Worship is supposed to be a celebration of being in covenant fellowship with the living God. It is a time set aside for the members of the covenant, the believers, to demonstrate their faith with genuine praise and thanksgiving. And God arranged the worship of Israel in a way that praise and thanksgiving would be most natural for the people--he arranged it for the three great harvest festivals ion the land, barley in the spring, wheat in the summer, and summer fruits in the fall. Because the harvests were a gift from God, the people were by duty bound to bring tokens of their thanksgiving to offer to God at the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. And because these were harvest celebrations, they were natural times for the farmers to rejoice--the work was over for the season. Only those who grew up on a farm would know how hard the work is, and how much joy there is when the harvest was finally in.
When the Israelites came up to Jerusalem top worship, they were to bring animals from their flocks, wheat and fruit from their fields, and whatever other gifts of gratitude they wanted to give to God. God did not need the food to survive (see Ps. 50); Israel was to bring the offerings to God not because he needed them, but as an expression of the Israelite’s need of God. To refuse to offer the gifts to God was to say that God was not necessary to the success of the people, when in fact without him they could not survive.
When the people came to worship, God did not require a great deal of them in the way of offerings--tokens, really, of their herds and their crops--a handful of grain, or an animal for the family. But what they brought had to pass two important tests, and in many cases only they and God would know if they passed them. What they brought had to be the first and the best. Nothing else mattered. It had to be the first-born animal, or the first fruit of the crops or the orchards. God gets his share first, because he is the most important. But it had to be the best--the best firstborn or first fruit offering. To bring God an inferior gift would say that one did not think much of God, for the quality of the gift indicates the value the giver places on the one receiving the gift. That is true in any human relationship, and it certainly is true in the spiritual relationship we have with the Lord.
But people are always falling short of pure worship, or at least pure worship on a sustained level. And so the prophets came on the scene in Israel to rebuke, reprove, correct, and exhort the people. In the earlier periods the prophets had to deal with idolatry and pagan corruptions in Israel’s worship. After the exile that was no longer a major problem. But instead, worship was being corrupted by the indifference and selfishness of people. And so Malachi had to address a whole different set of problems in the nation. His first sermon, directed at the priests but certainly speaking to the worship of the people, deals with their making a mockery out of worship by bringing inferior offerings. God was not pleased with that kind of worship.
Malachi begins his message with a couple of affirmations that the people would probably agree with wholeheartedly, but that he would use to lead into his rebuke. He declares, “A son honors a father, and a servant his master.” They would respond, “Yes, this is what the Law said, and this is how things ought to be.” The word “honors” indicates that the son would give his father, and the servant his master, the proper weight of authority (the verb is from kabed, to be heavy”).
But Malachi follows this with two rhetorical questions from God: “If I am a father, where is my honor; if I am Lord, where is my fear?” says Yahweh of armies to you, O priests, who despise my name.” This would have overwhelmed the people; they thought the message was going to be on the human relationships he introduced, but he turned it to their spiritual relationship with God. The accusation is clear: they were not honoring nor fearing the Lord, and so they did not really consider him their father or their master. He still has not stated what the problem is, but whatever it is it can be summarized that they do not honor the Lord and they do not fear him--and yet they are priests and worshipers! It is possible to be in attendance in a worship service, go through all the ritual and sing all the hymns, and yet despise the Lord.
This is the point the prophet makes by saying that they despise his name. The message is addressed to the priests directly, but as we shall see, because of their failures, the nation was also guilty of not honoring and fearing the Lord. They are also the ones “who despise my name.” The word “despise” means to look down on something as if it is worthless, to despise or treat with contempt. The Lord says the priests are “despisers of my name,” the participle form emphasizing the nature of the word as their nature. And the “name” in the Old Testament refers to the Lord himself, his person and his works.
The priests thought they were doing everything right, saying the prayers and the blessings, and making all the right sacrifices; so they responded (at least Malachi knows how they would respond), “Wherein have we despised your name?” Even if they made a mistake here or there in the service, it did not mean that they despised the name of the Lord, did it?--so they would reason. But Malachi said the Lord said otherwise.
This is a very serious charge even as it stands; the seriousness is signaled by the title of God, “Yahweh of armies” [hosts], a judgment title meaning that God has all the heavenly and earthly armies at his disposal to judge the people. And so now that Malachi had their attention, he could explain what was happening.
The Lord said through the prophet that they were offering on the high altar defiled food. The altar was the place of sacrifice, of course; and the charge was that what they were offering to God did not measure up to the standards. The “food” that they brought was defiled or polluted. That the sacrifices were called food was both symbolic and practical, symbolic because when they were burned on the altar it was as if God “consumed” them, and practical because some of the sacrifices were to be eaten by the priests and the people as communal meals.
This was a serious charge because of the requirements in the Law. They were supposed to bring sacrifices that were perfect--healthy animals, without any blemish at all. There were two very important reasons for this. First, the sacrifice was a gift that was to be offered to God. As noted above, the kind of gift that someone gives indicates what they think of the person they are giving it to. For example, if a husband gave his wife a gift for Valentines Day, say a new mop, the gift would certainly not be well-received because it would not be special and because it would speak volumes of what he thought of her. Or if someone gave another person a gift that was old, used, worn out, and of no use any more, it would be an insult. They would just be pawning off some junk on the person. So to bring a gift to God that was defiled was a real insult--no matter how much the priests protested the charge.
Second, theologically the animal sacrifice was for atonement, signifying that the perfect animal would be offered in place of the sinner. Since the animal represented God’s provision for the sins of the worshiper, it had to be without blemish itself. This principle came to fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross: he was the sinless Lamb of God who gave his life for the sins of the world. If Christ had been defiled, a sinner, his death would have been no better than our own deaths. The only one who could redeem us from sin was the only one who was sinless.
So to bring defiled offerings was serious. And they knew it. But they challenged this as well: “Wherein have we defiled you?” Note, in anticipating what their response is, Malachi changes the object--they were not just bringing defiled offerings, they were defiling God.” If the sanctuary were holy, if the altar was holy, if the sacrifices were to be holy, then to bring in defiled gifts would be to defile everything about worship. How so? Because, as Malachi answers this charge, he says that in effect they are saying that the table of the Lord is contemptible! Here is the word “despise” again--not only do they despise the name of the Lord, they think the table, that is the altar, is worthless. Because the people brought defiled gifts they did not think the altar and the ritual was worthwhile.
How exactly did they despise the altar and offer defiled things? Here then are the specifics. In verse 8 the prophet says, "When you offer the blind for a sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer the lame, and the sick, is that not evil?” He is talking about animals. The people knew they had to bring animal sacrifices to the sanctuary for their worship--an animal for a sin offering, another animal for the burnt offering, a third animal for the peace offering--three animals for the family group every time they came to the sanctuary! That could get expensive, of course. And so they brought the animals that were diseased, crippled, blind, and worthless, animals they could not sell or use, but they could offer them to God. After all, God was only going to burn them up anyway. So this was a very practical thing to do--so they thought--fulfill the ritual, and get rid of the crummy livestock at the same time.
But Malachi challenges them: “Offer them to your governor; see if he will be pleased with you, or respect you”--says the Lord of armies. Try paying your taxes to the government by giving it worthless things. No, the government gets its hand into the paycheck first and takes its share right off the top. Always. But God is more important than the government; so why do people think they can get away with giving him inferior gifts?
And the people in Malachi’s day are not the only ones guilty of this. When I was growing up people used to collect things for missionaries or disaster relief, and they often found that people had given junk, things that they could not use any more. What happened to sacrificial giving? This was cleaning out the attic. And, when people give to the Lord in worship, it is often what is left over after they plan everything else that they want to do with their money. The standard in worship from the beginning is that God gets the first and the best. The first-born animal, the first fruit from the trees and the field, go to God; and whatever is given to God has to be perfect, it has to be the best. This is true of physical gifts as well as spiritual service. Our money, our time, our service--God’s people must give the best they have to him; and in all things he must have the pre-eminence (Col. 1:18).
In the next section the prophet instructs the people what they should do. They have a choice. If they feel that they have violated the holy things, then all they can do, and do quickly, is pray to the Lord for forgiveness (v. 9). “Now, entreat the face of God that he may be gracious to us.” The expression is bold, but simple--they have to pray for divine favor (the face of God usually represents his favor). The motivation is that God may be gracious. The word “gracious” implies that they do not deserve God’s favor, but rather his judgment, for “grace” is undeserved favor.
The reason for the urgent prayer is that the people are guilty: “this is from your hands” is an idiom in the book that means, “this is what you have produced.” Will God be pleased or will he respect those who do this? The implied answer to the rhetorical question is that God has no pleasure in or respect for the worshiper who offers to God something that is ruined or worthless.
But on the other hand, if they are going to keep worshiping like this, the prophet declares, “O that someone would shut the doors so that you might not kindle fire on my altar gratuitously.” Malachi thinks it is better to lock the doors of the temple and keep the people out. If they continue to worship this way, then the fire they light on the altar will be worthless. In stating this the prophet uses the word “gratuitously, without a cause”; it forms a word play on their seeking God’s grace, for it is from the same root (khanan). “Grace” is undeserved merit; “gratuitous” is for no reason, without a cause. In this passage, the latter meaning applies, for their worship would be worthless, pointless, for no reason, a waste of time. God takes no pleasure in worthless worship; in fact, he rejects it! If people do not do it with love and devotion, but only out of compulsion to follow a ritual, their gift will be worthless, and they will be rejected.
What would be the outcome of shutting down the temple and keeping false worship out? Turning to the Gentiles. In verse 11 we have one of the early predictions of Gentile faith: if the Israelites reject the Lord, the nations will not. So, from the rising of the sun to its setting, the Gentiles will worship him. This is a figure of speech called merism, two opposites are stated for the meaning of the totality. Rising of the sun is in the morning, setting is in the evening-all day; the rising is in the east, the setting in the west-everywhere. All day long and everywhere the nations will worship and magnify the Lord. Moreover, they will burn incense and offer pure sacrifices to the Lord. The burning of incense goes with offering prayers, and offering pure sacrifices goes with the obedience of faith, for to do that they would have to prepare for the worship. In time this is what happened, God turned to the Gentiles. And when the Gospel went to all nations, people celebrated the pure offering, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Righteous.
Malachi, in contrast to the prospect of others worshiping correctly, turns back to his audience to reiterate their sin and explain it further. “But you are profaning it.” The word “profane” in Hebrew means to treat or make as common (English “profane” means outside the temple), ordinary; the word is the antonym of “holy.” Their holy meal in the sanctuary was not holy; it was a profane or common meal because they brought ordinary animals. They said, or thought, that the table was defiled, and its food contemptible. Of course, they would not say this--they were priests, after all, and they had to say the right things in the services; but in the way that they worshiped they were saying this.
And even worse, Malachi says they are not even trying to hide their true feelings. In verse 13 he adds, “And you say, ‘What a drudgery!’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of armies.” The snorting must be some kind of gesture or expression of disgust; to them it was a drudgery to do it, a pain in the neck. There was no joy in worship, no delight in serving God.
This attitude prevails today in so many circles of worship where the ritual has become a routine, then a drudgery. People go through the service, but it is something to endure. And sometimes ministers, for one reason or another, might become bored, or indifferent, perhaps burned out. They need to turn the service over to someone else until they can get their spiritual perspective restored. Genuine praise and thanksgiving will go a long way to bringing life back into the service; but a large part of the problem is going to be concerned with how the Word of God is used--and that will be Malachi’s next sermon.
The Lord asks through the prophet, “When you bring injured, crippled and diseased animals to offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” What an insult! The message concludes with a curse: “Cursed is the deceiver who has in his flock an acceptable male [sacrifice], and offers to God a blemished thing”--literally, a ruined or corrupt thing (the word is used for things like spoiled milk). The Hebrew word “curse” basically means removed from blessing, or loss of the blessing. This will be the way the next sermon of Malachi begins--how God curses their blessing because they do not obey Scripture. But if people keep the best for themselves, and offer God the junk, God may take away even the best they have (see Deut. 8), or even their lives, as he did in Acts 5 when Ananias and Sapphira lied to God about what they were giving. So God will not long tolerate false worship; he will get rid of it, or as John warns in Revelation 2 and 3, he will remove the candlestick”
And then, if this curse lands, if the deceivers are removed from the place of blessing, the Lord’s name will be reverenced among the Gentiles. Even among the Gentiles it was known what the Lord could do, and so they feared him.
The Lord Jesus Christ told the woman at the well that the Father was seeking worshipers who would worship in spirit and truth. Worship must be honest and spiritual; the worshipers must put their heart into it and offer to God the best that they have, and the best that they can do. To get to this point they have to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord so that they will appreciate more who he is and what he has done. The greater the knowledge of the object of worship, the greater the worship. But if people do not venture there in their faith, but live selfish and self-indulgence lives, then the worship will be a drudgery and their gifts perfunctory and worthless.