A Fruitless Sacrifice
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Malachi 1:1. The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.
Though the Old Testament Books of Ezra and Nehemiah may have been written later than the book of Malachi, this last book of the Old Testament is the last prophetic word heard from God prior to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Since Jesus refers to John the Baptist as the greatest of the Prophets, the time between Malachi’s words and those of John the Baptist represent about four centuries of “darkness” when no word was heard from the LORD.
Malachi is the Hebrew word for “my messenger” and is usually translated in this form in Chapter 3, verse 1. Consequently, the word could be translated in the same manner in this first verse of the prophecy. Consequently, it is possible, and some hold likely, that the actual author of the text does not reveal his own name. A tradition of anonymity is common in intertestamental writing. For convenience, we will refer to the author of this text as “Malachi” without concern whether it is a proper name or a pseudonym.
Based upon the content of the writing, it is evident that Malachi’s prophecy refers to the period after the Judean exile in Babylon and most likely after the rebuilding of the Temple and the reconstruction and reestablishment of the City of Jerusalem, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, respectively. This would make Malachi a contemporary of Nehemiah, and the writing may be referring to the period around 435 B.C.
During this time the Judeans struggled to maintain obedience to the LORD, making several commitments to Him during and immediately following the rebuilding. However, we must understand that the Judean community was not, in itself, a Holy Spirit-led community, but rather a community within which there was a small, faithful remnant. This remnant did not have enough influence in the region of Judea to make a significant impact on the culture, so try as many did to keep the Mosaic Law, most failed to find the true righteousness that is given by the LORD to all who would place their faith and trust in Him.
Devoid of true faith, the Judeans fall far-short of God’s expectation for them. It is into this phenomenon that Malachi writes. Malachi observes the community around him through the eyes of one who loves the LORD, who has a relationship with Him, and being led of the Holy Spirit has a deep understanding of the truths surrounding the issues of his day. This allows the LORD to speak through Malachi. However, because of the state of Judea, the message that Malachi has for Judah is not an easy one to bring. Using the word that is often translated “oracle” or “burden,” the idea is that the presentation of the message from the LORD carries a weight on the writer’s spirits. This same word is used by Nahum and Habakkuk as they initiate their prophetic works.
Malachi specifically notes that his prophecy is directed toward Israel. At this time the northern nation of Israel has been long-since destroyed and scattered. There is literally no tribal identity left in the ten of the twelve tribes of Israel that split away from Judah and Benjamin during the short reign of Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon, and the grandson of King David. With the loss of the two Israelite nations that came at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians, it is reasonable that the title of Israel again be applied to the remaining Children of Abraham, and Malachi makes use of this term as we still do today. As Malachi refers to Israel, he is not referring to the lost northern nation, but rather the remnant of the Children of Abraham that remain, and these are almost exclusively Judean.
Malachi 1:2. I have loved you, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob,
Before exposing the sins of Judah, Malachi provides some words of encouragement to a very discouraged nation. Judea is still under the tight control of the king of Persia, preventing them from national independence. They have just experienced the destruction of their nation by Babylon, and previously the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria. They have experienced neither peace or prosperity. Consequently, it would be easy to assume that God has abandoned them, or no longer cares for them. It is certainly reasonable for us to think in terms of a rewards-based acceptance system that is common to man: reward for good behavior, punishment for bad. Aware of their personal and national sin that took them out of the hand of God’s protection, many might think that God no longer cares for them because of their unrighteousness.
Using a form of poetic dialogue, Malachi reminds Israel that God does, indeed, love them. They have been taught of God’s love, yet Malachi’s question implies that the people are questioning that love. It is as though the people are saying, “We don’t see that love… how is it that you say you love us?” Malachi’s response to the question is a truth of the LORD that He blesses those who have faith in Him and curses those who do not.
Malachi 1:3-4. And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness. 4Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places; thus saith the LORD of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the LORD hath indignation for ever.
The comparison he makes is between Esau and Jacob. It was understood that the LORD blessed Jacob because of his faith, and he cursed Esau because Esau despised the blessing of God. However, the reference here also includes the tribes that came from Jacob and Esau. The tribes of Esau never turned to God in faith, and always maintained themselves as an enemy of God.
The word that is rendered hate is not quite as simple as the word we use today. It is more of a comparison term that implies a dramatic contrast between the way that the LORD related to the tribes of Jacob and the tribes of Esau. Edom is the region that was home to the tribes of Esau, so both terms refer to the same people group. This is a group who demonstrated arrogance in the face of God. Not only would Esau not prosper, their rebellion against God would be known by all people. Certainly, the biblical narrative proves this prophecy to be true.
In contrast, the LORD held Judah close to His heart, as this was the people group that contained the remnant of people that were faithful to God. Through the years of the kings, there were several kings who attempted to lead the nation towards faith in God. God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled through Judah, a promise to build a mighty nation of faithful people who would find salvation through the Messiah.
Consequently, it is reasonable to use words like love and hate to describe the contrast between the way the LORD treats those who love Him and those who despise Him. Malachi reminds Israel (now reduced to the tribe of Judah) that it is they who still hold the benefits of Abraham’s blessing.
Malachi 1:5. And your eyes shall see, and ye shall say, The LORD will be magnified from the border of Israel.
Though Israel may not be able to perceive the love of the LORD now, He promises that there is coming a time when Israel will indeed experience the love of God, and they will praise His name. Also the identity of the LORD will become known outside of Israel’s borders as people from every tongue and every nation will acknowledge the LORD and follow Him in faith. Up to this point Israel holds that they are the “children of God” and all others are pagan Gentiles who are not in a position to be loved by God. Yet, God’s offer of grace to those who place their faith and trust in Him is extended to all people, as it always was.
When we observe the state of the world today, certainly the community of faith is a small, persecuted minority of the world’s peoples. However, there are people of faith in virtually every nation in the world today. The LORD has, indeed, been magnified beyond the borders of Israel. However, Israel itself still rejects the LORD’s offer of grace and salvation, replacing faith in the LORD, Jesus Christ for a form of worship that relies on tradition and laws that are still impossible to keep. The result is a broken system:
Malachi 1:6. A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the LORD of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name. And ye say, Wherein have we despised thy name?
It is likely that the people of Judah would be astonished at the remainder of his prophecy. Israel has actually come a long way from where they were prior to the Babylonian exile. The sin of Israel was particularly egregious in those years when they not only participated in the lascivious worship of the pagans, but even replaced the worship of the LORD with those pagan practices. This behavior characterized the apostasy of the nation, for which they were judged.
Fully understanding this, the Judeans had no interest in repeating their error. We will find that the post-exilic nation was no longer characterized by idolatry. However, their cessation of idolatry was not inspired by a new-found love of the LORD. It was simply a logical behavioral move that would serve to prevent another such calamity. The exile brought Israel back to what they understood to be God’s plan for them: the Mosaic Law. Consequently, they still responded to God without faith as they went through some of the motions that would make it appear that they were being obedient to the LORD by keeping to the law.
One of the areas where Israel has demonstrated its true lack of faith and trust in God is in the nature of their worship. They refer to God as their “Father” and their “Master” in words, but not in their actions. Though God loves His children with a love that is greater than any father has for his own children, the children do not love Him. Focused on their religion, on their relationship with the Law of Moses, they have abandoned the search for a relationship with God, so they do not know God as their Father.
Furthermore, they call Him Master, but they do not submit themselves to Him as a servant does to his master.
The question that Malachi poses presupposes the attitudes of the priests and worshippers. They sincerely believer that, because they attempt to keep the law, that they are righteous, and there is no problem with their worship. As the LORD accuses them of despising His name, they would be astonished. “In what way have we despised you?” would be their question. They are so satisfied with their manner of worship and their “relationship” with God that they have no idea that they are so far outside of the will of God. As we observe the problem that is so deeply seated in the heart of Israel, it may be instructive to apply the arguments to our own hearts, the heart of our church, and the heart of the church today. We may find some similarities.
Malachi 1:7-8. Ye offer polluted bread upon mine altar; and ye say, Wherein have we polluted thee? In that ye say, The table of the LORD is contemptible. 8And if ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? and if ye offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? offer it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person? saith the LORD of hosts.
The LORD exposes one area of their worship where the true nature of their heart is demonstrated: the tithes, offerings, and gifts given to the LORD. Known as the “first fruits,” the Mosaic Law maintains that the first and best be brought to the LORD. They are bringing their left-overs to the LORD.
It may be important to understand the context of the Mosaic Law that is still misunderstood today. The Law exposes sin by its breaking. That is, if one loves the LORD they do not need the law to tell them what to do. If one loves the LORD they will bring their first and best to the LORD and do so with great joy. Watch a grandparent lavish gifts on the first grandchild. Not only does the grandparent give the best possible gifts, they are given in an overabundance of love and joy. This is the way that one gives when they love the LORD. Consequently, when one does not love the LORD, they do not bring their best, and they do not bring it in joy. They are, by their actions, not keeping the Mosaic Law. Those who love the LORD keep the law, but not because it is a law, but because they love the LORD.
This issue goes all the way back to Cain and Abel. Abel loved the LORD and brought the best of his goods to the LORD. Cain despised the LORD, despised the necessity of bringing an offering to the LORD, and hated his brother because of the difference.
Though I illustrated with the example of a grandparent, Malachi uses the example of a Governor (or Emperor). Would you not bring an acceptable gift to the Emperor? One would not think of insulting the Emperor when approaching him for his service. Yet, because the worshippers do not truly love the LORD, they give no thought to the insult they bring by offering the blind, lame, the unsellable of their flocks, etc.
When serving as the pastor of a new work, I noted on arrival that the facilities were filled with old, used, broken down, mismatched furniture that members brought. They were bringing their leftovers, their throw-aways, thinking that the church could use these things. They were not aware that their “gifts” of leftovers sent a message to all who saw them. After explaining the issue, we were able to repent and began purchasing new equipment for the infrastructure of the church, and we all agreed to never to give our old used items to the LORD again.
Malachi 1:9. And now, I pray you, beseech God that he will be gracious unto us: this hath been by your means: will he regard your persons? saith the LORD of hosts.
Malachi, reflecting the LORD’s intent, calls upon the priests to repent of their disregard for God, and to ask for forgiveness. Note that Malachi did not give them instructions to bring a sacrifice to the LORD. The sacrificial system that is established in the Pentateuch is complex and comprehensive. However, it provides no remedy for deliberate sin. The only remedy for deliberate sin is God’s grace, given lavishly upon those who place their trust in Him.
Malachi 1:10. Who is there even among you that would shut the doors for nought? neither do ye kindle fire on mine altar for nought. I have no pleasure in you, saith the LORD of hosts, neither will I accept an offering at your hand.
Having already revealed the disregard for the LORD that is evident in the offerings and sacrifices that Israel is bringing, Malachi continues by describing how God receives these offerings. In an almost sarcastic statement, the LORD states that they might as well close the doors of the temple and extinguish the altar fire because He simply will not accept an offering that is inappropriately given.
Given the importance of this issue, we might take a moment to consider the context and content of our own offerings that we bring to the LORD. If our heart is in the right place and our love for the LORD is sincere, we may be able to observe our offerings and come away pleased that we do bring to the LORD our very best, and the nature and amount of our gifts are consistent with what the Holy Spirit is leading. For example, since the Old Testament formula for offerings is the tithe, which literally refers to one tenth of the first fruits, many hold that they are being obedient by giving exactly ten percent of their gain. However, even a tithe that is given with the wrong attitude is an affront to God. It is likely that, as we honestly consider the gifts that we bring to the LORD, we will find there is room for improvement in both our attitude and in the nature of the gifts.
When asked what is an appropriate percentage of our income is an appropriate sacrifice to the LORD, I have advised that I cannot answer that question. One must listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and consider just how much they really love the LORD and His work. Most who read these words are probably a member of a church fellowship that collects tithes, offerings, and gifts in order to accomplish what is intended to be the LORD’s work. It may be instructive to understand the difference between these three sacrifices.
Tithes are regular and consistent sacrifices that we bring to our local church fellowship to support its regular operations and ministries. Most fellowships maintain and publish an operating budget that is dependent upon those tithes. Almost universally, people give very little to the operation of a church and by so doing they severely limit what the church can do and often demand that their pastor live at the poverty level with no hope for retirement. This is one of those sins that the LORD is quite aware of.
Offerings are given over and above the tithe when special needs are made known, or expenses are incurred by the church fellowship that are not a part of their regular budget. Often churches take up missions offerings, benevolent offerings, love offerings, and many others. A primary blessing of these offerings is received by the giver who loves the LORD when they understand that they are contributing to a good purpose that is consistent with the LORD’s will and are pleasing to Him.
Gifts are brought to the LORD independent of any church program. One might know of a need and simply make a gift to meet that need.
Malachi shows us that the attitude of the giver is far more important than the nature of the gift. God is pleased with a disciple who loves Him and gives spontaneously out of their love for Him and the joy of knowing that they are being used of the LORD to accomplish His will. True blessings are received from this form of giving, where nothing of value is received by the giver when the gift is given with the wrong attitude.
Malachi 1:11. For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts.
This second consequence of Israel’s faithlessness would have been received as another shock by the priests who believe that the progeny of Abraham are the “children of God” and all others are unrighteous and are to be shunned. Malachi states that there is coming a time when the LORD will be praised every hour of the day, that praise will be lifted up by, not Israel, but by the Gentiles, those whom they despise. This would probably have been received by the faithless Judean leaders as a grave insult.
Malachi 1:12-14. But ye have profaned it, in that ye say, The table of the LORD is polluted; and the fruit thereof, even his meat, is contemptible. 13Ye said also, Behold, what a weariness is it! and ye have snuffed at it, saith the LORD of hosts; and ye brought that which was torn, and the lame, and the sick; thus ye brought an offering: should I accept this of your hand? saith the LORD. 14But cursed be the deceiver, which hath in his flock a male, and voweth, and sacrificeth unto the Lord a corrupt thing: for I am a great King, saith the LORD of hosts, and my name is dreadful among the heathen.
Rather than bring a contemptible gift to the LORD, we would be better to give no gift at all. Malachi has revealed a great sin that characterized the ancient Judean people as well as the church today. When we bring tithes, offerings, and gifts to the LORD with the wrong attitude, when we bring less than our best, when we give the minimum to “get by” we have profaned the offering. Some of the consequences of this sin are quite evident in the church today, particularly as their members struggle to maintain a minimal budget that, even of itself, is designed to bless the church rather than the LORD. A quick estimate of a true tithe of a church membership can bring a startling revelation. If every member of the church was joyfully obedient in the giving of tithes, offerings, and gifts, there would never be a lack of resources to do the work that the LORD has given the church to do. Though there are many areas where the church would be blessed, the most important of these involves our pastors and staff who could devote themselves to the ministry without fear of the bill collectors and without anxiety about their lack of preparation for their later years.
It is evident that the sin the Malachi exposed to the ancient Judeans is still relevant today. Let us look prayerfully at the nature of our faith, for if we are attempting to support the work of the LORD without faith, our efforts are in vain already. If we are people of faith, let us look at the nature of the attitude that we have towards our tithes, offerings and gifts. It may be difficult for us to get past the excuses and rationalizations that we have been using over the years to rationalize away our failure to exercise our faith through giving in a manner that blesses the LORD.
Finally, as Malachi continues, we will come to understand one of the most important points of his revelation: It is not the quantity of the tithes that the LORD is concerned with, though it may appear so to the unrepentant. When one fails to give appropriate sacrifices to the LORD, that behavior is an indicator of the condition of the heart of the believer, and it is that condition that the LORD is concerned with. Failure to give tithes, offerings, and gifts in a manner that honors the LORD simply reveals that there is a deeper issue within the heart of the believer that needs to be addressed.
Just as Malachi writes to inspire change in the heart of the Judeans, let us consider if we also need to change our hearts so that the LORD will be honored, not by our gifts, but by the attitude of our hearts as we serve Him and give to His work with both generosity and joy. Then we will realize the promises that Malachi is about to reveal: that we will be blessed by the LORD for this fruit of faith.
 E.M. Meyers, “Priestly Language in the Book of Malachi,” Hebrew Annual Review, 10 (1986): p. 226.