Malachi Lesson Three 2:1-9 – Yahweh Warns the Priests
“Therefore, this decree is for you priests: 2 If you don’t listen, and if you don’t take it to heart to honor My name,” says Yahweh of Hosts, “I will send a curse among you, and I will curse your blessings. In fact, I have already begun to curse them because you are not taking it to heart.
3 “Look, I am going to rebuke your descendants, and I will spread animal waste over your faces, the waste from your festival sacrifices, and you will be taken away with it. 4 Then you will know that I sent you this decree so My covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord of Hosts. 5 “My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave these to him; it called for reverence, and he revered Me and stood in awe of My name. 6 True instruction was in his mouth, and nothing wrong was found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and fairness and turned many from sin. 7 For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, because he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts.
8 “You, on the other hand, have turned from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have violated the covenant of Levi,” says the Lord of Hosts. 9 “So I in turn have made you despised and humiliated before all the people because you are not keeping My ways but are showing partiality in your instruction.” (HCSB)
In this passage, we see Yahweh giving a warning to the disobedient priests, telling them what will happen if they continue and reminding them of how He rewards faithful service. Their behavior wasn’t only disobedience to God; they also led the people away from true worship by their negligent behavior.
The beginning of chapter two links back to chapter one with the word “therefore.” God is warning the priests that if they continue with the disobedience described in chapter one, they will face the punishment described in this passage.
Verse 1 gives a conditional choice to the priests. Nevertheless, God was still willing to grant mercy and forgiveness if they repented and began to act as priests.
However, this will require a heart change on the part of the priests. The phrase “take it to heart” has a deeper meaning in the original Hebrew. It denotes the “command center” of a person’s life. A place where knowledge is collected and considered. A place where decisions and plans are made that determine the direction of a person’s life. It is not an emotional response. The phrase occurs a dozen times in the Old Testament, and in each case, it refers to determining a course of action in response to knowledge. If the priests responded to God’s call for repentance and giving Him the honor He deserved, they would be restored. Up until this point, they had demonstrated a superficial faith. God was calling on them to display genuine faith.
The term “curse” doesn’t have a hidden meaning; it is literally a curse. Deuteronomy 28:15-68 warns of the covenant curses that would befall Israel if they disobeyed God. The curses are identified in three stages in this verse.
- Sending a curse.
- Turning blessings into a curse.
- The curses had already started.
Not only will the priests be cursed if they don’t correct their behavior, but their descendants will also be cursed. The word “look,” some translations have “see” or “behold,” adds urgency to the coming curse. The original Hebrew phrase indicates an event that will occur in the imminent future. Thus, we see in the Bible where descendants share in the blessings.
- Numbers 25:13 – It will be a covenant of perpetual priesthood for him and his future descendants, because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the Israelites.
Then an illustration is given on how God will humiliate and remove the unrepentant priests from their position. The picture of animal excrement being spread on the priest’s face and then being thrown in the same trash heap like the rest of the excrement shouldn’t be taken literally. However, it does mean that the priests would be removed from their position in such a way that would bring the greatest amount of disgrace on them. This strong imagery indicates the degree to which God was repulsed by the priest’s behavior. Just as they had treated God with contempt (verse 1:6) and defiled His altar with corrupt and useless sacrifices (verse 1:7), God would treat them with contempt and defile them, making them worthless for future service. The priests felt it was a burden to faithfully serve God (verse 1:13), so now they and their descendants would be free from the burden of service.
Yahweh desires to honor His covenant with Levi, that his descendants will continue to serve the role as priests for Israel. An important point to remember regarding covenants made with groups. Although the group will be blessed by God, it does not ensure that each individual in the group will receive the blessing. It still requires adherence to the requirements of the covenant, and failing to do that, as the priests here were failing, leads to being removed from the covenant relationship.
- Matthew 8:11-12 – I tell you that many will come from the east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
- Luke 13:28 – There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in that place, when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves thrown out.
- Romans 9:6-8 – But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring.
In the same way, today, we are not Christians because our parents were Christians. Those who believe and place their trust in Jesus are Christians, regardless of their ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, or any other demographic delineation.
Malachi considered the “covenant of peace” to apply not just to Phinehas (son of Eleazar) and his descendants or the descendants of Aaron but to the entire tribe of Levi. This understanding is likely based upon Deuteronomy 10:8 – At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the LORD’s covenant, to stand before Yahweh to serve Him, and to pronounce blessings in His name, as it is today.
Verses 5-7 – This section describes how the priests were expected to conduct themselves.
Yahweh had blessed the priestly tribe of Levi with a full and happy life filled with shalom. Shalom should be understood to mean peace and wholeness. The twin concepts of life and peace are present in:
- 1 Samuel 15:6 – Then say this: “Long life to you, and peace to you, to your family, and to all that is yours.”
- Proverbs 3:2 – For they will bring you many days, a full life, and well-being.
- Numbers 25:12 – Therefore declare: I grant him My covenant of peace.
- Joshua 9:15 – So Joshua established peace with them and made a treaty to let them live, and the leaders of the community swore an oath to them.
God’s covenant of peace with the tribe of Levi would be an assurance of a lasting relationship and a promise to secure and protect their welfare by His grace, wisdom, and power. In return, Yahweh expected and received reverence (fear), demonstrating that the early priests, in contrast to those being addressed here, wisely feared only God.
Fear of the Lord shouldn’t motivate only the priests’ moral obedience but also their responsibility to teach and uphold the commands contained within Scripture. Thus, not only were the priests responsible for conducting the sacrifices (correctly) on behalf of the people, they were also teachers of the Law.
- Leviticus 10:11 – and teach the Israelites all the statutes that the LORD has given to them through Moses.
- Deuteronomy 33:10a – They will teach Your ordinances to Jacob and your instructions to Israel.
- 2 Chronicles 15:3 – For many years Israel had been without the true God, without a teaching priest, and without instruction.
- Ezekiel 7:26 – Disaster after disaster will come, and there will be rumor after rumor. Then they will seek a vision from a prophet, but instruction will perish from the priests and counsel from the elders.
- Hosea 4:6 – My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I will reject you from serving as My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your sons.
Authentic instruction should be understood to mean “instruction of truth.” The priests were responsible for teaching truth to Israel, and this was done through teaching and obeying the Law. This instruction would teach Israel how they were to live in God’s covenant community and how to avoid defiling the tabernacle. In addition, obedience to the Law would determine Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant Yahweh had established with them. Because of this, the health of this covenant relationship was highly dependent on the priests faithfully performing their responsibilities. However, it is not defined just by how faithfully the priests taught the people; it also included the faithfulness of their lives.
- 1 Thessalonians 2:10 – You are witnesses, and so is God, of how devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly we conducted ourselves with you believers.
Since verse 6 focused on the responsibility of the priest’s teaching, this verse explains that the priests are messengers of Yahweh. In contrast to angels or prophets who would convey new instructions from God, the priests were messengers in the context of teaching the people what was already revealed in the Law and how it applied to their lives. A key point here, and still applicable today, is the relevance of God’s instructions to us through Scripture and the role of the priests (pastors/elders today) of faithfully and correctly teaching what is contained in Scripture and how that applies to us. That is what is meant by the term “guard knowledge” in this verse. Those today who preach/teach a false or altered understanding of Scripture are the same as the priests being condemned in Malachi. They may get away with it for a period of time, but they will be judged.
- James 3:1 – Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment.
Here Malachi returns to address the sinning priests, accusing them in three different areas.
- They had turned from the way. Their failure started with themselves; they were solely responsible for their actions.
- Judges 2:17 – But they did not listen to their judges. Instead, they prostituted themselves with other gods, bowing down to them. They quickly turned from the way of their fathers, who had walked in obedience to the LORD’s commands. They did not do as their fathers did.
- Exodus 32:8 – They have quickly turned from the way that I commanded them; they have made for themselves an image of a calf. They have bowed down to it, sacrificed to it, and said, “Israel, this is your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
- Deuteronomy 9:12 – The LORD said to me, “Get up and go down immediately from here. For your people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted corruptly. They have quickly turned from the way that I commanded them; they have made a cast image for themselves.”
- Instead of turning from sin, they had caused others to fall into sin. The word “stumble” is often used in Scripture to identify sin and its consequences.
- Isaiah 3:8 – For Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen because they have spoken and acted against the LORD, defying His glorious presence.
- Isaiah 8:14-15 – He will be a sanctuary, but for the two houses of Israel, He will be a stone to stumble over and a rock to trip over, and a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Many will stumble over these; they will fall and be broken; they will be snared and captured.
- Hosea 14:1 – Israel, return to Yahweh your God, for you have stumbled in your sin.
- Proverbs 4:19 – But the way of the wicked is like the darkest gloom; they don’t know what makes them stumble.
- Leviticus 26:37 – They will stumble over one another as if fleeing from a sword though no one is pursuing them. You will not be able to stand against your enemies.
- Luke 17:1-2 – He said to His disciples, “Offenses will certainly come, but woe to the one they come through! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
- The third and most prominent charge was that the priests had violated the covenant with Levi. As we consider the seriousness of this, we need to remember that a covenant was a relationship between two parties and made effective by an oath of obligation. If one side failed to live up to the agreement, the covenant was considered to have been broken (violated). The offended party could forgive the offender and restore or renew the covenant. This is the situation here. The covenant was broken but not destroyed. Yahweh is showing mercy by allowing the priests to repent and return if they will follow the Law.
Divine judgment had already begun, but it was not irreversible. The original Hebrew word for “despised” used here is the same one that describes the priest’s despising Yahweh in 1:6. Yahweh doesn’t tolerate pride and will overturn those who are prideful and lack humility.
- 1 Samual 2:1-10.
- Isaiah 2:11-17.
- Isaiah 57:15.
- Ezekiel 17:24
The reason for their humiliation is that they failed to be loyal and obedient servants to Yahweh. This is a timeless message and warning for today’s church and church leaders. Whenever those who teach God’s Word sacrifice the truth of the message, change it, alter it for their benefit, try to “soften” the message, so they don’t offend anyone, or try to be politically correct, they have betrayed the position that they are filling and the flock entrusted to their care. At the least, this could involve the loss of respect from the flock entrusted to their care. At the worst, it could be the type of punishment Jesus mentioned in Luke 17:1-2, where the offender is thrown into a sea attached to a millstone.
In reviewing this passage, there are four characteristics of a pastor/elder/shepherd leader.
- The first is a proper relationship to God, which is referred to in Malachi as reverence. True knowledge begins with a reverential awe of God. Spiritual leaders need to cultivate reverence more than anything else.
- A faithful shepherd will stand true even when confronted by false teachers and heretics. When shepherd leaders faithfully preach God’s Word, we speak absolute truth that applies to any point in history. Teaching God’s Word is a heavy responsibility.
- They are marked with a godlike character and holiness. The key requirement here is godliness. Church leaders should pray for godliness and ask their congregation to pray for godliness in their leader and faithful teaching from Scripture
- Knowledge of God, which is salvation through Jesus and living a life of obedience to God and His Word. When church leaders do this, the sheep are fed, and they look to the leader for instruction.
Applications – Although this passage was directed towards the Levitical priests, there are application points for all of us in the passage.
- If we are in a church leadership position, are we faithful and obedient to what God’s Word requires of us? We need to make an honest assessment of this question, and if we aren’t following God’s Word, we need to repent and get back on the right path. God will extend mercy and grace if we are genuinely repentant about our disobedience.
- If we teach and preach, do we hold true to what Scripture says, or do we put our own spin on it or twist Scripture to advance our personal agenda? This is a dangerous practice and will ultimately result in judgment against us. Just as in application point one above, we need to repent and be faithful as we teach God’s Word.
- If we have been involved in false teaching and we have caused others to stumble, we need to repent of that and go to that person(s) or congregation and correct the mistake, as well as ask for forgiveness. Doing just the first part is not enough.
- Teaching God’s Word is a great responsibility. We can’t do it on our own or through our “head knowledge.” We need guidance from the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it is a wonderful experience to preach God’s Word and see lives changed and souls added to the spiritual family of God.