Even though it is difficult to say who wrote the book, the historical situation is readily discernible, notwithstanding the fact that “there is no archaeological evidence to throw light on the two hundred years of Persian rule in Palestine” (Eban, 66).
The political history of the Jews in the fifth century b.c. is bound to the Persian Empire. Beginning with the conquest by Cyrus and lasting to the victories of Alexander the Great, Persia was the dominant power from the Indus Valley to the Aegean and down to Africa (Bright, 356-57). Cyrus initiated an enlightened policy of generosity toward displaced peoples, allowing them to return to their homeland and to enjoy a high degree of self-determination in the areas of social patterns and religious practices. He demanded complete loyalty in political matters.
As a result of this generous practice Jewish subjects were permitted to return to Palestine and to rebuild the temple (Ezr 1:1-11; 2Ch 36:23). Utopian hopes were fanned and kept alive by prophets of the exilic period (cf. Eze 40-48; Isa 40:3-5; 41:18-20; 42:16; 49:7-13; 54:1-17; 55:1-13), but the reality of return did not match the expectation. In spite of help given by Persian officials, the returnees faced economic hardship and failure. Haggai interpreted their misfortune as evidence of God's displeasure at their selfish concern for personal welfare at the cost of neglect of the temple (1:1-11). At the urging of Haggai and Zechariah the temple was rebuilt and dedicated in 516/15 B.C., and presumably a full scale revival of temple services was enjoyed. If so, the conditions described by Nehemiah upon his return (444 b.c.) to secure the defenses of Jerusalem would indicate that the revival was short-lived. These conditions bracket the time when Malachi was probably written. On the one hand, the temple had been reconstructed and was in service; on the other, the quality of that service had degenerated to a low level (1:6-7), much like the situation found by Nehemiah upon his second visit to Jerusalem (c. 432 b.c.). Further, Malachi and Nehemiah agree on the problem of mixed marriages and their lack of temple support with regard to tithes and offerings. The writing of Malachi fits well in the period between Nehemiah's visits, i.e., some time around 433 b.c. (Verhoef, 160). The best alternative would be a date just prior to the time of Ezra—about 460 b.c.