God continues his condemnation of the priests of Israel. In 1:6-14 He admonished them for allowing substandard sacrifices and having a disdainful attitude toward worship. He said they dishonored His great name by their approach and the lackluster worship they tolerated. He told them the best thing they could do is to close the temple doors and not allow worship at all – it would be better than what is going on now. In this passage He discusses the priests’ specific behavior and its effect on the people. Instead of pointing out what they allow He focuses on what they are and contrasts it with what they should be. He then explains the dire ramifications of their actions and attitudes.
What They Are
In verses 2, 8, and 9b God lists how the priests conduct themselves in worship and in their personal lives. He says in verse 2 that they do not take it to heart to give honor to My name (this is listed as a condition but at the end of the verse He says they are not in fact doing it). In verse 8 He says they turn aside from the way – their personal relationship with God is poor and they do not obey His law. Their conduct is so poor that they cause others to stumble by the instruction – others violate the law as a result of the priests’ behavior and teaching. They also violate the covenant God made with the father of priests – Levi. In the second half of verse 9 He says they do not keep His ways and show partiality in the instruction – they curry the favor of men in how they teach and enforce the law of God.
God continues to point out that the very men who are entrusted with the worship and teaching of Israel – called out and set apart for that very purpose – have absolutely no concern for honoring Him. To the contrary, their actions despise God’s name. They are bored with worshiping Him, they have no concern for their personal obedience, they do not care about the people’s obedience, they do not care about the responsibility entrusted to them as priests, and they do not care about the effect of their behavior on the people. That the country is far from God as a result of their disdain for His glory means nothing to them. They have long since stopped thinking about God’s honor and concern themselves almost exclusively with their own gain and comfort.
Two things stick out about the priests in both this text and in 1:6-14. They allow and promote substandard sacrifices and they show partiality in their teaching. That they allow second-rate sacrifices at first seems self-defeating – the priests are supported by those very sacrifices. The people of course love it because they keep the best of their wealth. But note the end of verse 9 – the priests show partiality in their instruction. This seems to say the priests know who the wealthy and powerful are and make sure to tailor their message and behavior to take care of them first. Both of these point to a priesthood that is personally benefiting from the lackluster worship of the people. The people keep their wealth and are not challenged by the Law to change their behavior – and the priests are rewarded for their complicity (Jer 5:30-31). The priesthood cares only about its wellbeing – it loves the world far more than the God it is charged with honoring.
What They Should Be
Verses 5-7 show us what the priests were meant to be. God says in verse 4 that He made a covenant with Levi – the father of all priests. There is no mention of this covenant in the Pentateuch (and interestingly, Levi was not exactly an exemplary man per Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:5-7), but apparently it is what God intended for Levi’s descendants all along.
Within the covenant God provides life and peace in return for Levi and his descendants revering God and standing in awe of His name (in direct contrast to the current priests who do not take it to heart to give honor to God’s name – verse 2). Priests who honor God have lives and ministries typified by life and peace.
Verse 6 shows how the covenant worked in the past. The priests who held God in reverence and awe gave true instruction to the people. Unrighteousness was not found on their lips. They walked with God in peace and uprightness and turned many back from iniquity. Keeping the covenant resulted in righteous lives and effective ministries for the priests.
God continues in verse 7 to describe a righteous priest. The priest should preserve knowledge and men should seek instruction from his mouth. He should be a leader by example and by teaching. He should bring people to God and promote obedience to the law. Men should come to him for guidance and seek out his wisdom. God sums up the office of the priest by saying he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. He is God’s herald, proclaiming the words of God to God’s people.
Note the contrasts. The priests who are under a covenant to revere God’s name (5) do not take His honor to heart (2). The priests who are to give true instruction to the people (6) show partiality in their teaching (9). The priests who are to turn many back from iniquity (6) cause people to violate the Law (8). The priests who are to walk in peace and uprightness (6) turn aside from the way (8). The priests who are to be sought for their instruction (7) are despised and abased (9). And the priests who are to be God’s messengers (7) do not listen to His commandment (2). This is what happens when men choose the world over God – everything they do is the opposite of what they should do. Choosing the world is the opposite of choosing God, so the actions of one who makes that choice are the opposite of righteous and godly.
What Will Happen to Them
God tells the priests the ramifications of their behavior in verses 2-4 and 9a. He says He will send a curse upon them and will curse their blessings. The curse He will send upon them is defined in verses 3, 4, and 9. When He says I will curse your blessings He probably means He will turn the blessings they pronounce on the people into curses. Since they dishonor their office He will dishonor it further – their blessings will become something to dread.
He tells them He will rebuke their offspring. Since the Hebrew word for offspring can also be translated “seed” – some think God means He will harm the crops of the Israelites so the priests will not have enough to eat. What seems more likely, however, is that somehow the priests’ apostasy will have a significant effect on subsequent generations. This is consistent with the warning God gave the Israelites at Sinai – I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me (Ex 20:5). The priests’ punishment will not affect only them.
God goes on to say He will spread refuse on their faces – the refuse from sacrifices offered at their feasts. Under the ceremonial law, dung from the sacrifices was to be taken outside the camp and burned (Lev 16:27). God tells the priests He is so disgusted with their low-cost sacrifices that He will make the priests unclean for offering them. He will disgrace them in front of the people – spread dung on their faces (figuratively) – and then take them outside the camp along with the other unclean parts of the sacrifice. The priests are unclean because of what they allow the people to bring – consequently God will make sure they are treated as unclean.
God says in verse 4 that the curse on the priests will make them know the covenant is still in force. God cannot break His covenant, but He cannot keep a covenant with unclean priests. Thus, He will clean out this generation of priests so He can continue the covenant He made with Levi.
The final condemnation of the priests goes along with spreading refuse on their faces. God says they are despised and abased before all the people (the verb tense seems to mean that this part of the curse is already in place). The people know the worship is a joke – anything goes. Any sacrifice is okay. Vows mean nothing. The priests routinely tailor their message for personal gain. The rich get what they want – the poor do not matter. The table of the Lord is disrespected. The priests themselves think the worship and ceremony are boring and tedious. Consequently, the people have no respect for the priests. The whole process is a fraud so nothing is held sacred and no one is worthy of respect. The people like the current arrangement because they keep the best for themselves, but they see the priests for what they are – sham officials overseeing a sham process.
Thus God makes the punishment fit the crime. The priests do not care about their office and dishonor it at every turn. God makes it clear that He will dishonor them as a result. They refuse to honor His name – He will disgrace theirs. They have no respect for their duties – no one respects their duties either. They despise and defile the table of the Lord – others will despise and defile them. They have made the worship second-rate and worthless, so they are now considered second-rate and worthless.
This text is written to the priests of Malachi’s time but its lessons are applicable to all. Even though most of us are not in full-time Christian leadership, the truths expressed in this passage have much to say to any believer.
- God hates hypocrisy. God spreads dung on the faces of the priests because of their hearts and actions. He makes sure they are despised and abased. Any believer must understand that God has little patience for those who hold to religion but have hearts that are far from Him. False piety and devotion always made Jesus much angrier than outright sin. As much as we hate hypocrisy when we see it in others we must understand that our Creator hates it much more.
- God does not take His glory lightly. This goes to the message of the whole book, but God especially calls out the priests because they do not honor His name. They are to make God’s glory the calling of their lives (…if you do not take it to heart to give honor to My name – verse 2). But God’s glory means nothing to them. They cannot see it because their eyes are full of the world (which is always true – when the world is all we see we cannot see God – when God is all we see the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace) and full of themselves. The priests care nothing about what is supposed to be their whole reason for existence. The message for us is that it is supposed to be our reason for existence too, and God cares every bit as much about our taking it to heart as He does the priests. We are called out and set apart just like the Levites. The universe was created for God – as creatures in His universe we must never forget why we are here.
- God ensures that no one sins in a vacuum. Because of the priests the people do not care about worship. Because of the priests the people break their vows. Because of the priests the people violate the law. Because of the priests future generations will be rebuked. The priests’ sin leads current and future generations of an entire country away from God. No one sins without ramifications and no one suffers ramifications alone. We may sin alone but our sin never affects us alone.
- God blesses those who revere His name. God gave Levi life and peace because he revered God and was in awe of His name. God enabled him to walk in righteousness and turn many back from iniquity. A proper perspective on God results in a life filled with God’s peace and contentment and the strength to live obediently. Our usefulness for the kingdom is in direct relation to the size of God in our lives.