Malachi Study Part 3 - Terence Swinhoe
An Opening Prayer
Thank you, Lord, for the Bible:
For its ability to give to us each day new vision and new power;
for its ability to reach to the roots of our inner life and refresh them;
for its power to enter mind and spirit and make them new,
to bring new life and to sustain it, we give you thanks and praise.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Title of Study 3: ‘LET’S STICK TOGETHER’
Thank you for joining this third study in Malachi. Let’s open our Bibles. We’re going to move out of chapter 1 and into chapter 2. We’ve been considering how Israel in the Persian Empire period, when Malachi was prophesying, was running the risk of ‘losing touch with the living God’. They weren’t experiencing the days of post-exile peace and prosperity that they’d hoped for. They seemed to have lost awareness of their covenant status, and how God had lavished particular care on them. In popular terms, their love for God had grown cold. It showed itself in their lax attitude to worship, sacrificial worship in particular. The priests were especially guilty, since they were responsible for ensuring its proper conduct. People were bringing lame, blind or diseased animals to the priests to offer to God. And it seemed not to bother the priests! They had lost sight of the holy nature of their priesthood, and were bored with what seemed a monotonous routine to them. Had these priests actually forgotten that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)?
God, through Malachi, had spoken to Israel about these abuses and made it plain that he was not pleased with their irreverence and ingratitude. God had accused them of showing contempt for his name, and of profaning it (1:12). We need to remember how perilous it is to insult God. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the LORD.” (1:14). God reminds Israel exactly who he is at the end of chapter 1: It isn’t just anybody that they are cheating –“For I am a great king,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and my name is to be feared among the nations.” (1:14). Note again that phrase ”the LORD Almighty”, which Malachi uses many times throughout the book.
Chapter 2 opens on the same note as where chapter 1 finished. God repeats the threat of a curse if Israel will pay no heed to the warning. We may take it as read that this would not have been an idle threat. In 2:1the word ‘you’ is emphatic in Hebrew. It’s as if to say, “I’m not talking to anyone else, I’m talking to you.” To take no notice of God’s warnings and to provoke him is not wise. I think of some words of Paul to the Galatian Christians: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7). Israel had known many blessings from God, and to suffer his curse is a terrible thing. “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honour me.” (2:2). The ESV and the NRSV have a better rendering for the last part of this verse, “because you do not lay it to heart.” As always, God looks on the heart. Mere outward show does not impress him. Jesus once rebuked some Pharisees and teachers of the law in a similar vein: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13). Like ancient Israel, we must set our hearts on God. We haven’t gathered together to worship God in our church building for many months. We’ve had the benefit of our worship team, under Ian’s leadership, providing us with some quality streamed services. We’ve been able to give ourselves, heart and soul, to these services and will rejoice when we meet again inside St Thomas’ as a church family. I’m sure many hearts are looking forward to that moment, but in the meantime we must be patient. I think that one of our much-used Prayers after Communion brings home to us that worship is a self-offering. We no longer offer the body of a dead animal as a sacrifice to God. We offer our very selves. “Living sacrifice” is a vivid image.
“Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out
in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory. Amen.”
As we move on to 2:2–3, we hear a chastening word from God – that his blessings will now become a curse. It is expressed in the strongest possible terms by God (figuratively, I hasten to add), “I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it.” (2:3). We don’t like to read that kind of language from God. Some may find it extremely off-putting that God should speak that way. But Malachi isn’t the only Old Testament prophet through whom God speaks in very strong terms. The priests will experience shame and disgrace if they do not pull back from their sinful ways. The dung from a sacrifice had to be taken away from the sanctuary and burned, according to Leviticus 4:11–12, and so the priests too would find that they would be “taken away” or removed from the sanctuary. After all, as we saw in a previous study, God had made a particular covenant with the tribe of Levi, from which the priests came. They alone of all the tribes of Israel were given no share of territory in the promised land. God himself would be a sufficient heritage for them, and serving him would be their fulfilment of the covenant with him. This is clearly expressed in 2:4–6, “And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.” Yes, this is how it was meant to be! It’s a beautiful statement of the devoted service that the priests were intended to give to God. A phrase from an old hymn springs to mind – “‘Tis life and health and peace.” (from “O For A Thousand Tongues” by Charles Wesley).
These parts of the Book of Malachi remind us that those who minister in the name of God are expected to be competent in how they do things, but also that they’re to be more than professional experts. Again, it’s the heart that needs to be right in God’s sight. Shouldn’t we look for that in those who serve God in ministry today? We see in 2:7 the ideal portrait of those who faithfully ‘instruct’ the people in their care, “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth.” Once again we’re reminded that it’s “the LORD Almighty” whom we are serving. Causing people to stumble by false teaching was a violation of the covenant that God had made with the tribe of Levi (2:8). Every minister is to be a “messenger of the LORD Almighty” (2:7). The message is not theirs. Their task is to pass it on. This is still how we should see it now, I believe. Here, for example, is an extract from the service of The Ordination of Priests in the Church of England, spelling out that task. “…they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.” Showing partiality (2:9) is equally to be avoided. We don’t know what Malachi had precisely in mind here, but any kind of favouring one individual or group over another would have been a serious fault. Priests in Malachi’s time were obviously doing something wrong in this respect. Were they somehow involved in denying justice to those who were regarded as insignificant or under-privileged? All in all, many of the priests of the time were not doing a great job!
We pass in the second half of chapter 2 to another important part of the book. Malachi mentions “one Father” in 2:10. This is a particular reference to the “one God” as creator of Israel as a nation. What Malachi is emphasising here is the fact that by means of the covenant God had made with Israel, all the Israelites were children of God and therefore were brothers and sisters, spiritually speaking. God had chosen this one nation with whom to make that covenant. As a people, they had bound themselves to him. And as we’ve seen, not just here in Malachi but throughout the whole Old Testament, violation of that covenant was an offence against God. It was a breaking of faith, a breaking of trust. If the people of Israel were truly one united people under God, then any breaking of personal relationships among them was also a breaking of the covenant with God. We in our culture have long been used to emphasising people as separate individuals, each our own island, each free to go our own way. In fact, that emphasis is something that is growing stronger and stronger in our world all the time, with its intense stress on personal identity. We might find it difficult to grasp the more corporate sense of being a people that Israel possessed.
Malachi sees this breaking of faith taking place in two ways. Firstly, there was the question of men marrying non-Israelite women. Exodus 34:15–16 is just one passage that forbids the Israelites to intermarry with those whom they would encounter on entry into Canaan, “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.” It wasn’t simply that they were foreign women, but “women who worship a foreign god”, 2:11) – that was the real point. It’s vital to see that in ancient Israel this was seen as more than an individual issue. To marry a partner who worshipped a different God meant that Judah itself, through the individual who did that, was marrying a foreign god! And therefore by intermarriage, it’s Judah that has broken faith, and Judah that has desecrated the sanctuary (2:11). The nation itself is God’s sanctuary, as we see in Psalm 114:2, “When Israel came out of Egypt, Jacob from a people of foreign tongue, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.” It’s Canaanite women in particular who are mentioned here, but marrying any foreign women who did not renounce their idolatry was seen as irreconcilable with Israel’s calling to be a holy nation, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me”, says Exodus 20:2 – 3. The penalty was to be “removed from the tents of Jacob” (2:12), and any offerings one may have made would be refused, i.e. one would be cut off from the people of Israel – excommunicated, as we might call it.
Malachi clearly had a radical view of marriage, seeing it as more than a 2-way relationship between a husband and a wife. God is the 3rd partner in the covenant of marriage. We have to realise the particular historical situation in which Malachi made this intermarriage rebuke. Israel was a small province under foreign rulers (the Persians), low in faith and morale, struggling to recover its own sense of itself as the holy people of God, and we can’t draw a straight line from their time to ours. But the matter of ‘marrying out’ is still a topic of debate in some Jewish communities today. The New Testament raises questions facing a Christian who is contemplating marrying an unbeliever, which is referred to by Paul in the Corinthian situation (2 Corinthians 6:14 – 18). Paul speaks into a particular context there, where some new Christians had obviously converted to Christ from deeply pagan backgrounds. But there are still some principles there that Christians should consider.
The second way seen by Malachi as a breaking of faith is the matter of divorce. It must have been happening on a wide enough scale at the time for him to focus on it. The men he’s speaking to about this appear to have married when young – “the wife of your youth” (2:14). If the spiritual temperature at the time of Malachi was pretty low, and we’ve seen that it certainly was, then the question “Why be faithful to God?” could all too easily turn into “Why be faithful to your wife?” Men who had married years ago in their youth might now be turning their eyes elsewhere. And if they wanted to marry a foreign wife, they would have to divorce the wife they already had. Maybe there were not that many women in the nation at the time of return from Babylon, so was that another reason why marriages outside of the nation were happening? We don’t really know whether the divorce issue and the intermarriage issue were related. One thing is clear – some people were very upset at being told that God would ignore their offerings (2:13). Malachi has to point out to them that it’s because “You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.” (2:14). Genesis 2:24 is the earliest statement of the marriage covenant, “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” It seems that women were being treated very badly, and possibly being easily cast aside in the situation Malachi is depicting. Hating (i.e. ceasing to love, or loving less) one’s wife and divorcing her does violence to both himself and her (2:16). “Covering” his wife was meant to be a protective act by the husband, not a brutal one. I hope we can see the depth of trouble that Israel was in as we read the Book of Malachi. He was unafraid to tackle these troubles head on. As we noted earlier, there is no sublime poetry in Malachi. This is the last Old Testament prophet speaking. This is no time for poetic eloquence. He delivers his words to the people in very direct and plain language.
Next time we will pick up again at 2:17 and go into chapter 3. Thank you for staying the course so far. We’re halfway through now.
O Lord our God, we thank you that you are a covenant-keeping God, and that your faithfulness reaches to the heavens. Thank you that when we read your Word with attention and sincerity, we are in touch with the living God. We praise you for being a God who has loved us from the beginning and who holds us in the palm of your hand. Day by day we experience your Holy Spirit’s guidance in our lives.
Continue to teach us from your Word, we pray. May we increasingly learn how to offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice. In these uncertain days in which we still find ourselves, may we rest in the sure knowledge of your love and strength. Be with those who lead us in our nation and in our Church, and help us to rest all our cares with you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.