for it. The lectionary’s use of it for Candlemas, when Jesus is presented in the Temple and meets Anna and Simeon seems only marginally appropriate: although Simeon could prophetically spot the coming judgement, the violence of the Malachi passage seems far from a small helpless baby. The reference to ‘my messenger’ (Hebrew ‘malachi’), along with the message of judgement, suggests much more John the Baptist followed by the cleansing of the Temple (early as in John’s gospel rather than the Synoptics’ Holy Week), although none of the gospels pick up Malachi as an OT reference.
So maybe this passage, rather than being a ‘prophecy’ about John and Jesus, provides us with a warning never to attribute to God characteristics which fly in the face of all we know about him really, and never to allow our standards of behaviour to fall below what would be pleasing to him. This is a call to holy thinking and holy living, and a promise of refinement and cleansing for those who seek it.