"You Have Corrupted the Covenant of Levi" (Malachi 2:1-16) January 26-27
Continuing on from the previous chapter, God warns the priests that even though they are part of His blessed chosen people, if they refuse to repent of their wrong attitude and behavior, He will curse their blessings. Indeed, He says He has already done so (verse 2)—showing that some of the problems the nation was facing were really their fault (despite the people's insinuation in 1:2 that God was unfaithful to His covenant, failing to bless as He promised).
The "refuse" of 2:3 was the "offal" (NIV) or "dung" (KJV) still within sacrificial animals that should have been removed and taken outside the community prior to sacrificing. It may be that, in their careless attitude toward their duties, the priests were not removing it. In any case, they were certainly not removing the spiritual filth from themselves. So God threatens that this disgusting uncleanness will mark their faces so that they and their corrupt descendants, like such refuse, will be taken away and disposed of.
In verses 3-4, we see that God's judgment is intended for the positive effect of restoring His relationship with the priests. He recalls here His "covenant with Levi." The actual person Levi, the son of Jacob, was not in mind here. Rather Levi's descendants collectively, the tribe of Levi, is meant—despite the use of the pronouns "him" and "he." The Levites were chosen for special divine service after their stand with Moses following the golden calf incident. Moses himself was a Levite. And from Moses' brother Aaron sprang the line of the nation's priesthood. So all priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests, the other Levitical sub-tribes having other responsibilities in God's service. Some see the covenant with Levi as a reference to the provisions of Numbers 3:45-48 and 18:21-24. God refers to it as a covenant "of life and peace," which seems to refer to what God said of Aaron's son Phinehas: "Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel" (Numbers 25:12-13). God also refers to His unbreakable covenant with the Levites in Jeremiah 33:19-22.
Verses 4-7 give an idealized vision of how the priesthood should be. It appears from this passage that in the early days there were times when the priests did perform their duties as they should have and with the right attitude. No doubt others through the centuries shared the convictions of Phinehas. But the ideal here was a far cry from the general picture of things when the book of Malachi was written.
The priests were to proclaim God's truth and law to the people, each serving as God's "messenger" (verses 6-7)—this word pointing back to the name of the book (as the book's author is fulfilling this responsibility that the priests ought to have been carrying out). Yet instead of turning people to the law and away from sin, the priests here are leading people to stumble over the law—that is, to sin! (verse 8). This is an atrocious and appalling situation, and God says He will bring these leaders down in humiliation. In the New Testament we are warned, "My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment" (James 3:1).
Breaking Up the National Family (Malachi 2:1-16)
The book of Malachi next addresses a problem with the nation as a whole (see verse 11)—the issue of intermarriage with neighboring pagans and men divorcing their first wives.
Malachi first refers to all having one father and one God (verse 10). One father could refer to Abraham or Jacob as a common ancestor. But as God declared Himself the nation's Father in 1:6, He seems to be the One referred to. The point is that the nation is a family with a common system of values and that those who are part of this family should treat each other with the care and respect one would expect in a proper family relationship.
But the people of Judah have violated the sanctity of the national family "home." For one, they have "married the daughter of a foreign god" (verse 11). God had repeatedly warned Israel and Judah against intermarriage with pagans as these could influence His people into pagan false worship. Those who, knowing better, betrayed God in this way yet still persisted in forms of true worship were an utter affront to Him—and would be cut off from the nation either through death or expulsion (verse 12).
If this were not bad enough, God accuses them of making a great hypocritical show of repentance (verse 13). He informs them that He will not accept such worship. Once more, the people give an impudent retort—feigning as if they can't understand what the problem is: "For what reason?" (verse 14). God then calls them to account. Not only had the men of the nation married foreign wives, but they had evidently divorced their first wives in the process. "The reference to 'wife of your youth' in this verse suggests that the men were divorcing their aging wives in favor of younger women" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 14).
This callous betrayal wrought terrible evil throughout the land. Broken homes made a mess of families and served to rip the nation apart in countless ways—made worse by the introduction of a pagan value system to influence the next generation. In verse 15, God explains that in marriage two spouses are to become one—unified in mind and values, as well as in flesh so as to procreate. And the relationship is supposed to last until death separates them. This spiritually healthy environment enables the upbringing of godly children. Indeed, society is built on the foundation of the family. When families are devastated on a wide scale, a society's downfall is not far off.
In verse 16, God states unequivocally that He hates divorce. Some translators see covering one's garment with violence in the verse as a separate reference—that is, that God hates violence also. Yet it makes more sense in context to understand the verse as the New King James Version interprets it—that is to say, divorce itself does violence to people's lives. Indeed, note the reference to one's garment. Commentator Charles Feinberg explains: "The reference is to the old custom of putting a garment over a woman to claim her as wife. (Note particularly Deu[teronomy] 22:30; Ruth 3:9; and Eze[kiel] 16:8.) Instead of spreading their garment to protect their wives, they covered their garment with violence toward their wives. The garment symbolized wedded trust and protection" (The Minor Prophets, 1990, p. 258).
"Take heed to your spirit," or as some translations have it, "Guard your spirit," is a richly informative phrase, for unfaithfulness to the marriage covenant begins in the thoughts and impulses of the mind, and they in turn produce the actions that break up the marriage. Conversely, one remains faithful in marriage by ruling his thoughts. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
So this pointed counsel from God certainly still applies today in a culture filled with divorce. All of us should, as God says, take heed.