Archive for November, 2012

THE THEOLOGY OF MALACHI: Stop Bringing Me Your Leftovers

 

Speaking in culinary terms, the colloquial term, “leftovers” brings to mind food that was not chosen at the meal at which it was originally served. It was the food thought to be good enough for a snack or a smaller meal at a later time. It was not the choice meat. It was not the choice vegetable. When one mentions to his/her family that they will be served leftovers at their next meal, it generally brings a lackadaisical response and not closely comparable to the response elicited by a freshly cooked meal. In the Old Testament (OT) book of Malachi, this concept of leftovers (though the term had not been coined at the time of its writing) is a central idea. God is weary of His chosen people’s lack of honor for Him. They profess honor but give Him anything but their best.

To put it in the terms of literary criticism, there is a pattern of contrasts throughout Malachi.[1] A more precise critical term would be a pattern of thesis-antithesis.[2] God did not want His chosen people’s leftovers. He wanted their best because it was through them that He would proclaim His name to all the earth. This contrast between what God wanted and what God was receiving will play out in the language of the book. To demonstrate that fact, analysis of key terms and phrases will be employed. Malachi contrasts covenant relationship ideals of the priesthood to the realities of Levitical laxity at the time. Malachi then contrasts covenant ideals of marriage with the realities of divorce among the Israelites. Next, he contrasts God’s expectations of financial stewardship to the realities of the tithing practices of His people. What is all of this rebuke leading toward? Malachi closes with the contrast between those who have heard his oracle and those who have not in the end times when the Messiah returns to judge the world. From this analysis, one can see that the Israelites behavior speaks of putting God second (giving God the leftovers of our goods, service and behavior) in comparison to the standards of covenant living which resounds even in the New Covenant era. As Taylor and Clendenen state, “Malachi speaks to the hearts of a troubled people whose circumstances of financial insecurity, religious skepticism and personal disappointments are similar to those God’s people often encounter today.”[3]

As stated earlier, the Book of Malachi is a book of contrasts – contrasts of expectation to actual performance. This fact can be seen in the terminology used in the book. The focus here will be on the phrase, “but you say…” and curse and blessings. These terms show us opposites – leftovers vs. the best.

In 1:2, this series of thesis-antithesis statements of “but you say…” (or but yet you say). This argument of Judah/Israel is questioning God is almost like a teenager questioning his parent when all parties know full well the rules laid down by the parent and how they have been violated by the teenager. God makes a statement of truth (because in His perfection He can do no less) and His people answer in a questioning tone as if what God says is not true. This response to a statement by God occurs eight (8) times in the book (1:2, 1:6, 1:7, 2:14, 2:17, 3:7, 3:8, and 3:13). God’s love for His chosen people is stated then questioned (1:2). The honor that is due Him is stated then questioned (1:6). His holiness is stated through his requirement for unblemished sacrifices is stated and then questioned (1:7). In 2:14, God states that their tears and weeping at the altar are empty and as such are not blessed and God says that Judah responds with a bewildered wonder at why they are not. In 2:17, God says that He is wearied with His chosen people’s empty attempts to please Him followed by “but you say, “How have we wearied you”. From these examples, one can see the modern American teenager vs. parent inquisition being played out in Malachi. This literary technique statement/question is sometimes called a disputational speech.”[4] A disputational speech is one where only one person is speaking and is asking and answering his/her own questions. In this case, according to Baldwin, “Malachi reads the attitudes of his people and intuitively puts their thoughts into words, so gaining their attention before driving home his word from the Lord.”[5]

Another set of words that demonstrates the idea of leftovers is the contrast of giving the Lord the best that Israel has to offer compared to their actions is the treatment of “blessing/blessed” and “curse/cursed.” Curse (or cursed) is used eight (8) times in Malachi while blessing/blessed is used four (4) times in this short book. The mere weight of repetition of curse vs. the repetition of blessing is indicative of what the majority of this book is about. Even one of the uses of “blessing” is being invalidated by God by way of Him cursing the blessing. The weight of evidence is significantly on “cursing” or “curses”. Malachi expresses God’s displeasure with less than perfect or “leftover” animals for the ritual sacrifices (1:14), his displeasure with the hyprocrisy of the priesthood (2:12). God’s displeasure is so great in this verse that he uses the term three (3) times in this verse alone. Malachi expresses God’s displeasure with the whole nation for not being obedient in the command to tithe (3:9) (uses the term cursed/curse two times here). In the final verse of the book (4:6), Malachi indicates that any restoration will become a curse without obedience. A look at Strong’s Concordance, we find the corresponding Hebrew word used in Malachi for the English word, curse, is “arar.”[6] Strong states that “it is a pronouncement of judgment on those who break covenant.” Strong also states that “it is often paralleled with bless.” Further, “God alone truly curses. It is a revelation of His justice in support of His claim to absolute obedience.”[7] Contrast these statements against Stong’s definitions of the terms, blessed and blessing. These two words are a derivative of the verb “to bless.” Its Hebrew companion word verb is “barak” which means to receive a benefit as from God. It seems clear from Strong’s analysis that the Lord’s blessing rests on those who are faithful to Him and that “His blessing brings righteousness, life, prosperity and salvation.”[8] Thus, as used in the context of Malachi, it is all about covenant faithfulness. The covenant relationship with God demands that Israel is obedient to God. Through obedience comes blessing. Lack of obedience by choosing purposely to ignore the covenant with God (to give God that which is not the best they have to offer) leads to the opposite of blessing – the lack of blessing, or curse.

Malachi reminds one of sitting in a courtroom listening to a skilled attorney offer his closing argument in a court case to the jury. In a closing argument, the attorney no longer has a witness on the stand. Therefore, any questions that he asks he must answer himself. Questions are posed for maximum effect on the jury. It helps the attorney frame his points that he wants to make in his final argument to the jury. The first target of this closing argument indicts the spiritual leadership of Israel. In 1:6-2:9, Malachi demonstrates how the priests have contempt for God at the altar (1:6-14) and how they have neglected God’s Law (2:1-9). As Stuart states, “. . . God inspired Malachi to produce an excoriation of the priests, in the same overall disputation format that governs all the passages of the book, but incorporating terminology and themes from a famous blessing closely associated in everyone’s mind with the priests [i.e., Num. 6:23-27, Aaron’s Blessing].”[9] Here, one of the indictments is

“Oh priests who despise my name. But you say, “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food on my altar. But you say, “How have we polluted you? By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised when you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil. Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? Says the Lord of hosts (1:6b-8)

 

The reference is, of course, to animal sacrifices. Ceremonially unclean or imperfect animals were being offered in sacrifice. The law expressly prohibited such offerings (Lev. 22:22, Deut. 15:21). As a result of not obeying the covenant law, they had defiled the altar of the Lord. As Chan, says, “The priests of Malachi’s day thought their sacrifices were sufficient. They had spotless animals, but chose to keep those for themselves and give their less desirable animals to God. They assumed God was pleased because they had sacrificed something.”[10] Morgan states it this way, “Sacrilege is centered in offering God something which costs nothing, because you think God is worth nothing.”[11] The great King David’s response on this issue was this, “I will note offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). There was no sacrifice in their sacrifices. The intent of the covenant requirements concerning animal sacrifices was, in part, to teach God’s people about setting aside the very best for God. It was an act of obedience for his loving care of his people. However, the priests were treating their human rulers, the Persian governors, better than they were treating the Lord of the universe. Essentially, here we come back to this theme of leftovers. Instead of giving God the firstfruits of their animals for sacrifice they were giving what they would not even use themselves – the leftovers. God deserves honor for who He is. Malachi indicts his people for their lack of honor. Clendenen states it well when he says, “They were not taking God seriously, with the result that they considered their service to Him as unimportant, not worth much time or trouble.”[12] Malachi points out that God was almost willing to shut the gates of the temple to stop the pointless, less than heartfelt offerings in 1:10. This verses is almost echoed in Revelation 3:15-18 where Jesus rebukes the church at Laodicea for being lackluster, halfhearted (i.e. lukewarm). Jesus there said he would rather they be one way or the other – evil or good; not this feigning allegiance to Christ but not living it. Chan states, “Jesus’ call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing. The thought of a person calling himself a “Christian” without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.”[13] In the context of Malachi, his words echo those of Christ. Malachi says here that when we offer to God our leftovers, anything less than our best, it is inappropriate in view of who He is. The searing indictment of the priests is particularly pointed because they are the spiritual leaders of the Jewish nation. With leadership comes responsibility. If they were to lead the people to be the light of God’s Word to the rest of the world, their acts of disdain toward the Lord were antithetical to God’s intentions. It is clear that Malachi saw the sin of the apathy of the priesthood as particularly unconscionable when he says,

“For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts,” (2:7-8)

 

 

The lack of leadership here has dire consequences. They were not taking their teacher/mediator role seriously and their lack of attention to God’s Word (i.e., teachings that were not of God’s truth) was leading the people astray. To lead people away from God is the most grievous charge that one can bring against any spiritual leader as it leads to the disgrace of the leader and to the office that he holds.[14] Jesus echoes these words in the New Testament in Matthew 23:3. Especially in the office of priest, a minister to the people, God’s expectations are higher by the sheer nature of the office held. As Monson puts it in an article to modern day ministers about the boldness of Malachi’s message, “The priests for whom this text was written did not consider themselves unprepared to meet the messenger of the Lord, and yet they clearly were. What is the warning here for us? Hubris?” Monson goes onto state that “God’s cleansing action, though painful, is really a gracious act.”[15] Malachi warns of the coming cleansing action that will reveal the gracious act that spiritual leaders must not entertain the concept of leftovers – giving God second best.

Lest one reading Malachi worries that God’s oracle to Malachi was going to leave all of the blame at the doorstep of the priesthood, Malachi moves immediately to a national rebuke. No one escapes the prophet’s scathing words of truth. Malachi now makes it personal to all of God’s chosen ones. Again, we return to the courtroom where the prosecutor, the prophet Malachi, is in the midst of his closing arguments against Israel, he asks another set of rhetorical questions that he will answer himself. He asks Israel if the people are not descended from their covenant father, Abraham (2:10). The answer of course is yes. With that being said, Malachi proceeds with the point of his argument. With the yes answer rhetorically given, he infers that they are subject to the Mosaic covenant.  In this covenant, the requirements set forth there by God were given so that they could exist in His presence and, as a result of their compliance, be the light of God to the rest of the world. His people were to be distinctive in their dealings with one another which would set them apart from how the rest of the world treated one another. Their keeping of the covenant would also reflect their faithfulness to God Himself. Lack of faithfulness to God leads to the breakdown human relationships. Malachi addresses marriages to idolatrous wives and divorcing of their Israelite wives.

The Israelite men were divorcing their wives and “marrying the daughter of a foreign god.” God is not being racist here but marrying someone who is devoted to gods made by man’s hand is unacceptable in a relationship with Him. It means that these women were unbelievers. It means that they were outside the covenant with Him. Similarly, the prohibition against marriage to unbelievers continues in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 7:39, 2 Corinthians 6:14). In the intimacy of marriage in both the Old and New Testament, unbelief of a spouse is a danger to the people of God. Malachi, here, is also saying that the Israelites who willingly divorce their wives from the nation of the covenant and willingly marry someone (who openly disdains the one true God of the universe) are not serious about their covenant relationship with God.[16] Stuart relates it to today’s world by saying, “the Mosaic covenant was by Malachi’s time understood as a quaint, archaic document too restrictive to be taken seriously and inapplicable to a ‘modern’ age—virtually the same way that most people in modern Western societies view the Bible today.”[17] Here, Malachi indicts Israel for giving God the leftovers again. No longer did they place importance upon the covenant relationship of marriage so they carved out the parts they did not want. He basically calls it an act of violence by saying that their acts of divorce clothed them in violence. They do not wear garments covered by violence but, as it were, violence has clothed them with garments that advertise to society that they have broken covenant with the wives of their youth. Divorce is always violent and always leaves its emotional and spiritual scars.[18] They were doing violence to the basic covenantal requirements concerning human relationships. In the end, the accusation comes down to covenant fidelity. They were picking and choosing which covenant requirements they wanted to obey and, thus, making themselves gods in the process – pushing God to the side into a leftover position.

To review, first, Malachi expresses God’s disdain for the theocratic leadership of the priests of His chosen people. Next, he broadens the indictment to the entire nation. What’s next for Malachi? He attacks the Israelite nation in an area to which people of any era can relate – personal financial stewardship. Malachi observes that not only were the people bring defective offerings but also were withholding the tithes (due to hard economic times resulting from less than expected harvests). Again, we return to the courtroom and Malachi where he is asking questions that he answers himself in this, as it has been called here in this paper, his closing arguments in the trial of God’s chosen people. God says, through Malachi, that the people are robbing him (3:8a). The shocked question on behalf of the Israelite nation is “How have we robbed you? (3:8b).” Malachi puts it simply, “In your tithes and contributions (3:8c).” Malachi says, using the robber motif, that the people have been, in effect, stealing from God. As a consequence, the Lord has withheld blessing. Their covenant faithfulness is lacking in comparison to God’s faithfulness. They again were picking and choosing which covenant stipulations to observe. They had withheld their tithes or at least the full extent of them that the Law commanded them to bring to God (Leviticus 27:30, Deuteronomy 12:5-18, Deuteronomy 14:22-29, Numbers 18:21-32). This rebuke is not something isolated to a few individuals. It is a national rebuke when the Scripture says, “the whole nation of you (3:9c).”

Maybe, this rebuke is part of the vicious spiral of degeneration that Malachi observed. With the failure of the people to support the Levitical priesthood as God commanded, it is possible their passion for their job was correspondent to the amount of support that they received. Neither has pleased God. Service to God should not be contingent on the amount of support received for the effort. All parties of Israel are somehow shocked that they have not been blessed. The command was to teach faithful obedience. It was to be an act of trust in the Lord. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The requirement of a tenth was a benchmark of obedience. Paul’s message is that of loving willingness rather than ritualistic adherence. His expectation was that believers should give above and beyond as they had means. The message is that one should give liberally not out of compulsion. As Hemphill states, “the giving of tithes and offerings in Scripture cannot be separated from the heart condition of the giver.”[19] Malachi calls into question whether the Israelites place God first in their lives since they have a spirit of disobedience. By contrast, those who give God the best of their wealth, God’s response will be to “open the windows of heaven for you and pour down a blessing for you until there is no more need” (3:10b). Malachi shows that obedience provides blessing. Malachi praises a humble and giving heart.

Similarly, the saga of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 deals with this very issue of holding back and giving God what is left over but yet at the same time publicly displaying piety. In this scene from Acts, one understands the biblical imperative that all of our resources come from God not just the tenth that is considered the minimum to return to the Lord. When His people usurp their place and begin keeping what they wish to themselves, it is dishonoring to their loving Father. Further, this lack of obedience calls into question whether His people can be trusted to be His representatives here on earth. Both Malachi here and Luke in Acts demonstrate that God that is interested in the honor of His name to the nations. If God acts to preserve the integrity of His name to the nations through his representatives here on earth (through the rebukes to His people announced through Malachi or the deaths of hypocrites in Acts), these corrective actions produce increased confidence in the truthfulness of God’s message itself.[20] What remains after rebuke and repentance is a message that God is primary in His people’s lives. He is not the God of leftovers. As Polaski states, “Those who do not wish to live in covenant with God fail to reverence God. The job of the covenant community is to reverence God and thus to oppose such conduct…in the context of God’s faithful devotion to an unfailing covenant. [21]

Where is all this rebuke leading? All of this leads to the ultimate contrast. In concluding Malachi, one sees the vision of the future. It is similar to a parent taking a child to a prison to show the child where his current behavior patterns could lead and then taking him a CEO’s office and showing him what hard work can do for your life. When the child complains about having to do chores, be responsible, and do homework while friends play outside, this is the lesson that counteracts that complaint. We see this very same complaint in 3:13-15. From that verse forward, God takes his child on this “field trip of the future.” God has been watching and has His book of remembrance so that He is prepared for His day, “The Great Day of The Lord.”

In chapter 4 of the book, to reutilize the courtroom motif that has been employed earlier, Malachi is goes about summing up his closing argument. The facts have been laid out in great detail. Now, he begins to show what the punishment should be for the defendant, Israel. As Clendenen states, “Malachi begins by pointing to the past and ends by pointing to the future, thus appropriately grounding the ethical impact of the book in both redemption and eschatology”[22]

In the end times spoken of by Malachi, the evil shall be set ablaze and they will be consumed in judgment. These evildoers are the crowd that have given God their leftovers of time, talents, priorities, resources. These are the people that have place themselves on the throne of their own hearts. The result of taking God’s deity away and keep it for oneself may seem profitable in this temporal world but the eternal result is disastrous. He is saying that the Law and its curses for disobedience are still in effect.[23]

In contrast, those who have obeyed the Lord and followed his statutes in humility and in faithful trust have a far different future in store. These people are those who have placed God as primary. They have placed God on the throne of their hearts. Malachi’s descriptive images of freed livestock running free from cages is an easily identifiable imagery of what the end times look like for those who have listened and humbly responded to the life leadership of the Lord. Their future will be one of bliss and comfort. These people are the ones that give the Lord their freshest food, metaphorically speaking, and do not serve Him leftovers.

Since God is a loving God and wishing to reconcile himself to man so that everyone participates in the restoration of Eden, his direction to Malachi in our courtroom illustration is for him to close his argument with the offer of mercy. If the Israelites will return to Him (profess their sin and turn away from it), He will return to them. If they will give Him their best not their leftovers, the positive eternity seen 4:2-3 will be their future. Otherwise, the negative future, the punishment seen in 4:1 will be their destiny. The earthly father’s “field trip” for his son mentioned earlier is left to the child. Which path will Israel choose? Leftovers to God or the best to God? Spoken to Israel by Malachi, but still poignantly true today. With this Malachi concludes his closing argument in this courtroom illustration used throughout this paper. Malachi leaves the punishment for the crime or the release from the mandate of punishment to the defendant (Israel) himself.

In conclusion, the book of Malachi teaches its audience that the purpose of one’s life should be to display God’s glory among the nations. To do that, leftovers are not good enough. As God’s chosen people, God should be primary in every aspect of one’s life. God should be honored in one’s worship of Him and in one’s service to Him. As well, the relationship between the people of God should reflect how God honors his relationships with us – one that endures and abides in love. God’s people should honor God with one’s wealth as well as honor Him for being the source of one’s talents that allow one to gather earthly treasure. This message to Malachi’s generation is as pertinent today as it was in post-exilic Palestine.[24] Modern day people of God should worship God fervently with their hearts more than just on the Sundays one finds it convenient to go to church. Modern day believers should display worship of God in their daily lives. One’s service to God should be more than serving the body of the church or the world outside only when it does not interfere with work, or school or our favorite hobbies. Our finances should reflect God. Biblical financial behavior honors God. When one gives God the firstfruits of one’s finances, it honors Him. The believer should order his finances in a manner that God get the best meat of one’s finances, not the leftover fat. As Malachi showed in the conclusion of his book, one’s destiny in eternity is contingent on how one responds to God.

Do we respond to Him with leftovers? Or do we respond to him with the best food of our lives? Those who believe in God want to make His glory known to the world so that others may come unto Him. How does that happen? Lives are lived where everything is done to honor God not oneself. That draws the world unto Him.


[1] Ake Viberg, “Wakening a Sleeping Metaphor,” Tyndale Bulletin 45.2 (1994), 306.

 

[2] C.J.H. Wright, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 23.

[3] Richard A. Taylor and E. Ray Clendenen, Haggai, Malachi (Nashville, TN.: Holman Reference, 2004), 238.

[4] George L. Klein, “An Introduction to Malachi.” Criswell Theological Review 2, (September 1, 1987): 32

 

[5] Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; An Introduction And Commentary. (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009), 218.

 

[6] James Strong, The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Exp Mul ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 29 (Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary)

 

[7] Ibid

 

[8] Strong, 46-47 (Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary).

 

[9] Douglas Stuart, “Malachi,” in Thomas Edward McComiskey, ed., Minor Prophets, The: an Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 1297.

 

[10] Francis Chan, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 2008), 91.

 

[11] G. Campbell Morgan, Malachi’s Message for Today (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999), 50.

[12] Clendenen, 265

[13] Chan, 91.

 

[14] Eugene H. Merrill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi – an Exegetical Commentary (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2003), 371.

 

[15] Glen Monson, “Second Sunday in Advent, December 7, 2003 (Preaching Helps)” Currents In Theology & Missions Volume 30, Number 5, 385.

[16] Gordon Paul Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: a Study of Biblical Law and Ethics Governing Marriage, Developed from the Perspective of Malachi (Leiden, Holland: Brill Academic Publishers, 1994), .

 

[17] Stuart, 1332.

[18] William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce: The Problem with the Evangelical Consensus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 162-64.

 

[19] Ken Hemphill, “Foundations of Giving” in David A. Croteau, ed., Perspectives On Tithing: Four Views (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), 24.

 

[20] David R. McCabe, How to Kill Things with Words: Ananias and Sapphira under the Prophetic Speech-Act of Divine Judgement (acts 4.32-5.11) (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 20-23.

 

[21] David Polaski, “Between Text and Sermon: Malachi 3:1-12,” Interpretation 54, no. 4 (October 1, 2000): 40.

 

[22] Clendenen, 454.

[23] Robert Alden, “Malachi” in Daniel – Minor Prophets, Volume 7 of Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Expositor’s Bible Commentary—revised: 8-Volume Old Testament Set (expositor’s Bible Commentary, The), Revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 724.

[24] Beth Glazier-McDonald, Malachi, the Divine Messenger (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1987), 168.