A Culture in Denial
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
This, the last book of the Old Testament is also the last prophecy, the last “word from God” prior to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Written by Malachi, a Hebrew word meaning “My Messenger,” it is written to the people of Israel and to its priests after Jerusalem had been resettled by the Judeans following their exile in Babylon.
The nature of the community had changed dramatically as a result of their three-generation exile. This period was long enough for all of the adults who had been taken into captivity to have died, so those who returned to Jerusalem were their children. Since the community of Judeans was maintained by Babylon, they were able to pass their Israelite history and traditions down to their children who brought them to Jerusalem. Prior to the exile, the nation was characterized by the egregious sins associated with pagan, idolatrous worship. The post-exilic Israelites were not as attracted to this phenomenon, partly because many of these were children of what were faithful Israelites in the first place. Also, they were well-aware that the destruction of both the northern nation of Israel and the southern nation of Judah was a judgment from God for their apostasy, demonstrated by that pagan idolatry.
However, though the nation no longer practiced wide-spread idolatry, and sought to be true to their Israelite roots, they still lacked faith in God. Without faith, they were unable to practice their “religion” in a way that honored the LORD. To them, religion was defined by their adherence to rules of behavior, rules that could be reinterpreted to fit their current interests. Consequently, there was little true worship of the LORD going on. The priests failed in their God-ordained task to lead the people into faith and the righteousness that God imparts on the faithful. Instead, theirs were positions of power and influence that were exercised with hypocrisy and ignorance of the Word of God.
It is into this culture that Malachi writes as he (1) exposes the errors practiced by Israel, and (2) provides teaching on how to correct those errors and return to the LORD in faith so that they will realize the blessing that comes from truly loving the LORD. Malachi describes in quite graphic terms the nature of their future when that blessing is gone.
Malachi 2:1-2. And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you. 2If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the LORD of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart.
In the first paragraph of Malachi’s work, he condemned the Israelites for their unworthy sacrifices to the LORD as they brought to Him their left-overs and those things that they could not use for profit themselves. Since they did not love the LORD, there was no inspiration to bring to Him the best of the first-fruits as God desires. This failure in the area of sacrifices exposed the faithlessness of their hearts.
In this, the second paragraph of his work, Malachi first turns directly to the priests and Levites, those who have the responsibility to lead the nation towards the righteousness found through faith in God. The original plan that God had for Israel included specific tasks for the priests and Levites. The Levites were not given an apportionment of land as the other eleven tribes of Israel were. Instead, they were to serve as workers in the temple and synagogues, attending to the many ministries that surrounded them. The priests were to be the sons of Aaron who had the specific responsibility to maintain and teach the truths of God’s Word. They were to be the judges and officers of the nation of Israel, exercising their positions with the LORD’s wisdom.
However, the system of Levites and priests had broken down over the generations due to the lack of faith among them. Malachi lists three specific areas in which the religious leaders had failed:
“Will not hear.” The priests were not submitted to the Word of God, and did not dedicate themselves to it. They knew very little about the LORD and even less about His will for them. Without faith, they had no interest in listening for the promptings of their conscience that come from the power of the Holy Spirit. They were fully immersed in the things of the world and in their own prideful world-views.
“Lay it to heart.” The heart (often translated as “bowels”) refers to the seat of one’s emotions, and the authority behind one’s personal decisions. God’s intention was that His words be “written on the hearts” of the faithful. Not only should the priests be fulfilling their call by studying and teaching the Word of God, that word should be written on their hearts, and should be the authority behind their choices.
“Give glory to God.” It is the ordained responsibility of the priests to lead the people in the worship of the One True God, doing so in spirit an in truth. They were not doing this. Bereft of faith in the LORD, there was no thought of glorifying God in worship. They were not teaching the people the Word of God, nor leading them into righteousness.
Those whom the LORD has called to handle the Word of God today might give special consideration to these words. God has called many to be pastors, priests, and teachers who are given the task of teaching and preaching the Word of God. When we observe the shortcomings of the Israelite priests, those who have accepted the responsibility of handling the Word of God might find it instructive to examine their own obedience in this area of their calling. In order to serve in this capacity the individual must be open to listening to the LORD as He reveals His will both through the text of scriptures and through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. He Word of God must be written on their heart: that is, they are submitted to the Word of God so that they study it in the manner that the LORD intends and make it the foundational authority of their choices. Finally, they are to share the love of God and the Word of God with others, bringing glory to God, and not themselves.
James writes, “Not all of you should be masters, for yours is the greater judgment.” The LORD has appointed a great responsibility upon those who have submitted themselves to the Word because of the influence they have on others. The Word must be represented and taught accurately, so that people are not led into falsehoods. A leader who misleads the people into falsehood will stand before God in judgment for their work. Malachi continues as he describes the nature of that judgment.
Malachi 2:3. Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.
Using quite graphic imagery, Malachi describes the consequence of serving as a minister of God’s Word without the power of the Holy Spirit that comes from true faith and trust in the LORD. Since the message of the errant priest is corrupt, all who are submitted to his teaching will be corrupted. We might first think that this statement refers to his blood progeny, but it also includes those who come under his teaching, as his falsehoods propagate down through the generations.
They will forever be known by their sin. It is rather obvious that this prophecy is fulfilled as they are still known today due to the prophecies of Malachi and other Old Testament writers. The word, dung, used herein refers to human feces, certainly a material that has the lowest value of anything that Malachi can use for this illustration. For their face and their feasts to be stained with human dung simply illustrates the egregious sin they and their works will be known for.
Malachi 2:4-6. And ye shall know that I have sent this commandment unto you, that my covenant might be with Levi, saith the LORD of hosts. 5My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name. 6The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity.
The function of the Israelite priests had wandered far from their intended purpose. The priests held positions of power, and gave the LORD little or no consideration. In these verses, Malachi reminds the priests of the original purpose that God had for them. Today’s parallel to the priests and the Levites would be priests, pastors, preachers, teachers, deacons, and all others who exercise ministry within the fellowship of believers. Malachi first addresses the ministry of the Levites.
The LORD assigned to the tribe of Levites the responsibility to care for all of the ministries surrounding the Temple and the Synagogues, a task that fit his skills, gifts, and interests. God assigned this task to Levi and his ancestors because of the faith that Levi had in the LORD. Levi expressed the appropriate “fear” or awe-inspired respect for the LORD that was characteristic of knowing Him. Because of his faith-relationship with the LORD, Levi taught the Word of God to others in Spirit and in truth. Because His obedience to the LORD was inspired by his love for the LORD rather than the keeping of the law, the LORD found true righteousness in Him. Because of this the LORD promised that Levi and his ancestors would be included in the LORD’s covenant of life and peace. This form of covenant is referred to as a Suzerain Covenant, a covenant where the one with the power determines all of the characteristics of the covenant. The blessing given to Levi was given by the LORD by His grace, not for Levi’s works, but for Levi’s faith.
Malachi 2:7. For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.
The function of the priests is quite different from that of the Levites. Where the Levites were primarily responsible for Temple and synagogue facilities and ministries, the priests were primarily responsible for the maintenance and propagation of the Word of God. Malachi points out three primary areas of ministry that are distinctive of the work of a priest.
First, they should “keep knowledge.” The priests are to devote a significant amount of their time to the study of God’s word with the intent of gaining and retaining knowledge of it. It is evident that the priests had largely abandoned the Hebrew scriptures. When the scrolls were brought out during the first Feast of the Tabernacles upon their return to Jerusalem, the people were shocked at what they were hearing, indicating that the Torah had not been taught while they were in Babylonian exile. During this week of Ezra’s teaching (and that of Nehemiah and others) the Israelites made commitments to the LORD, commitments to follow Him in obedience in several specific areas in their behavior. However, it is evident that after the memory of that celebration faded, the priests’ interest in the Torah faded, and instead of leading people to God’s Word, they were leading them away.
Second, their conversation should be based upon God’s Word. Having spent a significant portion of their work in the study of the Torah, they should be teaching that word to the people of Jerusalem. The number of priests was quite significant, and if they were teaching the people instead of ruling the people, the entire character of the nation would be drawn closer to God.
Third, they are to serve as messengers of the LORD. It is their responsibility to proclaim the Word of God among the people, both Jew and Gentile. When the people look upon a priest they should see a man of God, one who loves the LORD, studies His Word, understands His Word, and shares it with others, doing so in love and in the power that comes from the Holy Spirit’s lead.
In many ways, the responsibilities of the ancient Israelite priest is similar to those of pastors and priests today. It would be instructive for those who are called to the gospel ministry to look at these verses and consider their own obedience to their calling of the LORD.
Malachi 2:8-9. But ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the LORD of hosts. 9Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as ye have not kept my ways, but have been partial in the law.
The Israelites understood that their destruction at the hands of Assyria and Babylon was allowed by God as a judgment against their sin. It is likely that, since the people no longer immersed themselves in pagan idolatry, that they believed they were being obedient to the LORD. Since their work was acceptable to the people, the priests believed that their work was acceptable. This is another area where modern ministers may examine their ministry, asking “am I doing the work of the LORD or the work of the church?” “Am I leading the church in the way that the LORD desires, or in the way that the church and world culture desires?”
The answer that would be honestly given by the priests is quite obvious: they were following the culture of their nation rather than the Word of God. By wandering from the truth, the priests led all those to whom they are called to minister to wander away with them. The writer of the New Testament book of James writes of this:
James 3:1. My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
The responsibility that the LORD places on those who choose to handle the Word of God is grave. An appropriate illustration of the Holiness of God’s Word is given in the historical narratives concerning the Ark of the Covenant. If one were to so much as touch the Ark inappropriately, they would immediately die. Few pastors, priests, and preachers approach the Word of God with that same awe today.
God’s call upon those who handle the word is without compromise: it is to be handled in truth and taught to the people. If one teaches anything but the truth, they have the power to mislead others, and by so doing are responsible for the souls whom they deceive. James reminds us that the LORD will judge those who handle His Word by a different standard than those who have not been given this ordination. Their judgment for misleading others will be much more significant.
Malachi points out several very specific sins of the priests:
They “departed out of the way.” They wandered away from the truth of God’s Word and replaced it with the opinions of man. This made them acceptable to the people, but despised by God.
They caused “many to stumble.” One is responsible of the consequences of their own disobedience. However, the priest is also responsible for the disobedience of those whom he has misled. It is almost like considering that the punishments that await those he has misled are apportioned to him since there is a point of innocence in the others. Those who have been misled wandered away with the priests because they trusted them. The people would believe the teachings of the priests because they were supposed to know the heart of God and the content and context of His word. The priests took advantage of that trust and led the people in the ways of their own agenda, replacing the authority of God’s Word with their own. We may observe today many well-known pastors and preachers who are misleading people in false doctrines that serve to make the pastors rich and powerful, and fail to lead their people to a saving faith in God. This was the nature of the priesthood when Malachi was writing.
They “corrupted the covenant with Levi.” Not only did the priests wander away from their responsibilities to the handling and dissemination of God’s Word, they ignored the intended ministries of the Temple. These ministries were to be done by Levites who were supported by the tithes. These tithes were to be distributed to the Levites and to the poor. However, this entire system had broken down. Bereft of support, the Levites were forced to leave the service to the Temple and synagogues and find employment elsewhere. Because of this the Temple ministries that had been commanded by God were not taking place. What money that did come in for the Temple was used to guild the Temple and line the pockets of the priests.
Again, we may see many similarities today when the people of our churches do not love the LORD enough to give to the ministries of the church at a level that will properly support their pastors and staff. Many churches “hire” part-time pastors, expecting them to hold secular jobs in order to pay for their own support. The church expects the pastor to pay ALL of his income towards the support of the pastorate while each church member provides a tiny portion. The pastors are left living in poverty, unable to build equity, and face a miserable retirement, if any at all.
Malachi describes the judgment of the LORD upon the priests: because they have compromised the Law, they will be brought down. The priesthood had become characterized by pride and power. They thought of themselves as the most important people in the nation, and expected to be treated that way. However, once the truth is known, their fall will be great as the people learn of their self-promoting greed for power and privilege. The rich and powerful religious leaders will try to shout over their detractors, but there always comes a time when the opposition to their ministry becomes too great and they fall, and fall hard. One contemporary example (among many) is the experience of Jimmy Bakker, who as a sincere and charismatic preacher found great success in the television ministries referred to as the “700 Club” and the later “PTL Club” that initially maintained a focus on the LORD. As he became more rich and more powerful, the Bakkers became known for their conspicuous consumption of moneys that came into the ministries. According to a New Yorker article in 1987, "They epitomized the excesses of the 1980s; the greed, the love of glitz, and the shamelessness; which in their case was so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence." Ultimately, Bakker was convicted of 24 counts of fraud and sentenced to prison.
Malachi 2:10. Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?
In an attempt to illustrate how far Israel has wandered away from the LORD, Malachi asks two rhetorical questions. First he reminds them that they are all one family, and it was God who established them. The promise of blessing that the LORD made with Abraham is what defines them as a people, and it is God’s plan that they would be a part of that blessing to one another, to their children, and to the world. As Malachi observes the Judeans he sees a culture that gives the LORD very little notice. These are not questions that are looking for an answer as much as they are intended to get the Judeans to consider them.
Malachi refers to two particular problems that indicate that the Judeans have forgotten who they are. First, he notes that the Judeans are mistreating one another. They have complained, with good reason, for the way they have been treated by their pagan neighbors, yet they are treating one another with the same treachery and dishonesty. Second, by turning away from faith in God and demonstrating disloyalty to one another and to the LORD, they are rejecting the covenant that God made with them through Abraham.
Malachi 2:11-12. Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god. 12The LORD will cut off the man that doeth this, the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob, and him that offereth an offering unto the LORD of hosts.
In addition to their betrayal of one another, betrayal of their fathers, and betrayal of the LORD, Malachi notes that their behavior is an abomination to the LORD. This word is reserved for those things that God hates, usually referring to such sins as “homosexuality, prostitution, child sacrifice, witchcraft, dishonesty, violence, and perversion of justice.” Numerous Old Testament prophecies that include those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel describe severe judgments upon those who practice such sin, judgments that including death by plague, famine, and sword. Malachi’s charge is particularly grievous when he places Jerusalem at the nexus of this behavior, the place that is to be the sanctuary, a place that God has set apart for His purpose, a place that He loves.
There has been a great deal of disagreement concerning the interpretation of the phrase “daughter of a strange god.” The word rendered strange carries with it the idea of one that is both foreign and dangerous to the point of leading one to death. The intermarriage between Israelites and pagans was forbidden under the Law of Moses, and necessary to maintain spiritual purity, and necessary to maintain the covenant that God made with Abraham. To marry outside of the faith is to bring pagan practices into the family, polluting and destroying the spiritual integrity of the nation. This problem of intermarriage was a continual issue throughout the history of Israel, though there were a few times in their history when they did commit to separate themselves from their foreign wives (and husbands), once within their own generation.
Because of the destruction that this intermarriage does to the integrity of Israel, the LORD says that those who practice this will be “cut off,” without regard to their place in the social classes, regardless of their association with the Temple, and regardless of the sacrifices that they bring to the altar. This practice of shunning one who marries outside of Israel is still practiced among many Jews today.
Malachi 2:13. And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand.
Hearing Malachi’s words, many of the people are shocked into mourning. Without attention to Malachi’s words, the people fully and sincerely believed that they were righteous and blessed by God because they were children of Abraham and recipients of the blessing. They believed that their identity (but not necessarily their obedience) to the Law of Moses defined them, and also gave them a portion of righteousness. Also, their “obedience” in offering sacrifices led them to believe in their own righteousness. Consequently, when Malachi accuses them of such egregious sin, and informs them that the LORD does not regard their offerings, many respond in weeping. Malachi describes this as “covering the altar of the LORD with your tears.” However without a heart to change, without an effort at correction and repentance, their tears are meaningless.
Malachi 2:14-15. Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. 15And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.
One of the first casualties of any culture that turns its back on God is the family. With a breakdown of commitment to the LORD comes a breakdown of commitment to everything that He ordains, and the most important social unit that God created is the family, defined as one male husband, one female wife, and their children, all united in their faith in God. As the people have betrayed their roots, and betrayed the LORD, they have also betrayed their commitments to their families. The men, who have been engaged in any number of the sins he has already mentioned, particularly homosexuality and prostitution, have broken their marriage commitment, separating themselves from the commitments that they have made to the “wives of the covenant,” the “wives of their youth.”
Just as their intermarriage with pagans serves to destroy the purity of the nation, the destruction of the family does the same. The man who betrays his own wife betrays everything that he is to stand for. He has turned his back on his commitment to his family, and by that betrayal, turned his back on the LORD who ordained the marriage.
Malachi 2:16. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
It is not the LORD’s desire to bring judgment upon Israel. Israel’s sin “breaks God’s heart.” Since it is the LORD’s desire to bless the people of His creation, and particularly the seed of Abraham, the LORD has provided a means for Israel’s sins, as well as all those outside of the nation of Abraham, to be covered, as His offer of unconditional forgiveness is open to all who will repent of their sin and turn to Him in faith. Therefore, the LORD clearly informs the people that they should (1) turn their attention to the condition of their own spirit, and (2) repent of their betrayals.
Malachi 2:17. Ye have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them; or, Where is the God of judgment?
The reoccurring theme that runs through Malachi’s prophecy is the unbreakable denial of the Israelite people. His returning to the questioning dialogue, “wherein have we?” that the people use to respond to Malachi’s exposure of their sin demonstrates that they refuse to accept that any of their behavior is ungodly. They refuse to accept any of the criticism that they are hearing from Malachi and other contemporary prophets such as Haggai, Nahum, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Theirs has become an upside-down world where that which is sinful has been accepted as normative behavior, and even behavior to be celebrated. They claim that which is evil in the sight of the LORD is good, and blessed by God. The culture has forgotten the God of judgment that will hold everyone accountable for their behavior, particularly those whom He has revealed Himself and His purpose.
As we study the prophecy of Malachi, we find ourselves observing a cultural phenomenon that took place in the experience of ancient Israel. However, we may find ourselves realizing that virtually every condemnation raised by Malachi describes behavior that has become common today. Some of the very abominations that Malachi describes have become normative and celebrated, such as homosexuality and child sacrifice, both of which have been embraced by many who refer to themselves as members of the Christian church. We are witnessing the destruction of the family as fathers abandon the wives of their youth, and as respect for the institution of marriage is eroding. We, indeed live in a fallen world, a world that is upside-down where what is wrong is called right, and what is right is called wrong. God is going to judge His creation, not in terms of the truth that the people define, but in terms of the Truth that He has established.
Malachi finishes this paragraph with a call to repentance, a call that is quite appropriate today. As Malachi advised the people of ancient Israel, let us examine the state of our own Spirit in terms of the Truth of God’s Word, and repent of our acceptance of modern humanistic and hedonistic values, turning back to the Truth, turning back to Him.
 Proverbs 3:3, 7:3; Deuteronomy 6:4-8.
 James 3;1.
 Clendenen, p. .339.
 Ezekiel 5:11-12.
 e.g. Ezra 10:3, 19.