Malachi Study Part 2 - Terence Swinhoe

An Opening Prayer

O God, open your Word to our hearts,
and our hearts to your Word.
Give us grace to receive it, to understand it,
and to obey it, for the glory of Christ our Lord. Amen.

Title of Study 2: ‘RESPECT !’

Welcome to our second study. Last time we introduced the Book of Malachi, and talked about what kind of book it is, who might have written it, when it was written, and what we might expect to find in it. We reminded ourselves that Malachi is a prophetic book, and that a prophet was charged by God with the task of passing on to the people the word of the Lord in a given situation. We saw that in the period of the Persian Empire when Malachi prophesied, some 4½ centuries before Christ, Israel was in a sorry state. Because their lives seemed to be stuck in a rut, they had forgotten that God had always loved them. Because Israel hadn’t entered into its expected new future, they had forgotten that God had chosen them and raised them up, while others had been cast down. They were disappointed at what was happening to them, and they were complaining that God seemed to have forsaken them. They were in danger of ‘losing touch with the living God’. It took a Malachi to come to them and vigorously oppose these thoughts. He took on his hecklers and boldly faced them with their shortcomings. Let’s see where things went from there.

So … today we’re going on to 1:6–14 to see how Malachi continues the dialogue. Hope you’ve got your Bible open!

Today’s section sees Malachi telling Israel why they are experiencing such a meagre national and spiritual life at this point in their history. He begins by challenging his contemporaries to give honour where honour is due. Sons honour their fathers, he says. Honouring one’s father was a very important thing in ancient Israel – it figured in the Fifth Commandment. And servants honour their masters, don’t they? Therefore, says Malachi, shouldn’t God receive honour from his covenant people? After all, God is both father and master to Israel, and if it’s important that human fathers and masters are honoured, isn’t it all the more important that God receives the respect due to him?

The root of this problem was the careless attitude and practice which the priests had slipped into. Malachi was not a priest, but would have been well acquainted with their functions. The priestly tribe was the tribe of Levi, with the branch of Aaron, Moses’ brother, having a special place. When the tribes were first allotted their territories in the promised land, Levi was the only one left out of this arrangement. We’re told why in Numbers 18:20, “The LORD said to Aaron, ‘You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites.” The service of God was to be their ‘portion’, their inheritance. They would be supported by special offerings from the people as their due. Priests were chosen by God to make acceptable offerings to him, and to ensure that the Temple ritual was carried out with reverence and devotion. The priestly task was a high and sacred duty. Going through a form of worship thoughtlessly is dishonouring to God. Worship isn’t something you give half a mind to. The instructions for how the priests should perform their rôle had been laid down many centuries before, in the time of Moses. And it’s the priests that Malachi targets in 1:6, “It is you priests who show contempt for my name.” They needed to realise that contempt for God’s name is a serious charge. Clearly they’re the ones responsible for the carelessness and apathy of the people they’re meant to be serving.

As we saw in the last study, there was a group of hecklers around Malachi who indulged in sharp exchanges with him. And here again they come back at him immediately with a question: “But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name’?” This response is in effect a challenge to God. They seem to be saying, “Prove it!” And Malachi is ready with damning evidence against them. The main act of Israelite worship was sacrifice. There were various kinds of sacrifice, such as burnt offerings, peace (or fellowship) offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings. Some of these were to make atonement for sins, others were thanksgiving or freewill offerings. Clean animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, doves or pigeons could all be used as animal sacrifices. We wonder at the huge number of animals that would be needed for sacrifice every year. But there were other types of sacrifice involving offerings of grain, incense, oil and wine. Long and detailed instructions of how sacrifices were to be carried out can be found in Leviticus chapters 1–7. Malachi’s charge against the priests is that they’ve shown contempt for the Lord’s table by placing defective sacrifices on it. The animals they were using were blind, lame or diseased (1:8). A sacrificial animal had to be the best of your flock; it had to be perfect. You couldn’t just give an inferior one that you wanted to be rid of. You couldn’t palm it off on God and think it would satisfy him. You were making an offering to Almighty God. It should be the best you could offer, not second best. See Leviticus 22:19–21, “…you must present a male without defect from the cattle, sheep or goats in order that it may be accepted on your behalf. Do not bring anything with a defect, because it will not be accepted on your behalf. When anyone brings from the herd or flock a fellowship offering to the LORD to fulfil a special vow or as a freewill offering, it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable.” Or again, Deuteronomy 15:21, “If an animal has a defect, is lame or blind, or has any serious flaw, you must not sacrifice it to the LORD your God.”

The atmosphere around Israel’s worship at this time has been described as ‘ritual without reality’. The priests should never have accepted a defective animal brought to them by a worshipper. It seems that they’d become bored with their duty. They were going about it in a mechanical and thoughtless way, with little or no respect for the proper conduct of what they had been called to do. It’s become burdensome to them (1:13). There’s an example of bad priestly practice earlier in Israel’s history, in 1 Samuel 2:12–17 and 22–36 . It concerns the aged priest, Eli, and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. The sons are described as “scoundrels; they had no regard for the LORD.” (2:12). We learn that “they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt.” (2:17) by keeping the best portions of the sacrifices for themselves, also that “they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” (2:22). Eli had tried to rebuke them for their wickedness, but his words failed to change their ways. A prophet came to him to declare God’s displeasure: “Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honour your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?” (2:29). Eli and his two sons all died as a result of their sacrilege (1 Samuel 4:12–18). These things happened well before Malachi’s time, and the nature of the ‘contempt’ they showed is rather different from what Malachi criticised. But it serves to remind us that to perform the ministerial task in any kind of unworthy fashion is extremely serious. To do so is to break faith with their high calling. It is a failure to offer worship in spirit and in truth (to borrow some words of Jesus). Malachi seems to have been a prophet with a particular concern for purity in the conduct of Israel’s worship. The old Bible commentator Matthew Henry made this observation: “Nothing profanes the name of God more than the misconduct of those whose business it is to do honour to it.”

We learned last time that when the exiles came back to their land, they had no king, no descendant of David to rule over them. They were a relatively unimportant province in the Persian Empire, and there were governors in charge now. Nehemiah, the man who supervised the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the return from exile, was one who in time managed to rise to this position (Nehemiah 5:14). Some of the Persian governors who had served before him had been in the habit of exacting heavy tribute from the people in the form of offerings of food and money, although Nehemiah himself did not follow their example (5:15). Malachi picks up on this when he asks his audience if they would have dared to make a defective offering to the civil governor. “Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?’ says the LORD Almighty.” (1:8). You wouldn’t give such inferior offerings to your governor, but you think it alright to give them to God, declares Malachi. This is a devastating rebuff to their protests that they weren’t conscious of doing anything wrong. In their arrogance they didn’t mind offering God second best, but they dared not present such a meagre gift to their governor. I find it frightening that they had become so insensitive.

We live many centuries after Malachi and the sacrificial system of ancient Israel, but surely there’s a word for our own day here. If we have any love for God, any reverence for him, we will see our worship as not only our duty but also our joy. And we will give him of our best. Way back in the 1640s, something called the Westminster Shorter Catechism was composed by the Westminster Assembly (a kind of church synod held in Westminster Abbey). The catechism begins with a famous question and answer:

“What is the chief end of man?”

“Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

I think we all ought to memorise that! Believing in God is important, as are serving God and obeying God. But how do we react to the thought of enjoying God? And how do we feel about making that the main purpose of our lives – our ‘chief end’ as the above question puts it? Both priest and people in Malachi’s time should have known that Israel had been chosen in order to glorify God, to give him the glory for all that he was to them, and for all that he had done for them. As one writer puts it: “To give glory to God is to reckon God to be what he is and to rely upon his power and faithfulness.” It’s important to remember and reckon who God actually is. When we come to church to worship God, or to offer ourselves to him in any context, we must always search our hearts and examine our motives. What do we consider to be our ‘chief end’? Malachi’s people had pretty much given in to the spirit of the age. Will God bless a people who do this? This is no less a danger for us in our day.

Notice that the phrase “the LORD Almighty” occurs 6 times in the 9 verses we’re looking at today. That description of God is much used by Malachi throughout the book. A reverential attitude when we make any offering of worship to such a holy God is essential He suggests (1:10) that it would even be better to have no worship at all, to shut the Temple doors in fact, than to have faulty and unworthy sacrifices being offered there. God couldn’t put it more plainly: “I am not pleased with you … and I will accept no offering from your hands.” (1:10). It’s not as if God is in need of their sacrifices. The sacrifices were for the people, so that they could show their thanksgiving to God, pledge themselves to him, and give him the glory. ‘Soli Deo gloria’, as an old Latin phrase says – ‘To the glory of God alone’. A famous Psalm proclaims, “Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 115:1). Then Malachi introduces a surprising note – not just in Israel but also among the Gentiles will God be honoured and his name be great, “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (1:11). The name of God that was being held in contempt by the Israel of Malachi’s time will be exalted among the nations. For Israel the only valid place to make sacrificial offerings to God was the Jerusalem Temple, but in this glorious look into the future Malachi tells us that God’s name will in time be worshipped far beyond there. What a statement that must have been for Malachi to make to Israel – that the Gentiles would in time offer pure worship. We see its fulfilment in the New Testament, as when Peter visited the man who would become the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, and proclaimed a similar message, Acts 10:34–35, “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Malachi’s people needed a new vision of God’s greatness, a new appreciation of the extent of his love and grace. That’s also another thing for us in the 21st century to ponder. We head towards tomorrow’s study of chapter 2 with those words of Malachi concerning God’s greatness ringing in our ears.

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Closing Prayer

Lord God, we thank you once more for your holy Word. We confess that too often we have failed to acknowledge your greatness in our worship. Forgive us for times when we may have taken you for granted, and failed to offer you the reverence and respect due to your holy name. We have received so many blessings at your hands, and we ask you to fill us afresh with your Holy Spirit, so that we may be more ready to praise your name and give you the glory for every good gift you have given us. We pray today for your Church in every place. Thank you that you have made your name known across our whole world, and that you accept people from every nation. We ask you to bless those in leadership in the Church, that they may guide us and teach us how to worship you in spirit and in truth. We pray for that fresh vision of your greatness which will lead us to deeper fellowship with you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.