Several decades have passed since the temple was rebuilt and the worship of Yahweh restored under the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah.1 The promised King, however, had not yet come (Zech. 9:9), nor had God’s promised glory filled the temple (Hag. 2:6-9). As a result, true worship devolved into dead religion. From Israel’s perspective, God exists solely to grant his people health and material prosperity as a merited blessing. When the people do not get what they want when they want it, cynicism and ungodliness begin to smother the life out of their religion.2 Into such spiritual decadence God sends Malachi3 with a solemn warning.4 Using a series of rhetorical questions,5 the Lord identifies the sinful attitudes and lawless behavior of his people. Then he admonishes them to prepare for a divine visitation. Such visitation will result in judgment for the wicked and salvation for the righteous. True religion will once again be restored.
A prevailing dead “orthodoxy” prompts God’s warning. The characteristics of this lifeless religion include faulty theology, defective worship, covenantal infidelity, ungodly living, and tight-fisted unbelief.
1. Faulty Theology
At the root of this spiritual decay is a defective view of God. Many Israelites had developed the attitude that Yahweh was to be served for profit (3:13-15).6 Despite previous revelation to the contrary,7 they continue to maintain a mechanical doctrine of retribution. Theirs was a “God-for-gain” religion (cf. 1 Tim. 6:5). But when the Lord refuses to cater to their expectations, the people become impatient and critical towards God. In particular, they accuse him of a lack of love (1:2), justice (2:17), and faithfulness to his promise (3:13-15). In reality, God does love them (1:2b-5). And though God sometimes delays full justice and the fulfillment of his promise, the fact Israel still exists and has not been annihilated demonstrates the unchanging nature of God’s just and faithful character (3:6).8 Unfortunately, faulty theology prevents them from properly assessing the real state of affairs.
2. Defective Worship
Faulty theology leads to shoddy worship. The priests and the people9 are offering the Lord sacrifices10 that are “defiled,” “blind, “lame,” “stolen,” and “blemished” (1:7-8, 12-14), which the Law forbids (Exod. 12:5; 29:1; Lev. 22:20-22). Such second-hand sacrifices are not even fit for a human governor (1:8), let alone Yahweh. At first glance, God may appear unduly concerned about ritual performance. But in reality, God is most concerned with the sinful attitude behind the ritual.11 As Israel’s “Father, “Master,”12 and “Great King” (1:6, 14), God deserves to be honored in worship. But the priests dishonor God in worship because they fail to reverence him in their hearts (1:6). In this regard, the sons of Levi stand in stark contrast to their ancestor13 whose zeal for the Lord’s honor and faithfulness to his worship was notable (2:4-7). Unless things change, God will put an end to such defective religion (1:10), and instead he will seek true worshipers among the Gentiles (1:11).14
3. Covenantal Infidelity
The quality of domestic life is a good indicator of true religion or the lack thereof (cf. 1 Tim. 5:1-16). In Malachi’s day, the very foundation of the family was failing as mixed marriages and divorce prevailed (2:10-11; 14).15 God had good reasons for prohibiting inter-marriage with the pagan nations (2:12; cf. Exod. 19:5; Lev. 20:24, 26; Deut. 7:1-4) and encouraging faithfulness to one’s marital vows (2:15; cf. Gen. 2:24; Deut. 24:1-4; Prov. 5:15-23; Eccl. 9:9). He wants to protect his people from idolatry (Jud. 3:5, 6; 1 Kgs. 11:1ff.; Ezra 9:1-2, 12; Neh. 13:27-29) and promote covenantal fidelity (Lev. 26; 1 Chron. 5:23; 9:1; Ps. 78:8, 37; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-3). Furthermore, God instituted monogamous marriage in order to produce a godly offspring (2:15; cf. Gen. 2:21-24).16 But the lack of genuine piety among Malachi’s contemporaries blinds them to God’s covenantal purpose for the home.
4. Ungodly Living
Not surprisingly, the lack of the fear of God also manifests itself in various kinds of sinful behavior. From the warning of 3:5, one can infer that sorcery, adultery, perjury, exploitation, and mistreatment of aliens were common vices among the people. Not only are these vices diametrically opposed to genuine religion (Exod. 22:18, 22; Lev. 20:6-7, 27; Deut. 18:10; 19:16-19; 24:14-17; James 1:27), but they are also the reason God had earlier expelled his people from the land (Deut. 27:15-26; 2 Chron. 33:6; Isa. 1:23-24; Jer. 7:9-14; 13:26-27; 22:13-18; 23:9-10; 27:9-10; Ezek. 22:6-15; Hos. 2:2; Mic. 5:12).
5. Tight-fisted Unbelief
Another indication of dead religion is a lack of genuine faith as evidenced in the people’s purposeful withholding of the tithe (3:8-9; cf. Neh. 13:10).17 Apparently, adverse conditions had retarded economic growth and prosperity (3:11). Rather than trusting God to provide, the people decide to compensate by keeping back a part of the tithe.18 Little did they realize that their own unbelief was perpetuating the economic slump (3:10-12; cf. 2 Chron. 31:4-11). God’s challenge, “try me now in this” (3:10),19 is a call for genuine faith.20 Until they exercise such faith, their religion will be an empty shell without real spiritual vitality.
This article was first published in the Reformed Baptist Theological Review 6:2 (2009), has been updated slightly, and is used here with permission.
1 For the arguments that place Malachi’s ministry at the middle of the 5th century b.c., see Douglas Stuart, “Malachi,” in vol. 3 of The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. Thomas McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 1252-53; Paul L. Redditt, “Malachi, Book of,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 848.
2 As Eugene Merrill remarks, “Malachi appeared on the scene at a time when the euphoria of the postexilic Jewish community following the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of social and political life was beginning to give way to cynicism in both the sacred and secular arenas.” An Exegetical Commentary: Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 385.
3 There is some debate whether “Malachi” is a proper name or simple a title of function given to some anonymous prophet. For arguments in favor of the former, see Robert L. Alden, “Malachi,” in vol. 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 702-03, and Stuart, 1246-47.
4 Malachi identifies his message as a “burden,” which translates the Hebrew term מַשָּׂ֥א. This word refers to a prophetic announcement that portends judgment and thus is a heavy burden for the one assigned to proclaim it. See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “maśśā’,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 2:602; see also Charles L. Feinberg, The Minor Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990), 250.
5 The literary form has been identified as “prophetic disputation” (Stuart, 1247), “catechetical format” (Merrill, 381-82), or “a dialectic style which serves a didactic-admonitory purpose” (Ernst Wendland, “Linear and Concentric Patterns in Malachi,” Bible Translator 36 : 108-21). Merrill lists the following passages, which evidence a similar literary format: Deut. 29:23-24; 1 Kings 9:8-9; Isa. 49:11; 50:1-2; Jer. 12:12-13; 15:1-2; 21:8-9; Ezek. 11:2-3; 18:19; Amos 5:18; Hag. 1:9-10; 2:10-11 (380).
6 Note particularly the people’s complaint in verse 14: “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge.” The seriousness of this complaint is underscored by the fact that the people refer to God’s service as “vain” (שָׁ֖וְא), the same word God uses to describe worthless idols (Jer. 18:15; Jonah 2:8). The term “profit” (בֶּ֗צַע) is primarily used of unjust gain (see Exod. 18:21; 1 Sam. 8:1; Ps. 119:36; Prov. 15:27) and may be underscoring the crassly materialistic and carnal mindset of the people.
7 Job, Ecclesiastes, and Habakkuk were given, among other reasons, to correct an imbalanced view of retribution.
8 Most versions translate the Hebrew Qal perfects as presents: “I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” Since, however, the statement extends back in time through all of God’s dealings with Israel, it would be better to translate it with the English perfect: “Since I the LORD have not changed, you, O sons of Jacob, have not been consumed.” See Stuart, 1360-62.
9 It’s true that God specifically addresses the priests (1:6; 2:1). However, it is appropriate to include the people under this censure since (1) the priests represented the people, and (2) spiritual irreverence among leaders is likely to spread among followers. It has been said, “When the preacher fiddles, the people dance.”
10 The use of the participles “despising” (1:6), “presenting” (1:7), and “profaning” (1:12) point to an established pattern rather than an occasional exception. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1910), §116a.
11 This is true because, as Gustav Oehler remarks, “The essential nature of an offering in general is the devotion of man to God, expressed in an outward act.” Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883), 261. Consequently, where genuine devotion has ceased, the outward act of sacrifice has lost its value. The result is “formalism,” which Michael Barrett correctly identifies as “a matter of the heart and not the mode of worship.” “The Message of Malachi: An Analysis of Dead Religion,” Biblical Viewpoint 32 (Nov. 1998): 37.
12 The plural of majesty, אֲדֹנָי, underscores the respect Yahweh deserves.
13 The reference to “Levi” (2:4, 8) probably refers to the tribe of Levi as best exemplified in the person of Phinehas who was commended for his zeal for God’s honor (Num. 25:11-13; cf. Exod. 32:25-29; Deut. 33:8-11).
14 Rex Mason is far-a-field when he interprets verse 11 as God’s commending “the genuineness of the feeling of gratitude to the Creator shown by the people of other nations in their thank offerings …[!]” The apostle Paul referred to the idolatry of pagan nations as evidence of a lack of gratitude to the Creator (Rom. 1:21ff). Perhaps Mason understands the Hophal participle as a present tense (cf. RSV). The participle, however, may also be used to indicate an event that is imminently future (cf. KJV, NAS, ESV; Gesenius, 359-60; Paul Joüon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, trans. T. Muraoka [Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000], 2:410). The passage anticipates the New Covenant and the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God. See Joyce Baldwin, “Malachi 1:11 and the Worship of the Nations,” Tyndale Bulletin 23 (1972): 117-24.
15 A number of commentators see a connection between the intermarriage and divorce, i.e., the Israelite men divorced their Israelite wives in order to marry younger pagan women. See Alden, 717; Feinberg, 257; Merrill, 420. Perhaps this happened in some cases. It seems preferable, however, to view these as two distinct though related sins for the following reasons: (1) the text does not clearly a cause-effect relationship, and (2) divorce would not have been necessitated since polygamy probably had not been completely abolished at this time.
16 Verse 15a presents a formidable challenge to the interpreter. Literally, it reads something like this: “and not one has he made and a residue of spirit for him, and what the one seeking a seed God?” I currently lean towards a view similar to Walter Kaiser, who understands the subject to be God and “the one” to be an allusion to the “one flesh” in Genesis 2:24. Malachi: God’s Unchanging Love (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), 71-72. But rather than understanding “the one” as a reference to the marital union, I view it as a reference to Eve, the one woman God made for Adam. A paraphrase might read, “And did not God make one woman though He had a residue of the Spirit to make more wives for Adam. And why one woman? God was seeking a godly offspring.” For other options, see Merrill, 421.
17 Giving a tenth of one’s income, i.e., the “tithe” (מַעֲשֵׂר), to God was intended to symbolize one’s acknowledgement that the Lord owns everything (Gen. 14:19-22), and it is he who gives one the capacity to generate wealth (Deut. 8:18). See Oehler, 298-300.
18 Of course, “partial tithing” is a contradiction in terms.
19 The imperative is followed by the particle an”. Traditionally, this particle was thought to soften the command (hence, ‘precative particle’) and was translated “please” (Gesenius, 324; Joüon, 1:350-51). However, others have argued that an” is a logical particle and should be left untranslated. See Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 578.
20 In some contexts, putting God to the test (בָּחַן) is an act of unbelief (Ps. 95:9; cf. Deut. 6:16). But when God purposely submits his faithfulness to the evaluation of his people and calls upon their assessment, it becomes a call to faith (Isa. 7:9-13; 38:5-22).
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.