Chosen but Unacceptable (Malachi 1) January 24-25
God's message begins with a declaration of His love for His people. Yet they are quick to challenge this love, asking, "In what way have You loved us?" (verse 2). Whether or not this sentiment is actually voiced is not clear. It may just be that God knows the people think this way. The Lord's reestablishment of the nation in the Promised Land should have served as a testimony to His faithfulness. And the deliverance of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire at the time of Esther was clearly miraculous. Yet the people in Judea had experienced many problems.
The time frame here may have been prior to or shortly after Ezra's arrival—after many years of letting down in following God's laws and, as a result, a withholding of blessings. Or it may have been several years later, after a halt in Jewish rebuilding due to neighboring resistance (see Ezra 4:7-23). A time soon after Nehemiah's successful reconstruction of Jerusalem's wall does not seem to fit. But it could well be that not long afterward the same doleful self-pity gripped the people again.
Indeed, we should recall the awesome events of Israel's Exodus from Egypt. The people went out with a high hand and experienced the incredible and miraculous Red Sea crossing. Yet it was not long at all before they began to complain against God, even accusing Him of bringing them out to the desert to kill them. People often have a short memory when it comes to God's blessings. When things become uncomfortable or when mere boredom sets in, there is a tendency to forget all about the wonderful ways God has helped us and about the wonderful destiny He has in store for us. We today are not immune to such thinking and need to combat it. One way is by regularly pondering the myriad things God has done for us, which helps us to place our trust in His great promises.
God is very patient in His response. He presents the contrast with Esau to exemplify His commitment to His people. Esau and Jacob were fraternal twin brothers, both of the line of Abraham. As the elder twin, Esau (also known as Edom), was in line to inherit the family birthright blessings. But he sold them to Jacob for a bowl of stew. While Jacob connived to obtain the blessings in this and a later episode, he at least saw the blessings as valuable. Esau sold the birthright away for almost nothing, basically showing contempt for what God gave—a bad example that Christians are warned against (Hebrews 12:16-17). God chose Jacob (later renamed Israel) and his descendants as His people and rejected Esau. The descendants of Esau, the Edomites, became Israel's constant enemy. Throughout the prophets, God declared that the people of Edom would suffer severe judgment for their terrible and ongoing hostility. And here He does so again.
God says He has "loved" Jacob and "hated" Esau (verses 2-3)—referring also to their descendants. This may well seem odd, given that Jesus taught us to love even our enemies as part of what it means to have godly character. "Hate" in Scripture sometimes has the hyperbolic meaning of "love less by comparison." Yet in this case it appears more concerned with God choosing the one as His people and rejecting the other. The Bible Reader's Companion says that "'hated' here is used as a legal term, meaning the decisive rejection of a claim" (Lawrence Richards, 1991, note on verses 2-5). The apostle Paul quoted this passage in Romans 9:13 to illustrate his point about God's prerogative to choose whomever He wants as His people. Yet we understand from other verses that God ultimately intends to call all people—though not all in this present life.
(Few Bible students realize that Jesus spoke of bringing people back to life to give them a chance at salvation—a chance they did not have before. For more information on this little understood truth, see our booklets, What Happens After Death?, Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach? and You Can Understand Bible Prophecy.)
God next refers to judgment that has befallen Edom—national destruction and impoverishment (Malachi 1:3-4). While it was true that God's people had suffered these things at the hands of the Babylonians, the Edomites evidently did not escape either. And it would yet be worse for the Edomites. God had many times promised to restore Israel and Judah—and had taken powerful steps in that direction with the reestablishment of the Jewish nation in the Promised Land. But this was not to be the case with Edom. Instead, while the Edomites would attempt to regain what they had lost, God would not permit it (verses 4-5). The prophecy against Edom here seems to stretch into the last days, as in other prophecies. God's indignation against Esau lasting "forever" in verse 4 probably means that the judgment continues as long as the conditions under which it is given exist—that is, as long as Esau exists as a nation. Moreover, given Paul's example above, Jacob here could also represent all those called of God while Esau could signify the rest of mankind, which is presently rejected. Eventually, all gentile peoples must become part of the covenant nation Israel in order to have a relationship with God and escape perpetual indignation.
Despite His clear providential care for His people, God then points out that He is receiving neither the honor due Him as the nation's Father nor the reverence due Him as the people's true Lord and Master. Worse, this message is specifically directed not to the common people but to the priests (verse 6), who were supposed to be teaching the people God's ways and leading by godly example. While the priesthood of the fifth century B.C. was surely in mind, this message was likely intended for later times as well—continuing through the entire second temple period as problems resurfaced. While the prophecy is directed to the descendants of Levi, as chapter 2 makes clear, the priests here may on some level, in a modern context, symbolize the religious teachers of the nation in general and perhaps even represent some among the ministry of the true Church—spiritual Levites, so to speak.
Instead of honoring Him, God says the priests are actually despising His name. In an ancient context, one's name signified all that he was and stood for. Again, the insolent retort comes: "In what way…?" (verse 6). God says the priests are offering defiled food on His altar—which means they are treating Him in a defiling way—to which they yet again respond with, "In what way…?" (verse 7). God explains that they show contempt for Him in the offering of blemished sacrifices. People were supposed to present their best to God when giving offerings (see Leviticus 1:3). Offerings were not to be blemished or unclean (7:19-21; Deuteronomy 15:21). Even their human rulers would not accept such tribute, probably referring to taxation by Persian overlords (compare Malachi 1:8). Yet God is a "great King" (verse 14). Indeed, He is the King of all kings—the infinite and almighty Creator. "We can apply Malachi's test today. If we would be embarrassed to offer what we intend to give to God or do for Him to a person that we respect, our offering is unworthy of the Lord" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verse 8). Furthermore, consider that a sacrifice of something with little or no value to the one offering it is really no sacrifice at all.
Verse 9 in the New King James Version is better understood with the following bracketed insert: "But now [if you] entreat God's favor that He may be gracious to us, while this is being done by your hands, will He accept you favorably?" (compare Moffatt Translation; New American Bible). The answer is obviously no (see verse 10).
Verse 11 looks forward to the future when God's name would be honored with proper prayerful praise and offerings—even by the gentiles. This perhaps foresees in small part the spiritual sacrifices of the people of God's Church today, yet God's name being truly great among the nations is more directly applicable to the time when His Kingdom will be set up on the earth after Jesus Christ's return.
But for now, here were God's own people—His own priesthood in fact—profaning His name by their unholy attitude and service. Instead of having an attitude of humility and regarding God with awe, they had an arrogant attitude and regarded Him with contempt. These religious leaders view their duties as mere wearisome toil (verse 13). "Malachi put into words the thoughts of the priests. For them the holy service of God had become a bore, a labor of duty rather than of love, a yoke around their necks. The very men who were the mediators between God and his people (Exod 28:1, 43), the teachers of Israel (Lev 10:11; Deut 33:10; 2 Chronicles 15:3), and the court of appeal (Deut 19:17-19) were, by their own choice, profaning their office and bringing shame on the name of Yahweh" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Malachi 1:12-13).
Applying this prophetic message to today, we must give our best to God. While there are no longer animal sacrifices today, each of us is literally a "living sacrifice" and our service must be "acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1). We must not become casual or sloppy in matters such as keeping God's Sabbath, in tithing, in our commitment to the Church's work of preaching the gospel and in modeling God's way of life every day. There are some for whom participating in worship services and even typical Christian responsibilities such as prayer and helping others become tiresome chores. When the time comes for Sabbath services, we must make sure our attitude is not one of, "Oh, no, not church again." For indeed, God looks on all His people as a special, chosen priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9). Are we fulfilling our spiritual duties with proper care and reverence? Do we give God our best, or are we just going through the motions?
There is an even stronger application to those who have the responsibility of preaching and teaching God's Word. Those called to the ministry must not wilt in their dedication to first living and then teaching it accurately. Their example and their message must be compelling, as they serve Christ. When they fail to do so, their bad example will over time infect the congregants as well. Let us all take to heart the criticism God levels in this opening chapter of Malachi and examine ourselves accordingly.
The next chapter pronounces judgment on the priests for profaning their office and leading others astray.