It's hard to wait—especially when that wait is open-ended. At first we are edgy and restless, glancing at a watch, adjusting hair and clothing, looking past the door. Then irritation builds. We are annoyed at the delay. We snap or complain to people nearby. Finally we stop waiting. We move on with our schedules but with less precision and enthusiasm. We give up. We believe that what we were waiting for will never happen.
The people of Malachi's era were in a period of waiting. Tragic and wonderful events had happened in the past. Their ancestors had heard the prophets warn of godlessness over and over—with no lasting reform. They had seen their kings subjected, then murdered, their beautiful three-hundred-year-old temple destroyed, their farms pillaged and burned, their friends hustled away as prisoners. They had spent seventy years living in Babylon under foreign rule.
But all that ended. Through the generosity of a Persian king (and God's own kindness), the Hebrew people returned to their homeland. With the help of Ezra and Nehemiah they rebuilt their homes, city walls and temple. They cleared their farmland and slowly resumed life as a worshiping people. Except for one thing. Where was God? They made the usual temple sacrifices, but saw no evidence of his presence. What did they expect? Freedom from poverty? Miracles? Shouting prophets? International respect? God himself? We cannot know. But as the wait grew long, the people grew lax. They married pagans. They took shortcuts in worship and sacrifices. They exploited the weak and poor among them. They prayed—and could not understand why God ignored their prayers.
Then God sent Malachi with a message. God would visit his people, Malachi explained. But they must prepare for his coming. And with these final words of the Old Testament, God showed his people how to wait. When he spoke again, it would be with the startling cry of the infant Jesus.