Malachi had to deal with a variety of sins among the clergy and the people. In the last section he had to deal with their “cheap” worship and contempt for the ritual; and in the next section he will address the problem of divorce and marriage to pagans. Whenever there are such violations out of control in the people--people who claim to be followers of the LORD--it is almost always due to bad teaching. Somehow the people had the idea that these things were not sins, or that they could do them and get away with them. And so Malachi turns in this passage to address the priests, these ministers who were failing to do what they were supposed to do. Blaming the priests for the problems in no way let the guilty off the hook; they were responsible for their sin even if they were unaware of what Scripture said about it. But the guilt was greater for those who by their false teaching condoned sin in the congregation.
The short message breaks down into three parts: the condemnation (vv. 1-4), the covenant standard (vv. 5-7) and the charge (vv. 8, 9). It is constructed for the greatest rhetorical effect: he first condemns them for their failure in ministry--this would have grabbed their attention, but also sparked their interest to see what he was so upset about; then he lays out the standard for their spiritual service so they would know what they have failed to do, and finally he states explicitly what they have done wrong in the light of that standard.
The passage focused on the priests themselves, but also spoke to the guilty members of the congregation to remind them that no matter what the priests said in their teaching, they were to obey Scripture. Jesus in his day had to remind the people that when the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat (Matt. 23) they had to listen to them--because there the Pharisees read and explained the text. But then Jesus also said to beware of their false teachings, their leaven, and be careful not to do what they do. So the laity must be discerning, they must know the Word of God well enough to discern when the teacher or preacher gets it wrong. And all these applications remain today, even though Malachi preached about 2400 years ago. Those who minister, that is, those who teach the Bible, whether pastors, teachers, missionaries, or any others, must be very careful how they interpret and apply Scripture. And those who hear the Scripture taught must study it to know if the message or lesson was true or not. Today we are falling down on both counts.
Who today is to teach the Bible? Well, Hebrews 5 makes it very clear that all believers are to teach God’s word. The writer tells those early Hebrew Christians that they had been in the faith long enough that they ought to have been teachers by then, but instead they still needed someone to teach them the basics, they still were drinking milk and not eating the solid food of biblical doctrine. Some Christians will be called by God to pastor or to teach, and they will give their full time to this ministry; but every Christian must be able to teach something, to someone. If they cannot, then all that can be said is that they have not grown spiritually.
The sermon begins with the bold, direct confrontation: “The instruction is for you, O priests.” One can only envision the temple filled with priests, Levites, and the people, and all of a sudden the prophet stands up to speak and speaks directly and bluntly to the spiritual leaders. They might have anticipated that he would be critical of them, but they were not sure how critical. This would be major.
The announcement is that God would send a curse on them if they did not give glory to his name. This would be a curse on their blessings, something that God said he had already begun to do. These two words are important throughout the Bible. The word “blessing” (and the verb “to bless,” barak) means “enrichment”--physically, spiritually, materially. A blessing is a gift from God, but it is a gift that comes with some empowerment or enablement. What blessings had God given the priests? Well, in addition to the normal blessings for the people of God, the rain, the crops, the families, the homes, peace in their time, their health, and all that, there were the blessings of the priesthood. As priests they were empowered to lead worship, teach the Word of God, announce God’s forgiveness of sin and full atonement, eat from the offerings, dwell in the sanctuaries or the priestly cities, and have the respect of the congregation. It was a wonderful life because God had given them so much.
The opposite of the word “bless” is the word “curse”; it essentially means to ban someone, that is, to remove the person from the place of blessing, or remove the blessing. For example, when God cursed the ground in the beginning, we are told that it would no longer yield its strength in the harvest. And then when Cain was cursed, he had to flee from the fertile soil (the ‘adamah) to be a ceaseless wanderer in the world (the ‘erets, like the outback). Removal of a blessing is therefore a curse; the ultimate curse will be that some people will be removed from eternal blessings because of their unbelief. In Malachi 2 if God cursed the blessings of the priest, it meant that he was rendering them unfit for ministry; if he removed the blessings of priesthood from them, they would have no effective ministry even though they might remain in office. But as this section ends, God would make them contemptible and base in the opinion of the people (v. 9). And this is so true of the household of faith in all ages--because of sin the blessing of God is removed, even though the organization may continue to grind on. Jesus’ warning to the seven churches of Revelation was that he would remove their candlestick, i.e., he would remove their effectiveness as his witnesses in the world--they would cease to be a light to God. In other words, the churches would be dead, and considered worthless and irrelevant by people.
What did Malachi’s priests do to warrant this warning? They did not give glory to God’s name. Malachi presents this idea in the form of a conditional clause: “If you will not obey, if you will not take it to heart to give glory to my name.” The verb “to hear” (shama’) has the meaning of respond to, or obey. The priests heard the Word of God read, but they were not hearing it. Jesus had to tell people that if they had ears to hear, they should listen. This is the expected faith-response. And if they will not listen, they will not make a decision (“take it to heart”). He is talking about the faith commitment to do God’s will.
And in this case, that is “to give glory to my name.” The “name” of Yahweh, of course, means his nature, his person and his works, his character, who he is. How does one give glory to a name that is already glorious. Well, the word “glory” (kabod) comes from the basic word “to be heavy”--what is heavy is important. To honor someone, say a father or a mother as the commandment says, means to give them their proper importance, their proper weight of authority. But how does this work with God, who has it all? The only way we can glorify the LORD is by extending the knowledge of him in the world, we add to his reputation by what we say (praise) and what we do (righteousness). To glorify God in everything we do means that we cause God to be seen in everything we do. If we sin, or fail to do what he wants us to do in worship and service, we do not glorify his name, but give people the wrong impression about God. And this is what the priests were doing.
Another example may be helpful. In Numbers 20 when the people murmured against God because there was no water, God told Moses to speak to the rock in the presence of the people so that water would come out for them. But Moses lost his temper; he said, “Listen you rebels, must we bring you water from this rock?” And he struck the rock twice and water came out. But because of that, God told Moses that he would not bring the Israelites into the promised land--that blessing would not be his, but another’s. What did Moses do wrong? He was angry and impatient, he took credit for the mission (“we”), and he disobeyed the Word of God. This was not the picture of God that he was to convey; and so God made sure he was sanctified in the eyes of the people by punishing Moses. As God said when the sons of the priests offered strange fire on the altar (Lev. 10), “I must be sanctified in them that draw near to me [=priests], and before all the people I must be glorified.” Those who represent God, represent God. That is an awesome task. But if by their words or their works they bring down God’s reputation or character, they fail to glorify his name. And God will not let anyone destroy his name.
Malachi has not yet stated what the priests were doing wrong; but whatever it is that they were doing was ruining the picture that people had of God.
Now the Word of the LORD tells what this curse on the priests will be. The first statement is “I will rebuke your seed.” This is not very clear. For God to rebuke something means to change it, stop it, replace it (recall Jesus’ rebuking the winds and the waves). But the word “seed” is difficult. It could mean the literal “seed” in the fields, that is, the crops. The Book of Haggai actually discusses how God punished the nation a little earlier by bringing a blight on their crops. So that is a possibility here if the priests and the people do not obey. But since this is addressed primarily to priests, “your seed” would refer to their descendants, that is, that because of their sins their line would be stopped from being priests. This happened in the beginning of Samuel when God removed Eli and his corrupt sons from the priesthood and chose another line. This interpretation would either mean that the seed of the priests was already as bad as their fathers, or that such a curse on the father would be severely felt if he knew that by his actions he put his descendants out of ministry. Either one is possible. But this seems to be the best explanation.
Some of the ancient versions read the word as a different word here. The Hebrew word “seed” is almost the same as the word for “arm,” just a vowel or two change in the same letters. They thought that the arm of the priests was rebuked. This would mean he could not offer sacrifices on the altar, he could not lift his arm to give the priestly blessing, or he was physically incapacitated in some way that he was no longer qualified to be the priest (priests, according to Leviticus 21, 22, had to be healthy and whole--no broken bones, no hunchback, no physical defects at all, because they were conveying to the people the ideal).
So Malachi 2:3a is one of those lines in the Bible that we know what it means basically--their ministry is being judged--but we do not know the precise idea in the expression that the prophet intended. And, it is not impossible that he had here a deliberate ambiguity (as the prophets often did), meaning he had a couple of things in mind and this phrase covered them.
However that line is interpreted, it leads into the rest of the verse, which is very clear--graphically clear. God said to the priests, “I will smear offal on your faces, even the offal of your feasts, and you shall be carted away with it.” Zechariah used the same kind of language to describe the sins of the priests that contributed to judgment on the nation; in chapter 3 he portrayed the high priest as being clothed with filthy (=excrement be-spattered) garments. These post-exilic prophets did not mince words. Now then, in the ritual the priests would have to sacrifice animals, cut out the internal unclean parts, carry them outside the camp and burn them, wash, change their clothes, and come back in. That was the normal ritual to get rid of the unclean things. But God said he would smear it across their faces--making them as unclean as the unclean parts, and so they would be carried out to the rubbish heap. Obviously this is figurative language, for God did not do this literally. But what he meant was that he was declaring them unclean, and as a result they were not allowed in the sanctuary. Their ministry was over! This would have absolutely overwhelmed Malachi’s audience. He is saying they were unclean, disqualified, not welcome in the holy place, cursed by God. They thought they were doing fine. But Malachi says when God removes them from his service, then they will know that it was the LORD who did this--not just the raving of some prophet. It is a serious matter to attempt to speak for God, or minister in his name.
What was the purpose of the LORD’s judging these corrupt priests? Verse 4 says he will do this so that his covenant would remain with Levi. There is no specific covenant laid out in the Bible with Levi--Levi was the son of Jacob and not a priest--and there was no covenant laid out with the tribe of Levi, the Levites. But because the LORD chose the tribe of Levi to be the priestly tribe, that choice was considered a covenant. A covenant essentially includes the LORD’s calling of people, his promised blessings to them, and their obligations to the agreement; it is then sealed with a sacrifice. God called the tribe of Levi to service, gave them the wonderful blessings of ministry, but laid out their obligations in this arrangement, and then sealed it with the ordination sacrifice in Leviticus 8. That is what is meant by the covenant of Levi--it is the ministry of the priests.
Now the prophet reminds the priests of the calling that they received--what their ministry was supposed to be. This will make his charge against them all the more glaring by contrast. First he sets for the nature of the covenant with Levi, the nature of the ministry: it is a covenant of life and peace. The words “life and peace” in some way explain the nature of this covenant; in all probability, they state what the covenant, what the ministry, should produce. If the priests were faithfully serving in the sanctuary, speaking the truth, offering the sacrifices for atonement, praying for the people, then the worshipers would find life and peace through them. If they believed and obeyed the word, they would live; if they confessed and brought sacrifices, they would have peace with God. This is what any form of ministry is about--people need the life and the peace that God gives through the forgiveness of sin and the guidance of his Word.
But God reminds these priests that the earlier priests not only accepted the ministry and were ordained in it, they understood what an awesome task that was. God said that he gave life and peace to the early priests who were going to minister them, and he did this that they might fear God--reverential fear that leads to adoration, obedience, and worship. If any people receive such a position as priest, minister, pastor, spiritual director, and teacher without it striking the fear of the LORD in them, then they have missed the fundamental principle of the service of the LORD. It is service because he is the LORD God. That he would choose us is amazing; that he would entrust his word to us is frightening. But if the calling is received with faith and understanding, it will make us into more devout worshipers. That is what happened with the early priests--they feared the LORD and stood in awe of his name. That kind of reverential fear in the leaders will prompt devotion and dedication in the people.
The LORD continues to describe the ministry of the priesthood as he intended it to be. First he speaks of them as teachers. “The law of truth” could be interpreted either as “true instruction” (for “Law,” torah, means “instruction,” and “truth” can mean the content of the instruction was true, i.e., biblical), or “faithful instruction” (because “truth” is related to the basic idea of reliable, dependable). Probably the first is intended, given the context of this message; but that would also include the second, because if people teach the truth, then they are faithful to their calling.
Besides, the contrasting clause clarifies this: “unrighteousness was not found in his lips”--the early priests did not say things that were wrong, that did not conform to the standard of the Torah.1 They taught the truth--and that was their primary task (see Deut. 33:10).
But second, they did not just teach the truth, they lived it. They walked with God in peace and uprightness. “To walk” is a metaphor for the activities of life, conduct. To walk “with God” means to live one’s life in accordance with the will of God. That would be characterized by “peace” and “uprightness.” To walk with God one has to be at peace with God; and to be at peace with God one has to be upright. So the prophet is affirming that God gave the covenant to the Levites, and they were faithful in teaching the truth and living it out before the people.
And third, to no surprise, the faithful teaching and the obedient life caused many people to turn away from iniquity. The ministry had results--people changed to follow the LORD. They put away their iniquity and followed after righteousness.
And this is still the pattern of effective spiritual leadership: teach the Word and live the life. People will hear God’s Word, but they will see that it makes a difference in life, and many will respond.
And so the prophet declares the central principle that should govern the priests’ service of the LORD: “The lips of the priest must keep knowledge, and people must be able to seek that Law at his mouth.” Why? Because he is the messenger of the LORD (the word “messenger,” Hebrew mal’ak, is the key theme of the book--Malachi, “my messenger”).
The point is based on the blessing of Levi in Deuteronomy 33:10. There were three duties the priests were to perform: teach the Law of God, burn incense (i.e., make intercessory prayer), make sacrifices (i.e., be able to help people get to God through the provision of the atonement). But first and foremost, they were teachers. And whatever else might be said about teaching, the teacher must have knowledge, here the knowledge of God’s Word. There is no place in ministry for ignorant ministers, for ministers who have not and will not study, for ministers who do not use the Word of God much in their messages. The people must feel confidence that their minister knows what God said and what it means, and that they could go with their questions and the minister could answer from Scripture. This is central to ministry, to the faith itself. If there is no solid teaching, worship become a meaningless ritual (chapter 1), and the standards of righteousness irrelevant or unknown. Whoever speaks for God must remember that he or she is God’s messenger; the message is not theirs, no matter how clever they might be--it is God’s message.
Verse 8 starts with “But,” a sharp contrast to the standard in verse 7. That is an ominous way to begin when the ideal has just been set forth. “But you have turned aside out of the way.” They had deliberately changed the course of their service--they did not study, they did not tell people the truth, they did not live out the faith before the people. The ministry did not change--they turned away. They probably thought that they were simply making practical innovations for their age, but they were corrupting the plan of God.
And by their teaching they caused many to stumble. This no doubt refers to things like the first chapter where the priests were allowing corrupt gifts to be brought, and to the next oracle which is concerned with divorce and marrying pagans. The last line of this sermon gives us an idea of how this worked: they were showing respect of persons over the teaching of the Law. They applied the Law differently to different people, perhaps more leniently with the rich and powerful, the same kind of favoritism that James decried in his epistle. It is evil to use the Word of God this way, to cause people to sin through the teaching, or to show favoritism through it. The other prophets spoke of the false teachers who called evil good and good evil. And we are seeing a rise in this kind of application of Scripture today. Jesus said it would have been better for that one not to have been born than to cause a little one to stumble.
They dishonored God in their ministry; God will now dishonor them. He will leave them alone, let them continue for a while, but now that they have been exposed, everyone will know that they are base and low. How horrible to try to be a priest in the sanctuary and know that everyone knows you are a reprobate and condemned by God. That person would rather disappear into the countryside. How horrible to try to be a minister without God’s presence or power.
This was a sermon addressed to the priests, but the topic concerned the knowledge and use of Scripture in ministry. The principles set forth here certainly apply directly to people who are fully active in ministry today--pastors, teachers, counselors, and the like. How they handle the Word is critical; they dare not make mistakes. James said that it was a dangerous thing to teach. Perhaps we rush into it too eagerly, not realizing how serious a matter it is to speak for God.
But as with Israel, so in the church, all believers are a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2). What the priests were to the people, the people were supposed to be to the world. Teachers of God’s Word. The Great Commission made this clear: Go into all the world … and make disciples. Disciples are learners; we are the teachers. Christians, especially if they have been Christians for some time, must know the Word of God and be able to teach it and live it so that they may influence people toward righteousness. It is a wonderful, but solemn obligation.