This is a four-part devotional on the first chapter of Malachi. I want to draw particular attention to God’s expectations for His people’s sacrifices. Feel free to read and participate at your own pace. Let me know what you think of this chapter!
———————————– PART ONE———————————–
The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi.
The book of Malachi lists a number of trespasses the people of Judah have committed against the Lord God. Among these, the prophet Malachi accuses the priests of God’s temple of bringing blemished sacrifices to the altar with unholy hearts. Written by an unknown author, the charge is meant to be convicting to the priesthood who has grown apathetic in their upholding of the cultus and teaching of the people.
While the author and year of the prophet’s message is explicitly stated in Haggai and Zechariah, Malachi fails to provide such information. The word ‘malachi’ (which translates to “my messenger”) was simply given to the author as a title representative of his role as a prophet (Constable 13). Dating when this book was written is also problematic. Since Malachi addresses issues with temple procedures, it is safe to assume that the oracle was delivered after the reconstruction of the temple and reestablishment of temple cultus as described in Leviticus, some time before the events of Ezra and Nehemiah. Best estimates for the time Malachi was delivered indicate it was written around 480 B.C., although dates within a few decades are reasonable (Merrill 272). Malachi 1:8 also mentions the presence of a governor, which would align with a post-exilic date under Persian rule.
Stylistically, Malachi’s delivery of his oracle is somewhat unique. The prophet speaks on God’s behalf through a series of questions and answers. Each pericope begins with God declaring the guilt of His people. The people respond asking how that charge could be true. God then answers their question and exposes the extent of His people’s guilt. This form of dialogue is written in the style of legal prose, where God is the judge and accuser, while His people are on trial without a defense. Through the course of this dialogue, God often brings His charge against His people by using rhetorical questions, as seen in verses 6 , 8, and 13. Malachi is the only book of the Old Testament to use rhetorical questions so regularly (Merrill 273). Malachi also differs from other oracles by not having a great deal of grand prophesy, predicting the destruction of foreign enemies or the condemnation of a stubborn generation. Outside of hints toward a glory that awaits Israel and a hopeful conclusion, Malachi concentrates on addressing problems that faced the current audience.
The word “oracle” can also be translated to “burden”. How does that change the tone of this book?
Consider the fact that Israel had been freed from Babylonian oppression less than a hundred years before this. The Babylonians had destroyed God’s temple in Jerusalem and enslaved the Jews, forcing many exiles to move to Babylon to serve their conquerors. Persia liberated the Jews and allowed them to rebuild God’s temple. The prophet Daniel clearly predicts this and credits God with Persia’s victory. How do you think the Israelites feel now that they’ve been freed from oppression and can return to the promised land?
———————————– PART TWO———————————–
“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?”
“Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”
If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!”
Malachi begins with a brief title, which denotes it as an oracle from the Lord through Malachi to Israel. It is important to realize the possible significance of addressing the audience as Israel rather than Judah. Israel, referring to the northern kingdom, had been destroyed by the Assyrians more than two hundred years prior to this oracle; by addressing the audience as Israel, the title hints at an imminent redemption or reunion of God’s people (Merrill 278). It may be the case that the prophet simply used “Israel” to refer to the entire chosen people of the land and did not mean to prophesy about the northern kingdom; both interpretations have merit.
This title is followed by verses 2-5, where God engages in the first of several dialogues with His people. These four verses serve to remind the people of God’s loving, sovereign choice and protection (Constable 13). God accomplishes this by retelling the story of Jacob and Esau as an example of love and the story of conquering Edom as an example of protection. Genesis 25 recounts the birth of Jacob and Esau. From these twins came the Israelites and Edomites, respectively. The Israelites were God’s chosen people; the Edomites were crushed by Israel’s armies. Though Esau was the firstborn—the one his father Isaac assumed would receive God’s blessing and favor—God placed His favor on Jacob instead. Out of His own love and will He chose Israel.
What do you think the significance is of God starting his reprove by saying, “I have loved you”? (read Galatians 6:1)
What does the people’s response “How have you loved us?” say about their hearts? Remember, only a generation or so ago, they had been freed from Babylonian oppression.
How does God’s treatment of Edom prove His love to Israel?
———————————– PART THREE———————————–
“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name.
But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon 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. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.
In verses 6-14, God accuses the priesthood of defiling His temple. This dialogue begins with God comparing himself to a master and father: “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name’” (1:6, NIV). God has been cheated by not receiving what is due Him. In Malachi 3, God will accuse the “descendants of Jacob” of literally robbing Him of tithes and offerings. Here, however, God is robbed of something intangible: honor. Worse yet, the priests are the ones who are to be held responsible for this offense. Those who were meant to be leaders in faith and uphold the honor of God on behalf of the people have failed.
As the verse continues, Malachi shows that the priests are ignorant of any wrongdoing: “But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’” (1:6). The Lord responds with His specific grievance, “‘You place defiled food on my alter,’” (1:7). Compare this charge to the priestly standard set in Leviticus 21:6. The priests must “be holy,” because they present sacrifices to God. In Malachi, the Lord reveals that the priests’ sacrifices have been defiled. This reveals a two-fold problem: the people are bringing unworthy sacrifices to the altar of the Lord, and the priests are sacrificing these offerings without objection. While it is the people’s responsibility to bring their own offerings to the temple, the priests are responsible for teaching the people what sacrifices are appropriate. Their complacency in accepting blemished and crippled animals shows either their failure to teach their people what is right or to hold them to the standards God demands, or both.
The people’s response later in verse 7, “How have we defiled you?” entirely shows the disconnect between their hearts and the Lord. They ask this question because they do not understand how defiling God’s sacrifice defiles God Himself. God highlights this in His response: “By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible,” (1:7). The Jews to whom the prophet speaks do not see how laxly following cultus translates to disrespecting God. They do not even deny their food being defiled; rather, they question how that offends their Lord.
God explains this to Israel with a hypothetical proposition. In verse 8, the Lord says, “Try offering [blind, crippled, and diseased animals] to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” The answer would have been fearfully obvious to those who heard these rhetorical questions, and necessarily so. As Eugene Merrill writes in his commentary, “His word is strong, impassioned, and unrelenting, for he lived in critical times. Unless [Malachi] could get his message across, there was real and imminent danger that all the gains of post-exilic renewal would be irretrievably lost” (276). If the temple was reconstructed in 520 B.C., only 60 years had passed and God’s people were already slipping away from Him. Clearly, the animals being presented to God are flawed because they are crippled and diseased, but the true problem is deeper.
Verse 9 reveals what must be done to redeem the Lord’s people. “‘Now implore God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will He accept you?’—says the Lord Almighty,” (1:9). What is required is a change in heart first and a return to proper sacrifices second. Merrill effectively explains, “True repentance must be accompanied by a radically different behavior. The forgiveness of YHWH may not require the offering of proper sacrifice as a prerequisite, but it certainly demands it as a consequence” (283). As David writes in Psalm 51:16-17, “For you [God] have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Unfortunately, God’s people did not refocus their heart on Him. In verse 10, the Lord cries for the doors of the temple to be shut “so that [they] would not light useless fires on [His] altar!” In their current condition, the Lord refuses any offerings they may give Him.
If the people are bringing animals to be sacrificed to God, why should it matter if they’re crippled or not? (consider Genesis 4:1-6)
Is God just a narcissist? Why must he demand the best of us?
What do you think of God’s analogy with the governor?
———————————– PART FOUR———————————–
For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and its fruit, that is, its food may be despised.
But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.
Verse 11 either points forward to a time when all nations on the earth will glorify God with pure offerings or declares that God’s name is presently made great among the nations—the verbiage could be present or past tense. Like in verse 1, this verse could also look to a future of prosperity and unity. Verse 11 appears to be the climax of this dialogue between God and His people. It occurs in the middle of the dialogue and stands as a positive hope between two guilt accusations. Verse 12 reminds the audience that the future God described is still far off because even at that moment, the Lord’s name is profaned by a defiled cultus. Verse 13 again declares that the Lord’s disapproval originates primarily in Israel’s heart and reiterates the necessity to return to proper sacrifices. As Merrill states, “The cultus is not the means of achieving a saving relationship with Him, but one cannot maintain that relationship and at the same time count the cultus as of no importance” (285).
Finally, God brings a warning to those who promise to bring God a worthy sacrifice to the Lord but instead bring “a blemished animal” (1:14). Men who do so only receive recognition from other people. The Lord, who desires and deserves sacrifices of the highest quality, assures that such cheats will be cursed. Merrill notes, “They betray most lucidly the principle that good works must originate in pure hearts” (284) As the passage closes, God reminds Israel, “My name is to be feared among the nations” (1:14). While one could interpret this statement to be prescriptive (“my name ought to be feared”), it makes sense to consider it to be prophetical (“my name will be feared”) in light of verse 11. Ultimately, God will be glorified. Those who do not maintain pious hearts and proper ritual will be cursed.
This passage of Malachi served to chastise post-exilic Jews on “showing contempt for [God’s] name” (1:6). The apathy they show in ritual originates in a deeper apathy toward God; whether or not God’s actions in the past are appreciated, He does not seem worth the time, effort, or material possession to follow mosaic standards now. The Lord despises such a disregard. Future glory does await the people of Judah, but they must return to God in spirit and practice.
Why is a change of both spirit and practice necessary for repentance? Psalm 51:16-17 seem to suggest only a change of heart is required to please God. Why then are God’s people still called to sacrifice?
Romans 12:1 “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Read Romans 12. What does God command us to sacrifice today? What does life look like when lived as a sacrifice to God?
Constable, Thomas L. “Notes on Malachi.” Sonic Light. Sonic Light, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. <http://soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/malachi.pdf>.
Merrill, Eugene H. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1994. Print.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.