Malachi may be associated with the jackal, which features early in his book, for God had left Edom to jackals, yet now God’s own people were acting like jackals.
Malachi’s fifth oracle answered the people’s cry, “Where is the God of justice?”
Oracle 5—Despite Judah’s begrudging worship, God would bless them. (3:7-12)
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;
he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.Malachi 3:3-4 (NRSV)
God would begin with the spiritual leaders of the people, first purifying them, then refining them. Their public sanctification would necessarily involve intense suffering, for the heat of the refiner’s fire would bring all the impurities to the surface, where they would be seen and removed.
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.Malachi 3:6 (NRSV)
God’s refinement of those who have put their faith in God is actually life-giving. Despite the anguish such a process entails, God’s people welcome the refiner’s fire, for it will melt away the dross of our impurities and leave only the reflection of God’s personality.
Malachi listed a number of impurities that had already crept into the culture and society of the returning exiles.
- There were those who were practicing sorcery.
- Adultery was corrupting many a partnership or marriage.
- Swearing falsely in court and in contracts had become a problem.
- Workers had few rights and were being oppressed by poor working conditions as well as poor wages (or false promises).
- Predictably, the underprivileged such as widows and orphans, and foreign nationals were also experiencing oppression.
God’s statutes were being ignored in all these and other matters.
Tithes and Offerings
God’s call to reform, through Malachi, was met with befuddlement.
Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.
But you say, “How shall we return?”Malachi 3:7 (NRSV)
From our vantage, it may seem like a specious question, but God did not treat it that way.
It took me a while, sitting here praying, to see what God saw. But, once I saw it too, it became jaw-droppingly relevant for today.
The priests, the spiritual leaders of the people, had redirected the use of the temple for their own ends, embezzled temple tithes to pay for private apartments, sent the Levites and singers out into the fields to earn their own living. Now that the temple storehouses had been converted into private apartments, there was nowhere to keep the people’s offerings—except to spend them.
Consequently, there was nowhere for the destitute to turn for help.
“Will anyone rob God?
“Yet you are robbing me!
“But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In your tithes and offerings!
“You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you!
“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house.”Malachi 3:8-10 (NRSV)
It really was that simple.
The Lord showed them how they had robbed God by withholding their tithes and offerings. It had begun with the priests, but by their example and indifference to the needs of the disadvantaged, the people soon followed suit.
Four hundred years later, Jesus would say,
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”Jesus, Matthew 6:19-21 (NRSV)
As the leader goes, so go the people.
Slowly but surely, the generosity of the people towards God and toward each other had withered and dried, and the distribution of God’s bounty to those in need had also dried up.
Now, God challenged the people to put God to the test—the only place in all the Bible where God invites testing—to see if the Lord would be faithful in giving the people something to give back to God.
Thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.Malachi 3:10 (NRSV)
The damage done by corrupt spiritual leaders runs deep, long, and wide. Spiritual abuse had hardened the people’s spirits, and God now addressed it.
You have spoken harsh words against me, says the Lord.
Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?”
You have said, “It is vain to serve God.
—”What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the Lord of hosts?
—”Now we count the arrogant happy;
—”evildoers not only prosper,
—”but when they put God to the test they escape.”Malachi 3:13-15 (NRSV)
Their words echoed the Psalmist in Psalm 73, who had cried out to God with much the same complaint. How could it be that the rich only got richer, and the poor got poorer? How could obeying God become a detriment to life, while routinely transgressing God’s principles and values bring fame, influence, and wealth?
Where is God? What is God doing? How can it be that evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape!?
Along with the Psalmist, the people could not understand how a just God, a righteous God, granted wealth, power, and influence to such bad people, and allowed truly good people to be marginalized, victimized, and oppressed.
Note God did not condemn the people for speaking harshly, or for having these questions.
Instead, something profound happened, as the people realized God was listening to them, and hearing them.
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast toward you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me with honor.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;Psalm 73:21-28 (NRSV)
you put an end to those who are false to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
to tell of all your works.